Max woke up at three in the morning, coming instantly awake even though he had been asleep less than four hours. Earlier he had taken the first watch with his son Nick. Every adult watched with a child to help keep them awake, for the most part this had worked out well, but Jessica at only seven years old tended to fall asleep unless she was on the last watch in the morning. Sitting up quietly in the bed he was sharing with Steward he looked over at Tom who was looking out the window. They had taken one of the queen sized beds out of the other motel room and moved it into this one. There was barely enough room for the three beds along one wall, but no one wanted to split the group into two. With two people up watching that left six people to sleep, which worked out perfectly with three beds. The adults always slept on the outside with the kids in the middle, when Max woke up that meant that he and Stewart were closest to the window and Amelia was next to the wall with three kids between them.
Max's head was buzzing, that is what woke him up, he had noticed a day ago that whenever there were zombies around this happened. Erin was sharing Tom's watch and touched the man's arm when she saw Max sit up and check the time on his his cell phone. The illumination was enough to light the entire room in a dim glow and Max tucked the phone in his pocket quickly so he would not wake anyone else. Tom came over and whispered, “What is wrong?”
“I think we are being watched.”
“We haven't seen anything moving. It rained a while ago. Would that set you off? My grandfather could always tell when a storm was coming in, said it was the changing air pressure or something.”
Max shook his head, then said “No, I don't think it was that. I think someone is close by, watching us maybe.” He could see his companions only because they were silhouetted by the very small amount of light creeping in from the outside.
Max eased himself off of the bed, Stewart came awake instantly and had a gun pointed towards the window a moment later. “What?” she asked in a voice that denied the fact that she had been asleep seconds before, “Not your shift yet Max, it is too early.”
“I know, I just woke up, my head is buzzing again. I think something is out there.”
“You see anything Tom? Erin?”
They shook their heads 'no,' which was barely visible to Max in the dim light seeping in from outside. Max just shrugged.
“Okay, so you want to check it out?”
“Yeah, we better. Stewart said to trust my guts. And my guts say something is coming our way. Maybe a slow something, maybe a fast something, maybe lots of somethings.”
“Let's hope for one big one. I don't like spending the ammo.”
Max got out of bed and pulled on his jeans, Stewart got up as well, pulling on some khaki shorts and flip flops. She put on her thick police belt and holstered her pistol, then picked up the shotgun up off of the bed where it had been laying beside her.
“You are going to shoot your foot off sleeping with it like that.”
“No. I had the safety on and there wasn't a shell in the chamber. Get your shotgun. Are we going out to meet them or not?”
Max went to the window and cautiously eased the drapes open with one hand, his other held the stock of the shotgun. “I've got nothing specific from here, I have to go out and look around a little. If I had to guess, I would say it is coming from the West.”
“Tom you better wake the others, better to do it like this than with a shotgun blast. Get Cory and Jessica into the bathroom, and have Nick and Erin out in from of the door behind you and Amelia.”
“Okay,” said Tom as he started waking the other four up. Erin, helped get Jessica and Cory into the bathroom, the boy went despite his protests that he was as old as Nick and could shoot a gun too. Once the others were set up Stewart unlocked and eased open the hotel door. Tom pulled the curtains open until there was about a foot of space to look through the broken window, he stood back far enough to stay in the shadows, but close enough to watch Max and Stewart as they went outside.
Stewart held the door open and Max went first, trying to locate precisely where the buzz was coming from. He checked to either side of the door and then moved around to the front of the van and Paul's wrecker, which had been backed towards the hotel doors. Once clear of the immediate building Max rotated around and looked at the surrounding buildings and highway. He paused when he was facing the road, then continued moving until he was facing more east.
“Towards the highway and west,” he said in a low whisper to Stewart without pointing or moving in that direction.
“Nice, you paused there for a second, but that was good misdirection. Can you actually see anything or do you just 'feel' it.”
“Just feel it, what can you see?”
“Nothing. I can see better in the dark, but if it is hiding I will still have a hard time picking it out. Is it one or many.”
“Hard to tell from here, two or three I think. Yeah, probably three..”
“That is mighty god-damned useful. I mean. If it is true.” They had never relied on Max's hunches to this extent before.
"I don't know how I know, I just do." Max shrugged, “So, how do we do this?”
“Max you know me. Direct is good.”
“Okay. I will lead the way, do we run or just saunter?'
“We better saunter, it is more intimidating. It says 'we not only know where you are and what you are, but that we are not afraid of you.' Now I hope, I really do, that they don't have guns too.”
“Always the optimist.”
“It wouldn't be the first time. I hate the ones with guns.”
