Monument 14 Sky on Fire(7)
Author:Emmy Laybourne
    CHAPTER SIX

    ALEX




    42–27 MILES

    Mornings outside go like this: You are in the dark and it looks like night. Like a very dark night with no moon at all. But this part of your brain is on a timer, waiting for the sky to get light at the edge. That kind of muddy gray sky, before it even gets light. You’re just waiting for that and waiting for that and it never comes.

    By my watch, I knew it was 6:07 a.m.

    But it was dark, dark, dark.

    Morning was never coming, it seemed.

    * * *

    Niko was feeling better, thank God.

    He got everyone up, except for Josie. She was still out cold.

    Brayden seemed the same as before. Still not really conscious but not dead either. Sahalia kept squeezing a little bit of Gatorade into his mouth every once in a while.

    Sahalia, Batiste, and I had to get out and push to get the bus out of the ravine.

    The ground was very muddy, with slime on it from the decaying leaves and grasses.

    Niko was mad that Sahalia, Batiste, and I have our masks off, but really, it’s impossible to hear what anyone says with them on. At least when we talked to him or to the little kids, one side of the conversation could be understood.

    And of course, we weren’t the best choice to push the bus, but even Niko had to agree that we were the right ones, since we’re all type B.

    We rocked and rocked the bus. The wheels had a thin layer of that fuzzy white mold on them, but it didn’t seem to matter. Eventually the bus rolled forward and got traction on some underbrush.

    We got back on.

    “Ugh,” Sahalia said, wiping some muck off the front of her top layer, a men’s Windbreaker, probably 5 sizes too big. “It reeks out there.”

    “I think it’s decayed vegetation,” I told her.

    “Whatever, geek,” she said as she plopped herself down next to Brayden.

    If we two were the two last people on earth—not, by the way, as statistically implausible as it was a month ago—she would still be rude to me and I would still pretend that it didn’t bother me.

    Niko drove. We were driving along the bottom of the ditch, parallel to the highway. The hill we had slid down was not too high. I would estimate 15–20 feet.

    I was thinking about Dean. I knew he’d be worried. We should have made it to DIA by now. We should have sent a rescue party by now.

    Soon Niko pointed to a big road sign.

    We had to pick whether to take I-25 to I-225 or to go right and take the tollway.

    “The tollway is more direct,” I said. “But it will probably be more used, because other people would also choose the most direct route. On the other hand, I-225 runs through more densely populated areas, I think, because it gets closer to Denver.”

    Niko thought for a minute and then, without saying anything, he took the toll road.

    * * *

    Oh, Dean.

    It’s so bad.

    It’s so bad what happened.

    We took the toll road and we were making good time. We’d reached Parker, so that means we had gone about halfway to DIA.

    * * *

    I saw something standing in the road.

    The light from the headlights bounced off it and it was a gleaming shape. Like a ghost.

    “There!” I said. “Something white.”

    I wiped at the Plexiglas windshield and squinted out. I saw it was a girl.

    She was wearing a white coat, somehow it was not too dirty, and her face was uncovered.

    “Stop! It’s a girl,” I shouted.

    She had long blond hair. That white-blond like Max has.

    She held up her hands for us to stop. Her hands were bare.

    Niko slowed but didn’t stop.

    He honked the horn.

    “Niko, you have to stop!”

    “No!” he shouted. “Too risky.”

    The girl opened her mouth and I could see she was screaming for us to stop, though I couldn’t hear her.

    “Stop!” Sahalia shouted.

    The little kids joined in, too.

    Niko slammed on the brakes. “I don’t like it,” I heard him say.

    I opened the door mechanism. “Get in!” I shouted to the girl.

    Then I saw them coming.

    The darkness started moving, is what it looked like. And then shapes came out of it and I saw they were boys. Teenage boys in camouflage. Their faces had been painted, or maybe they’d used mud.

    Three of them rushed at me and I pulled the door shut. They banged on it.

    Niko tried to back up, but they’d gotten something behind the bus. I didn’t know what. But he kept trying to reverse and crashing into something over and over. (It was 2 motorcycles.)

    Two of them rolled a dead motorcycle in front of the bus.

    We were trapped.

    One of them, I guess the leader, came in front of the bus and tapped the butt of a rifle against the Plexiglas.

