The Gulfstream G280 flamed out at 32,000 feet. Five minutes later, it was plowing up a trench in Joe Carson’s corn field. Joe saw it coming down, ran to his barn for a big fire extinguisher just about the time the jet stopped moving. When he pulled his Ford F250 up to the scene, he smelled a cloud of kerosene but there were no flames. He got out and followed the pieces until he came upon a fuselage. It looked like a cigar tube that had been ripped open with a steak knife. Near the front of it, he saw what was left of the pilot, not much. He looked like a used field dressing.
Something was different about the jet, it had no seats. There were a few broken cargo cases and not much else. One had steam coming from it, dry ice steam. Joe had seen that before. Used dry ice to spook up his yard for Halloween. Curiosity got the better of him and he went in for a closer look. There were vials inside that particular case, not all of them intact. There was some sort of symbol on the side, three crescents linked above a circle.
It took a few seconds of staring until realization worked its way into Joe’s head. When it did, the crashed jet changed from fascinating to horrifying. He ran back to the truck and put some distance between himself and the crate. At the edge of his field, he almost ran into the sheriff’s car. One of the men inside waved and Joe rolled down the window to talk.
“I don’t think you want to get too close to that wreck, sheriff. There’s something funny inside that plane.”
“Funny? What do you mean funny?”
“There’s a bunch of cargo crates. One of them has dry ice in it and some vials. A few are broken.”
The sheriff sized Joe up, he looked scared. “Well, we can’t just do nothing. Did you see the pilot?”
“Ya, I saw him. He’s dead.”
“I see,” the sheriff paused. “Well, we gotta go in there Joe.” The sheriff pointed at a line of cars starting to form at Joe’s fence line. “If you wouldn’t mind, could you take those gawkers back to town with you? When I know what’s going on here, I’ll stop in at Hazel’s. For now, you’re the only one with something to tell.”
“All right sheriff.” Joe stopped at the first car, talked to the driver and took off down the road. The other cars followed like they were tied to his bumper.
Billy Grissom didn’t see the jet come down, he was in his garage fixing Cal Walker’s corn harvester. The news finally arrived thanks to Neil Barker. He drove in and pulled up to the pumps. Billy strolled out and was lifting the gas nozzle when Neil waved it off. Though the Chevy’s fuel gauge showed a quarter tank, Neil had more important things on his mind than a fill up. That crashed jet in Carson’s field was the closest thing to a steaming pile of excitement he’d seen in a long time. He couldn’t contain himself.
“Bill, did you hear the news?”
“What news, what the hell you talkin’ about Barker. Better be good or you’re giving me five bucks for wasting my time.”
“No, I ain’t wasting your time. Not at all.” Neil figured he’d better make it good, wished he would have kept on driving in search of someone just as oblivious and a little more friendly. “A jet come down right in Joe Carson’s field. Plowed up a trench nearly a hundred feet long. Split in half too… pilots dead, nothing left of him… to speak of anyway.”
“So, you’re telling me you pulled me off Cal Walker’s harvester to tell me about some damned crash I can’t do nothing about?” Billy G, as the townies called him, started toward Neil, “You better pull out your wallet, you son of a bitch. I got work to do here.”
Neil dug deep, “Wait Bill, there’s more, lots more.” He was backing away, hesitant to get too far from his truck, unsure of what to do if he managed to get inside again.
“I just changed my mind. Make it ten bucks and don’t come back until next week.”
“There was something in the plane Bill, something you need to know about. There were vials and some were broken.”
That stopped Billy in his tracks. “What kind of vials?”
“I don’t know Bill, but they were steaming. Not real steam but that dry ice stuff.” He felt the need to clarify, “Cold, you know?”
“I know cold Neil. That’s it?”
“Maybe, I’m not sure…” Neil hesitated, truly regretting this gossip stop. “I wasn’t really close enough to see anything. I got that second hand. But I know one thing I saw for sure.”
“What’s that?” Billy had stopped moving forward and was holding the gas nozzle like a sidearm.
“I waited at Joe’s after everybody left for town. I saw the sheriff go to his car for a radio call. When he came back out, he pointed right at me, told me to get the hell away. Then he turned his car sideways and put on the lights.” Neil had Billy G’s full attention.
“Then, and this is why I came to you first Bill, then he put on a face mask and sat in his car, just looking out the window at that jet.”
