Charles woke with a start, and reached over to see if Vic was in bed. Nothing there, bed was still warm, but Vic had gotten up. That must have been the thing that woke him up in the middle of the night, since he didn't remember a bad dream, and the house was silent. He got out of bed, his body slow to respond, and looked out the window. Everything looked fine.
He threw a robe on, since he was just wearing a T-shirt and running shorts to sleep in, and checked on the kids. Rich and Martin, who shared a room, were sleeping peacefully, Jesse had kicked the covers off in the night and Sarah was so tightly wrapped in hers that he thought she would have to be removed from her bed by the Jaws of Life. There was enough pale moonlight coming in to each child's room that he didn't have to light a candle, and checking on them made him feel a lot better about Vic's absence from the bed.
Charles thought that Vic had to be downstairs checking on something, but he grabbed one of the shotguns before going downstairs. He hated having to do it, but Vic's warnings always rang through his head, "Always bring a gun with you when you go to a different floor. You have no idea what has shown up since you were last there."
There hadn't been a zombie in the house in over a year, but he always grabbed it out of habit. Besides, he had four children to take care of, and if there was something down there, he had to make sure that they were safe.
He crept down the stairs slowly, the moonlight from the windows making it so he could see where he was going without much trouble. He wanted to grab a lantern or a candle, but most of them were downstairs in the kitchen. He got to the bottom of the stairs and said, "Vic? Where are you?"
Nothing. No sound from anywhere in the house. Now, he was nervous. It wasn't like Vic to take off without letting him know, even if he was just getting a midnight snack. It was possible that he'd gone outside to the outhouse, but Vic wasn't the kind of person who woke up in the night for things like that. The living room looked exactly like he'd left it, the futon had crumpled blankets on it, the kids had a few toys on the floor and the fire in the fireplace was glowing slightly.
He went to the front door and checked it. Locked. If Vic went outside, he'd locked it after leaving, which was even stranger.
Then, as he was looking out the window next to the door, he heard a thump behind him, far away. He spun quickly and raised the gun. "Vic," he said, louder this time, "Where are you?"
The sound had to have come from the kitchen or the dining room, both of which were behind big wooden doors. He crept to the door to the dining room and slowly pushed open the door. He looked inside and saw that nothing was different. The table and chairs all sat silently in the pale, blue glow of night. He shut the door to the dining room quietly, and moved over to the kitchen door. He paused, listening at the door, causing his mind to stop thinking and concentrating on nothing but hearing what might be going on behind the door.
There, in the stillness of the night, his head against the door, shotgun in his hands, he could hear something behind the door. A slow, labored breathing. It was so quiet that he could just barely hear it on the edge of his perception, but it was there. He wondered what it could be behind the door. Could Vic have injured himself and was passed out on the floor? Worse, could it be some sort of medical condition? He'd worried about that from time to time...what if one of them got sick or injured. Neither of them had any medical training other than a little bit of first aid. And they were both at the age when they had to worry about things like cancer.
He shook the thought out of his head. All he knew was that someone or something behind the door was having trouble breathing.
He swallowed hard and gripped the shotgun even harder. He was going to have to open the door, but how? Bursting through with the gun at the ready to have the upper hand on whatever was in there? Slowly pushing the door open to have the element of surprise? He toyed with the idea of sneaking around to the other door so that he could head better, but by the time he did that, he might be discovered by whatever was behind that door.
That damned door.
He stilled his breathing and waited, hoping to hear some other sound, some other clue as to what was behind the door.
Just the same labored breathing, getting a bit shallower as time went on. He said a quick prayer to whatever god might be listening and shoved the door open.
Charles was met with a sight that almost made him drop his gun. Vic was being held against the wall by a zombie's hand on his throat. The zombie was dressed in a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and despite having the gray skin tone of the zombies he had seen, its face wasn't frozen in the rigor mortis of death like the other ones. Vic looked bad, blood all around the zombie's hand, and his head hanging limp from the grip. If he wasn't completely passed out, he was amazingly close to unconscious. He whole scene was illuminated by the moonlight streaming through a window just to the left of them and Charles wished for an instant that he was blind instead of having to see this.
Charles held up the shotgun and tried to aim in such a way that he would nail the zombie's head without shooting Vic, but the Zombie quickly positioned itself so that that wasn't possible
Then it hit him.
The zombie had not just moved quickly, which was impossible, but was showing intelligence.
"I don't think you want to shoot right now," the zombie said, its voice a sick parody of human voice. The voice gave Charles the image of bones being ground together, and some deep animal revulsion shuddered through his body. It spoke, the damn thing actually spoke.
"You have me at a disadvantage," the zombie continued, "I know your friend here, but you have a gun and no idea who I am. However, since my hand is the only thing keeping your roommate here from bleeding to death, I think we might be able to work something out."
"You do anything else to him and I swear to God I'll blow your heart into the next time zone," Charles said, his anger making his voice hard as steel.
"That's not how someone talks about their roommate...it's how someone talks about their..." the zombie paused, its face twisting into a sick smile, "You two are together? I don't believe it. And I thought I was an abomination before the Lord."
"Let. Him. Go." Charles said, moving forward ever so slightly with each word.
"We discussed that already," the zombie said, tightening its grip and causing Vic to moan in pain, "If I let him go, he bleeds to death. You seem to have quite the dilemma, and in today's world, I don't think there are a lot of Gay Bars you can hit to find someone to replace him.
Charles's grip tightened on the shotgun, hoping that he could control his growing anger, "What the fuck do you want then?"
The zombie smiled, "Not You...Eddie. The name is Eddie. And what I want is blood. Preferably as much blood as I can get. Those other shambling dead folks aren't as picky about what they eat as I am, but they'll be like me soon enough. You see, I am what they are becoming."
