July 4th, 2015 – 1900 hrs EST
“Shit,” I exclaimed, my hands slamming the steering wheel in frustration. Traffic west bound on the Alligator River bridge was almost at a standstill, moving ever so little every few minutes. We are finally at the middle of the bridge, the steel grate of the rotating draw under my wheels indicating that there is only a mile or so remaining before we are off this death trap. If only we can get off this bridge before someone in front of us runs out of gas. If there is even one car ahead of me that stalls, we’re done for.
“Why is it taking so long?” my son Mason complains from the back seat.
“It’s the gas station, son. There is a little tourist shop and gas station right at the end of the bridge on the right and everyone is trying to get gas. The road is backed up behind them.” I knew what was causing the delay, but knowing the cause didn’t make my situation any better. I chided myself mentally; neither did saying shit and slamming the steering wheel but it didn’t stop me did it?
I checked the rear view behind me again, checked the side mirrors, and even checked the skies above. The Ford Explorer behind me was still there, right where he was the last fifteen times I checked. I didn’t see a thing in the skies over the Outer Banks behind me either. That in itself was a sign that things weren’t normal. The tourist location routinely coerced in up to two-million people this weekend each year, all of them jostling and rushing over the 25 miles of beach in a non-stop dance that us locals hated, but that our economy depended upon. This was why I moved away in the first place. On days like today the skies are usually full of little Cessnas and biplanes pulling advertising banners, hawking everything you can imagine. The skies were clear now. I was both saddened and heartened by this. No planes in the sky, but nothing else creased the beautiful blue sky lines either. I wonder to myself how many of them were airborne when it happened. Shaking my head I look around the cab of my pickup at my family. I’m just glad we’re together and safe, at least for the time being.
My wife, Jess, sits in the passenger seat, fanning herself with an envelope I left in the floor when I checked the mail the other day. Like so many other things in this truck that got forgotten inside, it was an annoyance to be found and thrown away later. It seems it found a temporary use, though I wonder how helpful the slight breeze actually is in the humid summer air. There was a slight breeze coming from the south east, a summertime constant down here on the beach, but the sheer amount of vehicles sitting idle belching exhaust added to the hot concrete and steel baking in the summer sun served to heat the breeze to an unwelcome warm foul smelling scent you almost wished you could escape. Almost.
The air conditioner was off. I’d already endured the groans and whines of displeasure earlier about this decision, but priorities are priorities and there are other reasons besides gas mileage that we needed to acclimate to the summer temperatures as quick as possible. As we moved a few feet forward I briefly cut the vents back on, stupidly pushing the temperature levers down again as if there was a hidden low setting you could find if you just kept pressing them down again and again. Within moments I turned them back off. The breeze coming in was better than the engine-blown air circulating in front of the truck’s bumper.
I’m not heartless, I thought to myself as I sweated there beside Jess, salty perspiration running down the insides of my ribs and wetting my Columbia UV shirt. Gas mileage and caring for the engine in this truck are paramount right now. Running the air conditioner engaged the compressor, which made the engine work a little bit harder, though not a noticeable amount in normal conditions. Sitting still on a concrete bridge, baking in the sun in s twelve year-old pickup was not normal conditions. This 5.3 liter V8 has been good to me, but no gasoline engine likes idling for long periods of time in the heat. If it wasn’t for the occasional annoying one to three foot crawls we were making every few minutes I’d simply turn the engine off, but the constant cranking and turning off is even worse and burns more fuel.
“How long until we get there do you think?” Jess asked.
“I’d guesstimate we’ve got at least another half hour at this rate. Who knows. If a couple cars decide they don’t need gas and can get past the backlog trying to get into the parking lot, we might jump ahead and start moving.” I looked ahead at the gas station. I could see it ahead barely, off to the right. I’d gotten out of the vehicle a couple times just to look at the situation, to be sure we still had options for forward movement.
The little Food Mart Shell station has been in that location since I can remember. The owners advertise on the billboards as you’re coming east that it’s the “Last Chance to Avoid Beach Prices,” which is a total joke because its still thirty cents higher per gallon than the similar Shell station you would have just passed in Columbia on the way to the beach. Home to a small marina and diner, if you can call those two booths and Huntz Pizza rotisserie by that name, it has always been guaranteed to be a booming business. Boats come in, as to boat owners, tourists wanting last-second bric-a-brak from the Outer Banks, and to make things perfectly annoying for everyone it is located about two-hundred feet from the end of the bridge.
