The smoke was pouring from the town up ahead, not from one place but from several different spots. Max handed the binoculars back to Stewart.
“Yep, it is burning up ahead. Tom that is North Platte?”
“Yes. It looks like the first fire is at the Wal-Mart on the north side of the highway and the other one is at the hotel to the south of it.”
Stewart nodded while taking a closer look. “So which way do we have to go to get to your parent's farm?”
“North. Through town would be easiest. Either that or we head back about fifteen miles. There is only the one bridge here, or we could go past it and go up through the industrial park by the golf course....”
Stewart lowered her binoculars and turned to Tom, “It is your call, the Wal-Mart is probably burning, but I don't see anyone or anything moving around up there. How far north of town do you live?”
“Oh, not far at all, just out of town turn right and then take the third left. The farm is at the end of that road. Just north and east of town.”
“Do we need anything from the town?” Stewart asked all of them.
“No. We have enough food to get through the night. But we better get moving if we want to be bedded down before sunset. I don't want to be poking around a farm in the dark.” said Max, then he hastily added, “I mean, if your parents aren't there Tom.”
It was close to sunset now, with the harsh heat of the mid-afternoon finally fading. They group was down to two vehicles again, Stewart's Denver Police Cruiser and Max's mini-van. The wrecker had started overheating a couple of hours ago and Max had concluded there must have been two sets of gears in the vehicle and he had been running the truck in the 'low' gear range. The engine got so hot they had decided to dump the truck and stick to the vehicles they were used to. They had not had to move any wrecks off the road since the morning, which made the decision easier and they left all but one of the diesel fuel cans with the truck as well, which freed up a little more room in the two vehicles they did have.
Tom and Stewart got into the cruiser while Max and Amelia hopped into the van. Seth, Nick and Riley were in the back of the cruiser and the rest of the kids were in the minivan. Opening the van door Max sat down into the middle of an argument between Cory and Kenny.
“You have to keep your shoes on!” Kenny insisted.
“No! Leave me alone!”
“Put them on! That is a rule! You have to wear shoes!”
“What is going on guys?” Max asked sliding the van into gear as Amelia hopped into the passenger seat.
“He won't wear his shoes Max!” Kenny said.
“I don't have to!” Cory yelled back.
“Kenny? What have I told you about that?”
“Uh, but he is in the car. In the car, you have to wear your shoes.”
“Kenny didn't you ever go over to a friend's house?”
“One time I did, yeah, I didn't like it. They didn't play right.”
“So things were different at their house than at your house?”
“Yeah and I didn't like it. They messed up the rules.”
“That is what I mean here, in our van the rules are different. There are not any rules about keeping your shoes on.”
“But Max he is barefoot! He doesn't even have socks on! When you go out of the house, you have to have shoes and socks on. Always!”
“What about if you go swimming?”
Kenny laughed, “No! Not then. I got to go swimming once, they had a sprinkler, it was inside over the pool and water would fall down on you. I didn't wear shoes then.”
“So sometimes you didn't have shoes on when you were outside the house.”
“I always had shoes on in the car. Always.”
“In our car you can wear shoes or go barefoot or just wear socks, those are the rules.”
“Okay. But if you have shoes on you have to wear socks. And if you are barefoot you have to keep your slippers on.”
“No, no Kenny. You don't in our car, you can wear any combination of shoes, socks, bare feet, flip-flops or sandals or even boots if you want to. It is completely up to each person. Okay? So please leave Cory alone.”
Kenny seemed to sulk, then asked, “Could I go ride with Policeman Stewart?”
“No!” Max and Amelia said at the same time. They pair of them had long ago given up on telling him that Stewart was a nickname and that she was a policewoman.
They settled back and Max pulled out after Stewart, who was proceeding down the interstate slowly. Jessica and Erin were sitting in the middle seat, with the boys in the third row. The girls were coloring pictures when Jessica wrinkled her nose and said, “Phew! Who farted?”
Erin said, “Eeew!” and a moment later Max and Amelia were hit with a stench rolling in from the back seat, where Kenny sat with a happy smile on his face. Cory was studiously not looking at any of them, remaining focused on a hand held video game.
“All right, boys who did it?” asked Amelia rolling down her window. Max rolled his down as well and turned the air conditioning on 'max.'
“Did what?” asked Kenny.
“Made the smell!”
“Farted!” said Jessica, leaning forward to breathe in the smoke tinged air from behind Max.
“Not me,” said Kenny.
“Me either.” Cory replied, “It's him.” he said pointing his finger at Kenny.
“Is so! He took off his shoes and the smell came out!”
“Holy shit! This is horrible!” Max flashed his headlights at Stewart and stopped the car in the middle of the road, the passengers bailed out of the mini-van, except for Kenny, who just looked at everyone.
