The Pulse: Ch. 3 New Hampshire

The drive north the next day proceeded smoothly for the first hours as they snaked their way towards Manchester in a long line of traffic. One thing that Craig noticed was the plethora of different license plates. There were Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Vermont and even a couple New Jersey plates. There was no doubt in his mind now that this was a national event at the least. It was slow going now, but at least they were moving. It wasn’t any worse than trying to get from Storrow Drive to the Central Artery at rush- hour in Boston would’ve been. But it wasn’t good and every hour they spent in this traffic was another hour Craig spent fearing for the safety of his son. The air-conditioning gave out around 11 o’clock and it was a hot one. Finally Craig relented to Brooke’s crying and took her t-shirt off, leaving her bare-chested. Brooke seemed happy with this new arrangement and played with her breasts as though they were toys, intentionally jiggling them and bouncing them. She blew raspberries at the little animals she saw out the window and soon copious amounts of drool were dripping between her breasts and wetting her whole front side. Craig found himself actually smiling at his girlfriend’s infantile antics.

They arrived in Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, around noon. The place looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. Of course for all he knew, maybe one had. Anything seemed possible these days. The city hospital, distinguishable only because of a sign at the entrance to the parking lot, had been absolutely leveled. Craig wondered if one of the helicopters hospitals used had crashed into it and started a fire. With all the pure oxygen tanks found in hospitals it was no wonder the place was leveled. The old brick factory buildings of Manchester’s industrial district had turned into burned out shells. The walls still stood, black and tarnished, but the inside was gone. The streets were totally blocked by crushed cars, the shops in downtown had all been smashed and looted, but there was no sign of any police presence.

Craig wished he could just drive straight through the city without having to stop, but Brooke had finished the last of the single bottle of milk he had secured from the Walmart and was whining for more. Craig spotted a small corner store that’s door was wide open, he hoped there was some milk left. He parked the car right by the door, just in case the owner showed up and they needed to make a quick getaway. The store had already been pillaged of every item of value as far as Craig could see. Cigarette cartons littered the floor, which was also sticky with spilled soda and beer and to Craig’s horror, dried blood. It was dark inside the store though and Craig had the feeling that h was not alone. To his disappointment he found the beverage coolers were empty, but as he rummaged through the darkened aisle, he distinctly heard the sound of someone crying. Craig groaned, maybe the former owner was crawling around the place somewhere.

The sound seemed to be coming from the back room. Craig felt his way over towards the back, kicking his feet into several spilled cans left lying in the aisle. “Damn it,” he mumbled, trying to keep his bearings in the cluttered store. He found the back door led to a short hallway, the sound of crying became clearer as he entered it. He listened carefully and determined the sound was coming from a room at the end of the short hall. Craig edged slowly forward, he couldn’t make out the end of the hall so he kept his hand to the wall as he stepped into the pitch blackness. After a few steps Craig’s foot met with the metal door at the hall’s end. He felt briefly around the metal frame before finding the door-knob.

As Craig swung open the unlocked door he was surprised to find it was light inside the tiny room, which he now recognized as a bathroom. The source of the light was a small flashlight seated on the tile floor pointing upwards, its bulb dimming as its batteries drained. Seated curled up in the room’s corner with his knees drawn up to his chin was a boy of about twelve. Even in the dim light Craig could make out the boy’s bloodshot eyes staring up at him in fear. For a moment Craig thought the boy must be one of the affected, but then the kid sniffled and tried to hide his tears.

“What are you doing in here?” Craig asked.

The boy mumbled something unintelligible. Craig tried again, “I can’t hear you, what’s your name kid?”

There was a long silence as the boy seemed to consider whether to trust Craig, then finally he answered, “I’m Ryan.”

Craig nodded, “And what are you doing in here Ryan?”

“Hiding,” the boy stated simply.

“Well there’s nothing to worry about now, the worst is over. Why don’t you come outside now with me so I can show you,” Craig coaxed. He wanted to be compassionate, the kid was clearly traumatized.

“No!” the boy shrieked, shaking his head rapidly, terror in his eyes.