Billy G erupted, “You son of a bitch! What the hell you coming here for to tell me that.” He started to distance himself from Neil, raised the nozzle and pointed it straight at him. “Did you touch anything?”
“What do you mean Bill?”
“Did you touch anything!” He pushed the nozzle forward.
“No Bill, no! I didn’t touch anything. I swear to God.”
“Get in your shitbox and go before I spray you down!”
“All right Bill, I’ll go, just stop pointing that hose at me.”
“I’ll point it where I want. Get in the passenger side and don’t even think of breathing in my direction.”
Neil did as directed. He had the Chevy in gear and was gone before Billy G had a chance to change his mind.
“God damned idiots in this town.” Billy hung up the gas hose and went inside for keys to his own truck. It was a lifted Dodge 3500. Diesel, heavy duty, winch, snorkel, the works. It was almost as greasy as Billy. He needed to pick up a few supplies. Then he would head to Hazel’s and see for himself what the hell was going on.
Back at home, Billy went straight to his favourite room. He’d built it from the ground up. It was custom, as he liked to say. He quickly punched in the requisite codes to get past two sets of electronic deadbolts. When he pulled back the reinforced door, he couldn’t help but smile as he took in the stainless steel glory that was his personal bomb shelter. Looking to his left, he considered a short wall filled with various guns. Deciding he already had enough heat packed in his body holster, Billy went straight for the N95 respirators. He grabbed one and picked up a pair of nitrile gloves while he was at it. Stopping just long enough for one more look around the shelter, he decided he was good to go, turned on his heel and went out the way he came in.
When he got back into his truck, he sat for a while, hands around the steering wheel, engine running. This is what he had been waiting for, at least he was pretty sure it was. He felt an odd exhilaration that was mixed with uncertainty. Wished for or not, it didn’t matter now. Billy threw the truck into gear and stepped on it.
It didn’t take long to get to the center of town. As he cruised down Main Street, nothing seemed out of place, it was just another lazy Saturday afternoon. Driving past the park, he saw Mrs. Cranston walking her dog. He hated that fricken thing, hated the bow she kept on top of its flat little head. He pictured himself stuffing a stick up its ass so he could feed it to his shop dog.
Deciding it was time to check out Hazel’s Diner, he drove there and found a spot right out front. For a moment, he considered just walking in a la carte. Then he looked down at the mask beside him and decided better safe than sorry. Billy put it on and stepped out into the uncertain air. Before touching the door, he went all in and put on the nitrile gloves. He hadn’t made two steps when Garth Cole spotted him and let go loud enough to get everyone’s attention.
“Well, I’ll be damned if it ain’t Billy G. And all dressed up too.” Garth gave that a few seconds to sink in and went for another round. “Come to clean the shitters Billy? I hear they’re real bad today.”
“Shut the fuck up Garth,” Billy pulled back his jacket just enough to reveal a holster. He looked over at Joe Carson, “You saw what happened?”
“Sure Billy, it landed right in my field. Nothing to see, sheriffs got it all blocked off. Deputies won’t even let me back inside.”
“So, you were all out there?” Billy looked around, waited for an answer.
Somebody started coughing, Billy turned in their direction and the coughing became muffled, more urgent as a result.
Joe spoke up, “Sure we were Billy. You could see the plane coming down from a mile away. It was on fire. Thought it…” That was all Joe could get out. He was coughing now, it sounded like he wanted to hurl something from within. Pitching with his lungs, a real spitball.
That was Billy’s cue to get out. He backed up to the door so he could keep an eye on things. Outside again, he heard the Diner starting to erupt into one continuous hacking cacophony. Things started moving faster, as if on cue. He noticed people across the street trying to catch their breath. That was about all he could take. Billy jumped into his truck and bugged out.
As he flew down the road back home, he saw a collection of military vehicles coming from the other direction. It looked like there were maybe a dozen Humvees and a couple of larger trucks. Billy took off on a side road and floored it. In his rear view, he saw the convoy fly past on the road he’d just abandoned. They didn’t give a crap about Billy G. Billy G didn’t give a crap about anything but his bomb shelter.
When he got back to his safe house, Billy still had on the mask he wore inside Hazel’s Diner. Whatever got everyone in town coughing had to be stuck to him somewhere. He wanted it dead and down the drain.
