Stewart turned the car sharply, avoiding the wreckage ahead of her as she tried to get them closer to the burning city ahead of them. There seemed to be numerous huge fires in Sioux City South on the Nebraska side of the state line. The road had been clear almost the entire way, the worst thing the two of them had to contend with was occasionally having to drive on the shoulder as they made their way east. Now it looked like their luck had changed. The smoke was not so thick that it was interfering with their ability to navigate yet, but they could smell it and they could see a haze near the ground ahead of them.
“It looks like the road will go a little south of where stuff is burning.” Max said.
“I think so, yeah, what does our map look like?”
“Oh let me see...nothing, our map looks like nothing!” Max said grating his teeth together. They had stopped at a farm house well off the beaten path to let Stewart wash up and get different clothing on. Max had taken the opportunity to get cleaned up as well and had brought their map in to look at while Stewart was showering. When they left, Max had forgotten the map on the kitchen table. “We could have stopped and picked up a new one at that last gas station.”
“It doesn't matter, we know we were going to follow twenty until it turned into highway 129, then take that over the river to Iowa. Whoa! Would you look at that!” Stewart said pointing up at the sky ahead of them. A helicopter gunship was hovering almost directly in front of them, perhaps a mile ahead, smoke was pouring out of some sort of machine gun mounted on one side of the thing. From here, even with the car sealed shut, they could hear the distant drone of automatic gunfire.
“Ah, Stewart, that doesn't look good.”
“No shit? Maybe we better stop for a map. I don't think we can go much further on highway twenty.” Ahead of them a ragged soldier ran up the side of the road to the shoulder, waving his arms to get their attention. “Zombie!” screamed Stewart, aiming the car towards it and stepping on the gas.
“It might not be....Stewart! It might just be a guy who needs help!” at the last possible second the man jumped back and Stewart swerved right to avoid him. Max got a good look at the guy and turned to her and yelled, “Stop!” at the top of his lungs. Stewart, surprised, slammed on her brakes, the car started to slide sideways and she let off enough to straighten out, muttering something about “too cheap to have cars with anti-lock brakes” under her breath.
Stewart turned to Max to find out just what was so important to stop for, she didn't see any obstacles in the road ahead or any hordes scrambling out of the ditch to attack them either. Max, however slipped off his seat belt and jumped out of the car without a word to her. The next time she saw him was in the rear view mirror, running towards the zombie with his pistol out, but pointed down towards the ground. She unbuckled herself, pulled out the shotgun and followed him to the soldier. When she was ten steps away, she watched Max point his gun at a stalwart looking man a few years older than he was. The two were talking and the older man hadn't raised his rifle towards Max, but he hadn't put it down either.
Max turned back towards her and yelled, “He is alive! He isn't one of them! Stewart he is alive!” then he rushed to the man and embraced him like a long lost brother. The two men hugged for few seconds, then a few seconds more, tears rolled down their cheeks.
Stewart kept her gun at waist height and cleared her throat loudly, “Excuse me, Max. I hate to interrupt this love scene, but who in the hell is this guy?”
They parted looking a little abashed and Max said, “This is the guy I was telling you about, Bill. Bill this is Stewart, she has been with me since this started.”
Bill put his hand out towards Stewart, she looked at Max and asked, “You're sure he is okay? I mean really okay, not just because you want him to be?”
Max turned to look Bill over, then back at Stewart, “He is alive, I don't think he is infected, he seems healthy.” Then to Bill, “I can't believe it is you! What the hell are you doing here? What is going on? How is Trish? Man it looks like you've lost a few pounds too.”
“Whoa, whoa, hold up there a bit!” Stewart shook his hand and smiled at him while he was talking. “So tell me how you got here? Where are Sarah and the kids.”
Max's face fell and he looked at the ground, prompting Bill to say, “Oh Max! Max no! I am sorry man. So sorry! We heard…ah, we heard Denver was a madhouse, like Chicago. It was nuked wasn't it?”
Nodding Max said, “It wasn't....good. Sarah was bit right before I got home, because of me actually some of the smart ones they...”
Cutting him off Stewart said, “Wait. Hold it right there. This is not the place or time to talk about this. Bill can you come with us or do you have men with you?”
“No, I don't have any men with me. I don't know if I can go with you. Something has happened to me. Something I can't explain away and I...I am not sure if I am human anymore.”
