“This is what we get!” the man was screaming, over and over as if finding a new revelation with each remittance. “This is what we get for denying His laws! His warnings! This is what we get! And I accept Lord! I understand now!”
Sharon was afraid the old man would have a fit, throw a stroke or just plain collapse. The thought had barely registered before she saw the man take an unsure stride and tumble, his silver scalp kissing the pavement and sending up a thud that carried over the din. No one saw it, or no one cared. Sharon let out a little squeal and that was enough to turn Michael’s head. He saw the old man being drug along the pavement, his eyes lolling up as blood washed over his face. But he wasn’t moving as fast as the throng, and they began trampling him in spite of their best efforts. The old man disappeared into the crowd and Sharon wailed, shutting her eyes and turning her face into Michael’s shoulder. She couldn’t stop seeing it. That poor old man being drug over the pavement even after he’d gone down, even after the crowd began crushing him.
“Mike, I can’t take this!”
“Yes you can! Damn it, Ethan is coming! We need to reassure him! Don’t infect him with your fear!”
He’d never said anything like that to her, and the implication suddenly brought her back from the brink. The old man was gone. Forgotten. She was Sharon Rawlins again. Unfaithful wife of Michael Rawlins.
“You’re right. He’s going to need us.” But Ethan hadn’t seemed to need her for much of anything lately outside of the occasional ride to the movies or money. But Michael was right. She needed to be strong.
“Michael,” she said.
They both knew what she meant, but she’d waited too long.
“I love you,” she said.
“We need to find you some shoes,” he replied.
It was no declaration of love, but it was close enough. As close as she would probably ever get.
Ethan was talking fast, and Michael looked skeptical, but Sharon could tell that Ethan was winning the debate. She knew Michael would side with Ethan, like always.
“We only have another two miles until the Iron Horse,” Ethan said, the color rising in his cheeks. When we’re crossing over, we jump. We’ll get twenty or thirty miles of free transportation down the river before we reach the next county. I don’t know where the river goes from there, but we might even get a little further.”
Sharon moved to protest, but Ethan, ever his father’s son, saw her resistance and acted.
“Mom, we’ll never make it if we don’t!” He suddenly looked so much like Michael. “We’ll never be able to keep up this pace. Not in this heat. People are dying everywhere. People are walking into the ocean! They’re drowning Mom! They just keep moving until they die. One way or the other.”
“It’s not a bad plan, Share,” Michael intervened.
He only calls me Share when he wants something.
“We just can’t know what will happen,” she said, struggling to remain calm, to sound rational, and failing miserably. “I just don’t think it’s smart.”
“I’m doing it. You guys can do what you want.” Ethan wasn’t looking at either of them, and Sharon had to smile. Few parents get to witness the moment their boy becomes a man.
“Calm down Ethan.” Michael was stepping in, but Sharon knew what was coming. “Sharon, the boys have a good plan. The river is slow and shallow. We can just tiptoe along most of it. We won’t use hardly any energy. It may save our lives. Give us time to come up with a plan at least.”
It didn’t matter what she said or did. Someone else had a plan that morning, and something was telling her there was no changing it.
“You guys jump and I’ll jump with you,” Sharon said, “But it’s a bad idea. Something bad will come of this.”
Michael and Ethan barely acknowledged her, but Dustin, Ethan’s friend, suddenly spoke. “If you want to walk Miss Rawlins, I’ll walk with you. I’m not much of a swimmer.”
“Where are your parents?” she asked, suddenly very distracted.
“I don’t know. I can’t get them on the phone.” He looked very sad, very scared.
“No Dustin. We all jump,” she said, “Don’t worry. The river’s not deep.”
“But you said -“
“I’m just nervous. Don’t let it infect you. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. We all will.” What a mean thing for Sharon Rawlins to say. Especially since she didn’t believe it for a second.
What the local kids had named the Iron Horse was really just an old railroad trestle that’d been paved over and made part of the road when Route 9 was poured sometime in the early seventies. Sharon could see the silhouette of its remains in the distance, a rust-brown skeleton from a forgotten age rising over the puny reforested trees that lined each side of the road. She shuddered when she saw it. But her feet hurt, her heart hurt, and the noon sun seemed to be cooking her as she moved. The idea of floating languidly along seemed like paradise suddenly. Still, a fear lingered at the back of her mind.
This is a bad idea.
