Stewart, Amelia, Tom and Max were gathered around the table in the dining room, bowls from breakfast and other used dishes were scattered around them, Jessica and Erin were gathering them up to bring into the kitchen where Kenny was washing while Cory dried. The four adults were looking at an atlas that Tom had gotten from a closet in the house. It was several years old, but the main roads were still present.
“I say we stick with highway thirty.” Stewart said.
Tom shook his head, “It is too close to the main highway until we get to Grand Island, you've seen how the roads are. If your 'Red' is right things are just going to get worse from here on out.”
Earlier Red had advised the group to head north before turning east again. He said he could sense more zombies along what he thought was the main road, plus a large group of them by the capital, Lincoln. Stewart was advocating that they go up highway 30, which veered north of the capital, it would save them the trouble of traveling two hours north on highway 83 out of North Platte. Max didn't like Stewart's idea, but was having trouble disagreeing with her. Finally, when all three of them were looking at him he said, “I think we need to put as much distance between us and the main highway as possible. I would rather go up highway 83 to highway twenty and take it across. From what Red said it should be relatively free of wrecks and zombies.”
Stewart sighed and leaned back, “What the fuck, there goes all reason. If you believe Red about this, then you know we have to get to Iowa as soon as possible and tell the army to drop another nuke on Chicago, probably on Willis Tower. He gave us less than two weeks to get there, at the rate we are going, this detour will add another three to four days to the trip.”
“It won't, the roads should be clear, we should be able to make it in a day if we don't have to stop after forty miles.”
“It is four hundred miles to Sioux City going this way! We'd be lucky to make it in a week, let alone a day!”
“Then we would get there with five days to spare!” Max said. Stewart and he were staring at each other, then she smiled and laughed, easing the tension in the room.
“Okay, fine. We do it your way. But I reserve the right say 'I told you so' when everything goes wrong.”
“When can we leave?” Max asked everyone.
“The kids have a few things to pack up and we should make lunch for when we need it later. We could be out of here in half an hour.” said Amelia.
“Okay, then let's go. Tom is there anything you want to bring?” asked Max
“No, my mom and dad took the guns. Do we have time to board up the back window?” They had just taped up plastic sheeting with duct tape the night before.
“I suppose if you think we have to.”
“We might be back someday.”
“Fine, I will go with you while Stewart and Amelia herd the kids.”
“I love you too.” Stewart said with some sarcasm.
Max let Stewart's comment go without reply and followed Tom out to the barn to find some boards to cover the broken window in the back door.
“You think this is stupid, huh?” asked Tom.
“Pretty much, yeah. I kind of have this feeling we won't be back through here.”
Tom shrugged and powered up his father's table saw, he cut down a long piece of lumber into three even lengths then shut off the saw. “Max I think we will come back, at least someone will. And who knows maybe someone will need a place for shelter? With the back door fixed up it will at least be one less way for the zombies to get in.”
Pulling a cordless drill off of the tool bench Tom handed it and a box of wood screws to Max, then picked up the wood. Together they got the window covered in just a few minutes, the boards were not wide enough to fill in the entire window so Tom just put them on over the top of the plastic.
“Not the best job, but it should hold up.” Tom said when they were done. He turned and inspected the kitchen, looking at the gunshot scarred floor and cupboard doors. “I hope we don't make it back here in a way, if my mom saw what we did to her kitchen she would be pissed.”
Max laughed and went to help the women get the kids through the bathroom while Tom put the tools back into the barn. Less than five minutes later the two vehicles were reloaded and ready to go. Tom finished topping off the gas tanks of both cars and then set the empty gas can by the side of the door to the barn. They had gotten rid of some of the items they were carrying, now that they had a plan to reach Iowa in a day or less they offloaded most of the camping gear and the extra room to move around in the van made the kids more comfortable.
Kenny and Seth piled into the back of the police cruiser with Riley while Erin, Nick, Jessica and Cory got into the van. Max looked over at Stewart, who was set to drive her cruiser and raised his eyebrows.
“The kids chose where they wanted to go. Our only comment was that they couldn't fight about it. And Kenny has to take his shoes off right away so his feet don't start to stink.” Stewart shrugged, “And they all took showers, so the 'kid funk' smell shouldn't be too bad today.”
“Okay, got it, everyone ready to go?”
