Hopping out of the van Max scanned the roadside for danger for the tenth time. He could not see anything moving aside from his group, the place was like a tomb, with none of the normal noise in the air, as if the very earth had swallowed up all those troublesome noisemakers, like cars, people and birds. Their proximity to the crest of the hill bothered Max, any place where zombies could rush them without being seen first bothered him. He was bothered a lot lately.
From this side of the hill, the highway looked normal, except for the broken glass. The road was split with a wide median in between the two sections of road. There were no wrecks or even indications of a wreck on this side of the hill, but the glass had to come from somewhere.
“Hey Amelia, why don't you keep the van running and ready to go. Just in case. Nick, you and Cory, get out the brooms and sweep some of this glass up with Erin. Jess you stay in the van and keep lookout, scream if you see anything moving. Scream twice as loud if its a zombie.”
The kids got to work, there was no bellyaching or complaining these days. The three older kids hopped out and Erin, the tallest, pulled brooms out from under the sides of the roof rack where they kept them between uses. The brooms had saved a lot of time for them so far. Max liked to think they saved the tires too. Plus it kept the kids busy, nothing was worse for anyone than to not have a job, which is why whenever they stopped Max always had things for all the kids to do.
Walking forward with his revolver out Max approached the cruiser. Tom was cleaning the glass away from the side of the car so he could change the tires, Stewart also had a broom and was sweeping a path forward through another twenty feet or so of glass. She was also keeping her eyes peeling on the crest of the hill.
“I don't like this fucking hill Max,” she said without turning as he came up behind her.
“Me either. You wanna sweep or go scout?”
Stewart grimaced, she had taken a pretty bad hit in a fight a few days ago at Max's house, the bruising was healing at an unusual rate, but still caused her some pain if she had to crawl or dodge around quickly.
“You go, I got this. I can't tell what dropped all this glass, it's getting tiresome finding tires, not to mention changing them all the time. We need to find another cruiser again.”
“Yeah, I know.” Max plodded forward carefully picking his way through the broken glass field. If Stewart hadn't been on the ball with slowing down the car, she could have driven all the way through it and ended up on top of the hill first with four flat tires.
Going into the ditch between the two sections of road Max noticed the glass was only on the road, not even on the shoulder. “Stewart!” Max whispered at her.
She looked at him, he was just about where the glass shards ended, her eyebrows raised questioningly.
“The glass, it's not on the shoulder. Back the cars down a ways.”
She immediately understood, the glass had been placed on the road on purpose. She conference with Tom, then went back to talk to the kids and Amelia, they all redoubled their efforts to clear the glass behind them, not bothering to deal with that in front of the cruiser. Stewart pulled two guns out of the cruiser, a shotgun for Max and a rifle for her. Together they stood at the edge of the glass, waiting while Amelia and Tom slowly and quietly backed the cars down the hill, when they reached a quarter mile away Stewart and Max went into the ditch a few feet and then started towards the crest of the hill.
An oily, burnt smell greeted them as they crept closer to the crest in the hot sun. Sweat was pouring down Max's face, he wiped it with a bandanna from his pocket and they finally got a glimpse of the leeward side. There was an exit off in the distance, some small town or another was straddling the road here, between there and where they were standing was a mad pile of vehicles; there were three recreational vehicles, four or five semis with trailers and perhaps three dozen cars. Some were burned and most were damaged. The wind shifted towards them slightly and Max caught a whiff of decomposing flesh, which could mean zombies or just corpses. The nearest car was hooked up to a wrecker truck and pulled to one side of the road, all four of its tires were flat. It looked like all the vehicles had been heading east and had been towed or rolled into the center of the two roads, with quite a few still on the highway itself, forming an impenetrable barrier. The southbound lane had a couple of cars staggered on it, Max saw that a person could drive between those staggered vehicles, if you went slowly enough. They had driven on around wrecks using the southbound lane before, any way to keep moving.
The tow truck looked fairly new, it was big, painted red and white with what looked like a steel beam for lifting and towing cars. It had “Paul's A-1 Towing Service” stenciled on the white door that Max could see. None of its tires were flat either.
Stewart nudged Max and they went down on their knees taking them out of sight of the wreckage.
“I didn't see anything,” said Stewart.
“Me either, but that car didn't hook itself up to the wrecker.”
“That is what I am thinking.” The so-called 'super' zombies were a rarity, it seemed when any zombie had enough blood or flesh to eat, it became more aware of its surroundings, faster, stronger and more intelligent. Max and the gang had fought several of them at his home while trying to rescue his wife. The zombies that went through this transformation could remember who they had been, they could talk and almost looked alive. They sometimes even remembered how they died. They were magnificent predators. Max's fear was encountering one of them who had a gun and knew how to use it. The only good thing, if there was one, about the super zombies is that sometimes they could be reasoned with. Sometimes they would make deals, when Max had finally gotten the upper hand at his home, he had stopped the fight and parted ways with one of the zombies who could have caused him more trouble. Max often wondered where Jimbo was now and how many living he had killed because of Max's weakness.
“So do we go in or go back?” Max asked. Although he was nominally the leader of the group, he deferred to Stewart in situations requiring fighting, just as he deferred to Tom in all things technical.
“Let's back off, get the cruiser's tires changed and the road clear up to here. We back the cruiser up then explore on foot. If we could take that wrecker...”
Max followed her thoughts, a wrecker would be incredibly useful, they had to backtrack a few times because of all the damaged vehicles clogging the roads, the big truck could push cars out of the way if they needed to or tug them out of the way if they had time.
“Yeah, that would be good. We need more drivers.”
“Nick up for the job?”
