As soon as Willa saw her father was safely ahead of the bears, she was up on her feet. She drew her bow and fired an arrow at one of the bears that chased him. She nocked another, but by the time she was ready to fire, it was out of range. From her left, two of the green monstrosities crashed out of the woods. She turned and fired, impaling one of them in the mouth as it roared. The arrow penetrated up through the grizzly’s palette and into its brain. Its roar was abruptly cut off, and it collapsed head first into the ground, rolling over one time before coming to rest on its side.
The second grizzly was closing too fast for her to get another shot. ”Ez, RUN!” she yelled, grabbing his hand and dragging him off the rocks. “Faster,” she yelled a couple of steps later as she slung her bow across her back. “He’s going to catch us!”
The brother and sister ran for all they were worth. Willa was fast and knew she could easily outpace the bears. She’d been running in this terrain her whole life. Her long legs allowed for her to take one stride for every one and a half of Ezekiel’s, and her abnormally long toes allowed her to grip and maintain her balance on the rocks.
Her brother, on the other hand, was not made for speed. He was a distance runner. He could run all day and all night without stopping, and he could move almost as silently as their father at his top speed, but it wasn’t enough.
They ran into a group of trees. Weaving in and out of the trees, Willa grabbed her brother and set him on her shoulders. “When you can, grab a branch and swing up into the tree. We’re not going to get away,” she said as she lifted him. She looked for just the right tree. It had to be small enough that Ez could climb quickly but big enough that the bear couldn’t push it down.
The bear chasing them was about forty feet behind her when she found the right tree and pointed it out to her brother. Ezekiel grabbed the branch and swung himself up, and within a few paces Willa was back at her full stride. “If he follows me, count to three hundred and run to the burrow!” she yelled as she sped off.
The bear showed no interest in Ezekiel, instead following Willa out towards the river she’d found earlier that day. She was young enough not to think about the fact that she’d run forty miles already that day and only had half a fish to eat but smart enough to know that she couldn’t go that far from her brother.
Her hope was use the scent of her tracks from earlier that day to lead him off that way, and she knew the only way she’d be able to do that is if it lost sight of her. She opened up her stride and sprinted as hard as she could towards the trail she’d left. She wiped sweat from her brow with her hand and slung it down onto the dirt as she turned and followed her own trail out of the woods into the rock field that made up most of Minnesota.
She ran for another three or four minutes, well ahead of the bear. When he was fully out of sight, she pulled out her water skin and sprayed a rock to the left before hopping on to it. The clever girl bounded from rock to rock on the balls of her feet. Before each step, she sprayed a little water on the rock before she put her foot down.
Most of her scent would evaporate with the water on the hot rocks. She only hoped it was enough that the bear would keep going. She hopped like this with the wind at her back as long as she felt she could; if it got within sight of her, the ruse wouldn’t work.
Finally, when she was about a hundred paces off her trail, she ducked down behind a large piece of bedrock and waited, the hot morning wind blowing in her face. She knew she was miles from where she was supposed to be and even more miles from wherever her father was.
She thought differently than he did. He always played it safe. Willa wondered if he’d always been that way or if it was more-so as he aged. Willa, on the other hand, never underestimated herself.
She knew she could handle one bear. She’d killed one already with a lucky arrow and wounded another. She was thinking that maybe she should just kill this one when she spotted it running down her trail. It passed the spot where she’d lept off her trail without pausing, nose to the rocks, raised its head, and galloped off towards the river she’d found that morning.
Willa waited for five minutes before springing towards the burrow, desperate to make it back before the sun was fully out. She slowed as she approached their underground home. Silently, the huntress crept towards the opening with the wind in her face, sniffing and listening for any sign of the experimental bears.
The burrow door was firmly closed, and there was no sign of them. She knocked twice, paused, and knocked twice more. That was her knock, the signal that it was Willa, but the door didn’t move. She gingerly opened the door to their hole and called inside. “Ez? Are you in there?” But there was no answer.
They’d been in the area for weeks now. The territory was very familiar. The sun was almost up, but she paid no attention to the growing heat as she closed the door to their home and ran off looking for Ezekiel. She knew she only had a small window of time left; the sun was now fully over the horizon, and she could already feel its heat in her skin as she ran.
She made wider and wider circles, looping around the burrow. Her panic was growing with each circuit. It took nearly an hour before she found Ezekiel, unconscious and leaned against a tree. Beside him, the corpse of a grizzly lay still, covered in blood.
It was almost eleven in the morning. Her skin was red and burning. She didn’t stop to even look him over. Willa picked up her little brother and ran as fast as her weary legs would take her towards the safety and shade of the burrow. Once she was safely inside, she laid Ezekiel down on the floor and went to the water bucket.
As she washed the blood from her little brother, she was once again grateful for this burrow. Her father had built a network of underground houses, each about half a day’s journey from the next. Each year, at the beginning of the season, before they’d gathered anything, the three of them spent a week working on the next burrow. Each evening, a little before sunset, they would take off for the next site, covered head to toe. They would run for four hours to the next location and dig. All three of them dug, using whatever they could find, for three hours, and then they started the run back. They had to do it early in the season while the days were shortest and the nights were longest.
The family had completed this burrow last year. It was small, compared to some of the first ones, when both her mother and father had worked on them, plus the first one outside of town was almost as old as Ezekiel. Each year, Joe improved on each of the burrows as they passed through. The first burrow was three rooms plus a large storage room. It was Willa’s favorite; she kept a few of her most prized possessions in her bedroom there, and she always looked forward to the one week per year they got to stay there.
This last one, which Ezekiel had ironically named Rock Mountain, was only one room plus the storage room. The three of them each had their own raised platform to lay out their bedrolls. Joe had started work on the first bedroom, but it was only a few square feet. There was no dead wood here, so they had to use rocks to shore up the burrow, and that made digging rooms more difficult. They had to haul the rocks in and store them inside for when her father needed them.
After several minutes of washing and inspecting her brother, Willa peeled his tunic up and found a cut across his belly. It wasn’t large or bleeding profusely, but it had ugly brown streaks at the edges. She washed the wound and noticed some dried greenish puss at the bottom. Ezekiel was burning up, and his legs were shaking. She had no idea what to do.
Joe ran as hard as he could for their burrow. He flew into the section of woods where their home was, darting and zig-zagging through the trees. As his heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest, his only thought was to get to his children. He skidded to a halt in front of the burrow door. His heart sank when he saw the words, “Ezekiel hurt” and “Duluth” scratched into the dirt at the entrance.
“Oh no, Willa, no!” he cried, putting his hands on his knees, huffing. He had no idea if Franklin was still alive, but no good could come of his two children meeting his former best friend.
Joe took a minute to head down into the burrow to refill his water skin. Hidden deep in the back of the burrow behind all the provisions, Joe pulled out a small piece of canvas and unrolled it. Inside was a steel tomahawk, enough metal to buy his way out of this mess.
He slipped the tomahawk into his belt and ran, propelled by his love for his children. He ran as a man with nothing to lose.
Marna had hated that tomahawk. One morning in the earliest days of Duluth, Joe was getting ready for work in his apartment and having a briefing with Franklin. Marna came into the bedroom as he was slipping the hatchet-like weapon onto his belt. “It’s a weapon for killing people,” she’d said.
“Sometimes, people need to be killed,” was his response back then. To Joe’s left, Franklin stood, nodding, looking back and forth between Marna and Joe.
Joe had always loved to run. He let his mind roam and put his body on autopilot, ticking the miles off towards his children. His pace was fast. He needed to catch Willa before she got within the perimeter of Duluth. She was quicker than he but was heavily burdened. He was confident he could catch her in time if he could sustain the pace he’d set.
His mind wandered back to when he and Marna had just arrived in Minnesota, after months of walking north, desperate for cooler temperatures. Joe grew up in South Carolina. In high school, he’d been a cross-country track star, winning a scholarship to Clemson University, where he’d met Marna. The two of them fell in love in college. They were both majoring in agricultural studies; Marna’s specialty was horticulture, while Joe was majoring in farm management, with a focus on the cattle business.
When the Colcoa came, they’d been in their final year of study. The world changed so much in that year; people rioted in the streets, the stock market crashed, and money became virtually useless. The stores emptied out. The Colcoa were handing out food rations. The rations were a useless, tasteless gel that kept people alive but did nothing to satisfy their hunger or their spirit. With free food and free energy, people stopped going to work, and infrastructure broke down. People barricaded themselves in their homes. There was chaos and anarchy.
Joe and Marna went to Montana in the middle of their final year of college. It had the lowest population of any state other than Alaska and was the farthest away from any trouble. They sold everything they owned and bought a little cabin and a thousand acres of land.
When the Colcoa turned on mankind, neither of them was surprised. They wiped out the highest population centers in one morning. Both coasts went dark. The last news Joe ever saw said the same thing happened all over the world.
Joe and Marna lived quietly, working their land and hoping the Colcoa would leave them alone. They hadn’t had much; Joe scrounged junk yards and odd jobs for their tools. They bought a pair of horses, and Joe traded their truck for an old plow and a wooden cart. They ate well, lived in solitude, just the two of them, and were more in love than any two people had ever been.
When the Colcoa rolled through the town outside their house, Joe was there trading his rifle for their winter provisions. After the aliens arrived, the price of firearms skyrocketed. Ammunition was in short supply; the manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand. His rifle and one hundred bullets would buy him years’ worth of provisions. There just wasn’t a year’s worth of food to be had. He was currently negotiating for the last fifty-pound bag of flour and all the salt Wayne, the store owner, had.
Wayne and Joe watched in horror as the gigantic Colcoa machines rolled over the houses and buildings of the small town, spitting out a row of splintered wood and concrete in their wake.
The pair realized the machine would crush them in a second. Joe grabbed Wayne’s hand in an attempt to drag him out. Wayne snatched his hand free and darted into the back room. “I gotta get Baxter!” he yelled.
“No time, Wayne! Come on!” Joe called, planting one hand on the counter as he vaulted over it heading for the side door. The machine was just feet from the back of the building when Joe leaped out the door, over the five steps, and rolled onto the ground. He heard Wayne scream in pain as Joe barrel-rolled to his feet and sprinted across the dirt road.
He hid in a ditch as the hundred foot tall machine rolled past. Armored Colcoa walked on either side of the machine, a hundred yards in front of him. Their battle suits made a low, rumbling hum. That sound invaded Joe’s nightmares. Just the faded memory was enough to bring him near to panic; at the time, it was all he could do to sit still. There was something primal about the fear it instilled, like the sound of a rattlesnake. He was certain the sound was specifically designed to invoke a panic response in humans, and it worked.
From the opposite edge of the small settlement, several men stood from where they were hiding and opened fire. The retorts of their rifles had barely faded when the armored units decimated them. Streaks of blue light erupted from the cannons on the robotic arms, engulfing the entire group of men. Joe kept his head down and focused on surviving long enough to get back to Marna.
The next time he looked up, the giant steel wheel had crushed everything in its path. Inside the machine, something happened to the debris before it was ejected in long rows from the back. Once everything was over, Joe ran to the pile and kicked through it. He was sifting through the tailings when he realized there was no metal in it. No pipes, not even a single nail.
It dawned on him then, as it had to thousands of others around the world, that the Colcoa were mining. They were stripping the land of every piece of metal.
He ran to his horse and galloped home to Marna.
“Marna! Marna! he yelled, approaching the house. She came out the door of their tiny ramshackle dwelling to see what he was screaming about.
“The Colcoa are in town. They decimated it. They’re harvesting the metal. We have to go, and we have to go primitive. They killed Wayne, Marna! They rolled right over the store with him inside. We have to go, and we have to take as little metal as possible.”
They packed light, cutting everything metal from their saddle bags. Joe used twine to tie the bags together. They threw their pack blankets over their horses’ backs and climbed on bareback. They decided to take one piece of metal each. Joe chose his tomahawk while Marna picked a knife.
The couple headed out into the bush, where they lived for the next two years. They never stayed in one place, running north every time the Colcoa got close.
Coming out of his reverie, Joe shook his head as he ran after his son and daughter. He was struck by how naive he’d been, thinking they were just after the metal on the surface.
