Ray actually enjoyed the marching. They weren't moving as fast as he would have if he were with his unit, but the simple act of walking with a clean destination was mesmerizing in ways he had forgotten. Mark, who he had struck up a strong friendship with, was far more social than he was. He would walk along with someone he hadn't talked to in the morning, and then move on to chat with someone else after lunch. It was almost a ritual with him, as if he was trying to get to know all 117 people in the group.
How did Ray know it was 117? He had counted the first night, trying to get a good read on the group. The second night he spent the evening with a group of men dressed in military clothing, hoping to find out if they knew anything about any of the other Army bases, but they had gotten the clothing from empty clothing stores because it was so durable. No one came from a base. The third day of the walk, he had fallen into a comfortable routine of walking and listening to everyone around him. After his first day, no one asked him where he was from, probably because what little information went through the crowd rapidly.
The fourth day, they camped for the entire day because Ray had found a clean water source and the hunting was good for fruits and vegetables. They spent the day raiding a left behind garden at a house and gathering as much food as they could. That night, the other travelers were around small fires, some were singing hymns, others were telling stories of things that had happened before the Fall. There was one man, Carl, who was gifted at telling stories, and around his fire were most of the children and a few of the adults who hadn't heard all of his stories before. Ray watched him as he told a story about how he had gotten his first job and the weird people he had worked with. Ray thought that 8 years ago, he would have been telling it to a girl in a bar to try and get her to laugh and maybe go home with him.
Now, he was a tale weaver and the only entertainment for the group. Odd how people fall in to old roles that were gone by the time we had reached the 21st Century.
Ray grew tired of hearing about the man who made animals out of paperclips and had an entire zoo in his cubicle and wandered over to the fire that Mark was sitting at, talking with Joel, the leader of the group, and a few other older people. Mary was Joel's companion, and had the look of an older woman who had grown up on a farm. He skin was tough as leather, but not unattractive, and her hair was a short mess of unruly gray and black curls. Ray hadn't learned the names of the other two men who sat by the fire with them, and was too embarrassed to ask. One was a man who looked like a fitness model in his late 40's, with tight skin and short brown hair. The other was a dumpier looking man who had to be at least 60, and he wasn't so much a white man as a man with a beet red face and a short shock of white hair that was thinning a little more every time Ray saw him, it seemed.
"Go ahead and join us, Ray," Joel said kindly, "we were just talking about how we are almost to the end of our travels. According to the map work Mark here as done, we are less than 50 miles from Graceland."
Ray sat down and said, "That must be exciting. I went to Graceland when I was first stationed in Arkansas, and it was pretty impressive. I think the gate will be of a lot of use to you, but what plans do you have for keeping yourselves safe in an urban area?"
"The King will provide," Mary said. Ray didn't laugh; he knew that she was serious. Wrong, but serious.
Mark sat up and said, "I don't know if I'm going to stay with you the whole way. The idea of Graceland is a good one, but I'm thinking of making a run for the Canadian border before winter hits hard. If I don't make it, I'll hunker down in Wisconsin of Minnesota until I can travel again." He smiled and continued, "I like that I'd get 3 to 4 months without zombies, and I hear their health care system is good."
Everyone laughed at that and then Joel said, "What about you, Ray? You've been very quiet since your first day. I know you aren't a believer, but I do think that when The King does call you, you could be one of the most fervent of us all. You have great strength in you, and there had to be a reason that you gave up everything and found us."
It appealed to him. Yeah, he thought they were all nuts for thinking that Elvis was a prophet, but the people were very different from the ones he'd spent that last 6 years with. There wasn't the rigid social stratification that there was in the army base, and everyone seemed to get along without it. Maybe it was because some sort of disagreement would have been dangerous to the group, or maybe their belief gave them a mission beyond themselves.
He scratched his head and closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind to get a good idea of what he did want. Why was it that he always had to tell people what he wanted to do with his life?
"I left the base wanting to see if what they told me was true. That everything had collapsed. I want to hit the army base up in Missouri and see if there is anyone is there. I know that we didn't hear from them, but we were ordered into radio silence when the government collapsed. I just want to know if they are going along with that order or if..." He trailed off, not wanting to think about it. Images flashed in his head of zombies breaking into the base, killing everyone there and a commanding officer not allowing them to call for help because of orders.
"I can understand that," Joel said, "But since we are almost to Graceland, I wish I could talk you two into staying with us until then. We could use your skills and I have grown to enjoy my conversations with you. It's only another week at most, and we could set you up with food for your trip."
Ray smiled at that and said, "We've been going away from where I need to go for the past few days, I can't see where another week would be too much trouble. You can keep your food, though. You will need it more than I will. Once you're set in place, it's harder to hunt."