Charles was confused, and the whole situation was becoming way too much for him to handle.
"I was one of them, now I can talk, think and...well, plan my killing. You have four children upstairs. Give me one of them, and I'll let this old poofta go. Deal?"
Eddie smiled again, and Charles almost gagged. In the light of the moon, he could see the darkness around Eddie's mouth that had to be blood. Vic was handing there, limp, barely able to move. Maybe, just maybe, if they were able to find a doctor and Vic kept his word, Vic wouldn't die of his wounds. Then there would be the infection from the bite, and...
They had discussed something like this. Their lives didn't mean as much as the children's, and they had both said they were willing to sacrifice everything for the children to live. Now, the choice was clear and in front of him. A life for a possible chance at life. He quietly asked that Vic forgive him and closed his eyes for a second, just to gather the strength he needed for what he had to do.
"It's a brain teaser, isn't it? Which person you love gets to die? Which of the people you care for gets to be a sacrifice to a higher being. You almost wonder, would cows be able to sacrifice their herdmates for their own lives?" Eddie taunted.
That was all Charles needed. He opened his eyes and fired the shotgun, both barrels. The shots his Eddie in the shoulder, causing him to drop Vic to the floor. Eddie screamed and leaped at Charles, who fired again, this time catching him in the midsection. Black liquid and chunks of flesh flew against the wall behind Eddie, who was knocked backwards against the wall as well. Charles was aiming for another shot when he saw the black liquid that would have been blood in a live human being begin to coagulate quickly and start to reform Eddie's body.
The shock caused him to pause, and Eddie took advantage of the pause and leaped out the window, shattering glass and leaving more thick, black blood on the window frame.
Charles ran to the window and looked, but there was no sign of Eddie outside. He looked around the room quickly and looked for the door to the outside. It was slightly ajar, and he knew that's where Eddie had to have gotten in. He ran over to it and flung it open, looking around with his shotgun at the ready. There was no sign of the zombie. He quickly stepped back inside and slammed the door, locking it behind him.
He went to Vic's side and knelt by him. The slow labored breathing had stopped, and there was blood all over his neck and torso. He could feel the tear well up inside him as he knew that his lover was dead.
He put the shotgun to Vic's head and made sure the death was final. Then and only then did he allow himself to cry. It was only a few seconds after he'd made sure Vic wasn't coming back that the children arrived, Jesse, the oldest, opened the door and then quickly shut it. Charles could hear him take charge, telling the others to make sure the rest of the house was secure, then he told them to go to the safe room and hide.
Jesse then came into the kitchen where Charles was sitting on the floor, no longer crying, but unable to even move. Jesse knelt down beside him, and acting far older than his 13 years said, "We'll need to get this cleaned up, and we need to give Vic a decent funeral. Can you help me get him outside?"
Charles looked at Jesse, the dim light obscuring most of his face, but his large eyes filled with a mix of pain and confusion. How was it that these children kept having to go through this? Why did they have to keep losing parents? What sort of uncaring God left them alive to deal with this horror on an endless basis?
"Can you help me?" Jesse asked again, and Charles nodded dumbly and put the shotgun down.
Together they took the body outside and then cleaned the kitchen in silence. Neither of them wanted to discuss what had happened. Finally, when the sun had come up, and all of the blood had been washed away, Charles told him everything that had happened. He had figured out that Eddie had gotten in through the unlocked kitchen door, but how had he got past the gates?
When they went outside to prepare a funeral pyre for Vic, they saw how. The front gate had been pulled open, the lock shattered. The zombie had to have incredible strength. Charles also knew one thing that he would have trouble telling the children. They weren't safe here anymore. If that thing was able to get in once, it would get in again.
They piled wood for a funeral pyre and Charles tried to figure out how best to tell the children that they would be sleeping in the safe room for the next couple of days as they prepared to leave. And he had no idea where they would ever be safe again.
* * *
Ray had been walking for almost a week before he saw another human being. He was finding safe places to sleep every night, and he had talked to Nathan every night for at least a half hour, so he didn't feel totally alone. He'd learned that Nathan had set up a pretty good safe house in North Dakota, complete with electricity and computer access. Ray wanted to hit the army base in Missouri before heading up to North Dakota, mostly to see why his CO hadn't wanted him to go to that base. It could be nothing, but he also remembered that when the zombies first showed up, they had been around that base.
Of course, he had a damn good idea as to why.
But he had to know. Had to make sure. And part of him wondered if there were still people there, working on stopping the nightmare. Maybe that was why his CO didn't want him going there.
Then again, it didn't make a lot of sense to keep him away if they were working on something that would kill the zombies.
But, in the end, what did make sense?
Nothing but moving forward, finding food, and keeping safe. Nathan sounded a lot different than the people who had been on the base. He didn't sound young, but the way he looked at the world was about the same s a teenager. He thought that if he just sat tight long enough, everything would come back on. Who was he to destroy someone's dream?
The good thing was that the kid (he called him a kid, even though he had to be in his mid 20's) asked a lot of questions about The Base and the people there. He had pretty much given up on anyone ever contacting him and only turned on his radio for static at night to help him go to sleep, and had to contact him when he heard the conversation. Nathan had also tried to talk to the people at The Base, but they told him to get off the channel because it was restricted to military use only.
Security even now. It made Ray laugh, even if it was an utter waste of time.
Ray had spent the morning walking, but it was starting to get towards late afternoon, so he was hunting. He hadn't found a place to spend the night, but hunger had driven him toward looking for something to eat instead of someplace to sleep. Part of him said that he shouldn't worry about a place to sleep, since he hadn't seen a single zombie since that morning in the mobile home, but he knew that the minute he let down his guard, he'd be zombie chow.
