151 Days by James P Hassell by James P Hassell - Read Online

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151 Days - James P Hassell

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Fate

Chapter 23 – Attack

Chapter 24 – Welcome to Louisiana - Bienvenue en Louisiane

Chapter 25 – Catch-A-Ride!

Chapter 26 – Now Entering Shreveport

Chapter 27 – The Casino King

Chapter 28 – Jackpot

Chapter 29 – Welcome to Texas – Drive Friendly – The Texas Way

Chapter 30 – The Dukes of Walmart

We find our path by walking it.

-Maya Angelou

Chapter 01 – Dragon*Con

The music blasts over the PA while the fan-edit of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley plays on screen. It’s the second night of Dragon*Con, and if you’ve never been to a fan convention of all things geek, that’s the sort of thing that happens here. I’m dancing with my friend from the Internet, her shoulder-length, chestnut hair sways with the rhythm. Green eyes flash with jubilance. We saved our money for this, and damn, has it been worth it. A short break from my work, her school, our stress.

Caught in the moment, happiness brimming through me, I throw caution to the wind and wrap my hands around her shoulders. I slow her enough to allow my lips to reach hers and rest there a moment. I’m not going to lie, this moment may just be a throw away type thing, but the music seems to slow just long enough that I know it feels like home. Even though home is literally four states away.

I pull back smiling. I see her smiling as well. I honestly don’t know why I kissed her. Sure, I’ve had a crush through our friendship over the past year whenever we discussed the future lives of the Harry Potter kids mentioned in the final book’s epilogue, but I never thought much of it. She lives in Vermont and I in Texas. Pretty much we are a world apart. But with online dating, maybe it could work. I mean I’m standing here dressed as Han Solo and she’s garbed to look like Beatrix Kiddo.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’m going to get some water, I shout loud enough to get over the music without trying to alert everyone else of my intentions, Do you want anything?

I’m good! she yells back, I read her lips more than hearing her.

I nod and I’m off.

Leaving the room the decibels drop dramatically. Suddenly, I’m reminded of the real world. I sell cell phones for a living, if it can really be called living. My manager threatened to fire me twice for taking this weekend off, but even in a rocky economy, it’s hard to find people who can accurately describe to customers the differences between Android and iOS. The secret is, if you know the difference, get an Android, if you don’t, get the other. For eight hours I talk to people about which device is going to make their life that much better, or I’m getting yelled at because it didn’t. Ebb and flow; I wonder how long it will take before I give up on the place completely.

At the kiosk I grab a Smart Water and a Payday. The lights flicker. The cashier rings it up for $7.36. I stare at the price and wonder how supply and demand still manages to screw you when you’re in the middle of a convention center. The lights buzz and brown slightly. I swipe my card. And the lights go out.

Well that was weird. I think you killed it, the girl says to the darkness where I’m standing.

I’ll have to try to start using my powers for good, I reply, waiting for the lights to either come back on or for emergency lighting to kick in.

She gives a nervous laugh as neither of those things happen.

From my pocket I fish out my phone to use as a flashlight. I thumb the home button and swipe up on the screen and press the flashlight icon. The girl is still there, thumbing her own phone.

No service, she says.

I look to see I have no service either. What the hell?

The loud bang of a heavy door swinging out and a crowd pouring through echoes down the ceramic tiled hallway. The noise sounds like any panicked crowd from any zombie movie almost ever made. I can see fluorescent flashes in the distance. The flash of phones turned on passing behind bodies. The crowd is a massive moving strobe effect. Some people at the party were wearing glow sticks on their clothes and as necklaces. I rush forward to hopefully rejoin my group but immediately land in a heap on the cold floor. Having no idea what I tripped over, I get up and try again, moving more like a dog stalking a bug in the grass than one gleefully chasing a car.

I make it to the mass of people and call out the friend’s name I’m most concerned about, Michelle?!

I do not hear a response.

Michelle?!

Nothing returns my call other than the random chatter and pure noise of the fifty people all moving and talking at once. Maybe she was one of the first to get out and made it when I was heaped on the floor. I move along with the crowd now, hoping the other two we were here with are among us somewhere, and hoping the collective group somehow knows where the stairs are. Personally, I took the elevator.