"Ah, but we don't have to. The King will provide. They talked in magazines all the time about how he was prepared for any emergency, why would this be any different?" Mary asked.
"The King may provide, but we will have to do the work," Joel said, looking directly into Ray's eyes, as if giving him a secret message, "If you ask Him to move a mountain, you'd better bring a shovel to do the hard work."
The two men who hadn't said anything nodded solemnly and said, "Amen" under their breath. Mary said, "I know that The King will help if we do the work, showing that we are worthy of his help, but hasn't he led us to his promised land? He has brought people to us and helped them believe, and brought us hunters when we were hungry, map readers when we were lost and children when we had lost our hope?"
Ray spoke first, and surprised himself as he did, not thinking about what he was saying, "I don't know if he did or not, but I don't think it matters. What matters is that you have taken care of each other on a trip across the nation to find the one thing that you believed in. Even if it isn't everything you hoped it would be, you will make it that because of your belief. I wish I could believe like you do, but I just can't. I believe in this" he patted his gun "and no matter what you believe, you can do it because you made it this far."
Joel smiled and said, "See what I mean about you, Ray? You will be a great believer and could even be a leader."
"I'm no leader," Ray said, "I just take care of myself. If I wanted to be a leader, it would have been easy to be one on the Army Base."
"That's not a leader," Joel continued, "That was a follower. Your commanding officer didn't lead people, he took an order and lived his life to follow that order. A real leader would have had you go out and expand your group to save all of the people in the area. Not what they did, lock themselves away and wait for someone to lead. Trust me on this one, Ray, the time will come when you will be called to lead, and you will answer that call. I just hope it is with us."
"Thank you," Ray said, not knowing what to think of Joel's assessment.
"Well, he's enough of a leader for me," Mark said, "I'm going to leave with you if it's OK. I'd like to know about that army base as well. I remember that it was one of the first ones where there were zombies, so maybe they are working on a way to get rid of them."
Joel smiled, "Maybe. Either way, Ray, you have a gift. You just don't know it yet."
Ray closed his eyes and hoped he was wrong. He didn't want to lead. He just wanted...
What did he want?
All this time and he didn't know. He knew what he didn't want. He didn't want to live cooped up with a bunch of people, even if they were the nice Elvii. He didn't want to go back. He didn't want to die. He didn't want to be alone, but he didn't want to be with the same people all the time.
Before The Fall, he just wanted a decent job and enough time to drink beer, watch football and get laid a few times a week.
The conversation became a lot less important after that, with Joel telling stories about his old workdays, and Mary telling stories about Elvis that seemed like myth and couldn't have been true. The President named him to the FBI during the War in Viet Nam? He gave away cars to people and watched three TVs at once because he heard the President did it? He didn't laugh at her though, because she was so serious and so full of conviction it didn't matter if the stories were true or not, she Believed in them.
After she went to bed, Joel was quick to follow, and Ray didn't really remember when the two quiet men went away, and he was left alone at the fire with Mark.
"You really want to go to the base with me?" Ray asked.
"Sure," Mark said, "I have just been going from house to house on my own for the past few years. I joined up with these people because they had more of a sense of purpose than just making through another day. They worry about food and shelter too, but there's more to them than that. That and I doubt you'll wake up each morning by singing 'My Way'."
They both laughed at that and decided that they would travel to Graceland before heading to the base in Missouri.
* * *
Charles didn't like the fact that the children were outside, but with Alice and Angela outside, he was able to tear himself away from the window and get back to work on supper. He liked Alice and Angela, but it was pretty easy to tell that they were uncomfortable about the kids. They'd been running around playing girl soldier for quite a few years, and hadn't even been around kids long enough to learn that you don't talk to them like they were idiots.
The kids were cleaning out the garden, since this was going to be the last meal they would have in the house. At first, Alice had said that it was a bad idea for them to travel with the kids, but he figured that Angela laid the law down, because that morning she came to him and said that they had changed their minds, and would help him get the kids to a new house, or a settlement. They had told him that they wanted to wait just one more day before taking off, in case their friend was still alive and trying to find them.
He knew there wasn't much hope, but when there is no body, no confirmation, it was hard to just walk away. It was odd when they talked about their friend Wendy, since he could feel the guilt weighing heavily on them. He didn't pry, thinking about how he was still dealing with his own guilt over Vic, but it helped him start to put that guilt in a small box at the back of his mind and deal with getting ready to leave. They had alr4eady put together backpacks with sleeping bags, food and other things they would need. Alice had told him that they should lock the house up so that no zombies could get in, and another bunch of people would be able to use the house, even if it was just for a few nights.