He thought about a frigid morning years before. The pair of survivors was near the Canadian border and hadn’t seen another living person for months. “Do you think we could get through their line? If we could head south and get through, we could set up where they’ve already been, and we wouldn’t have to run.”
“Do you think they’ll leave when they have all the metal?” Marna asked.
“That’s what they came here for,” Joe said firmly. “Once they have it all, there’s no reason or them not to head to the next planet. We can’t keep heading north. It’s almost winter time, and it’s only going to get worse the farther we go.”
“I think we have to try,” Marna said, and the two of them planned their escape. The next day, they rode south towards the Colcoa. From miles away, they watched the lines of the huge alien mining machines, sucking up everything in their path and spitting it out in straight rows behind them. These were much larger than the one Joe had seen in town the day they’d left their home. Each machine covered several acres. Dozens of them were staggered in a series of V shapes, one overlapping path of the next. Occasionally, the machines would veer around a group of trees or a small hill, leaving tiny spots of green.
“If we can figure out why they leave certain spots, maybe we can hide out in one of those,” Joe said thoughtfully.
Marna replied, “I think we need to go higher up into the mountains. We need to go where their machines can’t go and wait for them to pass, then we come down.”
As he ran towards Duluth, Joe said aloud, “Marna always was the smart one,” grinning to himself.
Marna’s plan worked, and the pair crossed the country. Once they were below the Colcoa machines, they headed east, across the Great Plains. Day after day they walked, across South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, until they came to what had been Chicago. Massive mountains of concrete, asphalt, and glass rubble were all that was left of one of the biggest cities on earth. From Chicago, they turned and headed south, scrounging food and supplies as they went. The two of them began to think they were the only people on earth. Despite that, they both felt an intense drive to find their family, knowing, but never admitting to themselves, that they would never see anyone they loved ever again.
Willa was born in the first summer spent in South Carolina and did much to bring Marna and Joe closer. They’d both been so hopeful that they would find some evidence of their family, or at least some humans, but there was nothing left.
For the first two years of Willa’s life, the three of them lived pretty well. They had a small garden of a few vegetable plants Marna found and brought back. Joe often remembered those years when he was lonely or missed his wife. Many nights when one of the kids was sick, he’d sit up all night holding them close, thinking about those happy days.
In order to feed their small family, one or the other of them would often leave for a few days, Joe to hunt, fish, trap, and gather things and Marna to look for plants they could use. When one was gone, the other stayed home with Willa.
Joe learned to eat tomatoes, something he couldn’t stomach as a child. Marna constantly teased him about that. Every time Joe ate a tomato, he said, “Desperate times call for desperate actions,” and the two of them would laugh, which would set Willa off, her sweet peals of laughter lighting up their small shack and chasing away their fear.
Marna taught Joe how to identify plants and their uses. She taught him medicinal plants as well as edibles. Joe taught her how to track, kill, skin, and clean an animal and how to preserve the meat.
Willa was two when the Colcoa changed the weather. A huge earthquake woke the little family in the middle of the night. Marna grabbed Willa, and the three of them escaped to the garden as their shack crashed down.
Over the next week, the temperature rose drastically. Although it was early fall, it was hotter than Joe ever remembered, and every day the sun baked the earth even more.
On the fifth day of well over one hundred degrees, Marna begged Joe to go north. “Who knows what they’ve done this time, but I think that earthquake was the Colcoa screwing with the planet. I think they’re raising the temperature. We have to go. I think it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We need to travel at night, and we need to go now.”
Once again, Joe recognized the wisdom of his wife’s words. They picked their garden, packed up whatever supplies they could, and headed north. Joe strapped his tomahawk to his waist, and Marna hung her worn knife from her belt.
The Colcoa were headed south this time. The machines were different, much bigger this second time. They were bigger than any machine Joe had ever seen made by man, bigger than most buildings. Each covered ten or more acres, and they were hundreds of feet tall. They were like high rises flattening the landscape. That was when Joe realized the line they’d seen years before was just preliminary work, taking the easy metal. These left nothing behind, taking virtually everything, including the soil. Once again, a few trees were left standing here or there.
Joe later decided that in the first wave, the Colcoa pilots drove the machines, and subsequent machines followed the lines the first ones made automatically. He was never sure if that was the case, but it was the only explanation anyone had ever come up with for why a few trees were left.
Between each machine, two armored Colcoa walked, several hundred yards apart. This time, there were no mountains to hide in.
“We’re going to have to try to hide right at the edge of the lead machine. When it passes, we pop up and try to get into its wake to let the next pass,” Joe suggested. “Unless you have a better option.”
“I don’t, Joe. And I’m afraid,” Marna replied. “Maybe we shouldn’t try this.”
“We’ll burn up. It’s already getting too hot to be out in the sun. It’s gotten hotter every single day. We have to try.”
They dug a hole, about fifty yards to the west of the first machine, and waited for it to pass.
Tears fell down his cheeks as he ran towards Duluth, thinking back on that day. “I promised, Willa. I promised, and I’m coming, baby,” he said, running even faster towards his son and daughter.
In their fox-hole, fifteen years before, Joe held Willa to his chest. When the machine passed, the earth shook. “Whatever happens, Joe,” said Marna, “I love you. I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything in the world. I am the luckiest woman on the planet, besides maybe Willa there. Always take care of her, Joe. Promise me that,” said Marna.
Joe promised and kissed his wife. “I love you too, Marna. We’re going to be fine. We’ll head north until it’s cool. We’ve survived this long; we’re not giving up yet.”
Joe stuck his head out of the hole, handed Willa to Marna, and said, “Go now. I’m right behind you.” Marna and Willa took off, staying low to the ground. A forty-foot drop down to massive bedrock boulders was behind the machine. A huge field of car-sized boulders stretched out to the south. Marna sat on the edge and slid down, a small avalanche of gravel and dirt following her.
Joe looked to his right as he ran for the drop off. The armored Colcoa turned, heading straight for the three of them.
“Run and hide!” Joe yelled down, turning towards the alien. He drew his tomahawk and charged the creature. It raised its arm and fired blue bolts of energy at Joe, but the man was too fast. He closed the distance and leapt at the steel-encased Colcoa. He could see the creature’s terrible face through the glass, some thick gooey liquid running down channels in its cheeks. Joe brought his tomahawk up and down while the thing battered him with its robotic arms, trying to dislodge the human from its metallic shell.
Joe reversed the tomahawk, driving the spike into the glass over and over again, prying and chipping his way into the armor. The second Colcoa headed for Joe as he pried the glass away from his target. Inside the cockpit of the armored carrier, the Colcoa operated a number of levers. Joe reached in and pushed its hand, trying to get his tomahawk into the tiny cockpit. As Joe pushed, the suit spun, slowly revolving as the second armored unit closed on them.
In one final heave, Joe leaned in, grabbed the Colcoa inside, and pulled, ripping the Colcoa from the cockpit. The armor fell over sideways, and the man rolled over and over, tangled with the alien. Joe was pinned down. He felt around in the dirt beside him as the green monster pushed down his throat. Joe’s hand closed on a rock, and with the last of his strength he smashed the rock into the Colcoa’s head. It went limp, collapsing to the side. Joe wearily climbed to his feet, gathered his tomahawk, and ran towards the second armored Colcoa.
There wasn’t much time before more Colcoa would be there. He sprinted to close the distance, hoping Willa and Marna were far away. He didn’t hold much hope of surviving; he just wanted to buy them time.
He heard the armored suit behind him stand up, and then he heard Marna’s voice. “Joe! Get down!” she yelled as the armored unit fired. Joe dove to the dirt and watched the Colcoa he was heading for crash over onto its side, engulfed in blue light.
Marna hopped down out of the cockpit and grabbed her dumbfounded husband.
“How did you do that?” he asked as they ran. “And where’s Willa?”
“She’s in the rocks below. I couldn’t let them kill you, Joe.”
They scooped Willa up as the giant machines came to a halt. The two tiny humans ran as hard as they could, but it appeared the Colcoa didn’t chase them. They ran all night long, Marna struggling to keep up with Joe. They slept in cave that night, far underground. They went back into the cave until they found a crevice Joe could barely squeeze through and slept safely in the cavern behind it.
That was the start of becoming nocturnal and living underground, Joe thought as he neared the outskirts of Duluth. He stopped in some brush to gather his thoughts and catch his breath. He couldn’t be that far behind Willa.
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The runway was like the ending scene out of a movie. There were hugs and handshakes all around. Introductions were made, and Victor was finally able to put faces to all the names he’d been hearing for six months.
The last to approach Tookes was Sean, John’s twin brother. He had a huge grin on his face as he walked up, so Victor was surprised when shadows shot out from him. One of them solidified and developed into a right cross aimed at Vic’s jaw. Reflexively, Victor ducked his head, taking the punch right where his hairline met his forehead.
Sean jumped back shaking his hand, “Ahhh, ya fuckin hard-headed Drongo! I think ya broke my hand!”
“I knew you Aussies were a rowdy bunch,” said Victor. “But that was out of line. What the hell did I do to deserve that?”
“All that screaming you do! My head is still vibrating from that last one out at the army base,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “I’ve had to listen to you blasting my inner ear drums out for the last six months. You need to learn to control ya volume, mate.”
Tookes laughed. “To steal a phrase from your brother, I have a teaspoonful of concrete in my pocket. Swallow that with a cup of water – it’ll harden you right up,” Victor said with a grin. He stuck out his hand. Sean looked at him thoughtfully and then smiled again, gratefully accepting the handshake.
“John, lets put you and your whole family in one van, and we’ll all pile up in the other,” Tookes said to his friend. “We’re going to need to find a third vehicle and fuel up. We should get moving; the plane made a lot of noise and I’d like to be out of here before things get ugly again.”
The group crowded into any available spot in the vehicles, and the two overloaded vans took off towards the city of Yuma to find new transportation. Just inside the city limits, they pulled into a Chevrolet dealership. There were a handful of wandering zombies, which were easily dispatched.
John picked a white Silverado four-door pickup. James picked the same truck in tan. Victor and Marshall both picked Eco-Boost enabled suburbans. They were the newest model that could turn off up to four of the eight cylinders and, according to the stickers on the windows, got up to thirty miles per gallon on the highway. Behind the shop, they found the dealerships gas pumps and filled all four vehicles, plus the gas cans they had in the vans. Marshall transferred all the food and gear into the various new vehicles. Victor looked up to see John coming towards him. John’s face was troubled.
“Tookes, can I chat at ya for a minute, mate?”
“Sure John,” said Victor, knowing what was coming. It seemed like he had just had this same conversation with Kris not too long ago. Was everyone going to leave? He extended his hand and said, “Walk with me.”
The two men walked a short way away. As they walked, John absently rolled a cigarette, clearly uncomfortable with the entire situation. Victor didn’t want this to be harder on his friend than it had to be, so he spoke first.
“I assume from your choice of gas guzzling trucks, you’re not making the trip all the way back to the train.”
“Yeah, mate. Jo’s adamant. She says you’re gonna get me killed.” John paused for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “And, she’s right.” As he spoke, Vic fought back the flinch that was forming on his face. “I have my family to look out for now. Plus, you’ve won, mate,” John said. He was speaking with his hands now. “Laura’s dead. We haven’t seen fuck-all for zombies in the last eight hundred miles. It’s over, Tookes. It’s time to start living.” The Aussie paused and looked closely at his American friend. His voice dramatically softened as he continued, “You always said you were working to create a safe place for Max and we’ve done that. Good people died along the way, but we made this place safe. I met you on the side of the road, and followed you through the depths of hell.” He paused again before turning to fully face Tookes. “Go home Victor, it’s safe.”
“She’s not dead, John. This isn’t over, all it takes is one zombie and all this shit starts back up again,” said Victor sadly. “But I won’t stand in the way of your family. Blood comes first. Besides, Leo’s dead and I’m crazy. Your family needs you now.”
“You know if you ever need anything, just speak. I’ll have Nori taxi me wherever you are,” John said, putting his hand on Vic’s shoulder.
“John, I think of you like a brother. We’ll help you clear out a spot,” Tookes stated. “Do you have any idea where you want to go?”