Max smiled at his friend, “I wouldn't worry about that Bill. You shouldn't worry about that at all! C'mon Stewart lets go back to that gas station and get that map we were talking about before we saw Bill.”
Stewart grinned at Max, “Fine, I am driving. And you two can start talking.”
The helicopter behind them turned on its axis and started towards them briefly, then dipped and veered off to the north along the river, the sounds of small arms fire was cut off as they sealed themselves into the car.
Stewart didn't bother crossing the median to get into the 'correct' lane, she just turned the car around and headed back to the last exit they had passed. There were a slew of stations to choose from, but Stewart pulled up to the first one they came to. The electricity was still working, which came as a surprise to all three of them. Despite what Stewart had said Max and Bill did little other than fawn over each other on the way back to the exit. Stopping by the pump Stewart said, “Max can you and Bill go get this thing turned on? I'm gonna top off the tank while we are here.”
“Yeah, we can do that.”
“Hey, grab us something decent to eat too, if anything looks edible anyway. No 'food bars' though I am sick of those.”
“Will do. C'mon Bill.”
“Oh and Max, tell Bill our story, I want to hear his too, but I think you can safely give him ours without me being around. Remember to tell him how many times I've saved your life.”
“Yeah, sure, Stewart I’ll do that,” said Max as he and Bill approached the front door of the gas station.
“On second thought I think I would rather be there when you tell him!” she called just as they went inside.
Max immediately went behind the counter and started looking for the switch to turn the pump on.
“Shouldn't we check for zombies first?” asked Bill.
“There aren't any here, they are all east of us, this place is deserted.”
“You can't know that for sure.” Bill ventured, looking around nervously.
“Bill, you remember you said you might not be able to go back? I think I know what you are going through. I have a sense of these things. I know if there are zombies around. I can sense them about a mile or two away, further if I concentrate. I can see people too. This place is empty; no threats to us.”
Slowly Bill lowered his rifle barrel down, but he didn't seem to relax.
“Here we are,” said Max as he pressed a blinking button, outside Stewart gave him a thumbs up as the gas started to fill the tank.
“Max, uh, what else can you do?”
“Well, I seem to be stronger and tougher, I can punch through safety glass...well not in one punch, but I can get through it eventually. What is going on with you?”
Bill shifted his feet nervously and looked at the floor, “I, uh...”
Stewart came through the door like a tornado, Bill turned and raised the gun in a flash, “Just me partner, good reflexes though. Damn good reflexes. It only took two gallons. Can you believe the price of gas these days? Unbelievable!”
Lowering his rifle, Bill stepped back and said, “I am sorry. It's just that I am a little jumpy after the last few days.”
“No apology needed. Any food Max? Or are you just working here these days?” she asked. Max was still behind the counter, looking for all the world like a store clerk.
“ My days of clerking are long over. Let's go see what they got to eat, huh?”
The three of them headed over to the cooler section and started looking at the food through the glass. Stewart opened the door and pulled out a burrito that had the words “La Bomba” on it in a southwestern font. Turning it over she looked at the expiration date. “What is today?”
Both men shook their heads and Max said, “They took my cell phone, even though it didn't work to make calls, so I can't tell you the date or time or anything.”
“Yeah, me too, what about you Bill?”
“The military guys took all of our cell phones, mine still worked, when I had it two weeks ago.”
“God we are pathetic, we can't even keep track of the date without some gadget to tell us!” Stewart took the burrito and went over to a microwave, she opened one end and sniffed the contents before putting it inside and heating it up.
“Uh, do you think you should eat that? It might be expired.”
“Max, I am not touching those sandwiches, they are almost green, and I am not eating another power bar unless I have to. You don't have to eat the burrito, so relax. Hey Bill? Has Max always been this way?”
“Mostly, as a kid he was a finicky eater.”
“Like you weren't. One summer you lived on ice cream and peanut butter sandwiches with plain potato chips.”
Bill nodded, “Well different flavors of ice cream.”
“Mostly vanilla. Oh and popcorn you ate a lot of popcorn at the pool.”
“What is wrong with popcorn?” asked Bill
“ I am officially sorry I asked. So yes then; Max has always been this way.” said Stewart.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I find something and I stick with it. Eating expired food is nasty.” Max stopped and stared at Bill, a wide grin lighting up his face, “Damn brother, but it is good to see you!”