We’re moving, and suddenly everyone slows. We have found the stairs. Steps are careful and trepid, the windows wrapping around the circular section of the building help, but not by much. The normal orange glow of streetlights is gone. Outside, I can see nothing. With each step I’m wondering where people are, what’s going on. How am I going to find a way out of an alien building with no exit signs with helpful little arrows? How am I going to find my friends without calling or texting? How do the lights go off for a city as big as Atlanta?

My hand drifts along the wall as I guess and try to feel where the next step down is. I’m trying to scan the area by my feet but everyone is so close together the flashlight is almost useless. Small bumps drift along my fingers. Every step is like dreaming you’re taking a step and waking because your foot hit nothing solid and now you feel like you’re falling. My stomach rises and falls with each gamble I make. The crowd chatter is broken by gasps and the meaty tumbles of a body periodically as some of those around me are not quite as lucky. Falls. Thud-thud-thuds. Grunts and cries for help.

We’re all reduced to toddlers at this point. Reaching out for a parent in the dark, but no one is there.

Glass shatters in the distance adding to the crowd noise. My group is forming with others. The dancers mixing with the partiers, mixing with the shindiggers, mixing with the drinkers. And they all are funneling through the glass entrance to the center.

I can see outside now, the moon giving just enough light to silhouette bodies moving through the dark. In the distance though, lights are filling the sky. Greens are dancing around like the visualizer settings on music programs. Like a screen saver. Aurora. I’ve seen it in books, and on the internet, aurora borealis…but in Georgia?

The majority of people moving through the dimly lit entrance are costumed. The Joker and Harley-Quinn are rushing down the street followed by Wolverine who has his arm wrapped around a Ravencalw student. Kaylee is riding on Jayne’s back. Sailor Moon, Sailor Saturn, and Sailor Jupiter, who may or may not be a guy, are rushing to meet up with Cloud and Tifa.

I half push half get pushed through the golden frame of what’s left with the door. I scan around but I don’t see anyone I know. I’m alone, in the middle of a mass of people I have something in common with. The geeks are marching on Atlanta.

Then I see a familiar tracksuit.

Michelle! I call and she turns. My heart leaps as I rush to meet her. Her arm flings around my neck and holds tight. My hands snake around to meet at the small of her back.

What the hell is going on?

I don’t know, I answer.

Were Jake and Paula with you?

No, I couldn’t find them before everyone made their way to the stairs.

She bites her lip and looks to the people still piling out of the hall. I look too and realize there’s no way, and no reason to even try to get back in there now. I wait to see if I can spot their matching costumes of Ichigo and Rukia.

I say, Maybe they got out at a different exit, trying to reassure myself as much as her.

Maybe, she replies, her tone completely unconvinced.

They could already be heading to the hotel after they couldn’t find us, I offer.

Yeah, let’s go find out. She glances at a couple of homeless people who seem spooked by all of the people of the convention flooding the streets as much as the lights going out. Think I’d feel safer there.

I glance at the older men she was looking at and don’t see the threat she does. But to be honest, I’d rather be at the hotel as well than have to ask what she means at this point.

She tugs my hand and I follow. We are pilgrims in this mass of strangers; discovering the way to go by faint memory of a second day in a foreign land. Groups form around us in the shadows. They are all part of the massive collection who were attending the convention, and we all have that in common, but in this unknown time I fear each of them in some weird way. My brain says they have the same goal of my party of two, my gut says to be wary of them all. As our footsteps echo off the concrete slabs arranged into a sidewalk I try to listen to my brain.

I ask Michelle, Is your phone working?

She fishes out her phone from her handbag as we keep plowing forward, says, No service, and hands it to me.

She had the silver iPhone. At least Apple calls it silver, really, it’s white. Who’s your carrier?

AT&T.

Shit. I’m on Verizon. How do neither of us have service? Problems with an electric plant shouldnt affect phone signals.

I try to ignore the bubbling question of ‘what if every phone is dead?’ but my mind is racing, as are my heart and lungs as we continue our jog through the streets. I can’t even remember the last time I was this active. It’s not that I’m lazy; I just never really needed to move like this before once I was out of high school and P.E. was no longer a requirement in my life.

The buildings are giant ribs sticking from the earth, silhouetted against the night’s tapestry. The once steady beating heart of the city’s center has quickened to an unhealthy pace. I wonder if the beat will soon stop. Heart attack by lack of electricity.

If it had just been the lights that would be one thing, but the phones without service and the lack of backup supply is worrisome. Not to mention the fucking sky is still glowing. Which is better than falling I suppose.

