Max and Red were crouched in a ditch along highway twenty just outside the town of O'Neill. It was midafternoon on a sunny day in July and Max was sweating profusely in the heat. Red, of course, was fine. He looked over at Max and said, “It isn't the heat, it's the humidity.”
“That doesn't help much. Is she moving again?”
“Yeah, she is Max. I think she is heading this way. I am not going to move the car until I know for sure.” The car Red was speaking about was on the side of the highway where there were a couple of others that the two of them had gotten from nearby farms. They had arranged them to almost block the road, all that was required was to shove the last car into the hole when the time came. Other cars had driven by, however as long as they were able to pass the staged wreck, none of them seemed inclined to stop and clear the road completely.
“Why don't you go take a dip in the river and cool off?”
“I don't want to miss them. Besides the river is more like a stream right now, hardly worth getting all muddy for. Red?”
“How sure are you that my kids will be okay?”
“Max...I know the train is running, the locals were talking about it when I bought a coffee. The whole town is clearing out and one of them said she was glad they were finally moving somewhere safer. They know we are coming. As for your kids...well I presume they are going with everyone else. I think they will be fine, we are holding the zombies west of Lincoln, so the buses should make it through, they will get to the train, after that I can't say. I wasn't keeping track of them, they were lost to me among the other living people. I can recognize you from far away because I memorized the way your colors look, you and that woman of yours. For all I know your kids are already in Iowa. The trains have been running all day. If you don't tell someone important about what is happening, it won't mean anything. We are only waiting for Stewart because she should be able to help you, help us both, I mean. Otherwise, I would just have you drive one of these beaters to Iowa alone.”
“It won't do any good you know. The authorities didn't listen to me here, they won't listen to me in Iowa.”
Red turned to Max, “For your sake, for your kid's sake, hell for everyone's sake, you better make them listen.”
“I want to take Stewart and go after my kids.”
“I figured that. You wouldn't make it if they went down to catch a train they will be gone before you get there. Take highway 20 into Sioux City, tell someone there what is going on and get your kids after that, it will be quicker.”
“You have kids Red?'
The zombie shook his head.
“Then you don't understand.”
“Can you see the number of zombies that are gathering around Iowa Max?”
“You know I can't.”
“Then you don't understand either. Look, the decision is easy, you can go after your kids, you will probably miss them, but you can chase the train all the way to Des Moines, if that is where it is stopping, and get your kids back. If you do that it uses up valuable time, time that the military could be making plans to deal with this by sending someone after the guy in Chicago. So you can get your kids and die with them or you can tell someone who could make a difference and maybe, just maybe you could make a safe haven where you and your kids, eventually will be able to live. That is your call.”
“It is hard Red. I just lost my wife...”
“I lost everything Max, including my own life. I lost the ability to ever have kids of my own, my entire family went to feed Sentry and his men and my reborn brothers and sisters. I lost it all, so don't tell me what is hard.”
Max thought about that for a minute, sweat beaded up and ran into his eyes and he wiped it off with a bandana he had picked up out of one of the cars earlier. Visibly he sagged and nodded, “I am sorry. I just didn't think of it like that. To me it is like...”
“I am a monster? Not human anymore and that I never had any feelings or family or history. That is easy enough for you to think. The curse is I remember everything and I know what I gave up and it hurts. Don't pity me. I am making a difference now and playing the cards I got dealt. You will do what needs to be done, this time you won't fuck it up either. I can't go much further east than this Max, I just can't; the call is too strong. I will do what I can for another couple of days, but after that I am taking my friends and heading back to Colorado, or maybe a bit further North. What is the state above Colorado?”
“Yeah, Wyoming looks pretty empty. We could make something there, Nita, Hugh and I.”
“I take it they are herding the zombie horde along without you?”
“That was the excuse. I don't think Hugh could get much closer without being drawn to Chicago. I was just going to check and see if you were still on board with helping and get you moving again if you were.”