The other three adults nodded and hopped into the two vehicles. Stewart took the lead and they headed west back to highway 83 where they turned north. Max scanned the area ahead and beside them for undead, he found Red fairly easily, just north of town, but not within eyesight. Max waved his hand and was not surprised to see Red's arm wave back. So he is keeping an eye on us, Max thought. Beyond Red coming inexorably towards the east, were uncountable numbers of zombies. Casting his thoughts eastwards Max could not sense any large group of undead. He knew he didn't have the range that Red did and hoped he was doing the right thing by following the man's advice.
The morning passed by swiftly, the road passed well outside of the few small towns that dotted the prairie and they were able to maintain speeds close to the limit almost the entire journey to highway twenty. It was at highway 20 that they saw the first zombie of the day. The man was standing to the west of the intersection, about a quarter mile away, he was wearing overalls and had a red bandana wrapped around his head. It was too far away to make out anything else, but Max knew it for what it was without needed to get any closer.
“Amelia, let Stewart know that is a zombie and to keep going.” Amelia got on the short range radio and told Stewart what Max had said. Behind the zombie, there were three dark plumes of smoke rising into the sky.
“It is Valentine that way, isn't it?” He asked her.
“Lemme check real quick.” Amelia pulled out their old road map to check for the town's name, “Yeah.”
“So they made it this far. I hope the rest of the trip is as easy as this, we came farther today than we did in the last two days.”
“Yeah, but we want to go east, we are only going to start getting closer to our goal now.”
They followed Stewart as she made the turn and headed east. For the next hundred miles they were still able to maintain a good speed, but there were wrecks on the road and they did see several zombies. However, none was close enough to cause the group any problems. Up ahead was the city of O'Neill, they had seen signs for it the past hour and Amelia had been talking with Stewart about trying to stop there to eat lunch and stretch out a bit, either in the town if it appeared deserted or just to the east of it along the road if there were zombie around.
As they pulled up to the town they saw a road block ahead of them, flashing lights from a police car were the first thing they noticed, then they saw the military trucks. Stewart slowed to a crawl and got on the radio to Max.
“You got any feelings about this?”
Max was a little surprised, upon seeing the flashing lights he had felt a sense of relief that finally they had outdistanced the zombies and made it back to safety. He hadn't thought to check the people ahead to be sure they were who they appeared to be. “All alive, so far as I can tell.”
“Okay, then let’s head in.” Stewart did not pick up the pace, but glided in slowly towards the men who were pointing guns at them. About a hundred yards in front of the barricade were two vehicles that were bullet ridden with no windows, as they passed them by Max saw obvious signs of blood and gore that had barely been cleaned up, but no bodies to go with it.
A bullhorn called out when the got within thirty feet.
“That’s close enough. All of you get out of the vehicles where we can see you, come out with your hands up and no weapons or we will use lethal force.”
Stewart stopped, but left the cruiser running, her and Tom slowly got out of the car and then let Kenny and Seth out, they kept Riley in the vehicle, but the dog was barking furiously.
Let’s hope the damned dog isn't right this time. Thought Max as he got out of the car. “C'mon kids get out real slow, no Nick, leave your stuff inside. Cory put down the game, raise your hands up, they want to be sure we are not zombies.”
“Okay, slowly step away from the vehicles, raise your shirts up so we can see your waistband and turn around all the way around once.”
They all did this, “Now move together on the driver's side of the vehicles, you two in the front step back to the others. Good, okay I am coming out there for a visual inspection, but my men are going to cover me, so don't try anything.”
A dark haired African American with the bullhorn came around one side of the barricade, along with two other men, both had rifles aimed at the group. The man sat his bullhorn down on the hood of the police cruiser and stepped forward, “Is one of you a cop?”
“I am,” said Stewart.
Stewart gestured at the car, which caused the men with rifles to tense up. “From Denver, that is my squad car.”
“Who are the rest of you?”
Slowly Stewart pointed at each of her companions in turn and said their names.
“How bad is it to the west of here?”
“Denver is not good, not many people left there and they dropped a nuclear bomb on the airport or somewhere close to it. We came through North Platte this morning, no one was there, just zombies. Highway eighty was full of wrecks so we checked the map and headed north to twenty and drove here this morning.”
“Where are you headed?”
“East, towards Iowa, we have some friends there.”