“Come on now buddy, no one’s going to hurt you I promise, why don’t you just take a look with me and if you still wanna go back in here you can, all right?”

The boy still didn’t budge so Craig tried a different tack. “Okay then, you can stay right here if you want, but that flashlight isn’t going to last much longer you know. Yeah, I’d say you’ve got, oh, around ten minutes left and then it’ll be pitch black in this room. So you can stay here in the dark or you can come outside with me now. It’s up to you.”

The prospect of the darkness seemed to terrify the boy more than his fear of the outside. After a couple halting attempts the boy finally stood and followed Craig out of the darkened bathroom and out to the street. The daylight revealed that this kid had had a rough day. His dirty blonde hair was marred by a large gash that ran for a couple inches just above is right ear. The dried blood had caked in his hair and ran down his cheek to his neck. The white Manchester North Middle School Soccer t-shirt that he wore was also stained with blood. He wore no shoes but still had on his knee-high blue and white soccer socks. His cheeks were as red as his bloodshot eyes, he’d been crying a long time. The sun seemed to hurt him after so long in that dark bathroom.

“Do you live near here?” Craig asked.

“Yeah, but no one’s home.”

“Where are your parents?”

“They’re divorced, dad lives in Oregon, mom and Emily and me all moved here a year ago. Mom was driving me home from soccer, she got a cell phone call.” The boy paused for a moment gazing off into the distance. “And then we were on the wrong side of the road and there was a bus and… mom’s gone,” he finished, tears tracing their way down his cheeks again.

Craig wished he hadn’t asked, clearly if the boy had parents he wouldn’t be hiding in a bathroom. He thought about asking about the kid’s sister but decided it was better not to know. “We can give you a ride to wherever you need to go, is there anyone you can think of who could take care of you till your dad can get here?” he asked, aware that it was quite likely the kid didn’t have a dad anymore either, but unwilling to say it.

The boy just stared dreamily at the row of burned-out shops across the street, Craig wasn’t sure the kid had heard anything he had said. “Do you want me to take you home?” he tried.

The boy looked at him pleadingly, “Please don’t leave me alone here. I’ll go wherever you’re going.”

“I’m not from Manchester ki… er, Ryan. I’m going to Maine, you wouldn’t want to come with me.”

“But I do, there’s nothing left here, nothing! I just want to get out of here, I never want to see this damned city again!” Ryan declared.

Craig didn’t know what to do. It was another mouth to feed and he had no prior connection to this kid, no reason to care. Except that the boy was the same age as his son Brian, and he even looked a little like him. That made it so much harder to refuse this poor kid who’d just lost his whole family.

“Okay Ryan, you can come with me. Once we get to my wife’s place in Maine we’ll work on contacting your dad.”

Ryan’s face relaxed, his anxiety ebbing. Craig cleared out the other side of the back seat and let Ryan hop in. Though he’d found no milk and had added an extra burden to their journey, as they pulled away from the corner store Craig felt good for the first time since this whole mess began. Even in the midst of all this horror Craig was glad to know that he had done one truly good thing and helped someone out.

It took an hour for them to get through the decimated husk of a city that had once been Manchester. Ryan didn’t mind though, he’d pulled off his ratty socks and propped his feet up on the passenger seat, falling fast asleep in no time. Once they reached the other side of the city there was no more traffic, at least not in the direction headed to Maine. It seemed everyone was headed due north for Canada. Whether or not they’d find salvation there, Craig didn’t know. Once they left the main route north, the roads were a lot lonelier. They wound their way past small farms and through lush forests, leaving the urban sprawl of the Boston metro area behind them.

After napping a couple hours Ryan yawned and woke up, gazing out the window at the passing farmland and smiling at Brooke, who was gazing in awe at him. Craig noticed the awakened boy in his mirror and decided to try and get a little understanding of what had happened in Manchester. He didn’t want to upset Ryan, but he needed so badly to know if things had happened all at once across the country.

“So how’d you end up in that bathroom anyway, Ryan?” he asked.

