When the rumbling stopped the power was off and the emergency lights weren’t coming on either. I couldn’t see anything. It was dark as the inside of black cat. “Jonathon?!”
“Shhh!” he whispered frantically into my nose though I think he meant it to be my ear. “They might hear you!”
I’d had enough. No way at this late date was I going to play the shrinking violet type, not to mention I couldn’t have pulled it off with the help of the best CG artist in the business. I sat up and Jonathon practically rolled off of me. Nana had been right, he was a late bloomer but he’d definitely started blooming. It had really shocked me when I had seen him for the first time since Thanksgiving break; he’d come to the farm while the rest of his family went to the Bahamas. Then he was still the boy I had known my whole life; now he had a mustache … well, not a real mustache of course but the dark fuzz that some guys get as their body hair starts to get coarse. And he was taller, much taller; he was only two inches shorter than me. But I still outweighed him and I could have hurt him bad if I hadn’t reigned in my strength. Jonathon had the bones and build of a starving artist or poet … with the “soulful eyes” to complete the looks. A lot of girls had finally started to notice him and I didn’t know whether to be happy for him or jealous. I had to resort to teasing him to cover my own discomfort but he merely looked at me with those peculiar pale and intent eyes of his and said, “None of them matter like you do.”
I was way flattered by that but the depth of his feelings worried me because I knew I wasn’t ready to return them … or whether I ever would. But that’s not what I was thinking at that moment. I wanted to know what was happening and I wanted my parents, not necessarily in that order.
I felt him grab for me in the dark and I jumped as his hand went some place where it shouldn’t. “Jonathon,” I threatened warningly.
“Sorry,” he muttered though it didn’t sound especially like he was. “Stop going all Boudicca, there is a time to fight and a time to flee and right now we need to get our cans out of here before they find us.”
I swatted at him with my dinky little clutch purse and whispered back at him, “Let me guess, Boudicca is one of those crazy female warriors you keep trying to compare me to. Well, knock it off. That kind of stuff isn’t … you know … appropriate. And I’m not fleeing until I find my parents. They are probably worried sick. I …”
“Rocky …,” he said and I didn’t like the tone of his voice at all. It told me fear wasn’t the only thing I had to fear.
“Shut up. I’m going to …”
Only years of habit stopped me from pushing him away hard when he got too close. I would have hurt him which would have been totally counterproductive. “Rocky … I’m … I’m sorry. They gassed the room. Nobody got out. When you didn’t come back your dad sent me to look for you. Right as I was going up the stairs … the elevators were all busy … these guys ran in with guns and gas masks on. I stayed only long enough to … to … People started going crazy when they figured out what was going on and then those men came out and started throwing what looked like grenades only they made loud bangs and smoke instead of fire. That’s when I ran up here to look for you and to stay away from the smoke. They were starting to …”
Then there was another explosion, only this one came from above us rattling the ceiling tiles. “What are they doing?!” I still hadn’t dealt with what he had told me and wouldn’t for a while yet.
“Sounds like they are hitting the rest of the banquet halls in the convention center now that their main target has been taken out; there were a bunch of political groups and some other professional associations having banquets here this weekend. The only reason that my parents were able to have the ground floor ball room was because they booked it last spring.”
That reminded me of his parents and when I tried to find him in the dark I brushed against his face with my bare hand and it was wet. I didn’t say anything; neither did he. I’d never bashed him for being “sensitive” and he’d never made fun of me for being … whatever it was that I was. It was like an unspoken law of our friendship. But the wetness let me know that his parents had probably suffered the same fate as mine. They liked the limelight; they never would have left the party, not while it was in full swing.
I told myself, “Think about it later.” Then I turned where I imagined Jonathon still sat and asked, “You got a plan or do we come up with one together?”
“We can’t go down, the gas or poison or whatever was escaping from the room as I was heading up the stair well and the hotel employees were starting to fall over. That means going up.”
