The farmhouse was well kept and the lawn looked to have been mowed in the last three or four days. The place was locked up and the people were gone, there were no signs of a fight or zombies anywhere. Surrounded by trees at the edges of the wide cornfields they could not even see the town that was less than a mile away over a small part of the North Platte river. This was a good thing. The sun was going down and Tom checked the house before going to the rocks near one side of the sidewalk. He was looking around, and eventually spied something the others did not see. Bending over he picked up a rock and reached underneath it to grab a small black box which opened easily to reveal an ordinary key.
“C'mon!” Tom called to the others waving them up onto the large wrap-around porch, “We can get in now.”
“Geez Tom, how many people are there in your family?” asked Stewart.
“Five kids, all spread out. I am the youngest. No one lives here except my mom and dad.”
“I am surprised they kept the place, it is huge.”
“The fields are here. Plus it comes in handy during the holidays. My brothers are in Lincoln and Laramie, one of my sisters lives in town here and the other is in Cheyenne, this is kind of a central meeting place. My mom loves it when all the kids and grandkids show up. The place is crowded then and things were worse when we only had two bathrooms. My dad put in a third one in the basement, so now we have one on each floor.”
Stewart nodded, trying not to let her eyes glaze over from getting too much unasked for information, “Well that does sound better. So we should be able to sleep here then?”
“More than enough room, there are four bedrooms upstairs and the master bedroom on the main floor. I would rather we didn't sleep in my mom and dad's room. There are two sets of bunk beds in the basement too, with the rec-room., but they are not in a room of their own or anything.” Tom unlocked and swung open the front door, the power was still on, but the air inside was only marginally cooler than the July heat outside the house. “Whew, it is hot, maybe you guys will want to stay out here while I get the air conditioning going?”
“Sure,” said Max, “I will take the kids over to the tire swing. Amelia why don't you come with me as an extra set of eyes?” Amelia agreed, but only after she took the girls to the bathroom.
Max and the boys went over to the swing and took turns watering the lilac bush close by. Kenny and Seth didn't seem to have any rules against peeing outside and had even more fun on the swing. Cory even took a break from his video games to take a turn, then Kenny discovered that the swing could be wound up tight one way and would then unwind when someone got into it. All the boys had to take turns getting spun around, liberally assisted by Kenny. Max stood between the house and the boys, so he could watch them play and keep an eye on the distant tree line by the river. If any zombies did show up he was confident that they would come from that direction. The girls rushed by him yelling for a turn so fast that he brought his shotgun up before he knew it.
“Scared you huh?” came Amelia's voice behind him.
“Yeah. I am jumpy. Too many zombies in that town.”
“I know. I am afraid we are too close, they could get out here in less than an hour, just following us on the road.”
The drive through North Platte had been uneventful, but slow. There were wrecked vehicles everywhere. Not just crashed, but vehicles that had been shot up and blow over by explosives, the place was a war zone. The bodies were everywhere too. Stewart was going to try and get into the Walmart in town to scavenge some more video game players for the kids and when they turned into the parking lot, the plans had to change. It looked like the military had set up a line of vehicles to fire from behind, there was a line of bodies stacked literally five feet high in front of the barricade, the line was a good four hundred feet long and probably forty wide. There were zombies there too, not a whole lot, but a few in military uniform along with a dozen or so more in civilian clothing or undressed. The zombies had reacted to their presence in a strange manner, they looked the humans over, then looked towards the east, then slowly shambled towards the cruiser and minivan. Stewart pulled into a strip mall across the access road from the big box store and Cory yelled out that there was a 'GameStop' there, where they could stop and get the video game players like he had. Max, not thinking, had stopped the van while Stewart continued through the strip mall parking lot and out the other side to go back to the main road.
The pause in the van's momentum had been enough of an incentive to the slow zombies to put on a burst of speed and before Max got his head on straight the vehicle was surrounded. Minivans are not made for plowing over human beings. With every gentle thump on the front bumper, Max was afraid the air bags would go off. Amelia had looked grim, but kept her window rolled up and gotten on the radio to tell Stewart what had happened.
