Four hours of sleep and he was back on the loading dock. Not running this time, but offloading the supply trucks as they came in. The work was simple, mindless repetition; trucks came in, crates and cases came off. Everything under the sun that was remotely safe for human consumption or could be made such with a little effort.
In the course of the work he saw the beginnings of a very distinct pattern, and even through the sour fog of sleep deprivation he drew the logical conclusion.
When he was rousted in the dark hours of the morning, the stuff arriving through the cafeteria storeroom had been almost uniform. If soft drinks, they came along in packs of six or twelve. If food, in proper factory packaging with intact or closed boxes. As the morning wore into dawn that began to change, ever so subtly. The cases were opened with units missing. Canned drinks came in singly or tossed into packing containers. At one point he'd he found himself hauling an open tub of cheese and cracker snacks, knock-off Twinkies, and candy bars. Only after it had passed through the hanging plastic flaps into the dark maw of the cafeteria did he make the connection.
Cheese and crackers.
Three things that most service stations and mini-marts kept at the front counter to tempt customers into a spur of the moment sale when they came in to pay for gas. Right between the folded cardstock stand advertising cigarettes and the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny bowl.
Whoever was doing the scavenging was getting desperate. The good quality stuff, the things that came in bulk, had been the first. When they'd run out of bulk units to requisition they'd picked up on the stock that was out on the shelves. When that ran out....crackers, twinkies, and candy bars.
He imagined the stores of the supermarket in Everett stripped bare. It spoke to the general state of things in Wilkes County that they were too poor and insignificant for Wal-Mart to come and crush the Mom & Pop places. No need, really. Most of those were on the downhill slide and accelerating fast. The largest of the grocery places would have fit three times over into a regular Wal-Mart. Probably six times over into a Super Center. A kind of sad, rundown place, usually packed between the hours of breakfast and dinner, with narrow and poorly-lit aisles lined with mismatched shelving units crammed with brands names so far off the map that even Mexicans wouldn't touch the shit.
Frankly, he half expected the next truck to arrive bearing a plastic bag full of those hideously shriveled and cancer-spotted hot dogs that lived in under gas station heat lamps.
He walked to the roll-up door and leaned against the frame. The world outside was filtered in hazy shades of pre-dawn gray.
Everything hurt. Every muscle, every nerve, every joint felt like it was under attack by a thousand wasps, radiating out until it hit the rashes he was growing from the sweat-soaked legs of his pants chafing against his skin. Though he hadn't passed a mirror since leaving the apartment he guessed his face and neck were probably the same shade of red as the back of his hands, and, on closer inspection he found he had acquired three split fingernails and that the dirt-lined creases of his palms were broken in a number of places by open sores or the swells of growing blisters. He'd slept with his boots on, too, and God only knew what he'd find once he peeled off whatever was left of his socks, which were doubtless indelibly imprinted on his ankles by now.
A guardsman sergeant approached, his ACU fatigues almost blending into the background. About the only time he'd seen that pattern hide anything the past couple of days. If anything, he'd concluded that ACU made the wearer more obvious. Especially in the time of the year when everything was dead and crispy-fried golden.
Mike knew the face and he was distantly aware that there was a name attached, but...damned if he could remember. He angled his head slightly, squinting at the name tape. The letters looked like little black worms to him. All wiggly and everything.
"Mister Duncan -" the sergeant called. He sluggishly tried to come to attention, though a foggy voice told him he didn't have to because...something.
"Hmm." He was pretty sure he'd meant to say something else. Yes, probably.
"That's all for now. We aren't expecting anymore deliveries this morning, so I'm turning your and your boys loose. We surely appreciate the help." The sergeant stuck out a hand. Mike shook dumbly, struggling to think of some worthwhile response.
"You bet," he managed. He turned to Staff Sergeant Buxton and Cadet Airman Brand, his two charges for the detail, and waved them up off the stack of pallets where they were making the most of the temporary respite.
Of the two Buxton was pretty sharp - a couple of months in and making good time on his promotions. Always had his shit together, his uniforms pressed, and his boots shined. Brand was another matter, the sort of cadet that most flight commanders dreaded. He had joined less because of the allure of flight or the draw of community service and mostly because his mother thought it would be something fun he could do to pass the time. Without fail, he also appeared at each and every CAP outing in Wilkes County, rain or shine.