“Maybe we could talk to them?'
“Maybe a tasty loaf of bread will fall out of my ass the next time I shit.”
Max shrugged and started walking directly across the parking lot, heading for the south-west corner. Stewart was walking beside him on his right. Whoever was up there, they had chosen to stay out of the direct line of sight with the room.
“They see us, or know we are coming. I think two of them are moving to either side of the other one. One is moving to the right, the other to the left.” Max shifted his shotgun to point in the general direction of one of the zombies he sensed moving to the left.
“I see one, on the right. No sign of the others. Just three?”
“I ain't looking at you. I can't hear you when you nod. You gotta answer me, with real words when we do this Max.”
“Sorry, just three.”
Max felt the zombies to either side of the one in the middle stop and backup, they were in the middle median strip of grass and scrub between the highway lanes. Max whispered this to Stewart and the two approached and climbed over the low barbed wire fence to climb up the embankment. After struggling up the embankment through the weeds and burrs, they made it to the highway's surface.
“I hate walking through this shit. Why don't you develop a new power to draw them to us?” whispered Stewart.
“I will give that a try next time if I remember. I think they are less than a hundred feet away, shouldn't we be quiet?”
“They know we are here, you know that from their movements. What have the flankers done?”
“Moved back a bit, over to the other side of the road.” The road here was cut into the edge of a low rising plains hill, so the other side of the highway was uphill from them, with a shallow ditch to cross over.
“So just the one is there?” asked Stewart, she slowly cocked the shotgun, the noise was well above the sound of their whispering.
“Yes. The other two are back about a hundred and fifty feet or so. I think there might be more over that hill there, to the west on the highway.”
“Now you tell me. How many more?”
“Fucking great. We better cut and run. I only brought twenty extra shells for my shotgun, you?”
“Ah, about that, plus I have my revolver.”
“I got my police baton too, if it comes to that. Are the other ones moving?”
Max concentrated, sensing the zombies at the extreme edge of his ability to do so. “No, if I am reading this right.”
“We should still move back, load up and get out of here.”
“If you say so.”
Stewart took another five steps forward, belatedly Max moved up to join her, “I thought we were going back?”
“Maybe it does want to talk,” she started moving forward again slowly. The partly cloudy night did not provide very much light to see by, Max could make out the painted stripes and dashes along the road, but the vehicles abandoned along the side of it and Stewart were just dark areas of shadow.
“Fifty feet. Or so.” Max whispered, “Behind that car there, I think.”
Behind the car in question, unseen by Max and Stewart a zombie listened carefully to their conversation. It cocked its head sideways to get a clearer connection to their voices and slowly nodded to itself before it rose, catlike, to slink away into the ditch on the other side of the road. The zombies two companions waited for him to catch up to them in their retreat, then the trio started jogging back to the west.
“They are moving back, looks like they are heading west.” whispered Max to Stewart.
Stewart set out in a quick jog to the car the zombie had been hiding behind, she made it to the vehicle in time to see one of the zombie's head disappearing into the ditch, then watched until she saw three inky shadows in the ditch disappear over the hill they had come down the afternoon before. Stewart had her gun aimed at their backs but did not fire.
“Too far, huh?” asked Max.
“Yeah, and too dark. And they're too fast. No point in wasting ammo. Max?”
“What do you think that was all about?”
“Scouts for a larger group? I think there are more coming behind these guys.”
“Maybe. They seemed...smart. Like Nancy was.”
“Yeah, but why didn't they attack us?”
Stewart shrugged, “We have guns? We knew they were there were and about where they were?”
“So what do we do?”
“I think we just need to be very careful.”
“We leave now?”
“I would rather not, not in the dark, but I don't see any help for it.”
“By the time we get everyone fed and loaded up it will be almost dawn. Plus we can waste a little time in town refueling the generators in case any other living pass through here. And grabbing more food.”
“It won't take that long, but yeah, let's get back and get moving.”
Eating and loading up took less time than they thought, Tom had already told Nick and Erin to bundle up everything and he had tossed most of it into the back of the van by the time Stewart and Max got back. Max explained the curious behavior of the zombies to the others and no one had any constructive thoughts about it for now. In less than twenty minutes from when the zombies ran from them they were on their way into town to top off the diesel generators.
They approached the store with caution, even though Max had the feeling no one was inside. Stewart and Tom ducked inside while Max and Amelia kept lookout outside. Stewart had brought in one of the gas cans and used it to refill the generators in the back room. She also poured another can into the wrecking truck.
“What if the generators need that fuel?” Max asked.