After running over a couple more zombies, they made it to the street, which was still clear down to where Stewart was backing up the police cruiser. She stopped when she saw they had driven clear and then continued on forward, sparing a moment to tell Max not to keep stopping every time he saw something unusual.
The rest of the trip was a blur, they came across a few other areas where the military had made a stand, but none was as bad as the first. It did not look like the military guys had made a last stand, it looked like they had fought for as long as they could and then retreated, there were no military vehicles left around, nor were there many guns or other pieces of equipment laying about.
When they got to the edge of town, there was no evidence that anything was wrong, if not for what they had seen earlier, it could have just been another day in a small city. Turning towards Tom's farm had been a relief for Max, he kept checking the rear view mirror, he felt like something was following them, but he never saw anyone behind them. Still his feelings when it came to zombies were something he trusted implicitly.
“We were followed,” he said suddenly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I didn't see anyone, I can't 'sense' them there, but I know the feeling.”
“You are pretty good at knowing where they are these days. I was going to ask about that earlier, now it seems like a better time. Did you know they were there at the Wal-mart?”
“Kind of, but not really. There were a lot of zombies in small groups or alone in town, that makes it harder for me to feel where they are at. I guess whatever this is I've got isn't able to pin the things down accurately.”
“It is better than what I have. What do you think happened?”
“Here? I guess the military gave the zombies a fight, killed a bunch and pulled back with only a few losses of their own.”
“I figured that out, I meant with you. Why do you know where the zombies are now? Why does Stewart move so fast when she gets in a fight? Why did that happen?”
Max shrugged his shoulders and smiled when the two girls started laughing together as the tire swing spun around faster. “I don't know. My guess is killing them does it. I mean what else have I done differently over the last few days? So it is killing them or eating really crappy food. One of those two things.” he said alluding to their less than nutritious diet of the past week.
They heard someone walking on the porch behind them and turned to look up at Stewart. She peered down at them and said “We have power, food, water and plenty of room. They left their kids a note too, in case they came by. It said they were evacuated to Lincoln by the Nebraska National Guard, it was mandatory. Most of the men volunteered to be in a militia and support the military, but the women and children headed back east. They said they would be at his brother's house and to meet them there if they could. Tom tried the phone, it works, the land line, but when he dialed his brother's number, a message came on that all lines were busy.”
“We were followed.” Max told her.
“Damn. You got a bead on him?”
“Or her, no. I am sure it is a super and I am sure they were behind us and are still over that way somewhere.” Max gestured westward from where they had come.
“So much for crashing here a few days.” Stewart gazed off into the distance at nothing, “Unless....yeah, I think I have a plan, it might work.”
Max scanned the tree line again, he could neither see nor sense any zombies from that direction. “What is your plan?”
“Has it stopped following us?”
Thinking about it Max said, “Yeah I think it has. I think it is just watching us now. So it is probably at that farmhouse to the west of us. That is what? A mile away?”
“Probably half a mile. So if we move on, it moves on.”
“What if I stay here with the radio and you load up the kids and move on to the next house down the road. The zed would use this place as natural cover, I would be here to ambush it. Or is there more than one?”
“I think there is just one, but it might be bringing friends. I think Tom should stay with you, just have me and Amelia drive out with the kids. You could hide in the basement and wait for it to come in the house, then get it.”
“Yeah, how about you instead of Tom?”
“Okay, Tom did go with you last time. Maybe me and Amelia instead, you guys did the hardware store, we could do this guy.”
“I am good with that plan, we should handle this,” said Amelia.
“Max...” Stewart began and then caught herself before she told him there had not been any zombies in the hardware store. Instead, she shook her head and said, “I don't know, I guess fair is fair, but Amelia you do better with the kids, especially Kenny and Seth. I just want to throttle Seth and let the rest of them live their lives in peace.”
“What? You said my name what are you talking about?” called Seth from near the tire swing and giggling girls.
“I said we need to get you to a place you can live your lives in peace!” said Stewart loudly, then muttered, “Fucking good hearing he has too.”