He crept through the woods, hoping to see a rabbit or something, but it had been very quiet all around him, with only small birds and squirrels. As hungry as he was, he'd rather break open an MRE than eat one of those rats with furry tails.
He'd been silently going through the woods for long enough that the shadows were getting much longer where he heard something, far away on his right. He didn't know if it was an animal, a person or...
That's the bad thing.
He always had to keep in the back of his mind that it might be one of the living dead, which even sounded like a painfully bad cliché when he said it out loud.
He slowly dropped to the ground and made a nice waiting place in the fallen leaves and waited. He heard the sounds coming closer, and it sounded like something walking through the leaves. It was coming closer, and all he had to do was quietly wait. As he waited, he hoped it was a large animal, like a cow or a pig, even though cows were amazingly rare. Most of them had died out when The Fall came, because they had become so dependent upon the medical help and strange food that they couldn't survive without humans taking care of them. Pigs, on the other hand, became almost as common as rabbits and squirrels for a while.
Then, the zombies found that they didn't have to feed on human, and any freshly killed flesh would do, and they became the pigs's natural predator. His mouth watered as he thought about shooting a pig and stripping it down to the bone, roasting it over a fire. He'd even stay up all night for something like that and worry about sleeping the next day. He remembered how to strip and store a pig from the training he'd had after The Fall, when they became hunters for meat and farmers for vegetables and the like. He'd even learned how to dry some of the meat so that it would last in a backpack for a few days.
When he closed his eyes, he could see the pig over the fire, roasting, getting ready to be the best meal he'd had in months. The sounds were getting closer, and he slowly turned his body around on the ground so that he was positioned to watch for whatever it was. He thought that it was probably a zombie, and he'd taken all these precautions for nothing.
The sound kept coming closer, whatever it was didn't much care if it had been heard. It wasn't an animal, he was sure of that. Animals would walk a bit, then stop and look about, making sure they were safe and this thing was walking with a normal, steady gait. Either human or zombie. Either way, he wasn't going to get that rib dinner.
He waited a bit longer and saw the thing that was making the sounds. Not a zombie, thankfully. It was a man who looked to be in his mid 20's, dark hair and beard, dressed in army fatigues and carrying about 5 rabbits. He had his gun slung over his shoulder casually, and looked as if he had been tromping about in the woods all day.
Ray popped up, gun at the ready, and the man immediately dropped his game and drew his weapon as well, saying, "What the hell do you want?"
"Who are you, and why are you walking around in the woods like the Jolly Fucking Giant?" Ray said, still holding his gun on the man.
"My name's Mark, and why is it any of your business? Do you own the woods or something?"
"No," Ray said, still at the ready, "you just seem like you don't have a worry in the world, making enough noise to bring the dead running for dinner.
Mark actually smiled at that, and slowly lowered his weapon "I'm not worried about the bastards. Betsy here can take care of them, and they aren't as stealthy as you are."
"I suppose you're right." Ray said, "but aren't you being a little greedy with the bunnies?"
"If I were alone, yeah, but I'm with a group of people."
"Last count, 112," Mark said, "But you don't get any more information about me until I get a name."
"Ray. Ray Walker," he said, finally lowering his gun, "US Army, deserter. How did you hook up with 112 people around here? We're nowhere near a big city, and I haven't seen any houses big enough to hold that many people."
Mark smiled and slung the rabbits back over his back, "They're pilgrims. I've joined up with them for a few miles just to have the company of stranger. They're going to Graceland."
"You're kidding, Elvis worshippers?"
"You'd think so. Some of them are, but I think the rest joined up to have something to believe in. The leader and I are talking a lot, and the way he makes it sound, they started in Arizona and have been gathering people up as they march across the country."
Ray holstered his pistol and started walking along with Mark. The woods were losing some of their leaves, but for the most part still had them. Weird southern weather, it hadn't really gotten cold yet, and it was probably getting into early November by now. They walked about a mile, telling each other what they had done since the TVs and light bulbs all went out. Mark was shocked that Ray left a hot bed and a warm meal to run around in the cold woods and look for bunnies, and Ray was wondering how Mark had been around all this time without having anyone traveling with him.
"Funny thing about that," Mark said, "The last person I had with me was Betsy. She was former National Guard, knew her way around a gun and was a good traveling companion. We were moving south earlier this year, she thought it might be a good idea to get to Florida and see if there were any cities there that had been able to keep most of the zombies out. Rumor mills keep stuff like that alive, I guess. Round about Illinois, she got killed. We ran into a zombie nest, had to be a couple dozen of them, and we tried blasting our way out.
"She didn't make it," he said, simply and finally.
"What have you done since then?"
They walked in silence the rest of the way back to the camp where the people had stopped at a highway rest stop and turned it into their camping grounds. There were a few fires going and most of the horses were tied to the signs about where to get your truck weighed and how far until the next city. Mark was greeting happily upon his return, and the people started singing "Hound Dog" as if it were Amazing Grace. Ray had a lot of trouble not laughing at it all when Mark introduced him to the leader.
He was a balding man with long graying hair, a jowly face and kind blue eyes named Joel, and he stepped away from the rest of the group to talk to him. Ray filled him in on the army base, and how the people there wouldn't allow the travelers in. "That's fine," Joel said, his voice a deep, rich baritone, "We are pretty much determined to make it to Graceland."
"Why Graceland?" Ray asked, "Memphis can't be in very good shape, with the zombies congregating in the cities. Graceland wasn't even in the good part of Memphis."
"That's easy, Ray," the older man said, as if explaining something to a small child, "Graceland is where Elvis is from. He rose from the dead before this plague and his home will keep us safe until we are delivered."
