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The War – Episode 34

December 19, 4:36 AM
Louisville, Kentucky

Jim leaned down and kissed Jordan on the forehead. The boy was snuggled up on the couch with both dogs and the cat, and would be asleep for another hour or so before Jeanine woke him to get ready for school. Jim turned to his wife and held her close. She hugged him tightly, turning her face up to his and kissing him goodbye.

“Be careful,” she said quietly. Jim could feel her tremble slightly beneath her fluffy bathrobe.

“Always careful,” he replied, squeezing her once more, “Just another day riding the bus and pushing electrons.”

Letting her go, he opened the door and walked to his already-running truck. Getting in, he turned up the radio to catch the news.

“…ville schools are open today for their final day before the winter holidays. Officials say that all employees and volunteers are on high alert this morning. Louisville Metro Police has every available officer either on the street or on alert to respond to any incidents. Officials in Frankfort say that all available Bluegrass Guard volunteers have been assigned to critical infrastructure and gathering points.”

Jim put on his seatbelt and put the truck in reverse. The light dusting of snow on the driveway crunched under his tires as he pulled out.

“In national news, the President has called for calm as the anniversary of the December 19th attacks rolls around. During his weekly radio address, he asked for the American people to be vigilant and patient in the coming days, and that they pray for peace.

Jim put the truck into gear and started down the street. Jeanine stood on the porch, her breath visible in the air, and waved goodbye.

“The Joint Select Committee on the December 19th Attacks announced yesterday that the final draft of their report has been submitted to the administration and Congressional leadership. Public release is scheduled for some time in January.”

“Sweet,” Jim said sarcastically, “That ought to make for interesting reading.”

“In financial news, the markets held a rally yesterday. The Dow closed at 12,620, with the S&P rising to 1512.  These are the highest closings seen since February. All markets are closed today.”

“Negotiators in Geneva have concluded the latest round of talks with Iran and are heading home for the holidays. They report some success in getting the Islamic Republic to halt nuclear testing, but caution that there are no guarantees that another test like the one in September will not occur before the New Year. That test, conducted in the mountains outside Tehran, is estimated to have been just under a half a megaton in strength. Sources in the IAEA and intelligence agencies report that Tehran is readying a similar site in the west of the country, and may be preparing for another test.”

Wonderful, Jim thought as he turned out of his neighborhood, Won’t that just put the cherry on this shit sundae of a year?

The news broadcast switched over to local sports and weather, followed by people arguing about college football, as Jim drove to the bus depot. Parking in his usual spot near the exit, he walked to the back of the truck and pulled out his gear. The light blue windbreaker with “BLUEGRASS GUARD” emblazoned across its back in white letters went on over his hooded sweatshirt. He had taken Jeanine’s advice and gotten one two sizes too large so that he could put on layers as the weather cooled, although that had only been after another round of their favorite semi-serious disagreement about whether or not he would freeze to death if he dressed the way he wanted to in the winter.

His Guard identification badge swung from a length of cord around his neck as he unlocked his gun case and removed his carbine. Loading a magazine into it and letting the bolt slide forward, he put on the safety and slung it over his shoulder. His pistol rested securely in a holster on his belt. He dropped extra magazines for both into the oversized pockets of the windbreaker, then closed the door to the truck’s cargo area.

Jim grabbed his coffee from the front seat and locked the truck before hurrying into the building at the gate to the bus yard. Already, he could hear drivers for the first wave of morning pickups cranking over their engines to warm them up before they left. Inside the guard shack, other members of the Guard were getting their assignments and heading out to find their buses.

Jim peered at the assignment roster on the bulletin board and swore under his breath. Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed a number and brought it up to his ear.

“David?” he said when the call connected, “It’s Jim. Listen, they’ve got me on the cross-town this morning.”

“Yeah,” he said after pausing to listen to his supervisor speak, “I should be back here about nine or so, then I’ll drive in.

He paused again, then said, “Thanks, boss. I’ll grab lunch on the way in and work through. Right. Bye.”

Putting his phone away, Jim grabbed a radio from the bank of chargers and walked out into the morning chill, looking for his bus. As he approached number 4077, he saw a mechanic closing the ancient bus’s hood.

