Terrorists plot to destroy a military town to bring down the American spirit (in progress)
It was shaping up to be a pretty good day. The late spring weather was still bearable, as the hot, humid, coastal Georgia summer was still a few weeks away. The early morning fog had all burned off, and the temperature was in the upper seventies. Dusty loved days like this. There was a slight breeze from the east, with just a hint of saltwater from the ocean riding on it. A few wispy clouds dotted the otherwise incredibly blue sky, and a hawk circled lazily near the horizon. Winter had been gone for over a month, so the propane business had slowed to a crawl. The lightened schedule was a welcome relief after the hectic winter rush.
The light finally turned green, and Dusty slipped the Freightliner into second gear and eased across the intersection. Barring any unforeseen delays, I’ll be done by two o’clock, he thought to himself. His last delivery for the day was out on Colonels Island, and the collapsible fishing pole under the passenger seat was just itching to get wet. There was a quiet public pier on the Island, not two blocks from his last delivery. On slow days, Dusty often snuck over to the pier for a few hours of fishing before heading back to the shop. In the summer months, it was usually too hot on the open pier, so he had to take advantage of the nice days of spring. Neil Young was singing about a cinnamon girl on the radio as he passed the city limit sign, shifting into seventh gear and heading for the coast.
An hour later, he pulled into the driveway of Cynthia and John Goldman, his last drop for the day. They had an underground tank with a gauge that was permanently stuck on eighty percent. Dusty hated underground tanks, because they were always filthy, hard to work on, and generally a pain in the ass. Once, when he had first started working for the gas company, he had opened the lid of an underground tank to find a large black snake looking back at him. Although he would never admit it, Dusty was secretly pretty sure that he had suffered a mild heart attack on the spot. After recovering, he had sprayed the snake with the gas hose, freezing it solid. It broke like a stick when he picked it up with a rake.
Today, he had better luck. The tank was free of life forms, including snakes. He twisted the hose nozzle into place, activated the power take off, and opened the bleeder valve. It was only a few minutes before propane was shooting out of the bleeder, indicating that the tank was full.
After reeling in the hose and dropping the receipt in the mailbox, he nosed the truck around the corner and parked under a tree beside the boat ramp. The tide was almost in, hopefully bringing in some small sharks with it.
As the afternoon wore on, Dusty had caught nothing except for an exceptionally ugly toadfish, and a short nap. Despite the lack of fish, it had been a very relaxing and satisfying siesta. It was almost four o’clock, though, and he would have to hurry if he was going to make it back to town by five. You don’t get overtime in this company for goofing off. Collapsing the pole and snapping the tackle box closed, Dusty headed back up the long, steel walkway towards the truck. The tide was already turning around and headed for England. Stowing the gear back under the seat, Dusty pointed the truck back to Hinesville. What a nice day, he said to himself. I should do this more often.
The viaduct over the railroad tracks on Highway 84 is about the highest point in the county. As the truck crested the top, Dusty immediately knew something was wrong. Traffic was jammed up as far as he could see, and a huge smoke plume was rising from the edge of town in the distance. Whatever was burning was still a good six miles away, and Dusty couldn’t tell what was happening. He downshifted into sixth gear, and then to fifth. He slowed the gas truck to a stop beside a log truck, popped the parking brake, and climbed out. The sun was just touching the tree tops to the west as he walked over to the drivers’ door of the log truck.
“Hey, man. You know what’s going on?” he asked the driver. The man looked to be in his mid-fifties, with a grizzled, unshaven face. He tossed his cigarette out the window and opened the door.
“Nah, I ain’t heard nothin’ on this darned radio in an hour,” the man said. “I been sittin’ here for almost two hours. Ain’t moved a damned inch.” The pile of cigarette butts on the ground outside his window said the same thing.