In the time it takes to watch an episode of The Simpsons whilst fast forwarding through the commercials The Crowne Plaza looms before us. I wish the familiar checkerboard of some lights on, some lights off was greeting me, like some demented version of lights out, but if anyone was playing they’ve already finished the board as nothing is there but ominous dark.

People are pushing in and pouring out. Shadows and noise. Michelle takes my hand and we start making our way into the hotel. Bodies lean into my own, and it is an exercise just to stay vertical. Once inside I notice the heat of the movement. The air conditioning is off and the humidity from outside leaks into the doors. Bodies moving, generating their own heat. Muggy is fast becoming an understatement.

The stairs were over here, Michelle says pulling me in a direction. I wish I could laugh at her use of past tense. Just because all hell is breaking loose is no reason to think building structures have changed. But with everything in the dark, nothing feels familiar. Maybe everything will soon become a past tense form of itself.

We start the slow climb up the stairs. People push in behind us. People flow down the other side. Every step seems like some battle being forged between everyone’s self-interest. Reaching the second floor is weird as I’m straining to see the steps in the dim light of my phone. The light goes out, that feature is finicky at the best of times, but we keep moving, and reaching the flat floor is its own adventure of correcting the momentum as I go. We turn and guess the next step as well. Feeling with our feet. I suddenly have a new appreciation for the seeing impaired.

Here, I think, Michelle says and we turn through a door that’s been wedged open.

We were the fifth door down, I say as we begin feeling our way through the stretching darkness. The doorframes all seem to have doors swinging open and I hope the magnetic locks default to unlock in case of fire. The noise is dramatically reduced in the hallway and I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse.

We continue taking our baby steps down the hallway taking every precaution to not trip and fumble our way through as I fiddle with my phone to get the light back on. As the phone restarts I decide to just put it away. Might as well save battery anyway.

The fifth door is wide open and I swallow hard against the dread building in my throat. I hold Michelle’s shoulder for a moment to let her know to wait for a minute and then make my way through the frame.

I stand there; the window is slightly illuminated by the moon and the lights in the sky, but not enough to see much in the room. I strain to listen for anything. Maybe someone came in earlier. Maybe someone stumbled into the door and it flung open. Maybe someone is in here.

Then I hear it. Whispers in the night. I swallow again as a sweat breaks out on my skin that has nothing to do with the heat.

Wh-o’s there? I ask the void and curse myself for my voice wavering.

Is that you? A familiar feminine voice questions in rely.

Michelle moves into the room behind me and inquires, Paula?

Then I hear Jake answer, Yeah, it’s us!

Relief washes over me and I shut the door, making sure to latch it when I’m done.

We were so worried about you! Paula says in her Kentucky drawl. She lives a lot farther north than I do, but sounds like she’s from a deeper south than anywhere I’ve been except maybe certain parts of Georgia.

I thought y’all had been trampled, I say.

Damn near were, Jake says, but we got out ahead of most everyone else. When we didn’t see you two we figured the best place to try to meet up was here. The fuck is going on?

No idea, I answer.

My phone’s dead, Paula remarks, I was going to Google the news, or text y’all, but nothing worked.

Yeah, mine’s dead too, Jake says.

Same for us, I say.

Can we get this window open? Michelle asks as she moves to the wall and starts fiddling with the latch to the window. Paula moves in to assist her.

Zombie apocalypse? Jake asks me.

I give a laugh and retort, I hope not. Every zombie survival plan I had included me being home. Taking over the Wal-Mart or the local bank vault.

Yeah, and going by The Walking Dead, downtown Atlanta seems like a pretty bad worst case scenario.

All my guns are home, Paula says, getting the latch free and swinging open the window.

How did I become friends with crazy, gun-toting southerners? Michelle asks, breathing in the fresh air from outside.

Harry Potter fanfiction, Jake says, and I’m not from the south. I’m from Colorado.

You still own guns, Paula chides, and besides, Michelle, I tend to remember you throwing around Avada Kerdavas like they were going out of style.

Doesn’t mean I want a gun.

As if on cue, something that could be gunshots sound in the distance.

You might change your mind, Paula says with a hint of gloom.

Mine’s actually in my car, I say, hoping everything just goes back to normal by the morning. But maybe the lights will come back on, everyone can charge their phone or find some damn service, and the news will be this was just some weird EMP that happened.

