“The explosion could have another explanation.” Audra tasted the lie as the words left her mouth. The bullet holes and blood art on the side of the busses drew her attention.
Gas Mask’s snort sounded hollow in his respirator. “Didn’t you learn anything from Casa Grande?”
She straightened. The ambush at Casa Grande wasn’t her fault. She’d told them not to stop for hitchhikers. God, why had she listened to her mother? Why had she taken charge? For a teacher, she seemed incapable of learning.
On her right, Batgirl set her Louisville Slugger on her shoulder. Her blue-black pony tail wiggled down the back of her AC/DC tee shirt and scabby knees peered from under her shorts. “She told us to keep going. If we’d stopped like you wanted, we’d have been executed on the side of the road like the others.”
Aiming his shotgun at the ground, Gas Mask towered over the petit Asian girl. “My brother was on that bus! We could–”
“That is enough.” Audra’s soft word snapped like a bear trap, cutting off the argument. “We have only a few weapons and barely any ammunition. We would have been slaughtered just like bus four-five.”
Gas Mask swiped at his damp eyes. “He was fourteen. My responsibility.”
And sweet, with a smile that practically tucked the corners of his mouth into his ears. She sucked air into her lungs but the constriction didn’t ease.
“I knew everyone on that bus.” Jacob. Mary. Roddy. She’d nursed them all back to health. Then she’d pressed the gas down while they lined up on the side of the road, heard the bang of the guns, and watched them fall. “Every one. Every age.”
Her voice cracked at the end and she squeezed her eyes shut. Go away. Just go away for a minute or ten. Why couldn’t she have quit last year? A montage of faces played on her lids. If she’d broken her teaching contract, she would see them as they had been: annoying, condescending and alive.
“Audra.” Her mother snapped. “We’re waiting.”
She scrubbed a hand down her face before staring at her mother. Not even the wind dared free a strand of hair from Jacqueline’s tidy bun. The older Silvestre didn’t carry a weapon–good manners and breeding apparently could stop anything. Good manners and breeding meant Audra had to lead.
“You two stand guard here.” She pointed to her mom and Batgirl then at the asphalt. “We’ll go check out Burgers in a Basket.”
Gas Mask nodded and raised his shotgun at the glass front of the fast food joint.
“What about me?” Mrs. Roderiguiz pounded down the steps and handed Audra her walkie-talkie. White swirled through the black curls on her head. She pulled two machetes from the black belt wrapped around her pink mumu. “Where do you want me?”
Using her flashlight, Audra pointed across the restaurant’s parking lot to the boarded up gas station. Universal emblems of male and female marked the two white closed doors. “Find out if those are serviceable then peek under the boards to see if there’s anything left in the convenience store.”
“Will do.” The machetes sliced the air as she twirled her wrist. “I’ll take Deputy Dawg as backup.”
As if hearing himself mentioned, the man in khaki pants separated from Principle Dunn and waited for the older woman.
Hitching the walkie to her belt loop, Audra opened the line and exhaled slowly. Seven adults outside. Seven. Add the requirement to keep an adult on the bus at all times, and that meant they were down to thirteen total. There had been fifty-seven last night.
Most of them had seemed to be getting better.
What in the world was going on?
Gas Mask hunched over his weapon and stepped onto the sidewalk surrounding the fast food joint. “Coming?”
Audra swallowed the wad of fear in her throat. “Yes, of course.”
Digging her fingers into the metal casing of the flashlight, she waded through her memories until finding the college class on self defense. Smash the assailant upside the head with the flash light. Thrust the heel of her hand into a nose. Rubbery legs carried her to the side entrance behind Gas Mask.
He tugged on the metal handle. The door moved half an inch before the lock kept it from moving farther. He raised the butt of the gun.
“Don’t!” She grabbed the muzzle and held on, preventing him from hitting the glass. “What if it accidentally goes off?”
He tugged on the weapon. “It won’t.”
How could he know? He had to be shown how to pull the trigger and that had been during Casa Grande when his brother had been executed. “You’ll not only waste shells but you’ll let those bad guys know where we are.”
His hazel eyes narrowed above the respirator. “Then how are we going to get inside, Princess? Say open sesame?”
“You could try or we could check the drive-in window.” She jerked her head to the side where the drive through lay. “Since it is open twenty-four hours, the window might not have a lock on it.”
“Fine.” He stalked off the sidewalk. His boots pounded the blacktop. “And if that isn’t open?”
Audra hefted her flashlight. “Then we smash it with the flashlight.”
Damaging it wouldn’t be a big loss since it was dead. The important thing was it couldn’t discharge and kill someone. Or get them all killed.
His huff swirled around his respirator.
“I’ll let you do the smashing.” That should make him happy and get rid of some of his anger.
Thousands of words in the English language and Gas Mask barely used a hundred of them in the six months since she’d met him.
He paused by the window and slapped his palm flat against the glass.
“Wait.” She hustled to his side. “You have the gun. Let me open the window, while you aim.”
He rolled his eyes and stepped aside.
“Oh Princess A.” Batgirl jogged to the edge of the building. “Mrs. R says, that the gas station has four clean toilets, but no running water.”
No water. She shuddered. The piles would just keep climbing toward the ceiling. She’d rather use the slops pot. “Do they have tanks?”
“Yep and they’re full.”
Thank God for small favors. They would get a flush out of each before the tank emptied and they could use the slops to gravity force some more down. “What about the interior?”
Please, please, let there be batteries.
“Empty but also clean. I guess they didn’t get too far in the reopening plans.”
