Rusty glanced out the open window of the old green deuce-and-a-half army truck. It was dark tonight, and the only illumination was from the countless headlights lined up behind him on the turnpike and the sliver of a midnight moon laying low in the dark sky. He startled when he caught a glimpse of himself in the big side mirror. Disappointed in what he saw, he patted his orange hair down in a futile effort to look less like one of those medieval trolls that live under a bridge. “I need a shower,” he thought to himself. Traffic was moving, but it was erratic. It seemed like there was more stop than go. He picked up the handheld HAM radio to reach out to Cal near the front of the small group convoy of vehicles, but the radio was dead.
“Crap, I didn’t think to add a 12-volt charging port to this old heap,” he muttered to himself, annoyed that he had no way to reach anyone else from behind all the other evacuees on the road tonight. The power in the deuce-and-a-half was 24 volts, and he needed 12—not that it mattered, he didn’t have a cord for the radio anyway. It was dark and late on the Florida turnpike, but at least there were no tolls anymore. Traffic, though, was another story: after Lake Okeechobee flooded, all of western Palm Beach County—tens of thousands of people—had been displaced. Every traffic artery was jammed with refugees. It did not take long to start seeing vehicles stall and get pushed off the road. Those people who lived with the fuel tank half-empty were paying the price now. There were no gas stations out here, and fuel had become a scarce commodity.
It was a strange sight to see people abandon their cars and begin walking, carrying children and all sorts of odd items. Most had bags or suitcases, but some refused to leave sentimental items behind, for now anyway. Rusty rolled past an older woman who was pulling a wagon down the emergency lane. “Is that a litter of puppies in a wagon? Better keep those covered up, there are hungry people out here.” He was only half-joking.
Cal was up ahead in his Silverado, but the only way Rusty could keep track was by the toy hauler trailer hitched up to Cal’s truck. A small car got pushy and slipped in the tiny void between Rusty’s deuce and something that looked like a hillbilly moving company. Rusty had little patience for tiny car drivers, especially when they drove as if their exhaust didn’t stink.
“You little shit!” Rusty grumbled as he stomped on the brakes to avoid smashing the little car to half its length against the stop and go traffic ahead. Nerves were catching up with everyone on this miserable evening. Rusty inched the deuce so the elevated bumper screeched across the trunk of the compact car and laid on the obnoxiously loud air horn. The young driver appeared to jump so high in the driver’s seat he slammed his head on the roof. Rusty grunted his satisfaction and waited until the car screeched back out from under his heavy iron bumper, hurrying to get away from the big green psycho-trucker.
Rusty’s wife, Heidi, was a few lengths ahead when she heard the familiar air horn. She peered in the mirror of the big RV she was driving, knowing full well that Rusty must be up to something. “At least there wasn’t any gunfire,” she thought. Then she added silently, “Not yet anyway.” The little car was racing up the side of the road to get away from Rusty and suddenly cut in front of Heidi. She slammed the brakes, causing Amber and Mandy, who were passed out on the bed in the back room, to crash to the floor squealing, more out of surprise than injury. “Sorry girls!” Heidi itched to blare her own horn at the rude driver but picked up the radio to check on Rusty instead.
“Hun, are you there?” she asked into the radio. She checked her radio’s power meter; it had a full charge since it was plugged in to the dash of the RV. There was no reply. She glanced in the mirror to see if Rusty was there. “Rusty, pick up. Can you hear me?” She tried again while watching the mirror. The distraction took her eyes off the road, and she rear-ended the little car with her RV. The girls had just picked themselves up off the floor and were making their way to the front of the RV when the minor crash sent them barreling into the back of the driver’s seat with more squeals. This time the little car became sandwiched between the RV and a semi-trailer. The driver was OK, but the car was not going anywhere. The semi never felt it and kept moving while the driver had to crawl out the window to exit the smashed car.
“Uh oh,” Heidi muttered when she saw him walking angrily to her window. He had barely gotten the first string of cuss words out before a bright flashing strobe flashlight distracted him. Rusty had seen the potential confrontation and had jumped out of the deuce with his AR-15. The tactical strobe was designed to disorient an attacker by essentially disconnecting the retina from the brain.
“Back up, asshole!” Rusty demanded.