The constant influx of desperate SUV-borne tourists trying to get gas as they get out of the county has the incoming side of the pumps blocked, resulting in some of them going to the other side of the pumps. This causes a back log of cars and trucks trying to get in from the west-bound side as well.
I opened my door a minute, immune to the constant bong bong of the warning chime, and stood up, using the antenna rack as a hand-hold as I stared ahead. I sighed and slid back in behind the wheel, not bothering to shut the door. The breeze had shifted enough that I the door was acting to direct more breeze into the cab of the packed truck than before. I’ll just keep it open as long as the breeze doesn’t shift. What are they going to do, write me a ticket?
“Logan,” my wife said from beside me.
“What’s the plan? I mean what’s the plan long term? You’ve got a plan, right?”
I sighed outwardly. Million dollar question right there. Bang. Straight to the tough ones. Ok.
“The plan for now is to get you and Mason home, to get us all home in one piece. We’ve got about…” I stopped when I reached up to touch the GPS, only to remember it was dead, fried really. I was so used to using the Garmin Nuvi I’d bought from Amazon for my speedometer, trip planner, and overall command console when on the road that my first reaction was still to reach for it. That won’t do a lot of good now, or ever again I thought sourly.
“We’ve got about 350 miles ahead of us if I remember right, something like that. Usually we’d make that trip in about five and a half hours. The way things are now, I simply don’t know.” I shrugged my shoulders to emphasize my lack of confidence in estimating a time; something I always did in my head. I always knew how far away I was from my destination and what time I’d arrive. It was a mental game I’d play with myself to keep my old brain in check. I’d take the miles left, guesstimate the overall speed limits for that stretch, add seven to it because that was how far over the speed limit I set my cruise control – fast enough to make good time, but not fast enough to want to make a cop waste the paperwork on a speeding ticket that wouldn’t punch my insurance anyway. Then I’d do the long division in my head and check my math on the GPS.
I couldn’t help but do the game in my head even now. Just thinking about it made it impossible for me not to do it. Three hundred fifty miles at one mile per hour and even that is being gracious, equates to three-hundred-fifty hours. Two-hundred-forty hours would be ten days, leaving one-hundred-ten hours which makes four days, so ten plus four plus change. That’s something like…fourteen days. I think I’ll keep that little bit of math to myself. I never stopped talking while I did the math. Explaining my ideas to Jess helped me slow down my chaotic mind enough to focus on a task to the exclusion of everything else. Ok, well mostly anyway.
“The problem is that we have too many unknowns ahead of us,” I said. “The…” I stammered looking for the word, “event was only a couple hours ago. Since then the radio has been silent and TV has been silent. No one is getting news that way. The phones that work don’t have cell signal because the towers are down and my guess is they’ll stay that way for a bit. I say all that to say this: I don’t think the general population has any idea what’s going on yet. I think the ones you see here reacting on the roads are basically just the type that gets paranoid over everything anyway. Certainly some have made conclusions and some of them will even be the right one, but we got out fast and that’s important. The first seventy-two hours are critical. If we can get home in that time, we’ll have a good shot at making it ok.”
“Seventy-two hours?” Mason yelled from the back seat. “That’s three days! Are you saying we’ll be stuck in this truck for three days? I’ll go crazy!”
“Mason. Pipe down with it, now! No, I didn’t say that. I have no intention of us being in this truck for anything like that long, but we have a lot of stuff to worry about, so you yelling back there isn’t helpful.”
Jess’ reproachful gaze told me I’d been too harsh.
“Sorry buddy,” I said. “We just have a lot to deal with and we’re all going to have to deal with it together.”
“Are we going to stop for gas?” he asked. “I’d like a NeHi, and I could really use a restroom.”
I looked at Jess, with the “it’s your turn” expression that said she should handle that one.
“Honey, we’re probably not going to make a stop here. We’ve got some drinks in the cooler in the back and we can find a place for you to use the bathroom soon,” she said, reaching back to pat his knee in sympathy.
“Anyway,” I said, back to your question. “I filled up the truck as soon as we got to the beach yesterday, so we’re ok on gas for now. I do want to fill up as soon as we can, but we aren’t about to get jammed up at the Food Mart. The time we’d lose is too invaluable. The only really good thing is that this bridge is bottle-necking all traffic off the beach, which sucks for us right now but will be a benefit once we get past that station. The roads will be fairly light. There’s hardly any local traffic here in this part of Tyrell County, and there’s only one road that feeds into it and that will be behind us. We have a chance to make really good time overall today. I’m not optimistic enough to believe we’ll make it home, but we can put a good dent in it.”
