For the first time in days the diner was completely empty as every single former occupant evacuated to the streets, watching the horizon as the gray steadily approached. "What city, do you think?" someone asked in the quiet.
"Something in Wyoming," Penny Fitzscott answered grimly, standing next to Carissa with an arm wrapped around her shoulders, as though her daughter might blow away if she wasn't watching too close. "Casper, Laramie. Maybe farther- Idaho Falls would've been hit for sure."
"That cloud is cities," Yvaine said faintly from somewhere on Helen's right. "Houses. People. Oh, my God..."
They stared in fascination as the cloud grew like a duststorm being swept up from the land below, billowing towards them on a steady wind that seemed to get stronger with every minute. The children lost interest first and began to trickle back inside, followed by their parents, until only the elderly and the teens were left staring in the street. Helen glanced around; almost everyone her age was someone she'd gone to high school with, and there were many. Some were from her graduating class but most were students who would have returned in the fall, before. There were more than she'd thought, many more- they'd all turned out for the last night of holding vigil, prepared to leave with their families in the morning. The elderly people she didn't know as well but she recognized enough faces from the hours of arguing about their next move to know that most of them weren't coming.
In late afternoon the cloud and the sun met, and Helen watched in fascination as the bright light of day was blocked by ash, turned dark in slow, steady stages as if someone was operating a dimming switch. Then the sun dipped behind the black, solid mass of the cloud further down and a shadow rolled toward them across the farmland. It seemed to take ages to reach them- the land seemed so flat from their vantage point that it was hard to judge distances- but when it did it swept across them in the space of a moment, turning daylight into gloomy, murky twilight, the shadow of a storm.
The diner was packed to capacity, standing-room only, and everyone seemed to want to be near the windows even though there was nothing but darkness to see. The streetlights were on, throwing pools of orange light onto the road that were beginning to blur at the edges, becoming murky and indistinct, as if the road was slowly going underwater, submerging to deeper and darker depths every minute. By five trying to look outside was like looking through a pane of frosted glass, and the discontent amongst the people watching from inside was growing.
"We can't not leave just because there's ash in the air," Penny said, frowning at someone who had suggested just that. "If anything it's a blessing- it'll slow everyone down, not just us. We'll be in cars, and we can wrap bandannas or scarves around our noses when we're not. But we can't sit here waiting- it might not clear for days."
"We'll get sick!" Yvaine complained. "We'll be coughing that stuff up for ages."
"Probably, but that will happen no matter what we do. We've got the diner shut up good and tight and it's already getting in." At the same moment everyone looked up towards the ceiling lights- sure enough, there was a faint, misty glow around each bulb that hadn't been there before. "We can't stay here, we've already agreed on that," Penny continued firmly. "We're too close to Denver and too close to the highway, with no TV, no radio, and no answer on cell phones or landlines. We have to go somewhere safe, as quickly as we can."
"Fort Kit?" Yvaine asked sarcastically.
"Unless you have an alternative suggestion." Yvaine glared but did not answer and Penny nodded as if that was open consent.
All night they watched, staring out the windows, hoping to see something moving in the haze beyond, figures of their husbands and fathers, brothers and sons appearing at the door, knocking to be let in. No one came. The street was empty and unnaturally quiet, all sound muffled by the ash laying thick in the air, and slowly that same ash leaked into the diner. By the time morning came there was a noticeable haze, not just around the lights but in every direction. The sun rose, a ghostly red fireball on the horizon, but the higher it climbed the greater light it cast. By eight they could see clearly enough to begin driving and there was no longer any use in making excuses. They had to go.
Hugs were exchanged, tears were shed, and Helen stayed at the edges of the room, uncomfortable, waiting to leave. She didn't want to say goodbye. Even before she hadn't liked goodbyes, hadn't sought them out, and that was back when everyone was just a quick text or a WiFi connection away. Now the word goodbye had an awful finality; saying it was like prophecy, like fate. You weren't going to hear from them again, you weren't going to see them, not ever. They would be like Mom, like Derrick, they would walk away from you and just fade into the unknown.