“We passed a neighborhood right off the highway about thirty miles east of here. I checked it out when we drove by and it looks like a good spot,” he said. “It has a huge cliff on two sides, and the highway barricade on the third. All we’d have to do is close off the road leading in and it’ll be tighter than a platypus’ clacker.”
“What are you gonna do about water?”
“We’ll get it worked out. We’re Bushies,” he replied with a smile.
“Alright, man,” Victor nodded, “We’ll help you clear it out.”
John looked relieved, and Victor looked haggard. His team was falling apart, and there was nothing he could do about it. Leo left, and was now dead. Kris left and had a new life with Alicia in Tennessee. John was leaving. Thoughts and memories of the times they’d all spent together welled up and were quickly stuffed in the box – the box where he stored all his emotions to be dealt with later. And although he desperately tried to ignore it, “later” seemed to be creeping up on him much faster than he had anticipated.
It was a short trip to the little village John was talking about. Victor was filled with a sense of dread about the place, but chalked it up to John and his family leaving. They paired off to clear the houses. Each of the Americans had a lot more experience with this particular task, so each team had one American and one Australian. Victor paired with James, Marshall with Nori, and John with Sean.
Renee and Reggie led the rest of the crew and the children to find the local water source. The town was really just a flat spot at the bottom of a huge sandstone cliff. Thirty two houses, a general store, and a gas station made up the village. The highway ran along the south side. It was raised about ten feet high, with an impossibly steep hill and a guard rail at the top. On the north and west side, there was a sheer cliff that rose hundreds of feet in the air. The area was only accessible from the east from a small, two lane road. The narrowest part of the road was just over one hundred feet from the road to the cliff. Against the short western cliff face was the town’s water tower, just atop a wellhead.
“Jo, let’s head into the store there and see if we can find some supplies, and something for the kids to do,” said Renee.
“Are you sure? They haven’t cleared it yet,” said Jo.
“It’ll be fine, I have a few tricks of my own,” said Renee with a wink. “Would you mind watching Max, Maya, and Holly for a few minutes?” Jo nodded. Renee made herself invisible before continuing, “Zombies can’t see me either. I can scout the store, but it’s likely empty or we would have heard something by now. The kids aren’t being exactly quiet.”
“Okay, but if you hear me scream, come quickly,” Jo said.
“I wouldn’t go if I thought there was any danger,” she said. Renee began to climb the stairs and called over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back. I’m just going to look.”
She opened the door to the hardware store, and saw a very good sign. The shelves weren’t bare, and there was no sign that the place had been looted. It only struck her as odd for a single moment before she remembered how small the town really was. There was a high probability that the entire town either turned or had fled before raiding the stores. The parasites had spread so fast that most people didn’t have time to react or even realize what was happening being it was too late. Renee searched the store quickly; there wasn’t anything living or undead inside. Renee grabbed a couple of large styrofoam airplanes from the small section of toys and took them outside.
Renee reappeared infront of Jo and said, “Nothing in there. But I brought some toys.”
All of the children heard that magic word and ran over to them. Renee laughed as the planes were taken out of her hands and began soaring through the air. Jo was standing there watching the children play with a smile on her face. Max was talking to John’s older son and the girls were running around looking carefree and happy. The children were their hope for a future and so far, that hope was still going strong.
“We can find a generator to run the pump for a little while, but eventually you’re going to need to put a windmill up on top of that cliff to run your well pump,” said Renee.
“John knows all that. He can fix it up.” Jo paused and looked around. She had a sad smile on her face as she added, “This is going to be a good place for us. It has to be.”
“I wish you’d come back east with us,” said Renee. “It’s much easier living out there.”
“For you, maybe,” Jo replied. “This is what we know, and this is what we love. We came all the way here and I want the kids to be in familiar territory.” She crossed her arms over her chest now and looked down. “Our whole life was there. Everything we loved and all of that is gone now. We need something that’s at least…somewhat familiar. Besides,” she looked over to Renee with a small smile and said, “John says out at Victor’s place he feels like he’s going to drown with all the humidity.”
The two women looked up at the sudden sound of three shots that exploded in quick succession. Down the street, Marshall and James were standing near three dead zombies. Marshall yelled something they couldn’t hear, and John waved his hand out of the second story window of a house.
Victor and James worked well together. After the second house, James had the routine down pat and Victor let him take the lead on the third. James stood in front of the door and knocked hard. The two men stood silently and listened for any sign of movement. Victor backed up a step to try and catch a glimpse of anything inside the porch window, but everything seemed clear. Victor nodded to him, and James opened the door. The two men instantly knew something was wrong. The second James opened the door, the stench hit both men like a brick to the face.
“There’s gotta be a bunch inside,” said Victor, suppressing a gag. He had pulled his shirt up over his nose. “I’ve never smelled anything that strong. Keep your wits about you.”
“I know that smell,” said James. “I smelt it in a petrol station. Musta had forty zeds in it.”
The two men waded into the house, warily checking every corner, doorway, closet, and kitchen. When they finally opened the door to the basement, they found what must have been the entire population of the town milling about. Taped to the door was a note:
The situation is dire We have no food. We lost water when the power went out. It has been six days without water and we are dying. We are desperate. The only way we can preserve our bodies and return to Your service is to infect ourselves. When Max arrives, He will save us, smiting the evil from our bodies and returning us to glory We will spend the rest of our lives spreading the word of Max. I have sealed these people in this basement with one of the minions of the Evil Father Victor Tookes, so that they may be preserved until The Savior arrives, and moved on to spread the Gospel.
Kris never let go of Alicia’s hand as they disappeared from the desert. They traveled through space and time in an instant and once Kris opened her eyes, she found that they had safely reached the front yard of the main house on Gander Acres. All of the air in her lungs rushed out of Kris in a loud WHOOSH.
“We made it,” she laughed, shaking her head.
“I told you we would,” Alicia said with a smile. She brought Kris’s hand up to her lips and placed a kiss on her soft skin. The two women locked eyes for only a moment before Alicia gestured up to the house. “Let’s go check on Markus.”
They trotted up the hill and pushed in the front door. Kris was immediately put at ease with the familiar, safe feeling of the house. The smell of boiled potatoes, green beans and ham filled her nose and Kris realized that it had been a long time since she had anything real to eat. Even though she had been here only yesterday, her stomach had been in anxious knots and she hadn’t eaten anything the whole day. A wave of comfort came over Kris and while she didn’t dare to hope for a change, she couldn’t help but believe that maybe, just maybe, this place would become her new “normal.” A new life was possible here if she was willing to give it a shot. The faith that Kris had in Alicia made her truly believe that really living was possible. As Kris thought about all of the potential for her life, a huge smile spread across her face. It was time to breathe.
The two women rounded the corner into the kitchen. Liam was sitting at the kitchen table, pouring over a map of the farm and the surrounding area.
“Hey Liam,” Alicia said.
The curly-haired redhead jumped in surprise as he looked up. “Holy hell, you’re back!” As he stood, he almost knocked the table and the chair to the floor. He launched himself across the room and warmly embraced Alicia. As he pulled back from the embrace, he looked at her carefully. “We were worried you wouldn’t come back.”
Alicia laughed. “Why wouldn’t I come back?”
Liam shrugged. “You know the folks here. Paranoia is their way of life.”
“How’s Markus?” Kris asked.
“Conscious most of the day now. I don’t know what happened, but he managed to outgrow and break his bed overnight,” he replied as the small group walked up the stairs and then down the hall to Markus’s room. They stopped just outside the door as Liam continued. “And he’s eating everything in the house and then some. He looks like he’s healed, but he’s still really weak.”
“I can hear you, you know!” A voice called from inside the room.
Alicia smiled broadly and opened the door. Markus was already laughing and she leapt onto the bed, hugging her brother close to her. “Good Lord, Markus. You’re huge!” The siblings shared a laugh as Alicia poked Markus’s now bulging muscles. The brother and sister rapidly spoke to each other, explaining what had happened the night Markus was bit and where Alicia had been for the past day and a half.
Liam tapped Kris on the shoulder and gestured for her to follow him back to the kitchen. The two of them made their way downstairs and sat down at the wooden table. Riley was in the kitchen now, large spoon in hand, stirring the pot of potatoes. The ginger pushed the map he was looking at towards Kris. He didn’t have a very happy look on his face.
Before he should speak, the tea kettle on the stove began whistling ostentatiously. Liam stood up, grabbed the kettle, a smaller stoneware tea kettle, and three cups. He placed the cups in front of them and sat back down. It would take a few minutes for the tea to fully steep. The silence between them seemed to stretch on forever.
“I wish I had good news, Kris,” Liam finally said. He reached towards the teapot and poured all three of them a cup of earl grey tea.
Kris held the mug tightly in her hands, breathing in the sweet smell of the dark tea. She shook her head and softly replied, “Shit. I was afraid you’d say that. I had a feeling that things had been too easy.”
“We always have someone watching every square inch of this farm. And if they’re not watching the farm, someone is watching the everything else.”
Kris nodded, taking a short sip of the tea.
“There’s a whole group of zombies on their way here as we speak. And we’re so unprepared. There’s no way we have enough ammo to take them all out.” He pointed to the map on the table. “From what we can see, they’re coming from where we were almost totally burnt out from the fires.” Liam saw the look of confusion on Kris’s face and then clarified. “North east.”
“Right,” she paused again, deep in thought. “So what do we do?”
A smirk moved across Liam’s face and he glanced over to Riley. The older man was smiling broadly. “It was Riley’s idea. It’s a little risky, but I think it’ll work.”
It was Neil’s shift to watch the main road. Given that the farm was so massive, they had developed a system to always have someone watching almost every square inch of the farm. He was perched up in a hand-built treestand, slowly smoking the last of his tobacco. Neil had hand-rolled his cigarettes with his own home grown tobacco since he was 16, just as his father before him had done. To his left, Neil had his hunting gun loaded and ready. It had been around a week since he had to fire a single shot, but he was no fool to think that “the end” was over.
He had spent the majority of his time outside, working on a farm of his own. It had been in the family for five generations. All of that was lost the day that the military came through, thinking that bombing the area was the fastest way to destroy the undead. All of his hard work and everything that he had ever called “his” was burned to the ground. The plan to burn the zombies had dramatically backfired; instead of destroying the zombies, they had only destroyed farmland and forest. It had taken a week for the fires to burn themselves out. Once the ash had cleared, there were at least a 100 people that had nowhere else to go.
Alicia and Markus had saved them. Neil had no doubt about that. Markus had showed up in a huge truck and offered them all a chance to survive on Gander Acres. Everyone had agreed. The siblings were well known in the town and highly respected. Now, they were more than respected. They were revered.
The horde was covering ground slowly but steadily, pushing towards the farm. Neil shouted encouragement over to Joey, who was digging pits with the backhoe. They had a large amount of diesel, but it was still a precious commodity. “You’re doing great, Joey! Keep it up, don’t burn that ‘hoe up, replacement parts are going to get real rare!”
Neil looked through his binoculars, counting the zombies. He knew there was no way he could count them all, but he knew every parcel of land on this farm. If he knew how many could fit in an area the size of the farmhouse yard, he’d know roughly how many there were. After some quick figuring in his head, he called out to Martin “Looks like about 225 of em. They’re coming slow and steady, we got about half an hour. Run fetch the kubota and that spool of wire. I’ll ride the ford. We’ll run out a trot-line and wrangle ‘em into Joey’s pits. If we get lucky, we won’t have to fire a shot tonight!”
Neil squinted into the sun, the finely lined crows feet stood out at his temples, the product of years of working out in the bright summer sunlight. His favorite old John Deere cap sat atop his head, the bill worn threadbare from years of being stuck in his back pocket when he went inside. No real man wore his hat inside. He worried about the two boys he loved almost as his own sons. The three men had been working the land together since they were small children. They were good men to have around though. Solid, sturdy framed boys, rugged from an outdoorsman’s life. Both could grow anything, and Martin was the best hunter and tracker Neil had ever known. Neither boy had been much for school, all either of them wanted was to be outside working. Both had quit high school as soon as the local constable would allow, and hadn’t gone much before that.
