Francis and I saw the Louisiana coastline at the same time, and I think we had much the same reaction: an overpowering sadness. It was likely that neither of us would ever fly a helicopter again. We'd just flown our last crew change from an offshore oil platform. We had three passengers in a twelve-passenger helicopter.
When the flu hit the U.S., it really didn't lead to a Stephen King-like collapse of government and society. No, things were winding down, but not collapsing. Francis and I still had our jobs because of seniority, and because the flu had hit hardest the age group from twenty-five to forty-five. Most of our pilots in that age group were dead.
We landed at the Morgan City base, and Ron, the day mechanic, came out to escort the passengers in to the operations building. Francis and I gathered our flight gear, and walked upstairs to the employee lounge. We had a cup of coffee with Terry, the Area Manager. We told stories and lies and laughed a lot.
There were no other pilots at the base. The room felt achingly empty. Terry asked us to check back in two months, in case the oil companies decided to remobilize in the Gulf of Mexico. "Assuming the phones are still working," he said. "If they aren't, send a letter. The government says that mail service will continue."
Francis and I walked to our cars, stowed our gear, and met in the middle of the nearly empty employee parking lot. We shook hands, then hugged. Francis and I had been best friends for a quarter of a century. I'd been there for his wedding, watched his two daughters grow up, and I'd been there for his divorce. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't.
Francis would make it home to Kansas, with a little luck. He had a Dodge diesel pickup with extra fuel tanks in the bed, and they were full. I'd managed to catch an airline flight to go to work, but in the ensuing two weeks, the airlines had virtually shut down. I had a Ford Focus with an almost-full gas tank and ten gallons in the trunk. I could make it a third of the way home to northern California without refueling, maybe as far as the New Mexico border. The word was that most gas stations were closed along Interstate 10. I'd need more than a little luck.
Roadside bandits hadn't proven to be much of a problem, but the government advised the few people still traveling to stick to the Interstates as much as possible. They were patrolled now and then, so the bandits tended to shy away from them.
I drove through the remaining light and into the night. There was not an open gas station to be found.
I saw a Texas state trooper's car parked at the main exit for Kerrville, door open. I stopped and approached the patrol car in the darkness. The inside of the car was illuminated. The trooper had all the signs of late-stage flu. He was dying. Deaths had tapered off, but rumors abounded that the flu virus had mutated, and those of us who had survived were not out of the woods.
I stopped ten feet from the trooper. "Don't worry," he croaked, "I've been in a command center, isolated. This is my first go-round with the bug. Last too, I guess."
That lessened my fear of a mutated virus, but I slipped the surgical mask over my nose and mouth anyway.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"You can help me out of here," he answered. "I want to die looking at the stars."
I pulled him out of the car, and half-carried him to the grass on the shoulder. I could feel the heat radiating from him.
"This will do," he said. I helped him lie on the ground. I went back to his car and grabbed his jacket. I folded it and put it under his head.
"Is there anyone you'd like me to try to contact?"
"My wife and daughter are dead," he answered. "Doesn't much matter. You should go. I want to die here alone, thinking about my girls."
"Are you sure?"
He met my eyes. "Yeah. Where you going?"
"Northern California," I answered.
"Wow. You loaded with fuel?"
"No," I answered, "just an extra ten gallons."
"You'll find a gas can in the trunk," he said. "Don't think I'll be needing it."
I poured the gas into the tank, and walked back to him.
"Thank you," I said.
"You're welcome. Thanks for talking with me. You'd better go." I started to walk away.
"Wait," he rasped. I turned. "Do you believe in life after death?"
"Yes," I answered.
"I hope you're right. I sure want to see my wife and daughter again."
"You will," I said.
"I believe you. Goodbye."
I put the car in gear, and again began driving west, hoping that my wife and son would still be safe at home, and hoping the cough that had started a couple of hours earlier was nothing to worry about.
The sky was beautiful.