Outside, he could hear the kids talking about letting the animals go, saving only one of the pigs and one of the sheep for tonight. It would be too much food, but it would be hard to find decent food while they were traveling, so they might as well have a big feast if they were leaving in the morning. The border collie they used as a pet and guard dog, Duke, was standing by the fence, and looking off in the distance, not moving.
That struck him as odd.
Normally, if the kids were outside, Duke was playing with them. Well, not Rich, who never cared at all for the dog. Charles looked off in the direction the dog was looking, but didn't see anything. He waited a bit, watching the dog, seeing what it was going to do.
Duke just stood there, silent and still, staring out into the woods.
Charles decided that it would make him feel better to grab a shotgun and at least see what Duke was so intent upon watching. He checked to make sure the shotgun was full or shells and walked outside. The very second he was out of the house; Sarah saw him and started running toward the house. Alice noticed him first and said, "What is it?" while grabbing the gun she had laid down.
The other kids noticed that the adults were getting tense and started moving toward the house themselves, and Angela picked up her gun as well. Charles didn't say anything but just pointed at Duke, who was still standing by the fence, staring off into the woods, his ears perked up and starting to curl his lips into a low growl. Alice and Angela checked the ammo in their guns as they slowly moved over to the fence, next to Duke.
When Charles got there, he leaned down next to the dog and patted him on side. Duke was mostly black with a tuft or two of white around his feet, a white muzzle and white fur around his feet, but the dog, which was such a good playmate for the kids, now looked as if it was going to kill. It didn't move at all when Charles patted it on its side and he wondered what it could be that was making the dog act so scared.
He didn't have to wait long. He heard a twig snap in the woods, and Duke left at the fence, barking and growling. He and the women all dropped to one knee, so as to aim their guns better, and watched. Alice was the first to see them.
The first couple came out of the woods, and she fired, dropping the first and staggering the second. Then, zombies started coming out of the woods, what looking like over 100 of them. They started shooting as fast as they could, but there were going to be too many of them. They dropped a few, and then Charles said, "Back to the house!"
Alice started back up, not stopping her gunfire while Angela simply turned and ran, but not for the house. Charles yelled, "What are you doing?"
Angela didn't slow as she yelled, "The front gate, we were letting the animals go, the front gate!"
That was when fear gripped him. He was still next to Duke, and he grabbed Duke's collar and turned the dog toward the front gate and said, "Go! Sic 'em" and the dog took off like a shot. He also saw that the zombies could sense somehow that the front gate was open and started moving toward it. He fired a few more shotgun blasts into the mass of them, hoping it would slow them down, but for every one he felled, it looked like two more took their place. He glanced over at the gate, and Angela had closed it, and was trying to wrap the wire around the mesh in order to get it closed, but there were about five zombies close enough to push their way through.
He fired at one of them, and it dropped, but the other four got their hands on the gate before she could get it completely wired shit. They were pushing and clawing at the gate as she slowly started backing away. Duke was right at the gate, barking and leaping into he gate to bite the zombies hands that were tearing at the wire mesh. The wire that was holding the gate closed was already starting to unravel.
Angela fired into the growing crowd of zombies, causing some of them to pull back, but not enough, the wire strained against their pushing, and Charles yelled, "Give it up, get in the house!"
By this time, Alice had given up shooting any more and was running at the house at full speed, and Charles was still firing into the crowd of zombies at the gate, trying to get some decent head shots. Angela was backing away slowly, firing into the crowd as well, but she wasn't even trying to hit them in the head. She was just spraying them with bullets, causing a few to stagger, but none were dropping because of her gunshots.
Charles paused a second, watching what was happening, and he actually saw the wire she had used to close the gate pull free. "Angela!" he screamed, trying to get her to quit firing and to run for the house. Alice did the same, and Charles turned to see that she was inside the front door, holding it open, but ready to close it when the zombies got too close.
Maybe it was the shock of their voice, but at the instant, Angela came out of her near trance-line state and turned and started running for the house. Duke was leaping and biting at the zombies, running back after each bite, making sure they wouldn't grab him. Chares fired at the ones near Duke and called for the dog to join him, but it didn't listen. It was running back and forth to and from the zombies until one of the lead zombies got in a lucky blow and knocked the dog to the ground.
Charles couldn't look. He turned away and thundered up the stairs to the front door, getting inside the house and seeing the kids standing by the windows. "Get in the basement," he yelled, and then turned to make sure that Angela was on her way. She made it up the stairs right behind him, and when she got in the house, she turned to fire a couple more times into the zombies. Then she froze.
Alice looked confused and followed her gaze and said, "Oh my God...no..." her face filling with fear.
