Smoky Mountains – Chapter 25

Chapter 25 – Wildlife
Day 6.

During the last stop, I took off my fleece vest. The road was slowly but steadily going uphill, and I was starting to sweat pretty heavily.

“Can we pause for a minute, Joel?” I asked, panting a bit.

“Let’s stop around that corner up ahead,” I hear Joel say from behind me.

After we rounded the corner, we got off and took another sip from our drinking bottles. I looked at Joel and noticed he was sweating too. We didn’t talk too much to get our breaths back, but I felt hungry, and I figured Joel was also hungry. So I reached into the bag fitted around my front wheel and grabbed us both a high-protein energy bar.

As we started munching them down, I noticed the phone was quiet. When I took my phone out of my pocket, I gave a big sigh of relief because I saw we were still connected. They’d probably just muted us for some reason.

“Ellie? Are you still there?” I asked.

Nothing. I glanced at Joel, who looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. The moment I wanted to ask again, Adam’s voice came on the phone.

“One second, Mia. We’re looking into something here. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know more. Can you two start pedaling again? Just in case?”

“Sure thing, Adam. We just finished eating our protein bars,” I responded casually.

I pressed mute on my phone and signaled Joel to do the same. After he did this, I stepped close to him and pretended to fix his shirt.

“Adam sounded worried. Do you think anything’s wrong?” I whispered.

“I noticed that too. But I guess our only option is to trust them and do what they say. They’ve got the bigger picture.”

“Guess you’re right. I just hope it’s not the A.W.A. following us for killing these two assholes,” I trailed off.

“If they are, I’m sure Adam and Ellie will find a solution for it,” Joel said confidently.

We unmuted our phones, climbed back on our bikes, and rode off again. Joel rode beside me, and we were currently at a flat spot of the road, so we decided to step it up a bit and make up for the lost time.

“Ehm… Listen up, guys,” Adam’s voice came on. “We’ve got some bad news and are not going to lie about it.”

“Oh, oh,” was my immediate response.

“Yeah… We’re looking at the satellite feed from Brazil, and uh… I’ll just say it. They’re back.”

These words felt like a punch to the stomach. I looked over at Joel, and all the color had vanished from his face. He stared blankly at the road.

“You mean the bugs, right?” I asked, making sure we were talking about the same thing.

“I’m afraid so,” he softly said.

“Fuck! We should’ve stayed in the store,” Joel said beside me.

“Don’t, Joel. You know that’s not true,” I said, looking at him sternly.

“But there’s also some good news,” Adam said, trying to steer us away from conflict.

“Shoot!” I said, really curious how there could be any good news in this.

“According to SHIVR’s calculations, they won’t be here in another five hours. According to your average speed up until now, we’ve got about thirty minutes to spare. So you’ll make it in time to get down in the shelter with us.”

“Fucking hell…” Joel mumbled.

I couldn’t help but agree. I just didn’t say it out loud. This would mean another four and a half hours of cycling. Without stopping.

“According to our calculations, you’ve got room for two short brakes,” Adam said flatly. “And considering we’ve got thirty minutes to spare, AND considering these thirty minutes are a pretty conservative calculation, we guess that you’ll make it in time.”

“Okay then…” I said. “Well… Nothing to do than to step it up and keep going.”

We pedaled like this for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. I felt the need to take the edge off and wanted to talk. The subject didn’t matter to me, as long as we talked and not thinking about bugs.

“So it was you started calling us on the landline, right?” I asked while pedaling steadily.

“Yeah. We were,” Ellie responded. ”SHIVR pointed out the cellphone masts were going down, and almost at the same time, we saw these two guys approaching the store.”

“Yeah. They told us they did that on purpose. They didn’t know how we did it. Still, they just assumed we were calling someone who initiated the speaker-thing inside the apartment building,” Joel added.

“Adam and I didn’t know what else to do. We figured that simulating an S.O.S. signal by calling the landline three times with pauses in between was the only way to warn you,” Ellie said, a bit embarrassed.

“It worked. We woke up in time, and we… uh… handled it,” I said, glancing over at Joel.

“You can’t imagine how thrilled we were when we eventually heard your voices!” Ellie said in a blatant attempt to avoid talking about how we handled it.

“Listen… We didn’t say it yet. But thank you. Your actions probably saved our lives,” Joel said thoughtfully.

“I’m glad you look at it this way, Joel,” Adam’s voice said, “but as I said earlier, we’re in this together. And I was scared shitless the moment I saw these men go inside with no way for us to reach you. So… You’re welcome, but please! Don’t mention it! We’re so glad we can help you guys this way. And you’re basically doing it on your own. We’re just remote assistance from some call center.”

I heard Joel and Ellie laughing, and I had to laugh too. So, for now, we were more than okay together, and I wouldn’t want to waste any more words on it.