Ray looked deadly serious, "Do you really believe that?"
Joel moved closer so he could talk quietly, "Look at those people. They are singing, they have hope, they aren't worried about their lives anymore. They believe that when we get there, it will be safe. And, to be honest, just about anyplace with a 15 foot high fence and turrets can be made into a safe place. They might have believed in Jesus coming back before all of this. Now, they believe in Elvis. What's the harm in the belief if they feel safe because of it."
"Are they safe?"
Joel sighed, "Are any of us?"
Ray laughed at that, and said, "I guess not."
They rejoined the rest of the people. Through the night they ate and sang and told stories of life from before The Fall. There was no real leader to the conversation, and Ray enjoyed the difference between this conversation and the ones he had had on the base. They were all about duty and honor, and this was just people talking about what used to matter to them, and what they want out of life now.
In the end, they all wanted the same thing, to be able to go to bed without worrying if they would be under attack before they woke up. None of them missed having to have jobs they hated, paying for cars and homes that they never got to enjoy, or the fact that the news kept them scared all the time of things that didn't matter at all now.
Social Security? Other nations attacking? Black people coming out of the inner city to kill rich white people in the Suburbs? All a long faded memory that had nothing to do with their lives anymore.
It was during this conversation that Ray wondered if the dreams of people like Sue, dreams of getting the world back to the way it was, was a waste of time. The world wasn't exactly what people wanted, and now they had a chance to live totally new lives.
As people slowly finished their meals and started to put the children to bed, Joel stood up and said, "I think it is important that we thank our two newest travelers, Ray and Mark. They didn't have to join us, they don't share our belief, but they are welcome to stay with us as long as they want. Before we all go to bed, and our guards start their evening watches, let's share a song with our new friends."
They all sang "Jailhouse Rock" as if they were in Church, and Ray was surprised to realize that he knew all of the lyrics. He'd never been an Elvis fan, but obviously he had to have heard them when he was a child. Then the crowd dispersed and he was left at the fire with Mark, Josh and a few other people who were obviously the guards for the evening, as they got out guns and were discussing who would take what watch.
Ray asked where he could sleep and Josh pointed toward one of the cars that no one was using that night. Ray thanked him but said he had a sleeping pack in his kit and wanted to sleep on the ground.
"Why?" Josh asked.
"I've had to sleep in beat up mobile homes, basements and secluded caves since I left the base. I'd like to be able to sleep out under the stars without worrying what I'll wake up to."
"Yeah," Mark said, ending his almost evening-long silence. It was when he spoke that Ray realized that Mark hadn't said anything since they got back to the camp. "I had to go from basement to basement for so long that sleeping outside was just wonderful. I woke up with clear lungs for the first time in years, none of that 'old house' dust aggravating my allergies."
Joel laughed quietly, "I know how you feel. When I was in Arizona, I thought I would be living for the rest of my life in the bomb shelter we were hiding in. When I decided to leave, the others thought I'd lost my mind. It was only when I got out that I realized that if I stayed down there much longer, I'd be the one going insane."
"What did you do, you know, before The Fall?" Ray asked, getting comfortable on the ground by the fire.
"I was a scientist," Joel said simply, "I worked in nuclear bomb research. It's how I paid the bills. I'm not proud of it now, but I was then. I was one of those people who felt that anything we did to protect America was right and true and good. Now, it looks like we did the one thing our enemies and the liberals said we would do. We destroyed the world.
"We did what?" Mark asked, looking a bit upset.
"Destroyed the world. You didn't believe the crap that this thing was done by Saddam Hussein, did you?"
Mark still looked confused and said, "I don't know. I heard a lot of different things. Some people said it was part of the Bible come true, others said it was something to do with aliens."
Joel looked at him the way a father looks at his confused child, "What did you do before the fall?"
Mark looked a big sheepish and said, "I worked at a pizza place and went to community college. My parents couldn't afford to send me to a university>"
"Nothing wrong with that, son," Joel said without a hint of condescention, "Two of my three children worked their way through college. None of them are with me anymore, but they were good kids who worked hard and did the best they could. I didn't hear much, since communications were in bad shape once the zombies started up, but most of the people who worked with me said that they thought it was an Army biological agent that went haywire.?
Ray perked up at that, "Did they say where those people worked?"
Joel thought a bit and said, "No one seemed to know. It was all pretty much rumor and the like by the time people were seriously talking about it. You have to remember that they kept the lid on it for the first 4 or 5 months. It was in an out of the way place, and the media didn't cover anything the government didn't want covered. Otherwise they wouldn't get the big name guests on their interview shows."
Ray frowned, "I remember that. I just wondered, since when I asked about investigating the Missouri army base, my CO said that it was still off limits."
"Army procedure," Joel said, looking disgusted, "if ignoring a problem would make it go away, we never would have had to fight a war."
Mark spoke up and asked, "Has anyone tried to go to that base and see what happened? Maybe there are still people there and...?"
"And what?" Ray asked.
"Maybe they are working on a cure for this thing," Mark said, he quickly added, "Not that I'm nuts or anything, but if your base was still operating in radio silence, maybe they are too. And if they have information about stopping these things, maybe we can help."
Joel leaned back and thought for a minute. Then, he stood up and said, "I have to get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to make good time, the next rest area is at least two days away, so we'll have to camp in the woods, and people need more time to get ready for that. That should give you a bit of time to decide how far you're going to go with us, Mark."
"Aren't you interested?" Mark asked.
Joel shook his head, "No. I'm going to Graceland. Its as good a place as any to wait for things to happen."
With that, he turned and left. The fire was burning down to embers, and Ray was starting to feel the cold nip of the fall air. He grabbed his sleeping kit out of his pack and started rolling it out. Mark was adding more wood to the fire and using his own backpack as a pillow. When they were both laid down, Mark spoke again, asking, "When did you know it was all over?"