The sound of the new kubota running up the hill woke Neil from his memories. Martin had the front bucket low to the ground and full of a scoop of dirt to offset the weight of the barbed wire on the back spooler. “Pull up next to the ford,” Neil yelled over the sound of the diesel engine. “I’ll attach the wire to the PTO, and we can run off about 100 yards, then run it back. When we have six or eight wires running between the tractors, I’ll use the tractor’s PTO to spin them all together into a barbed cable.”
Martin looked over at Neil, “Ya reckon’ this is gonna work?”
“Of course it’ll work, Martin. Just like runnin’ a net through the lake. Some few stragglers might make it through, but they shouldn’t be too hard to mop up. We need to thin the herd, taking them out one at a time is too long.”
“What if it’s some of them fast ones?” yelled Joey.
“Then we’ll deal with them, like we have before. No way of knowin’ so we might as well follow the plan until we have to abandon it. You boys know there ain’t no sense in bein’ worried about somethin’ we can’t control.”
“Yes sir,” they both said at the same time.
Joey dumped one more scoop of dirt, then backed the tractor over the rise. A few seconds later he came trotting over to Martin on the big Kubota tractor and got straight to work. The three of them were so practiced at working together, none of them really needed instruction. Joey attached the barbed wire to the back of the Ford. Martin took off, looped it around a tree, then back to the Ford. Joey cut the wire, attached the looped end and a fresh wire to the PTO on the tractor, and Martin was off again. In no time, eight lengths of barbed wire stretched between the tractor and the tree. Neil cut the wire against the tree with his hatchet, and attached those ends to the Kubota.
The Ford’s PTO was powerful, designed to spin huge cultivator blades through hard dirt. The wire was no match for the engine, it spun into an inch-thick cable with deadly, flesh ripping barbs sticking out at every angle. The three men shut down the tractors and waited, wondering if the sun would set before the zombies got to them. It was always worse fighting them in the dark. Neil reached into his back pocket and pulled out a smooshed sandwich.
“Might as well grab a bite, boys. Gonna be a fair piece before we get somethin else to eat,” he said as he bit into his sandwich.
The three of them ate a small supper standing between the tractors and waited. When they were done eating and had all taken a long pull from the water jug, they mounted their tractors and started them up.
“Martin, you take the inside arc, I’ll swing out and come through the middle. It’s going to take a couple of trips. The three men pushed their tractors into their high gear and started off towards the horde, ready to lasso them and drag them into the pits.
Just over the grassy hillside at the edge of the field, two zombies lay on their stomachs watching below.
“Uncle Marshall,” said Max. “Daddy says there’s a shot in that fort that you have to go get. ”
‘What kind of shot?” Asked Marshall.
“One that kills bugs. Only it doesn’t work unless the bugs want to take it into themselves. They can just ignore it.” Max said, looking slightly skeptical.
Victor Sr asked, “Vic wants us go into that place for a shot that doesn’t work?”
“Yes, Poppy. He knows about it though, he thinks he can still make it work. It’s the same shot that made my bugs sick.”
“What bugs?” Asked Max’s grandfather.
“When I got bit at school, I got bugs. They made me sick at first, but now they’re my friends. They live in here,” said Max, pointing to his head. “They tell me things. Like right now they’re telling me that you don’t believe me.”
Victor thought about Max’s statement. It was a big insight for a four year old to make. Max had always been an exceptionally bright child, but would he pick up on body language this early? “It isn’t that I don’t believe you, Max.” Said Victor. “But how could it be? How come you aren’t one of them?”
“They say I’m different. Daddy thinks that’s why Mr. Frye wanted to take me, and why the zombies want me.”
Marshall was still worried about whatever was in that fort. Whatever had been in the area that smashed those cars was bigger and stronger than he was. “Did he say where it was in there?”
“Nope. Just that it was in there. I think you should take Mr. Shelton with you, Uncle Marshall,” said Max.
“Why Mr. Shelton, Max?”
“He’s been there before, when he became an army man.”
“Okay. How did you know that, Max?” Asked his grandfather.
“The bugs told me.”
“Dad, we’ve all learned not to ask. True or not, the fact is that Max is always right. We should listen to him.”
“I’m going in there too. You need someone to watch your back,” said Victor. “I’ve been watching it for forty years.”
“I need you to stay with Max, Pop. He’s way more important than you or me or Victor. Everyone on this train would give their life for him. If something goes wrong in there, I need you to keep Max safe. I need you to get this train out of here and get him to Vic.”
Again Victor was unhappy with the response, but he saw the wisdom of Marshall’s thinking. If Shelton was a military man, and if Max was right that he’d done his basic training here, then he was the man for the job. “Come on, Max! Let’s go read a book,” said Victor.
“Yay!” Exclaimed Max, following his grandfather out of the room.
Marshall headed the opposite direction, towards the locomotive. When he stepped out of the dining car onto the locomotive platform, he saw the first zombie he’d seen in days. He was standing in the back yard of a small run-down looking house, wearing a faded red tee shirt and a pair of brown cargo shorts. The creature looked up as the train passed and started walking towards the tracks. It hit a chain link fence, and continued to try to walk. Marshall wondered how long he would continue to try to walk through the fence after the train was out of ear shot.
The big man stepped into the locomotive with Corbin Shelton, their military tactician, and told him about the shot, leaving out the part about it not being effective.
“It makes sense that they’d have something like that there. Fort McPherson was a research base. I spent some time there before I was deployed. When I was there they were researching nerve-agent darts that could be fired out of a regular rifle. We were looking for a way to put enemy combatants down without killing them, and without doing permanent damage. They were working on a chemical agent that even a small scrape could put a man to sleep for two days.”
“Sounds like some potent stuff. I wonder if that’s the stuff Vic was talking about. In any case, we gotta go in there and find it. Since you’ve been inside the labs, I’ll need your help finding what we’re looking for.”
Shelton looked startled. Marshall didn’t think he was going to back down from the challenge, but the look of fear that briefly crossed Shelton’s face before being tucked away was an alarm for Marshall.
“They did a lot of other stuff in there too,” said Shelton. “Rumor around the barracks was that they were trying to make a real life Captain America. They were trying to genetically alter a human to be bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than a normal person. It was just a rumor, you know how people always have something to talk about.”
Shelton eased the throttle off on the train, and applied the brakes. Victor had put post-it notes all over the cockpit labeling everything. It made the train very easy to operate, in the limited capacity that they needed. They were only hauling a handful of cars, as opposed to the two-million pounds the train was designed to carry.
“We should be pretty close to the fort now. Stop the train, lets gear up and get this over with. We’ll have time to discuss more details while we walk to the base. The gates and doors have been open for a long time. There’s a chance we’ll be able to walk in and out.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Shelton looking doubtful as he stepped out onto the ledge around the locomotive. “I’ll grab my kit and meet you in five minutes.”
Marshall stood in the locomotive and pondered Shelton’s reaction. He drove this train into a huge horde of zombies without a second’s hesitation. But something in that military base was making him fearful. Eventually he shook it off, I’m probably just overreacting, he thought to himself as he headed down the train to gather his own weapons.
When he was fully geared up, he found John sitting in the dining car over a hot cup of coffee. John was staring intently into his cup. “We’re not going to make it to my family in time, Marshall,” he said. “Tookes has gone off on walkabout, Leo’s gone, we’re stopped again, and we’re not even a whole day’s travel from where we started.”
“I know it’s tough John. Vic hasn’t ever let us down. He hasn’t ever led us astray. He’ll get you to your family,” replied Marshall. “Shelton and I are going to run into the fort. Max said I should take Shelton over you, I’m not sure why, but I’ve learned to rely on what the little man says.”
“Alright. I’ll stay here and play wet nurse again. But when Tookes gets back we’re going to have a talk. Another talk. My family is the reason we’re on this trip, they have to be the priority. If they crash that bird and we’re not there to catch them its not going to be good.”
“Getting to your family is my priority John. I know it’s Vic’s as well. We’ll get there in time,” said Marshall as he paused at the door to the next car. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours and we’ll be back on schedule.”
John returned to starting into his cup of coffee, thinking about seeing his wife and children after so long.
Marshall and Shelton met on the ground at the base of the locomotive, and without a word between them set off south towards the base and whatever mystery syringe Victor was looking for. Marshall hadn’t ever doubted his brother. One of their father’s favorite sayings was ‘Never tell them everything you know’. Victor had always taken that to heart, he was not known for being forthright with all the info, ever. His little brother had done pretty well by all of them, and Marshall knew he had his reasons, that was enough for him.
The two men were less than a block from the train when they came up on a pair of zombies. “So much for having killed them all in the park,” said Shelton quietly.
Marshall pulled a hammer out of its clips on the back of his leather vest and motioned for Shelton to stay back. He whistled a low note to get their attention and right on queue the two zombies started walking towards him. The one on the left had been a female, about middle aged. Not bad looking, thought Marshall as he swung his hammer over his head in a big circle. Marshall was easily a foot and a half taller than this corpse. The hammer hit the bottom of its arc, and caught her in the side of the jaw on the upswing. The arc ripped her skull from her neck, launching it forty-five degrees into the air and spraying zombie number two with gore. Marshall continued the circle, bringing the hammer up and around in one smooth motion, and did almost the same to the second zombie. The second circle was much flatter, and just scalped the man-zombie, smashing its skull in and flipping the zombie over onto its side.
There were three distinct almost simultaneous splats. The woman’s head hit the brick wall across the street, the rest of her corpse slopped to the ground, and the male zombie impacted the asphalt all at the same time. Quick, silent, and relatively clean. Marshall wiped the head of his hammer before replacing it in its cradle on his back. The two men continued the trek towards the army base in less than five seconds.
“Jesus, Marshall. I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Corbin.
“I’m just big and strong,” said Marshall. “I’d rather have Leo’s speed.”
“I’d just like to have some sort of edge,” said Shelton.
“You have training and experience. That’s your edge Corbin,” said Marshall.
The rest of the trip to the fort was fairly uneventful. They walked into the yard with all the corpses still laying where they’d been killed or re-killed. “This was a cluster-fuck,” said Shelton.
“Yea. Must have been something ugly to do all this. Lets get in and out before whatever did this comes back,” Marshall said stepping up to the door.
Inside the hallway was gloomy, the only light came from the door they came in. Marshall reached into the pocket of his cargo shorts and pulled out a flashlight. He held it in one hand, and his gun in the other.
“Marshall, flip your flashlight around in your fist, then cross your wrists,” said Shelton crossing his flashlight hand over the wrist of his gun hand, so the flashlight shone down the barrel. “It lets you steady your gun, and keeps your light and gun pointed in the same place.”
“Thanks,” said Marshall, following Shelton’s lead. “Anything else I’m doing wrong? Before all this I was a management consultant. I can use all the help you’ve got to give.”
“In this situation you’re doing fine. Let me breech the doors, watch how I do it.” Shelton moved towards an open doorway on the right side of the hallway. Standing almost five feet back from the door, he leaned his arm against the wall. “From here,” he whispered. “I can see a few feet of the room through the door. When you present yourself to the door, you want to stay well outside, and limit the angle something on the inside has to see you.”
Shelton leaned a foot out into the hallway, peering into the room a little more before returning to his spot against the wall. “That gave me a couple more degrees of sight into the room,” he whispered, before leaning further out in front of the hall. He repeated that process, over and over, each time moving further away from the wall, allowing him to see more of the room with each pass. When he was square with the door, he whispered. “Alright, I’ve cleared the whole room, except this front corner. To get that one I’ll step into the room. I know that three out of the 4 corners of the room are clear.”
Shelton stepped into the room, then Marshall heard Shelton yell “Put your weapons on the fucking ground! Hands where I can see them!”
This is the end of the free sample. If you’d like to continue reading, What Zombies Fear: Fracture is available on Amazon Kindle
This entire book, as posted on this site, is a rough draft. It’s the cost of reading as I write, instead of waiting until it’s available on Kindle.
She wasn’t out of this yet.
Kris was furiously pacing the floor, deep in thought. It was obvious that she had spent too much time dwelling on what she could not do verses what she could. The knowledge that there was much more to her than she had ever imagined was invigorating. She felt revived with a new sense of purpose. As she paced from one side of the dark room to the other, a deep driving need to survive filled her mind. She was consumed by it.
