A thunderous boom brought Griff immediately to attention. He hadn’t intentionally fallen asleep, but realized he must have. He checked Nat, but the woman appeared not to have heard it. In fact, she didn’t appear to have moved at all since she’d laid down. His eyes studied her, looking for some sign of breathing. Seeing the slight movement of the throw reassured him.
He checked the fire. It had burned down considerably, which told him he’d been out of it for a few hours. It needed replenishing, but that could wait until he figured out what had awakened him.
Another boom reverberated through the air. This time he pinpointed it coming from the northwest. Griff winced as his body tensed in anticipation. The noise sounded too much like exploding artillery, or the repercussions coming off an IED. It took him another second to clear his head of the visions suddenly barraging him before he was able to get to his feet. He’d feed the fire more logs after he checked outside. Hopefully it was nothing more than an approaching thunderstorm.
The full moon illuminated the snow, giving it that pretty sparkly effect he always enjoyed viewing. Pushing the blackout curtains aside, he tried to see further to the north, but the tree in the next door neighbor’s yard blocked the view. He unlocked the front door and quickly stepped onto the porch.
The wind had died down, but the air was definitely chillier. He estimated the temperature to be hovering at, if not below freezing.
As he pulled the door to, a loud clap resounded overhead. It sounded closer than the first couple of explosions he’d heard. Griff made his way down the front steps and far enough through the yard to look past the evergreen.
A huge black shape slowly rolled toward the southeast. It was so expansive, it obliterated the sky above and behind it. As he stared at the approaching form, pink and yellow lightning zipped across its surface, followed a split-second later by a nearly deafening crash.
He continued to stare at it, when his internal flags, all red, began waving in warning. At the same time, he realized what he was witnessing was unnatural. Without a breath of wind, there shouldn’t be anything propelling that monstrous cloud across the sky. It had to be another one of those walls. One his sixth sense was telling him to avoid. A little voice inside his head yelled for him to run. To take cover.
To get out of the house!
He remained where he stood, watching, waiting. The cloud advanced at a speed he’d rarely seen. He was about to move out closer to the street, when a distant fireball rolled upward from ground level, followed by a second one. There was a crunching sound and smaller explosions, all of which illuminated the front of the pitch black behemoth. He caught the faint whiff of ozone, but it also had a noxious odor mixed within it. With a start, Griff recognized the smell of rotten eggs.
Hydrogen sulfide. The cloud was raining hydrogen sulfide.
Running back inside the house, he tried to rouse Nat. “Get up! Get up, Nat! We have to go! We have to get out of here!” He shook her shoulder, aware of the fact that her temperature remained high. Her body heat radiated through the thin throw, and her face looked flushed, even in the semi-darkness. Beads of sweat dotted her skin, and strands of her hair lay plastered to her forehead and cheeks.
His foot hit something near the sofa. Spotting the bottle of pain reliever on the floor, he grabbed it and shoved it into his pants pocket. “Nat! Wake up!”
Her eyelids fluttered open, but she was still partially out of it. “What?”
Taking her by the arms, he lifted her into a sitting position. “We have to leave. Now! Hurry!”
Over by the chair where she’d spread her raincoat sat her shoes. Hurrying over, he snatched them up and took them back to where she was clutching her head.
“Griff, what’s wrong?” She managed to give him a puzzled look through her feverish haze.
Knowing she was too discombobulated to dress herself, he dropped to his knees to put her shoes on her. He undid the straps on the first shoe, when the entire thing came apart in his hands. He stared, flustered, at the useless shoe. The hours she’d spent walking through the snow had ruined the pair. She wasn’t able to wear them any longer.
The next boom managed to rattle the house. Nat gasped. “What was that?” she asked fearfully.
“The reason why we have to get the hell out of here now!” He jumped to his feet. “Your shoes are no good. Hold on. I’ll get you something else to wear. You can’t go out in the snow in just those socks.”
Dashing into his parents’ bedroom, he bypassed his mother’s side of the closet. Tandy Strong was a petite woman who wore a size five and a half. Nothing she had would fit Nat. So once again he searched his father’s side for something that might suffice until they came across a suitable replacement, and found an old pair of grass-stained moccasins. Taking them back into the living room, he found Nat wobbling on her feet. She’d gone to retrieve her raincoat, and had one arm in a sleeve, but was having difficulty getting the other arm into the coat.
Griff bent down, taking one foot in his hand. “Hold onto something,” he instructed. She rested her hands on his shoulders as he slipped one moccasin onto her foot. As he’d hoped, the double pair of thick socks were enough to make the shoes fit. He placed the other one on her other foot and stood.