At least this time she was the one doing the walking.
A few of her neighbors came over and gave her a quick hug, promising to look after the house and the barn until she came back. She smiled and thanked them. Mrs. Tilton promised she would still have a job at the hardware store if she needed once 'this all gets sorted out'. She smiled and thanked her, too. When she felt having to hear one more comforting lie might make her throw up she started saying goodbyes only to the children, telling them not to fidget in Sunday school, to watch out for their various cats, dogs, and farm animals. The children nodded solemnly. They understood that she was going away and, young as they were, they'd seen enough of this new world to also understand that she wasn't coming back.
Finally they walked out to their cars, dispersing each to their own vehicles, coughing a little in the thick air. Helen's eyes began to burn immediately but she ignored it, checking on Jett and Mayfly. The trailer had windows that could be closed, luckily, and she'd made sure they had fresh water to clear their mouths with, but she didn't know what to do about their eyes. Both had tear trails down their cheeks and were rubbing their faces against their forelegs, trying to relieve the itch. She secured everything that wasn't already tied down and wiped as much moisture away from their faces as possible, but that was all she could do.
She pulled away from the back of the hardware store and circled around to the main road, but not one of the other cars had moved. In a moment of panic she thought they'd all changed her minds, that they were going to stay and wait for whatever happened next and she was going to have to go on alone, but then brake lights began to come on and she realized they'd been waiting for her to take the lead. Of course they were- she was the one who had suggested this, she was the one who knew where Fort Kit was, hers had to be the first truck on the road. She drove on and as she passed each car, truck, and SUV turned on and began to pull out behind her.
Driving on the ash-covered road was a bit freaky, not least because the ash was just thick enough that she couldn't see the centerline or either of the side lines and had to navigate by pinpointing where the road sloped away into the grass on the side. Since the road was gray, the grass was gray, and the air itself was gray this was hardly easy. She went by shadows and she went slowly, worried the ash might make the road slippery. A couple times her tires slid just the smallest bit but each time she wrapped her fingers around the wheel in a death grip, breath hissing in and out between her teeth in small, regular bursts until the car found purchase again. She could see in front of her, but it was submerging into the shallow end of a pool and looking down into the deep end. She had maybe fifty feet to work with, and with the featureless gray landscape it wasn't much.
She went very, very slowly for about fifteen minutes before a car horn sounded out behind her and she glanced in the mirror. The car that had been following her, the Fitzscott's white Ford, had pulled over to the side of the road and she hastily did the same. She got out, her shoes causing little puffy clouds of ash with every step, and pulled her scarf tighter over her mouth. It was silk, light and flimsy, but it did the job well- she could still breath, at least. As she backtracked the Ford's doors opened and Penny and Carissa got out, Carissa's little brothers Milo and Hardin pressing their faces to the windows. Carissa turned towards her, looking like a curly blond-haired bandit in a red cotton bandanna and gestured to the side of the road, shouting something that got muffled in the fabric.
"What?" Helen shouted back, briefly pulling down the scarf so that Carissa would hear.
"There's someone on the side of the road!"
Helen looked over where Carissa was pointing- sure enough, a man was lying in the grass, only distinguishable from the gray by his bright red shirt. Penny was making her way down to him, wading carefully through the waist-high dust-storm that followed her every step. Helen broke into a jog, sudden fear ramping up her pace, even though with every step she slipped a little bit as if she was running in warm, dry snow. Something, some itch at the back of her mind or sudden surge of nerves behind her pulse, told her she wasn't moving fast enough and she obeyed her instincts without question, breaking into a run.
