“Where the fuck is the old man going?” yelled Stewart as she took cover in the ditch.
“Huh?” grunted Max, landing beside her.
“Ruben, he's running for the truck! Oh gawd damn it, he's going for the nuke!” Stewart raised her voice and yelled out at Ruben, who was taking fire from an upper story of the hotel, “Leave it old man! We'll get it after we clean up this mess!” She started to rise out of the ditch, but several tuffs of grass flew up in front of her. Max realized it was from bullets striking the turf around them.
“Fire! Get some bullets back at them! Max locate that shooter!” yelled Bill as his friend sunk lower in the ditch. Even Stewart, no coward had fallen back from the barrage.
Max raised his shotgun and fired blindly, hitting nothing but air. He fired again without raising his body above the level of the ditch. Stewart looked at him, and shook her head, “What is that? Blind firing? You think you will hit anything with that?”
Max shrugged as more bullets threw up debris in the parking lot. Bill cautiously rose up and let off a three bullet burst with his rifle, “Max! I need you! Javier, c'mon and get up guys, if we don't we are gonna get mobbed!”
“This was a bad idea. We should have moved on to the next exit.” Max muttered, rising above the edge of the ditch.
“Too late now, we gonna save Ruben's wrinkly old ass or not?” Stewart asked.
Max nodded, reloaded his shotgun and rose when Stewart did above the lip of the ditch. Unlike Stewart, he had a good idea where the zombies were, though he didn't know which of them had guns. Max fired at the closest zombie and hit it just above the knee. He watched as the creature rolled into a somersault along the parking lot before coming to a rest up against the back of a dust covered Ford Escape. The 'jenner' quickly scurried around the car and Max had to switch targets as more zombies appeared. Stewart fired and brought down a zombie shooting at them through a hotel window on the second floor.
Ruben was in the back of the truck and lifted the back pack up out of the bed, however he was surrounded by shamblers. Dropping the pack at his feet he brought his shotgun up and gut shot two of the zeds as others grabbed him from behind.
“Ruben!” screamed Javier, who was up on one knee firing as close to the other man as he dared. The old man paused for a second, looking back at them, for a brief, calm moment the world stopped. Then the dead engulfed him in a wave and pulled him through the shattered doors of the hotel.
“Damn it! After him!” Bill yelled climbing out of the ditch. Bill made it up to the top when he jerked backwards, like a dog running full tilt that comes to the end of his leash. He fell onto his back on the grass and slid down to the bottom of the ditch, with his head coming to rest in the murky, standing water left over from the last rainfall.
“Bill!” Max yelled stepping behind Stewart to go to his friend. More bullets splattered the pavement around Stewart and Javier, who were forced to duck behind the few cars in the hotel parking lot. Max could hear them returning fire and yelling his name as he skidded down the grassy bank to Bill's side.
His friend was dead. Max saw a lifetime of events leading up to this moment; the trouble they had gotten into as teenagers, but somehow survived. Images flashed through Max’s head in seconds: Bill at Max's wedding; Max at Bill's. Playing football with the kids on the lawn in their tuxedos. Playing 'hot lava' in the park as boys themselves, making their way from one side of the playground to the other while avoiding touching the ground. Teaching the same game to their own children when they were parents. It was all coming to an end, here in some shitty little zombie infested town because Max had let it happen. Tears sprang to his eyes as he reached for his friend.
Meanwhile Stewart looked over at Javier who was pinned behind a red convertible a couple of parking spaces over. She grinned and asked, “You okay?”
The young man nodded and said, “They took Ruben, he was still alive. We gotta go get 'em”
“Max! Goddamnit Max!” Stewart pivoted back to Javier, “I don't know if we can do this alone.”
The gunfire stopped abruptly. Stewart and Javier looked at each other, both had enough experience with the zombies to know what such a co-ordinated action meant; there was a super zombie close by sending his troops orders.
“Max!” hissed Stewart, “We need you!”
