The red-eyed beast came out of nowhere, moving so fast they had no time to think, only react. And if it hadn’t been for TJ seeing the creature and calling it to their attention before it struck, one or both of them might have suffered serious injury or a far worse fate.
Two days would pass before they’d come to realize that this was just one of many signs of an apocalypse that was about to befall the world. Until then, they would chalk up this event to just another part of the normal chaos that comes with travel these days. Technically, the chaos began over a week ago.
When they had boarded their transatlantic flight, they were mildly aware of some travel disruptions that had started earlier when Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano began spewing ash into the atmosphere. The volcanic ash plume slowly ballooned out toward Northern Europe causing flight delays and diverting air traffic across the continent—the thick particles of ash played hell with jet engine rotors.
This very thing had happened years before, and so neither Ted nor TJ Williams gave it much thought as they luxuriated in their first-class flat-bed seats and happily discussed their upcoming transatlantic cruise from Malaga, Spain back to the US. Their flight attendant added to their self-imposed detachment by topping off their glasses with seemingly endless sparkling wine.
An hour before landing, Sicily’s Mount Etna blew its top as well, diverting more flights and adding to the already heavy air traffic coming into London’s Heathrow Airport.
When they arrived, they received their first taste of the travel problems that lay ahead of them. Many flights had already been canceled, and further cancellations were mounting by the minute, as flights around Europe and Asia were being grounded. Their next flight was one of them.
Ted and TJ had only one more leg left on their journey to Malaga before Regal European’s Intrepid would set sail at five tomorrow afternoon. Although Ted’s agent set up the trip, TJ had done all the detailed planning, as she normally did for any of their vacations.
Now anchored at the American desk, outside their arrival gate, they were both scrambling for options. The gate agent busily searched for other air-travel possibilities on American, while they also searched on their phones for other available flights on competitor airlines.
“How about Madrid?” Ted spoke just below a shout, to be heard over the commotion. “There’s a BA flight leaving in thirty. Ah... flight number 6-2-8-0.” His eyes met TJ’s for confirmation that this would work for them.
Instantly her face was awash with excited expectation. “Yes!” She turned to the gate agent. “Can you find us two seats?”
The agent furiously tapped at her keyboard, eyes drilled into her screen. “I have two bulkhead seats in coach, but at least they’re next to each other,” she announced with pride.
“We’ll take them!” TJ threw back, without hesitation. In other circumstances, she might have been disappointed as a Platinum member of American’s frequent flier program who just lost first-class seats on a canceled flight. But she was pretty sure they’d have no other choices if she waited even a few more seconds. This flight didn’t get them to Malaga, but it brought them to within driving distance.
Once she heard the printer below the desk spit out their tickets, she asked the next obvious question. “Do you or anyone else have anything from Madrid to Malaga?”
“Sorry, there’s nothing available. This may be the last flight in or out of Madrid,” the gate agent responded fairly quickly, still not looking up.
Ted handed TJ his phone. “Here. I’ll get our tickets. This is Cynthia with Hertz in Madrid.” He flashed a Keanu Reeves sort of smile, which then broke into a grin. The curl of his handlebar mustache—the one part of his made-up British author persona she’d like to change—lifted high on his face.
At any other time, she might have smirked or said something about his appearance, made more out of place by his Cubs ball cap. Instead, TJ beamed at him, accepting his phone. After twenty years of marriage, he still loved making her smile.
They had to run to the gate to make the full flight to Madrid, with barely a few minutes to spare. Ted pulled their luggage, while TJ secured an economy car with Hertz in between harried puffs for air.
Relief turned into worry after they landed at Madrid’s Baraja.
They made their way to baggage claims and customs, pacing silently, taking in news snippets from each TV they passed—most were tuned to BBC. The results of Mount Etna’s eruption were devastating: it was the largest eruption in over a hundred years; several hundred perished in a giant swirling pyroclastic cloud that swept through Fornazzo; and air travel throughout Eurasia was now at a standstill.
They were the lucky ones, indeed.
At the Hertz counter, where lines of frantic travelers received the bad news, they were evermore thankful they had booked their car when they did, and that it hadn’t been given to someone else. Yet a sinking nervousness gnawed away at their bellies. Something much greater than an immediate disaster was occurring and they were about to get their first taste of it.
Ted had volunteered to drive if TJ would navigate. She was far more adept at that than him, calling out approaching signs and anticipating their next turn. He didn’t need a GPS when he had her. TJ was his GPS.
With both of their doors opened, they flashed each other smiles over the roof of the car. They had a five hour drive to Malaga, and maybe then they could relax a little.
That’s when TJ called out, “What the hell is that?”
Ted’s head snapped to where her finger pointed. “Get in the—” he yelled, cutting off his own command, as he threw himself into the driver’s seat, and pulled the door closed behind him.
TJ, normally the one to react to a potential threat quicker than Ted, seemed frozen by bewilderment. It was fear. Her hesitation negated her ability to jump in on time. Reflexively she ducked behind the door’s glass window, just as what looked like a dog made impact.
Both TJ and the dog yelped.
She remained fixed for a long moment, until Ted hollered, “TJ!”
Reacting as if being punched, she finally sprang inside, slamming her door behind her.
They watched in stunned silence as the German shepherd righted itself and shook its head violently, spewing blood and saliva across TJ’s side window. The animal momentarily scrutinized them, its eyes an unnatural and angry red. It seemed rabid with rage—without the foaming of the mouth—and yet befuddled at the same time.
Then the animal caught sight of something behind them, out of their periphery, and hurriedly limped away in that direction.
“What was that?” Ted squeezed his wife’s hand to comfort himself, as well as her.
Time held its breath as they waited for their hearts to slow.
TJ, unable to find the right amount of air needed to reply, left his question unanswered. She didn’t have an answer, even if she had had enough air.
Ted gazed at her and considered what must be going through her head right now. It was, after all, a dog attack that almost killed her and left her physically and emotionally scarred. Now just about any animal, big or small, caused his wife to freeze in fear. It had become such a liability to her now, she could no longer operate as a Bureau field agent, spending most of her time behind a desk. Even working out for her had to be done indoors, where there were no alleyways or streets where dogs could be potentially lurking.
She peered through her glasses at the side mirror, searching for the wild animal that just tried to eat them.
Finally, she turned to him. “Let’s get out of this nightmare.”
But their nightmare was only just beginning.