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.
In the service of Max, Nathaniel Rotelle.
“Oh shit,” said Victor, frozen in his tracks.