In the ditch Max grabbed Bill by the shoulders and pulled his body around until his head was higher up on the slope and out of the water. His friend's face was pale and he didn't appear to be breathing. Max concentrated and shifted his vision to see if Bill were still alive. Relief flooded through him as he saw the colorful pattern he associated with living humans settle over Bill's frame.
“Bill! Talk to me buddy!” Max said, looking him over. There was a huge divot out of Bill's army helmet a few inches above the man's left eye. The furrow torn into the kelvar went deep into the helmet and Max released the straps under Bill's chin to check and see if the bullet had penetrated. Bill's skin was already turning a faint bluish color where he was bruised. The helmet had done its job and the bullet had not passed through it.
Bill's eyes fluttered and he looked up at Max, “What happened?”
“You got shot buddy.”
“How bad? Don't lie to me Max.”
“You got lucky. It hit the top of your helmet at an angle and didn't go through.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Tears of joy my friend, tears of joy.” Max leaned over and hugged the man awkwardly on the ground where he lay. The gunfire suddenly stopped and both men became aware of the silence as Max pulled himself up. They heard Stewart's sharp hiss as she called Max's name and he responded to her, “I'm here, what?”
“Get your ass up here, we need to know where the super is, all the zeds stopped firing at once!”
“You okay?” Max asked Bill.
“Go on, let me clear my head a bit.”
“I'm coming Stewart.” said Max crawling up the hill on his hands and knees. No one fired at him as he crested the hill and he saw that Stewart and Javier were taking cover, while they peeped out trying to keep an eye on the receding mass of zombies.
“I thought you said there were only a few?” Stewart asked accusingly.
“I told you there were this many. They were just scattered about, I didn't spot the super...”
“Where is he?”
Max looked for the leader, it only took him a moment to find the almost human signature in the 'Best Value Inn', “He's over there.” Max pointed. “I think he is on the second floor, near this end, probably looking out at us right now.”
Stewart raised her middle finger above the level of the car's hood and waved it back and forth. A single gunshot broke the silence, striking the back door of the sedan she was hiding behind. Stewart quickly pulled her arm down.
“Yep, he's watching.” said Max taking cover further down the ditch.
“Is it a 'he'?” she asked.
Max shrugged, “I don't really know, does it matter? Ruben is in the Day's Inn. I think I got a bead on the one that shot at you. He is over on the Best Value roof.”
“You can see guns now?”
“No, but I saw a flash from that direction when it fired at you and I know there are zombies on the roof there.”
“What about our hotel, is Ruben....alive?” asked Javier.
Max frowned, “Yeah, he is. I don't know if he is infected, but he is alive, they have him up on the second story there too, only at the east end of the hotel. There are a couple, uh, well if not supers, maybe 'Einsteins'? So those two are holding him and there are a few shambling types in the corridor outside the room they have him in. Plus, most of the shamblers are on the ground floor of the hotel now.”
“Why aren't they mobbing us?” Stewart asked.
“How the hell would I know? I think they could have gotten us with that last rush.”
“Pessimist, we could have held them off.”
“Maybe...” Max said doubtfully.
“We could have.” Stewart insisted.
Bill had climbed up from the ditch to lie beside Max, he had his helmet back on and was looking better, “What's the story?”
“They got Ruben inside on the second floor with a couple of Einsteins, there is a sniper on the roof of the Best Value and a super over there that we think is directing everyone. We don't know why they stopped rushing us. There are maybe fifteen shamblers and half a dozen Jenners inside the Day's Inn.” Max said.
“Okay, we go after him, Javier, get back into the ditch, work your way back towards the highway until you are out of sight of the Best Value. Stewart you follow him after a count of ten. Once you two are in place wait for us to catch up. Go!” Bill's voice didn't leave much room for arguing, regardless Javier took off instantly, leaving Stewart the options of following or leaving him to fend for himself on the far end of the hotel. She counted to ten and followed.
“You ready Max?”
Max nodded, then Bill said, “I'll follow in a ten count. Go!”