Charles looked out the window and saw nothing unusual, except that there as a woman at the front of the group that looked like the lost friend they had described, except she had the pale gray skin of a zombie, and a large black wound on her neck. He couldn't imagine what they were going through, but he knew that they had to make sure they were safe. He ran back to the door and fired again, causing the female zombie's head to explode in a black mist.
"Shut the door!" he screamed, and watched in silence as Alice slammed the door and locked it. He turned and started toward the basement as Alice and Angela put the braces in place on the front door. It wouldn't hold very long, but maybe long enough for them all to get into the basement. Charles grabbed the other guns and ammo that were in the living room and ran down the hallway to the basement door. The kid were still waiting at the door, watching in horror. He gave them the guns and ammo and shooed them downstairs.
He could hear pounding on the front door, and it was pretty easy to tell it wouldn't hold up to such power for very long. "Get back here!" he yelled at Alice and Angela.
He heard a couple more gunshots, and really hoped they were firing out the window in the front door. He heard the pounding continue, so he knew that the door was still holding.
He ran down the hall until he could see into the living room, and saw that Angela was holding the door shut with her body while Alice was firing out the small window in the door.
"Forget it, head for the basement," he yelled.
"We can't, they've already broken the lock. I let this go at they'll be in," Angela said.
"Shit," he said, and leveled his gun at the door, "On my mark, let it go and head for the basement. You can make it."
They looked worried, but he glared at the door, his wild gray hair nearly covering his face. "Do it!" he yelled, and with that, both of the women let go of the door and took off running. The door flew open and fell off of its hinges from the force of the bodies behind it. He started firing, aiming high and hoping to take a few zombie heads out as he did. They ran pasty him, and he saw that by that time, there were at least 10 zombies through the door, still moving toward him. When they got past him, he fired one last time and then turned and ran to the basement as well. When he got there, they were running down the stairs, and he turned and tried to slam the door.
But there were gray, dead hands in the way.
He put the gun in the crack being held open by the zombie and fired. The hands were gone and he shut the door, putting all of the locks and braces into place. Immediately he could hear the pounding on the other side, and from down in the basement itself he could hear the kids crying. He couldn't tell which of the children were crying, but it was at least two of them. He could hear Angela's voice trying to soothe them.
He heard footsteps behind him, and Alice was right next to him in an instant, helping him secure the door. Oddly, the one thing that leaped into his mind was that he was glad he'd refilled the water stores the day after they got out of the basement the last time. And, since they were packing to leave, all of their supplies were in the basement.
"Did you turn off the iron?" Alice said, a grin on her face when they got the door completely closed.
He laughed, a sense of pure relief washed over him as he slumped down next to the door. The pounding on the other side was louder, but he didn't worry about it. This was one of the secured basements people had bought during the year before everything went dark. It would hold.
"At least that's what you'll tell yourself," a small voice in the back of his mind said.
He went down the stairs slowly and stopped at the bottom to sit on the last step. As he did, Martin and Sarah ran to him and crawled onto his lap. He hugged them close and saw that Angela had he arm around Jesse, but Martin was sitting alone in the corner, far away from everyone and clutching his legs to his chest.
"It's OK, now. We're safe," he said, hoping that by saying it, it would be true.
The pounding on the door betrayed him a few second later as they could hear the pounding get louder. He had no idea how long the door would hold up, but it didn't matter how well it was reinforced if they beat on it long enough. And those bastards never get tired.
He told the children to get into the closet and hide while he grabbed his gun and went over to the stairs where Angela and Alice were sitting. They were staring at the door as the pounding continued. Alice looked at the floor and Angela said, "How long do you think the door will hold?"
"Don't know" he said quietly, making sure the children couldn't hear them, "It's reinforced with steel, but if they pound on it long enough and hard enough, they'll rip the metal out of its wooden housing. It may hold a few days or maybe just a few hours."
"And there's no other way out?" Alice asked, not looking up.
"No," he said simply, "there was another door, but they filled in the way outside with concrete. They must not have been able to reinforce the door as well."
They fell into silence after that. No way out and the house was now filled with zombies. He thought about how Duke had tried to protect them and felt his eyes misting up. Over a dog? A dog? They were hours from dying, and he felt sad about a dog?
The tears must have been visible, since Angela reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked over at her and she said, "I'm sorry I let them in. I just saw Wendy and it all stopped. Time just stopped. It was her, but her eyes were dead. That poor girl. Her neck was ripped open, and she just kept walking toward me. Her gait was the same as when she was alive. Exactly that same as when she was alive. How is that possible?"