Or terrorists, Michelle says.

Jake says, I still think zombies.

Nah, Paula joins, definitely aliens.

Government conspiracy, I change my vote.

A plot to make people watch more television, Michelle keeps the game going, the lights will come on and everyone will be even more glued to television out of fear it will go away again.

Hippies, Paula says, their message will be: ‘this is what happens when we run out of fossil fuels.’

We all laugh and Jake says, Sorry, but no. Zombies. You’re not going to change my mind on this one.

Fine, Michelle says, have your zombies. We’ll get you a crossbow tomorrow.

Sweet.

Until then, she says, "I’m going to try to get some sleep. Michelle goes to the bed she and Paula have been sharing closer to the door.

Good plan, Jake says, pulling out the cot he’s been using.

I’m going to stay up a bit, I say, it’s going to be hell for me to fall asleep without the AC.

Same, Paula says.

This is half of our online group of fanfiction writers. When we were planning a trip to meet others couldn’t make it. Family needs, or money, or the fact that two of them live overseas. Over the past couple years we had all gotten to know each other better than I knew my high school friends. I was closest to Paula and Michelle. Paula knew how I was starting to feel about Michelle and had been rooting for us the entire time that I never made a move.

We stayed silent for a while, giving them a chance to fall asleep. In the new silence of the room it was easy to tell when their breathing had deepened, but we started to talk in whispers.

So, did you do it? Paula asks me.

Yeah, it was right before the lights went out. I just kissed her. I don’t know what got into me.

I know what got into you, or rather, what you want to get into her.

I try my damndest not to burst out laughing. Paula always did have a way for saying the truth without being bashful about it. It was one of the reasons we had become such good friends.

Did she kiss you back?

Sort of, I answer, I think she was more surprised than anything. But she didn’t slap me or jerk away or anything.

Good, Paula says, but damn, that’s some kiss to knock all the lights out. Maybe I should have gone for you instead of Jake.

Ha-ha, very funny. You know we would have just driven each other crazy.

Oh, little brother, as she had grown accustomed to calling me, you already drive me crazy. If we had to live together I’d end up killing you.

That, I don’t doubt.

Is a shame though, I was going to get Jake to take me to a few late night parties so you and Michelle could have the room for a bit. She says each word in the last half of the phrase with careful articulation and pause. Subtlety not being her biggest asset.

Nothing like that would have happened, I reply, feeling my cheeks burn and hoping beyond hope Jake and Michelle are truly asleep.

Only because you lack initiative. I’m a girl; listen to me on these things. She likes you, like I’ve been trying to hammer in your dumb, thick skull for the past six months.

I know, I say, feeling my stomach tighten even more, I’m just scared of screwing it all up.

Paula shrugs and says, You’re from Texas, you’re going to need to take the bull by the horns sooner or later. She smiles, pinches my cheek, and says, Good night, before moving to join the bed with Michelle.

And not for the first time this weekend I wish that were my spot.

I edge as close as I can to the window and stare at the sky. The lights are fading now. The moon is now the only source of light in the sky, or below, for that matter. I don’t know how long it’s been since the power went out, nor do I know how long I sit there. My brain is running through the events of the night. I’m thinking of my friends across the country, in the United Kingdom, and back home. The con last for two more days and I am supposed to go home Monday. Michelle is supposed to fly back then as well.

I wish I had a shooting star so I could wish for this to work out.

Even with the incredibly weird night, this has been the happiest I’ve ever been.

Later more than sooner I fall asleep with Reba McEntire’s rendition of The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia playing in my head.

Chapter 02 – Calamity

I awake when the dawn breaks, the new morning’s sun shining upon my face. I try to blink the sleep away, but the first thing I notice past a couple buildings and trees is smoke in the distance. At least three plumes are arching into the sky. I rub my face and stretch when I get up. My entire body aches as I fell asleep still on the window seal. It’s a good thing I didn’t turn too violently or I would have tumbled out the window.

The air is thick with heat. The lights must still be off or the air conditioning should have kicked on during the night. I pad across the room and try the switch just in case, but nothing happens. I check my phone.

6:13am - 42% battery left.

I feel like absolute shit. The heat from the night has crept up on me. Clothes are sticking to where they shouldn’t be. My hair clings in clumps to my scalp. I need a shower.