They had underestimated her the first time, but they wouldn’t make that mistake twice. Kris knew that she needed to be well beyond their reach by the time they got back.
Two hours passed. Thin, deep red streams of light stretched across the industrial carpet and Kris could feel the temperature dropping. She needed to get out of here and the only thing standing in her way was that damn door, but she wasn’t strong enough to break it down. There had to be another way.
“Miss Kris?” It was Max again. “Are you still there?”
She forgot he had been listening. “I’m here, Max. I’m sorry you had to hear that. I don’t know how, but I have to get out of here.”
“Daddy says all the things have a reasonable frequency. Find the tone and use your shield to amplify it.” There was a pause and Kris wondered what a “reasonable frequency” before Max corrected himself and said, “Resonating.”
Kris smiled slightly at the word correction. Victor must have been listening in to their conversation. He was such a good father to Max. It was strange that children were not something that Kris ever felt drawn to. When Leslie, one of the girls she worked with, brought her four month old son into the restaurant, Kris felt the urge to run the other way. All of the other servers were so excited over the baby but Kris found herself purposely avoiding the entire situation. She had awkwardly waved at Leslie from the opposite side of the bar and then hid in the kitchen. Just the idea of holding the baby made her skin crawl and that’s when Kris decided that some women just weren’t meant to have children. Maybe she was one of those women. From her experience, children were usually loud, obnoxious and rude. But little Max was different. He was sweet, adorable and very intelligent. As much as she hated to admit it, she really liked him.
“I’ll try that, but what if I can’t make the right sound?”
“Then we’ll try something else, but you can do this Kris,” The voice was Victor’s now. “When you get out, find out where you are and tell Max. I’m going to go get Leo and we’re coming to find you.”
We’re coming to find you. His voice echoed inside her mind and their connection was abruptly silenced and Kris was alone again. Conversations were also so damn short with these people. The world had complained about what technology had done to the ability to converse, but no one even considered what an apocalypse would do. Kris wanted nothing more than to have a moment of normalcy and have a real conversation with someone that didn’t involve how they were going to survive. Or about some insane crusade to save the world. Or maybe where she didn’t have to worry about what was coming to kill her next. The frequency of resonance is linked to the time it takes for a vibration of sound to spread throughout a building, reverberate and then how long it takes for the “echoes” to return to the oscillation, The voice told her in its usual clipped fashion. By finding the correct frequency, any structure can be destroyed. Kris took over the conversation and told herself, Find the right frequency, and I can bring the house down.
Kris stopped pacing and stood in the center of the room. Her feet were placed shoulder width apart and she stood tall, exhaling slowly. She let all of air out of her lungs and focused on expanding her ribcage as she inhaled. Air filled her lungs again and she picked the lowest note she could sing. Kris created a small dome just in front of her lips and sang into the bubble. With a flick of her hand, she pushed the bubble across the room and morphed it around the door. The metal door vibrated gently and began to produce a beautiful cord inside its frame. Kris listened for the highest note in the cord and shifted her voice to fit the sound. She was singing a few octaves under the highest tone and pinched the dome into a tall cylinder to bend the pitch. As the dome pinched together, the note was pushed to screaming heights.
The note permeated the door and filled its core. Kris could feel it rattling around in the frame, and the door shook violently before it slowly began to crumble. Before her eyes, the steel door turned into nothing but dust and the the aluminum door handle clunked to the floor. The sound was abruptly snuffed out as the door disappeared.
“Holy shit, that actually worked!” she shouted and threw her arms into the air and shouted with joy and made a mental note to thank Vic later for that bit of genius. She ran towards the open door frame and into the hall. Kris pushed the dome out from her body and had it expand over the floor of the Sheraton hotel. The entire layout of the floor filled Kris’s mind and she could once again confirm that she was alone. Part of the dome brushed against the elevator shaft 400 feet in front of her and a distinct “8” bore into her mind. Eight floor.
The industrial carpet was golden yellow, tan and black in a typical modern block formation. The pattern was over-sized and terribly standard-looking. As she ran, she had to be careful where her feet landed. There was wooden debris, glass and discarded pieces of furniture that littered the floor. In her bare feet, every step was a risk. Even though she healed very quickly, Kris didn’t want anything potentially slowing her down. At the end of the hall, she found the emergency exit and threw herself against it. Kris drew the shield back around herself like a warm blanket as the door flew inward and rattled roughly against the interior concrete wall. As she stepped inside the door, she glanced around the staircase. It was silent. Kris knocked on the metal handrail and as the sound reverberated through the open stairwell, she expanded the sphere that protected her to fill the entire area. Aside from a half dozen rotting corpses in tattered clothing and a broken-up love seat, the emergency exit was empty. Kris trotted down the cold cement stairs. Her bare feet made soft padding noises as she crossed each step.
It is better for civilization to be going down the drain than to be coming up it. Henry Allen’s Law of Civilization, the Voice told her. Oh, thanks for that. Always so God damn cheerful, Kris snapped in response.
She only had to side step once to avoid a shattered portion of the stairs before she pushed open the emergency exit door that lead into the hotel lobby. It must have been beautiful before the world collapsed. The tan, deeply veined marble floor still gleamed brightly in the late evening light. Whoever had polished it last did a remarkable job and would have deserved a raise for his work. The lobby was enormous with a squat, arched ceiling and four large, multi-coloured glass chandeliers. One of the four chandeliers had crashed to the marble floor and shattered into thousands of rainbow shards. All that was left attached to the ceiling were a set of wires with a few left over strands of glass. Gathered into small groups around the expansive room were black, leather bound love seats paired with two wing-back chairs and a circular, glass coffee table. The furniture groupings were anchored together on what used to be brightly colored, hand woven rugs. In the passing months, they had grown dark, dingy and some had been stained with blood. There were more corpses in the lobby than anywhere else Kris had encountered and the stench was overwhelming. She felt bile rise up in her throat and she swallowed hard to avoid throwing up.
There were dark patches of dried blood spread across the marble floor. There were streaks of it that led from the revolving door and straight to the main desk. Kristina Thompson, checking in. And have the bellboy pick up my bags, please. Just to the side of the streak there were awkwardly placed, bloody footprints that seemed to stagger off behind the desk.
She was suddenly standing just outside of the Humvee that picked her up the night the world changed. With horror, she watched a set of zombie teeth tear into a bicep of the man that wore black swimming trunks. The teeth sunk into his muscle and out of reflex, the man’s elbow snapped upwards. Another set of teeth tore into the base of his neck. Both zombies pulled their heads backward and strings of muscle, skin and gore fell from their gnashing teeth. Blood exploded from the wounds and bubbled down his shirt. Another zombie had the man’s left hand in its mouth and was chewing slowly. Kris heard his bones snapping and popping and the zombie bit down again and pulled with its teeth. The flesh and muscle was pulled from his hand in one solid motion and all that was left was the skeletal remains.
The man screamed.
With a shout, Kris tore herself from her past and pushed the memory back down where it belonged. Breathing deeply, she focused on what was real and stomped her feet against the cold marble. She was cold, hungry and in need of somewhere safe to spend the night. And the first order of business was to find some God damn shoes.
As she pushed through the revolving doors, she spread the dome out and stretched it across ¾ of the block. As she walked, Kris had the entire layout of the block etched perfectly in her mind. From what she could see, the area looked like a scene out of some over-done, Hollywood disaster movie. Only in this world, the credits would never roll and the dead never stayed dead. Lifeless bodies and destroyed, burnt out cars lined the silent streets. The air, just like the city, was still. Kris pushed the sphere out farther and it fully covered the block and aside from a small flock of seagulls, there was not another living thing in the area.
“Jesus Christ,” she sighed and wrapped her arms around herself as she walked down the small staircase that lead to the sidewalk. The first ten corpses she passed were either men, or women with much smaller feet than her. She tried very hard to ignore that she was about to steal shoes from a dead body.
Stealing shoes off a dead man. Oh, we’re going to hell. Weekend at Bernies 2, The Voice said.
That was one of the shittiest movies I’ve ever seen, Kris retorted with a snort.
But Jeff wanted to watch it. So you did.
Kris brushed the last comment aside as she jogged down the street, keeping her eyes open for shoes that looked like they would fit. Eventually, she found a pair of lime green and yellow Puma running shoes. As she crouched down to remove the shoes, she turned her head to the side. The skin and bones had dried out and as Kris pulled the shoes off, the bones made a sick snapping sound and she flinched in disgust. Standing up, she tied the laces together and tucked the shoes under her armpit. She could handle shoes from a dead body, but socks were something else entirely. Half a block down, she found a CVS with all of the glass windows broken in. She did a quick search and managed to find a bag of men’s socks, an XXL black hooded sweatshirt with the word “MOBILE” across the front, a bottle of water and two Lara bars. In desperation, she also grabbed a mop. After placing it on an angle against the floor and wall, she stepped on it and snapped it to a sharp point. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was better than nothing.
She tore one of the wrappers off of the Lara bar and bit into it. It still tasted like cardboard, but it was the best tasting cardboard she had ever eaten. With a sigh, she sat down on the curb of the street and ripped open the plastic bag of socks and took out four pairs. With a cringe, she realized that the only thing separating her feet from the feet of the shoes’ previous inhabitant was a thin piece of cotton. And then she realized that doubling up on socks was not an option because the shoes weren’t large enough. Her face was tightly scrunched as she pulled the socks onto her feet and then the sneakers. “Oh, this is all types of fucked up,” she muttered and as she stood, she twisted off the cap of the water and drank it greedily.
She pushed the extra socks and the second Lara bar into the front pocket of the sweatshirt and pulled the deep hood up over her head. The sun was getting perilously low and she still had no safe place to go. After another deep sigh, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and began to walk down the block. The only thing she was grateful for in this entire trip was that their little stunt in Atlanta had apparently drawn all of the zombies in the surrounding area into Georgia and out of Alabama.
Fucking Tookes. God damn crusade… She thought, shaking her head. And yet at the same time, she found herself missing his drive and his passion. If not him, who? She thought. Followed immediately by, I must be losing my mind.
The last thing she expected to hear were running engines shuttering to a stop three blocks away. And as if hearing those engines wasn’t enough, she heard nin distinct heartbeats pumping warm blood to live bodies.
Her ears picked up a clear, distinctly feminine voice. “Jackson, spread your men around the trucks. Keep your eyes peeled for walkers. Tommy, move your teams into positions around the pumps. We have thirty-thousand gallons to pump, move your asses!”
“You got it, Alicia,” one said.
“We’ll get it done,” said another.
“We’ll get you back to that beautiful baby tonight, Tommy. You have my word.”
Kris ran towards them and as she did, she carried the sphere with her and began to project it forward.
Victor stood just inside the doorway leaning on the shopping cart, trying to puzzle everything out. Leeland stood on the front side of the cart where he’d dragged it inside the door. A few seconds later, Mother Rotelle walked in, set her rifle barrel up in the umbrella tree, and looked at the groceries.
“That seems like way more than I asked for, Victor,” she said.
“Well Mrs. Rotelle, I didn’t want you to run out, and I wasn’t able to get everything on the list. But, now I see how you were able to survive this long by yourselves.”
“How’s that deary? Survive what,” she asked.
Leeland looked puzzled at the entire conversation.
“You shoot as well as my friend John. And Leeland, do you often end up places and not know how you got there?”
“No, never,” Leeland replied.
Victor decided not to push any farther. Either they were both firmly entrenched in their dementia, or they were pretending and not going to let go. He liked them and decided to just play along.
“Alright,” Victor said. “Lets get these groceries put away, and then I need to be on my way. I’ve been gone from my son for far too long.”
“Oh, you have a son? What’s his name?”
Victor thought about lying, but he decided against it. He watched for reactions, switching his vision to see their auras. He looked to see what their actions would be. Their auras were as they always were, swirling rainbows of color. Most people’s auras were one solid color, or slashes of different colors. Both Leeland and Mrs. Rotelle’s were always shifting through all of the colors in big swirling patterns. It added weight to his thoughts that they may be suffering from dementia.
“Max,” said Victor.
“That’s a good strong name,” said Leeland. “What was your name again?”