Ryan, who had been making silly faces at Brooke, suddenly fell solemnly silent and pensive. After an uncomfortable silence the boy seemed to suddenly find his voice. “After I got out of the car I tried to go home but I wasn’t really sure where I was and I was really nauseous from hitting my head in the crash. I don’t know how but I ended up downtown. The whole place was crazy, people were smashing the store windows and shit, cars were on fire, it was just, like, unreal y’know.” Ryan stared into nothing as he recounted his tale, reliving the events of the previous night as he probably would a thousand times in his dreams. “So the next thing I knew, there were a bunch of places on fire and it spread so fast. Dude, I just friggin’ ran. I don’t know where I was going, but I ran fast. I didn’t have my shoes on either, I took 'em off in the car when mom picked me up from soccer camp and I forgot to take ‘em when I left the wreck. Anyway, I ended up in this park where no one was around and it was getting dark. I stayed there awhile but I was so frickin’ hungry. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. So I saw this little store and there seemed to be a lot of people in it and no one was stopping them so I just went in and looked for food.” Ryan seemed to be trying to justify his stealing from the shop, afraid he might be in trouble for it.

“I don’t know how it started, I was eating this little blueberry pie thing, but all of a sudden there was this Indian guy and he was yelling at everyone and swearing his head off. He ran back outside when no one left and I thought that was it.” Ryan gulped, “Then he was back only now he had a gun and he just started shooting people! He was blocking the door and I thought for sure I was dead, but I managed to crawl to the back. There was this guy lying on the floor there, he was dead, but there was a flashlight in his hand. I took it and I shut myself in the bathroom and I prayed. There was no lock either man, I thought I was screwed. But then the shooting stopped and I kept waiting for him to swing open the door and blast me, but he never did. So after a few hours I fell asleep. When I woke up I heard someone out in the shop again and I thought the guy was back. When the door opened I thought I was about to die.”

Recounting the horrible story seemed to have drained Ryan and he fell silent again, focusing on the idyllic landscape.
About 50 miles past Manchester Brooke started fussing and whimpering. Craig figured she’d dirtied another diaper and pulled the car over on the windy country road so he could change her again. He discovered, however, that she was not wet or messy, but she remained upset, crying and pouting. Finally Craig deduced that she was hungry. Looking at his watch he saw that it had been several hours since he fed her breakfast, no wonder she was crying, she was probably starved. “Shh sweetie, I know, I know you’re hungry you poor little thing, it’s okay, daddy will get you some food,” he cooed to her, hugging her tightly as he rubbed her bare back and kissed her forehead.

The problem of course was that they were out of food, the grocery section of Walmart had been picked pretty much clean by the time they’d arrived and what little he’d grabbed had been used for breakfast. The only solution was to stop in the next town at the supermarket and get more supplies. The next town turned out to be a middle of nowhere one-horse village with a small Hannaford’s supermarket in the center. The whole town looked abandoned, but then it was hard to say how alive this little place looked normally. There was the definite sense though that something terrible had happened here the night before, because everyone was gone. Cars and even a tractor had been abandoned in the middle of the street. Craig’s attention turned to the tall radio tower that loomed ominously over the village. He wondered if that had anything to do with what had happened here. Of course it was also possible that in this little town with no hospital or emergency services everyone had simply left to find help.

The air reeked of fertilizer from the nearby farms, a cow walked aimlessly through the supermarket parking lot. The Hannaford’s itself had been ransacked already, the glass panes at the front were all shattered. Craig made sure Brooke was well secured in the make-shift stroller so that she wouldn’t cut her feet on the broken glass that lay everywhere. Glancing down at Ryan’s bare feet he realized the boy wouldn’t be able to safely enter the market with them. “Why don’t you run over there to the gas station and see if you can find any extra car parts we might need. There aren’t going to be too many more spare parts to keep this baby running in the future,” Craig directed.

Ryan nodded, eyeing the sea of shattered glass, “Yeah I can do that, no problem. But, um, maybe I should take a look over there too,” Ryan suggested, pointing at the gun shop across the road.

Craig considered the idea but decided against it, “No, I think we’ll be able to get by without a gun, I’m not planning on killing anyone.”