Red cocked his head to one side, as if listening.
“What? Are they coming?”
He nodded slowly and then shook his head too. “Stewart yes, but the horde...”
“Should we shove the car into place?”
“The horde is moving south again, it must have been happening for awhile and I didn't notice it. What the hell are those two doing? Yeah, we better push the car in the way.”
It was mostly Red doing the pushing while Max scrambled into the ditch by the side of the road and hid in the nearby bushes. Max could see the vehicle rolling towards them and was surprised to see it was Stewart's patrol car, there was one person in the driver's seat and one in the back. Red had climbed up on the bumper of the van opposite of where the car was pulling up. The car rolled to a stop and the man inside got on the radio, after a moment he cautiously stepped one foot out of the car onto the road and looked over the road block.
Stewart's voice called out, “This is totally a setup, get the fuck back in the car and get us out of here!”
“Shut up. There are no zombies east of town yet.” the sheriff's deputy pulled out his pistol and stepped away from the car.
“You're gonna die and take me with you, you stupid son of a bitch!” yelled Stewart, who started struggling in the back seat. It appeared to Max that she was handcuffed with her arms in front of her.
Max rustled in the bushes and called out, “Officer! Over here!” which caused the deputy to crouch down and aim his gun over the hood of his car at Max.
“Don't move! You move a muscle and I will shoot you!”
Red moved out from behind the van like a whisper and launched himself at the deputy from behind slamming into him between the shoulder blades. The deputy reflexively pulled the trigger and a bullet whizzed by Max's face. Max flinched a little too late and then laughed and pulled himself up when he saw the man crumple to the ground behind the car.
“Fuck,” said Red, opening the rear door of the car and letting Stewart out.
She looked down at the ground, “Fuck.”
“What?” Max asked clambering through the tall grass of the ditch to the road.
“Dead. I didn't mean to hit him that hard. We had a plan.”
“A plan that got you a nice snack for rescuing me?” asked Stewart.
“We had to rescue you.”
“Hello? Rescue me? He is the law! I was in lawful custody. You can't rescue me from the laws of the land. As fucked up as they may be right now. He wasn't some criminal that needed killing, he was one of the 'good guys'!”
“I am sorry. Max?”
“What?” asked Max looking the deputy over. The man's head lolled at an angle a living person could never achieve.
“You need to get going. Time is of the essence. And I got to get back to Hugh and Nita. Get his gear and get moving. Don't get captured this time; I can't come get you again. We’re too close to the person calling me east, I can barely resist it from here..”
“I don't think we want your help Red, not if it means killing people,” said Stewart.
Red ignored her and spoke to Max again. “Remember, you've got to get to Chicago and put a stop to this. You need to go.” Lifting the deputy's body Red pulled off his belt and handed it to Stewart, who also bent over and picked up the pistol. She hefted it and then brought the barrel level to Red's head.
“Stewart! No!” Max said. Red seemed unconcerned, he just held the body at arms length and stared at the woman.
“You should not have killed him.”
Red didn't say anything, he just stood looking at her, then, very slowly he leaned in until the barrel of the gun was up against his unblinking left eye.
“Stewart...he is slowing the others down, he is trying to help us.”
“Goddamn it!” Stewart said disgustedly, dropping the gun to her side, “Why are you defending him Max? They killed your wife!”
“Another one killed my wife. Ultimately it was this Doctor in Florida who killed my wife, not Red. He is trying to keep us alive.”
Red hefted the body over his shoulder and started trudging down the road, calling out behind him, “Goodbye Max, good luck. I am glad you didn't shoot me Stewart.”
Stewart watched him for a second, then Max called her to come help him push the car out of the way so they could get moving. Stewart hopped into her car and drove it through the opening, then insisted that they push the car back and flatten two of its tires by letting the air out of them.