“Victor Tookes, sir. It’s nice to meet you.” No change in either of their auras as he spoke. Either they really didn’t remember their dinner conversation or they just didn’t care, Victor couldn’t be sure.
He finished putting the groceries away while Mrs. Rotelle made lunch for them. One thing he missed about normal life was regular meals that consisted of more than one thing. Victor was so used to eating whatever food came out of the can he happened to open, even lunch consisting of Spam sandwiches and processed cheese-food were a treat.
When he was finished eating, Victor checked out for a minute in the middle of Leeland’s third telling of the time he arrived at the house just out of the army in the summer of ’53. ‘Kris, are you there?‘ he asked.
“Well hot damn, Mr. Tookes! Glad to hear from you again. Ya get a little cooked in Atlanta?” He could hear the smile in her voice and she continued, “That resonance idea was GOLD. I’m out if the hotel and there’s no sign of those pricks that took me. Or Laura.”
‘Great news. Where can I pick you up? I’m in Mobile now.‘
“Moblie? Damn, you work fast. I ran into another group of humans that have a settlement up in Tennessee and I’ve decided to go with them. I honestly think I could help them. And to be honest? I think it’ll be more…normal than the usual bullshit,” she replied.
His heart sank. I really thought after we connected, after we worked so well together she’d reconsider leaving me. I liked Kris a lot.
‘Nothing against you, but I’ve had my fair share of humanity saving.‘
‘Kris, if we don’t do it, no one will. We’ll never be safe, we’ll never be able to relax our guard. I’d rather be sitting back at the farm with my mom watching the crops grow too, but this is way bigger than both of us,’ I replied.
‘I get that. I really do. I’ve been in your head, Tookes. We’re all on the same side. Why can’t I do my own part by helping another group survive?’ She replied. “Besides, if you really need me, all you need to do is ask. You’ll always knows where I am.’
‘Do what you need to do. If you ever get in trouble, call Max. We’ll be there for you. Stay safe out there, keep your head down and try to find some happiness.’ I said, ending the connection. He tried to shove his anger down into its box. His team was now down two members. How was he supposed to keep them all together? Not that it mattered, he’d do this alone if he had to.
Victor opened his eyes, or rather, refocused them. They’d been open the whole time, staring into space. Leeland was looking at him strangely. “You alright son? Looked like you left us for a while,” he said.
“Oh yea, I’m fine. I was just thinking about getting back to my family. I really need to be going. Leeland, do you know where the east-west train tracks are, up in Montgomery north of here? My family is on a train heading west, and I need to get to the tracks before they pass through here.”
“Oh yea, its about two and a half to Montgomery, but just over the boarder in Louisiana the tracks turn south and run down to Naw’lins. We can be at those tracks in Hattiesburg in under an hour.”
“Would you be willing to drive me to the tracks?” asked Victor.
“Oh, sure. Nothin’ to it. Let me know when you’re ready. Probably gonna have to gas up the truck though,” Leeland said.
“I’ll cover the gas, its the least I can do.”
“That’s a deal then, son. Let me know when you’re ready.”
“I’m ready now, just need to thank you both for your hospitality. I needed this night here,” said Victor.
“It was nothin’ deary, it was our pleasure to have you. Safe travels,” said Mother Rotelle, hugging Victor tightly. She laid her head on his stomach, as she hugged him. Once again he was astounded at how small she was. He hugged her back as best he could.
“It was a pleasure having you with us, son,” said Leeland holding out his hand. Victor took Leeland’s hand for what must have been the twentieth time. Before he could shake his hand, Victor felt the cold of travel surround him. A millisecond later he was shaking Leeland’s hand standing on a rail bed.
“Thanks for the lift,” Victor said. “Be safe when you head home, I don’t want you to doze off like you did on the way up here.”
“Oh, it’s always better when I’m driving. Nell always says I there must be an off switch on my ass that gets tripped when I’m in the passenger seat,” said Leeland turning to walk away. He’d gone about five steps when he yelled back, “Stay safe Victor Tookes.” And then he was gone, leaving only that familiar black mist.
Victor looked around. He was standing at an intersection where a small road crossed the train tracks. There weren’t any buildings in site. He was surrounded by hay fields. There weren’t even crossing gates at the intersection, just a diamond shaped sign facing away from Victor about a hundred yards up the road in either direction.
Victor slowly got down on his knees near the train tracks and put his ear to the steel. It had always worked in the old cowboy movies, but he couldn’t hear anything on the tracks. ‘Maybe they are still too far away,’ Victor thought to himself. He turned around and sat down on his backpack. It was a little lumpy, but far better than sitting on the road. He sat for the better part of an hour, getting up to listen to the tracks every ten minutes. He started to worry, which lead him to thinking about Kris leaving the group. That lead into Leo leaving, and that lead to Victor getting angry.
Like always, Victor shoved his anger down into a box specifically built in his brain to handle excessive and unnecessary emotion. A box he kept promising he’d open one day, and deal with. For now he needed to be busy, so he strapped his pack on his back and struck off up the road towards the nearest farmhouse. The house was up on a small rise, about half a mile from the tracks. It was the only thing he could see from where Leeland had dropped him off, so that was the target. He told himself it was to get out of the cold. It couldn’t be more than a few degrees above freezing. Victor was wearing lots of layers, but the constant breeze was blowing right through them all.
It took him about fifteen minutes to walk to the house. He moved slowly and deliberately, walking down the middle of the road looking through the tall grass for any sign of the undead. When he got to the house, he looked it over thoroughly. It was old, probably antebellum, although Victor was no expert on architecture. The wooden siding had once been painted white, although now it was mostly gray weathered wood with white flecks of paint. The shutters were still mostly black, and the tin roof looked like it had been painted within the last several years. It had a huge bi-level porch that wrapped around three sides of the house. On the back was a small addition, probably a wash room or a laundry room.
Victor slowly stepped up on to the front porch, trying to avoid stray creaks that a porch this old was bound to have. He failed miserably at that task. The porch creaked with every step. The whole area was eerily silent, there were no birds, no crickets, no grasshoppers chirping. It sounded like his footsteps carried for miles. That should have struck him as odd, but he was concentrating all of his energy on listening to the inside of the house. The front door was unlocked, and opened easily. The inside of the house was dark, and it took his eyes a couple of seconds to adjust from the bright sunlight outside.
Sitting in an ancient wingback chair in the middle of the parlor to his left was Joshua Frye. In one smoothe motion Victor pulled his gun and fired two shots. his aim was true, but Frye was surrounded by some sort of shield. Frye still had an aura, and hadn’t ever let on that he was a super.
Victor opened the door to the bedroom, the first on the left at the top of the stairs. Inside the door was a small but orderly bedroom. Along one wall was a perfectly made twin bed. The blanket was tight and the sheet was folded back along the top edge. A single fluffy pillow invited Victor to lay down, but he was on a mission. He opened the closet on the wall opposite the bed. Inside he found a few pairs of pants, several shirts, and two sport coats. The clothes were old, but well kept. He pulled a pair of green heavy duty cargo work pants, a tee shirt and a khaki work shirt out of the closet and tossed them onto the bed. Next he pulled out the tweed sports jacket. It was out of fashion, with patches over the elbows and a slightly larger than modern collar, but it looked warm and it looked like it would fit.
It turns out the clothes were all about one size too large, but its not like anyone was going to be judging him. He slid the tweed jacket on, emptied his pockets out of his old pants into his new ones and laid his still slightly damp clothes out to dry. Over beside the desk he found an old beat up school-book style backpack and laid it out next to his clothes. He needed to ask the Rotelles if he could have it. Judging by the clothes, no one had been actually using this room since the early nineties. There was a Lethal Weapon 3 poster hanging just above the desk, and a Right Said Fred CD sitting on the desk next to a CD player. Victor hit the eject button on the CD player, inside was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
“This guy had great taste in music,” said Victor as he walked out the door and back down the steps.
When Victor stepped out into the dining room of the old mansion, Leeland stood up from the table and walked towards him. He stuck his hand out and said “Leeland Rotelle, nice to meet you young man.” Victor shook his hand.
“Victor Tookes, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” he said, looking at Mrs. Rotelle who was smiling happily. She gave no indication that anything was out of the ordinary.
“Come in, Victor deary. Supper is ready. I’m afraid it’s not much, the cook didn’t come in, and apparently he hasn’t been to the grocery in a while.” She took the lids off three different pots, one contained steamed white rice, the other stewed tomatoes and okra, and the third had something that looked like ground beef and onions. Victor wasn’t sure where they would have gotten all this fresh food, but the had to have power in the house. They weren’t using any lights, but maybe their freezer was working. There were lots of unanswered questions. Victor hadn’t heard a generator running when he was walking by. Keeping a generator running constantly for six months would have consumed a massive amount of fuel. Who was doing that work? Who was defending the house?
Victor debated asking those questions. It wasn’t really any of his business, if these two were happy and surviving, did he need to interfere with their delusion? Perhaps they were better off forgetting all the loss and death. Maybe they had it right. He sat down at the table across from the Rotelles and folded his hands in his lap.
“Leeland, would you say the blessing?” Mrs. Rotelle asked.
Leeland held his hands out. Victor took one hand; Mother Rotelle took the other, and extended her other hand to Victor who completed the circle. He’d never been a religious man, but when in Rome, as the saying went. “Kind Father, please accept these thanks for the bounty you have provided. Please keep an eye on our friends and family wherever they travel. Please be kind to those less fortunate than us. Please continue to bless this house and all those in it, in Max’s name we pray, Amen.”
Victor was stunned. He thought back to the group of survivors that had held Max a few miles from his house in Virginia. “Did you say in Max’s name?” he asked, after nearly a minute of sitting there dumbfounded.
“We had the nicest guest last week,” said Mrs. Rotelle. “He told us all about the coming of Max, and how the little boy had come to save us. He told us about how The Boy’s father had stolen him away from their loving embrace, and with that action plunged the world into darkness and despair. What was that devil’s name, Leeland? We were supposed to be on the lookout for him.”
Victor slowly moved his hand to his hip and loosened the snap on his gun quietly.
“Victor something,” said Leeland. “Jukes? Dukes? Tookes. Yea, that was it. Victor Tookes.”
Both of the Rotelles looked at Victor long and hard. “Didn’t you say your name was Victor?” asked Mother Rotelle.
“Yes Ma’am,” said Victor slowly. He slid the gun slightly out of its holster, his finger on the trigger under the table.
“What a coincidence,” she said clapping her hands together. “Would you like some rice?” She picked up the pot and passed it to Victor.
Tookes slid the gun back into its holster and sighed softly before taking the pot from her. He spooned a third of the rice out onto his plate. He had so many questions, but if either of them remembered his name and put two and two together, he would be in trouble. He didn’t want to kill them, they were mostly harmless, if slightly deranged. They were someone’s grandparents, or someone’s friends, and they were mislead by a charlatan.
“On Sunday we’re going to church,” said Mother Rotelle. “You’re welcome to come with us.”
“I appreciate your offer, but I actually need to be moving along in the morning. I appreciate all your hospitality. In the bedroom upstairs, I found an empty book bag, would it be alright if I borrowed that? I have a long way to go to get back to my son, and I’ll need a backpack to carry some food and water.”
“Oh, sure, deary. Ronald hasn’t used that backpack in years. I’d love to see it getting some use, it was an expensive bag.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Rotelle,” Said Victor spooning stewed tomatoes and okra over his rice. “And thank you for this fine meal, and the clothes. I feel like a new man.”
As they ate they talked about simple things. Victor struggled not to break their delusion, and gain as much information as he could. He learned that the man who had come to see them was a middle aged black man who wore a white robe. He was one of many prophets of Max. He was travelling the country telling anyone he could find about the coming of Max, a God-Child who would save them all from this life
“Do you two have any children?” Victor asked at one point.
Leeland frowned as he said, “We have two sons, Nick and Nathaniel. Nick works for a television show, out in California. Nathaniel left right after the Prophet; he went out to spread the gospel of Max.”
Victor ate the rest of his meal in silent contemplation. He had so much to think about. Those freaks in Reva had spread lies about him, and were holding Max up as the savior of mankind. Was this a new religion? How could he use this?