Stewart shrugged, “They will run out in another day or three if no one is here. All that fuel in the other tank will go to waste anyway. I haven't seen any sign that there are other people here. Have you?” Max shook his head 'no', “Then we might as well top off the tank. I bet we only have a range of about three hundred miles in this diesel truck, so either we find more or we dump it. I have to look at our group survival first, but that doesn't mean I won't lookout for everyone else too.”
“I think there are some zombies in town.” Max pointed down a side street away from the main county road where the grocery store was located, “Over that way.”
“That is a bit west,” she ventured.
“Yeah, but what brings a group of zombies into town?”
She thought a moment, then said, “Humans.”
“Should we go check it out?”
“It could be a trap set by those we met earlier.”
“Or it could be a different group.”
“It won't hurt to run by there real quick, how far away?”
“Maybe a half mile.”
“So? Not even out of town, I will go get Tom, you fill Amelia in.”
Max walked over to where Amelia was sitting in the idling van with the window rolled up to protect against the morning chill, he knocked on it and she hit the button to roll it down, “Yeah?”
“I think there are some zombies over that way. We are going to swing by and check it out before we leave town, just in case there are survivors.”
Tom and Stewart came out of the back doors of the store. Tom was carrying a couple of plastic bags which he deposited into the van while Stewart loaded yet another can of diesel fuel up onto the tow truck.
“Max you lead us off in the truck, I will be next in the cruiser and Amelia will be the tail end Charlie.” Stewart said.
Max hopped into the wrecking truck, which had a few more knobs and buttons than the average vehicle, but was still an automatic and easy enough to get moving. Nick sat in the passenger's seat, his door was locked and he had a short-barreled shotgun he could fire if he needed to. Max shut the door and said, “How're you doing big guy? You tired?”
“No, not that bad. I don't need that much sleep dad. Once I am up I am up.”
“Up and grumpy, yeah, but up.” Max teased, tousling his son's hair. “We are going to check out this road here, I think there might be some zombies up ahead, and maybe some people too.”
“Okay,” said the boy sitting up more straight and peering ahead into the darkness.
Max drove slowly down the street, he did not have his headlights on, but the parking lights cast enough light for him to see ahead a little way and at the speed he was going he didn't think he would have a problem seeing a wreck. It was still dark and gloomy out, which gave the zombies an advantage; darkness didn't seem to bother them in the least.
“Stop! Dad stop!”
“You see one?” Max asked, wondering why he couldn't sense the thing.
“Yeah, right ahead.”
Max slowed the truck, edging it towards one side of the street so Stewart could pull up alongside him. As he stopped a man stumbled up to the side of his door. The man was clearly dead, his right shoulder was oddly shaped and the cruiser's running lights revealed bone sticking through black colored flesh.
“Shit!” Max swung his truck door open and bashed the tall zombie to the ground as the cruiser pulled to a stop. Getting out Max grabbed his baseball bat and slammed the driver's door shut, “Stay in the truck Nick!”
Taking a step forward Max brought his bat down on the zombie's head while Stewart hopped out of her car and circled around behind it to join him.
“He the only one Max?” she asked.
“I don't know. I lost it, I had it for a minute, but I didn't sense this one coming. I don't know where they are.”
“Fucking useful talent. Well, better sometimes than never I suppose. There!” she gestured with her gun at another zombie coming into the small circle of light, “I will point them out while you bash them.”
This worked out well and Max managed to kill several more slow zombies that Stewart pointed at coming out of the gloom. Then she hopped into the police cruiser and used the spotlight to scan the area. She highlighted about a dozen zombies mobbing one house. They had gotten through the front door, but several were gathered along one side of the building at a small basement window, those zombies were on their hands and knees trying to break through the window. Stewart got out of the car and balanced the spotlight on the hood, pointing it at the group by the side of the house. The spotlight was not mounted to the car, but plugged into the car's power supply to be used as needed. Max stepped up to the zombies and started killing them one by one, they were too stupid and slow to realize the real danger, and another source of food was behind them.
Stewart fired her shotgun, which startled Max so that he missed his next swing on the second to last zombie that was trying to crawl through the window.
“Fuck!” he swore softly, “Super zombie?”
“Crawling right up on our asses too. Watch it!” Stewart yelled as one of the two 'slow' zombies bounced up in front of Max.
Max swung at the zombie, who grinned and caught the baseball bat with one hand. Kicking the thing in the balls didn't do much good, but it did force it back over the slower zombie on the ground, causing them both to go down in a heap. The faster zombie spun away like lightening and Stewart's shotgun blast hit the other one in the stomach.
“Shit. He is fast!” Stewart said tracking the thing as it spun and evaded her. The zombie threw the baseball bat at the officer and Max's hand reached out and caught it while Stewart raised her shotgun defensively. “Nice Max!”