    He was wearing a scarf tied around his mouth and a black beret on his head. His eyes were rimmed with red and they looked wild.

    “Who are they?” Sahalia screamed.

    “Cadets!” Niko answered. “Air Force cadets!”

    “He’s O. He’s O!” I shouted.

    Niko laid on the horn.

    “Get out of the way!” Niko shouted and immediately started coughing.

    “Out of the way!” I yelled.

    “Screw you!” the leader shouted. “We want the bus!”

    “Tell them they can come with us,” Niko said to me. He couldn’t yell loud enough for them to hear, through the mask.

    “You guys can come!” I shouted. “We’re going to the airport.”

    “If they throw down their guns,” Niko added.

    “If you throw down your guns!”

    The leader jammed the butt of his rifle into the glass. “They’re killing people at DIA! Don’t you idiots know that?” he shouted. “They’re sorting them into groups and killing people who saw it go down. They don’t want any witnesses!”

    I looked at Niko.

    Sahalia was behind us.

    “He’s crazy,” she said. “He’s paranoid.”

    Three other cadets had come to stand around their leader.

    “He might be crazy,” I pointed out. “But what about the rest of them?”

    They were all wearing camouflage fatigues. None of them wore gas masks. I guess the rest of them were either type AB or B.

    “Where’s the girl?” I wondered aloud.

    Then there was a bang and the little kids were screaming.

    I turned to see a cadet climbing in one of the back windows. He’d hacked it down with some kind of hatchet.

    One of them started kicking in the door.

    Niko got up and grabbed his backpack, which I know had the gun in it.

    But before he could get the gun out, the cadet got the door open and they were inside.

    “Jesus H.!” the leader shouted. “This bus is stocked!”

    He let out a crazy, happy whoop and picked Sahalia up and kissed her on the mouth. She squirmed away as Niko shouted, “Get your hands off her!”

    The leader smacked Niko across the face.

    Niko’s mask came off a little bit and the guy grabbed it, holding it off his face.

    “Stop it!” I screamed. “He’ll die!”

    I kicked him and he let the mask go and turned on me.

    He grabbed me by my jacket.

    “I tell you what, you tell me everything I want to know and I’ll let your driver keep his gas mask. How’s that?”

    Niko was gasping through the air mask. Sahalia was on the floor in the aisle. She started pulling Josie out of the aisle, away from us.

    The other cadets were coming up the steps now. They were high-fiving one another, happy about their conquest.

    “First off, what’s with him?” the leader asked, nodding at Josie.

    “Him?” I stalled. My mind hiccupped—he thought Josie was a boy—okay, I would go with that. “He’s type O and we had to—”

    “And that guy?” he cut me off, nodding toward Brayden.

    “Brayden? He got shot,” I said. “We’re taking him to the airport to find a doctor.”

    “Jesus Christ!” he yelled and I saw his cadets jump. “Didn’t you hear what I said? They’re killing people at the airport. They’re out to get us all. Brayden here is dead. He’s as good as dead.”

    Was that true? I didn’t think so. This guy was clearly crazy.

    Sahalia started to sob. I do not know why she did that. It drew the leader’s notice.

    “Aw, did you have a little something for Brayden? Don’t cry, baby. Payton will watch out for you.”

    He put his hand down and touched her on her face.

    “I’ll take good care of you, honey. You can be my special girl.”

    Niko tried to get forward so he could, I don’t know, jump on the guy, but the cadets near the door stopped him.

    “How’d your bus not get skunked?” Payton demanded.

    “Skunked?”

    He rolled his eyes.

    “The white fuzz. It grows on rubber. Eats the tires. Where’d you get the bus?”

    “We were locked inside a store with the bus,” I said. “We sealed in the air, so it wasn’t exposed—”

    “So you left a big sealed-in store, filled with food and water, to try to get Brayden here to Denver?”

    “Yeah.” I shrugged.

    “And how long you been on the road?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “How many hours you been on the road? After twenty-four hours, tires start to skunk.”

    “We left the store around 10 a.m. yesterday—”

    “Sweet! They still got some play left in ’em. Last question…” he said, turning back to me. “Where’s the store?”

    I caught Niko’s eye and he shook his head just a bit.

    “The King Soopers,” I lied.

    “Which one?”

    “In Castle Rock.”