“Everything OK?” he asked as he the mechanic passed him going the other way.

“Didn’t want to start, but we got her going,” the older man said as he walked away, wiping oil and dirt from his hands onto a red shop rag.

Jim heard the chugging of the diesel as it awoke from its cold slumber, and waved to the driver to open the door. When the door folded open, Jim smiled at the wizened face which greeted him.

“Morning, Maggie!” he exclaimed, glad to see a familiar face. She had driven Jordan’s bus the year before, and Jim had ridden along with her on a few occasions during the fall.

Maggie’s face opened up into a broad smile as she stood and gave him a quick hug.

“Merry Christmas!” she said as she sat back down.

“Merry Christmas!” he replied, “We gonna make it in this heap?”

“Lord, I hope so,” she said, “Nothing worse than breaking down with a load of kids on a cold day.” Her voice betrayed a lifetime of smoking, although Jim had heard she had gone cold turkey over Thanksgiving.

Jim smiled at her as he sat down behind her. While she put the bus into gear and pulled out of her parking spot, he took out his radio and called into the guard shack. Maggie called her dispatcher as she navigated out the gate and they began their route.

Jim and Maggie chatted as she wound her way through the back roads and subdivisions of northeastern Louisville. At each stop, Jim scanned to make sure that the parents escorting the youngsters stayed a few yards back from the bus and the students before Maggie opened the newly-reinforced doors to let them on. Several of the students greeted him as they made their way to their seats, with only a couple stopping to gape at the carbine he kept next to him on the seat.  He and the rest of the Guardsmen usually carried pistols beneath their windbreakers, but they had decided as a group to bring along something extra while they rode their routes today.

For the most part, the kids getting on this early were younger and went back to sleep or quietly sang along to the Christmas tunes which Maggie had found on the radio. When they made their final pickup of seven kids bundled up in parkas and scarves, Maggie turned out onto a feeder road, then onto the freeway.

As she slowly brought the bus up to speed, she glanced up into the mirror and called out, “Think someone’ll do anything stupid today?”

Jim shrugged. Pitching his voice to be heard above the noise from the bus and the radio, he said, “I hope not. I’d really like for this to be a quiet morning.”

“I hope you’re right,” the driver said, looking at the sparse traffic around them, “I really don’t want to be on the news because you greased some asshole on my bus.”

Both laughed at that, then settled in for the trip to Jackson Elementary on the west end of town. Maggie commented on the traffic a couple of times as they glided past several spots where it normally backed up.

Jim yawned as they approached the off-ramp and started to slow. He half stood and scanned through the slightly-fogged windows for anything out of the ordinary as they came to a halt at the cross street. He rarely rode along on this route, so ‘normal’ was pretty subjective. He did not see any broken down cars or anyone standing on the corner, so he started to sink back down into his seat.

Just then, a large sedan came barreling down the off-ramp behind them, its tires squealing as it pulled onto the shoulder and slid to a halt next to the bus.

“Down!” Jim yelled, pulling up his carbine and snicking off the safety, “Right side, move!” He punched the panic button on his radio and dove to the other side of the bus.  At the front of the bus, Maggie slammed down on the accelerator, causing the bus to surge forward.

The kids on the left side of the bus dropped down onto the floor and pulled their knees up to their chest, their reaction coming from both instinct and from the monthly drills the school required. The children on the right side dropped to the floor too, but they quickly scooted or crawled to the left side.

One child, a kindergartener about halfway down the bus on the right side, lay down on the floor under her seat and began to cry.  Jim swore as he leapt into the aisle to get to her, then dropped to his knees as he heard gunfire roar and glass break. The children screamed as the shooter in the sedan stitched a line of bullets down the side of the bus, breaking half the windows on the left side and punching holes in its roof.

Jim crouched down next to the little girl, grabbing her by the hood of her jacket and yanking her roughly across the aisle and between the seats behind him. In the front, he heard Maggie curse as one of the shooters lowered his aim and fired off a string of shots through the reinforced doors. An explosion erupted from the front of the bus, drawing more screams from the children.  Acrid smoke poured out of the engine compartment, and the big vehicle shuddered to a halt with a screech of metal against asphalt.