Max laughed and Amelia asked, “So am I going or staying?”
“Going,” answered Stewart, “Either that or Tom is driving the new boys.”
Tom came out onto the porch carrying a mid-sized cooler and approached them, “I have cold drinks here if anyone is thirsty!” The kids all ran towards him and reached in to grab cans of the various soda pop that he had in the cooler.
Cory held up a light beer and Max snatched it from him, “Thanks buddy, just what I was after!”
He put his hand down into the cooler reaching towards another cold beer and Amelia's voice rang out, “I know you are not reaching for a beer for yourself young man.”
“Let him have one if he is so keen,” said Stewart.
Amelia gave her an incredulous look and shook her head, “No Cory! Just get a pop and go back to the swing.”
Stewart raised her eyebrows questioningly, “What? It is the best way to turn kids off of beer, let them try and drink one when they are ten and they won't want to try again until they are thirty. No one likes beer, it is an acquired taste.”
“Maybe so, but I don't want him acquiring a taste for it right now, he is stubborn enough to drink the stuff just to prove he can and because he knows I won't approve. You seen how he keeps running around without shoes to bother Seth don't you?”
“I hadn't really noticed. Oh fine! Have it your way, no beer for the twelve and under crowd.” changing the subject Stewart turned towards Tom, “Tom we are going to have you and Amelia pile the kids into the car and head to the next house up the road and stop, like we are house hunting for a place to stay. We were followed so Max and I are going to stay here and ambush the thing following us. I think the guy has been shadowing us since town.”
“It is getting late.” Tom began, “but I guess we don't want to be dealing with this tonight do we? When do we leave?”
“Let the kids play another five minutes then move on. That should give us about half an hour before dark to kill the bastard.”
The kids were very unhappy when they were told they were going to have to get back into the cars. Max and Stewart each took a shotgun, pistol and a fanny pack full of ammunition. They each selected a hand weapon as well, Max took a bat and Stewart grabbed Tom's crowbar. The two of them then hid in the basement while everyone else milled about the house. The children were not told why they had to parade into the house, then out of it, but Stewart made them do it before they were herded back into the cars. Amelia made sure Seth was riding with her and Cory was in the other car when they loaded up.
As they stood in the bathroom, which was in the basement almost directly under the front door Stewart spoke to Max, “I think the zeds can see heat.”
“It is just a theory, but why were they going after Seth and Kenny in that town? The kids were locked in the basement and there is no way they would have seen them. I think a zed wandered by and noticed a heat signature from the basement and started trying to get in, which drew more zeds to the place.”
“I don't know, if that is the case the zombie is going to see us here before he comes in, we are right under the door.”
“This is an old farmhouse, nothing like that cookie cutter place we picked Seth and Kenny from. The floor has to be a foot thick and the basement was refinished here, so I bet there is at least an extra layer of material between us and the door. Still...” Stewart reached over and turned on the shower, then turned on the cold water in the sink as well. “Maybe it will be enough to make us invisible?”
“I'm not getting in the shower. Shouldn't you put it on hot and try to build up steam instead of just running the cold water?”
“Hm, maybe you are right.” Stewart turned the hot water on in the shower and then switched the sink to hot as well. Soon there was abundant steam filling the little bathroom.
“Ah, another thing, but with the shower on, I can't really hear anything.”
“Are we relying on our ears here or your 'sense'? Just tell me when the thing gets close and I will turn the water off.”
“You're right. Okay...” Max tried to listen in with what he regarded as his zed radar, his eyes opened in shock and he turned to Steward, “Damn!”
“What? Is it here?” she asked turning off the water quickly.
“No. Not yet, but coming at us through the field to the west of the house. It...well I can sense them too.”
“Them? C'mon Max, I don't have any mind reading yet.”
“Them, the others, the kids and Tom and Amelia. They are coming through stronger than the zombies are.”
“Uh, zombies, how many are there?”
“Two, no three of them. One is a kid, a little kid.”
“Shit, can you sense how strong they are?”