“Must be one helluva wreck. I’ll be damned if I’m going to stay here that long,” Dusty replied. “I’ll just go back and catch Holmestown road over to Hwy. 119 and run that in.” He thanked the man and climbed back in the Freightliner. Holmestown road was only about two miles back. The downside was that it turned into a rough dirt road with blind corners. It cut through a logging area owned by the paper mill down in Riceboro. Once you reached Hwy. 119, it was only a ten minute drive into Hinesville. It was actually a shorter route to the office, which was on the other end of town. Dusty usually took Hwy. 84 in, though, because he liked to check out the women on the way through town. No such luck today. As he drove back over the viaduct, he glanced in the mirror at the pillar of thick, black smoke in the distance.
As Dusty once again neared the edge of town, the radio station (which was now playing a song that sounded suspiciously like “Jack and Diane” but wasn’t) began to fade into static. ‘No loss there,’ Dusty said out loud to himself. He pressed the number six preset button to see what was on Fox Sports Radio. Strangely, that one was also very faint, with a lot of static. As he flipped through the rest of the presets, it became clear that nothing was coming in. Driving a gas truck into twenty yards a day meant that the radio antenna took a terrific beating from tree limbs, so Dusty assumed that the poor thing had finally fallen off. It was already living on borrowed time, so it wasn’t a big surprise. As the antenna was roof mounted, he would have to wait until he reached the shop to check it out.
Unconcerned, he hit the power button and busted into a rousing rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Rounding the last curve and coming to a stop at the railroad tracks, the song faded from his surprised lips. Three hundred yards past the tracks was the intersection with Hwy. 84, the red light, and about six Georgia State Police squad cars. They were arranged end to end, sealing off the south side of the intersection from curb to curb. Uniformed troopers were directing the incoming traffic from Ludowici in a u-turn, sending them back the way they came. Dusty rolled up to the intersection slowly, stopping at the white line despite the green light that had changed in his favor. A trooper turned and approached the gas truck, and Dusty realized that all the troopers were wearing gas masks. During his time in the Army, Dusty had spent plenty of time with one just like theirs strapped to his own head, and knew something serious must have happened that he knew nothing about.
“What’s going on,” he asked, as the trooper neared. “Chemical spill or something?” The trooper stepped up onto the running board.
“Have you been in Hinesville today?” The trooper seemed to have not heard a thing Dusty had said.
“Of course I have,” said Dusty. “I couldn’t have pulled up to this light without coming through the southeast side of town. So, what’s going on? Why do you all have on a gasmask?” It suddenly occurred to Dusty that he had no gasmask, nor did his wife and son, at home.
“Sir, you are hereby quarantined within the city limits of Hinesville. You are to proceed directly home, and remain in your house until further notice. Do not use your air conditioner, do not open any windows, and do not drink any tap water. Further information will be made public as soon as it is available.” The officer stepped back down onto the street. “You may proceed directly to your home at this time, sir. Please move along.” The trooper was waving him on, as if directing traffic around a fender bender on the side of the road.
“Please move along?” Dusty was incredulous, and on the verge of panic. “What the hell do you mean, ‘please move along’? What’s going on here? Why am I quarantined? Answer me!” The trooper turned away, and walked back to the huddle of officers at the blockade. Dusty rolled up the window and made sure the air conditioner was off. The truck cab immediately began to get warm, as the engine heat came up through the floorboard. Something horrible was happening, and Smokey Bear wasn’t saying a damn thing. Dusty thought of Emmy and Nate at home, and picked up his cell phone as he pulled across the intersection. The phone rang twice, then three times. Panic began to rise up in Dustys’ imagination, but was calmed as he heard Emmy answer at last.
“Sweetheart, are you guys okay? Do you know what’s going on?” He heard his voice shake slightly as he spoke to her, and attempted to calm himself.
“Oh, baby, I’m so glad you called! I don’t know what’s happening; a cop drove down the street while ago, telling everyone to stay inside with the doors and windows closed over his P.A. system. Then the television went to shit, all the channels put on an announcement about some poison contamination accident, or some shit, where are you? What’s happening?” Emmy sounded a bit hysterical.
The panic in her voice actually calmed Dusty down a little, and helped him regain control of himself. “I’m on my way home now, sweetie, just calm down. I should be there in about ten minutes. We’ll figure out what’s going on then.” He downshifted and made a hard right turn on to Shaw Road. “Look baby,” he said. “I’m going to wreck the damn truck if I don’t get off this phone. I love you, and I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“Be careful, baby,” she pleaded. “God only knows what kind of shit they’ve spilled.”