The young driver squinted while raising his hands in the air. The strobe was making him dizzy in the darkness, and he stumbled as he eased away from the RV. It was a good thing because Heidi already had a .45 aimed at his chest.
“Easy, Bro, I was just looking to exchange insurance cards. That’s all,” the guy said nervously.
“Yeah, no. That’s not happening. Go back to your car now,” Rusty demanded.
“She wrecked it! What am I going to do?” he exclaimed.
“Not our problem…’ Bro,’” Rusty replied.
Backing down, the driver walked to his car, throwing his hands up in frustration.
“Hi hun,” Heidi said as she looked down from her driver’s window. “Guess he won’t be menacing the roadways in that thing anymore. I’m glad you put that pipe bumper on the front of this thing.”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” Rusty said as he glanced around the front of the camper.
“I was trying to reach you on the radio. You OK?” she asked.
“It’s dead. I don’t have a charger,” Rusty replied, keeping an eye on the angry driver who was waving a cell phone in the air trying to get a signal. He was not mincing words tonight.
“It’s OK, here take mine. It has been on the charger all night.” Heidi offered the radio through the window.
“I’ll go get the other one,” he said, turning away.
“Hey,” she called to him.
Rusty stopped in his tracks and glanced wearily over his shoulder.
“I love you, hang in there. You’re doing great - you saved a damsel in distress.” Heidi pointed a thumb at herself.
Rusty realized that he was letting his attitude get the better of him and returned to the RV. He climbed the two steps up to the open driver’s window and planted an affectionate kiss on his wife’s lips without saying anything. He squeezed her hand as he climbed down to the sound of honking horns from annoyed drivers behind them who just wanted to get on with the apocalypse. The horns stopped blaring when the drivers saw him unsling the rifle from his shoulder in the glare of their headlights. Rusty climbed up into the deuce to get the other radio, ignoring the terrified looks from the other gridlocked drivers and turnpike pedestrians.
The delay caused a further separation from Cal and the others. Anxious to get caught up, Heidi wheeled around the smashed car and drove to find the others who were still moving up the road. She knew everyone in the group was exhausted after their long day. Between hours of loading vehicles, barely surviving a flash flood from Lake Okeechobee, and then narrowly escaping a wannabe concentration camp, there wasn’t much energy left in anyone in their group. She also knew they were lucky to be alive even though they had lost a couple of vehicles and a lot of supplies. Heidi made a mental note to keep an eye on her husband to make sure he got some rest at the first chance.
“Cal, you there?” Rusty keyed into the radio. After a moment, a beep came back.
“Hey buddy, how is it going back there?” Cal asked.
At that moment, Rusty was trying to squeeze the deuce past the smashed car. He accidentally rubbed the big wheels down the length of the car as he made his way by. The driver threw his hands up again in anger as Rusty drove off.
“It’s going great now. Had to buff out a scratch on a small car,” he laughed into the radio.
Cal’s wife, Charlotte, the attorney, took the radio. “Your family discount legal retainer does not include road rage or property damage representation.”
“Aw, c’mon. Even if I was in the right?” Rusty quipped.
Before Charlotte could launch into the entire set of Florida statutes, Cal took the radio back. “We are coming up on the Fort Pierce exit. I was thinking about checking out the truck stop. We may want to stay on top of fuel every chance we get. The truck stop should always have fuel and power generators to pump with.” Cal was referring to the State law that forced all evacuation route fuel stations to install generators. After Hurricane Andrew, the State had to do something to keep disaster evacuees rolling. Armed fuel convoys kept critical gas stations supplied and powered up after that.
“That’s a good idea,” Rusty replied. Cal began checking on the rest of the group.
“Tim, how are you looking?” Cal asked.
“I have just about three-quarters of a tank,” Tim’s deep southern drawl replied. Tim and Glendora were a couple of cars behind Cal.
“You know,” said Glendora, “this is not what I pictured for our first date.
“Could be worse,” said Tim. “We could be driving a minivan.”
“Shane? How about you?” called Rusty.
“I have about the same,” Shane said from a few cars ahead of Cal. Shane was impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his SUV, scanning each vehicle he passed with a growing sense of dread. He was slowly falling into memories of his service in Afghanistan, and the tension was starting to get to him.