Bill looked up from where he was staring at the burritos, “Yeah, you are about the last person I expected to see here. I was just trying to warn you off, so you wouldn't drive into a horde of zombies. I didn't know it was you in the car. Do we have time to catch up real quick?”
Max looked over to Stewart, who said, “We should keep moving if we want to get to Des Moines before the train arrives."
"What for?" asked Bill.
"The kids are on it, they separated us from the kids in O'Neil and put them on the train to Des Moines this morning."
“Your kids are alive?!” yelled Bill, “I thought they were dead!”
“No, I made it to them in time. I just couldn't save Sarah.”
“Well, fuck it,” said Stewart, “We better get our stories out now, you two can catch up while I look the maps over. Stick to the story Max, if I hear you deviating I will chime in.”
Max and Bill chose food, both opting for granola and candy bars along with highly caffeinated drinks and then leaned up against the counter near the back of the store. Despite Stewart saying to keep it short she unfolded a map and participated as Max gave Bill a short synopsis of what they had been through since the zombie outbreak. It seemed like forever since Max had been sitting at his desk typing Bill an email, it was hard for all of them to believe it had only been about three weeks. Bill caught them up on what he had been doing since the outbreak too, however when he got to the part about the bridge collapsing his story turned a little vague.
“Hold up there Bill, you can't just say 'and the bridge collapsed and I have been cut off for the last four days' and leave it at that. A lot happens in four days. And you have been on the zombie side of the river the entire time.” said Stewart, “How have you been living? What happened and why couldn't you just swim across the river to safety?”
Slowly the man nodded and said, “Fair enough, I guess. Well, when the bridge started to fall I managed to grab hold of this bar and swing myself down and further into the river. I hit deeper water, but I felt like I broke one of my legs anyway. It took about three seconds for me to realize this wasn't my biggest problem because the bridge started to come down on me. I tried to dive underwater and swim downstream, but something hit me on the head hard enough to daze me. I remember choking and sucking in dirty water, then choking some more. I felt like I was drowning, heck, I probably was. When I finally got into daylight, I was about a half mile downstream, what was left of the bridge was barely visible around the curve of the river and I was still closer to the wrong riverbank. I almost yelled then, hell my leg was broken, I was choking on dirty river water and I was in pain. Then I caught sight of the zombies on the west side of the bank. They were moving north, towards where the bridge had been. They were not wandering, they were moving fast and with a purpose.”
“I clamped down on the pain and decided to swim the river to get back to my troops. I couldn't make it, I had too much pain in my leg and I kept going underwater when I tried to actively swim. So I decided to drift further downstream, moving just a little to try and get me closer to the far bank. There were a lot of zombies on the west side, I kept an eye on them and in a moment, as I watched, they all stopped and did an about face. Just like that, they turned and headed south. No words, no hand signals, one minute they were all moving quickly north, the next they turned and headed south. It freaked me out, like a bad horror movie where the monsters are connected together like some sort of hive mind.”
“So then what?” asked Max.
“I drifted under the highway twenty bridge and I could probably have gotten help then, but right when I was getting ready to yell the air force made another bombing run. I thought I was dead for certain, but I guess those boys know their stuff, none of the bombs dropped into the drink or onto the bridge. A lot of explosions went off just north of the bridge and the entire area was covered in dense dust that blew over the river and cut me off from everyone else. I hated breathing that stuff, it left a very bad taste in my mouth and I am sure it was full of something toxic. I suppose I might get cancer in ten years if I live through this. Anyway the river started curving west and I was drifting in close to that shore, close enough that I could grab the overhanging trees and branches. After a mile or so I was finally able to hold onto one of the damned things and pull myself close to the river bank, but not out of the water.”
“The problem was I couldn't see very far up the bank. I knew there was a path running along the side of the river that the zombies had been on, but I couldn't see it from where I was at, so I didn't know if any of them were there. I was as quiet as I could be, but the river was running pretty fast where I was at and I couldn't hear anything over the flowing water. I must have held on there for an hour before I decided to let go. I thought it through and figured there had to be a stream or some other waterway that came into the river eventually and if I could stay close enough to shore I should be able to pull myself up into an area where I could see my surroundings better.”
“You see I still wanted to live. And I really wanted to kill zombies. I think Max...” Bill broke into tears, and started sobbing.
