Take the 55 North

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     St. Louis was burning. Not that Varda minded. She hated St. Louis and was perfectly fine with it burning to the ground. However, there was a pocket of people in that flaming mess that she did like and she needed to get them out before they were nothing more than charred memories.
     Varda drove the city transit bus over the bridge spanning the Mississippi River, the heavy smoke hanging over the city tinted grotesquely orange by the noon sun. A road block had been set up on the Missouri side of the bridge. Varda ignored it, jolting the heavily armored, spray painted bus as she blew through the subpar barrier, the cow catcher welded to the front demolishing it.
     She’d stolen the bus in Chicago and drove it down Interstate 55 to the middle of the state, to the cornfield she’d grown up in, to the group of people waiting to modify it for their own purpose. Nobody stopped her, nobody chased her, nobody even seemed to notice.
     It’s amazing what a person can get away with when the world is ending.
     Instead of working to make the Earth continue to be a habitable place, the world’s most powerful and wealthy continued to accumulate their power and wealth, and funneled it into a secret project called Safe Haven (which Varda thought was a totally unoriginal name). As the American government continued to slash NASA’s budget, the private sector continued their own space exploration and upon finding another planet that was reasonably close (something like fifteen years travel time; Varda didn’t measure things in miles), they immediately claimed it for the dollar sign and started plotting to abandon Earth and all of the undesirables there in.
     So when Earth hit the point of no return in the climate change game, the “important” people bailed in quick fashion and left everyone else, something like seven billion people, to die.
     Things muddled along okay for a few months, until the first power grab attempt. Everything went to shit surprisingly quickly after that.
     The group Varda was part of had been bracing for this environmental apocalypse. Their network had grown over the years, spanning the globe, with the objective of surviving. Pockets of people, groups of humans all over the world were prepared when the metaphorical shit hit the fan. But, Varda was surprised at just how good she was at the Mad Max part of this. She guessed it had to do with working so many Black Fridays in retail. This was a lot like that, only now no one told her to be polite.
     As Varda drove the bus further into St. Louis, she glanced in the rearview mirror at the crew she’d brought with her. There were four of them on this run, including her: Paz, Dean, and Janicki.
     “Paz,” Varda said, steering around a cluster of cars, riding the sidewalk to do it. “Where are we going?”
     Paz made the awkward walk up to the front of the bus, using the seats to keep her balance, her AR-15 slung across her back, clacking against the bullet proof vest she wore. She held onto the back of Varda’s driver seat and bent over to look out the windshield. Sweat dripped from her chin and landed on Varda’s shoulder. The bus had no air conditioning anymore and the windows were covered with armor.
     “Damn, nothing looks right,” Paz said and wiped some of the sweat out of her eyes.
Varda plowed through a crowded intersection of disabled cars, the bus shuddering and jerking.
     Dean shouted from the back of the bus to take it easy.
     “Traffic is the same, though,” Varda said.
     Paz shook her head, cracking a rare smile before going immediately serious again. She pointed out the windshield.
     “Four more blocks. Left up there. They’ll be in a building about two blocks down. An old pharmacy about half-way down the block, they said.”
     “Right,” Varda said, focusing on counting the blocks.
      Paz squatted down next to her, still holding onto her seat for balance. She couldn’t see out the windshield now, but she could see through a small portal on the door; the rest of it was armored.
     “How’d they end up there anyway?” Paz asked.
      The wisdom that prevailed was to never be in a city when everything went to shit because the cities, particularly the big ones like Chicago and St. Louis, would self-destruct first and they’d do it in glorious fashion. That’s how Varda was able to steal a bus so easily. If anyone was in the city, their number one priority was to get out.
     But this group, like several others, hadn’t managed it.
     “The guy who called for help, Eli something, said they went in to get a few survivors and got stuck. Ended up picking up other survivors and got too big to move,” Varda said.
Varda maneuvered the bus around the turn, riding up on the curb and coming dangerously close to taking out the stoplight to avoid some intersection wreckage. Dean complained loudly about the bumps.
     So far, they hadn’t seen anyone on the streets. An uneasy tension settled among the seats of the bus. It was weird that they hadn’t at least been shot at yet.
Paz stood up again, staying low so she could see out the windshield.
     “Up here on the right,” she said. She pointed. “See that building with the busted sign? It’s two down from that.”
     Varda nodded. “Our stop is coming up,” she called to Janicki and Dean.
     Without a word, the two men moved to the front of the bus.
     Varda watched as the building with the sign dangling from it got closer. The sign identified the establishment as some sort of real estate company. Varda bet the market was way down now.
     Slowing the bus down, Varda maneuvered closer to the curb. She pulled to a stop.
     Paz had the door open before Varda got the bus in park. Dean and Janicki bounced out of the door behind Paz, weapons drawn. Varda grabbed her own AR-15 from under her seat and brought up the rear, holding position near the door, keeping an eye on the street and the buildings around them. The air smelled like burning garbage and the hot breeze that blew through did little to cool Varda’s overheated skin.