Of course with Cadet Brand came Mrs. Senior Member Brand, forever hovering around her baby, pestering the officers and senior cadets as to whether it was really necessary that the children - they were all children to her, evidently - be drilling in the hot sun, or wearing those heavy long-sleeved shirts, or couldn't they reschedule to another weekend because the man on the television predicted rain. But if her boy had flaws she never saw them; the advancement tests were unfairly stacked against him, he was not well-liked by his officers and thus held back, he was slow to follow orders and observe even the most basic customs and courtesies because he had not be adequately attended by those in power, with the 'those in power' being a blanket indictment of Captain Harper, Lieutenant Duncan, Flight Officer Schipper, and any cadet bearing rank insignia exceeding that of her little precious.
Mrs. Senior Member Brand had not opted to participate in the week's shelter activities. He guessed that was something.
He reported their return to Harper, still holding court in the ersatz communications room. The captain looked him up and down and, presumably seeing a camo-clad zombie, ordered him off the clock for a few more hours. He passed the word to his charges and went next door.
Sinking down onto his cot, he peeled off his BDU blouse and set to work on his boots. When he got down to his socks he arced them into the nearest trash can and just sat for a minute, the tiles cool against the soles of his feet. The feeling of being at rest was strangely alien. Since Sunday morning his entire schedule had been one of action and motion, always moving and never still. Save the few hours of sleep he'd stolen after his run with Echeverria there hadn't been anything recognizable as downtime. Now, with no immediate orders and no responsibilities, it felt as if the world had suddenly come to a strange and silent halt.
Mike twitched his toes, staring at the pruned and miscolored skin on his feet.
The problem with sudden stillness was that he all at once took notice of a number of things he'd managed to ignore in the past forty-eight hours. Like the layer of sweat, oil, and dirt that coated him like a second skin, and that the sour odor in the room grew exponentially worse once he'd tossed the blouse, and that his entire body itched, more or less.
Moving like an old man, he pulled his pack up on the cot and rifled through the main pouch until it yielded up a toilet kit, a freezer bag of fresh socks and underwear, and a camping towel. From the very bottom he shook out a fresh set of pants, and undershirt, and a pair of flip-flops. He put the sum of his haul in a mesh bag, forced himself up, and went to ask directions to the gym.
There was no hot water. The blast of the cold struck like needles. Once he'd gotten over the initial shock he went for the soap. Figuring on getting filthy on most exercises he'd included the heavy stuff, the kind loaded with pumice chips and usually marketed towards the automotive industry. The soap grated over sore spots he didn't know he had. He'd be thoroughly de-greased, though. No question about that.
Out and dry he felt almost human, enough so that he tarried long enough for a rudimentary shave. He turned his head left and right, studying his handiwork in the mirror. Even looked halfway presentable. He dried his face and was gathering his stuff when the bathroom went pitch black.
Bag in hand he felt his way along the wall to the door. By habit he tried the light switches, expecting nothing and coming away unsurprised. From his short time in this part of the building he had a rudimentary memory of how things were situated. The showers were in the bathroom which led out into the locker room which connected with the gym which had a couple of doors leading to one of the main hallways. He naviguessed his way out, bumping frequently into concrete or cold cinder blocks or iron piping until he lit on the push bar of the exit and emerged into a corridor. Watery morning light played through the windows against the banked lockers and the passage was spotted with the signs of passage of the refugees who'd preceded him.
Shoeprints stamped in dirt on the floor.
A miscolored ring where vomit had been allowed to set before mopping out.
Empty soda cans and water bottles.
Napkins and soiled paper towels.
Mike rolled his head side to side, feeling the bones pop all in sequence. Eight straight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep laid up alongside the brunette, a meal that didn't come out of a rubber bag, and a back rub and he might be worth a damn to society again. So long as he didn't have dreams about the reeler at the gas station again. He fought off an involuntary shiver. Shit was fucked up - the eyes, the lumps, the way the thing kept coming after he'd landed a good solid hit with twenty pounds of blunted steel. That ought to have been enough to put anything down.
Harper had sent him to talk to one of the medics about that. He knew why; the captain was concerned about his mental state, but honestly the heat, the lack of sleep, and the oh-shit nature of the excitement had him so spaced out that he felt nothing. Like it had been another man's hands swinging the hammer, another man's eyes seeing it all unfold. Then he collapsed on his cot and watched it replaying in a continuous loop until Shifty came around and prodded him awake. Only it wasn't the same; in the dream it was raining sideways, the gas station was a peeling and collapsing wood-framed church like in the old westerns, and for whatever reason the sky was reefed over with clouds in a funny shade of purple.