"What was all over?" Ray asked, hoping that this conversation wouldn't last very long.
"Civilization," Mark said, "I knew that things were pretty much over when they shut of the Emergency Broadcast System on the radio, and there was no more Rush Limbaugh to listen to."
"I remember that," Ray smiled at the memory, "At the time I was all into that guy, but now I see that most of what he talked about those last months was crap. Iraq didn't do this, the President didn't have a plan. They just distracted us while they hightailed it out of Dodge. I knew things were over when our CO called all the senior officers into his office and ordered the base closed to refugees."
Ray's face grew dark in the firelight, "He ordered us to shoot anyone who came asking for help, telling us that they might be enemy agents, and even if they weren't we didn't have the food to feed them." He rolled over on his side, turning his back to Mark, "It was horrible. The first couple of months, before word got out. I did..."
He paused, feeling tears, "I followed orders. And that was no excuse. I stopped protecting my country and started protecting myself instead. That's how I knew it was all over.
And neither of them said another word the rest of the night. Ray's dreams were filled with memories, and Mark didn't sleep for many hours after that.
* * * It was three days on the road before Wendy felt terrible about leaving the house with Angela and Alice. The first two days, it was a lot like when she would leave with Tim to look for supplies. They were still close enough that if she wanted, she could make it back on her own without having to worry about where she would sleep. Then, when the sun was in the middle of the sky on the third day, she realized, she had really left home.
She didn't talk to them about it, since she had done so much to put up a brave front about leaving. They had locked the basement of the house, set the bunnies free and then made sure the fence was locked in case they came back, they wouldn't have to clean the place out of zombies. They all knew that if anyone found the house, they'd be able to get in, and they'd find the hidden supplies if they just looked through the house, but it made her feel better to go through the ritual of securing the house.
Then, they walked. They had said they were sticking with their plan of heading north, since winter was fast approaching. They didn't know if they'd make it to Canada, but they wanted to find a secured place above the frost line within the next month or so. Where they would go from there, no one talked about. It was the dirty little secret that no one really thought much beyond a couple of months.
The fourth day they passed close to a town, she wasn't sure what it was, but it was near enough that they could see the skyline of the city. There were still high rise buildings, and the interstate was still in good shape. Wendy was tempted to ask if they would head into the city, just to take a look and see what it was like, but as soon as they saw a building over 5 stories, Alice changed direction and took the long way around.
When they traveled, they didn't talk much. It was only at night when they camped that they talked, and it was mostly about where they were going, or how far they were going to move the next day. Wendy wasn't used to so much walked, and was usually asleep quickly once they stopped for the day. He sleep was deep, dreamless and rarely enough when they would wake her up before the sun came up to get packed so they could be moving again by dawn. Her body was able to take the pace, though, since she had to do a lot fo physical work around the house when she lived there.
The fifth day they ran across two zombies wandering down the road they were hiking on, and they dropped them from a distance. It always struck her as unnerving how they wouldn't make a single sound as they died. No attempt to protect themselves, just the same mindless gait until the bullet would rip through their brain and they'd drop to the ground, lifeless once again. That was the extent of their trouble the first week.
They left the road a few times as Alice would lead them forward. Alice had more training in maps, so she lead the way, working the compass and maps and always knowing where they were and how far they had to go before they slept. Most of the travel was through what used to be farm country. There were clusters of woods here and there, but for the most part it was fields that had been left on their own. Corn was being choked out of them by prairie grass and weeds. Soybeans were below some of the fields of grass, and they would pick the still green pods and shove them in their backpacks for eating later. She'd never tasted a soybean before this "march" and was surprised as how good they were.
The priarie grass was everywhere, tall, almost looking like wheat. She remembered the conversations she'd had with her Uncle years before when he told her that if not for humans planting crops and killed everything else, the whole country would be awash in the stuff. It looked beautiful, and more than once, they came over a hill and she was awestruck at how the wind would make it look like waves of water flowing down the hill.
The eighth day their supplies were running low. They started the morning a bit later than most, with Alice talking about hwo they needed to find a place to stay for a few days and gather up food again. Angela made a joke about how they could go back to the house, load up again and come back, but no one really laughed.
They walked, not talking, and eyes searching the area for a house that looked safe enough to stay at for a few days. They passed one that had caught on fire at some point, and was now a blackened husk on top of a hill. For the first time in days, they talked as they walked, giving theories on what had happened. Alice's was a typically dark tale of a family that went insane while locked in the basement, waiting for help to arrive. Angela's was a story of a couple who had moved into the house after the fall, then had to escape during a terrible storm as lightning hit the house and caused it to burn, with them barely getting out of the house in time. Wendy's story was that the people who lived there burned it down as they left, not wanting anyone else to have it.
They didn't go to the house itself to see which of the stories was most likely. They just kept moving and looking.
Finally, a little past midday, they saw a secluded driveway leading off of the road. The trees were still holding their leaves, so it was impossible to see where the road's offshoot led. "I would say this is going to be our best bet," Alice said, indicating what had to be a driveway.
"If not, let's still use this place to camp," Angela said, "I can't take much more walking today. I starting to get cramps, and that's no time to be easing on down the road."
"Shit," Alice muttered, "If you're starting to PMS, then I'm going to be kicking in any day now. Two things I miss from the old world are soft beds and the pill."
They turned off the road and walked about a mile when they saw an old plantation mansion. The place was surrounded by what looked like a new, wire mesh fence, which meant that someone either lived here, or had in the near past. Before The Fall, people used wooden fences. They just needed something that looked good and told people where the property line was. After the zombies started showing up, wire mesh was more precious than gold. People fought over it in hardware stores, and there were reports of people stealing fences that were already built during the night, leaving the people inside unprotected.