True, but no worse than the reality going on around her. Sharon couldn’t intimate what was bothering her, or why she felt a nagging sense of impending doom. They were simply going to jump off the Iron Horse and into the water.
What could possibly go wrong?
The first thing that went wrong happened before they reached the bridge. The people were packed so tightly together that moving through the crowd took a herculean effort. Michael pulled everyone together and attempted to move diagonally like an overboard whitewater rafter. This worked for a bit, but progress was slow. They wouldn’t get to the edge of the road in time to take the plunge. It was Ethan, ever the intelligent boy, who moved the crowd aside.
“Pregnant woman here!” he cried, “Pregnant woman, please move aside!”
It worked. Of course it worked. Certain words and phrases are hard wired into the human psyche. Outcries like – Shark! Fire! Rape! or, I have a bomb! – move people to react instantly and without forethought. Never mind Sharon’s flat belly or perfect strides. The crowd parted like the Red Sea before Moses’ mighty staff. Ethan put his arm around her waist and led her toward the edge of the road, with Michael and Ethan following closely behind. Sharon thought it a good thing that Ethan was so smart, much smarter than either her or Michael. She hugged him a little closer for a moment, then everything went to hell.
“We’re almost there!” Ethan shouted, “Don’t stop moving no matter what!”
Good ideas are like good gossip. They may take some time to catch on, but once they do, they spread like a brush fire. The crowd first noticed the group of people moving toward the edge of the road; a young man leading what was obviously his mother toward the edge of the crowd, followed by an older man, and another young boy. “Stand aside! Pregnant woman here!” the boy kept shouting. People noticed all this, then they noticed the Iron Horse. And like a fast moving brush fire on a windy day, Ethan’s idea spread.
It only took a few people, maybe ten, to begin moving in the same direction Ethan was moving to turn the whole herd. Sharon tried reaching for Michael, but the throng soon divided them. She was being pushed along as feet scuffed cruelly at her legs, threatening to knock her down. She struggled, realizing only faintly that she was now alone.
If I fall, I’m finished.
She heard splashing, like large stones hitting the water. Intermittent at first, then coming faster. She turned and saw Michael one last time, going over the edge of the Iron Horse with Ethan clutched in his arms. They were far away and she knew she’d never reach them; never get to float peacefully south in that cool water. That didn’t bother her. What did was the fact that Michael had chosen, and he hadn’t chosen her. This thought was followed by an equally unpleasant one.
How will they get out of the way?
More people were streaming into the water. It was a good fifteen-foot drop to the river, and the crowd was pouring over the edge too fast. Hands were at her back, voices screeched in her ears. Then there was a sudden weight on her shoulder. She looked down and saw that Dustin Marsh was gripping her arm with frantic hands, his eyes registering all his horror.
“Don’t let me go!” he wailed. But he was pulling her down. Another couple of steps and they’d both fall. Then what? She remembered the old man, trampled like a front-line shopper on Black Friday. She realized that the old man must still be moving, being drug over the pavement like a block of cheese over a fine grater. What would be left of him by the time his remains reached the ocean?
“No!” Sharon cried, trying to pull away, to shake him off. The fear in Dustin’s eyes intensified, his expression passing from horror to shocked disbelief. But hands were pushing her, feet were overtaking her; feet that echoed like drums, like cannons, marching and marching until the clamor overtook the screams and the crying and the last shred of anything human that was left in her.
“Please! Help me Miss Rawlins! Don’t!”
But she was already doing it, frantically prying each of his fingers from her arm. Dustin fought to keep his grip, but Sharon fought harder, and one of his fingers finally snapped, his ring finger, and Dustin drew his hand away as his scream split the air. He tried on final time to grab for her, his fingers delicately brushing the skin of her forearm, but Sharon jerked her arm away and he went down.
“Miss Rawlins! Help!” Feet began driving him into the road. Sharon heard more of those snapping sounds, followed by a wet, gurgling sound. She thought she might go mad just then; that her mind just couldn’t take anymore. Then she turned and saw the river, thick with bodies and blood. Some people were still moving, but most weren’t. Most were just floating along face down with the current. But she was still on her feet. Still moving. Soon, she moved mercifully beyond view of the river, but as it passed from sight, she saw it: A yellow windbreaker just like the one Ethan wore, wrapped around a limp body. Her screams erupted, but she kept moving. She kept moving.