Max ate a decent sized lunch then immediately went back upstairs to bed. Vic watched his son climb the stairs, blowing him as kiss as he went around the last corner. A few minutes later, Tookes and the crew discussed their options as they sat around the antique dining room table, eating a lunch of thinly sliced roast venison sandwiches and fresh fried sweet potato chips.
“John, Max needs to recover a little bit before we can even talk to Sean. Sean needs to get from your house to an airport, but not just any airport. We need the biggest airport in the lowest population area we can find. We need to find someone that can fly a plane. Then we need to fly a plane and coordinate flying around the world with them arriving at the airport.”
John sat back in his chair, mulling it over. Marshall took that second to interject between bites of freshly fried sweet potato chips, “Let’s talk about Renee. Max said that she was stuck south of a big city,” Tookes said. “The only big city between Atlanta and here is Charlotte, North Carolina. In the old days, that was a five hour drive. These days, who the hell knows how long it could take.” Victor shrugged, “If she’s south of the city, we’re going to have to go through or around it and I honestly don’t like the prospect of either. When I lived in Charlotte fifteen years ago, there were a million people there.”
“How the fuck are we going through a million bloody zombies, mate?” asked John.
“I have an idea about that. On the north side of Charlotte is a huge stone quarry. It’s over a half mile deep. I think we go pied piper on them, lead them to the quarry and dump them in.”
“Vic, there has got to be supers in a town that size,” said Marshall.
“That’s the first phase. We draw the supers out first.”
“That has to be easier said than done. How do we do that?” Marshall asked.
“With a show of strength, bro. The way they’ve been tracking us, I say we use that against them. We find our killing zone and have some fun blowing out our powers. I’m talking about things that make so much noise every super within a hundred miles will come looking. I’ve been cooking something up I’m dying to try. I know Leo wants to see how far she can teleport. Marshall, have you ever figured out exactly how much you can lift?” Tookes said with an almost mischievous smirk.
Marshall was ever the pragmatist and ignored his brother. “My thoughts are that we find a train,” the big man said. “The railroad runs forty-five minutes from here, starting in Charlottesville down through Virginia and North Carolina to Atlanta. There, it turns west and runs all the way to southern California. With stops in the old days, it was an eight hour train ride. I should be able to push almost anything off of the track. I figure that if we ride a locomotive with only one car, we should have the power to push anything else off the tracks that I can’t push off myself. We can outrun any zombies and run over any in the way with very little fear of damage to the vehicle and of course,” he added with a smirk, “We won’t run into any traffic jams.”
“Victor, darling, what are you going to do with Max? Last time you left, Frye came for him,” asked Mom.
“I’m bringing him with me. I’m not making the same mistake twice,” Tookes said plainly and grabbed a second home-made roll and a bottle of mustard.
The four faces around the table looked at him in astonishment. “Seriously?”
“He’s not leaving my sight with Frye still out there and with those whack-jobs from Reva. Actually, that’s an even better reason to take a train. We can armor up the car and have some kind of a mobile tank.” Victor cut open the roll and then gestured towards his brother with the knife. “I think Marshall is right. We can easily stop anything that gets in our way fairly quickly with just one train-car.” Tookes said and piled thinly sliced roast venison tenderloin on a second roll and slathered it in spicy brown mustard.
Tookes’ mother looked skeptical and had her arms crossed as she asked, “What if you get swamped in there?”
“We would have to build the train with that in mind,” said Marshall and paused. “Now that I think about it, we could build it to withstand a significant siege.”
“How sure are you?” asked Leo and Marshall shrugged.
“Sure enough,” he said.
“Well, I’m sure.” Tookes said, trying to convey confidence. “We have a few more items to discuss. We need to hold funerals for the men that died and come up with some way to honor them. I’m open to suggestions.” Vic took another bite of his sandwich, amazed once again that his mother could take almost nothing and make it into a miraculous dinner. She always had the ability to take what she had on hand and turn it into something fabulous and delicious, even with something as basic as venison. Even though it seemed small, this lunch with his family warmed Tookes’ heart. It was another glimmer at the potential that life could return to some semblance of “normal.”
“We’re going to start a wall, right?” Leo suggested. “We could name a tower or section of the wall after them.”
“We could build a tall tower in honor of all those who have and will lose their life in this mess,” was Marshall’s suggestion.
“I like the idea of a tower,” Tookes said, taking another bite of his sandwich and wiping mustard from his face. “Maybe in the center of the east wall, the direction of sunrise, to represent the new life they died to build.”
“That’s awfully poetic, Vic,” Leo said, raising her eyebrow.