“Just keep going, guys. You’re doing great! We’ll keep the line open and let you know if there’s any news we need to share. You need to focus on getting here as quickly as you can,” Ellie said.

And that’s precisely what we did. We rode for an hour straight, making some occasional small talk. We were making good progress, and the road SHIVR had picked was clear from debris or other nasty stuff. With each corner we rounded and hilltop we reached, my confidence in getting there in time grew. We were exiting a small group of houses when Joel slowed down and stopped.

“Fuck me. We need to ditch some items to make our bikes a bit lighter. We don’t need to haul a fucking tent with us. We’re not going to use it. And if we do need it, we’re screwed anyway.”

“Didn’t think of that. You’re right, Joel!” I said and started untying the sleeping bags and other stuff we didn’t need anymore.

We just kept the food, the drinks, spare clothes, and the guns. We threw all the other stuff at the side of the road. After another sip from the water bottles, we mounted our bikes again for the next stint.

“Damn! Why didn’t we think of this sooner!” I said to no one in particular.

“Adam and I said it to each other hours ago. We were wondering how long it would take before you figured it out. Guess I won the bet,” Ellie chuckled.

“WHAT!?” I said, a bit agitated.

“Hahaha! Just kidding, Mia!” Ellie laughed.

I heard Joel laughing over the phone, and when I looked over, he had a pretty smug face with a big smile on it. I knew she got me, and I’ve always been a good sport with these kinds of jokes, so it didn’t bother me that much.

“Fuck you, Ellie,” I laughed.

The next hour or so was pretty uneventful, and I realized that all the cardio I did before all this started paid off now. I was getting tired, but nowhere near exhausted. I knew I had another three hours of heavy pedaling in me, which boosted my confidence even more.

“We’re going to make it, Joel,” I said, smiling.

“I think so too. Tired?”

“A little. But nothing serious.”

“Same here.”

Joel rode a bit in front of me now because the road was getting narrower. With him bend over on the bike, his ass looked fabulous, even in these pants. Now I knew why Joel kept riding behind me for so long.

“Guys?” Ellie’s voice came on.

“Oh no…” I replied.

“Don’t worry. It’s not that bad. SHIVR spotted a black bear on the road in front of you.”

“Not bad?” Joel asked, surprised.

“Just listen. Turn left the first street you see. After that, it’s an immediate right turn. This road runs parallel to the main road. It’s just through a housing estate. That way, you’ll avoid the bear and can keep going.”

“Copy,” Joel said. “I see some clouds of smoke in the distance. I don’t think it’s anything serious. Can you see what is?”

“Hard to see from the satellite feed. We’ll look into it and let you know,” Ellie said.

“Thanks! Next left, right?” Joel asked.

“Yes. The bear is further up the road, so he won’t see you guys.”

Before we knew it, the street to our left came into view, and we entered it. Ellie was right. There were a couple of houses here. Besides a few toys, some cars, and a few bodies in the street, it was abandoned entirely. We could see some clouds of smoke in the road to the left of us, but it wasn’t much.

“You’re doing great. We got eyes on you via the satellite. It’s the only feed left, but we can see you on it until you’re at our place,” Ellie said.

I felt a bit nervous about the bear, but Ellie’s comforting voice was enough for me to keep focused on riding my bike. About halfway down the street, I saw the source of the smoke. I noticed the house on our left had no windows left, and some small clouds of smoke were coming out of its roof.

“Must’ve been a gas explosion or something,” I thought.

“Look out!” Joel shouted.

The loud hiss coming from my front tire made me feel extremely stupid. Here I was, realizing there was broken glass everywhere, and I didn’t bother to look at the street in an attempt to avoid it.

“Fuck! This is bad,” I heard Joel say. “Ellie?”

“I hear you, Joel. Why have you stopped?” she asked worriedly.

“Mia’s front tire and my rear tire are flat. I don’t think we can ride like this.”

I noticed his voice was remarkably calm, especially considering our dire situation.

“Can you try if you can still ride like this?” Adam asked worriedly.

“I just rode a few yards after I ran flat. That’s not an option,” Joel replied.

“Let alone with a flat front tire,” I said. “I nearly fell after all the air was out of it.”

“Damnit!” Adam and Ellie said at the same time.

“I think we need to find shelter in one of these houses,” Joel said as he looked around.

“Can’t you make one functioning bike?” Ellie said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked, clearly not getting what Ellie was aiming at.

“Replace your front wheel with Joel’s. These wheels are easily interchangeable, aren’t they?”

“One sec,” Joel said, and he started fiddling with his front wheel. “I think that will work.”

Joel pulled at some screws near his front wheel, and seconds later, he dropped his bike and held the wheel in his hands.