“How do they even have gas anyway?” Jess asked me, a quizzical expression on her face.
“My guess is that they have a generator or two. Being a marina as well as a gas station and diner, it makes sense they would have some backup power for something. No power to run the pumps would stall most stations out but I bet they’ve likely got the gear to pump fuel out of boats as well as into them. It’s probably cash only and limited to a certain amount of gallons per customer. Honestly though, I don’t plan on finding either way.”
The exasperated sigh from the back seat let me know Mason was still listening in from time to time. ” I really want a NeHi.”
I glanced up to watch his downtrodden expression in the mirror and cast a quick grin at Jess. “Good to know some things remain constant in the universe.” She nodded and looked back over her shoulder, her gaze lingering on Mason as he read his book. I knew she was concerned for him. Jess was a lot of things to a lot of people, but first and foremost in her own order of priorities she was his mother. I know she worried for him. If we’re reading all the signs right, he’s about to get thrust into a world no boy of eleven can possibly be cut out for.
Traffic was slowly moving and we passed the majority of it in silence. Jess fanned the air in front of her, the envelope paper making a crackly plastic sound as the address window crinkled under her relentless pursuit of moving air. Mason had his head in his book, his glasses pulled down low on his nose and his eyes obviously reading over them with the book mere inches from his face. I took advantage of another lull in movement to step outside of the truck and grab myself and Mason a coke from the cooler, and a diet Dr. Pepper for Jess. I was careful to close the lid quickly, preserving the ice was paramount now. It was all we had. Before I got back to the driver’s door, the white Ford Explorer behind me honked his horn at me, hurrying me along. I resisted the urge to give him the finger. No sense in causing drama when we’re trapped together on this bridge.
Leaving the door open I shifted into drive and moved forward incredibly slowly, catching up to the minivan ahead of us that had moved a total of maybe fifty feet.
“Asshole,” I said under my breath and I watched the driver behind me in the rear view mirror. I could see him gesturing with his hands animatedly while he talked to whomever sat beside him. If he’s that impatient now, he won’t last long I thought to myself.
Eventually we closed in on the end of the bridge, revealing the sight ahead in bits and pieces between the gaps in the bridge railing and between the temporary gap created when the van in front of us moved ahead in small starts and stops. It was as I figured.
What I didn’t figure on was the massive amount of cars I could see parked over in lines at the far side of the property, all facing the highway, all lined up one behind the other in well-spaced rows.
“What’s going on over there?” I asked Jess. “Can you see what the deal is with all those cars and trucks over at the far side?”
She craned her head to look, eventually unbuckling her seatbelt, grabbing the “o’-shit-handle” and pulling herself up in a reverse Duke boys maneuver and sitting in the window frame. Any other time that would be hot. Ok, it was hot now too, but I had other things to focus on besides those long legs of hers sticking inside the window pointing in my general direction.
“It looks like an old wrecker is moving cars over there from a pile of cars that were scattered on the far side of the pumps.”
It was revealed in a few minutes to be exactly that. I didn’t understand the significance of it when she described it, but seeing it made it click.
“Smart old bastard” I said when I figured it out. “That old dude is the reason we got off the bridge in the first place. As cars drive off and others are stalled behind them, he’s been driving back down our lane, hitching up, and towing them up for gas. I bet he’s made a pocketful of cash today.” Not that it’ll do him any good, I thought to myself. The gas station had always had an oddly green field off to the west end of the property, butted right up against marshy woods. It took up about three acres or so. I never saw the property used, but it was always covered in green grass and always manicured, right up to the edge of the property where the pilings from the “Last chance to avoid beach prices” sign stood glaring out at eastbound traffic.
Coming off the end of the bridge revealed the whole story. There were a couple different lines of cars and trucks. One seemed to be full of people semi-patiently awaiting gas to be brought over in cans. Two young boys were ferrying fuel back and forth and an older lady with bad shoes and an apron was taking cash for fuel from customers. The other line of cars were blocked in and off to the side, their owners trying repeatedly to use their cell phones, yelling across at the old man who appeared content to ignore them, and just generally stomping up and down making a fuss.