I grab a set of normal clothes from my duffle and go to the shower. I peel off the Han Solo getup and turn the flashlight on my phone on. It’s going to murder the battery but I’d like to not break my neck in a hotel shower.

The water hits me like an old ice bucket challenge. Right, no power, no flash electric water heaters. I take the quickest shower that I can possibly manage. Gritting my teeth and enduring the pain of the freezing water.

I dress and turn the LED of my phone off.

36% battery left.

I fucking hate this morning.

No service still, so I turn the phone off. No need to waste what little battery I have left.

Walking out I see Michelle asleep in the bed. Light brown hair cascading her pixie like features. My friends from home would probably remark that she’s not anything special. On their broken scale of photoshopped and well lit models ranking the top, Michelle would be their 6 or 7. My best friend from high school, Colin, would say he never sleeps with 10s because they’re too high maintenance; but the truth lies closer to he can’t find what he calls a 10 who is walking around breathing in the real world.

To me, Michelle is beautiful. Maybe it’s because I got to know her before ever really seeing her. We talked long into many nights using our brains before ever friending each other on Facebook. We knew the smallest little details of our childhoods before ever flipping through each other’s online photo albums. Somehow, I feel like I know her better than most.

Paula groans and wakes before I can stare too long though.

Jesus, quit staring when people are asleep. She grumbles low enough to not wake anyone else. She slides from the bed on her way to the bathroom, as she passes she says; Only idiots think that creepy Twilight fuck is romantic.

I smile and retake the seat by the window, hoping the morning sun will warm me slightly.

Paula shrieks as I hear the water begin to run, and Michelle and Jake wake at the sound. Michelle raises her head and looks left to right, eyes searching, they land on me.

No hot water, I inform them.

Perfect, Michelle answers and lays her head back into the pillow.

I’m guessing our complimentary breakfast bar is out of the questions too, Jake says.

Probably I answer, or maybe there will be fruit or something, if anyone even showed up for work that is.

I’ll go check.

So what’re we going to do today? Michelle mumbles through the covers.

Don’t know. The Con probably won’t have anything. Without microphones and video screens it’s just a bunch of fans huddled together.

Let’s go find Nathan Fillion. Or Matthew Lewis. There’s no way all the celebrities got out of town last night.

And do what with them? Personal Q and A?

Oh, Michelle says and stretches out a bit, I could think of a few things to do with them. Especially Matthew. She lets out a slight giggle as if she were fourteen years old.

I have no right, or reason, or want, but I feel a sharp pang of jealousy run through my chest. Within a blink my smile stays in place but behind it is dead now. I don’t want to be a part of this joke anymore.

Paula, my ever-saving grace, exits the bathroom and asks, Where’s Jake?

Went to search for food, I reply

No big surprise there. Paula looks at me and frowns, masks it back to normal and says to Michelle, There’s no hot water, but it feels better than nothing after last night.

Michelle gives a noncommittal grunt before slowly gathering a few things and heading to the bathroom herself.

What’s up with you? Paula asks.

Nothing, I try to dodge, just me being stupid. And the power being off and no cell service has me weirded out a bit.

Yeah, I know what you mean, but if you want to talk…

Trust me, you’ll be the first person I come to.

Paula smiles and starts to say something else, but is interrupted by the door flinging open. Jake stumbles in, slams the door, and makes sure the latch is in place.

He controls his panting breath before saying, It’s a fucking madhouse down there.

What?

He paces over to his cot and sits before continuing, The halls are still dark and is a nightmare to get through, same for the stairs. But then when you get to the foyer it’s just chaos. People are fighting to get into the kitchens for food, arguing over everything it seems: what’s going on, is it safe here. There are talks about plane crashes. Some seem to think this has happened farther than we’re imagining. I heard one woman say it was all of Georgia, another said America, and one dude thought it was the world. Outside, people are running around, forming groups, and fighting one another. I saw some guy our age get jumped for a bag of oranges he had slung over his shoulder out on the sidewalk.

I stare at Jake a second, then laugh out of disbelief, You’re fucking with us right?

No, he grits out, I’m not fucking with you.

Shit, Paula says like a whispered exhale from being punched in the gut.

Michelle comes into the room. Her hair slick and clumped from the shower. T-shirt clinging a little too tightly to her skin. I look away.

What’s going on? She asks.

Jake says it’s almost like a riot downstairs, Paula answers.

Seriously, Jake adds, it looks like that will come next.

What… Michelle trails