At the end of the meal, he helped carry the dishes into the kitchen and set them down beside the sink. The kitchen was spotless, as he expected.
Victor asked, “Mrs. Rotelle, what can I do to earn my keep? I don’t want to feel like a beggar, but I’m not sure what I could do for you. I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed around here.”
“If you’d be willing to run some errands for me tomorrow, I need a few things from the market. The kitchen is horribly under stocked.”
“Sure, Mrs. Rotelle, do you have a list? I may not be able to find everything, but I’ll do my best. The last time I was in a grocery store the shelves were getting pretty bare.” Victor tried not to chuckle as he said it.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be able to find what we need, deary. We have one of those mega-marts. They even have collards in January. I guess they bring them up from Mexico or something.”
“I’ll do my best ma’am. I appreciate your hospitality. Supper was delicious,” said Victor taking a plate from her and drying it. “Where does this go?”
“Second cabinet on the left,” she said, pointing to the cabinet.
Victor opened the door and sat the plate inside. He dried each dish, once again thinking about all he’d learned here. “We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one card we have, and that is our attitude,” Leeland had said to him.
He thought about Candi, and how much he wanted to change the past. He wondered if he’d done something differently if he’d have been able to save her. She was dead because he made the choice to run that road block. He wasn’t careful enough. If he’d been smarter or faster or stronger maybe she’d still be alive. If he’d killed every zombie along the way instead of running, she’d still be alive. His resolve firmed, the fire in his belly burned through the thoughts of how comfortable it was here.
When he finished drying the dishes, he took his leave of the Rotelles. If its alright with the two of you, I’m going to go up and go to sleep. It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted.”
“Ok, sleep well deary! Tomorrow will be a better day,” said Mother Rotelle.
“Only if I kill a few zombies,” thought Victor as he climbed the steps.
“Hey, Son. Remember, all you have is your attitude.”
Victor sat down on the bed, and closed his eyes. He shifted his head to the north, as he thought “Max, are you there?”
“Hi Daddy!” replied Max.
“I’m not going to make it back to the train tonight. I ran into some trouble, and I’m staying at a very nice ladies house.”
“I know, Miss Leo stopped by the train. She took all of her stuff Dad. She said she wasn’t coming back. How come she left?”
“I said some things to her that I shouldn’t have, Buddy. I would like to apologize to her, but I can’t find her now. Tomorrow I have to find a truck and get back to the train.”
“Oh, Poppy will be so happy to see you. Uncle Marshall found him! Uncle Marshall and Poppy got back here today. We’re waiting for you at the place you said you’d meet us.”
“Holy cow! Marshall found Poppy! That’s great news! How is he? How does he look?”
“He looks like Poppy. He was sad that you weren’t here, but I gave him a kiss and told him you would be back soon.”
“I’ll meet you tomorrow. Maxmonster, can you tell Uncle Marshall something for me? Tell him I think there’s a shot that kills the bugs in that fort. He needs to get it before you leave tomorrow.”
“Daddy, my bugs said that shot didn’t work.”
“I know buddy, but it did make them sick. We’re going to need every advantage we can get.”
“Ok, I’ll tell him.” said Max. “I like your haircut.”
“You can see my hair?” Victor asked.
“Yes, I can see in your head when you saw yourself in the mirror when the grandpa was finished cutting it.“
Victor Tookes trudged up the beach feeling very alone. It had been a long time since he’d been out on his own, with no backup anywhere. “She’s just mad, she probably went off somewhere to think and to prove a point,” he thought as he struggled through the deep, loose sand. Just in case she came back he dug out a large deep arrow in the sand, piling sticks and trash in the trench to indicate his direction of travel. The rain made the surface of the sand seem much more firm than it was. Months of wind and rain and lack of maintenance had left the resort beach in its natural state, covered in seaweed and debris from the ocean. Trash was piled up at the high water line. Since there was no one working at the resort to remove the dead sea life that washed ashore it smelled of rotting fish. Not that it really mattered what it looked or smelled like. There wasn’t anyone left alive who would enjoy a lazy day laying out at the beach. Victor thought to himself, “There weren’t any lazy days for those of us who are left, either.” Today was not the kind of day anyone would be on the beach anyway. The cold rain was picking up; now it was a steady downpour. The wind was bringing cold air in, the temperature felt like it had dropped ten degrees while he was standing there. At this rate it would turn to snow by nightfall.
Victor was pretty sure he could see a few human corpses along the beach too, but it was hard to tell from a distance, between the bloat and discoloration caused by months at sea and the subsequent rot from laying in the sun. It wasn’t unlikely that six months after a sentient parasite that turned humans into zombies invaded the planet a few corpses would wash ashore. Seeing corpses laying around was the least of Victor’s worries, it was the ones that stood up and walked that he had to be concerned about. Victor was one of the lucky ones. A genetic marker passed from parent to child for thousands of years made Victor immune to the parasite. It gave him abilities far beyond what he’d had as a normal human before he’d been infected, but he was still human. He still felt pain, although physical pain was something he was much more adept at dealing with. He seldom allowed himself time to reflect on the emotional toll this had taken on him, out of fear of completely breaking down. A mental breakdown was something he didn’t have time for. There was so much to do and no one else to do it.
Every single human he’d encountered outside of his own group of survivors were barely able to keep themselves alive. It was only due to luck and timing that he and Max made it to the relative safety of his mother’s house before the worst of the apocalypse. Victor, his brother, and his friends John and Leo and a few survivors had spent the first two months fortifying their property. While the rest of the world was dying, they were building a safe place. Victor’s son Max had the ability to shield the house from the eyes of the zombie lieutenants. Max’s abilities were the reason the zombie leadership wanted to get their hands on him.
When a normal immune person was bitten by a zombie, their body fought off the E’Clai. The chemistry of their brain was altered by the invading creatures, causing the parasite to die. Whatever pathways in the brain the ‘bugs’ connected stayed connected, even after the parasites were dead. Those pathways, those parts of the brain that were disconnected in normal humans were what allowed Victor to see people’s auras, to see what action a person was going to take before it happened, and to talk to his friends over vast distances. They’re what gave his brother Marshall super human strength. They’re what gave Leo the ability to teleport herself and others over vast distances, and they’re what gave John his uncanny abilities with weapons. They’d learned the hard way that use of those abilities drew zombies to them like moths to a flame. Victor thought it was probably an innate response to draw the slow, stupid zombies towards the more powerful lieutenants.
They’d recently found out that Victor’s half-sister Renee was also immune, which meant the immunity was handed down through his mother. Renee was still learning to control her abilities. So far she had the ability to make herself invisible, even to Victor, and she was fast. She could outrun most cars, and while Leo was faster than Renee, Leo had had much more experience and exposure to zombies. Victor wasn’t sure what caused the gradual enhancement of abilities he and his friends had experienced. He’d spent weeks trying to puzzle out if use made one stronger, or if it was continued exposure to the parasites. Each person seemed to have gifts in specific areas, although he wasn’t sure how each ability was assigned. They’d each met others with their exact abilities. Everyone, regardless of specific ability seemed to gain enhanced healing to some degree or another. Victor and Leo both healed very quickly. Victor’s nearly severed arm healed in minutes.
Kris was the only person he’d met so far that appeared to have unique abilities. Her ability to control and manipulate sound waves was not something he’d encountered in anyone else, nor did Victor believe that was all she was capable of. Just the previous day she created a huge dome covering dozens of acres of land and contained a massive explosion within, amplifying the heat and pressure waves as it bounced off the inside of the dome. Victor had barely been able to hold the heat and pressure off of himself and his friends trapped inside the inferno. All of the skin had been burned off of Victor’s back as he laid on top of his friends trying to protect them. His fleece vest had melted into his skin, and hours ago had to be forcefully ripped from his back. New skin covered his back now, but it was still very raw. The cold wind-driven rain and sand felt like tiny needles driving into his flesh as he reached the road at the top of the beach.
“Prioritize,” he thought to himself. “You gotta get it together.” He’d promised Max he would come home that night. That gave him roughly half the day to look for Kris before he started the trip up to Fort McPherson, where his brother was due to meet them in a few hours. Victor had always worked well under pressure, both in his real life job and in this horror of a world he occupied now. The first concern is always security these days, he needed to find a truck and get moving. “Alright Tookes. Your priorities are security, timing, water, and food. Find a truck, get moving. That’s step one. Step two, follow the coast west looking for Kris. Step three, get back to the train.” He always felt better when he had a plan.
Standing at the edge of the road, movement caught his eye. He immediately switched his eyes to what he called his “aura view”, but saw no sign of life. The rain streamed down his face, chilling him to the bone. “Fucking zombies,” he said out loud. Zombies didn’t have auras. If he looked very closely he could sometimes see something he could only describe as an anti-aura. It was like a hole where some spark should be. He expanded his own aura around himself and solidified it as he drew his gun from its holster and pulled his hatchet from its loop on the right side of his belt. “Come on out,” he said loudly. “Either way I’m going to kill you, so you might as well take it like a man,” he boasted, mostly to help his own self confidence. Trash talking was his version of a Maori Haka, a war dance John had told him about that preceded rugby matches used to hype up the players and get the adrenaline flowing.
A little girl, about seven years old stepped out from between two cars. “Please don’t hurt me,” she said, slowly walking towards him with her hands out. “I’m so hungry, I haven’t eaten in days.” She was absolutely beautiful. Her face was smeared with dirt, the rain water was running down her face washed clean streaks through the grime. her long blonde hair was grungy and stringy. She had huge bright blue eyes, the kind that most children lose when they’re three or four years old. She was wearing a long wet, dirty night-shirt that came to her ankles and clung to her as she walked. Her feet were bare as she splashed through a puddle.
She walked towards Victor very slowly. Victor was sure this trick had worked for her with a lot of survivors. He pulled the trigger on his Sig Saur p226, firing a huge .40 caliber bullet into her tiny skull. “Humans have auras, and a human would have been shivering in this cold.” he said as he passed the tiny corpse bleeding out on the pavement.
“I hope you can find some peace now,” Victor said sadly. Then he added “The peace you stole from us,” as he stepped over the corpse. The instant his foot hit the pavement on the other side of the dead zombie-girl, three more zombies stepped out from behind the cars.
“What the hell did you do that for?” The first one said.
The two zombies standing in front of him were both middle aged men. One was wearing a very new suit; Victor could still see the creases in the shirt from being folded up in the package. His hair was salt and pepper, closely cropped and well styled. The other was wearing khaki pants and a red checked button up shirt, also still creased from sitting on the shelf in the store, and had longer hair parted on the side. Victor wondered what they’d been like when they were alive. Suit-zombie might have been anything. The clothes had obviously been picked out by the parasites in his brain. Picked for a reason, to make him look as human as possible. What they didn’t know, or were unable to comprehend was that no one wore a suit to an apocalypse party.
“She was a zombie, just like you are,” said Victor feeling rage rise in him. Thoughts of Candi’s dead body in the front seat of his truck danced before his eyes. Her blood on the dashboard and seat was bright red in his memory. His anger felt justified and the idea of dismembering these zombies slowly seemed very satisfying. He squeezed the trigger again. Another corpse hit the ground. “Oh,” Said Victor with mock sadness in his voice. “Only two zombies left, that’s hardly a fair fight for you.” Victor smiled and paused for a second. “Here, I’ll put my gun away,” he said putting his sidearm in its army-green plastic thigh holster.
Suit zombie moved first, running towards Victor’s right side. The second came from the other side just behind. Victor watched the suit decide to try and grab for his arms so the other could bite him. Victor knew they would die the second they touched his aura. Killing zombies with his aura seemed to use up his energy or wear him out somehow. This was just two; not enough to weaken his aura, but he didn’t want this fight to end that quickly. He let his aura dissipate and decided to take these two on without using any abilities. He brought his empty hand in front of him, turned slightly to the right and readied his hatchet.