Kicking off his shower shoes, he laid back and laced his fingers behind his head. Clean or not, the feeling wouldn't last long. The presence of radio equipment in the vicinity meant the shelter manager was running the air conditioner in this building fairly low, but like most schools the idea was less to provide comfort and more to keep the middle grade prisoners within from baking to death in the hot months of the year. Moreover, the current accommodations were twice the size of a regular room, thanks to the lab tables towards the rear, and even with chilled air dumped in through the vents there was nothing to keep it moving, no fans to provide current, so what cool they got didn't spread out much. If he stretched his toes off the end of the cot he could just barely almost feel the cold. Sort of.
But he'd slept through worse and he'd sleep through this. Lack of creature comforts was something easily outweighed by exhaustion. At any rate he was doing better than some; a couple of cadets only brought bedrolls and wound up sleeping on the floor. As for the refugees...he wasn't sure what they were doing. Supposedly the Red Cross had some bedding material on hand and an arrangement with the army-navy store for extras, though he doubted they'd planned for quite as many as had showed.
Hell, they were still getting fresh ones. In the times he made the rounds with the shelter staff to distribute food he'd noticed a marked increase in the occupation of the rooms. If the word on the grapevine could be trusted another of the buildings had been opened for temporary habitation while he'd been on the loading dock, due largely to Reelfoot's sporadic but relentless push and the the stream of foot traffic that'd come up since the highway closed. In an earlier discussion Harper had even hinted that they might be absorbing an entire shelter - lock, stock, and barrel - from the next county, though where the extra food and water were coming from was markedly less clear.
In his mind he saw the situation as a collapsing building laid on its side. The uppermost floor went first. On hitting the next lowest it hesitated, if only momentarily. Then the top two kept going until their bulk pancaked down on a third. Sooner or later there was no delay whatsoever. Just one big heavy chunk of hurt exponentially building steam until finally it slammed into something with the immobile mass to match its energy.
If Wilkes County was one of those middle floors he figured they might be okay; the surge might screw things up locally, but with luck it'd keep going - just wash over them and push on to break somewhere west. If by chance they were the ground floor - the point where the freight train met the side of the mountain - they were well and truly fucked.
Early in the afternoon he got up and went to find Harper. The captain told him to get two cadets and go help the Red Cross move provisions. Mike put on clean socks, clipped a small walkie-talkie in between the buttons of his blouse, and set off with his small entourage, the awe-inspiring Duty Belt of Great Responsibility cinched around his waist.
It was the damndest thing; in his time here he had learned that people showed no particular appreciation for the gold bars pinned to his collar, paid no mind to the fact that he stood 5' 10" and weighed two hundred twenty pounds, and assigned no real significance to his having the radio. Some noticed the woodland camouflage. Rarely, they might even stop long enough to read the tapes over the pockets. One notable contestant asked if they were the part of the army that flew blimps; where they'd picked up that dumbshit idea he had no clue.
But they respected the belt.
They respected a bargain bin piece of army surplus olive drab woven nylon with a black plastic buckle and two rows of metal eyelets, shorn for the occasion of its ammo pouches and suspenders, an item which had probably been fifty cents to manufacture and cost the U.S. Government six dollars to acquire when new.
Not the man.
Not the rank.
Not the radio.
Aches and pains aside, he'd much rather be hauling freight than dealing with refugees, their questions, and their herd mentality. Dispensing stations - the places where food, water, and blankets were distributed were bad enough. But the worst, the Unholy Grail of shelter assignments, was the in-processing desk, currently situated in a tent in front of the school.
He'd worked the desk upon arrival at the shelter. Never again. Registration was the funnel through which the disorganized and nameless hordes fresh off the highway were sorted, tagged, and diverted - hopefully in some semblance of order - into their temporary housing. According to Shifty it was the kind of operation direly in need of a squeeze chute, a couple of hot-shots, and a half-competent border collie. Until those came along it was a game of diplomacy and lung power.
Mike found out early on he lacked the patience and the people skills.
So instead he drew Buxton and a cadet airman first class named White and ventured off in search of heavy things to move.
It didn't take long. The obvious place to look was the cafeteria, presently the staging area for all supplies coming into camp. They had scarcely arrived when a guard warrant officer spotted the three idle bodies near the entrance and whistled. He waved a clipboard over the heads of other relief workers and the three of them filtered through the crowd.