“Okay, okay good. Now I have to check each of you out before I can let you through. We don't have a lot of privacy here. So we’re going to bring you to the local high school where we have set up a staging area to handle refugee processing. My name is Theodore Valence, Sergeant Theodore Valence. The army posted me here to watch traffic through town and they made the rules about who could pass through or not, so keep that in mind during the inspection.”
“We are not zombies.”
“I know that, but we have to check for bites and cuts.”
“We've all been through a lot these past few days Sergeant, I think every one of us is cut up or hurt somehow.”
“Then we will take your temperatures and check you out in other ways, the infections don't take long to manifest themselves, you might have to stay the night, but we won't hold you up longer than that.”
“How are things further east?” Tom asked.
“There is a lot of fighting, but not as bad as you make Denver sound. Iowa seems to be stable. Most of the national guard troops from all the states around it have consolidated into one command and we are organizing to fight off the zombies as they come at us. We are holding them.”
Max let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding.
“Don't look so relieved, part of our organizing is recruiting new troops where ever we find them. From fourteen on up. Only men right now. I will have to talk to my commander and see what he wants to do with you. But only if you check out okay. Let's go.”
The group was brought to the local high school which was being used as a holding center. They were forced to shower in the school facilities and given clean bathrobes to wear while they waited their turn for inspection by local physicians who had been pressed into service and told what to look for by the army. The gym was divided by canvas walls just over six feet high that spanned the entire width of the room, obscuring the far exits. The examiners would yell 'Next' and the soldiers around them gestured to those still waiting to move forward one at a time. Even Riley was to be examined, Seth had her on a leash and the dog was strangely subdued. Through the cloth barrier, they could hear other men and women laughing and talking in low voices on the far side of the gym.
“Think we will pass this thing?” asked Stewart.
“Yeah, it is obvious none of us are sick or infected. Amelia, weren't you with a woman who got bit too?”
“Yeah Max. She looked like she had a bad cold or the flu before she died. Got hot, then cold, then died.”
“Like Sarah, then. So we should be okay.” Max said nervously.
“Next!” rang out an authoritative male voice. The soldier at the curtain opened it up and moved to usher Kenny into the examination area.
Kenny looked at Max with concern on his face, “What do I do?”
“You gotta go with him and do what he says, he is just going to look you over, like at a doctor's office.”
“Oh boy,” muttered Seth.
“I don't like doctors!” Kenny moaned.
“No, you will be fine, really, they are just going to look you over.”
“C'mon please,” said the young soldier, “It will be okay.”
“I don't want to go alone!” wailed Kenny.
A uniformed Doctor appeared in the doorway, “What is the hold up?”
“This young man is nervous,” said the soldier, emphasizing 'young man.'
“Oh?” said the doctor, then he looked closer at Kenny, “Oh. Well, yes, one of you can come in with him and keep him calm then.”
“I'll go!” said Seth.
“No!” yelled Max, Amelia and Stewart all together, causing Riley to let out a growl.
“I will go.” Max said, “If that is okay with you Kenny?”
“Yeah, that would be okay. They won't shot me will they? I don't like shots.”
Max looked at the doctor, who shook his head slightly, “No I don't think they will, we should be fine.
Once inside the examination area the doctor asked Kenny his name and age and took Kenny's temperature and checked his heartbeat and pulse. He then started to examine the young man’s body, carefully going through his hair and looking behind his ears and in his eyebrows. Kenny laughed at that and asked, “Why are you looking all over me like that?”
“For cuts and other wounds. Anywhere the skin is broken could be an infection. I have to make sure you are not sick.”
“Oh, it tickles.”
“I will be more careful. Kenny, I don't want to tickle you. I have to look at you all over. So I need you to take off your robe now.”
Kenny giggled, “No, that would show my bathing suit area, I can't show you that!”
“Kenny I am doctor and I need to make sure you are healthy, haven't you been to the doctor before?”
“Yeah, he saw my butt, he poked it with a shot. I didn't like that.”
“Well, I won't be giving you a shot today, but I will need to see you all over to make sure you’re okay. You can hold your robe over your, ah, bathing suit area until I need to look there.”
“That is pretty thorough doc.” said Max.
“We have no choice, the sickness seems to enter in from the saliva of the...ah, 'zombies' and a bite mark could be anywhere, so we check.”
“What happens if there is an open cut or wound?”