“No, but they followed us all the way from town, so I guess they are smart.”
“This isn't good.”
“Do we change our plans?”
“Aw hell Max, we didn't make a backup plan, let's just roll with this one. We should be able to kill them right off the bat if we can surprise them.”
“I am not afraid, me big zombie hunter,” she said pounding her chest. “And you are not a slouch yourself mister.”
“I have come a long way,” said Max, thinking back to the very first zombie he had encountered back at his office so long ago, was it only eight days since this started? “Still we were counting on one and now there are three of them if they are the super fast kind we might be in trouble. They are coming out of the field now...almost to the drive. It is hard to tell, I can't really see anything except them.”
Stewart watched Max's face and remained quiet as he gave her a progress report, “Tom and the others are at the next house over. They are not getting out of the car, just pulling up in front of the house. I don't sense any zombies over there. One of ours is at the porch steps. He is looking down, almost right at us.” Max sighed in what sounded like relief to Stewart, “He is not a slow one, there is a woman carrying the kid behind him. She is fast too, I think faster than the man.”
“I thought you couldn't tell?”
“They get close, I can tell, I don't know why. The little one looks, weird, fast maybe?”
Max raised his finger to his lips and whispered, “It is different than the other two, I get if they were male or female, but the kid is...different.”
Upstairs they heard the door swing open slowly. Then a muffled female voice called, “C'mon, get in here before they see! Hurry it up, don't touch anything and stay away from the windows!”
The voice moved away from the front door and they could hear some muffled movement upstairs, then everything went quiet.
“Well?” whispered Max.
“We do this. They stopped in the living room. I can hear them whispering up there, but I can't make out what they are saying.”
Max shook his head, “How can you hear them? I haven't heard a thing since the woman told the other one to stay away from the windows.”
“I just hear them is all, you can't hear them?”
“Not like that.”
“That is where they are and what they are doing; let's try to get them without the guns.”
Max slowly swung the bathroom door open and they quietly moved to the base of the stairs that led up into the kitchen. The stairs were ordinary wood and neither of them was intimately familiar with the house, they could not recall if the stairs were squeaky or not. Shrugging his shoulders Max started up slowly, with each step he planted his foot, then slowly put his weight down on it before taking the next step. At the top, the door to the kitchen was closed, but they had left it unlatched. Catching a glimpse of a shadow in the kitchen Max set his shotgun down on the top step, leaving it upright and leaning against the corner of the wall where the door was.
Amelia's voice loudly spoke into Max's ear, startling him, and almost causing him to fumble the shotgun as he set it down. “Anything? We haven't seen anyone yet.” Max reached down and turned the radio on his belt off, thankful he had at least remembered to put in the ear buds. Up in the kitchen he heard someone moving around, had they heard the noise from the ear bud?
“Charlie?” the female voice called out from the living room, “You see anything?”
“No.” came the slow reply.
“You keep watch out the back but don't stand in front of the windows or doors.”
They heard Charlie move into the kitchen a brief shadow passed in front of the basement door.
“Him first.” Stewart said.
Max nodded, and wondered how it was he was in the lead. He moved up to the top step, tensed himself and burst into the kitchen as quietly as he could. Standing in front of the back door was a tanned man with scraggly black hair who was about six feet tall. He was of moderate size with more fat than muscle on his frame. Nonetheless, he twirled quickly enough when the door was shoved open.
Max swung his bat sideways and Charlie blocked it with his forearm, not even attempting to catch it with his hand. A loud crack shot through the basement and it was not the bat which broke. Charlie swung his other hand in a punch that ended at Max's face. Max tried to roll with the blow, but it was coming too fast and he was moving in the wrong direction, the hit knocked him sideways into the kitchen sink and he bounced his head off of it and rebound onto the ground behind him. Stewart leapt forward and smashed the man with the crowbar, it hit him on his upper arm, the opposite arm that Max had broke. The head of the crowbar swung around behind the zombie's arm and broke through it's ribs. Stewart made one attempt to pull it out then she was tackled from behind by the zombie woman. Both of them crashed into the man, who was pushed into the back door, where the glass shattered out onto all of them. Max bounced back to his feet, shaking his head to clear the stars out of his eyes, looking down he saw the two woman struggling on top of the man, who was just laying there with both arms twitching. The woman would have been five foot seven standing up and perhaps a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet...if she were carrying a ten pound bag of potatoes. The zombie woman was wearing a snuggy, a device designed to carry infants in front of the wearer and leave the user's hands free.
