Seventeen year old, Emmanuel Saldana sidled to the back of the personnel carrier. So many people. Yet most didn’t say a word. They should be celebrating, happy. They’d made it to the soldiers and safety. Plopping down on to the folded tent, he tugged a Halloween size bag of Skittles out of his pocket.
Life was good.
A German shepherd dozed near gate. It’s legs twitching as if it chased a pump rabbit in its sleep.
Manny stroked the coarse fur. The dog opened one eye as he scratched behind one silky ear. “It’s only going to get better. Right, boy?”
The dog woofed softly before closing its eyes.
He ripped open the bag and shook a few of the rounds into his palm. Behind him, children laughed. He picked out his younger sister Lucia’s giggle over his brother Jose’s snort. Mary and Mikey, the orphans he’d taken in, were there too, being taught their lessons by blind Connie. He picked out two yellow Skittles and popped them into his mouth. Lemon bit the back of his jaw. His favorite.
The engine rumbled to life accompanied by an odd popping noise.
The dog leapt to its feet, crouching low. His teeth bared and he growled.
The sugar sweetness glued Manny’s jaw shut. He blinked. That sounded like gunshots. Accompanied by a dull thwacking sound, bullet points of gray light blistered the canvas walls. The green fabric convulsed like a snake swallowing its prey.
“Gun!” Manny dove for the floor. “Get down!”
The German shepherd sailed out of the back.
No! He hadn’t meant to chase the dog away. His palms scraped the dirty truck bottom. Red, orange, purple and green candies bounced near his arm. One dirty sneaker and one red sock with puppies on it appeared in his peripheral vision. He whacked on an ankle. Puffs of ash billowed at his touch. “You need to get down!”
She remained unmoving.
Shit! She was too scared to move. He’d have to grab her. Manny levered his torso up.
Somebody wrapped a hand around his wrist and yanked. “Stay down!”
One arm slipped forward while the other buckled. He landed on his face and chin. The impact rattled out his skull, turning his eyes to pingpong balls in their sockets. He shook his head and followed the hand around his wrist to its owner. “What the–”
Henry Dobbins lay at the other end. His gray pony tail made designs in the dust coating the floor and the wheels of his chair ticked as they continued to spin. “She’s already dead.”
“Dead?” How could that be? They were supposed to be safe. They were with the soldiers. The old man must be wrong. He glanced up.
The bullet had blown out the front of her face, leaving nothing but blood and clumps of brains in place of eyes, nose and upper lip.
He threw his attention back to the floor. A yellow Skittle wobbled on the floor. Lemon. His favorite. He reached for the candy.
“Manny.” Wheelchair Henry’s voice sounded far away.
Farther away then the candy. The candy was important. He pinched the oval between his finger and thumb. He’d brush it off and eat it. No point in it going to waste.
A child cried out.
His heart stopped in his chest. The niños! He squeezed the candy. The yellow coating cracked at the edges and the cream-colored guts oozed out. He had to protect them! They were his responsibility. He curled his legs under him. Muscles bunched.
The grip on his wrist tightened. “Stay where you are.”
His body relaxed at Wheelchair Henry’s bark. Stay. Yes. He would… Wait a minute. He wasn’t like the others. After his parents died, he’d survived for four months in gang infested South Phoenix. He’d kept his younger brother and sister alive, rescued the five-year old twins from next door and saved his best friend’s sister from the gangs. He could–
“Focus on my voice, Manny.” Henry smashed his hand against the bottom of the truck.
Pain radiated from his knuckles up his arm. Manny jerked his hand back. “Hey!”
Henry held tight. “Good. Look at me.”
He glared at the old man.
“You’re mad. That’s good.”
He wouldn’t think it was so good if Manny punched him in the face. “Let me go.”
“No.” Using his elbows, Henry dragged himself closer. His useless legs wiggled like cooked spaghetti before pulling free of the wheelchair. “You’re going to do something stupid.”
Bullets pinged against the side of the truck.
Embarrassment heated his face. A girl mewled. Lucia! He rose a little off the floor. His sneakers slipped until they found purchase against an obstacle on the floor. “I’m going protect my family.”
“Think boy.” Spittle flew out of Henry’s mouth. “You won’t do the niños any good dead.”
He was thinking. He had to get the niños.
“Hold your breath to the count of four. Hold it.” Henry tightened his grip.
Manny felt the man’s fingers grind against his wrist bones. He caught his breath.
“Good. Now let it out for four.”
The dust and ash swirled as he slowly let it out.
“Now, lifting only your head. Tell me what you see.”
He raised his head. Heaps of arms and legs writhed along the bottom of the truck.
Henry jerked his wrist. “Start with the faceless doll on your right and tell me everything.”
