The people to the west were the lucky ones. The ones whose lives were taken immediately or in the first days following YS. Crossroads wasn't lucky. A man should never be in the dire situation where he fights his neighbors for scraps of food. But we had said that the Dead Zone would never erupt in our lifetimes. 'Never' is a funny word.
Crossroads, what was called "southeast Missouri" back in the days of the Old Union, had been far enough from the Dead Zone that the population had time to react. Most ran east. That wasn't a bad strategy by itself. Those that immediately recognized the implications of the eruption were smart to do so. But that same smart strategy for a person or small group quickly becomes stupid in large groups. Things went stupid when they broke the bridge.
There are a number of bridges across the Mississippi River, and most were in some semblance of working order before that day. But the first to fall was the Mississippi span of the MO-IL-KY triple point. Was it simply overloaded, exhausted from years of minimal maintenance and neglect? Or was it something more sinister, an intentional blow by the USACE to attempt to limit population flow to the main highways? Only those souls with front-row seats knew for sure, the rest of the cars on that bridge were only along for the ride when they were pulled into Old Man River's cold embrace.
More along the river fell. Religious end-times nutters were inspired by that "Act of God" to take two major spans, one in St. Louis and the I-57 bridge being the other. The increasingly crowded remaining bridges were made to bear more traffic. Witnesses told tales of four more minor connections succumbing to overload. Then the poison set in. Great volumes of ashen water came down the Missouri River, followed a day later by more from the North Mississippi. Lifeblood had become acid. The ancient concrete and steel that had served generations was no match, and the remaining spans buckled one after another.
"What if" that first bridge had held? Would the apocalypse cult have found another outlet? "What if" they had and those three extra routes were available? Would more have been evacuated? "What if" enough had taken those routes? Would the four distressed spans have held? "What if" they did, and more had escaped? There's too many "What if"s for any man to reason around, but any of those paths not taken would have been preferable to the cold crowded hell that came.
Too many didn't escape. Travelers, we locals called them. We welcomed them with open arms at first. The burden didn't seem too heavy when they spread among the region. Despite being short on fuel, optimism was high in the early days. Surely, since the problem came from so far away, this is something we can easily recover from. Surely our hard-working, honest government in Jeff City would hold us together and have emergency food and transport available. Surely the Federal Government wouldn't abandon us. Surely we can keep the electricity going one more week. Surely we have enough food to last one more day. Each implicit promise failed us as the weeks turned to months. The land had given us all it could bear and was exhausted. No more game, no more lumber, no more water.
Tensions finally came to a head one morning in some small unknown town on the northern boundary. People died. Too many people died. By blade or by bullet, half the locals met their end. Travellers suffered even greater losses. Their few survivors were given the cruellest ultimatum: Die now, or march south. Anything to get them away from here. Patrol on horseback set them as far as Memphis, beyond that we didn't care, the purge of troublemakers--our former brothers and sisters--was complete. This was a pattern repeated all too frequently.
Crossroads. My shattered home. Ever so slowly, the few of us left began to put civilization back together. In time, the Rivermen had dry-docked and repaired their ferries. The maiden voyage was met with rifles. A militia calling themselves the "Tennessee Expeditonary Force" came across the water to serve as a scouting party. They travelled I-70 westbound and across the Missouri River northward. The returning parties didn't leave much hope for survivors. Their troops had sustained losses and had wild-eyed younger members uttering something about "ash wraiths."
"Crossroads" was the name that finally stuck. Another militia calling themselves the "Texas Expeditonary Force" came through our lands, headed north to the Great Lakes. Between the two, we seemed to be providing the crossroads of large military movement.
The TEF were tired, distant, and rather gruff, but seemed somewhat relieved to see "people living in towns." The best any of us could piece together based on their conversations was that lands to the west were progressively worse. The old I-44 corridor seemed to be the cutoff, with anything northwest being covered in so much ash as to be uninhabitable by sane men. But, according to the captain, there are many men no longer sane these days. I-44 itself was covered in abandoned vehicles and ash. Hundreds of miles of cars, set outside and scaled clean of all paint by the shifting ash dunes. Who knows how many graves are also under those ashes?