They sat in silence again, once in a while one of the thumps on the door would be so strong that they could hear something shift in the door, as if it were moving out of place. Maybe they wouldn't even have hours.
Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. The pounding stopped. They looked at each other and then up at the door. Before anyone could say anything, they heard a voice from behind the door.
"Don't you want to send the children out to play?" It was the voice of the zombie that had Killed Vic. Charles's eyes grew wide with horror as he could tell it was the same voice, filled with rot and evil, and distorted, as if coming from two speakers out of sync.
"Send the children out, and I'll let the rest of you go," it said. "You don't have a chance. I have over 100 with me up here, and we never get tired, never need sleep, and they will pound on this door as long as they think they can get the tasty morsels behind it. You really don't have a choice. I'm giving the adults down there a chance to live. Besides, what sort of world are you letting them live in?"
"They're obsolete. We're stronger, faster, live longer and are just getting smarter. I was one of them for years, but now I'm easily smarter than any of you."
"Bullshit!" Alice said, her voice filled with Southern defiance.
There was a laugh from the top of the stairs, and the sound of it made Charles's blood go cold, "Look at it this way. I'm up here, and you are down there, with no way out. I scouted the house and made sure there was no way out of the safe room. I know it's hard to admit you are defeated, but it happens. Just think of it this way, I'm sure that last Neanderthal thought it was just as clever as the first Cro-Magnon, but the Cro-Magnon finally won out, didn't it?
"I'll give you an hour. Then," the voice behind the door paused, the pause itself causing cold sweat to bead up on the back on Charles's neck, "Then, they start pounding again. And they wont' stop until they get the soft candy center, if you know what I mean."
There was silence for a moment, and then the voice spoke again, "And ladies, my name is Eddie. I am the one who...well...turned your friend into a candidate for becoming one of us. You'd be happy to know that she struggled, even when she'd lost. That's why I didn't let them turn her into dinner. She's up here now. At the rate I got my intelligence, I'm guessing she'd be able to talk to you again in about 5 years...unless you join her.
"Or maybe I'll let them tear you apart with their bare hands while you are still alive. I hear that the brain can even process for a while after the head is torn from the body so that you can see them devouring you. Think about my offer. Think about that, then think about my offer. It's not like they are your children."
They all sat in silence and waited to see if Eddie would say anything else. A minute passed, then another. Then, Charles could hear soft crying from the closet the children were hiding in. They'd heard the whole thing, and it hit him like a gut punch.
Alice was the first to speak, "How about we tell him we're going to agree to it, and when we open the door, take him out. If we take him out, maybe the rest will leave after a while."
Angela shook her head, "Won't work. He may be their leader, but they'll just revert to normal behavior when he's gone, and that means pound on the door until they break through or they know that we aren't alive anymore. They can smell the living."
"I'm not to just stay here and be Spam in a fucking can," Alice said, "There's a way out of this. There's always a way out of everything."
"Not always," Charles said quietly, "and even if we did give them the kids, they'd kill us as we left. It's just a way for him to prolong the pain. Kind of like when they would leave wounded soldiers on the battlefield in World War One to cry out in pain, then they'd pick off anyone who came out to help them. No, we're here for the duration. Our only hope is if we make it..." He trailed off, and then looked around the basement.
"What?" Angela said, watching him looking around the room.
"They hate fire. We could burn the house down."
Alice turned to him slowly, and said, "Have you lost your little homo mind?"
"No," he said, "If we can figure out a way to keep ourselves safe, and burn the house down upstairs, it could kill them. Or at least drive them away."
"The heat alone would kill us," Alice said, her voice rising.
"If you have a better idea, I'm all ears, lady," he said, his own anger starting to color his thinking.
"Both of you shut the hell up," Angela said, "the plan might work, but we're not going to be able to do it if we don't figure out how we can keep safe. It's not just the fire and the heat we'll have to worry about, but this old place will collapse as it burns and the basement will bear the brunt of that. What are the walls made of?"
"They seem like cinderblock," he said, "with sheetrock over them. Ewe didn't really dig into the walls much."
"This is insane," Alice said, "even if we do find a place down here where we won't get burned to crisp, the heat will be over a thousand degrees. It'll be like being in an oven. We need to figure out how to take out as many of them as we can and then retreat back here. Two or three raids, and the cost will be too high to keep trying.?
Angela shook her head, "With the smart one up there, we won't even get a single attack run. He's probably got a couple of the damn things right at the door waiting for one of us to poke its head out."
"Then send me out," came a voice from inside the closet. Charles looked over and saw Martin standing in the doorway of the closet. "Maybe sending me out will buy some time for the other kids."