Her sigh stirred her long bangs. Fudge. “Tell Deputy Dawg and Principal Dunn to begin laying out the dead. Then have bus seven-nine line up to use the facilities. Everyone goes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” After curtseying, Batgirl pivoted on the heel of her sneakers.
Audra reached for the window then paused. If the building was cleaned… “Batgirl”
She stopped and glanced over her bat. One eyebrow raised.
“Once they enter the building have them check the store room. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“Maybe we will.” Whistling, Batgirl jogged back to the group.
Hushed murmurs and giggles floated on the air as the children streamed from bus seventy-nine. Mrs. Rodriguez ushered them in two lines to the bathrooms. Principal Dunn wrestled a wheelbarrow from Mom’s bus while Deputy Dawg cut behind the evacuating bus, heading for the emergency exit.
“Anytime now.” Gas Mask waved to the window with the shotgun.
“You have a date?” Tucking the flashlight between her thighs, she flattened both palms against the tinted glass.
“Yeah.” He set the stock against his shoulder. “If the toilets are clean, I plan to be the first one to take a shit.”
Nice. Her damp hands slid across the glass before finding purchase. The window eased open. Ha! She’d done it. Smiling, she bit back the gloating. Once the window was fully seated, she tucked her head inside. Geometric shadows melted into darkness in the cooking area. A tiled wall prevented her from seeing into the seating area. Stale, greasy air hit her in the face. “Hello?”
Gas Mask snorted. “You expecting anyone to answer?”
“You never know. Give me a knee.”
“Shouldn’t I go first? I have the gun.”
Was that a serious question? With him, it was hard to tell. She measured the window’s opening with her hands then held her spread hands near his chest. An inch of flesh overlapped each side. “Can you suck it in?”
A vein throbbed at his temple.
Guess that was a no. “I’ll enter and open the side door for you.”
“How are you going to see?” He propped the shotgun against the brick building and bent one knee before offering his hand.
“I worked for Burgers while attending college.” She didn’t mention that her father owned ten of them. A Silvester didn’t flaunt her wealth when there was so many other subtle ways to show it off. “They’re all laid out identically.”
Wedging the flashlight on the corner of the window sill, she set her left foot on his thigh, placed one hand in his and grabbed hold of the opening with the other. “On three.”
She bent her knee, pictured herself going through the window, landing on the tiled floor on the other side. ” One. Two.”
“You have one minute to get to the side door.” Gas Mask jerked his chin and his grip tightened. “If you’re not there in sixty seconds, I’m coming in after you.”
Wow! The man had given her nothing but grief since they’d met and now he was being nice. Was there something different in the air? It certainly hadn’t affected her or her mother. Maybe their breeding made them immune. “I’ll be there in sixty seconds.”
“Count it down.”
Down? She counted up. Opening her mouth, she quickly snapped it closed. What did it really matter. “On three. One. Two. Three.”
Shoving with her foot on the ground, she straightened the leg on his knee and pitched to the side.
“Steady there.” With his free hand, Gas Mask hooked a finger through the belt loop of her trousers and gathered the fabric in a clump.
She ground the bones in his hand together before correcting her aim. Thigh muscles burned. She released his hand and grabbed at the window pane, pulling her torso inside.
A hand flattened against her left buttock.
“Oh!” She glanced over her shoulder. What had he done that for?
“Almost there.” He shoved.
“No.” Her fingers lost their grip and the floor rose up to meet her face. The sill scraped her belly then thighs. Fabric ripped. She raised her hands and held her breath. Flesh slapped tile. Her elbows absorbed the shock as they bent and her chin rested on her chest. Her legs cleared. Exhaling, she tucked and rolled. Years of falling in ballet had finally paid off. Mom would be proud.
She rolled onto her boot soles and stopped in a wobble on her toes.
He was actually counting. Pushing off the cold tiles, she stood. The world spun a little and she grabbed hold of the metal countertop to steady herself. The surface felt gritty to the touch. Shoddy cleaning. Her father would have fired the night manager over it.
But he was gone now.
His passing was her personal hair shirt. She hoped he was laughing at her from Heaven. Her neck popped as she straightened. Maybe that hadn’t been as graceful as she imagined. Then again, she was healthy and whole. She inventoried her body as she walked between the staging area and the counter.
The side door rattle. “Forty-two. Forty-one.”
She set both hands against the small of her back. Gas Mask might not speak English well, but at least he could count down from sixty. “I’m coming.”
Rounding the corner, she angled across the lobby. The faint scent of musk lingered in the air. Good gracious, whoever had worn it must have doused themselves with very liberal splash of cologne since it still lingered two days after the restaurant had closed.
Gas Mask cupped one hand to the window and peered inside. “Thirty-one. Thirty.”
“I can see you.” Which meant he should be able to see her. Which meant he should stop counting down. Her boots stuck to the floor by the soda machine. Lord a’ Mercy, why hadn’t the night crew cleaned better.
He shook his head and backed away from the glass door. “Twenty-five.”
She unlocked the door and shoved it open. “Patience is a virtue.”
He stepped back then sidled through the door beside her, the shotgun clutched in his hands. “So is having cleaning briefs.”
“Must you?” The world may be ending but really it was no reason to abandon civilized manners.
“It’s perfectly natural.” He stalked across the tile, heading for the bathrooms near the counters. “You have something against nature, Princess?”
A cough interrupted.
Fear tracked down her spine. “Are you sick?”
Gas Mask stopped cold by the soda machine and raised his shotgun, aiming into the kitchen. “That wasn’t me.”