Wood fences weren't any good any more. Wood breaks when beat on long enough. Wire mesh would hold as long as the post holding it were solid. It looked like the people who had been (were still) here had fenced off a lot of land. They couldn't' even see where the fence was around the house, since it went into the woods partway, allowing for apple and peach trees to be inside the fence. The gate was closed, the front of it wired shut instead of held together by a lock. Wendy didn't know if that meant the people who were here had left, or if they just didn't want to deal with locks anymore.
"You go right," Alice said, pointing at Angela, "Wendy, you go left and I'll check the house itself. We'll meet back here in about 20 minutes. If you are in trouble, fire your gun, we'll be able to hear that." They nodded silently and went on their way. Angela had gotten the direction away from the woods, and Alice went quickly to work untwisting the wire that was holding the gate closed. Wendy looked into the woods where her section of fence led and saw nothing.
Wendy dropped her backpack at the front gate, "I don't think I'll need this," she muttered to no one in particular and got her rifle at the ready. She looked at the house, and it was huge. It had to be three times the size of the one she and Tim had been living in, with three floors, boarded up windows, and ivy with leaves that were turning red due to the coming winter. It was a majestic house, and had to have had been quite a sight before everything came tumbling down.
There were dying bushes all around the house, and what looked like it had once been a flower garden, but was now used for vegetables. She looked away from the house and off into the woods she had been chosen to scout. They were pretty thick, and she could only see a short distance into them. She looked around for Angela or Alice, just to tell them she was going in, but they were already gone, out of sight. Alice must have gone into the house, and Angela was going around the fence the other direction. She shrugged and thought to herself that the fence wasn't very long, and she'd meet up with her in a few minutes.
The sun was making mid-afternoon shadows, and when she stepped into the woods, it was like the sky had suddenly filled with clouds. The fruit trees were all on the inside of the fence, while on the outside were a bunch of big maples and oaks. The underbrush was pretty dense, and in the weeds were a bunch of smaller trees, none so big around that she wouldn't have been able to pull them out of the ground with her bare hands. As she walked, she hears her steps crunching the leaves and dead grass beneath her.
It didn't seem as dark in the trees as it had when she was outside of them, and she walked along the fence, trying to keep the house in her sight the whole time. About 100 yards in to the woods she heard a sound off in the distance.
Wendy aimed her rifle toward the sound and looked off in the direction it had come from. She stared off into the distance, almost thinking that if she concentrated on it hard enough, she would be able to see better. As it was, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She was torn, should she keep following the fence, or check out the noise? Finally, she decided that she needed to check out the noise, in case they decided to stay here, she would want to know that they had check out every possible problem.
The woods went down a hill, and she could see that at the bottom of the hill was a very small creek, one that she would have been able to step across without getting her shoes wet. The hill wasn't very steep, but the ground was covered in leaves and dead grass, so she walked carefully, making sure of each step so that she didn't slip down the hill. Suddenly, she heard something off to her left, and when she turned, she stepped on a fallen tree branch and twisted her ankle.
The pain shot up her leg and she felt her ankle completely give way, and she fell to the ground, hitting hard and knocking the wind out of her. She struggled to breath, the air not going in her lungs as she felt the world fade a bit before she was able to catch her breath again. When she looked again at the place where she thought she had heard the sound from, she saw them.
7 Zombies, moving toward her at a pretty good pace, and one in the lead that was wearing a red bandanna. She leveled her gun and fired before he was on her, and she was pinned to the ground. As she struggled to get away, a pain worse than anything she had ever felt shot through her chest. When she looked down, she saw that the zombie with the red bandanna had punched her so hard that his hand was imbedded in her chest.
And that was the last image she ever saw.
* * *
Angela heard the gun go off in the woods and shouted, "Alice! Wendy! What's going on?"
When there was no reply, she dropped her backpack as she'd seen Wendy do and started around the fence toward where the gunshot had come from. She was in a full run when she got no reply from her shouting, and heard no more gunshots. When she got around the fence to where it went into the woods, she stopped and shouted "Wendy!" again, as loud as she could.
She heard sounds from down the hill, but there was no reply. She started to walk toward the crest of the hill, slowly, making sure to keep her eyes open when she heard something running at her from the right. She swung around and dropped to one knee so that she could aim better and said, "Don't you fucking move!" before getting a good look.
She saw Alice, who put her gun barrel up in the air and yelled, "Don't shoot, it's me!"
"Shit," Angela said, "Did you hear anything from Wendy?"
Alice shook her head, and they both looked in the direction of the hill. Angela stood up and put her gun in the best firing position and started walking slowly toward the crest again. Alice was quickly by her side, and when they got to the crest, they saw a single zombie lying on the ground, its leg shattered by a shotgun blast. They walked down to it slowly, and looked at it for a moment. It used to be a woman, and it was dressed fairly well, meaning it was a zombie that had risen from a funeral home of some kind. Its long black hair was matted and in knots, the dress shredded below the knee, and the face a gray parody of a smile. It was clutching at the ground, trying to pull itself toward them, its hands digging so hard into the ground that the ground was coming up under its grasp.
Angela looked into its dead eyes and felt her stomach quiver in nausea. Suddenly, there was a loud report next to her and the head of the zombie turned into a black mist that spattered on the leaves behind it. The body slumped to the ground and all movement stopped, with none of the twitching that a human body did when it died. Probably because it wasn't moved by nerve impulses, but something far more dark and sinister.
She looked at it longer, not looking away until Alice nudged her shoulder and said, "It wasn't her. She wouldn't have turned so quickly."