Charles went over and knelt down by him, putting his hands on his shoulders and looked him dead in the eye, "No. I won't allow it. No one else dies. Vic already died because of that thing, and I won't let any of you children be used as pawns. I didn't find you in that burned out building just so I could sacrifice you to some zombie who thinks he's Homo Superior."
"And Eddie doesn't want you kids. He wants us. He wants us to suffer and have to choose between ourselves and you, and we won't do it," Angela said.
"What if Sarah crawled through one of the air vents and went for help? There has to be people within a couple days of here, and the door will hold for that long, won't it?" Martin asked.
The adults looked down and then away and Martin knew in an instant what they were thinking. He looked into Charles's eyes and said, "I lost my mom before you found me. Then, a couple of days ago, I lost my other dad. It's just not fair. It's not fair at all."
"I know," Charles said, and pulled Martin to him, both of them crying quietly. When they had spent their tears, Martin pulled away and went back into the closet. He slowly shut the door, keeping his eyes on Charles as he did, not losing eye contact until the closet door was shut.
"That's that, then," Angela said, all of them knowing at that instant that none of their plans would work. This was it. This was where they were going to die. Angela looked at Alice for a while, no words passing between them, and then she turned her gaze to Charles, "When the time comes..." she trailed off, knowing he knew what she meant.
"Of course," he said, "But let's wait until they get the door open. I want to take out that loudmouthed, egotistical ass clown before I go."
Alice laughed at that and gave him a high five. Then, they waited.
The time seemed to stretch into hours, but they were sure that it was only their own nerves that made it seem so much longer than it really was. At one point, Charles got up and filled two canteens with water from the storage bin. He gave one to the women and took the other one to the closet. He opened the door, and Sarah was asleep, the other three children were sitting quietly on the floor, eyes closed as if they were trying to go to sleep as well. He handed the canteen to Jesse, who looked up as he took it, and Charles saw that his eyes were already dead.
Charles closed his eyes and shut the door so as not to see any more. It was bad enough that he was going to die here in some basement, but for the children he'd promised to save to die here as well, it was enough to make him want to lay down on the floor and cry like a child. Vic was the strong one, he'd been the one who made the hard decisions and the plans, and now he had to do this all without Vic.
He went to hand the canteen to Angela when the first thump on the door came. It was followed by another, and slowly, the tempo of the pounding began to rise. It grew, sounding like a drum solo at a rock concert, endless and relentless. The pounding started knocking dust loose from the ceiling about the steps they were sitting on. They went to move off of the stairs when they heard a loud "crack" inside the wall next to the door, and the pounding stopped.
"Do I have your attention?" Eddie said through the door, his voice reminding Charles of bones being ground into dust, "Time's up. Do you get to walk out of here, or do I have to huff and puff and blow your house in?"
"Bring it, you dead fuck!" Charles yelled at the door, cocking his rifle and aiming it at the door.
"Ladies, ladies, ladies, are you going to let that old cocksucker speak for you? Surely you see that I'm letting you choose life?"
They didn't answer, but got their weapons ready as well.
"Ah well," Eddie said, and they could almost imagine him shaking his dead gray head back and forth in pity, "Never say I didn't give you an opportunity."
There was no sound for what felt like the longest time, and then the pounding started again, and it made the beating on the door before seem like a warm up for the main event. It was so loud they couldn't hear each other talk, and it just kept getting stronger. They could feel the walls shake, and the wood in the door on the other side splintered and was turned into kindling. The hallways wasn't very wide, so there could have only been three or four of the zombies at most, but they were strong and they were relentless.
The pounding fell into a horrifying rhythm and they moved slowly up the stairs, knowing that the time was running out. The wood on the door was breaking on their side, showing the steel that had been inside the door. They saw the cement around the hinges was shattered and every thump caused a little more cement dust to fall to the floor.
The sheer volume of the pounding faded to a simple series of very loud thumps that caused the door to shake on its hinges. It was as if they were all working together, or if Eddie had pushed them all away and was finishing the job all by himself. Either way, they watched as with each hit, the door buckled just a little bit more. They were able to see the metal bend a little bit more, making a series of inward dents.
"I think this is it," Alice said, and Angela grabbed her hand and squeezed. He had no idea what they had gone through together, but they knew that this was it.
No way out.
One loud thump caused the metal near the door frame to bend inward and a tiny shaft of light shone through it for a mere second until gray fingers reached into the hole and started pulling. Alice walked over to the door and shoved her gun through the hole and fired. The hands pulled back for a second, and she fired a few more times, the gap between the door and the frame so high she wasn't able to see it.