Jim popped up and fired several shots through the broken windows before crouching back down and scooting toward the front of the bus. His ears rang from the carbine’s report, but he could still hear the attackers shooting. He felt several bullets strike the seats around him, and he dropped to the floor. Maggie lay in front of him.

“You OK?” she screamed.

“Yeah, you?” he hollered back.

“Sumbitches missed me!” she yelled back.

“Here!” he shouted, pulling his pistol from its holster and sliding it to her.

“Watch the back door! Anyone comes through there, shoot their ass!” he yelled as he climbed past her. When he reached the front of the bus, he leaned out and fired repeatedly through the door’s starred windows. He heard glass break on the other side and a voice bellowing.

“I hope it fucking hurts, asshole!” he roared as he pulled back between the seats and dropped his first magazine.

Another round of shooting answered him as he groped in his pocket for a spare. As he pushed it up into the magazine well, he heard Maggie screaming behind him, then the pop of his pistol firing. He started to turn, but he saw movement on the other side of the door and shot through it again. Another howl of pain came through the shattered plexiglass.

Jim turned toward the back of the bus, and saw Maggie pointing his pistol at the emergency exit and taking another shot. She cursed loudly as the slide locked to the rear after she fired the last cartridge, but then screamed as Jim shot over her at the two men who were trying to climb up through the back door. One clutched his chest and fell back, while the other ducked down.

The guardsman saw the barrel of the shooter’s rifle come up over the lip of the emergency exit, and emptied his own gun in panic, trying to keep him from blindly firing into the children huddled on the floor. He screamed in frustration as the slide on his carbine locked back on an empty chamber.

Jim was fumbling for his last reload when he heard the boom of a shotgun from the side of the bus, then saw the attacker’s rifle clatter back out the door to the ground below. The shotgun fired twice more, its report strangely muffled after the sound of Jim’s carbine firing inside the bus, then everything was quiet except for the cries of the children.

Only then, when the shooting had stopped, did Jim hear sirens in the distance. He finally got the magazine out of his jacket and reloaded his carbine, then looked over to Maggie. She was sitting with her back against one of the seats, her hands out to either side to soothe the children.  The empty pistol lay in her lap.

Jim got up in a crouch, trying to look in all directions at once.  He pulled a magazine for his pistol from his pocket and tossed it to Maggie.

“Y’all OK in there?” a man’s voice came from the rear of the bus.

“Who the fuck is that?” Jim shouted, his nerves making his hands shake as he aimed his gun at the sound.

“Name’s Bill Watkins,” the voice called back, “I saw those assholes shooting up the bus and got two of them.”

“Thanks!” Jim replied, “Watch the front, I think there’s a couple up there, too!”

“There’s one lying on the ground bleeding, but I don’t think he’ll be bothering anybody,” Watkins said, “You put a couple through his chest. One’s in the car, I think, but he ain’t moving.”

Jim looked around. Miraculously, other than a couple who looked like they’d been cut by flying glass, none of the children appeared to be hurt. Maggie looked up at him, tears streaming down her face and nodded.

“I’m OK,” she said shakily, her voice seeming far away to Jim.

“Bill, tell the police we’re OK in here, but don’t poke your head up just yet, OK?” Jim said, sitting down on the floor to spare himself falling when his trembling legs gave out, “We’ll come out when they get here.”

“You got it, just take care of the kids,” Watkins replied as Jim saw the lights from police cars start to come through the bus’s broken windows, “You done good, man, you done good.”

Jim slid down between the two seats behind the driver’s chair.  His hands shook as he fumbled while trying to move the selector switch on his carbine to “SAFE”, but he got it after a couple of attempts.  He felt a small hand touch his shoulder, and he reached up to hold the child’s hand.

“We’re OK,” he said, almost in a whisper, his voice catching, “We’re OK.”

Above him, he saw the red and blue lights of police cars splash across the windows as the wail of their sirens drowned out the sobs of the children around him.

Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed “The War.” It’s amazing what a little thought experiment can bring out.  Please, use the links on the side bars to check out my other works, and thanks for reading.


  1. That is a damn good one! As are all the stories!

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