“Well, it seems fitting to me. Let’s all put some thought into this and talk about it in a couple of days. I’m open to suggestions.” He took another bite of his sandwich and then pushed his plate away, “Now, item number two on the list is home place security. With Bookbinder gone and compromised, we need to change up everything. We need to change our patrol routes. We need to change our personnel and we need to invent new tactics. Bookbinder knows how we train, so we need new training. Basically, we need a new Bookbinder. He was a good friend to me but he’s a big threat to our security.”
“If Sean was here, he could train ‘em up right,” John murmured.
“I wish he was and he will be soon, John,” Vic said, clapping John on the shoulder. “Until Sean gets here, would you mind setting up a training schedule? We need someone competent.”
“Not sure I’m the best choice for that,” John laughed and added, “Alright, mate.”
“What about Ken Leuty?” asked Marshall. Tookes knew Marshall had the best relationship with the settlers; he spent a lot of time down at the barn when the four of them weren’t out trying to exterminate the planets infestation. Marshall was a very talented carpenter. He’d built beds and chairs out of the scrap lumber from a two hundred year old barn we’d torn down several years earlier. He was an amazing craftsman. The talent to take ancient barn wood and turn it into exquisite furniture was a unique and wonderful gift. Seeing Marshall working with his hands was treat to anyone who watched. His skill was a combination of patience and attention to detail. He would spend hours sculpting and carving a headboard until it was just right. Almost all of the furniture the settlers used daily was hand made by Marshall. It was his labor of love and the settlers regarded them as prized possessions.
“Leuty? He’s pretty young, isn’t he? Do you think he can handle it?” Tookes asked.
“He handled himself in the whole Frye situation better than Baker did. Leuty showed initiative and tried to take control of the situation. He was doing well but the whole crew was out maneuvered. I don’t think there is a better man to fill in,” Marshall said and then ate half of his third sandwich in one bite. Leo giggled from the other side of the table as he chowed down.
“Okay, let’s name Leuty as commander of M1. We should pull the guys from M1 aside and let them know. Can you take care of that, Marshall? John and I need to go to the library and I have a special task for Leo.”
“Sure,” Marshall said, “Oh, can you pick me up a book with woodworking patterns while you’re there?”
“Sure, bro,” Tookes said. He looked around the table and asked if anyone else had any other questions. “If we’re done here, we need to get a move on. I don’t expect a lot of trouble at the library, but I’d like to be back before dark. Mom, did you have anything else? Do you need anything?”
“I’m pretty well set up here. If you happen to find any seeds, could you bring them with you? We could use seeds from any vegetable or herb. But we have a lot of time for that kind of thing.”
“Okay, we’ll keep an eye peeled.” Tookes said as we all stood up from the table. “Thanks for this lunch Mom, my sandwich was amazing. And potato chips? Did you make them by hand?”
“Oh, it was nothing,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I fried them this morning to keep the sweet potatoes in the house from going bad.”
“You amaze me every day, Mom,” Tookes said and embraced his mom, kissing her on the cheeck.
“Thank you Mrs. Tookes,” said Leo as she stood.
The group of friends all walked out and Marshall headed off towards the barn to deliver the news of Leuty’s promotion. Tookes and Leo stayed behind as they spoke.
“Leo, I need to know a couple of things about your power but I need you to do your testing pretty far away from here,” he said. “About 100 miles from here, you’ll find yourself in the Jefferson National Forest. It’s almost two million acres of forest. The zombie population should be pretty low there. I need to know how big or how much weight you can teleport and how far you can go in each bound when you by yourself and if you’re carrying something or someone else.”
“You got it. But I can tell you most of that now,” Leo said, crossing her arms and leaning against the wall.
“I also want you to really use your power. Part of why I’m sending you so far away is to see if I can feel it. I’ve never really paid attention to it before but when I think about the times we’ve really used our powers, there’s a tickle in the back of my head. I want to see if that’s what it is.”
“Okay, I don’t need a lot of arm twisting to be sent off to the middle of the woods for some alone time,” Leo said with a smile.
“Try to be back before dark. And let me know also if you feel like you’re getting stronger with use. We’re all getting stronger but I’m not sure if it’s our continued exposure, or if it’s use. Lke a muscle.”
“Sure thing, Vic.” She said, leaning forward to kiss him on the lips before running off. Tookes felt her body flinch awkwardly as their lips touched, but thought nothing of it.
It is remarkable how little Victor sees, Leo thought to herself as she jogged away. The way he held his lips when they kissed felt foreign and forced. One of her favorite things about Victor was the way he would kiss her. When their lips would touch, it was like nothing else mattered in the world other than what was happening in that very moment. But something was different between them now. He needed time to himself to think and figure things out with Max. She understood that. But everything about him had changed in such a short amount of time and she couldn’t help but wonder if she had done something wrong without realizing it.