He whipped his attention at the command and studied the doll. Just a doll. Red dripped on the chewed nails of her right hand. Gray blobs clung to her pink tee-shirt. “Her jaw is slack.”
“She didn’t see the bullet coming so it came at her from the back.” Henry translated. “Do the holes in the canvas blow in or out?”
A few long threads drooped from the bulletholes. “In.”
“Check the other side to be sure.”
Manny’s attention swiveled to the other side. Scanning the canvas, he didn’t see any threads hanging on the inside. “The firing seems to be coming from the right side only.”
A soldier in a khaki tee-shirt slid on his belly through a slit in the canvas. A soft thud marked his landing on the left side.
“Good. Our boys will be heading out there to give them what for.” Henry tugged. “What else do you see? And I’m specifically talking about the truck this time.”
Rolling over onto his shoulder, he eyed the canvas then the ribs. “The roof seems free of holes.”
“Lower. Look lower.”
He did. The mass of bodies breathed as if they were one. Only a few dolls remained in their seats.
“What do you see?”
Frustration clawed at him. Obviously the old man wanted him to name something specific. “People.”
Guns fired close by. The rat-a-tat filled the canvas shell beating down the inhabitants. He ducked lower.
Henry chuffed. “The lower sides of the truck are metal while the upper half and top are canvass. What’s more, there are supplies and belongings packed under the benches. That’s the original Kevlar. It will stop your poop chute from getting plugged with lead.”
Poop chute. Chuckles bubbled out his mouth.
Footfalls crunched on the gravel behind him. A dog barked. Bullets whizzed by.
He covered his head with his free hand. Why had he been laughing? People were trying to kill him. People were dying.
“Laughter is one of your best survival tools. Now, you know where the enemy is positioned.” Henry jerked his head to the right. “You know where your safe zone is. Now what do you need to do?”
Another round and the doll on the bench spasmed.
He flinched. Please, God, don’t let her fall. God what if she fell on him. Her brain could gush out and splatter him.
“Manny. What do you need to do now?”
She’s just a doll. It’s just a doll. He drew in a deep breath to the count of four. “Survive?”
“Too broad. Think smaller. Something in this truck.”
Something in the truck. His thoughts spun. Some– “The niños!”
“Exactly.” Instead of gripping his wrist, Henry patted it. “Now, can you see them?”
Eying the side, he rose on his hands and knees in a half push-up. In the dim interior, he spied Connie’s white hair. Her red cane lay folded on the bench behind her. Henry wife, Mildred’s bright red bun settled like a cherry on a sea of brown. He scanned the mass of curved backs and bowed heads. A soldier crouched near the front moving back and forth, a red cross marked his melt helmet. He looked for the twin’s blond hair, his sister’s shorn black locks, or his brother’s Diamondback’s cap.
“I don’t see them.” Fear tattooed his heart, changing its rhythm to a primitive beat. Where were they? Where could they have gone? Oh God! What if they’d been shot and lay bleeding out under the people.
Henry grabbed his hand and slammed his knuckles against the floor. “Stay with me.”
Pain swept aside the fog of fear. Dropping back down, he stared at the old man. Blood beaded on a cut on his hand. Outside, the time between shots blurred into one. Someone screamed. Then another. More footsteps sounded at the rear of the truck. The soldiers were advancing.
“You know where the niños are. Close your eyes.”
Manny squeezed them shut. But his ears kept feeding him information. The crunch of gravel. The rumble of engines. The waves of ragged breathing.
“Picture the interior. The way it’s been for the last two hours.” Henry’s voice remained monotone. “The landmarks haven’t changed. The Doc’s niece is still on a stretcher up from with an IV on a pole. A tent is still next to you.”
As if conjured by his words, Manny assembled the images. An ancient man with an oxygen tank sat next to the sick girl. An angry kid inspected his bag of arrows with jerky motions. Two white haired old women in matching jumpsuits had read books with half-naked men on their covers.
“Do you see the niños?”
He memory panned down. They’d sat in the cramped center of the floor. The twins had colored apples on a page with a big letter ‘A’. Blind Connie had cradled his sister while Lucia read Green Eggs and Ham. Twirling his ball cap, his brother guessed at the multiplication facts when Henry’s wife the flashed cards. “Yes. I see them.”
As they had been. But when he’d looked up, they hadn’t been there. He’d seen Connie and Mildred…
“Were their heads above or below the protective sides when you last saw them?”
He rolled back the memory before opening his eyes. “Below. They were below.”
Henry patted his hand. “Good. Now, if you had gotten up, where would you have been?”
With one last shout, the guns fell silent.
He glanced right and his vision right into the dead body.
“Manny.” Henry snapped his fingers.
What? He jerked his attention away from the doll. He grasped onto the older man’s question. “Um, I would have been above.”