     Paz and Janicki went to the left side of the pharmacy door, Dean to the right. Dean banged on the door.
     The man who opened the door, Eli, Varda guessed, had a brief, hushed conversation with Dean before shoving the door open wide, bracing it with his body.
     “Let’s go!” Eli yelled.
     First out was a mother carrying an unimpressed toddler and clutching the hand of a terrified girl of about six.
     “Straight back,” Varda said to the woman as Varda helped the little girl up the bus steps. “Sit down and keep low.”
     People funneled out of the building to the bus, men, women, and children of various ages, some carrying backpacks full of supplies, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
     “That’s it,” Eli said, hurrying towards the bus.
     A Molotov cocktail exploded only feet from them against the side of the building. Eli hit the ground flat on his belly and covered his head. Janicki ran for the bus as gunfire erupted. Paz and Dean returned fire. Varda ran for Eli.
     “Get up! Move! Go!”
     Bullets pockmarking concrete and brick, Varda grabbed Eli by the back of his shirt and jerked him to his feet, shoving him toward the bus. Another Molotov cocktail exploded next to a nearby parking meter.
     Eli hurried onto the bus and Varda scrambled in after him. Eli ducked behind the driver’s seat. Varda tossed him her gun and despite his shock and adrenaline, he caught it. Varda started the bus as Paz and Dean dove onboard, Paz slamming the door shut.
     A third Molotov cocktail hit the side of the bus. Passengers screamed. Flames flashed along the armor, but with nothing to catch hold of, flickered out harmlessly in seconds.
     The bus roared down the empty street as Dean and Paz ran down the aisle to take up defensive positions, shoving the muzzles of their guns through small holes in the armored windows; Janicki covered the rear door.
     “How do we get out?” Varda asked anyone.
     A voice behind her said, “Left! Here!”
     Varda took the left hard as shots ricocheted off of the roof of the bus. Passengers screamed. Dean cursed Varda’s existence and terrible driving skills.
     Eyes on the road, hands clutching the wheel, Varda weaved through the mess of cars. She needed to get back to the bridge. Everything would be cool once they made it back to I-55.
     But Varda wasn’t sure how to do that. St. Louis was Paz’s territory and Paz was currently firing out the window at an unseen enemy intent on slaughtering everyone in the bus to claim possession of it, or just destroying the bus and everyone in it because people have been shitty since the dawn of time and the apocalypse had not improved the collective disposition. If this was Chicago, it would be no sweat. But this was St. Louis, so there was a lot of sweat.
     And then someone was at her elbow.
     Varda spared a glance and saw Eli bent over next to her, peering out the windshield.
     She neatly skirted the next wreck with minimal swearing from Dean or screaming from anyone else. Then a Molotov cocktail bounced off of the hood of the bus, sending flames all over the windshield and that did elicit a few curse words (hers) and a scream (a woman a few seats behind her).
     “Just keep going,” Eli said, holding onto her seat as the bus rocked. “You’ll take a right in about three blocks.”
     “A right?” Varda asked, unsure.
     “I know, it’s not the way you came, but it’s the way you leave. Trust me.”
     Varda glanced at Eli again. The look on his face, the look in his eyes sold her.
     “Okay.”
     Varda steered through another intersection wreck and then rode the side walk to avoid a dead traffic jam in the middle of the block. She took the right.
     Here the river rushed past nearly even with the street and Varda found herself in the lane right next to it to avoid more vehicular carnage.
     “Right up there is your exit.” Eli pointed. “You need to slow this beast way down. You’ll never make the turn.”
     “I got it.”
     “I mean it.”
     “So do I.”
     Varda smirked at Eli and he frowned back. She didn’t take it personally.
     The ramp was mercifully clear of any cars or wrecks.
     “Hang on!” she yelled and downshifted.
     Eli braced himself as best he could and closed his eyes.
     Varda took the turn hard, but not two-wheels hard. Dean cursed Varda’s name, her existence, her driving skills, and any descendants she might have in the future.
     Varda merged onto the interstate. Here there were only a few islands of wrecks and most of the abandoned cars had been shoved off to one side or the other. Varda worked the bus up to cruising speed, leaving behind St. Louis, which would no doubt continue to burn.
     As the bus mounted the bridge that spanned the Mississippi River, Varda took the microphone for the bus PA and clicked it on.
     “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the 55 Party Bus. We are currently headed north and will be arriving at our destination in three or four hours depending on traffic, bathroom breaks, refueling, and roving bands of fuckheads. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.”
     Varda replaced the mic and looked over at Eli.
     “The 55 Party Bus?” he asked.
     Varda shrugged. “Why not? Who says you can’t have a good time while the world comes to an end?”
     Eli laughed, a mixture of relief and bewilderment.
     “I can’t argue with that.”
     “I wouldn’t try.”