He rests his arm against the door sill, the convertible top down, wind ruffling his open-necked silk shirt as he drives the antique Fairlane down the nearly deserted streets.
On either side of him, the skyscrapers form metal and glass walls, the sun only shining down between buildings as it dips to set over New Jersey to his right.
Before the war, he would have never thought he would be able to drive through downtown Manhattan, especially not at anything slower than a crawl, but he wheels the Ford freely down one of the two designated motor vehicle lanes, rarely encountering another car, and never any of the thousands of yellow cabs the metropolis used to be famous for.
No, the opening stages of the war had certainly changed things here. Sure, the lights were still on in Times Square, but the souvenir shops had all long closed, and Broadway had been dead for years.
Within months of the start of the war, New York City had become the world’s most technologically advanced ghost town – the chemical attacks had seen to that.
Thinking back on those times, Former TSgt Dante Michaels shudders.
If it hadn’t been for the chemical attacks on Manhattan and their effect on his way of life, he would have never ended up being thrown across the world and into war with Delta 3-3.
Michaels, known in Delta as Ronin, takes his hand momentarily off the steering wheel and rubs it slowly over his shiny bald head, the rich milk chocolate color of his skin a marked contrast to the peach shirt and white pants he is wearing.
Of course, if he was trying not to stand out, he wouldn’t be driving a black and white two-toned land yacht with matching black and white leather interior.
No, Ronin wants anyone visiting the city to have no doubts that he is back in town. It is his way to honor his ghosts as he drives through his old neighborhood.
Part of him wanted to see if they would be angry enough to try something on the man who had left them behind.
He's not the same man who had left the city seven years ago, not by a long shot.
After all, he had been through hell, and kept right on driving.
Then came the war against the Chinks. It had been one of the best things ever to happen to him -- it had changed and shaped him, like a forge and smith can make burning metal into a keen and cutting weapon.
He'd always had the white-hot fury and phenomenal strength; what the hell of Delta life across Europe and Asia had done was focus and sharpen both, as well as giving him cunning and control.
He had entered the war a cudgel.
He came back a scalpel.
Ronin has hundreds of scars from the war. Some are even physical.
His eyes turn hard, and, while scanning the street for obstructions, also seem to get a faraway look as his thoughts drift back to the last time he had been in the Big Apple -- the very day he had first laid eyes on this car, in fact.
It is as if he has noticed the car for the first time, all over again. The car that had literally changed his life.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s “Babies” plays over the Jersey oldies station tuned in on the convertible’s radio, his body on autopilot, as the big man’s mind drifts back over the years.
As if it had happened yesterday, Dante Michaels remembers that fateful day when his old life had ended.
* * *
The morning of June 6 had dawned foggy over the greatest city on earth.
The low mists had made the concrete jungle of Manhattan seem somehow more primeval, more dangerous.
It was also spooky as hell, thought Dante, out for his usual 6am run.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up at the surreal sight, like something out of a B horror movie, of the sunrise-backlit fog hovering over East 14th Street bordering Stuyvesant Town, along which he was running.
It spooked him, and he'd grown up on these streets.
However, for some reason, June 6th felt a little different to the big man as he went about his morning workout.
The ear buds attached to the iPod strapped to his arm filled his head with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ 2009 hit "Empire State of Mind," one of his favorite workout songs. His feet hit the pavement in time to the bass beat, and his breathing was synchronized to the singers’ words, and, as he was often known to be, he was singing along on his jog.
Like almost everything else in life, he thought, running is made easier if you can synchronize yourself to a constant rhythm -- and setting his workout to music helps the impression that the time is going by faster.
As he jogged across 1st Avenue, his feeling of unease increased.
It came about the same time he heard a thump in the air behind him, sounding about the same height of the iconic buildings of Stuyvesant town, if not a little higher, though it sounded farther downtown than the edge of the Town property.
An instant later, he then heard a sound that every resident of Manhattan had learned to dread since 2001.
The growling whine could only be an aircraft at full throttle, very low over his beloved city.
Upon hearing the twin Pratt and Whitney PW4000 engines roar low overhead, Michaels turned his jog into a sprint, his feet chewing up the last block towards his apartment off the corner of 14th and 2nd.
There was a whump sound in front of him, sounding about ten blocks away, followed by a couple more farther uptown, which he subconsciously heard as he sprinted for home.
As he neared their brownstone, he could see his fiancé, Victoria, standing on their red-painted fire-escape, looking northeast towards where the sound of the bomber had diminished, sounding like it had flown over Harlem.
Looking back over his shoulder, Dante could see that the mist had started to clear, the ten-mile-an-hour wind coming unusually out of the southeast and blowing the smell of the Hudson across his neighborhood.
The breeze was refreshing, but the lightening mist helped Dante notice that the air had taken on a yellowish-brown haze.