“Gary was calling for help, he just didn't want to wait until they arrived.” Even now Max could see a set of flashing lights coming towards them in the distance from O'Neill. He and Stewart got into her cruiser and she took off like a bat out of hell.
“They didn't send Tom or Amelia.” Max said.
Stewart nodded, “Or Cory or Erin either. Astute.”
“Why you?” Max asked.
“Why you?” Stewart countered.
“Because I screwed up. I let them know I knew they were moving the kids this morning and then I started slamming my way through the safety glass to get out of the cell.”
“I got the drop on the woman deputy. To be fair she was retired and out of shape, but when I got Amelia and Erin into the office with me and knocked down another guard, well, it was on video. They made me watch it, it was grainy and low quality, but I blurred Max. Blurred. The film showed Amelia, Erin and the deputy just fine, but I was just a blur when I hit him. Unlike our dead friend back there, I didn't kill my target.”
“So how did they catch you?”
“You went through the office; you have to be buzzed out of it. Unlike you, I seem to be faster, but not that much stronger. I couldn't get the door open. They came in with guns, busted me down with handcuffs and then gave me another exam. How'd you get the paint off your head?”
“Oh? Yeah, Red and I found some paint thinner in the garage where we swiped one of the cars for the roadblock, he scrubbed me down good with it. I got a stocking cap if you want it.” said Max pulling the hat from his pants pocket. Stewart looked at it and tossed it up on the dash, then turned the air conditioning up higher.
“Look we will find you some clothes and get the paint off of you, we need to do that, in case that is standard procedure for injured people.”
Stewart kept driving, after a mile or so she asked, “Where are your kids Max?”
“They took them to Lincoln to put them on a train east towards Des Moines Red said they might be in Iowa already.”
“You can't sense them?”
“It is too far. I can't go more than a mile or so if I want to be able to pick out individuals. I can sense things farther than that. Red has more distance.”
“He has killed more living than you have undead. If that is the way these things work. Why can't I do that?”
“Why can't I move as fast as you?”
“I don't know. Are the others going to be okay?”
“They will survive.”
“Do you think we will see them again?”
Stewart thought about it for a moment, then asked, “Are you going to Chicago to find the guy responsible for calling all the zombies towards us?”
“I think I have to.”
“Then I don't think we will see them again. No.”
“Yes. We, our stupidity is like a multiplier, alone we are equal to one plus one stupidity. But put us together and we are like eight stupidity. We can't let our talent for misadventure go to waste.”
Max smiled and sat back in the passenger seat. His smile faded when Stewart asked, “What about your kids Max?”
“I got a friend in Iowa, a good guy, I will have to leave them there. I don't want to, but can you see any other way?”
“Not unless we run into someone else who can do what you do. That’s okay I’ll cover your ass -- I have been since I found you pissing your pants at the MAC Co. building in Denver.”
“I wasn't pissing my pants!” Max protested.
“Near enough. You know I almost shot you?” Max shook his head, “You were covered in blood and looked like one of them, in a way, you owe me your life for not shooting you. I could have gone either way.”
“Like I've never saved your life before or something.”
“In my house when you got hit with the table leg by...uh, Veronica? I thought you were dead and drove the zombies out the back door.”
“Max! That does not count! We were only there because of you! That'd be like me making you grab onto a rope and dangling you over the edge of a building, then pulling you up and saying 'I just saved your life!' Lame.”
“You know I sort of miss Steve,” said Max, mentioning the man who had made the trek with them to his house in the suburbs only to be killed in Max's backyard by a shotgun blast.
“He was an asshole. But he did grow on me. He died well. I mean if you have to go, it seems to me you could find a worse way than fighting for your friends or the ones you love.”
“Yeah...I guess you're right.” Max leaned over and gave Stewart a chaste kiss on the cheek.
“What was that for?”
“I am glad you are here.”
Up ahead the road split, they could go south on highway 275 or continue east on highway 20. To Stewart's unasked question Max said, “Head east.” And they did.