Stewart backed up her car and rolled her window down, “What is it?”
“We may have found a way to kill all of the zombies.” Max said. A second later Jessica giggled and even Cory smiled.
Max looked at where his van was parked, noted the slight breeze carrying the sour foot odor towards them and said, “Just wait for it...”
Stewart wrinkled her nose in disgust, “What the fuck is that? Is that...did he…did he shit his pants in there?”
“No! No pooping except in a bathroom and always wipe clean after! I didn't poop myself!”
“He took his shoes off,” said Amelia.
“Oh God, that is..ugh! I am moving the car out of the way!”
Stewart backed up more until she was no longer downwind of the van's open doors and windows. By then Seth was yelling out of the cruiser window for Kenny to put his shoes back on.
“You can't take your shoes off outside of the house!” the boy called. Riley, upset by the commotion started barking non-stop.
Sighing Stewart opened her door and stepped out to lean against the hood. “Biting dogs, kids yelling in my ears, toxic foot odor. Geezus to think two days ago I thought I had it bad with just the flesh eating zombies.”
Seth continued his tirade against Kenny while Max and Stewart stood looking at each other. Slowly Max grinned and then Steward started to laugh. Tom opened the door on the other side of the cruiser and stood up, keeping one leg inside.
“What is it?” he asked, a look of bewilderment on his face.
Max shook his head slowly and tried to stop laughing. Amelia stepped over to them, “Are you going to let them argue like that?”
This caused Max to laugh harder, but Stewart just reached in and unlocked the rear doors to the cruiser. Quick as a shot Seth was out and yelling at his brother about the rules. Amelia turned to go intervene and Stewart stopped her, “Hold up honey, let them work this out.”
The other kids, not used to adults standing by and watching a yelling match, looked ill at ease and nervous, except for Cory, who walked, barefoot, over to the cruiser and hopped up onto its hood, where he continued to play his video game and ignore the world.
Seth was shouting up at his brother and eventually the inevitable happened, Kenny swung one arm up and over his head and pounded a fist down on Seth's head, the younger boy ended up on his butt in the middle of the road, crying. Kenny had not hit his younger brother with anything near full force, the adults who were watching had noticed how slow his hand moved. The dog was confused by this fighting and took shelter, of all places, behind Stewart's legs, where it growled out at everyone. Stewart turned to Max with a look of 'just my fucking luck' on her face which set him off laughing again, even Tom let out an involuntary chuckle as the scene continued to unfold.
Amelia stormed over to stand between the boys and yelled at them both, “Stop it you two! Stop it right now! Kenny apologize for hitting your brother!”
Kenny looked down at his stocking feet, shuffled around a little and said, “Not going to, he was mean and yelling and Max said the rules changed.”
“The rules did not change! They never change!” screamed Seth from a prone position on the road.
“The rules say to listen to adults and do what they say. Unless they want to touch you in the bathing suit area or want you to touch them there. Then you have to scream and run far away. I listened to the rules, and Max changed the rules. He can change the rules because he is an adult and he wasn't trying to touch my bathing suit area.”
“He is not the adult who changes the rules, only mom and dad can change the rules! That is what they meant!”
Kenny shook his head, “No. That is not what they said. Remember when I hit that ball in Mrs. Peterson's yard and she said I couldn't just come and get it? She said to stay out of her yard and mom and dad said to listen to her, because she was an adult and I had to do what she said. So is Max. And Amelia.”
“Amelia just told you to say 'sorry' to me! You didn't do that!” Seth rose to his feet behind Amelia.
“A bigger rule is not to lie. I am not sorry. I am telling the truth. I am not going to lie. You should say sorry for hurting my feelings!”
“What?! No!” Seth flung himself at his brother and started kicking and punching him. Kenny stoically took the blows the nine year old dished out, until a high kick caught him in the testicles and caused him to double over. Seth pulled his foot back to deliver a kick to the young man's face when he was pushed aside by Amelia, who looked over at the trio of adults still standing by the car doing nothing.
“Really, a little help here? It isn't too much to ask, is it?”
“I don't have kids. Max?” said Stewart.
Sighing, Max brushed the tears of laughter from his eyes and went over to where the brothers were arguing. Using a daddy voice he had developed over the course of ten years with his older son he said, “Seth, Kenny, stop this right now.”
“You're not my dad!” Seth screamed, trying to break out of Amelia's grasp.
“You okay Kenny?”
“My jewels hurt. He kicked 'em real good, like squashed 'em flat. I think he got both of them.” Kenny said, still bent over.
“Seth you need to calm down. Amelia take him over to the squad car for a timeout. Stop fighting and go with her. I will be over there to talk to you in a minute.”