Ryan nodded but looked unconvinced. After his ordeal in the corner market Craig could understand why. Nevertheless he had decided that defending himself was one thing, but having a gun seemed like asking for trouble. He watched Ryan pad carefully across the road, wincing as his tender feet made contact with blistering asphalt. Then he returned to preparing Brooke for the little shopping excursion. He didn’t know why, but he just didn’t want to leave her all alone in the car in this ghost town.

He tried to put one of her t-shirts on her but Brooke put up a big fight, screeching and crying. Rather than fight and waste time Craig relented and wheeled her into the store topless. After all there was no one around to see her anyway.

Craig found some cans of tuna fish for later and some spam, disgusting as it was, that would keep a long time. There was some fresh fruit left, Craig wondered when he’d have the chance to have fresh fruit again if the supermarkets were all gone, so he grabbed up as much as he could carry. He loaded all this into a shopping cart and left Brooke to play with her beloved rattle in the canned goods aisle for the moment. He loaded the first haul into the trunk and wheeled the cart back into the store. It was the sound of voices echoing in the seemingly empty market that got his attention right away. Quickly heading to Brooke he walked into the canned goods aisle and was surprised to find two older teen boys in very baggy t-shirts and shorts leaning over Brooke. One was feeling up her breasts while the other smirked and egged him on, then declared, “C’mon dude, let me friggin’ have a turn, she ain’t yours you know.” Poor Brooke looked confused by the boys’ advances.

Craig stepped forward loudly and said sternly, “She’s mine, and if you don’t get your hands off her right this second you’ll regret it.”

The teens seemed surprised to see him at first and stepped away from Brooke. Then they seemed to regain their resolve. The one who’d had his hands all over Brooke stepped forward. “What the hell are you gonna do to us mister, there ain’t no cops 'round anymore you know.” He smirked, “Hell, there ain’t no one here but you and us, so who’s gonna know if you don’t leave this store?”

Craig started to walk towards the two little punks when the smaller one, who’d been quiet till now, suddenly revealed his right hand, in which he held a semi-automatic handgun. He pointed the gun at Craig, who stopped in his tracks. Craig’s heart was in his throat, this was not what he had expected. He had forgotten that this was New Hampshire where anyone could get a gun and no doubt these boys’ parents were no longer in a position to protect their weapons. Craig understood that they could shoot him dead right here in broad daylight in a supermarket and no one would ever know or care who did it. After all the destruction of the past day, what was one more death?

“This is our store, dude, you understand? We’re the law here now because we got the friggin’ gun. So you and your hot little girl can get the hell outta here. Unless she wants to play a bit, that is,” the teen smirked, leering at Brooke’s breasts.

Craig was glad to see that Brooke was oblivious to the danger, she was busy chewing on her new rattle, her eyes crossed in concentration. It was up to him to get her out of here without any harm coming to her. “Look guys, that’s cool okay, we’ll go to another town and shop,” he said calmly as he could, slowly stepping between the boys and Brooke.

“Oh no, mofo, you ain’t goin’ nowhere just yet, I saw you load all that shit in your car. That stuff is ours, so you can go unload it now and then you and your little retard can leave,” the larger boy ordered, in what Craig recognized as a deep Boston accent. These kids weren’t from this little town; they had probably escaped from the inferno of Manchester, maybe Nashua. Who knew what they were capable of.

“Fine, we’re cool guys,” Craig repeated, “I’ll get the stuff out of the car.”

Craig took Brooke in her chair and started to move. “What the hell you think you’re doin’ man, the girl stays right here till you got all that shit back in this store,” the boy ordered, blocking Craig’s exit. The boy smirked at Craig’s shock and continued, “Don’t worry I’ll take real good care of her,” leering again at her breasts.

Craig could only see one thing to do, he wasn’t about to leave Brooke alone with these sociopaths. He could feel the presence of the boy with the gun a couple feet behind him. He’d only get one chance. Craig looked into the eyes of the large boy blocking his way, then reached quickly for the shelf and grabbed a large can of tomatoes. Spinning around as fast as he could, he lunged for the boy with the gun, hoping he’d be too shocked to fire. He wasn’t. The boy pulled the trigger as Craig stepped towards him. Nothing happened. The boy wasn’t used to using a gun; he’d forgotten the safety was on. As he fumbled with it Craig closed the distance and smashed the boy on the temple with the heavy can, putting all his weight into the blow. The boy crumpled to the floor, his eyes rolled back in his head, out cold. The gun smashed to the floor with a metallic clatter and skidded away. The larger boy lunged straight for it and Craig dropped the can, diving on top of the teen punk just as he got his hands on the gun.