"This pile - " the guardsman said, pointing with his clipboard to a pallet of bottled water - "goes to Room 310A. You'll be looking for Sergeant Cooper. Think you can manage that?"
"Sure thing, warrant. You got a cart?"
"Does it look like I got a cart? Jesus." The warrant rolled his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest. "No, I don't have a cart. You're just going to have to hoof it...lieutenant."
Mike felt the temptation of an unwinnable and largely pointless pissing match. He let it pass, though after each of them had shouldered their cases and gotten moving he heard White mutter "What a dick," presumably to Buxton.
He stopped in the hall and made a half turn, then shook his head at the airman.
The walk was uphill all the way; James Fuller Middle School was comprised of three separate parallel buildings built onto the side of a long hill, joined on the parking lot side by one main hall. The cafeteria and gymnasium were connected to the first by an open air covered walkway. In addition to the science and computer labs, Building A also contained all the school's administrative offices and as such had been taken over as the nerve center of the camp. Upslope, the classrooms of Building B had been the first reorganized to house refugees. With the impending threat of new arrivals Building C - geographically the highest point in the school, and the only building of the three with a second floor - was being likewise converted.
If the main hall was clear it was entirely possible to stand at the doors of the cafeteria and look up the corridor to the last building. Getting there in a timely fashion with a pack was another matter. Doing it with a case of bottled water on either shoulder was something else altogether; by the time they'd got the first six such cases delivered to the room they were out of breath. Outside room 310A, Mike settled against the wall with his hands on his knees
"Alright," he said. "We're going to keep doing this until we're done. But a word of advice - either of you sees an unattended dolly or a wagon somewhere, steal the son of a bitch."
Neither cadet said anything. Both smirked.
Midway downhill they met with a crowd of new arrivals spilling over from the tent. Most looked as if they hadn't eaten, bathed, or slept in days. Outside, the school's complement of yellow buses were parked along the curb, discharging more. A pair of guardsmen with MP brassards on their sleeves were trying to steer them towards the various services and dispersing centers in Building A, with limited success.
"Go to the cafeteria," he told his cadets. "I'll be along a in minute."
They vanished into the crowd. Climbing onto one of the benches that lined the hall he saw them break out the other side. Searching elsewhere, he spotted Schipper shouting instructions in Spanish and pointing. He shouldered through the crush and caught the flight officer's arm.
"Six-eight bravo! Camp over in the next county. You heard the rumor? Turns out it wasn't." Shifty broke for a moment to physically point a wayward refugee in the proper direction, then gestured down the length of Building B with a jerk of the head.
They walked a hundred feet off the main thoroughfare, far enough that the cacophony was dulled sufficiently to speak normally.
"Man, you ain't gonna believe this shit," Shifty took out his snuff can and smacked it against his palm but didn't reload. "Whole camp went under. We got families split up, kids missing...somewhere in the evac they lost a bus. Misplaced it. A whole fucking school bus. How does that happen?"
"Well who brought 'em?"
"They brought themselves. What I've heard, their shelter manager and his help bailed two days ago. They got loaded up on their own account and came looking for us and got lost on the way. No cops, no guards, no uniforms anywhere in the bunch ...nothing. Like a chicken without a head."
"Yeah. Shit. In a great big way." Shifty put the can away and shook his head. "This is bad. We're picking up the dregs now. Sick, crazy, starving, you name it. This a bad bunch. You can see it on all of them. They got that dead look like they already gone."
A shout from the end of the hall. Schipper turned an ear.
"Look, I gotta get. Watch your step around these people."
Mike didn't stick around. He went to the cafeteria to find Buxton and White piling water into a wheelbarrow that hadn't been there before.
"Should I ask?"
"Probably better if you didn't, LT." White showed his teeth, grinning.
"We didn't take it from anybody," Buxton said. "It was sitting outside full of dirt."
"You can put it back when you're done." Mike hefted two more cases. "Let's get going."
White picked up the wheelbarrow handles. They started uphill, making a little better time this go around. An MP saw them coming and through some minor miracle got the refugees lined against the walls, leaving a passage through the middle. Not until the return trip did he fully grasp what Shifty had been telling him. As they passed he could feel the eyes following him, the stares feral in their intensity.
It occurred to him that these people probably didn't Respect the Belt.