“Then the patient goes into quarantine.”
“For how long?”
“Right now? Until further notice. We have, I think, fifteen people we flagged, over at the county jail.”
“What happens to my kids if I get put in quarantine?” asked Max growing more alarmed.
“They will have to stay with other parents until you are released. Were you cut?”
Max, all modesty, pushed aside lifted his robes and revealed a scabbed over scar running the width of his abdomen.
“That qualifies,” said the doctor, “What happened?”
“I got shot, well grazed really, a week or so ago. It has healed up fast and isn't causing me any trouble right now.”
“Sorry, but you will have to go into quarantine.”
“I don't think I can do that. I have my kids to think of. I got there in time to watch my wife die of this...sickness and I won't leave them again.”
Kenny stood there, naked with his white robe bundled up and pressed into his groin watching Max talk to the doctor. The doctor took a step back from Max, “It isn't my decision, the military sent word down. I just sort people and they take it from there.”
“I won't leave my kids.”
“Guards!” yelled the doctor.
The young soldiers outside the entrance immediately leveled their rifles on the people waiting in line, telling them not to move. In the examining room, Max saw the back wall pulled down behind Kenny and four soldiers leveled rifles at him.
“Yeah doc?” asked one middle-aged soldier with several stripes on his sleeve.
The doctor pointed at Max, “He needs to go to quarantine.”
Kenny twirled around and tried to hide his partial nudity from the soldiers, face growing red. Riley started barking loudly behind the other screen.
“Max? What is going on?” came Stewart's voice.
“They want to separate me from the kids.”
“Sir, you're cut, you could be contaminated, we just have to hold you for a little while until we can clear you,” said the middle-aged soldier calmly.
“I won't be separated from my kids. I went through hell to get back to them once. I won't let it happen again.”
“Sir, you are not going to be separated from them forever, just a short time while we make sure you are okay,” the soldier said in a level, reasonable tone.
“Fine. Put me back on the road with them. Get me out of here. I am not going to the jail.”
The sergeant shook his head slowly, “Now we can't allow that. What if you are infected, what will your kids do then? This is for everyone's own good.”
“Excuse me but aren't we still in the land of the free? Aren't I still a citizen, able to do what I want and go where I please?”
“No.” came the doctor's curt reply, “An executive order has been issued establishing a curfew and martial law.” He pointed to the middle-aged soldier, “The military is in charge of all security issues.”
“Sir look it won't be that bad. Your kids can come and see you during the day, heck if they are cut at all they might be in there with you, right? Let the doc here do his job and we will wait for the group of you to get cleared so we know who to bring where.”
“You have the guns.” Max said pointedly.
“You don't have any idea what we have been through already, how bad things are getting,” said the soldier.
“Funny, I was going to tell you the same thing.”
“The guns are as much for your protection as ours. Please come this way.”
Max reluctantly moved forward and immediately had his hands bound loosely behind him with a plastic strap. The wall was restored to its original condition and Kenny wailed as he was cut off from Max until finally Tom came in to stand with him.
Max was told to sit down on a long bench, which his did, no sooner had his butt hit the wood then he felt a wet spray on the back of his head.
“What the hell?” he yelled, attempting to stand up, only to be forced down by the sergeant.
“Sorry. Hey Ryan, you could have warned him first.” then to Max, “We spray each of you. If you escape, there are 'shoot to kill' orders on anyone with day-glow orange spots on their heads. We are not taking any chances. Remember this is not my idea, I am following the orders of the higher-ups and they have good reason for doing what they are doing.”
“I think the Nazis thought that too.” Max said bitterly, “A dot on my head is just like a star of David on my jacket right?”
“Look, Max isn't it?” Max nodded, “My name is David Rosenstein, so knock off the Nazi talk. This is nothing like the holocaust, nothing. For you to even compare what we are doing to that makes me sick. This is a public health crisis and we have to be able to control the sickness. We've had some trouble already with infected people getting out, turning into one of those things and spreading the disease. You are marked now; if you escape you will be killed, end of story. On a personal level, I don't want that to happen to you. No one is going to beat you, no one is going to throw you into an oven and turn on the gas. You got that? This is for the public’s safety, and for yours.”
In the end Stewart, Tom, Amelia, Erin and Cory were on the bench with Max and all he could do was sit and watch as his kids were led away crying.