They struggled on the floor for a moment, with Craig ripping out some of the boy’s hair and holding his gun-wielding hand to the floor. The kid elbowed Craig in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Craig loosened his grip and the boy flipped over, now facing him. Craig kept him from pointing the gun at him. He noticed something bright pink out of the corner of his eye. Glancing over he realized it was a cell phone, lying discarded on the floor where its owner had dropped it. He could just see that it was still on. Craig reached out and grabbed the phone, fingering the send button to bring up the last number called and then send again to dial it. He had no idea if the pulse was still active, but it was his best shot now. He forced the phone to the struggling teen’s ear. The boy’s face was a mask of terror and rage. He fought desperately to get free, bashing Craig in the ribs with his free arm, but Craig held firm.

After what seemed like an eternity to Craig, a look of total confusion flashed across the teen’s face and his strength seemed to leave him, he stopped struggling so much. Then his eyes seemed to lose focus and his facial muscles relaxed, his shoulders sagged and his jaw loosened. The boy’s arms went limp, dropping the gun on the floor as a dark wet stain began to spread down from his crotch, wetting his shorts. He blinked a few times, his eyes glazing over completely. He gazed blankly up at Craig then began to drum his heels on the floor and whine “Up, want up.”

Craig decided it was safe now to release the boy from his hold and he helped him sit up. The boy looked quizzically at him for a long moment after sitting up. Craig wondered if he could really have forgotten so quickly what had just happened, how they had been locked in a fight to the death. Then the boy did the last thing Craig could have expected, he threw his arms around him and rested his head on his shoulder peacefully, hugging him. “Timmy hungwy,” he mumbled. Craig wasn’t sure what to do, he had just been in a fight for his life with this kid. He looked into Timmy’s wide innocent eyes, there was no hatred there, the terrible teen who had just tried to kill him was completely gone. “Okay Timmy, I’ll get you something to eat, you stay right here and behave.” The teen nodded dramatically.

Craig found some milk, apples and crackers for the boy to eat. He had no means to cook anything here so this would have to do. He brought the food back to the aisle, where he found Timmy had stripped off his shorts and boxers and was now skipping around in a circle humming some kiddy song in nothing but a baggy t-shirt. Luckily the t-shirt was long enough to cover his private parts, except for when it blew up as he skipped about. “Timmy, why’d you take your clothes off?” Craig asked.

The teen, who was in fact an inch or two taller than Craig, looked ridiculous as he picked his nose and shrugged, “All wet,” gesturing at the abandoned clothes. Craig couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight. “Okay, I guess you are just a little boy now anyway.”

Timmy shook his head vigorously, “Nuh uh, big boy,” he insisted.

“Okay big boy, come have your nummy-nums,” Craig instructed, taking a little delight in using such patronizing terms for the formerly macho teen.

Craig watched the newly minted toddler enjoy his snack, the part that stayed in his mouth anyway. Craig thought in reflection that he probably should have taken the boy’s shirt off before he ate, as it was soon covered with stains and crumbs. He felt bad for the kid, but what could he do, he wasn’t about to take Timmy along with them. He looked at Timmy’s cheerful, messy face, he was such a sweet little boy now. Craig wondered how long a boy with the IQ of a two year old could survive on his own. It was not a pleasant thought, but it was the reality. It was very likely that Timmy would starve to death in a store surrounded by food, lacking the intellect to prepare any of it. Was this Karmic punishment for the teen Tim’s past transgressions? Craig didn’t know. He decided the best thing to do was to get some diapers for Timmy and then be on his way. Of course he realized after a moment how stupid that idea was. What good would a diaper do with no one around to change it? Craig decided to leave the boy as he was.