They reloaded for a third time in the cafeteria and Mike took the barrow for the push. Again the MPs gave them a corridor. Only this time things fell apart. About midway through the gauntlet a hand snaked out and hooked one of the cases - some desperate soul going for a bottle - and yanked. The cart torqued hard and Mike fought to keep it upright. Past a certain angle it just wasn't happening; the entire wheelbarrow tipped over, twelve cases of bottle water going along for the ride.
The flimsy plastic packaging burst. Bottles rolled every which direction.
He could swear there was a heartbeat's pause before the enormity dawned. Then shit fell apart as three hundred dehydrated refugees opened a free-for-all for the spoils.
A booted foot slammed against his shin and he dropped to one knee, throwing an arm across to protect his face. In the process somebody stamped down on his splayed hand and he cut loose with a string of first-rate obscenities that would have done his brother proud. He elbowed his way up through a forest canopy of arms and legs and grasping fingers, throwing elbows at anything that came in range. Somebody punched him in the small of the back and he spun, hitting back hard enough to draw blood from a broken nose.
A whistle cut through the racket. Nearer the door the MPs were laying about with batons. He glanced left and right. Buxton was against the wall being pummeled by a trio of refugees. Of White he saw no sign.
Roaring, he plowed through the swarming mass. Nearing the sergeant he grabbed the nearest of the three by the collar and threw him towards the wall. He felt more than heard something crack and the man slid down the painted cinderblock face-first, leaving a dull red smear where he'd contacted. He tripped the second, shove a boot hard down on the stomach once he'd hit the ground; that one rolled over and vomited twice. The third fled.
He grabbed Buxton by the shoulders.
"White?! he shouted. Buxton shook his head. Mike jabbed a finger towards Building A. "Get Harper! Now!"
Buxton nodded and staggered off, and Mike did an about-face and waded back into the fray. From an adjoining hall came the thunder of stampeding boots - national guardsmen, he hoped. Though outnumbered, the two MPs who'd been marshaling the herd were holding their own, gaining some ground, even. He looked again, vainly hoping for a glimpse of his second cadet. No dice.
He started at the edge, grabbed whoever he could and throwing throwing them aside. If White wasn't visible, he wasn't standing. If he wasn't standing he could only be on the ground. He didn't care to imagine what an angry crowd in a confined space could do to a body trapped underfoot.
He'd cut a fair swath into the crowd when the hall rang with the sharp report of a pistol.
The intensity of the fight dropped by measurably, then petered out as attention turned to an MP corporal with a Beretta pointed to the ceiling and his finger on the trigger. From Building C came half a dozen guardsmen with rifles. From Building A, a dozen more military police, some with riot shotguns. The fury of the moment broken in an instant. Realization dawning, the mob began to dissipate like morning fog. Gaps appeared in their ranks. The reinforcing MPs came on, poking and prodding with their shotguns. Mike searched the floors.
For so brief an encounter there were more down than he expected. He pushed through the disintegrating mob, eyes fixed on the tile until he saw woodland camouflage. Shoving until he'd made a clearing, he rolled White over onto his back.
"Leroy!" he passed a hand back and forth over the cadet's face. The eyes stared up to the ceiling, unmoving. He grabbed a limp wrist and found a pulse and put hand flat against the chest, which rose and fell. Unresponsive, presumably conscious. A concussion. Maybe a neck injury. First aid and medical subjects had never been his strong suit.
Somewhere in the parking lot the ambulance sirens began to wail. The medics and paramedics weren't far behind. A pair materialized on either side of the downed cadet, and he didn't protest when asked to step aside.
Out of habit he reached for his radio and found it missing. After a laggard survey he found it lying on the tile, smashed to pieces. He picked up the remains and put them in his leg pocket. He should find Harper, tell the captain what -
"Duncan!" Harper called. He blinked, thinking he was losing it, and saw the captain coming up the hall. Buxton trailed him, moving with a pronounced limp. At the same time Shifty appeared from the direction of the processing tent.
"What happened here?"
Mike scratched his jaw, studying the fingers for blood. He saw none, but there was a vicious bootprint embossed across the back of his hand.
"Mike -" Harper was closer now, snapping his fingers. Sluggishly she looked to the sound. Harper. Schipper. Buxton behind the flight officer. White being strapped down to a backboard while a paramedic fitted him for an immobilization collar.
"I'm sorry, Captain," he said. "I think I fucked up."