“Hold it steady,” he said, pointing at my bike.

Joel basically started doing the same thing on my front wheel, and I looked around for a suitable house to stay in, just in case this didn’t work out. I looked down the street to where we were heading, and my blood ran cold.

“Joel?” I softly said.

“What is it?” he said, a bit annoyed, and looked at my face.

He glanced back over his shoulder to check what I was looking at, and he immediately got to his feet. There, a few hundred yards away, the black bear was walking around.

“You take the shotgun from my bike, just in case he gets close. I’ll try and scare him away with the rifle,” Joel whispered.

“Guys? Do you see that big bear too?” I said into the mic.

“We do now,” Ellie said. “We were checking out some options, so we didn’t look at the screen.”

“Don’t worry too much,” Adam said. “He’s probably more scared of you.”

“Probably,” Joel said. “But still aiming the rifle.”

Joel got on one knee and loaded the rifle. He was looking through the scope toward the bear. I had the shotgun pressed to my shoulder and already made sure it was loaded. My heart was beating in my throat, but I wasn’t as scared as I was this morning. Adam was right. This bear was probably just hungry and afraid of us.

That’s when the bear froze and looked our way. For a few seconds, it was almost a Mexican standoff. Neither moved, but we each knew something was about to happen.

“Please let him run away,” I whispered.

“If he doesn’t, I’ve got him in my sight,” Joel whispered back. ”You don’t shoot until I tell you, Mia. Your range is way shorter, and we might need all these bullets.”

“Kay.”

And that’s when it happened. The bear started running, but he didn’t run away. Instead, he ran straight toward us.

“BANG!”

A loud bang from the rifle hit the road right in front of the bear. He slowed down a bit but didn’t stop. Joel was pulling at the bolt to reload a new bullet. He aimed again and…

“BANG!”

I could see a small cloud of blood coming from the bear’s shoulder, which caused him to roar loudly. Joel was pulling at the bolt again, and…

“BANG!”

Another cloud of blood at almost the same spot and another roar.

“Fuck! Scope’s off…” Joel mumbled as he pulled at the bolt. “Get ready, Mia.”

“BANG!”

This one hit the bear in his neck. I could see the blood pouring out, but he still kept running. By now, he was getting close, and I figured I could shoot too, but I had to wait.

“Now, Mia!” Joel shouted, making ready for another shot. “Unload your gun on him!”

I never shot a shotgun before in my life, so I didn’t know what to expect. The moment I pulled the trigger, the punch against my shoulder was firm, and the gun pulled up a bit. But the loud bang and fury it released was nothing I expected. It hit the bear dead-center in his chest, and by now, he stopped running and started standing up. I was so impressed by the sheer size of the standing bear, I hesitated. It was only a millisecond, as I realized it was him or us. I pulled the pump-action below the barrel and saw the empty shell fly out. I aimed again, and…

“BANG!”

Joel and I shot at the same time. I hit him in the chest again, and Joel hit the bear right in the middle of his forehead. The bear was killed instantly by that last shot. He felt down and didn’t move anymore. I just knew we had killed him and felt a vague sense of pride, despite killing such a magnificent animal.

“FUCK YEAH!” Joel shouted. “We got him!”

“Yeah! We did!” I shouted too, giving my brother a high-five.

“That was amazing!” Adam shouted in our ears, “You killed a bear!”

We walked over to the bear, and after I softly kicked it, we were both positive it was dead.

“I don’t want to be a party-pooper,” Ellie said, “But we still need to figure out what to do with the bikes.”

“We’ve got one working bike now,” Joel said, clearly still hyped from the action.

“We could take turns running and riding,” I offered.

“No way. That’ll be way too hard and way too slow,” Adam said, obviously thinking out loud.

“Then we go and build a shelter in one of these houses and sit it out again. Only with less food this time,” I said glumly, not seeing any other option.

“Fuck this,” Adam said.

I didn’t hear him swear before. I didn’t know if it was a good or a bad thing yet. I glanced over at Joel, who just shrugged.

“Look,” Adam said. “You go pick out a house and start building a shelter as secure as possible. We’ll work somethi…”

“Adam?” Joel asked.

While Adam and Joel were talking, I was scoping the area for more possible dangerous stuff. A few moments after Adam got cut off, I noticed the lights in the only house that had some lights on go out simultaneously.

“I think the power is out, Joel,” I said, feeling the panic build inside me.

“Adam?” Joel asked again but started looking at his phone.

I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the screen. No service again. I felt a blanket of fear sweeping over me as I realized we were entirely on our own again.

“FUCK!” Joel screamed and started looking around frantically.

“What do we do? Can’t we just take a car and see how far we get?”