He thanked whatever providence and the overcast that made him decide not to wear his sunglasses today. With the polarized lenses on, he would never have noticed the slight tinting to the sky, it was so subtle.
Somehow, Dante also knew it wasn't a natural sight for his city, nor was it some weird atmospheric anomaly changing the light.
A feeling of animal panic flooded up his spine, though he couldn’t put his finger on a reason for it. It was a totally ingrained instinctive reaction to danger.
He didn’t think it was possible, but Dante actually managed to speed up once he saw Victoria.
He knew he had to get home.
Dante Michaels sprinted across 2nd Ave and angled to the black iron gate in front of his building. Hardly slowing down, he unlocked it and bulled through the main door of their building, taking the steps three at a time to their second-story apartment.
Rushing inside, Michaels yelled out to Victoria.
“Get some things together because we are getting the hell out of the city now.”
“But D, the bus doesn’t come by for ten more minutes, what’s the rush?” Victoria asked him, stepping back into the apartment from the window that lead to the fire escape.
“We’re not taking the bus. Grab just a few essentials, maybe a change of clothes, some food if we have to camp out, nothing else. I’ll get us some wheels. And hurry!” Dante added, grabbing his .357-Magnum-firing Desert Eagle and two spare clips out of his sock drawer, sliding the heavy handgun into his shorts’ waistband and stuffing the clips in his right pocket, his wallet and cell phone going into the left.
Hearing Victoria rummaging in the kitchen, Dante headed back out onto the street, noting as he did that the yellow-brown haze has gotten closer, moving with the prevailing winds towards them.
He looked down 2nd Avenue as he exited his building’s main door-- he could see nothing suitable just waiting to be taken, and he jogged around the corner onto 14th street.
Five cars down the street, Michaels saw an older-model Ford Fairlane convertible, with the top down, parked on this side of the street and facing west, opposite the other cars parked facing towards him.
The massive two door vehicle was white on top, had a gold accent stripe just below the door handle on the door, and was black below that on the sides. It also looked to be in great condition, and unattended.
He jogged over to it, looking around surreptitiously, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to him as he neared the antique land yacht.
Coming even with the right quarter panel, Dante saw that this was the rare 500 Skyliner retractable-hardtop version of the classic Fairlane. He grinned, and, after another quick look around, slipped around the car and opened the driver’s door.
It only took him fifteen seconds to hotwire the ancient car’s ignition, a trick he picked up on these streets long ago.
With the classic Ford now running, Dante glanced around again to see if anyone had taken offense to him claiming the car -- but again, no one seemed to notice or care, and he instead saw Victoria looking around for him.
He yelled out her name, but she seemed not to hear, as a mutual friend of theirs, Jarrod (or J-Rod, as he was known on the street) walked towards her from across 2nd Ave.
Leaving the car running, Dante stood and jumped over the passenger door, sprinting towards his fiancé and yelling her name again.
Down 14th street to the east, Dante could see people just falling over on the sidewalks, and he noticed cars swerving onto the sidewalks and into each other as the yellowish cloud washed over them, less than a block away now.
Reaching Victoria’s side, Dante grabbed her arm and started to tow her towards the still-running Fairlane, waving to Jarrod to hurry up and come with them.
While physically hauling Vic down the street with him, Dante took the backpack from her and tossed it into the back seat of the Ford as they approached it.
As they neared the rear of the car, Dante released Victoria’s arm and headed around the big car, getting into the driver’s seat once again.
Victoria, free of her fiance’s grip, waved J-Rod over, and, when he paused, she ran to him to help him into the car.
Dante, seeing them in the rearview mirror, reved the big V8 under the hood to get their attention.
It was in the rectangular mirror that he saw J-Rod fall, twitching, to the street less than forty yards away. In what had to be instants but seemed like minutes, his nose, eyes, and mouth all started running while he convulsed, then he lay still. All down the street, hundreds of people twitched, quivered, or lay still in puddles of their own making.
Michaels screamed at Victoria to run, and, as she turned to head for him and the Ford, she slipped, her eyes wide as saucers in horror at what she'd just seen.
When she started to stand back up, Dante knew it was already too late -- as she stumbled, drooling, reaching out for him.
He knew in an instant there was nothing he could do --Dante Michaels slammed his foot down on the Fairlane’s gas pedal, swerving into the chaotic traffic, seeing the brown-yellow haze closing over them was he spared a look back for his fallen compadre and fiance.
J-rod seemed small and extremely pale in death, which was strange because in life the man had been bigger and blacker than Michael Clarke Duncan. Victoria, writhing on the ground, didn’t look near the six months pregnant he knew she was.
With a last glance back, Dante shut off his heart and let his survival instincts take over, tears hazing his vision.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
© 2010 Brian Kupfer (@Valder137)