Before heading to the basement, Billy would have to disinfect himself. He pulled a brown bottle out of the bathroom cupboard and got into the shower. Fully dressed, he started the water. It was cold, still not as cold as death and that was fine with Billy. He rubbed himself down with antiseptic soap until he was sure there was nothing left to sterilize. By the time he felt clean enough to take off the N95 respirator, it was getting hard to breathe; the thing was soaked. He peeled himself naked and stepped out of the tub, then headed straight down to his bomb shelter. The towels upstairs weren’t trustworthy, he kept some inside the shelter, he would stay wet for the time being.
It didn’t take a minute to get past two electronic locks and when the outside door closed behind him, Billy felt not only safe but a lot smarter than everyone else in town. They’d laughed at him behind his back for as long as he could remember. Not so funny now, you coughing dumbasses. He figured the G in Billy G must stand for genius.
Looking around his temporary home, toweling off, Billy took it all in. He’d been inside the shelter many times, had even spent a few nights, kind of like camping out. This time it was the real deal, Alpha One, end point Omega Zee.
Better take inventory, as if he needed to. First stop was a stainless steel cabinet right next to the gun rack. When he opened it up, overhead light glinted off multiple bottles of Jack Daniels whisky. A man needed his whisky, especially at times like this. He pulled out one bottle, cracked the top and tipped it back. Think Juice, that’s what his old man called it, that’s what Billy G called it.
Then he turned on the radio and waited for news. It was tuned to a local country station and at the moment, some guy singing about a party last night was the only thing coming out of the speaker.
Billy walked down his shelter, it was long and narrow like a galley kitchen. At the half way point were two doors, opposite each other. One led to his bedroom, the other to a mechanical room that also housed a compost toilet and an air purification system. He pulled both open and made sure everything was still in place. Satisfied, he continued to systematically open cabinets and pull out drawers. When he got to the far end, he sat at a desk and flipped a switch that brought the security system to life. There were cameras all around his yard. Some were up in trees, some were attached to the roof. The rest had been placed to get views from any angle that might prove to be important. It looked pretty quiet out there, not surprising, he lived right at the edge of town. As he contemplated the scenery outside, an announcement came over the radio.
“Please stand by for an important message. An emergency has been declared for Willard and surrounding areas. Representatives of the Center for Infectious Diseases are on site and have set up a field hospital facility. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, please move outside to the street and wait for pickup and transport to this facility. Treatment is available and there is no need for panic. If you are unable to leave your residence, wait inside for government agents that will be checking buildings throughout your area. For people who have not been affected by this emergency, we ask that you also go out to the street and wait for pickup and assessment. Do not approach anyone you might see outside. Patrols will continue for the next five hours. Standby for further announcements.”
Billy’s heart felt like it had a wrench around it. Twisting, tightening. His mouth went dry, he needed another shot of Jack. This time the burn kicked his mind into overdrive. He turned around in what now felt like a prison and kept turning until he almost fell down from vertigo. He pulled open the toilet door and considered emptying himself out while he still had a chance to aim. This couldn’t be real and yet it was. Even though the radio was back to country music, he knew what he had heard. And he knew those Humvees he saw less than an hour ago weren’t in town for a parade. He had to come up with a plan, some way to get himself away from Willard and back to where the worst thing he could catch was a hangover.
He pulled open a tall cabinet just to his right. Inside was a full body hazmat suit. The thing cost him almost five thousand dollars. When he first built the bomb shelter he had something fast and final in mind. He’d bought the suit for bragging rights, never expecting slowly evolving doom. Now it might come in handy. Once he figured something out, he would put it on and haul ass away from here. He needed time to think.
Not much of a philosopher, Billy wondered what the world would be like when he finally emerged from his metal cocoon. He figured he would be just another asshole who managed to dodge the first bullet. An asshole waiting for the second, or the third, or the one that would finally get him. He needed more Think Juice to burn away the doubt.
It worked, and Billy decided he might as well retire to his bed where he could listen to the radio in comfort. He heard the air purifier start up, white noise pairing nicely with tinnitus brought on by years of not wearing ear protection. He was lost in thought when another announcement came on. It was almost the same as the first, with one exception. This time the voice warned of danger awaiting anyone that avoided the patrols.
“Evacuation is imperative at this time. The town of Willard and surrounding area will no longer be safe for habitation after seven pm local time. Final evacuation will be completed one hour before this deadline.”
The rest of the message was unchanged, treatment available, no need to panic. Billy thought to himself, “To hell with that. I’m getting out of here and they’re not going to be the ones taking me out.”
