The baton for our Round Robin was passed to GFWW Member Jennifer Bennett. Please check out where Jen takes the story.
Joe’s shout came from behind a wall of thick glass. Or at least I thought it had, until his face darted in and out of my line of sight, and his grip pulled my helmet off. But move? I could hardly breathe, much less move.
“Get inside! There! Through that door! Go! I’ll bring him! Just go!”
Joe’s arm was a steel band around my chest. He pulled me out of the rover’s smoky interior, and the smell of raw, upturned earth replaced the stench of fried electronics and singed flesh. An angry, green daylight came from the top of the ramp. The funnel that tried to suck us in had passed, but the wind still howled and pelted shredded road signs and dismembered tree limbs through the parking garage’s ground level exit. Other than our rover, the place was completely deserted.
“Good God, your ears are bleeding! Hang on, Drake. We’re almost there!”
He propelled me towards a door, a rusted metal slider that Caleb and Sera were just now disappearing behind. Above, in flaking black paint, were the words: Ciniza Refinery. Behind us, the wind gave way to the roar of an incoming freight train.
“It’s another one! Hurry!” Caleb shouted through a layer of warm, wet fluid.
Joe and I tumbled through the opening, and Caleb threw his weight against the steel handle. Squealing in protest, the door slid closed. I knelt and tried to regain my breath. The crash had crumpled the front of the rover, and the steering column had hit hard against my chest. I fingered my sides looking for signs of broken ribs. They appeared to be all right, but I was definitely in for a serious full-body bruise.
“Where are we?” Caleb stepped deeper into the hallway that appeared to run in a straight shot through the middle of the facility. Along the mildew-stained walls, at intervals of approximately 20 paces, were old-school emergency lights. This place hadn’t been used in ages.
“An old oil refinery,” Joe replied, and I nodded. The U.N. had banned international consumption of fossil fuels over twenty years ago, and the refineries were one of many related industries that went under soon after. We had all believed that the change was a step in the right direction, a new hope for a clean and sustainable planetary environment. But the new energy source (touted by both energy conglomerates and governments alike as our “savior”) had unexpected side effects. Something had gone horribly wrong, and scientists were never able to agree on what.
I looked down at my watch. Before we had left the launch site, I set a countdown to track our 24 hour deadline. 21:32. Over two hours had passed and we were farther west of rendezvous now than when we had started. Whatever happened to us from here, we were on our own.
Below the thick concrete flooring, the earth rumbled. I pulled myself up.
“Keep moving.” I was still breathless but the words held the urgency I needed them to convey. “We have to find an alternate means of transportation, whatever we can scavenge. Joe, you take point.”
The refinery’s main hallway branched off into a maze of old offices, empty now except for the peeling whiteboards an overzealous janitor had screwed into the cinderblock walls, and darker, narrower hallways. We’d just passed what looked like the building’s communal break room when we heard the voices. They came drifting from a huge warehouse just beyond. Murmurs. Unclear chanting that rose and fell beneath the distant scream of the storm far overhead. Joe inched forward for a closer look.
“Hoarders,” he hissed back to us. “About 30 by the looks of it.”
Hoarders were religious fanatics – “Believers” who refused to face the fact that Earth was dying. I moved up behind him and leaned in for a look of my own. The hoarders had gathered on the warehouse’s far side, and beyond them were pallet stacks of military grade food rations and drinking water. The men, women and children sat circled around a bright bonfire that had been set in an old oil drum. Out of the group, an elder stood and lifted his face and arms upward. The hoarders began to sing.
“You can stay if you like.”
I whipped around, my right hand ready near my weapon’s holster.
An old woman stepped forward into the dim circle cast by the emergency light overhead. Her long, white hair – pulled back into a tight braid, and a thin shawl draped over her stooped shoulders.
“All of earth’s children are welcome here,” she smiled and reached out to us.
“Who are you?” Sera stepped forward. “What is this place?” Caleb hissed something in Sera’s ear, and his arm snaked around her swollen waist. The intimacy of the gesture sent a wave of jealousy burning through my gut.
“We’re just passing through,” I replied, and my hand relaxed. “The storm chased us down here. We’re looking for transportation. Do you or your friends have anything you’d be willing to sell to us?”
The old woman cackled. The sound echoed down the hallway, high and shrill, until it was swallowed by the wind. Then she fell quiet, and whispered, “You are leaving me too then?”