    “Which. Effin’. One?”

    “The one … the one…”

    “You’re a LIAR!” he shouted.

    Then he ripped me across the face. I don’t think it would have cut me if he hadn’t been wearing a ring.

    It felt like fire across my face and then there was blood on my gloves and running down my neck.

    Batiste shouted it out: “We came from the Greenway in Monument,” he yelled. “The Greenway in Monument, Colorado.”

    Payton laughed. “Now that I believe!” He smiled at Batiste. “All right, boys, we’re going to Monument!”

    “Brayden will die!” Sahalia screamed. “He’s going to die if we don’t get to Denver!”

    Payton pulled her to him.

    “You give me a kiss and I’ll get him there, honey.”

    Her eyes got really big and scared. She leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed his filthy cheek.

    I was afraid he’d grab her and kiss her hard. Or worse.

    Instead he put his hand up to his cheek.

    “Mmmmmm, sweetness,” Payton said. “You’re nothing but a little thing, aren’t you?” He put his finger under her chin and made her look up at him.

    Sahalia is some kind of magnet for jerks, I think.

    “For you, little girl, I’m gonna save Brayden! Doolies!” Payton shouted. “We have to save this boy.”

    “Sir, yes, sir!” the cadets shouted.

    “We’re gonna take him to Denver.”

    Then he grabbed me by the jacket and shoved me into the aisle.

    “Now, get out. You all get out. We’re going to take Brayden to Denver now.”

    “What?” The little kids were crying.

    “GET OUT!” Payton shouted. He pushed Sahalia toward the door. “Even you, my little sweetmeat. You have to go, too, so Daddy Payton can get the job done.”

    It happened so fast. He was kicking us out of the bus and we didn’t have a moment to think or anything.

    “Hey, we have to get Brayden to Denver and we can’t achieve our mission with a bunch of pukey, crying sissies loading us down!”

    I didn’t even have my backpack but I looked back and saw Max grabbing all the backpacks he could find. Ulysses started grabbing stuff, too.

    Payton reached over and snatched the backpacks away from Max.

    Max let out a cry and the leader picked him up and threw him down the aisle, toward the door.

    “This stuff is ours now! You get me? This bus and everything on it is ours! So you better get off if you don’t want to be ours, too!”

    A short, greasy-looking cadet grabbed the water bottles away from Ulysses and kicked him down the stairs.

    Sahalia was trying to get back to Brayden now and one of the cadets was holding her back. He sort of wrestled her out the door and down the steps.

    “Brayden! Brayden!” she sobbed.

    Niko was still in the driver’s seat. It seemed like he didn’t know which way to go or what to do.

    “Hey, driver boy,” Payton called to Niko, nudging Josie’s hip with his boot. “You’d better come and get this comatose kid if you want him!”

    I wonder whether Payton would have let Niko take Josie if he’d known she was a girl. But with all the layers, who could tell?

    Niko got up and went down the aisle toward Josie.

    Payton leaned down and sniffed Brayden. “Ooof, man, Brayden smells ripe. We’d better get to Denver right away to get him to a hospital!”

    Niko picked up Josie and half carried, half dragged her off the bus.

    I noticed he had his backpack on.

    I noticed it because I was right behind him.

    “Brayden!” Sahalia was screaming from outside. “I love you!”

    That made the cadets laugh.

    “I love you, Brayden,” they mimicked.

    “Come on, doolies! We gotta get this jack-up to Denver!” Payton yelled.

    A cadet dragged a crushed motorcycle out from behind the bus.

    “To Denver!” They were cheering. “To Denver!” But the way they said it, mocking and overexcited, you could tell they weren’t really going to Denver.

    “You can’t just take our bus!” Batiste shrieked at two of the cadets.

    “Oh yeah?” said a really tall, gangly cadet. He pointed his gun at Batiste. “Just watch.”

    Now they were all on board and we were all off, besides Brayden.

    The girl in the white coat slipped around the corner of the bus. She looked like she was afraid. She stepped up onto the first step of the bus.

    “Hey!” I called to her. She looked at me, her big blue eyes open round and wide.

    “You don’t have to go with them. You can come with us,” I said. I thought maybe she was like their captive. Or their slave or something.

    She took a long look and then she stuck her middle finger up at me.

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