She pulled the gun back for a second and motioned for Charles to try and look into the gap when a hand reached between the door and the frame and pulled. They all heard a horrid wrenching of metal, and the gap that had once only been big enough for a few fingers was now big enough for an entire hand to reach in. Alice started firing again, and the hands pulled back, but there was no way to tell if she was hitting any of them in the head.
Besides, Charles thought madly, there were over 100 of them, they couldn't just pick them off by hiding behind the barrier like it was the old video game Space Invaders.
She kept firing until the barrel of her gun was grabbed and pulled forward, knocking her against the wall. Alice hit hard and then fell down the stairs, landing at the bottom with a sickening thud.
Angela moved into Alice's old position and looked through the gap and saw another hand reach in and tear the metal further away from the doorframe. Charles watched as her face filled with fear and she said, "Oh God, there's so many of them," before beginning to fire herself.
Her gun had been modified to be completely automatic and she just kept her finger on the trigger until every bullet in the magazine had been expelled. She moved away from the door and reached into her back pocket for another magazine, and Charles heard it.
Gunfire somewhere behind the door.
His first sickening thought was that Eddie had gotten a gun and was now going to just simply shoot them through the gap in the door and then get the children. He moved Angela out of the way and aimed his shotgun into the gap. He rested it on the mangled portion of the door and waited until one of the zombies grabbed the gun barrel before shooting. He watched it get blasted back a few feet, and some of the others in the hallway were knocked back as well. Then, he got a good look in the hallway, and it was full of zombies. There had to be over 50 just in the small hallway, with a few of them on the floor, hopefully killed by some of the bullets Alice and Angela fired at them. He fired again and scattered them further from the door.
Then he waited, looked quickly at Angela to make sure her gun was loaded, and she was ready, hoping to squeeze next to him at the top of the basement stairs. They could hear more gunfire, not very far away either. It didn't sound like the pure noise of his shotgun blasts, but more like firecrackers popping in another part of the house.
"Do you hear..?" Angela said. He didn't waste time responding, he just nodded.
Most of the zombies at the far end of the hallway turned and were starting to move toward the gunshots they heard. There were still some who were moving toward the door, and he leveled the shotgun at them and fired, and fired and fired until he was out of shells.
He then got out of the way for Angela to start shooting when he heard a human voice between the gunshots in the living room. It wasn't Eddie, but instead a deep, rich baritone singing between each shot. "It's one for the money," a blast, "Two for the show," two blasts, "Three to get ready now go cat go," and a series of staccato bursts of gunfire. They were able to hear a number of voice then, and before the could get their guns ready to fire again, a young looking man with a very short military haircut and green fatigues moved into the front of the hallway and started shooting the few zombies left with his M-16.
"Go cat go," he said again and then looked at the door, half pulled out of the doorframe.
"Don't shoot!" Charles said.
The young man smiled and said, "If I didn't know any better, I'd think we got here right in the nick of time. You agree?"
* * * Charles was sitting at his kitchen table and watching as the people who had saved them were carrying the zombies' lifeless bodies outside to a huge bonfire they had started just as the sun went down. Down in the basement, a man who used to be a doctor was looking after Alice, who he said had no broken bones but was probably suffering from a concussion. Next to him was Angela, the man who was the leader of the people who had found them, Joel.
Joel looked like a village elder to him, and he had explained to them that the man who had been singing while killing the zombies, Ray, had heard their gunshots and scouted the place. When he saw the number of zombies, and that none of them were feeding, he had brought them all to save the people who might be in the house.
Sadly, none of them had seen a zombie that fit Eddie's description, so Eddie was probably still out there, sneaking away when he saw the mass of people coming. Joel had explained to them that they were travelers on their way to Graceland. He had smiled at that, and told him about the other people who had come through the area heading for that place, and Joel said it was wonderful, since it meant that someone had probably cleaned the place up for them.
The children were outside, playing with the other kids who were with the travelers. He'd watched them play for a short time, but now, they were discussing what to do from here. Joel had asked for nothing, but Charles had insisted that they prepare a couple of fire pits for roasting a couple of the pigs they hadn't set free yet.
Angela was asking them about things they had seen, people who were with them and other such topics when Charles lost interest and went to the window. He watched the four children who had been his and Vic's responsibility playing with other children. They were running and laughing, where just an hour before they were huddled in a closet, getting ready to die. They even had a pistol that Jesse had snuck out of the weapons cabinet and had decided that once the door was down, Jesse would make sure that they felt no pain.
He looked over by the gate, which now had two armed guards by it and saw that someone had picked up a lifeless animal and was carrying it toward the fire they were using for the zombies. He recognized what it had to be and said, "Excuse me," to Joel and Angela and ran outside. The man carrying the lifeless animal was young, not even old enough to shave, but old enough to have one of those silly little mustaches teenagers grow when they first realize they can do so. He tapped the young man on the shoulder, and when he turned around it was clear that he was holding the lifeless body of their dog, Duke.