Max skidded down into the bottom of the ditch and ran along it until he caught up to Javier, who was sitting near a culvert, where the hotel drive went over the ditch. Stewart had run up out of the ditch and was taking cover behind an old Subaru that screamed 'Hotel Employee', not 'Hotel Guest'. Bill caught up with them a moment later and looked the area over.
“Okay, the hotel has an entrance on the end of the wing. That is what we will go for. Max, what are the zombies doing?”
“The ones with Ruben haven't moved, the shambers are starting to head towards this side, but are staying inside. The super...I..” Max looked perplexed, “I've lost him. How did I lose him?”
“We gotta move now. Max you got point, get to the hotel door and break through it. There is bound to be a stairway at the end, shut any of the doors leading to the hallway on the first floor, if they are not already. I should be there by then. Javier, you follow me on ten. Stewart you bring up the rear. Got it? Go!”
Max scrambled up the ditch and ran towards the glass door on the side of the hotel building. When he was fifteen feet away he fired one shot into the door, it shattered, but did not fall out of the frame. Using the barrel of the shotgun he pushed through the safety glass, then used his hand to pull the door open from the inside. There was a fire door that blocked off the stairway from the first floor of the hotel, however it was open. Max saw a mob of slow shamblers coming towards him from the hallway, instead of firing he tried to pull the door shut, but it was caught on something and wouldn't budge.
Bill joined him a moment later and pulled the door shut effortlessly, ripping the latch out of the drywall as he slammed it shut. There was nothing to hold the door shut with, so Bill pushed himself up against it while waiting for Javier and Stewart.
When the other two arrived Bill said, “Okay, we can either leave the door and have zeds shambling up our asses or one of us can stay here and hold the fort. “
“You're giving us a choice?” asked Stewart.
“No, I am asking for input.”
“We all go.” Stewart said, “These are shamblers and there is no guarantee we will be coming back this way.”
Bill nodded, “Okay. Max, sorry to put you on point twice in a row, but you know where they have Ruben upstairs and you'll know if there are any zeds waiting in the rooms to spring out at us. So I want you and Stewart to head upstairs. If you come to a room were anything but a shambler is hiding you stop and wait for us. If they start to move Ruben, you and Stewart go balls to the wall until you catch them. Understand?” Max nodded. “Javier and I will follow in ten.”
Max set off up the stairs, with Stewart close on his heels.
They reached the second floor and Max had time to reflect how very long ten seconds could be in the middle of an adrenaline rush. Max knew the hallway was clear before he burst into it, about halfway down there was a super zombie off to one side. The zombie was hiding at the elevators, which bisected the hotel floor. It looked like a Jenner.
“Jenner ahead, by the elevator.” The zombie was back-lit by the light from the window at the other end of the hall.
A gunshot rang out and the wallpaper six feet in front of Max spontaneously developed a long tear.
“Armed Jenner!” Max corrected, blasting the corridor with his shotgun.
“Armed Jenner? You can do better than that!” said Stewart, running by Max as the zombie ducked back into the elevator alcove to avoid the shotgun blast.
Stewart fired her rifle as the zed tried to come back in for another shot. “How about Gunslinging Jenner?”
“Too long, how about Jengun? Or Jenga? For short?”
“Lame, no score for you. He ain't too good either, untrained, more like an amateur. Billy the Kid Jenner?” Stewart said.
“Still too long.” said Max firing again as he moved ahead of Stewart to the next set of doors. “Watch the hallway down there, it looks like Ruben is moving.”
“Okay, I'll watch for them, you got the Billy up there?”
“No. Not 'Billy', Billy the kid was good, this guy sucks.”
“You know I can hear you!” called the zombie from the elevator.
“Good!” shouted Stewart, “You can't hit the broad side of a barn!” She fired a shot at the zed as it, predictably, tried to come around the corner and prove her wrong. She winged it in the shoulder and sent its gun flying down the hallway to land on the carpet. “Sucker! Oldest trick in the book! Go Max!”