Angela nodded dumbly and they started to look where the shot that blew off that zombie's leg had to have come from. They walked in the only direction they could figure out until the found a mess on top of the leaves and dead grass. There was blood on the ground, more than they thought was in a human being, and it was red.
Zombie blood was black.
This had been a human.
They both knew it, but neither of them said it. They looked at each other, and then looked around a bit more. They found her rifle by the side of the creek, more blood on the handle. No body, but Angela thought that they might have dragged the body away. She knew that that would be odd, since most of the time, zombies ate where they killed, but one of them had been hurt. Maybe they felt that they were in danger.
There was no drag marks, though.
None of it fit, but they still didn't talk. They looked in the creek for more clues of any kind, but there was nothing. They searched until the sun started to go down, and Alice looked up the hill and said, "We'd best head up to the house. It looked safe when I walked around it, but it will take about an hour to make sure there are no zombies inside."
Angela nodded, and then the full force of what had happened hit her. Wendy was dead. Dead and gone. And if they had just left her alone, safe in her little farmhouse, she wouldn't have died here, alone, surrounded by the dead. She'd been the one who convinced her to leave with them on an adventure.
But no one was supposed to die on a simple little adventure.
* * *
Charles had heard something walking around upstairs and motioned for the kids to keep quiet. They had holed up in the basement after they had given Vic a funeral pyre, and he was trying to break it to them gently that they needed to move on. He knew that Jesse knew, and Rich, who was ten, and left his parents while they were still alive seemed to be packing his stuff up quickly every morning. But Martin and Sarah were both younger, and would ask at least twice a day when they were going to move back upstairs where it was safe.
They had brought down a couple of board games and a lot of books and coloring books when they went down to the basement, and Jesse had helped Charles secure the house as good as they could. Charles wanted to talk to Jesse about the fact that the zombie who killed Vic wasn't like all the rest. It was intelligent. It could talk, plan and was planning something. And he knew deep in his heart that it wouldn't leave until they were dead.
Of course, he worried that if they left, it would follow them.
He listened in silence as he heard the footsteps above them, and the children were all silent, knowing that if there was noise above them, it wasn't good. He listened until he heard the steps get close to the door, and he motioned for them to hide in the small closet in the basement as he grabbed a shotgun and went over to the stairs.
They all shut the door and he turned the lantern down so that he could just barely see shadows around him. The children were silent, all of them had been through something like this before. He listened without breathing until he heard a woman voice say "God dammit" so loud that it could be heard through the door and down the stairs.
The footsteps went away quickly, the person or zombie who was upstairs ran away, and he waited a good five minutes before lowering the gun and telling the children it was OK for them to come out.
They waited another half-hour, and when they heard nothing, they made a quick meal and ate in silence. When they were done and cleaning things up, Sarah spoke for the first time that entire day, "Why didn't we let that lady in? She can't be a zombie if we heard her talk."
Charles saw Jesse shoot her a dirty look, but instead of giving Jesse the same kind of look, he said, "That lady came into our house when it was all locked up. She might not be a nice person."
Martin got up to get a coloring book and said, "Vic would have let her in."
"Vic's not here any more," Jesse said, pissed off and not caring who knew it. Sarah started to cry, and Rich said, "You are such an ass clown. Now you've got the baby crying."
"I'm not a baby," Sarah said between sobs.
"Hush," Charles hissed, "We've all got to be around each other down here, and this sort of fighting will just make the time worse." He walked over and picked up Sarah, who was fighting her tears now, trying to seem more mature than she was, "I miss Vic too, honey. There's not a minute I don't wish he was here. It's OK to cry when you think of him. We miss a lot of people, and when we cry, it's a way of making it not hurt so much." The next thing he knew, Martin had crawled into his lap and was grabbing at the collar of his shirt, "I miss him too, but I don't want to cry anymore. I cried all the time when I was left alone, and it didn't do any good."
At that point, he actually wanted to cry, but instead hugged the small child close and waited until he got up on his own and went back to his coloring.
It was just a few minutes later when they heard footsteps upstairs again, this time it was easy to tell that it was more that one person. He couldn't figure out how many there were. He also didn't have to tell the children to hide, they were already moving quickly to the hiding closet and closing the door by the time he was up and creeping toward the shotgun he'd left by the stairs.
He went up the stairs to the door as quickly as he could without making any noise and tried to figure out just what he could do. He couldn't open the door and surprise them, since it would leave the children at risk if they got the jump on him. If it was scavengers, they wouldn't leave until they got the basement open. And the final thought he had was that if it was more of the intelligent zombies, they really had no hope of getting out for a long time, since zombies didn't have to eat as much as humans for some reason.
He remembered hearing about a jail in Texas where the prison guard left the prisoners to die as civilization was falling, and six months later, a person found the place and the zombies had dropped into a kind of suspended animation, starting to stir when they could tell humans were near.
He thought about the food stores they had, and it was easily 3 month's worth in the basement, but there was only a few days supply of water. They had gotten complacent, and never replaced the water then they came to the basement to get some instead of getting it from the creek over the hill, or one of the nearby wells.
And because of that, they only had a few days, a week at most, that they could hide down here.
He closed his eyes and wished for the millionth time that it had been him instead of Vic, since Vic was so much better when the pressure was on. Charles was not a leader, and didn't like having to be one. He was the one who did what needed to be done, asked questions and then cleaned up the messes. Vic was the one who decided they would take each child, saying that together they could provide a better home for them that anyone else could. Charles thought about them cowering in the closet in the basement, not knowing that that they were due to run out of water.
A better home.
Maybe if Vic had been the one who slept and he was the one who went downstairs to get a drink of water.