Dusty assured her he would be careful, and pressed the small red button to break the connection. Poison accident? That would explain the gas masks, and the roadblocks. Now Dusty was less worried, and more pissed at the trooper back at the intersection. ‘Why couldn’t he just tell me there was a wreck, and some poison of some kind got out? No need to be such a prick, brown round,’ Dusty muttered to himself. Damn cop with a chip on his shoulder, anyway.
There was no traffic on the road. In fact, once he turned on to Shaw Road, he didn’t see another car driving anywhere. This was more of a relief than cause for alarm. No traffic meant no idiots going thirty miles per hour in a forty-five mile per hour speed zone. Since most of the cops seemed to be busy keeping people out of town, Dusty pushed his speed up to fifty-five. Within minutes, he passed Second Street, and slowed for his turn onto First. He backed the gas truck into the driveway, set the chock blocks under the rear tire, and went in the back door of his house.
Emmy rushed to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. He hugged her tightly, and ruffled Nates hair.
“Hey, buddy,” he greeted his son. “Have you been taking care of mom for me?”
“I w-w-aas try, trying to, bu-u-ut she was crying,” Nate said. He had a terrible stutter when he got excited.
“That’s okay, buddy,” Dusty consoled him. “You did a good job. Now then, let’s go see what this T.V. message is all about.”
They made their way into the living room. The television displayed a pale pink warning screen, with no sound except the faint, static hum. It simply stated that there was a possible harmful gas released in the Hinesville area. All residents were to stay inside, et cetera, et cetera. And of course, the most important thing a television can tell you: Stay tuned for further details as they become available! God forbid you take your eyes off the screen for a second, Dusty mused to himself. We wouldn’t want to miss anything they might advertise in the meantime. He picked up the remote and switched off the set.
“I don’t know what happened, but there are state troopers blocking traffic from coming into town,” he told Emmy. “They were all wearing gas masks. Whatever it is, they aren’t playing around.”
He thought for a second. “Hey, we still have that plastic sheeting out in the shed, don’t we? That stuff we got in case of a terrorist attack, after the September 11th thing?”
“Yes, as far as I know,” replied Emmy. “I haven’t done anything with it.”
“It might be a good idea to seal up the house,” said Dusty. “God only knows what’s floating around out there. The trooper told me not to drink the tap water, so it must be pretty bad. You guys stay here; I’ll go out and get the stuff.” Dusty grabbed the shed key off the key holder and slipped out the back door.
The family dog, Angus, greeted him as he came out the door. Dusty patted his head, and reminded himself to make sure and bring Angus back in the house with him. The neighbors’ dogs were still out too, and they set to their usual yapping as he approached the shed in the back yard. Inside, the shed was cool and dim. Dusty turned on the workbench lamp, and tried to remember where he had put the plastic. He rummaged around the shelves, looking behind the Christmas boxes and camping gear. Finally, he located the dust covered rolls, stacked behind his big tackle box and red cooler. He pulled out both rolls, and grabbed the duct tape sitting conveniently next to the tackle box. He started out the door, the turned back in. It probably wouldn’t hurt to grab some other things, while he was out here. There was no telling how long they would be stuck in the house.
In the big plastic tub of camping supplies was the flashlight set he was after. There was also a Coleman lantern that used a six volt battery, along with two spare batteries, some rope, a survival knife, binoculars, a camp shovel, and a few other miscellaneous items. ‘What the hell,’ he said to himself. He put everything back in tub, set the plastic rolls on top, shut off the lamp, and took the whole thing back to the house. He set it down on the step, and whistled at Angus. The dog raced over, ready to play.
“Come on, dog,” Dusty said. “Get inside.” He opened the door, picked up the tub, and followed Angus into the house. He shut and locked the outside door, and pushed the tub into the kitchen floor. Then he opened the cabinet over the washing machine and pulled down the tool box and brought it into the kitchen, closing and locking the door to the laundry/entry room.