The house rattled under another barrage of teeth-jarring booms. Taking her by the arm, he helped her with the coat, then half-hauled her over to the front door and opened it.
The cloud was nearly upon them. A block over, he saw another house go up in flames as the pelting acidic rain ignited something—more than likely a ruptured gas line.
Griff eyed the woman weaving uncertainly beside him. She was half out of it, her brain befuddled from the fever. He could carry her, but that would mean leaving his duffle and its meager source of food behind. There was no way he was able to carry the both of them at the same time. If this had happened before his injuries, yes, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But he was still too fresh from the hospital to attempt that sort of stunt.
Leaving her leaning against the door jamb, he grabbed his bag, tossing it over his head and shoulder to hang at a slant behind his back. Once he adjusted it to where it didn’t press against his wounds, he wrapped an arm around Nat’s waist and guided her down the porch steps.
The air was thick with that rotten egg stench. Nat coughed and covered her mouth and nose with one hand, but she didn’t speak. He realized it was taking too much out of her trying to keep up with him. He was having to half-carry, half-pull her along as it was.
They made it to the end of a block when an ear-splitting concussion knocked them onto the ground. Griff looked back in time to see the cloud roll over his parents’ home, the street, and the house across from it, like a gelatinous blob swallowing its prey whole. Except this blob spewed lightning bolts in colors he’d never seen before, and at angles nature never intended. The house across the street exploded. Fire raked the inside of the cloud, illuminating it from the inside. He knew the Comstocks, who lived there, had gas appliances, including a gas-fed fireplace.
Mix natural gas and hydrogen sulfide, and you get one dandy fireworks show, he mused. “Come on, Nat. We have to get out of that thing’s way!” He tugged on her, urging her to get to her feet. She struggled, finally managing to get into a crouching position. Taking her arm, he threw it over his shoulder, secured it there with one hand, and took her by the waist with the other.
They struggled to cross the street. Going was slow, as they were forced to plow their way through the snow. Another check to their rear confirmed Griff’s fears. The cloud was moving faster than they were. If he didn’t find some sort of shelter within minutes, they’d be overcome by it.
They were a few dozen yards away from the intersection, when he took notice of the drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road. His eyes and throat burned from the acrid smell. Breathing was like inhaling slivers of glass. But it was minor compared to the excruciating pain they’d endure if they got caught in that rain. The acid would melt the skin and muscles off their bones before they died, and then liquefy the rest of them within seconds.
Another crash of thunder shook the air. The blast knocked them forward, pitching them into the ditch before they reached the other side of the road. The fresh snow broke their fall, but trying to get back onto their feet to climb out of it was difficult.
No, it was impossible. They wouldn’t make it out of there before getting hit.
The cloud rose overhead, ready to overtake them. Griff heard the hiss and patter of rain following in its wake. He turned around, praying to find some kind of shelter, when he spotted the pipe that ran underneath the road. It was narrow in diameter, but it might be long enough for two people to fit inside.
“That pipe, Nat! Come on!” he yelled, dragging her with him.
Reaching it, he dug the snow away from the opening and shoved his duffle inside first, then took her by the arms and pushed her in after it. She didn’t argue, but scrambled inside as quickly as she could. He gave her rump a hard nudge.
“Move! Move! Move! Move! Move!”
She fell forward, but there was enough room for him to squeeze in behind her feet first. It was tight, but doable, as the first few drops splattered his arm and the back of his hand. The acid rain scalded his skin as it ate through his sleeve, but he was able to keep the burns padded with snow.
He watched the clouds move over them, turning the sky and the world into absolute darkness. Rain came down heavier, pelting the snow and turning it into toxic sludge. The smell made him feel as if he was being gassed to death. Blocking his face with his sleeve helped somewhat, but breathing through his mouth was almost as bad.
A hand jerked the belt on his pants, urging him to back up. Griff retreated from the mouth of the pipe until he was further out of range of the deluge and any ricocheting drops. Nat pressed up against him, her shivering body keeping him warm inside the frozen length of metal.
They had no idea how long they remained there. For some reason, there was a small concrete lip which prevented the pipe they were inside from sitting directly on the ground. Griff kept waiting for the rainwater to flood in where they were. Instead, as the lightning flashed overhead, he noticed that small lip kept the acid at bay.Eventually the clouds passed. When the stars reappeared in the sky, he knew they were safe. At least, somewhat.