Then I smelled smoke. Jonathon immediately started to wheeze, his asthma kicking in big time. I knew how bad it could get for him so up it was, as fast as we could. It also meant that I would need to help him because if he started having a bad attack he wouldn’t be getting anywhere under his own steam. I nearly broke my neck getting up and wanted to curse the stupid shoes I was wearing. Not only did they make me top six feet but pinched like a son of a gun. I put my hands on the door worrying that there was fire just outside but it was cool to the touch. I cracked the door open but could see nothing.
Cough. Wheeze. “Left …” Wheeze. Gasp. “Left … end …” Then I heard a couple of puffs which meant he still had his emergency inhaler.
“Don’t try to talk, just tap and nudge. Remember Tuckaleechee Caverns?”
I felt him nod, remembering how the panic of a power outage had set off one of the worst asthma attacks I’d ever seen him have way back in grade school. Jonathon had an uncanny sense of direction, even in the dark two hundred feet down, and he was able to get us back to the main stairwell but only by nudging me and letting me bellow out to people when they started going the wrong direction.
So by his tapping and nudging we made it to what felt like a door with a metal push bar across it. The metal wasn’t hot so I pushed through and found we were in a stairwell, but not the neat and decorated ones normally used by guests, this one felt like it was all cold stone and concrete. I made Jonathon sit down and lean against the wall. I tried going up but after only one flight of stairs the smoke was considerably worse and even I started coughing. I knew there was no way that Jonathon was going to make it that direction, not to mention that I didn’t want to go up only to get caught in a fire. I had watched the Towering Inferno on Netflix too many times to count. One of our favorite things was to watch disaster movies and laugh at the stupid things people did in them.
So I went down a flight after checking on Jonathon who was still wheezing and beginning to shake which he always did after a double puff from his inhaler. I took it slow, only a few steps at a time but I got to the landing with no problems and then realized where we were because I had gotten lost there on our original tour of the place. My family and I were staying in a different hotel several blocks away because even with the discount for our group we couldn’t afford the rates in that part of town.
The door was the entrance from the employee parking level; I smelled that weird smell of car exhaust, fuel, and rubber that kind of hangs around enclosed parking garages. I experienced a bit of relief because I knew how to get us out of the building. I ran back up only to find that Jonathon had slumped over. There wasn’t time to play nice. I kicked off the torture devices I was wearing on my feet and stuck them in his coat pockets along with my purse, then picked him up in a fireman’s carry over my shoulder. “Man, don’t you dare puke on me. That’s the last thing we need right now.”
Going down in the dark one step at a time was hard but I couldn’t afford to take a tumble; one of us would surely break something on the bare concrete stairs. I pushed through the glass door and was nearly run over by a car speeding away.
Oh I put him down all right. I recognized the signs. I had to hold him up while he puked but luckily there was a handy trashcan and we didn’t have to deal with backsplash.
He wheezed a couple of times and then whispered, “Yeah.”
“Street level is up this way. Can you walk or …?”
“I’ll walk,” he snapped. He got a little cranky which I didn’t blame him for. I don’t care if someone is your best friend your whole life, having to have them carry you and hold you while you puke is embarrassing for a guy; the fact that your best friend is a girl only makes it worse.
I put my shoes back on because there was no way I was going to put my bare feet on ground around here. There were a lot of homeless people and other stuff I’d never seen back home piled up all over the city.
It was only slightly less dark outside but already we could hear sirens all over the city. “Jonathon, has the world gone crazy or what?! Where are the fire fighters, where are …? I have to go back in, my parents could still be …”
And for the first and only time Jonathon tried to hit me with a slap. I know he thought I was getting hysterical or something but I wasn’t, I really wasn’t no matter what it might have looked like. It surprised me so much I stopped dragging him back into the building.
“Listen to me Rocky. Your parents … my family … they’re gone. I don’t know what is going on, not yet, but we need to get some place where I can figure it out. And we definitely need to get out of here. They targeted us for some reason … us … the GWBs. Maybe it is the Greenies doing this. Maybe it is someone else using their cover. But we’ve got to get out of here. You … you kind of stand out. And you’ve been in the papers and stuff like that. I might be able to pass but no way are … you know …”
No kidding. I decided just like with everything else I’d cry about my parents when no one else could see me and then put my mad on. “Fine. We have to get out of here, at least for now. Where’s your jeep?”