Max leaned over and put his arm around his friend, “What Bill? What is it? You're with us now, together we will be fine. Stewart has bailed my ass out of the fire many times.”
Bill calmed down a little and wiped his arm across his eyes, “It isn't that. I don't worry about me. It is John, he never came back from when I sent him after the other squad. I was hanging on that branch and decided I didn't want to go back. How could I face Trish? Tell her I sent my son to his death? That he was eaten alive?” Bill cried again, but pulled himself together faster this time, Max left his arm around his friend and they sat quietly while he composed himself to go on. “So I let go. Funny thing though, I didn't get out at a stream, I drifted into a more populated area and people had docks out. The first one I got to had a ladder and on the south side. It wasn't a permanent dock, but a floating one that can be pulled in during the winter. There weren't any boats on it or I might have just crossed the river, even though I had decided not to go back. I thought it would be better for Trish to think John and I had died as heroes instead of me sending him off to die alone. I wanted revenge too, I admit it, I was angry and not thinking right. My leg was still hurting and I couldn't climb up the ladder, if I pulled up out of the water it was agony, even if I didn't put any weight on it. So I followed the dock to shore and pull myself half out of the water next to it. Looking at the dock, I saw that it was supported by giant plastic floats and that I could probably crawl up between them onto shore without being seen. I eased back further into the water and then came back to shore between the floats. I wasn't the only one who had discovered this secret little hollow under the dock, some kids had made it into a little clubhouse, there were towels on the sandy dirt, a bag of opened chips, six juice boxes, some matches with a candle and a flashlight. I was able to get myself all the way out of the water and had just sat myself up against a cement pillar that the dock was attached to when two of them walked onto the dock above me.”
“I knew they were zombies because they were talking about me. One said he had seen me floating down the river, the other said he was crazy and didn't like being out in the open. Both of them went out onto the dock and I think they looked out into the river for me, when they didn't see anything they came back slowly and one spotted the area where I had half come ashore before. He said that was proof that there was human in the river and jumped down on the bank to look over the area. I was sitting stock still, praying he wouldn't see me, inevitably his eyes lifted and locked with mine. The one on the dock asked if he saw anything and as the one on shore started to answer the side of his head blew out onto the sandy grass beside him. The other one jumped off and started running and I heard another shot ring out. It was a sniper, of course, probably a for real army sniper not some guy with a twenty-two because the zombie's head was...well missing for the most part. I knew we had a few sniper teams, but hadn't realized there were any around Sioux City. I owe whoever it was my life, because there was no way I could have defended myself right then. I mean what could I have done? Thrown a juice box at it? I devoured the stale chips and drank four of the juice boxes and then put my head down on a rolled up towel and fell asleep. There was no rush, I wasn't going back anyway.”
“Jesus Bill, what about Trish and the other kids? They still need you.”
“I know Max; I told you I wasn't thinking right.” Bill paused to take a long drink from his soda pop.
“Then what? Where'd you get the rifle?” asked Stewart.
“When I woke up the sun was in the east, low to the horizon. I had slept for almost twenty-four hours. Sometime during the night I had rolled off of the towels and draped them on top of me for covers, everything was damp. My leg didn't hurt nearly so much either, it felt tender, more like a strain than a break. I checked myself over and found that I wasn't nearly as badly banged up as I had thought, I still had a scab on my head from where I got hit with the concrete from the bridge, but otherwise I felt good enough to find better shelter. First I drank the other two juice boxes and took a long piss in the river. My clothing was all soggy and smelled horrible, like I had been sweating all night. I eased back into the river and got out on the upstream side, only getting my pants wet in the process, it was a lot chillier once I was out of my hidey-hole and the cool morning air was causing me to shiver. I had tucked the matches and candle into my shirt pockets, along with the flashlight. I had absolutely nothing useful with me otherwise, sure I had about twenty loose rounds of ammo for my army rifle, but no gun to fire it out of. The grenades I had on my belt were gone as was my belt knife. Oh, I still had my army issue identification card, which isn't real useful for braining zombies either.”
“On the river bank I looked up at the house in front of me, it was set well back from the shore up a steep incline. The grass between me and the house was cut short and covered with morning dew. My paranoia was running pretty high because of how the zombie had seen where I came ashore the day before. I went back under the dock and climbed up the ladder instead of going ashore where I would leave tracks. My leg was aching but held my weight. I got up on the dock and took the stairs and sidewalk up to the back door of the house so I wouldn't leave a trail through the dew either. There was one body lying on the shore of the river, the other one must have gotten away. The patio door had been broken out from the inside, there was broken glass all over outside, some with blood on it.”