Suit zombie grabbed Victor’s free forearm. Victor brought the hatchet down in a strong over hand chop, slicing the flesh just above the elbow. The force of the blow shattered the unfortunate zombie’s upper arm bone, completely severing the arm. The hand continued to clutch Victor’s wrist, as blood pumped out of the zombie it had been attached to. The second zombie was coming from his offhand side. Victor moved gracefully to the side and swept his offhand arm upward, smashing suit-zombies severed arm into number two’s jaw. As he moved, his soaking wet hair covered his face. He slung his head to the side whipping his wet hair out of his face, revealing the fury in his eyes.
There was an animal pleasure in beating these two corpses to death. Victor had so much emotion bottled up inside. These creatures had caused so much pain and he had so much hatred and animosity towards them. He expressed all that emotion now through violence. And it felt good. “What are you going to do to me?” he said, smashing one-armed suit zombie in the face with his fist. “You’ve taken my wife, you’ve taken the life I had built for myself, threatened everything I love, and left me with nothing, save my mission to rid the world of every one of you.”
The two attackers had backed off now, waiting for some opportunity to attack. Some opening in the enraged man’s defenses. Victor presented none as he circled with them. He was battle hardened, and had a lot of experience fighting zombies much tougher than these. Tookes drove forward, lunging at the checkered shirt. They grappled, wrapping their arms around each other. Max’s father brought his knee up into the groin of his opponent. He pummeled the zombies face like a heavyweight boxer. Punch after punch landed home. The zombie was stunned by the blows, and Victor took full advantage. Every blow opened the flesh on its face. Both eyes were cutThe suit used that to try and bite the back of Tooke’s neck. Of course, the human fighter knew that was coming, zombies were nothing if not predictable. Present them a target, they always take it. He dropped down and rolled backwards, launching his opponent with his legs into the suit zombie. The two corpses crashed in mid-air, knocking them both to the ground.
Victor feigned exhaustion as he got to his feet, letting his arm and hatchet drop slightly. He pretended to breathe heavily to lure the two of them in, and the plan worked perfectly. Victor swung the hatchet sideways at head level. The blade buried itself in suit-zombie’s skull. “And then there was one!” said Victor as he wrenched the hatchet free.
“You’re one fuckin’ crazy dude,” said the remaining zombie as he turned and ran. Victor slid his bloody hatchet into its ring and drew his gun. He slowly lined up the sights on the barrel and squeezed off one round. The last zombie was fast. In those few seconds he’d managed to make it over a hundred yards. John would have made the shot easily, but Victor watched the zombie twist, then stumble and hit the ground. His aim was true but the bullet was low, hitting the lieutenant in the spine just below the shoulder. Victor closed the distance and fired one more shot. Blood and brains exploded outward creating red and gray rainbow around the remnants of his skull.
He searched all three zombies, but found no keys. He was in the middle of a city, finding a vehicle was going to be hard. He knew he wouldn’t last long out in this weather, especially once the sun was gone. He walked west down the middle of an empty street, through an empty city. Other than the steady drumming of the rain on the asphalt, the only other noise was the occasional zombie pounding on a store or upstairs apartment window. He tried not to think about how it felt to kill those zombies, he needed to get himself back in check.
Tookes woke up with a start as a huge grin spread across his face. “Good morning Max!” He exclaimed. “I’m happy you’re awake! How do you feel?”
“I’m fine, my leg hurts, and these bugs are noisy. They talk and talk. Steve says sorry he scared you. He told me you were here all night watching me.”
Victor looked Max over and said, “I wouldn’t leave you when you were sick. I love you buddy, but what you did was very naughty! You should never leave the house without telling a grown up.”
“But I had to go. My bugs were dying, and I needed Steve’s bugs to make mine better. Jason gave all his to Steve, and then I told Steve to bring them all and give them to me.” Max held out his hand to his father, who took it in his own.
“You told Steve to bite you? Why would you do that?”
“Thats the only way to get his bugs into me, Dad. The bad men that took me from here gave me a shot. My bugs took the medicine they gave me to make me sleep. They said that because they did that, it was hurting them, but they needed me to be awake to escape.”
“Max, never do that again without talking to me.” Victor said, filing that bit of information away. “If you told me they were sick I would understand. I would try to help, but I was so afraid you were sick. I was very scared.”
“I’m sorry Dad. Can I have some food?”
“Sure buddy, I’ll go get you a cheese sandwich. Gramma made cheese last week, I bet she saved some for you.”
“Ok. Thanks, you’re the best Dad ever. Can you send Mr. John in here while you get my sandwich?”
“Sure thing, Maxmonster. You’re the best little boy ever.”
Victor walked out of the room and down the stairs towards the kitchen. In the small dining room John was sitting at the table surrounded by guns and gun parts, meticulously cleaning every speck of carbon and dirt off every part. He looked up at Victor when he entered the room. “How’s the boy, mate?”
“He’s awake finally. Said that he told Steve to bite him because he needed their bugs. He said that his bugs were dying because of something Frye gave him. Seemed like something we might be able to use, if it can make the parasites sick. Anyways, he asked for you while I go make him a sandwich.”
John wiped the film off his hands with towel and stood up. “I’ll go see to him. Glad he’s awake and feeling right.” John walked towards Victor to head upstairs as Victor turned right to go down into the kitchen.
At the top of the stairs, John turned left into Max’s room and said, “Heya Maximillion, how ya feeling bucko?” as he sat on the end of the bed. He kicked off his boots and stretched his toes.
“I am hungry Mr. John. It is important that you talk to your family. The bugs can feel how sad I am for you. ” Max made a sad face to mimic the feeling.
“Just call me John when no-one else is around mate. Tell ’em I said that they have no idea how sad,” John laid down along the bottom of the bed on his side facing Max
“They can hear you John, and they feel as we do now. Not like the bad bugs. The bugs say I have enough strength now to talk to Sean, would you like to talk to Mr. Sean?”
“Mate, there is nothing more I would like to talk to him, except maybe deck him.”
Max sat up and held John’s hand and the heat built up causing John’s palm to sweat.
“Mr. Sean, are you awake?” Talking through Max was so much more than when Tookes talked to him. Not only were the words more clear but you could see the thoughts, the path of the connection, and feel the emotion between minds. John was amazed that Max could handle the intensity of the connection.
“I am now kiddo, are you ok? I lost ya there for a while. Is your father ok? He is no longer on my grid mate. Where is that dic… err brother of mine?”
“Sean?” John said out aloud.
“Bloody hell John, don’t yell! You’re as bad as Victor, talk in your head mate. How you doing?”
“Yeah good mate. Holiday got extended, I think I’ve gone over my visa. Yaself?”
“Ya idiot. Good, Jo and the kids are here sleeping. We are safe here, well a lot safer now.” As Sean looked over to John’s family, John could see his wife, his kids, sleeping peacefully through waves of light blue. Then the vision dissapeared.
“Max, I told you to warn me before looking through my eyes mate. It hurts.” John felt Max apologise to Sean, but no words were spoken. John wondered how long Max and Sean had been talking “They probably didn’t know the connection” he thought.
“John, I can hear your thoughts when we’re connected like this mate. It took us a few months to register it, Max told me one day about two weeks ago that I sounded funny like his friend Mr. John. John, the locals are trying to claim back Australia with the help of some of us white fella’s, but we have one hell of a super zombie team here at the moment. Three zombies wiped out forty humans with powers in Western Australia last week. They didn’t stand a chance mate, I heard everything.
“Sean, settle down. I got a plan now that I can see into ya head. And stop swearing with Max here. How is Jo coping?” John imagined his plan as a computer file, and then imagined sending it to Sean like an attachment to an email.
“Righto, that’s a good plan, John. You learn to quick sometimes, for a drongo!. Jo is great, she keeps quiet but she is as much as a deviant as you are. She’s sacrificed my life twice now. I woulda taken it to heart, except she’d have done the same to you, if it meant saving the kids. Apparently we are tougher to kill than you bastards in yankland. That’s why Laura is here at the moment. We killed off too many to quick, but after your last fight with all those supers, she may be going home sooner then expected.”
“John, I need to eat.” Max said aloud and John nodded in response.
“Sean get my family here, you are all welcome to come. Tell Frank I said thanks, tell the family I love them. and Sean, it kills me to say this, but I am proud of you little brother. Thanks mate, I love you.”
“Ditto bro, now let the kid rest and I’ll talk to you in a week.”
John sat up and put a hand on Max’s shoulder “Thanks bucko.”
“It’s okay. Mr. John, did you like where I showed your wife and kids?”
“I did, very much.” John sat back and his eyes welled up with the happiness of seeing his family and the good chance that he will see them again in a few weeks, when Victor walked back in.
“Is Mr. John telling sad stories?”
“No Daddy!! I was showing Mr. John a happy beginning!”
Tookes remembered Max eating an entire box of cereal bars after the first time he’d been bitten. This time he brought Max two fresh mozzarella cheese sandwiches, an apple, a pear, and a glass of milk. they all watched in amazement as he ate every bite, including the cores of the fruit before draining the glass of milk.
“I’m still hungry, Dad,” Max said, his belly distended.
“Let’s let that settle a little bit buddy. Then you can have anything you want in a few minutes. Your fever is still up, do you need to rest some more?”
“I’m sleepy,” said Max.
“Ya, mate, I’m sleepy too,” said John with a grin.
I kissed Max on the forehead, and pulled his blanket up over him. “Have a good sleep buddy. We’ll be here when you wake up.”
John and I walked out of the room, and down to the kitchen where we found the rest of the crew.
“Hey Mom. He woke up for a little bit, appears to be ok. He ate two sandwiches, an apple and a pear before downing a huge glass of milk. Last time he was bitten, he ate everything he could get his hands on for a day or two afterwards.”
“Oh, thank God,” Sharon said.
“Since we’re all here,” Victor continued. “I’d like to go into Charlottesville with Marshall today and see if we can work out getting a train running. We can scout around for tools and supplies that are already there, maybe we can find the steel and welding equipment to armor it up.”
“Vic, do you think you can really get to Renee?” Sharon had thought of nothing else since finding out her only daughter and two grand-daughters were alive.
“I’ll get her, and the kids. I promise,” Vic said, nodding his head slowly.
Marshall and Victor went into the kitchen followed by John and Leo. “We don’t like the idea of you two going in alone,” said Leo as she closed the door.
“I’d rather have you two with me too,” Tookes said, “But I can’t leave Max here alone, I need you two here in case Frye or the nutjobs try to get him again. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to drive a train, and Marshall is the best welder of all of us. It makes the most sense for the two of us to go. Besides, the two of you are best equipped to fight humans. Your speed and John’s guns will make quick work of any humans that come our way. I’m really only good at one on one fights, and Marshall is good at breaking things. If I left Marshall here he’d probably throw the house at frye.” Tookes said with a big grin.
“What do you want us to do here then?” Asked John.
“Mostly, I want you to stay in the house and guard the boy. Let the fire teams on patrol handle anything they can. If anyone gets inside the house, kill them. If they get to Max’s room, Leo I want you to grab Max and get him as far away as you can go in one hop.”
“Speaking of that. What did you learn up in the national forest Leo?”
“Well. By myself, I can go about 15 miles,” she said. “If I’m carrying a 15 stone adult, It drops to about eight miles. If I’m carrying two adults, its only about one mile. I can move a rock the size of a small garden shed about five feet, but then I couldn’t even run for a few minutes. My power comes back pretty quickly, but it does appear to be finite. If I use it all in one shot, like when I moved that huge boulder, it took about five minutes before I could move it again. The last interesting thing I learned, the more different things I take with me, the harder it is. Carrying four humans is 100 times harder than two humans. I’m not sure what thats about, but I could move all of us plus Max maybe 100 yards,” she said.
“Can you teleport someone or something and not go with it?”
“I’ve never tried that, but I don’t think so. I think I have to be there to guide the re-entry.”
“Ok, anything else you learned?”
“I’d been in the same spot for about an hour when a zombie came stumbling out of the woods. I don’t know haw far he came from, but I moved the big boulder first. I think he’d been walking that whole hour. He felt me move it from as much as three or four miles away.”
“Thanks for doing all of that, I know it was dangerous work,” Victor said.
Max slept most of the afternoon. He woke up for about an hour to eat some more, and then went back to bed for the night. Marshall and Tookes spent the rest of the afternoon planning the next days visit to the train yard.
One man's struggle to keep his son safe from zombies.