About that time a couple of drunks came out of the darkness and grabbed my arms. “Hey pretty … whoa … not so little lady? Got time for a sailor … or two?” the first one snickered.
I’d had it. I am not a violent person by nature despite my size. However, any female in their right mind doesn’t like strange drunk guys putting their hands where they haven’t been invited to put them.
Wham! I gut punched the talker sending him to his knees the other guy started backing away dragging his friend backwards and saying, “Told you it had to be a dude. Real women ain’t built like that.”
Jonathon turned weird and despite everything that was going on I almost smiled at the look he had on his face like he was about to take both of them on at once. I told him, “Forget it. They’re idiots and I think they’ve learned their lesson. Let’s just get to your jeep.”
Like with everything else Jonathon’s parents had bought him a car as soon as he was old enough to learn to start driving. When he actually got his license they offered to get him something else but he insisted on keeping the Jeep Gladiator; not to mention he’d tricked it out special and had all of the gremlins out of it by that point.
“Parking garage … across the street,” he grumbled.
“Fine. Let’s go. Wait, you’ve got your keys right?”
“Valet will have them of course,” he said while he held his arm out to me like he was some kind of gentleman or something.
“Of course,” I said while trying not to get irritated. Normally how wealthy Jonathon’s family was didn’t phase me, nor did his rich manners, but for some reason the whole casual mention of the valet thing hit me the wrong way. I barely gave him a chance to keep up. He was trotting and starting to wheeze while I just kept up with my ground eating stride.
When we got to the garage there was no valet in sight. Great.
“Uh … Rocky?” I turned to see Jonathon looking at something on the ground on the other side of the booth. I turned his “uh” into an “ugh.” A couple of uniformed working stiffs, no pun intended, lay dead from gunshots to their heads. Whatever was going on the fewer witnesses the better apparently.
I wrenched open the booth door – if you have the strength you might as well use it when you need it – and asked Jonathon what his key ring looked like. He looked around me and grabbed a set of keys off a hook that told us where the car was supposed to be parked. It was up several floors and Jonathon didn’t look like he was ready for any more stairs.
“Look, you stay here and figure out how to make sure those sharp things don’t spring up and kill your tires. I’ll drive the jeep down.”
I could see he wanted to object but Jonathon had a practical side as well and didn’t say a word as I toddled to the stair well and started to climb. I swore up and down that as soon as I got my boots back on they’d never leave my feet again. I didn’t have any trouble finding the car or getting it down to Jonathon who had done his job with the tire strips, and we escaped. Even though it was his vehicle I drove and he navigated since he was still pretty green around the gills.
When I realized where we were going I asked, “Our hotel? Why?”
He gave me a look. “Your stuff is there.”
Ooops. I told myself, “Rocky, find your brain girl. No way do you want to be caught in any kind of scrimmage wearing spiked heels and a short silk dress. You’re not exactly a common size down at Ye Ole Wallyworld.”
Suddenly I had to slam on the brakes and the jeep stalled as people started swarming into the street. “What the …?!” Good thing we were wearing our seatbelts or the way our luck was going we’d been thrown through the windshield. Driving in SF bit rancid boogers. I’d been driving tractors for a lot longer than the law allowed, and could even do a decent job on sharp inclines but the streets of San Francisco were absolutely beyond anything that I’d had to deal with on back top.
“You want me to drive?” Jonathon asked in a dry voice.
I gave him a nasty look in return and asked, “You want to walk?”
Our tiff was over as fast as it started. We never could stay mad at each other. And we both were old enough to know that most of the problem was that we were in shock over how bad things were going.
I told Jonathon, “All we need now is an earthquake.”
“Shut … up,” he replied in dead seriousness. “Something else it going on over there,” he said pointing to where the people seemed to be coming from and the distant sound of gunfire reached our ears. “Rocky, you see that road in front of us? It’s a field full of people that want to keep you from getting to the quarterback. Your hotel is the quarterback. Go get him.”