“I moved the blinds to one side of the doorway and looked into the house, it looked deserted, but I couldn't tell for sure, I mean I could only see the kitchen and dining room. The place was a mess, the table and chairs were broken apart all over the floor, there was a wooden table leg sticking out of the wall too. I stepped in and grabbed that leg, it would have to do as a club until I found a better weapon. The place was two stories but didn't have a basement. I was pretty sure I would hear someone if they were moving around upstairs, and so far I hadn't heard a thing. I went into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge, it was well stocked with food, but it had been awhile since the outbreak and some of it was nasty looking. I pulled out everything that still looked okay to eat, fruits, vegetables, some packaged lunch meat, cheese, I was starving. The cupboard held some moldy bread, but there were crackers that still looked okay so I made myself a big plateful of the stuff. I had just turned back to look in the refrigerator for some mustard, when a voice called out softly behind me.”
“It was a raspy, whispering voice and it said, 'Here doggie-doggie! Feeding time at the old bowl, is it?' I shut the door, spun around and grabbed the table leg off of the counter. It was a zombie, I couldn't tell if it was the one from the day before, but the next thing it said confirmed it. 'I guess old Alan was right, there was some guy floating down the river after all. Where you been hiding little doggie?'”
“This guy was middle aged, he had black hair cut short, kind of like 'Mo' off the three stooges, normally a bad looking cut, but it suited him. He was not wearing a shirt but had a bloodstained towel hanging over one shoulder and dried blood smeared down his right side into the waistband of his track shorts. His legs stood out, he had a tattoo on his left thigh, some sort of bird and he had shaved his legs. He was wearing flip flops, blue ones, and he was just standing there looking at me. I was starving and scared and now the adrenaline started coursing through my body. The zombie took a step forward and spoke again, 'Fight or don't fight, either way, at the end of the day you will be following me out of here.' I raised my free hand towards him and said, 'Wait up a minute buddy' and the zombie actually paused while I stuffed three of the cracker and cheese stacks into my mouth from off of the plate. Those crackers had to be the best thing I had ever tasted. He stood there looking amused while I crunched them down and told me he would make it easy on me, 'cause I seemed like a nice guy. That kind of made me mad, he would make it easy on me because I was nice?”
“I had found some Gatorade in the fridge and washed the cracker's down with it, then nodded to him and said, 'Thanks. I will try and make it easy on you too, you don't seem so bad yourself.' I was still quivering in my boots, this was the first conversation I had had with a zombie and I didn't like the way it had been going. He laughed at me and asked 'You wanna say any prayers or anything before I bring you over onto my side of life?' I shook my head and gestured him to get on with it. He smiled and rushed me, just that quick. I fell back and stumbled as my hurt leg rolled beneath me. That fall probably saved my life; the zombie bum rushed right into the wall, he had gotten tripped on me as I fell. His head hit right where the table leg had been and disappeared through the wall. I didn't get up, I rolled onto my stomach and swung my club into his ankle, his leg gave out and he screamed as he titled sideways, but his goddamned head Max! He couldn't pull it out of the wall! I think it was caught up on the lower edge of the drywall, he started smashing the wall with his hands and I used the time to stand up. The zombie finally pulled his head out of the wall filling the room with a dusty cloud of chalky drywall pieces. And that is when I gave him an overhand, two fist-ed blow to the top of his head with the table leg, this time the leg and his head broke.”
“He fell straight down with the force of the blow, but he wasn't finished. I am sure I broke his skull, but I guess I didn't do enough damage to his brain. Oh, I had hurt him bad all right, he was only mumbling incoherently now, the same word over and over - 'mommy-mommy-mommy' as I looked for something else to finish him off with. The chair legs were too narrow, but I broke a couple of them across his head anyway. I couldn't find any other table legs either, after the fight I noticed how they were all missing. Finally, I got a butcher knife from the kitchen counter and stuck it through the weak spot in the thing's head. Once it was truly dead, I stood up and went back to looking for the mustard. It is amazing how quickly you get used to things. I mean here I was scrounging for food, then the next minute I was fighting for my life, then I was back looking for stuff to make my food taste better.”