The traffic exiting the turnpike was stop and crawl, but once the group committed to getting off, there was no going back because of the exit design. They pulled toward the Pilot truck stop. The lanes were not crowded at the pumps, and there were no lights outside or inside the convenience store.
“I’ve never seen this area so dark. Usually, it’s lit up like Christmas,” Cal muttered to Charlotte as they pulled to the back of the truck parking area. In short order, they figured out why. There was no fuel at any of the pumps, and the truck stop was closed for business. There were a few big rigs out in the parking lot, but they were dark and quiet.
“It looks like some of those trailers were abandoned by the way they are just dropped there,” Charlotte motioned toward a group of semi-trailers that seemed uncharacteristically out of order in the large lot. Several had the rear doors open, and trash was strewn around on the pavement.
“It looks like they’ve been ransacked. We better be careful,” Cal replied as he pulled to a stop.
The adults got out to stretch their legs and scheme a plan for what to do next. The girls were jumping at the opportunity to climb out too until Cal stopped them.
“Take Tempest and stay in the camper for now,” he ordered his eldest daughter, Amber. “I don’t think it is safe out here.”
“Come on, dad! We’ve been in here for hours. It’s stuffy in here,” Amber complained.
“Do me a favor and keep an eye out the windows on the other side,” Cal insisted.
“Fine, like fish in a bowl,” Amber grumbled as she disappeared back inside with Tempest in her arms.
“Why are you complaining? I never even made it down the steps.” Mandy said.
“Yeah, well, think of it like your own personal camper like actresses have in Hollywood,” Amber said.
“That would be more my style. I’m thinking glamour and fashion, diamonds and pearls, a man on each arm…” Mandy trailed off as she struck an exaggerated Hollywood diva pose.
“Good luck with that, your next hunk of a boyfriend probably won’t be the star quarterback, but some Amish guy named Jeb who can survive this mess,” Amber replied and immediately regretted the comment.
Mandy dropped her pose and slumped onto the dining table bench, lost in her memory of her boyfriend, who had been gunned down by their kidnappers when they had evacuated the college campus just days before.
“At this rate, we are definitely not going to make it to the cabin tomorrow,” Charlotte observed, her eyes sweeping the parking lot.
“No, I guess not. I was hoping that once we got away from home, things would smooth out,” Cal admitted.
“OK, well, here we are. At least we are moving in the right direction,” Glendora said with strained enthusiasm as she raised her arms in a big stretch.
Suddenly the group heard a loud “Yay!” from the RV. Little Tempest, just three years old, was waving and clapping her hands. Hearing her simple joy at the pitstop, the group realized that over the last couple of weeks, they had been so preoccupied with survival that the little things in life were becoming overlooked.
“That’s what we need, more laughing,” Glendora said as she joined Tempest in clapping happily.
“Speaking of laughing, nice hair Rusty,” Cal prodded.
Shane belly laughed. “Aye, he kinda looks like that Chucky doll from the movies.”
“Keep laughing, I have that same big knife, too,” Rusty replied.
Everyone began to relax and let their guard down for a few minutes as they mingled.
“I sure could go for a burger and fries right now,” Shane rubbed his belly, noticing the darkened McDonald’s sign across the street.
“The fries, yessss,” Charlotte added to the murmurs from the group.
“I bet there’s beer in there,” Rusty nodded toward the closed convenience store.
Mandy and Amber were sitting at the small dining table in the RV with the window open to get some fresh air in when they heard strange voices outside the RV. Peeking out the window, they saw a small group of six raggedly dressed people approaching. They looked like they had been living on the streets for longer than most of the new refugees. Their clothes were dirty, and a few did not have shoes. Amber quickly slid the window shut and hopped over to the door to warn her dad.
“Dad!” She whispered loud enough to get everyone’s attention.
“What is it, honey?” Cal replied, still smiling about French fries.
“There’s people!” She pointed toward the other side of the camper.
“Close the door,” Cal said. Amber slammed the door closed and clicked the lock.
Cal and the group immediately remembered the seriousness of their situation and took a few steps back. The tall skinny man with piercing eyes stepped forward, whereas the rest stopped deferentially a few feet away in what seemed to be a practiced move. The man’s confident gait and carriage revealed him as the leader.