That was about the time he heard someone pounding on his front door. He didn’t hear it first hand, it came out of a speaker connected to the security system.
“Is there anyone inside? We have transport to a safe zone and field hospital if you are in need.” There were four men standing at his front door. They all had on respirators, good ones.
Billy figured they would have come right in if he hadn’t locked the door. He watched them as they talked among themselves. He couldn’t quite make out the conversation. One of them ran out of the camera’s field of view. He switched feeds and watched the man grab something out of a vehicle. When he got back to the front door, Billy saw it was a battering ram. He was about to swing when Billy spoke up, sending his voice to the outside speaker.
“Hang on there, that door cost me a pile. You break it, I’ll sue your ass.”
All four men stopped and looked up at the speaker, Billy heard one of them, didn’t need to read his lips, “What the fuck?” came back loud and clear.
“Ya, that’s right. I’m in here and I don’t need your help.”
“But, sir, this area will no longer be safe after…”
Billy cut him off. “After seven PM. I know, I’ve been listening to the radio.”
This seemed to throw off the man standing outside Billy’s house, he looked around at the others before turning back to the camera.
“Then you must know that there is no danger in coming with us to the field hospital. We’re set up ten miles down the road. It’s in a safe zone.”
“No danger?” Billy let the sarcasm out, “if there was no danger, why you got on those respirators? Look army issue to me.”
“There is an infectious agent in the air. We’re able to provide a cure at our field hospital.”
“Then why aren’t you cured? Why don’t you just take off those masks and show me how good your cure works?”
“I am not at liberty to go into detail. I will tell you that the infection can be cured when you are not in the area of immediate influence.” The man started to show his frustration, “Now are you going to come with us or not?”
“Nah, I don’t think so chief. I don’t trust you army boys as far as I could throw ya. And don’t even think about trying to come in here and peel me out of my shelter. It’s got double locked two inch steel doors so screw you, get gone!”
“He heard one of the men talking, “What do you want to do Sarge? Should we break in and get him?”
Sarge replied, “You heard the man, let’s leave him to it.” He turned back to the camera, “Good luck with those doors.” Back to the others, “Head out, let’s go!”
Less than a minute later, they were out of sight, gone as if they had never been there. Billy continued to stare at the screen, half hoping they would come back and try to get him out one more time. He looked at his watch, it was almost six. He thought his place was probably one of the last stops those boys had planned. Made sense, he was pretty much in the sticks out here.
He decided to wait until six thirty and make a break then. His truck was a four by. If he took to the coulee, he could make twenty miles west. From there he’d lose the truck and walk for a while. Then he would ditch the suit and make a break for it. Billy G loved it when a plan came together.
He ended up walking out of his bomb shelter a few minutes after six thirty. He was a little late on account of partaking in a few last shots of Jack. There was a long drive ahead and Mister Daniels had a way to make time fly by. He got into his truck, started it up and had her pointed at the coulee when he decided it might be good to have one last look downtown. Call him sentimental, Billy had memories to say goodbye to.
He made his way to town carefully. A belly full of Jack might have made him curious enough to go for a look, but it hadn’t made him dumb enough to rush right in. When he got to town center, it was deserted. There was nothing there, not even a breeze. He drove up to his garage, thought he would check on the Doberman. He got out of the truck and went inside. He saw the dog on its bed, it looked asleep. When Billy got closer, he could see that it was dead.
That’s all it took to get him back in gear, he almost ran to the truck. Just before he grabbed the door handle, a sound caught his attention. It was familiar, low and deep, and it was coming from above. He looked up.
What he saw drained the blood from his face and almost sent him to the ground in shock. A pair of bombers were drifting in from the west, right over the coulee he could have been five miles into by now. He knew he should run and yet stood transfixed until both planes were right on top of the town. They each dropped something attached to a parachute, he recognized the orange crates right away. Thermobaric bombs. They planned to burn whatever it was that had landed in Joe Carson’s field that morning.
Billy jumped into his Dodge and hit the gas. He was wasting time, fishtailing all over the road. He got the truck under control and was almost back at his house when the first orange crate went off. It was followed immediately by the other and together they turned the sky into a giant fireball.
Billy saw it all in his rear view mirror. He also saw the mirror melt as his house turned red and faded into history along with the town of Willard, Billy G included. The only thing left standing was one bomb shelter, still in pristine condition.