Craig looked down at the unconscious body of the other teen, still lying in the aisle, blood dripping from his exposed ear. Without medical treatment he’d likely die, perhaps he already had. Craig couldn’t tell if he was still breathing, he didn’t want to know. Unable to look at the teens any longer he prepared Brooke to go, tickling her under her chin and asking, “Ready to hit the road sweetheart?” knowing she couldn’t answer him. Brooke just clapped her feet awkwardly and babbled, “Baageeeedaaa,” looking up at him with her beautiful face. Even with her cheeks smeared with spaghetti sauce and her chin wet with spittle she looked radiant to Craig.

As he rolled Brooke out of the store he couldn’t help but look back at Timmy, who was playing with his new toy cars on the dirty linoleum floor, down on his hands and knees with his naked bum up in the air, smiling and giggling to himself. Craig knew he’d gotten food and toys for Timmy to assuage his own guilt, the guilt he felt for turning Timmy into a mindless little child, and for taking that other boy’s life, even if it was in self-defense. Most of all though, it was the guilt he felt for leaving the boy here in this state, leaving him to likely die when he could be bringing him along with him. The fact was he couldn’t stand to have the boy who tried to kill him and hurt Brooke in the same car with them even regressed as he now was. The feeling of righteousness he got from helping Ryan was now tempered by his guilt for leaving Timmy.

Craig found Ryan sitting Indian style on the hood of the Subaru, gazing up at the cloudless blue sky. Craig realized that Ryan had no idea what had just happened in the store, and he had no intention of ever telling him, or any other living soul for that matter. At least Brooke wouldn’t be saying anything either.

“Isn’t that hot?” Craig asked the sun-bathing boy.

“Not as hot as the pavement,” Ryan responded, gesturing to his tar black soles. “We need to find a shoe store to loot in one of these towns man.”

Craig laughed, “Okay buddy, but if the US has really been reduced to a third-world country overnight I wouldn’t count on having shoes in the future. I think the future of shoes in this country can be summed up in one word, flip-flops.”

Ryan shook his head, “Can we just get going, you were in there forever. What took you so long anyway?”

Craig shrugged, doing his best to avoid eye contact as he lied, “Oh you know, place was pretty much picked clean, took a long time to find all we needed.”

Ryan looked suspicious but Craig pulled out a Nestle crunch chocolate bar asking Ryan, “You want it?”

The boy hopped off the car onto the hot pavement without a second thought, any suspicion was gone from his mind as he focused on the gooey warm chocolate bar.

A few moments later as Craig started the car and put it in reverse; Timmy came toddling out the front of the store, a confused look on his face as he watched them pulling away. Ryan looked up from his chocolate bar, “Who’s that, you didn’t mention you saw anyone in the store.”

“Oh that’s just another one of the affected, poor bastards. We can’t help them all though can we,” Craig replied nervously.

Torn between asking more questions and finishing the sweet chocolate bar, Ryan decided the latter was more important, leaving Craig to his thoughts.

The last Craig saw of Timmy in his rear view mirror, was his lanky half-naked form waddling awkwardly over the hot pavement of the parking lot, his thumb jammed firmly in his mouth and his free arm in the air, childishly waving bye-bye. Craig forced himself to focus on the road ahead of him, unable to face what he was doing.

It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon when they crossed the border into Maine. The sparsely populated Maine woods seemed untouched by the tragedy of the previous day. The houses sat in their typically run-down fashion and hick kids played shirtless and barefoot in the front yards. It was hard to know if this was because their parents weren’t around to tell them to get some clothes on, or if it was just because they were country people.

The quaint little town of Cornish looked just as he had remembered it. No buildings were destroyed here, no cars blocked the roads. For a brief but hopeful moment Craig thought that maybe Maine had been spared. Then he saw a woman of about 30 walking down the side of the road holding a younger girl’s hand. She was wearing nothing but a diaper and a bra and had a pacifier in her mouth. No, Craig saw, Maine had not been spared. It seemed that no one had. His pulse quickened as he turned the corner onto his ex-wife’s street, he was about to find out what had become of his family.

To Be Continued…

The Pulse: Ch. 3 New Hampshire

This is a nice story and I like it so far. Keep up with the good work.