“Okay,” he called. “I brought in some ‘just-in-case stuff.’” Emmy came into the kitchen. “Do you think we should seal off the whole house, or just a few rooms?” he asked. “If we just go with, say, the bedroom and bathroom, we’ll have to take a bunch of food and water back there. On the other hand, it would be a smaller area to seal up, and fewer chances of a leak.”
“Well, you’ve been outside for the last five minutes, and you don’t seem to be too worried about that,” Emmy countered. “If you think we really need to seal up the damn place, we might as well not limit ourselves to one room.”
She had a point. Dusty hadn’t even thought about the way he had continued to expose himself to whatever it was that the troopers were afraid of. He hadn’t smelled anything though, and the dog seemed to be fine. Maybe it just hadn’t made it to this part of town yet? That was a possibility, and he decided to run with it.
“Look, we don’t know anything about it, or even what it is. For all I know, a truck load of asbestos turned over and caught on fire, and those cops were just worried about the particles floating around town. Angus would have been acting funny if he smelled something wrong, so I don’t think we are in any danger yet. I just want to take care of you guys, and this is all I know to do.” He paused to take a breath. “Would you rather take a chance?”
Emmy hesitated, but only for a moment. “No,” she said at last, “I guess you’re right. I don’t want to chance with Nate, with his asthma like it is. Let’s seal it up.”
They began with the door that Dusty had just come through, and worked their way around the house. An hour later, every window was covered with clear plastic, and both of the doors that led outside. They collapsed onto the couch, both sweating profusely.
“This ‘no AC’ shit is already killing me,” Dusty muttered. He stood and reached for the ceiling fan chain, pulling twice to turn it on high. A breeze began to blow down to the couch, relieving much of their discomfort. He sat back down on the couch, and wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt sleeve. It suddenly occurred to him that he probably wouldn’t be going to work tomorrow. It was against every company policy in the book to bring a gas truck home overnight, but there didn’t seem to be any way around it. He decided to call his boss and explain the situation. The cordless phone was on the coffee table, and he picked it up and dialed the number.
“That’s odd,” he said. “It’s not even ringing.” He pushed the off button, and then pushed the on button again, and listened. “There isn’t even a dial tone. The damn phones are out.” He pulled his cell phone from its clip on his belt and looked at the screen. The signal strength bars was blank. ‘What the hell is going on,’ he thought to himself. ‘What’s really going on out there?’
The television was showing nothing but static an hour later, when Dusty turned it back on to check. The RCA boom box in the master bedroom wasn’t picking up any radio stations on AM or FM. Nate was in his bedroom, wrestling with the dog, and Emmy was absorbed in a true crime murder paperback. Dusty was restless, and made another circuit of the house, inspecting the duct tape and plastic sealing the house off from the rest of the world. Everything seemed to be in order, so he made his way into the kitchen to take stock of the food and water supply.
Emmy was a chronic sale shopper, and the canned goods cabinet was jammed full of soup and tuna fish. There were plenty of leftovers in the refrigerator, so as long as the power stayed on, they should be fine for a while. They had soda and apple juice, and two cases of bottled water left over from last falls camping trips. The only problem was the dog food supply. There was perhaps half a bag left, and that was it. If they ended up being stuck inside for a while, Angus would probably be eating Frosted Flakes, or something. That brought on another thought. He went back into the living room, and checked the newspaper basket. ‘Bless your heart, Emmy,’ he said to himself. The basket was overflowing with old newspapers. When Angus needed to take a dump, those would come in handy. They could always flush that down the toilet, although the used papers were bound to stink up the house. There was also the dog piss problem. Dusty found himself wondering about the possibility of training Angus to stand up and piss in the toilet. ‘Nah,’ he thought. ‘It would never work. We’ll just have to deal with that when the time comes.’
He ended up in the bedroom, and he examined his bookcase. There were about twenty-five books, in all. Most were novels by Stephen King and Tom Clancy, his two favorite authors in the whole world. His eyes happened to stop on King’s “The Stand,” and his heart gave a jump. ‘That isn’t even funny,’ he told himself. He grabbed “Red Storm Rising” and headed back to the couch.
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