The snuggy was empty, where was the kid? Max found it without seeing in the living room, probably on a chair if his memory was correct. The infant was not moving so he filed it in the 'worry about it later' category and reached down to grab the mother's foot. Once he had a good hold he pulled her off of Stewart, who rolled clear of Charlie and pulled out her pistol.
The zombie woman twisted from Max's hand and scrambled away on her hands and knees, the kitchen was of good size, but she couldn't go far. Stewart was up and had her handgun out, she took a shot at Charlie as he got to his feet, the zombie man shrugged off the bullet and grabbed a cast iron frying pan off of the counter. When Stewart fired again, it hit the bottom of the pan and ricocheted through the window of the back door. Aiming lower Stewart shot the zombie in the groin and upper thighs, Charlie bellowed in rage and flung the frying pan at her, she almost blocked the pan in time, it deflected off of her pistol and into her forehead. Stewart took one step back, staggering as her forehead turned red and then blue. Another step toppled her over backwards down the open door to the basement below.
Max had his own pistol out, but he could not get a bead on the woman, he took a shot anyway, doing nothing was more likely to get one or both of them killed. The bullet hit the woman's ankle as she slowed to try and pull herself upright.
She screamed, “Charlie! He is killing me!”
Charlie had just finished tossing the pan at Stewart, he turned around and grabbed the tea kettle from the counter, then swung that in an overhand arc at Max, who lined up his gun at the same time. The kettle deflected off of Max's arms as he held his pistol, however it wasn't enough to ruin his shot completely, his bullet hit the zombie woman in the neck, just below her skull, she fell into the sink and lay there twitching while Charlie looked for the next pan or pot to throw at Max.
At the same time both of their eyes fell upon the block of kitchen knives on the counter, Max fired as Charlie reached for the knives, the bullet went wide and flew into the kitchen cabinet where there was a sound of breaking glass.
“Fuck, don't you ever get weaker?” Max yelled as the zombie continued making his legs work despite the damage Stewart had inflicted upon him. Something brushed up against Max's leg, he tried to move sideways away from it, fearing it was a zombie toddler. His heel came down upon a squishy bit of flesh that rolled slightly as he put his weight on it, beneath him the zombie baby let out a squall of indignation and wrapped its arms around Max's leg.
“Fuck!” he was standing on one of the baby's feet, the kid tried to bite him, but the small teeth he had could not get through Max's jeans, while he was looking down a knife struck him handle first in his chest, the impact was so soft that he almost laughed. The next knife spun truer and Max blocked it with his left arm, taking a cut in return. “Goddamn it! Enough of this shit!” he stepped back off of the baby's leg and then shook his other foot trying to dislodge it.
Charlie yelled, “Leave my baby alone!” and charged at Max with a knife in each hand. Max had one hand bracing himself against the doorway between the living room and the kitchen and one leg up off the floor shaking the baby around trying to get it off of him, in his right hand he still had his trusty revolver.
“Stop!” he said as he brought the handgun's barrel down and placed it against the baby's head.
Charlie tried to veer to one side, shouting “No!” but the damage to his legs had caused him to lose some of his coordination and continued towards Max in an ungainly shuffle. Max fired into the baby's skull and tired to pull the gun up before the man hit him, he was not successful. Both men toppled into the living room and onto the coffee table, which broke under their weight.
Max felt himself get stabbed by one of the knives in the zombie's hands, in a daze he watched the other hand rise with a knife in it. His gun had been knocked from his hand and was laying three feet away at the base of the couch, Max couldn't see any other weapons close by and there was no one to save him as the zombie's blade descended.