I glanced at my watch: 21:03. “There’s nothing here.” I turned to Joe. “We have to keep moving. This warehouse is enclosed, but farther down there might be a delivery dock. If there’s anything in this place we can use, it will be there.”
Joe nodded, but didn’t respond. His brow furrowed and I could tell he had something on his mind.
“Wait.” The old woman put her hand on my arm. It was brown and weathered like the ravaged earth above. “I can help you. But …” she turned to the shadows, “where you go, you must take my child with you.” As she spoke, another figure stepped forward out of the darkness – a young woman. Long black hair fell to her waist, and over her willowy features, she wore jeans and a white t-shirt with “Gallup” stenciled in red lettering. She could have been sixteen or thirty; it was impossible to tell.
“I’m sorry,” I shook my head. “But it’s just us. It’s too risky up top. She’s safer down here.”
Joe leaned close. “Did I ever tell you that my grandmother was Laguna Pueblo?” he spoke quietly, but his tone was dead serious. “Listen to her, Drake. I can’t explain it, but I think you should do what the old woman says.”
“Have you lost it?” I said. “We can’t take anyone else, Joe. You saw what happened out there. It’s bad enough that Sera is here! We can’t be responsible.” My head swiveled as if it had a will of its own, and my eyes rested on Sera’s swollen belly. “I can’t be responsible.”
“I can help you,” the old woman repeated. Her eyes, green like jungle undergrowth, studied me as if she could see right through me. Then she turned and began to walk quickly down one of the smaller, darker passages. “Follow!” she called. “What you need is this way.”
20:59. It seemed crazy, but time was flying and our options were non-existent. “Let’s check it out,” I relented.
The old woman led us down a flight of stairs, to another long hallway, narrow and lined overhead with rusted pipes. The twists and turns left me disorientated. I wasn’t positive, but I suspected we were heading to the western side of the refinery’s complex.
“I’m Zoe.” The old woman’s daughter trekked along beside me. She eyed me curiously, maybe eager for conversation to break the eerie silence, but I was aching, anxious, and definitely not in the mood for making nice.
“Life,” Sera called back from just ahead. “Your name. It means ‘life’ in Greek.”
“That’s Sera.” I stuck my index finger in my right ear and twisted. My hearing seemed back to normal, but there was an itch deep inside that was making me twitchy. “She was studying to be a librarian before the storms hit.”
Caleb turned and stared at me, his expression fixed with surprise.
“Drake! Come and check this out!” Joe had followed the old woman into a cavernous room where tubes the size of transports came to some sort of intersecting crossroads. Joe hunched next to a huge map fixed to one wall. His finger trailed a path downwards across its length. “These are old oil pipelines. This line here is a straight shot to the gulf. That would put us just a few miles east of rendezvous!”
The old woman approached the tarnished metal side of one of the huge tubes. She pulled a lever, and a door in the tube’s side swung open. Inside sat a transport, its control panel lit and humming softly as if it had been expecting us all along.
“I’ve read about these,” Sera rushed forward and poked her head inside. “It’s called a sweeper. The old refinery crews used these to build and repair sections of the mega-lines. They can go up to 200 miles per hour as long as the line is clear.” She turned to Caleb and smiled, her eyes bright and hopeful. My stomach rolled.
Caleb shook his head. “Those lines run underground. Everything is shifting like crazy. How can this be safer than up top?”
Joe put his hand on my shoulder. “Which will it be, boss? Up … or down.”
I pulled in a deep breath. Images of the devastation from the storms above, images of charred bodies and broken transports, flashed behind my wide open eyes. I looked down at my wrist. 20:45. 200mph meant we could make rendezvous in less than six hours. It was a no-brainer. “We go down,” I said.
The old woman gripped my arm. Her fingers dug into my flesh as if they were trying to reach the bone beneath. “Keep her safe,” she hissed. Her eyes captured mine and bored deep. “The place you travel to is a dead space. Soulless. Lifeless. You will need her there. All of you will need her there. So keep her safe. Protect her until the end.”
I stared back, my muscles tense and my mouth dried out. I swallowed nothing but air. “Yeah … sure,” I mumbled. Then she turned, and, shuffling wearily back into the darkness, the old woman disappeared.
About Jennifer Bennett
Jennifer is a full time mom and student at UNT studying creative writing. After spending 15 years in Human Resources, she realized that life was too short not to pursue what she’d always wanted to do, so after finishing school for the second time around she hopes to teach literature and writing, as well as write herself.