“I don’t get it,” Jess said. “What do you see?”
“That old fella over there with the wrecker,” I pointed to the guy walking back to his truck’s driver’s seat, apparently about to move another midsize sedan into one of his lines. “I’m guessing that line over there on the far end nearest the road is the line of people that had cash to pay for his tow fee, and probably to pay for gas those two boys are ferrying over to them. The other line is probably the line of people that didn’t have money. He had to get them out of the way to get more customers, but he put them in that back lot so they can’t get out very easily, presumably because they’re the debit-card-only type.”
“That’s just,”Jess was at a temporary loss for words. “It’s just, well it’s mean.”
“Hey, we’re a capitalist society. He just saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. I think you can relax though hon. I’m pretty sure he’s gonna get his karmic debt returned to him real soon.”
“Well,” I said while fetching a cigarette from my front shirt pocket and lighting it, “I imagine that only a very small percentage of those cars in the good line,” I gestured to the front line of vehicles, “are going to start now that they’re getting around to gassing them up. If their gas gauges worked, or if they’d been paying attention, they’d already have known they had gas when they stopped. Being out of gas didn’t stall those cars. The…. the event did. The tourists in ’em just didn’t have any other explanation, so they paid to get towed here, probably paid for gas, and will shortly be figuring out that their cars still won’t start. Unless that old man has a bunch of electronic fuel injection systems lying around, its probably gonna get real bad here real fast.”
“So, we’re definitely not stopping then, right?” Jess asked, though it sounded more like statement phrased gently as a question than a genuine question.
“No, we’re not stopping. In fact I don’t plan on stopping anywhere near here if I can avoid it. That reminds me, do me a favor.” I said. We had just about cleared the lines of cars snaking into the gas station. I kept looking for an opening to go around but the oncoming lane was just as jammed up. I don’t even know why I bothered checking. There wasn’t likely to be an opening to pass on the left for the next twenty miles based on how bad this lineup looked from here. While we were still puttering along, I did my bang-while-pulling trick on the center console to get it to open up, and fished out the small screw driver I’d left in the cab the other week by mistake. I’d put it in here to get it off the seat and out of the way.
“Take this,” I said as I passed it to her. “Take whatever trash is in that passenger door cubby hole out of the middle, and use that screwdriver to remove the screw from the bottom of the middle panel. Then pull the panel out.”
She looked at me, looked at the door, looked back at me and said “Can’t we just do this when we stop. Why do you want me to take out the door pocket anyway?”
“Not unless you want to have someone see you taking out a wad of cash from the truck door while we’re pulled over somewhere,” I replied. There’s a Ziploc bag pushed towards the front under that pocket, sitting in the door panel. It’s got a thousand in cash in it in small bills. From now on cash is king, and of the off chance we have to leave the truck for some reason, I’d prefer not to leave a grand in it.”
“Why in the hell did you put a grand in cash in the door panel of your truck, Logan?” she asked incredulously.
I cut my eyes at her and smiled. “For the same reason I carry a bug-out-bag, dear. For the same reason I make sure you carry a bug out bag. And for the same reason I carry all this gear around all the time, dear. On the off chance that maybe we’d need it someday. You know I never remember to carry cash in general. I figured it would be a good idea to have some if I ever needed it. Remember that yard sale cash we had from six months ago or so?”
“Yeah, that’s where it went,” I said.
“I’m not sure what goes through that head of yours sometimes” she said, but instead of complaining or berating she began working on removing the pocket from the passenger door. Within a few minutes she had it out and reached down with her right hand to fish around in the door panel. When she sat back up she had a small plastic bag with a decent sized wad of cash in it.
“We didn’t have this many fives and tens from the yard sale,” she commented.
“No, we didn’t. I went to the bank and changed it out for mainly ones and fives, with a few tens and twenties, but mostly small bills. I figured if it came to something like this, I didn’t want to have to be showing twenties if toilet paper was five dollars a roll. Someone might feel industrious or overly capitalistic.”
By the time she sat up and got comfortable, we were finally reaching speeds over fifteen miles per hour. Traffic ahead, having nowhere to go but forward down the one lane that headed towards Raleigh, moved inexorably westward.
With the windows down, even with almost a mile between us and the gas station, the distinct sound of a gunshot was clear as it rang out in the afternoon air. I repressed the desire to press the pedal down harder.