“What'd you do after that?” asked Max.
“I finished eating, I even rummaged through the cupboards and downed a coupled cans of chili cold, along with the rest of the crackers. By the time I was done I felt bloated and ready to sleep again, but by then I realized I had better secure my surroundings first. Of course, I was hoping for a bed to lay down in too.”
“I left the kitchen and found a blood trail leading up the stairs, I didn't think it was from the guy I killed, his blood was more black colored and this looked older. I needed a weapon too, something heavy to bash anything I found, but there wasn't a baseball bat or hockey stick or even a fire poker on the ground floor. There was a bedroom with a large bed in it, I thought about just laying down after locking the doors, but then I heard a quiet thump from upstairs. I wasn't going to leave a zombie over my head to burst in on me, it was probably a stupid slow zombie, but still I needed to check it out. I grabbed another kitchen knife from the counter and headed upstairs. There were five closed doors in the hallway there, but the blood trail was crystal clear; it ended at a door halfway down the hall.”
“I decided to check the other doors first, being as quiet as a 41-year-old guy could. I was hoping to find a sports storage room filled with baseball bats or better, some survivalist's arsenal, but I only found a linen closet, a den and two bedrooms. By the process of elimination that meant the zombie was in the bathroom, it doesn't take a genius to figure out you don't have a linen closet on the second floor unless there is a bathroom there too. I hadn't found any weapons and was getting ready to turn the doorknob when a thought occurred to me and I stopped. I went back to the bedroom closet to check out what the hangers were hanging from. The closets were pretty small, but the post holding up the hanger was a good solid piece of round hardwood. I ditched the clothing and pulled the wood off of the brackets it was resting on. The thing was two feet long and felt good in my hands. I tucked the knife into my belt and went back and opened the bathroom door, ready to do some serious head smashing.”
“The bathroom floor was covered in dried blood that ended at the shower curtain, which, of course, was pulled closed. Another thump sounded from the tub and I stepped in and prodded the curtain with my club. Nothing happened, so I eased one end of my stick between the wall and the curtain then slowly pulled it back far enough so I could see. The zombie wasn't standing up, it was laying in the tub. It had been a woman once, maybe in her thirties and something had been eating on her, she was a bloody mess. Everything from her hips on down were missing, not gnawed up; missing completely. One arm was also gone and the other was cut or torn off at the elbow. Her face was the worst, she had no eyes or nose, just bite marks from where they had been eaten out of her head, the skin around her mouth was gone as well, leaving an exposed numb of a tongue that was frantically bobbing in and out between her crooked white teeth. She couldn't see me. I mean there is no way, she had no eyes, no senses left really, even her ears were gone. Still as I stood there looking down on her she started squirming frantically, like a spider trying to crawl up the side of a porcelain tub, she would wiggle her way up a few inches, then slide back down. I have seen a lot of horrible things in the past couple of weeks, but this was the worst so far. I dropped my stick and ran out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind me while wondering who was screaming 'Oh my God!' so loud. It turns out it was me, I had to put my hands over my mouth to make it stop. I turned and faced the bathroom door then slid to the floor and rested my back against the linen closet. After a while I seemed to get a little better, I wasn't screaming anymore, and I could move. I crawled into the bedroom I hadn't stolen the hanger rod from and shut the door behind me.”
“I knew two things right then, first: I was not going to be staying in that house any longer, and second: I wasn't going to get my club from the bathroom. I forced myself to get up and dismantle the rod from the closet and then slowly cracked open the bedroom door. The bathroom door was still closed, but I thought I heard a thump from inside, I hurried by it and took the stairs three at a time, which probably saved my life. I was so busy looking over my shoulder that I didn't see the zombie coming up the stairs. It was a…what did you call it? A 'super zombie,' another smart one and the first I knew about it was when I ran into it and we were tumbling down the stairway into the living room. I ended up on top of him and fortunately I had not broken my neck, but I did break something in him. His arms seemed to be working okay, at least he was trying to hold onto me, but he wasn't kicking or anything, just twitching around with his legs. I rolled away from him and recovered my hanger rod, which had been wrenched from my hand in the collision. I broke the things arms with three blows and then spent a few minutes bashing its head in.”