Looking at the zombie, which was still bouncing around in the vegetation between the houses Max decided he had enough time to bring a blow down on the other zombie who was at his feet. The zombie's head crunched like an eggshell, adding yet another dent to Max's bat. Stewart's shotgun roared again and the fast zombie went down on its back.
“Watch him Max, that wasn't a clean shot!”
Approaching the still twitching zombie Max watched for some sort of deception. He took the last three steps running and leaped over the form on the ground, thinking to circumvent any treachery from the zed. The thing had been faking, but only a little bit, one bloody, pale arm reached up to try and grab Max as he flew over. The hand missed and when Max landed he brought his bat down square on the zombie's nose. This was not a death blow either and Max had to hit it three more times until he felt sure that it was dead permanently.
“What the fuck was that? I mean, why didn't you just use your shotgun or pistol?”
Max shrugged, “I don't know. I guess I was saving a bullet.”
“Well next time; don't. We don't need any heroes. You got kids to take care of for Christssake.”
“Yeah, okay. Like I said Stewart, I don't know why I did that. I didn't think.”
The woman nodded in the dim light and called to Tom, “Did our fire draw more?”
“Not yet,” he yelled back, “but I can't see that far, so whatever you are going to do, do it quick.”
Turning back to Max, she asked, “Check the house?”
He nodded, “The zeds were here for a reason.” Bending down he called through the window, “Hello? Any living people down there?”
“You sense any dead there?”
Max looked up at Stewart from the ground near the window, he wrinkled his forehead intently, “No. Nothing. I don't sense...wait, it is like, like there are a lot of them...not hear, but over there.” Max pointed west, and a bit back towards the interstate. “It is like there are so many of them there I can't get a reading on what is here.”
“Should we go take a look?”
“I am not too keen on that. If I am right, there are a lot of zombies coming our way.”
“There is nothing here...” Stewart was interrupted by a cry from the basement.
“We are here! You aren't the bad guys are you?”
Stewart rolled her eyes, the voice was clearly that of a child. She mouthed the words, 'Just what we fucking need!' to Max who grinned and answered the voice, “We just killed the bad guys, who is down there?”
“Me, Kenny and Riley.”
“Yeah, are you okay?”
“Come on out of there. No. Wait, we will come down there to you. Do you have any guns or anything?”
“My name is Max. What is your name?”
“Seth. And Ken and Riley.”
“Okay, I got that Seth, I am going to go into your house and find the stairs to come down to you. And I will make sure none of the bad guys are in there either. There is a police officer here too, her name is Stewart, she is going to stay by the window with you while I come down, okay?”
“Sure. A real police officer?”
“Yes. I am a real police officer.” Stewart called down, then to Max, “You are going in alone? Not a great idea, you got...”
“Kids to take care of. I know, I will be more careful, plus I don't think any more zeds are around. I could go through the window.”
“No don't come through the window!” came Seth's voice.
“'Cause we are locked in the basement, you have to unlock the door in the kitchen to get us out.”
“Yeah dad locked us in so we would be safe.”
Stewart mouthed the word 'weird' to Max and shook her head, “Okay then, so my buddy is going to come in, go to the kitchen and get you out of the basement, can you see anything down there with you?”
A flashlight beam turned on and played across the room before coming to rest on Stewart's face through the broken window, “You're very pretty. Are you the police officer?”
Grinding her teeth, Stewart said, “Hey there hon, don't shine the light in my face. Yes I am Officer Jane Stewart.”
“You don't look like a police. Don't Seth.” came another voice, this one lower and more like that of an adult, but still a little off. A black ball of fur jumped into the light, which was pointed below the broken window now. A medium sized dog stood under the window and was furiously opening and closing its mouth while looking up at Stewart, Max had moved on towards the front of the house. The dog was not making any noise, aside from a low, raspy grunting sound when it tried to bark.
“Get Riley Seth!”
“No! You get Riley, you were supposed to hold her!”
“The leash came off. You know the leash comes off!”
“You get her Kenny! You have the leash!”
As this conversation played out, Stewart yelled after the disappearing Max, “Hey Max! They have a dog! Be careful of the dog!”
Max went through the front door of the house and pulled out a small 'L.E.D.' flashlight from his pocket, the beam was not very powerful, but it was enough to illuminated the bodies on the floor and show him the room was empty. He caught Stewart's words of warning as he moved in and worked his way back to the kitchen. Shining his light around he found the door that he thought led to the basement. “What the fuck?” he said to himself softly as he examined the door. It was supposed to swing open into the kitchen and there was a large wooden board attached across it above the handle. The handle had a regular looking lock on it and up from that, above the wood was a dead bolt, which was set in the door so that it could be opened from this side. Looking at the wood Max saw it was a standard two-inch by four-inch wide piece of wood that could be bought in any lumber yard. It was sitting in two brackets attached to the door frame, with the wood in place the door could not be opened from the other side.