I nearly called him a dork but he was also right even if he was treating me like a dumb jock … dumb jockette I mean … that just needed a little motivation. I almost made it without hurting anyone but then some crazy guy in a panic jumped out in front of us and I clipped him with the bumper sending him backwards into a FedEx mail box. I didn’t stop. I consoled myself with the fact that I had at least been able to avoid running over his legs where they stuck out into the street.
We finally got to the hotel, normally within walking distance of where the dinner had been held but it took three times as long to get there. I nearly jumped the curb trying to parallel park too fast and then we ran into the lobby. Nobody paid us any attention; all eyes were glued to the TV behind the check in desk. We made it to the room I shared with my parents without further incident and when I saw their stuff is when I almost lost it again.
“Rocky?” I heard him ask.
“Don’t. Not right now. No feelings. No sympathy. No compassion. Not if I expect to be able to stay in the game and play.” I shook myself like a dog and told him, “Turn on the idiot box and try and get some idea of what is going on while I change.”
I dumped my luggage open on the nearest bed and grabbed what I needed out of it and headed to the closet sized bathroom for a little privacy. The dress wasn’t too bad but the shoes were toast which didn’t hurt my feelings any at all. It was all rented finery so it wasn’t my problem, they could keep the deposit and I’d leave it all here for them to collect if they had a mind to. After taking off my mother’s jewelry which I carefully placed in the bag of toiletries I carried I slammed into my jeans, a t-shirt, and a flannel shirt after putting on more respectable under things than the frou-frou I had been forced to wear under the silk dress. My sports bra was a heck of a lot more comfortable than the strapless wonder I had been wearing that always left me feeling like it wouldn’t be there when I needed it to be.
Thick socks and farm boots completed my ensemble and then I left the room to get to a mirror and do something with my hair. I took one look in the mirror and nearly started crying again. The careful make up my mother had helped me to apply was smeared all over my face and I looked like a clown in drag. I scrubbed what I could get rid of and then tackled my hair which was a sticky, stiff nightmare. My mother had used a whole tube of gel and two bottles of hair spray to get my “do” to stay where it was supposed to but not even concrete could have kept it in place during our escape. I’d first wrecked it up when Jonathon had knocked me to the floor in the bathroom and then sent it the rest of the way to Hades when I had carried him down the stairs. I know there was still some of my hair stuck in the buttons of his shirt.
All the while Jonathon kept up a nervous commentary letting me know what he’d found out. Seems it was the Greenies like he had thought but somehow or other they had formed some kind of alliance with the nutty Twelvers sect within the Shia brand of Islam that had control of a good slice of the Middle East. The Twelvers believed that if they killed hundreds of millions of people that it would precipitate the coming of their messiah who they call the Twelfth Imam. The Greenies believed that humans in general were a disease on the planet and wanted to get rid of hundreds of millions bring about their own brand of utopia. Great, two of the biggest bunch of nut cases in the world had gotten together and started to breed.
“I’ve got an idea where to go.”
I looked at him and asked, “Yeah, to the police and tell them what we saw and make the suckers pay that hurt our families.”
“No. We don’t know who we can trust. They might separate us.”
“We aren’t kids anymore, we’re eighteen. We might be orphans but the courts can’t do that, not even here in California.”
“Exactly. We aren’t kids. They might put us some place as material witnesses or to protect us or something like that and not have to follow the same rules they have to with kids. You’re supposed to be the cynical one here, what’s the worst case scenario?”
It didn’t take me more than a second to decide. “Check. Idiots are ruling the world right now. Treat them all as rabid animals until they can prove themselves otherwise. So what’s your idea?”
“Nana. She won’t ask questions and you know she’ll do everything she can for us.”
Right. I called her Nana just like Jonathon but she was actually the widow of Herringford Justinian Marshall Jr. and some kind of kin to half of the old money in this country but didn’t act like it in the least. Even my parents liked her though she was a bit of an eccentric. Of course she could afford to be eccentric but that was beside the point … eccentric was what we needed and she had it, in plenty.
The problem was that she lived in this place called The Dalles in Oregon. “Rocky, we don’t have a lot of time. Grab what you want to take while I clean out your parents’ food stash. We’ll need it ‘cause I don’t want to stop until we get to Nana’s.”