He heard a loud bump on the other side of the door and heard two muffled female voices. He couldn't make out anything they were saying, but he could tell they weren't near the door. It was hard to tell just how far away they were, but it was easy to tell they weren't in the hallway leading down to the basement.
He listened a bit longer, and heard the voices getting further away, so he went down the stairs quietly but quickly and crept over to the closet door.
"Jesse," he hissed.
Jesse came out from behind the fake wall they had erected in the closet and said, "yeah?"
"I need to talk to you out here, away from everyone."
Jesse looked confused but did what he said. He walked over to a large tool cabinet that they had in the far corner of the basement and said, "I have another big shotgun in here. If you need it, this is where it is."
"What are you talking about?" Jesse said, all of a sudden looking again like a scared 12-year-old instead of the mature young man he had seemed to be when they cleaned the kitchen after Vic's death.
"There's something in the house. It sounds like two women are there, but it could be more. I need to see if it's women, or if there are more of the zombies like that one that..." he paused, feeling the emotion welling up in him again. Just like Martin, he didn't want to cry anymore either, "just like that one. I need to make sure."
"No, you don't," Jesse said, his voice cracking with emotion, "Just stay down here and watch the door. They'll go away and leave us alone if you do."
"I can't," Charles said, "We've only got a few days worth of water. If they are more of those intelligent zombies, I'll have the jump on them. And they are people, maybe they'll help us."
He saw tears start to well up in Jesse's eyes. In the dim light they reminded him a bit of blood for some odd reason, and he hoped that he wasn't having some sort of horrible premonition. Jesse grabbed him and hugged him so tight he could barely breathe. They didn't say a word as Charles walked back to the stairs with Jesse walking closely behind. Charles picked up his own shotgun and walked slowly up the stairs, stopping right by the doubly reinforced door to listen. He could hear the voices, even further away now, and closed his eyes.
He could stop right now, he thought. Just say no, give up on this and wait it out, like Jesse had said.
But if he did, what if they died of thirst? Or worse?
He had to act.
He said a quick prayer to Vic's spirit, hoping it would watch over him and protect him, then felt his own tears welling up as he thought that no one was there to protect Vic when the end came.
None of the children heard anything, and he hadn't heard anything.
Vic died alone, and it was all his fault.
He would not let the same thing happen to the children who had been entrusted to them by their parents. He just wouldn't.
He looked down the stairs at Jesse, and the very dim light from the lantern he'd left out made his face appear in half shadow. His hair was blonde, very thick, and in what could nicely be called a "bowl cut". He hoped that Jesse would be able to hold it together while he went out the door. Otherwise, he'd come back (and how do you now you'll come back, his brain screamed at him) to all of the kids out of control and upset.
He loosened the bolts holding the planks that braced the door in place and slowly slid them out of the way. By the time he had lifted the planks off of their holders, he couldn't hear the voices of the women anymore. He took a deep breath, made sure his gun was ready to fire and fully loaded, and then opened the door, quietly.
He slipped out of the basement and shut the door behind him. He could hear Jesse putting the wooden planks into place, and sealing the door up behind him. The only way through that door was to blow it up, burn the house down and get the child behind it to open it up again. The basement was at the end of a small hallway, just off of the kitchen. He crept down the hallway, making sure to keep his ears open, listening for any sort of sound at all. The house was nearly dark, and it was easy to tell that outside it was twilight.
He got to the end fo the hallway and swallowed. He poked his head out so that he could look in the kitchen, and through the kitchen window, he was able to see two women, one black and one white, both dressed like soldiers and having short buzz haircuts, looking toward the woods for near the fence.
He crept over to the kitchen door and locked it, then snuck quickly through the dining room and into the living room where the front door had been left wide open. He shut and locked it as well, and then he heard over of the women say, "I heard something in there." Her voice was a nasal, southern twang, and sounded as if she was highly stressed.
He hit the floor, and crawled behind one of the couches and hid. He was able to see them walk to the front door, their guns ready, looking as if they were ready to kill something. Maybe it was the military clothes they were wearing, but he didn't think they would be the kind of people to ask a lot of questions.
They didn't have the dull gray skin tone that the zombies did, but after seeing one that could talk and run, he was just about prepared for anything. He watched through the window in the front door as the white woman pulled something out of her backpack and knelt down. She seemed to fumble a bit, and he could hear the door handle rattle a bit before coming open. The two of them pushed the door open, but stayed outside.
"Who's there?" the black woman said, her voice sharp and harsh, demanding answers immediately.
He waited a second, to see what they would do, and then said, "What are you doing in my house?" He cocked the hammer back on his shotgun and tensed, getting ready to jump up and do something.
He had no idea what he would do, but he would do something.
"Your place?" came the Southern accent. He then heard the two of them talking, but they were doing it so quietly, he couldn't hear them.
"Yes," he said, feeling a bit more confident, "and I don't want people breaking in. I have a gun here, and I'm not afraid to use it."
"Don't worry about that, buddy," the black woman said, "We've got guns, you've got guns, everyone's got guns. We just stopped here to find a place to sleep, and our friend went missing in the woods. We'll put our guns down if you put your guns down."
He waited and then saw that they tossed their guns on the ground where he could see them. Cautiously, he got up and said, "OK, I'm putting mine down too."
He tossed his shotgun on the ground, and hoped it wouldn't be the last stupid mistake he'd made in a series of stupid mistakes. As soon as it was on the ground, they came into the doorway, and he looked at them in the fading light. For all their toughness in how they dressed and looked, he could see that something bad had happened to them today.
He felt a slight twinge of shame and said, "Come in. You can stay with us. I'd like to have some other adults in the house."
They both looked confused when he said that, and it gave him a smile, the first one he'd had since he'd seen Vic in the grip of that thing.
To Interlude Three
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