John and Tookes loaded up in the jeep and headed towards town. Tookes needed many different books. He had a lot of reading to do before they boarded the train. He needed at least one book on trains and a book on planes, specifically navigation, flight lanes, air speeds and fuel capacities. He needed world maps and he hoped to check out a bunch of books for Max. The two of them spent the entire afternoon at the library and brought back more books than they had originally intended. They made it back to the home just after dark without incident.
John picked up every book he could carry that detailed military tactics. One book compared the strategies of every general in history and another one detailed modern special forces training. He picked up a stack of books on hand to hand combat and martial arts. John’s recent hand to hand combat with Dan at the Crazy’s encampment made him a little insecure and that, in turn, made Tookes a little nervous. Perhaps I should read all those books too, he thought.
Late that night, after a supper of beef tips and gravy over rice with peas, everyone retired to their rooms. Leo had stopped in her room briefly to grab a clean tank top for the next morning. As she came out of her room and around the corner, she made brief eye contact with Vic and she smiled at him. Tookes looked right past her as if she wasn’t even there. Her smile fell as he turned into his room and abruptly shut the door. Leo could feel her heart shatter as she took a step back. She shook her head as she turned around and walked back into her room feeling confused and frustrated. With defeat resting heavily in her mind, she shut the door.
Tookes started reading a book called “Study Guide for the Locomotive Engineers Exam.” A lot of it had to do with traffic control. Other than trying to figure out how the switches worked and how to make sure he ended up on the right tracks, he didn’t have a lot to worry about with traffic on the rails. The controls of a locomotive, it turns out, were fairly simple. However, starting up the huge diesel generators that made the massive amounts of electricity to power the thing was very complex. There was an exact start-up sequence required. It reminded him of the old 1960’s Adam West Batman. Turbines to Speed! he thought.
“Max, wake up. Steve is here; he’s waiting for you across from the river.”
Max rolled out of his bed and put on his shoes. He grabbed a jacket from the chair in his room, in case it was cold and padded quietly across the bedroom and down the stairs. Once he was outside, it wasn’t hard for the small boy to make it across the lawn. He stopped once for a group of soldiers and then again for the returning patrol.
He hid behind a bush until the returning patrol passed by.
“I can’t believe they put Leuty in charge,” one man said as he walked by.
“They’ve been in the shit deeper than any one of us and they’ve made it out every time. I’d follow any one of The Four through hell and back,” said another.
“I’m not saying they made a mistake. I’m just saying I don’t understand why Leuty.”
“Maybe Tookes read his mind and saw something.”
“Can he do that?”
Max almost gave himself away giggling. Daddy can’t read anyone’s mind. At least not like that, he thought to himself.
When they had passed, Max ran as fast as he could to the barn office, around the back and down the hill to the river. He waited about 10 minutes for the patrol to go by. This time, they walked by in silence. They were so quiet that he almost missed them. Max had to think very hard about hiding. He thought about looking like a tree stump with dark, textured bark. He imagined what it would be like to have his feet turn into roots and to grow deeply into the ground and have plants growing at the base of the stump.
Anyone staring directly at him when he concentrated would have seen the little boy’s eyes light up with a pale blue light and then seen his shape shimmer for a second. When you blinked to clear your eyes, you would have realized you were only looking at a stump and not a little boy at all.
Baker nearly tripped over the unfamiliar stump. “Who put that fuckin’ stump right in the middle of the fuckin’ path I’ve been fuckin’ walkin for four fuckin’ weeks?” He said passing by.
Max almost giggled as he waited for them to be out of ear shot before calling out to Steve.
“Come bite me. Come across the river and give me all your e-clays.”
“Thank you, Max. The time you’ve given us and your kindness towards us showed us that humans don’t have to be exterminated. We will transfer ourselves to you to strengthen you. You can always count on us,” Steve said.
“Thank you for being a good friend. I’ll miss you Steve,” said Max. He wasn’t sure this was right, but his bugs told him it was the only way.
Steve did as he was ordered. When he had transferred the last of his E’Clei to Max, the shell that had been Steve fell to the ground, dead forever. Max screamed when Steve bit him; his bugs had been too sick to fully mask the pain.
“What the fuck was that fuckin’ noise?” asked Baker. He immediately started running back towards the source of the sound with his team. When he found Max, he was laying beside Steve’s corpse, unconscious. Max felt like he was two hundred degrees in Bakers arms as he ran up the hill towards the manor house, screaming for Victor and Mrs. Tookes.