“Which way you headed?” the man asked. Cal had expected him to ask for food or money and was bracing to turn down a request, but this was a conversational question and thus more difficult to answer.
Cal’s mind was racing, the scene had the feel of a potential mugging, but his inner voice was trying to prepare a safe response. “On the one hand, a brisk reply might anger the followers. They seem desperate, and desperation is dangerous. On the other hand, if they were headed in the same direction, reasons would have to be invented to avoid the obligation of offering a ride.”
“We don’t know yet,” Cal took a flexible position. He wasn’t ready to volunteer any information at this point and had no interest in getting too close to people who might be sick.
“We have travel information that may be of use to you if you are going north,” the leader said.
“We’re good, but thank you.” Cal said, being politely distrustful. He did not want to get into a bargaining position with which he would end up becoming uncomfortable. Besides, he had no way to corroborate anything they said.
The man looked at his people and tried again. “We just came from up north and almost didn’t get out alive. If you want to take the chance, that’s up to you, but if you’ll trade some food for information, we can save you a lot of trouble.”
Shane recognized the tattoos and jewelry the strangers all had in common from a hiking trip he had made in the past. He pulled the group aside to a huddle and whispered, “These are gypsies. They come to live in the forest every season. You cannot trust a word they say. I doubt he has any useful information. He probably is just trying to set us up for a robbery later, but at the very least, he is trying up the fear factor in travelers like us. We need to get rid of them firmly, or they’ll keep coming back. I’ve seen these kinds of people before.”
Cal approached the group leader, keeping several feet of air between them. “Thanks, but we will be fine. So, we need you to keep moving.” Shane and Rusty, being more tactically proficient than the rest of the group, began to move to better positions to cover their friends in case something went down. As they began moving around, both men made it a point to slightly shift their shirts up to reveal their sidearms to the gypsy pack.
The gypsies didn’t feel at all threatened but decided to take their ruse to a softer target. This was the game they had mastered, and they knew when it was time to find another mark. The leader smirked with that “You’ll be sorry” look as he shrugged his shoulders and turned to walk away. His filthy crew tagged along, having already memorized Cal’s group faces and vehicles for later.
“That was uncomfortable,” Tim said.
“Aye, we need to step up our security posture at stops,” Shane replied. “From now on, we need eyes on all four sides of the vehicles. I don’t think we should be openly carrying weapons yet, but we all need them at hand.”
“Agreed, we can’t let our guard down like that anymore. We were lax. If those people had been armed, we could have been caught with our pants down,” Cal replied.
“We need to work on a few things, like communication. I think we need a backup plan for the radios, and we better find some time for some basic security drills, too,” Rusty said.
They all knew it was true. The days of cell phones and texting seemed to be gone for now. There were no dependable networks anymore, and cell towers could not operate without electricity. Gazing around the truck stop, Tim had an idea.
“How about CB radios? They don’t go far, but they are easy to use.”
“That would work. And we can also get portable CBs like walkie-talkies,” Cal said. “I wish I had thought of that before; we had a box of job site radios back at my office.”
“Hello…guys…We’re at a truck stop. What better place to find CBs and antennas?” Rusty said, glancing at the dark storefront.
Charlotte let her shoulders drop in anticipation of the bad idea that she knew was coming. Cal studied the group as if waiting for someone to drop some moral high ground speech. None came.
“It’s worth a look,” he said, not making a solid commitment to the upcoming burglary.
Rusty wasted no time in scheming a plausible plan to go check out the store while it was dark. Shane and Rusty would stay outside to guard the families and vehicles, while Cal and Tim planned to scavenge whatever they could find inside.
“Let me borrow your night vision goggles,” Cal said to Rusty. “Maybe we can do this without attracting too much attention.
“Here, take this, too,” Shane offered his red lens flashlight to Tim.
The men moved as inconspicuously as they darted across the parking lot toward the truck stop convenience store. They walked around the building, searching for a way inside, but nothing was open, and the store had miraculously not been looted yet.
Cal peered into the windows of the store with the goggles, “Jackpot! There is a whole display cabinet of CB radio gear. But,” Cal tugged on the locked door. “The only way we are getting in there is through the glass.”
“That is going to make a lot of noise. It would be better if we had some kind of diversion,” Tim replied.