She'd just turned off the road and was crashing through the grass when they appeared- three men, rising up out of the grass about twenty feet back from the road like ghosts sprouting out of the ground. In an instant Helen understood why she hadn't seen them. They'd covered themselves in ash, mixing it with water and caking it on like mud, and in the featureless blur beyond their immediate sight they'd been just another smudge in the landscape. They ran toward Penny, closing the distance between themselves and her almost instantaneously. She froze in fear then began to turn back towards the road but the man in the red shirt at her feet jumped up and grabbed her, wrestling her to the ground, a gun appearing in his hand.
Helen hurled herself at the pair, knocking both to the ground as the three other attackers joined in. Everything was chaos- they were punching her, kicking her, tearing at her hair, trying to bear her to the ground and she fought back, hitting anything she could reach. Tears coursed down her face as their blows landed on her ribs, her head, and twice she fell back, stunned. Then all of a sudden there was a blast as loud as a small explosion just above her head and they all froze, turning toward the sound. A woman stood above them in the grass on the gentle slope, ash billowing around her as she held a gigantic shotgun up in the air, pointing at the sky. As they watched she brought it slowly, purposefully down, leveling it at the group with one hand as her other hand pulled her scarf away from her mouth and throat. It was Yvaine, her expression set in a cold, calculating mask. She chambered a round and the buisness-like 'cha-chack' of the forestock made everyone jump.
"Let the ladies and the children go, gentlemen," she said, her voice cold, formal. Helen gasped in relief as the man sitting on top of her released her arm and eased away. Looking around she saw Carissa had joined in the fray at some point, as well as eight-year-old Milo and twelve-year-old Hardin, both of whom had bloody noses. Milo was curled on the ground as as the men backed off Penny pulled him to her, murmuring softly. Other women appeared behind Yvaine, most carrying large hunting shotguns and rifles. Each barrel followed the progress of the men as Helen clambered to her feet and helped Hardin climb up the slope. He was limping and holding his arm but he forged on stolidly, tear tracks swiftly turning gray as ash clung to his cheeks. Carissa helped Penny find her footing as she carried Milo towards the car. He was shaking and moaning and blood was dripping down one leg, the bright red out of place in the various shades and thicknesses of gray.
Helen put Hardin in the car and made way for Penny, who deposited Milo on the seat as gently as if he was made of glass. Then she swung around, shoved Carissa out of the way, and grabbed Yvaine's gun from her, gracefully pivoting and firing in the same motion. A man, one of the ones coated in ash, howled and wrapped his arms around his stomach, dropping to the ground as red sprayed from between his fingers.
"Penny!" Yvaine, protested, grabbing for the gun, but Penny gave it up without protest.
"That's the one that hurt my sons," she growled, glaring down the hill remorselessly. The shot man whimpered on the ground as his friends hovered, uncertain what to do. Helen found she was unable to look away and instead stared as the blood leaked out of him, turning almost black. The haze between them made the scene appear almost unreal, like an out-of-focus photo, indistinct and foreign. She could almost convince herself he was lying on a black jacket or in a pool of molasses. That it was all pretend.
"What do we do now?" one of the other women twittered uncertainly- Mandy Bowers, a single mother who usually ran functions at the Grass Creek community center.
"We leave," Penny said coldly. "They're thieves and worse. Let them try to survive on their own like all the rest of us."
"They're people. Mom," Carissa protested. "And the one you shot looks like he's hurt pretty badly."
"The one I shot was about to wring your little brother's neck."
"We should do something," Yvaine insisted.
"Do you want to take them in your car?"
Yvaine hesitated, looking around uncomfortably. "No, okay? No, I don't. But I am going to give them some food, and some water. It's- it's decent, is what it is."
Penny shrugged, a strange, flat cast to her eyes, as though they'd become reflective. "We'll cover you. Do what you want. But do it quick- they might have friends."
Yvaine stared for a long, silent moment during which no one moved- even the ash they'd stirred up seemed to settle to the ground more slowly. "I don't think I know you, Penny Fitzscott," she said at long last. "I don't think I know you at all."