“I probably hit it more than I needed to, but I was upset, it had been a traumatic morning. When I finally stopped I was splattered with blood and had broken yet another club. I stood up and looked at my victim, he had been a soldier, but I didn't recognize him. His unit insignia wasn't one I was familiar with either, but he had a pistol on his belt and bars on his shoulder, which means he was an officer. I picked up the pistol and checked it out. No ammo. And none in his pockets either. Any thoughts I had that I might have killed a living guy and not a zombie were dispelled by the ends of his blood stained sleeves, both arms had blood scabs on them and one hand was missing three fingers and oozing the blood of the undead. I kept the pistol, I figured I might find bullets for it and went and got another club from the downstairs closet, in fact, I raided both closets and got two of them. At the rate, I was using clubs up I would need them. If I had been thinking I might have figured out that the guy had somehow seen me through the walls of the house right then, but I didn't make that connection until later.”
“I went to the next house over, it was locked up front and back, none of the windows were open either. I couldn't find any obvious fake rocks hiding a key or anything so I just moved to the next house. I found a fake rock in the back yard of that house that had a key hidden inside it. The key let me into the door on the side of the garage and in there I found the key to the house hidden on the top of the trim over the doorway. I locked everything behind me and made sure the place was empty before raiding the kitchen. I wasn't hungry, but I thought I should get a bag of stuff to take with me when I left. I made up two bags, one I left in the fridge to grab when I walked out the door and the other I brought with me upstairs and put beside the bed. I took a quick shower, washed and wrung out my uniform and went into the bedroom. I opened the window a bit and a breeze blew in, so I rigged up my clothes on a hanger in front of it. I didn't see any zombies on the street outside, but there were a lot of trees in the way so I couldn't see much. I then pushed every piece of furniture up against the door and piled a lot of the stuff from the closet on there as well. This house's closet was filled with the wire shelving crap, like I have in my place. Tucked into one corner of the closet was this little plunker.” Bill patted the rifle he was holding, “and there was a brick of bullets to go with it.”
“A brick?” asked Max.
“Yeah, like a case, ten boxes of fifty bullets each, five hundred shots. A twenty two is still a gun, even if it is about the smallest caliber out there, anyway it’s better than a closet rod any day of the week. At longer range, this rifle doesn't do shit, but closeup, like twenty feet or so, it works pretty well. And it’s a semi-automatic with a ten round magazine, so I can afford to take a few shots if I need to. It won't get me out of a crowd, so I have to be careful never to get mobbed. Anyway, I felt a lot better after finding the rifle and lay down on the bed to get a nap in while my clothing air dried a little. I kept thinking of that woman though, laying in that tub, never getting out. How long will she be there? Days? Months? Years? How long will they last? I fell asleep trying to find an answer to that question, but I never found it. The last three days have pretty much gone the same, I run around looking for a safe place to hide in during the day and hunker down at night.”
“Where did you sleep?”
“After that first nap on the second floor of the house, well, I got woke up by zombies breaking in the front door. After that I figured out these things have heat vision or something, they can see me right through the walls, so now I stick to basements. The last two nights I have slept as low as I can get, that seems to work better.”
“What were you doing up here by the highway?” asked Stewart.
“I thought I would see if I could get across, but I've been that way and there are way too many of them, I can always swim across if I have to. Before I saw you, I thought I would keep heading north and see if I could...” Bill stopped talking and put his head down into his hand.
“Find John?” Max asked softly.
Bill nodded glumly and wiped his arm across his eyes.
“Are you sure he...that he didn't make it? Your men could think the same thing about you and they would be wrong.”
“I don't know Max, I know John, he is a good kid, but he, well he isn't much of a fighter. Or wasn't before all of this.”
“I think we should cross over and see if we can find him first. See if he came in over the last few days. Is the army checking people as they go across?”
“Yes. We strip them and check them, anyone with bites or wounds has to be detained.” answered Bill.
“Then we have a problem, Stewart and I.” Max went on to explain about their various wounds, going so far as to lift up his shirt to expose the almost completely healed cut across his stomach where the bullet had hit him less than a week ago.
“That happened a week ago?” Bill asked skeptically.
“Well, nine days ago, yeah. I told you some weird things have been happening. It happened to you too.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, how sure were you that you busted your leg when you fell off the bridge?”
Bill nodded, “As sure as the sun rises in the east. I see your point, I am walking around on it now without much pain and it has only been three days. That is fast, compared to” Bill gestured at Max's exposed wound, “that. Why am I healing faster than you?”