“You would have gotten shot for no reason.” Henry grabbed the bench and pulled himself up a little higher. “And the niños would have been without their protector.”
The medic pressed bloody fingers against his ear before looking at them over his shoulder. “Everyone stay down. There’s still a few trigger happy yahoos that need to be rounded up.”
He sucked cold air over his teeth. “I panicked.”
How could he have been so stupid?
“You acted better than most untrained folks.” Henry lowered himself back to the floor. “Actually many folks don’t act at all. They just stay there like dolls waiting to be posed.”
He refused to look at her again.
“You’ll do better next time. I just taught you the steps to survive.”
Sure he might be alive, but all he did was lay there. The soldiers did the work. “You did?”
“Yep.” Henry picked up a Skittle. “The first part, stopping, that’s instinctual. Everyone freezes when the world turns upside down.”
Manny nodded. He had frozen like a chicken on the chopping block. “But then I thought of the niños and tried to reach them.”
“Thinking of someone else snaps you out of the freezing real quick. But you skipped steps two through four and rushed right into five–the action part.”
Cold washed over his skin. That one thing… “That almost got me killed.”
“Acting is good. It’ll save your life.” Henry rolled the candy between his fingers. “But you have to take the time to get there.”
“Time?” In a gunfight? Was the old man crazy? No one had that kind of time when bullets started flying.
“In survival situations, the brain will process everything at once. It will seem like times slows down. You’ve just learned how to process all that information.” Henry palmed the candy and marked each point with a finger. “Stop. Observe. Think. Plan. Act.”
He replayed what he’d done inside his head. “I didn’t plan.”
“No need to in this case. The niños were safe.” Henry wiped the Skittle on his flannel shirt. “A word of caution about plans though.”
Wheelchair Henry popped the Skittle in his mouth and chewed.
It had been lemon yellow. Manny’s favorite. He eyed the floor. Purple. Bleah. Green. He reached for the treat.
Henry grabbed it first, bounced it against his palm.
He watched it jump up and down before dismissing it. The old man could eat the dirty one. Somewhere he had half-full a package. “What about plans?”
“Take ‘em out for a spin but don’t marry ‘em. You’ve got to be able to kick ‘em to the curb when they start running around on you.”
He nodded. Henry had deliberately eaten his favorite favors to teach him a lesson. “I won’t forget. Stop, observe, think, plan and act.”
The medic stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. “All clear. You can move back to your seats now and I’ll be around to check your injuries.”
“Good.” Henry offered him the candy.
Manny waved it away. “No, thanks.”
“Green’s my favorite.” He tucked it into his pocket and patted it. “Now help me up.”
Help him? Cold snaked down his spine. Had the old man been shot? Or did the fall break a bone?
“Relax. I’m fine.” Henry thrust out his hand. “Helping each other is what will keep us alive.” He jerked his head to the three dolls posed on the bench. “Touching and laughing another human being gives us the strength and courage to live despite a broken body. Those who look only after themselves, they merely survive and not usually for long.”
Crawling over the tent, Manny wrapped both hands around the man’s wrists. Muscle burned across his back as he pulled him into a sitting position. The pain was good. He felt good. Alive.
Around him, the mass on the floor began shifting and sorting itself into individuals. Connie and Mildred unfolded, revealing his brother and sister underneath. An Asian man and a woman with the face of a dried apple moved aside to free the five-year old twins. Lucia began gathering crayons. Jose smoothed the coloring books pages. None of them were hurt. None. Whispers bubbled from the mass as people helped each other.
“The niños are your talisman.” Henry straightened his wasted legs.
Manny righted the wheelchair. He had done things he never thought he would to keep them alive. “Sometimes, I couldn’t think straight then I’d get this image of them in my head and my path was clear.”
The surly teenage boy set his bag of arrows on the seat and picked his way forward. “You need help?”
“Sure.” Henry crooked his arms, holding them up like a bird preparing to take flight. “Between the two of you, you should be able lift this old bag of bones.”
He took the offered arm. Sinew played like molten steel against his palm.
“Bend your knees now,” Henry coached. “Wouldn’t want you hurting your backs. You’re gonna have to be our eyes and ears. Worse things are still to come.”
Worse? They’d just been shot at. People had died. And people were still dying of this Anthrax thing going around. And the dog had run off.
“We can handle it.” Henry winked at him. “Together.”
Calm blanketed him, stilled his racing thoughts. Stop. Observe. Think. Plan. Act. He could do it. Jose laughed. The noise dispelled some of the tension. He would do it. No, they would do it. Him. Wheelchair Henry. The soldiers. Even the surly kid.
Together, they would survive whatever came their way.
Thunder boomed. The vibration traveled through the truck, shaking the foundation he stood on.
Shit. What if God took that as a challenge?