“You gotta be kidding,” said Max thinking of his ten-year-old son behind the wheel of the tow truck, “Who would shotgun with him? Erin?”
The two backed up and made their way back to the others, Max grabbed a broom and then he and Stewart came back to remove the rest of the glass from the road. Nick came with them as an extra set of eyes. The rifle his son carried was a small caliber twenty-two, but he now knew how to use it. All the kids, even seven year old Jessica, the youngest, knew how to shoot, unload and clean every gun the group had. There were more guns than hands to fire them, it seemed everyone else had guns when they fled the zombie horde. The sad part, in Max's mind, was that the guns hadn't seemed to do the people a whole lot of good, after all the main way their group found guns was by killing the zombies that were the previous owners.
The glass sweeping was done and Tom had both tires changed after that. They left the other rims and tires by the side of the road, stacked up, one on the other. Tom didn't know how to operate the machines to take the damaged tires off of the rims and the tools required electricity to work anyway. Tom had mentioned that he had seen a video on youtube about how to re-inflate and reseat a tire using gasoline, but Max and Stewart were not ready to try that yet, not until they absolutely needed to.
Tom backed the cruiser up to just below the crest of the hill and Nick climbed in and waited with him, rolling the back window down and sitting facing backward with his rifle ready. Down below, near the van Amelia had the girls leaning with their rifles out too, though they were pointed in a more skywards direction.
Stewart and Max again found themselves crouched near the crest of the hill. “Should we try to unhook the car or just get in, start it up and go like hell?” asked Max.
“I'll get the truck, you ambush anyone who comes after me, but let's have a look-see again to make sure nothing has changed.” Stewart and Max exchanged weapons, giving her the shotgun and him the comparatively longer ranged hunting rifle.
Both of them moved forward again in a half crouch, staying low in the ditch between the two ribbons of highway. They could not see anything. Ducking lower Max looked under the cars as best he could, looking for legs and feet of people who might be hiding under the vehicles. He didn't see anything. Looking at Stewart, she shook her head at him and then proceeded to move forward towards the object of their desire. Max went prone, with his gun pointed towards the vehicle. Stewart ran in a half crouch towards it and made it to the door. She swung it open, pointed her gun inside and hopped in when nothing jumped out at her. Sensing movement off to one side Max turning his head slightly, but not his gun, he saw a fast zombie rushing to get around to the back passenger corner of the wrecking truck. Some slower zombies were moving along behind it, there were also some of moderate speed in the pack as well. The zombies had stayed out of sight in the pile of vehicles in the middle of the two roads, it was not the first time they had run into this type of ambush.
The slow zombies were not Max's problem. He put his eye back down to sight along the rifle barrel. The fastest zombie was good, using cover as best he could to keep from being seen by Stewart, who probably only suspected he was there. However, it was obvious he did not see Max and was making no attempt to hide from him. The zombie Max was watching may very well have been 'Paul' of the A-1 towing service, he was dressed in black work boots, not for show either Max could see them under the vehicles as the thing moved from place to place. Those boots had uncounted stories on them, one for every scuff, scrape and scar marring their surface. Paul's jeans, when Max could see them looked to be stained black over their natural faded blue color, probably it was blood. The man looked too young to own his own business, but if his business only consisted of towing, maybe he was the owner. The super zombie's blond hair was clipped short and he had a tan line across his forehead, as if he were used to wearing a hat. Paul's eyes were almost black, like he had been in a serious fist fight and lost. Max had not seen any bruising of that sort on a super zombie before, it wasn't just around his eyes either, his eyes themselves looked like black pupils. Reasoning with it was probably not out of the question, but bullets were simpler.
Paul's head popped up between the wrecker and the vehicle it was towing, right where Max suspected it would. He let his breath out and pulled the trigger. Even three days ago he would not have made the shot, it was eighty yards or so in low-wind conditions and a human head is a small target. However, Max had been getting a lot of practice in the last few days and the back of the very surprised zombie's head blew a tiny mist of red staining the afternoon air. Turning sideways, but very slowly, Max trained his rifle on who he thought was the second fastest zombie. The almost intelligent ones were looking for the shooter, they didn't have him spotted yet and that hindered their ability to take cover. Max shot another one before they pinpointed his location. They took cover from him at precisely the wrong moment, leaving their slower walking kin still advancing on the wrecker. It was the wrong moment because Stewart had hopped out of the wrecker to make sure the super zombie was dead. This put her parallel to the other zombies and provided them with no cover from her. Three quick shotgun blasts rang out, then a fourth one. Max got up and was running forward, pausing only to knock off one of the slow zombies before it reached the back of the car attached to the wrecker. In a few minutes, all the zombies were down again, permanently.
Max grinned at Stewart while still keeping watch beyond her.
“That went better than expected,” he said.
“We are getting good, let's just not get cocky. You reloaded?”
“Yep, like you taught me.”
“Good. Do you think that is all of them?”
“I don't have any tingly sensations that make me think we are being watched, if that is what you mean.”
“I don't either and it was. I think we either got them all or scared any other super zeds off.” Although Stewart was half joking about the tingling sensations, they had all seemed to notice that their senses seemed extra sharp. Stewart chalked it up to the way they had to live these days that they were all getting back to their more raw, brutal instincts. Max was not so sure, he thought the experience was shaping them into fighters and survivors, but something else seemed to be going on as well. Max had been shot, grazed really, about a week ago and the wound was almost entirely healed. It seemed unnatural. Tom, for instance, had felt sure his arm or collarbone had been broken back at the MAC Co. building where they worked. Yet he had discarded his sling last night after only having it on for six days. He said he felt fine. Max knew better than to talk to Stewart about it, she didn't like to think about the changes that they had gone through and talking about it, meant thinking about it.