“What the fuck?” he said again, who locked their kids in the basement this way? He reached forward and pulled the wooden board out of the brackets, then unlocked the door handle and the dead bolt, wondering just what sort of kids Seth and Kenny were. Easing the door open just a crack he waited to see if the dog Stewart had mentioned would come up the stairs; it did. It slammed into the door with a meaty thunk, but it was fairly small as dogs go and Max was able to hold the door against its weight with ease. Crouching down he put his knee behind the door to keep it mostly closed while he put his hand at the gap to allow the dog to sniff him.
“Hey, there fella! You're okay, I am just here to help out the kids down there. Don't worry, everything is fine.”
The dog did not seem to be calming down, instead the low rasping, grunts continued to pour out of its mouth as it tried to nip at Max's hand. Behind the dog a large form came lumbering up the stairs, yelling “Riley! Riii-leeey no! Bad doggie! Bad girl. He is a police. You don't eat police!” Then a good sized hand grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck and forced a collar around it, followed by a leash.
Max stood and looked at the man on the other side. “Who are you?”
“I am Kenny Halcot. My brother is Seth Halcot. Our dog is Riley Halcot. You can open the door now I have Riley.”
“You got Riley, Kenny?” called a younger voice from down below.
“Yeah Seth. I have her good. I put the collar on another hole too, so it is tighter, but I hope not too tight, I don't want her to turn blue and die.”
“She won't Kenny. Did that guy get the door open?”
“No, he is staring at me through a crack. Why is he staring at me?” turning back to Max he asked, “Why are you staring at me?”
“Sorry. Is, uh, Riley okay? Can I open the door now?”
Max eased the door open slowly, the dog strained against the leash, not budging the man at all. “Okay, come out.”
Kenny stepped into the kitchen, followed by a young boy half his size carrying a flashlight. The boy was wearing a backpack, khaki shorts and a black t-shirt. He was wearing knee high socks over his skinny white legs and had on some Converse tennis shoes. “Let's go!”
“She said we were leaving and she is the police so we have to go.”
“Okay, good. Ah, I am Max.” He held out his hand to shake.
The younger boy shook it and said, “You have to shake too, it is what people do.”
“I am not a dummy. I got Riley.” then the man twisted and pulled the dog behind him with one hand and reached out with his left to grab Max's outstretched right hand and give it an awkward shake.
“No dummy you have to use your other hand!”
For a second Max thought the boy was talking to him, then realization came crashing down on him like a ton of bricks, Kenny was mentally challenged. “No it is okay, we have other things to do than shake hands in the kitchen all morning, I don't know what I was thinking anyway.”
Kenny, who was busy trying to transfer the leash to his other hand while keeping the dog away from Max looked up and said, “I am no dummy. I can shake too.”
Max waited patiently until the mute dog was held away from him and then shook Kenny's soft, sweaty hand and said, “Pleased to meet you. Do you need to get anything? Clothes or something?”
“Yeah, go get your camping bag Kenny, give me Riley, you can take the flashlight. Go fast.”
The older man grabbed the light and raced like lightning down the stairs, prompting Max to say, “Whoa!” in shock.
“He likes going down the stairs fast, he broke his leg when he was sixteen that way. Sometimes he falls, but he says he likes to go fast, because it feels like he is flying.”
“Are you brothers?”
“Seth, why are there all these locks on the door?”
The boy looked at him and didn't say anything.
“Ah, do you know where your parents went?”
Seth just shook his head from side to side.
“Did they lock you in the basement a lot?”
Again the boy just stared at him. Kenny came lumbering back up the stairs, not going up nearly as fast as he had gone down.
“Got it! I got it! I can go now.”
The dog was sniffing at Max's pant leg and Seth slowly let out a little slack. Riley didn't bite him, but sniffed around at Max's feet and then jumped up on him with both paws at his waist. The look was not one of a friendly Labrador retriever making peace with a stranger, it was more of one of a lion sizing up the local gazelle. Riley showed her teeth in an emotion that was far colder than any grin could ever be.
“Riley likes you!” said Kenny, rubbing the dog on its head with vigorous affection and then saying, “Down Riley you know dad doesn't like you jumping on people!” The dog dropped to all fours once again, but the fur behind its head did not relax.