"I'll take that, if it's OK," he told the young man. His nose stung and his vision blurred as he saw the dog's eyes were closed and utterly at peace. "Good boy, that's a good boy," he said softly, petting the poor animal's muzzle, and then he took the dog from the young man and walked over to the gateway. It was had it slowly and reverently passed into his arms. The dog was heavy, heavier than it seemed that it should weigh, and he could feel that people were looking at him. He laid the dog's body on the ground and asked one of the guards to get him a shovel.
The man brought him one and he started to dig. He didn't pay any attention to the people around him, and just kept digging until he saw a second shovel digging next to his. He looked over and it was Jesse, his face streaked with tears as well. They dug together in silence until another shovel started to help. Then another. And more until all of the children, Angela, Joel and Ray, the man who had saved them were digging as well.
When the makeshift grave was deep enough, he looked at Sarah and said, "Go get his toy fish." He then turned to Jesse and said, "And something to mark where he'll rest."
He turned back to the dog and slowly knelt by it. He started to pet its side, tears flowing and barely able to speak. When Sarah brought the squeeze toy fish, she handed it to him and he looked at it. It had a huge hole in the side, ripped there when Duke had been too excited to play fetch, but would rather just tear at the toy. He squeezed it and it let out a soft sounds, not enough air for an actual squeak. He opened Duke's mouth and placed the toy gently inside his jaws. He started petting the dog again, and then gathered up what little strength he had left.
"Duke bought us enough time to get into the house. He was a good dog. He was a very good dog," and then he started sobbing, the tears flowing from his eyes without shame. He could feel hands on his shoulders and he tried to regain his composure.
Charles stood up and wiped his eyes so that he could see. He then knelt down and picked Duke up gently. Other hands helped him, and then they lowered the black border collie into the grave. Ray, who had helped put the dog into the ground said, "It was his barking that caught my attention. That dog saved your lives."
Charles said nothing for a moment, closing his eyes and thinking of the death he had seen. His first lover when the lights went out for good, Vic, the parents of the four children he had taken charge of, and now Duke. Just a dog. Just a silly dog that liked to chase the sheep and let Sarah use him as a pillow.
"good dog" he said one last time, and then picked up a shovel to fill the grave.
Later that night, he was sitting by the fire with Alice, Angela, Joel, Ray and another young man named Mark. Alice and Angela were taking turns trying to impress Ray with how tough they were, and he had thought it was all very funny, but didn't let anyone know he was laughing at the elaborate courtship dance going on in front of him.
When the children were asleep, he pulled Joel aside and asked him, "Is there any way you could take the children with you?"
"Why would we take them? You said you were going to travel with us," Joel said.
"I know, that's what I told them so they would go along, but I think when you get to Graceland, I will want to keep traveling. I've pretty much lost all the things that kept me here, and as nice as you people are, I'm not ready to lock myself in another fortress," he looked over at Ray and the others laughing over some shared story, "and I like Ray's idea of heading out to see what's out there. I don't know, maybe it's a mid-life crisis, but I want to know if we're the last people or if there are more of us."
"Are you sure that's the only reason?" Joel asked.
Charles looked back at the house and said, "I didn't cry when Vic was killed. I was too angry and too busy wanting to take care of those children. Then, I realized that I can't do it without Vic. Every time I look at them, I remember him and how we worked together to raise them. I need to get away for a while. Maybe I'll come back in a few months, but for now, I need to just be away from it all."
"I understand exactly what you mean," Joel said, "When my family died I decided I had to leave. And now I'm here." He looked up at the sky and saw that it was filled with stars, "In Arizona, I remember how mad I was that I couldn't see the starts at night because of all the city lights. I remember wishing that something would happen to make it so I could look up every night and see the stars I had spent so much of my life studying. Guess I should have wished for something else."
Charles looked up at the stars as well and saw Orion high in the sky. As a child that was the only constellation he had ever learned how to recognize. He looked over at Ray and the others talking now, with Ray drawing something in the dirt with a stick. He then looked over at Ray and asked, "Do you think they'll let me go with them?"
"I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland," Joel said, "There's no obligations now, we're all going to Graceland."
Charles smiled and shook Joel hand. He then walked over to the group by the fire and started talking to them about their plans after they got to Graceland and headed toward the army base in Missouri. Joel watched from afar, and when they accepted Charles into the circle, he smiled again and walked away. Before he went to bed himself he knelt by the grave of the dog that Charles had buried and prayed. And no one asked who he prayed to.
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