“I have an idea,” Cal said as he led Tim back to the vehicles.
They went back to the group and asked Rusty to count to 30, then sound the obnoxious air horn on the deuce for a few seconds to distract from the sound of Tim smashing the plate glass window on the side of the building facing away from traffic.
“OK, let’s go. Rusty counts fast.” Cal said to Tim as they scurried off into the darkness. They had barely made it back to the building before the horn blared. “Damnit! I don’t have anything to break the window with,” Cal said, dropping his shoulders in disappointment as the horn fell silent.
Tim smirked at Cal. “Hey, I didn’t think it through either.” They both snickered at their lack of criminal tradecraft and went back to get Rusty to do it again.
“Seriously? You two are some real criminal masterminds—no, wait, minimal minds,” Rusty retorted, shaking his head at the two attempted felons.
Cal and Tim headed back to the window to try again. This time they were carrying a heavy iron bar from the truck and a chunk of concrete curbing. Together, Rusty sounded the horn, and Cal and Tim smashed through the window. Once inside, they decided to get what they came for first. If there was anything else useful, they would grab it on the way out.
“Found the CB radios,” Cal said to Tim as he used the iron bar to smash the glass display case. He cleared the glass and grabbed a stack of radio boxes. The classic Cobra 29 models were the trucker’s go-to model for decades. There were too many things to carry, so Tim found a large box and dumped out the stuffed animals all over the floor. They filled the box with radios, cables, power inverters, and spare microphones.
“Hey, walkie-talkies!” Tim said, grabbing several packages of portable CB radios.
“I almost forgot; we need antennas,” Cal said as he grabbed an armful of Wilson High power magnetic roof-mount whip antennas.
“I grabbed a couple of SWR meters to tune the antennas,” Tim said. Cal had no idea what that meant, but he nodded. The guys started moving the booty to the exit when they heard the sounds of someone else coming through the broken glass.
“Get down!” Cal whispered harshly to Tim. He glanced back toward the broken window with the night vision. He saw a dark, small figure crawling in. I think I could take him if I need to, Cal thought to himself. But Cal and Tim lucked out—the other looter headed in the opposite direction. Cal motioned to Tim to follow, and they cautiously began moving toward the exit. Unfortunately, the night vision goggles did not offer good depth perception, and Cal noisily bumped into a big display of metal keychains, the touristy kind that featured a hundred some-odd different names. The clinking rattle spooked the other looter, and he (or she) scurried deeper into the store. Cal thought he heard a weapon cocking but couldn’t be sure with the keychains rattling in his ear. Tim was still poised to move quickly when Cal did, but he found himself next to a display of batteries and began filling the box with everything he could get his hands on. Cal motioned to Tim to follow and was underway to the exit in a flash. Tim’s box got heavy when he added the batteries, and he was not as quick on the way out.
The two men hurried in the darkness with their arms full from the shopping trip, arriving back at the vehicles feeling winded. They threw the boxes in the RV and tried to act innocent.
“Whew! That was harder than I expected. The life of crime is not for me,” Tim said breathlessly.
“Yeah, someone else came in after us, and I swear I heard a firearm cock.” Cal said, feeling victorious at getting out alive.
Charlotte peeked at the boxes of radio gear. “Did you think to get some maps while you were in there?”
“Aw, crap… no, I did not,” Cal replied heavily as if he had failed a test.
“Well, if you think someone else went in with a gun, we should probably just take the win and get out of here. I’m not a fan of tempting fate,” she replied.
“Where do we go from here?” Rusty asked. “It might be a good idea to find a place to hole up until daylight.”
“Or would it be better to keep going while some of the traffic is sleeping?” Glendora countered.
“We should also be thinking about trying to reach Mark and Clara before we get too far down the road. After what we’ve seen, who knows what it’s been like for them,” Cal suggested.
“They had already left the hospital and were headed home when they found the floodwaters. That’s the last we heard from them,” Charlotte added.
“I hope they are OK,” Glendora worried. A silence descended on the group for a moment. They knew that the longer Mark and Clara were separated from the group, the harder it would be to get back together.
“We better let them know what is going on. Rusty, can you reach out to them, please?” Cal replied.
“Will do. I hope the radio repeaters are still up.” Rusty acknowledged, turning away to get his radio from the truck cab.