My mother was a neat freak so it didn’t take long for me to grab what I thought would be useful. I also scribbled a note despite believing Jonathon. There was a small chance … it was all that I left myself. I didn’t say where we were going just that I was with my best friend and why I had left. They were either in a place where they already knew or they’d understand, either way I’d covered the bases the best I could.
I grabbed my mom’s big hair and makeup kit and dumped it out – the thing was the size of a piece of carry-on luggage – and then tossed it at Jonathon so he could put the food from the mini frig and bar into it. I tossed my clothes back into my duffel bag, grabbed my back pack and then remembered the safe in the closet. I quickly got into it and took out the remaining money and valuables in there, including the digital cameras.
I stood up and got a couple of folded towels in the face. “Better stuff these in there too in case we need them. I’ll grab a blanket and a couple of pillows.”
Jonathon rolled his eyes. “Geez Rocky! The world is falling down around our ears and you’re worried about paying the bills.” When I gave him the evil eye he muttered, “Fine. I’ll cover it if we get stopped all right? Now will you come on already.”
No one stopped us. No one cared. There were a ton of people rushing around all over the place like chickens with their heads cut off and the hotel staff had their hands full with people screaming at them wanting to know what they were going to do about everything. And Jonathon thought I was being stupid.
We shoved everything in behind the seats and took off but it was slow going until we got to Mission Street. A right and a left got us onto I80 and heading towards Oakland. I heard Jonathon muttering and praying as he told me to bust the speed limit and get us out of there before things really blew up.
It took us an hour to I505 and then about half that time again to get onto I5 where we stayed until the sun came up. We’d made good time out of San Francisco but as people woke up to what was going on the roads went crazy. We outdistanced the worst of it by using the medians and other places that made the Gladiator worth its weight in gold. I also stopped being so flaming nice to people, it turned into a flight to survival and I was playing to win.
But by our exit to US97 I was strung out and Jonathon, who’d managed a little sleep, had to take over. Turns out he is a pretty good driver and knew just what to do to make the Gladiator do what he wanted it to. “Reach under the seat. You feel that compartment?”
“Put my birthday into the punch button codes.”
I heard a snap and pulled out … “Are … you … nuts?!!” I was holding a padded bag that contained two very expensive and very deadly looking hand guns. “Not even saying what would have happened to you in a place like California for having these things concealed like that but your parents … man, do you have a death wish or something?! I’ve heard your mom on a tear about all of the guns in this country. She nearly fainted when she found out I went out shooting with Dad every chance I got.”
“Don’t be stupid Rocky. Who do you think bought the guns for me? You know how my mom is … was,” he corrected himself. “The rules are for other people, not us.” After another sigh he said, “We aren’t the Kennedy’s but my family isn’t exactly bashful about some of the things they get into. My uncle does all of those high profile court cases too and my aunt is running for office again. Kidnappers love to threaten the kids of rich people. It’s SOP these days. Body guards aren’t just fashion accessories and this was the only way I could get my parents off my back.” After pulling out of the way of someone who was driving over a hundred MPH and weaving all over the road he continued, “Besides I thought you liked hunting and stuff like that.”
“I do … hunting for food, target practice, that sort of thing. These are for … they’re for killing people.”
I had to look over at him to see if this was the same Jonathon that I had always known.
“I’m done being a target Rocky. I’m done being kicked around by the bigger kids. I’ve been done with it for a while. You never had to deal with that.”
Miffed I retorted, “Oh no, I only had to put up with people thinking and acting like I would grind their bones to make my bread. You weren’t always around when adults would jerk their kids back away from me like I was contagious or was some kind of monster.”
He put his hand on my knee to comfort me I guess but I brushed it off and told him, “Keep your hands on the wheels … where I can see them at all times.”
That made him grin; the blush covering my face when he glanced over made him grin bigger. Geesh, why did it always have to come down to guys being guys? I’d never really expected to have to have these kinds of problems and was at a loss as to what to do but Jonathon apparently felt like he’d made his point and turned all of his attention back to the road as we listened to the radio tell us what a nightmare the world was descending into and while I fought thinking about my parents.