“I was thinking the same,” he said, a little calmer now. ”But we only roughly know where to go. That’s not enough. Especially not now we’ve lost contact with them. And in these houses, we’ll probably find keys for the car that’s inside the garage, but…”

“How do we open the garage without power…” I completed his sentence, knowing a car wasn’t an option.

“Right. Let’s start scoping the houses,” Joel said, obviously in survival mode. “We’ll split up to cover more ground. There are about ten houses in the neighborhood. We do a quick scan if the door is open and if we think we can build a shelter in there.”

“Okay. How about food and water?” I asked.

“During the first run, we just check the kitchen. Our main priority is shelter. But since we’re already inside, a quick food check isn’t a bad idea,” Joel said and looked around.

He started untying the bag on the front of his bike and motioned for me to do the same. After it was undone, he opened it, grabbed his spare clothes, and laid them on the curb.

“You do the same. We’ll grab our clothes later. Use this bag to stuff the food you find. Don’t be picky,” he smiled.

“Okay. Let’s go,” I said. “I’ll work my way through these houses. You take care of the others,” I pointed.

“Okay. Work fast. If a house is locked, move on to the next. If there’s nothing to our liking, we can always kick in a door or window.”

And off we went. I didn’t run because I wanted to preserve my energy. I did scope the houses at a gentle jogging pace because time was becoming an issue. The first house was locked, so I quickly went over to the next one. When I opened the door, I noticed two mummified people lying in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. I ignored them and hurried inside. I checked the first floor, grabbed two bottles of coke from the fridge, and went upstairs. Nothing useful there.

The following two houses were open, and the layout was pretty much the same. The first floor had a big living room, a kitchen, and a hallway. Upstairs four bedrooms, all had large windows with a fancy ventilation system in them. Every house was equipped with a state-of-the-art air refreshing system, which meant every room had a small air vent connected to a central unit placed on top of the roof. These houses were basically a death trap for what was coming our way. I did manage to collect some food and drinks, but that was about the only plus side on my run.

The moment I tried the last house and noticed it was closed, I saw Joel walking over. He saw me looking down and started smiling.

“I think I found something,” He said. “You?”

“Nah. Nothing. All houses have this stupid system with that unit outside. I’m sure the bugs will find their way inside through that. I did get food and drinks, though.”

“At least that’s something. Come on,” he said and started jogging toward a house at the end of the street. He opened the door and entered an entry on our right, halfway down the hallway.

“This is the only house I found with a basement,” he said, going down the stairs in front of me.

As we entered the basement, I noticed it had concrete walls and one small window at the top of the back wall. I also saw it was currently closed, which was a good sign.

“See?” Joel said. “No ventilation system, concrete walls, and only one tiny, securely locked window. We’ll only have to seal off the door.”

“This is good, Joel. Real good! Let’s get stuff down here like a bed, table, and chairs, and some other stuff,” I said as I placed the bag with food in a corner.

We went upstairs and got the stuff down in the basement as quickly as we could. We decided to worry about setting it up later. After we had the necessities downstairs, I looked at Joel.

“I’ll do another food run in the closed houses. I’ll smash a window in with this,” I said, picking up a hammer I found on a shelf in the basement.

“You do that. I’ll start looking for something we can use to seal the door. Back in fifteen?” Joel said, looking at his phone.

“Okay. I set a timer on my phone. according to Ellie’s calculations, we’ve got about forty-five to fifty minutes left before the bugs arrive.”

“Let’s hurry then,” Joel said as he started climbing the stairs.

I emptied the bag, and after just under fifteen minutes, I was back with another supply of food and drinks. I guessed this would last us at least a week, maybe a week and a half if we were careful. I scanned the house for a bucket that could function as our toilet. And since we had a water supply down here, I was getting more and more used to the idea of spending another week down here. What we’d do after that was still Unclear but wasn’t something to worry about now.

As I was scanning for the bucket, I came across a few board games. I took them down with me so we wouldn’t die from boredom. Unfortunately, Risk wasn’t one of them, but Twister, Battleship, and all sorts of other games were. The moment I was downstairs and checking if we were missing something, Joel came down.

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He kept saying. ”I can’t find anything to seal off the door.”

“Can’t we put towels at the bottom and push some paper into the keyhole?” I offered.

“I don’t see any other option either. But the gaps at the side and top of the door are pretty big. I want to seal these off too.”

The moment I wanted to go upstairs to the bathroom to get some towels, I heard a car horn outside. I looked over at Joel and, judging by the confused look on his face, he was just as puzzled as I was. We didn’t hear a car engine. Was this a fluke? Was someone still alive in one of these houses? We started sprinting up the stairs. I was the first to go outside to see the most fantastic thing I could ever imagine.

End of Chapter twenty-five

Copyright 2021 – Jason Crow
All rights reserved

Hic venit servare

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