“HellifIknow. It affects people differently. Stewart can move like a cat, fast reflexes and, I think heal faster too. Nothing like you, if your leg healed up in a couple of days. Have you noticed anything else?”
“Not really, well, maybe. The dark doesn't bother me so much now, it is like I can see really well with just a little bit of light. I thought I was just used to the dark, but when I think back to the past, I dunno Max, it could be better. And this is from killing the zombies?”
“The fast zombies.” Stewart clarified. Looking over the cell phones behind the counter, she chose one and took it out of the packaging while the men watched. Plugging it in, she said, “Well it can't hurt, maybe there will be coverage. The place has power, so maybe the towers are still working.”
The men also picked out cell phones and plugged them in. These were inexpensive models, designed to be used for the short term with prepaid phone cards, which the station also sold.
“We gotta activate these somehow don't we?” Max asked, holding up a bundle of the cards.
“Yeah, I think so. Go for it, I hope you can scan them. If the worker signed out before he left, we might not be able to activate the cards for use.” Stewart said.
Max approached the cash register, which was a touch screen with a scanner on the counter. He held the first card up to the scanner and the red laser hit the bar code, turning the terminal on. To his surprise it prompted him to run the card through the slot in the keyboard, and asked if he wished to authorize the card, which he did. Stewart handed him a dozen more cards priced in the fifty dollar range. After handing her the first one, she went back to where her phone was plugged in and entered the code from the card onto it.
“I got a signal!” she said after a moment, “Who do we want to call?”
“Home.” Bill said, she handed the phone to him and he dialed in his home number. To his surprise Trisha did not answer. Instead, the phone was picked up by someone completely outside his family.
“Can I help you sir?” came a crisp militant voice.
“Uh, yeah, I just got phone coverage, I can't believe I got someone! Who is this?”
“Sir your calls are being routed through South Sioux City, in Nebraska, is this your location?”
“Yes! Yes! I need to get out of here, do you know somewhere that is safe?”
“Sir, are you close to highway 129? Or can you get there?”
“I am on highway 20 now! It turns into 129. What do I do? Is the way clear?”
“How many are in your party?”
Bill looked at Stewart and Max, who were both following his side of the conversation intently, “Uh, I am alone. Just me, Bill...uh Bill...uh Card, Bill Card.”
“Are you on foot or driving?”
“I, uh, found this car along the road, I am from Colorado and this car is a police car from Colorado. I didn't drive it from there I started out in a minivan, but had to abandon it...”
“Calm down sir. You are in a police car heading east on highway 129, is this correct?”
“Actually I am stopped at a gas station. I saw these phones so I thought I would give one a try.”
“Okay, good. Do you have a weapon?”
“Yeah, an old rifle.”
“Sir were you bitten or injured by any of the zombies?”
“No. I am fine, not a scratch on me.”
“Okay sir, I am going to get word to the people at the bridge that you are coming in. Watch out for the zombies and drive slowly to the bridge, if you can.”
“Okay, I will, how long until they know I am coming?”
“I will tell them as soon as I am off the phone with you, but wait at least ten minutes before you try to get to the bridge.”
“Will you call me back if something goes wrong?”
“This is an automated calling center, I won't be able to call you back. But call here if you run into trouble.”
“All right! Thanks! Um, can I call anyone else? I have a friend and I want to....”
“No sir, I am sorry all cell phone lines are being routed here for the time being.”
Bill eyed the phone by the cash register, “So I could call from a land line?”
The person on the other side of the line seemed to hesitate for a moment, “Maybe, the local phone company is handling those calls and I have heard service is spotty. You can give it a try.”
“Okay, thank you for your help! You've saved my life!”
“Good luck sir!”
Bill disconnected and looked at Stewart and Max, “Well I think I can get across the bridge, but what are we going to do with you two?”
“Are you going back as military?”
Shaking his head Bill said, “I think my career in the military just got cut a little short. I will find something else to wear first. Does the land line work?”
Max picked the receiver up and shook his head, “No, it is dead. I better check you out for any scrapes or cuts, if you have some you will get stuck in quarantine. Let's go find some clothing and talk about how to get me and Stewart across the river.”
“Oh, that will be easy on both counts. Have you ever paddled a canoe?”