Amelia took Seth over to the car, he struggled until Stewart threatened him using her much more impressive 'police officer' voice, then he silently sobbed and got into the back of the car. Stewart locked the doors so he couldn't get out. The three adults moved away from the vehicle to give him a chance to calm down.
“Why did you let him out?” Amelia asked, “He could have just stayed there yelling, and things wouldn't have gotten physical.”
“You have an older brother?”
“Would you have yelled at him like that?”
Amelia shook her head, “No, I liked my older brother. But if I had he would have pounded me flat too.”
“I think this little fight of theirs had been a long time coming, the stress of this situation just made it happen now. I thought I should facilitate it and get it over with before we moved through a zombie infested town.”
“Or we could have all sat down and talked about it a little.”
“That might have worked, this was quicker. I pretty much guarantee Seth isn't going to yell at his brother like that anymore once he calms down and thinks about things. The guy has a hundred pounds and ten years on him, no way a shrimp-like Seth is going to beat him down. That kick in the balls, that was his last gasp, Kenny won't fall for it twice, even if he is retarded.”
“That too.” Stewart agreed, “Call it what you want, I like the shorter words. The thing is, I have been watching and 'ole Seth here is not the biggest toe on the foot in terms of brains either.”
Amelia nodded, “I can see that. You think he is a special needs kid too?”
“A bit touched to put it nicely. Borderline autistic. With all the rules, he seems to be able to quote from I think that is it. I'm no doctor, so I don't l know for sure. I don't even know how to proceed. I think the boys will be okay, but it is a lot for them to assimilate. From what I do know autistic people and change don't mix real well.”
“So you think his, their, parent's left them because of it?”
“I suspect that. They are a handful.”
Pointing at Riley, who was on Stewart's heels, Amelia said, “Well it looks like the dog likes you now.”
“Fucking dog. I would shoot it if those boys wouldn't fall apart about it.”
Riley growled up at Stewart but then stopped and cast her gaze at the field across the road. Following the dog's point of vision Stewart saw a zombie climbing the embankment on the other side of the highway.
“Zombie!” she yelled out, pulling out her pistol.
Max pulled Kenny to the other side of the minivan and shut the doors on that side, “You okay buddy?”
“How are your jewels doing?”
“Hurt. Smashed 'em flat. Gonna bleed when I pee.”
“What did you say?”
“Pee blood. Hurts that bad.”
“How do you know that?”
Kenny stood upright and looked west at the clouds.
“Kenny? Have you been hurt there before?”
“Don't want to talk about it.”
“Don't swear. Please don't swear! It is against God!”
“Sorry. I am sorry. Kenny I know Seth was mean to you and I know you didn't hit him as hard as you could have. But I don't want you to hit him again, okay?”
“I probably won't.”
“I promise I probably won't hit Seth again.”
“Good enough. Did you and Seth go to school?”
“I used to, until high school, then I couldn't any more. Seth came then too.”
“Did Seth go to school?”
Kenny shook his head, “No it was summer.”
“Well, before summer was he in school.”
“A little. He didn't like it much. He liked to watch television. And play with Riley and me.”
“Oh, okay. Did anyone ever talk to you about how Seth acts? About him yelling?”
“He has issues.”
“He didn't have any medicine or anything did he?”
“Yeah, for his issues.”
Max groaned, then asked, “You didn't have any medicine you had to take did you?”
“No. I am just not that smart. Seth has the issues.”
“Okay Kenny, I am going to talk with Seth and get him calmed down, then we will get to Tom's mom and dad's farm to go to bed.”
“Okay. Tell Seth not to kick me in the jewels, that really hurt.”
Then Stewart's cry of “Zombie!” rang out and Max found himself lifting a shotgun he didn't even remember bringing with him.
“Hop in the back seat Kenny! Nick, Cory, Erin and Jessica, get in the van now!” Max called out as he came around to where Tom and Stewart were watching a zombie climb the embankment to the road. Another head appeared, then another and another, soon dozens of the walking dead were shambling up and over the road towards them.
“Drive away?” asked Stewart.
“Yeah, no point in tackling this bunch. At least it looks clear on our side.” Max said.
“Okay, Tom and I will lead and keep moving until we get to Tom's place unless something changes.”
“What about Seth?”
“What about him?”
“No Seth is definitely not 'okay.' I think he is autistic.”
“Kenny says Seth took medicine every day.”
“Fucking great. We should have checked that this morning before we left.”
Max shrugged his shoulders, “We didn't know. We can talk about what to do tonight. Looks like the dog likes you now.”
“Yeah, great. Probably just wants to see what my other leg tastes like. Let's get moving before we have to fight our way out of here.”
The four adults quickly moved back to their vehicles and hopped in. The foot odor in the van was still strong, but no one was suggesting they stay any longer. Putting his foot on the gas, the minivan surged forward after the police cruiser into North Platte.