Max took off for the elevator, calling back, “He still ain't a 'Billy'! Watch the hallway!” Max ran along the right side of the hall, giving Stewart a clear shot down the left side. A zombie head poked out of the doorway three quarters of the way to the far end. Stewart let loose with a three shot burst that caused the zed to pull back into the room. As he rounded the corner, shotgun at shoulder height, he was surprised to see the zombie cowering in the corner, hands raised in front of his face. Max's finger tightened on the trigger, then relaxed, he couldn't bear the idea of shooting a man who was defenseless in front of him.
“Fuck!” he yelled trying to force himself to pull the trigger again.
“Please don't! Just don't. I didn't, I didn't want to, I was. I was trying to miss. He made me, I would have just stayed at home, you know, not hurt any...”
“Shut up!” Max yelled. He was fully inside the elevator alcove now and Stewart fired another burst behind him to keep the zombies holding Ruben pinned. In the dim light he could barely make out the zombie's features, he was an African American man, not too much older than Max.
Stewart rushed by Max, heading down the hall, calling out, “Max! C'mon, shoot the Billy and let's go!” as she went by.
Max said, “Sorry.” and pulled the trigger, drowning out the man's plea for mercy. The shot severed one of the zed's hands at the wrist and took off the top left side of his head. As Max turned to go he saw that it wasn't dead, it was twitching. “Goddamned pain in the ass! He stepped forward and finished the zombie off with another shot, then reloaded his gun as Bill and Javier caught up to him.
“Max?” Bill said, squinting in the poor light. “You okay?”
“Guys! C'mon! I got them pinned!” yelled Stewart.
The three caught up with Stewart, and Bill said, “Javier, you watch our backs, when those shamblers come up here you let us know, but don't shoot unless you have to.”
Stewart was outside of the hotel room, she had her rifle pointed inside and Max quickly peeked in from the other side of the doorway. In the main room there were two zombies and Ruben. Ruben was closest to the doorway and the two zombies were behind him, one had a knife at his throat, the other was standing there nervously, sucking its lips into his mouth, then pushing them out. As Max watched, it bit down and cut its lower lip free and sucked it into its mouth. Even as it chewed Max could see the outer lip stop bleeding. Faster than he would have thought possible, the lip that had been chewed off regrew.
“That is fucking-a disgusting.” Stewart said softly.
“Yeah, Lips is an acquired taste.” said the zombie holding the knife, “Even on a good day I can hardly stand to be around him.” He shrugged his shoulders and continued, “And today is not a good day.”
Stewart turned her eyes towards the zombie with the knife, “I don't think he'd be that much better on a good day. So, you gonna drop that knife?”
The zombie shook his head slightly, “No. You gonna drop that gun?”
Stewart fired, the bullet caught the zombie low in its forehead, almost dead center between the eyes. It clenched once, but the knife dropped effortlessly from its hand as it toppled over. When it fell backward, Lips was exposed and Max took a shot at him, aiming high. Max's shot missed and the zombie threw itself backwards into the curtains and window, leaving Ruben behind. The window didn't break and the zombie flailed around, wound up in the curtains while Max and Stewart fired into it. Their shots blew out the window and after bumping into the sill, Lips fell out of sight, pulling the curtain rod with him.
“Ruben! Are you okay?” Max said, going down to one knee and putting his hand out to steady him.
“I'm fine, they didn't even scratch me. Did you get the bomb?”
“We left it for now.”
Stewart went to the window and looked down at their truck. “It's still there. Hey, Javier? Those zeds coming at us yet?”
From down the hall Javier called back, “No. How's Ruben?”
“He says he's fine! We're getting him up and out of here now.”
Reuben stood up and ran a hand across his neck, then looked at it. “That could have been bad. If he had jerked back or something.”
“No, they don't. Haven't you noticed, a head shot drops them, it's like they don't have that last convulsive reaction like the living do. You weren't in any danger.” said Stewart.
“I hadn't noticed...”
“Well don't worry about it gramps, you can't pick up everything. Besides...” a gunshot interrupted her as Javier fired. “Besides we didn't have all day to negotiate, we got zeds incoming.”
“Why the hell didn't they eat you Ruben?” asked Max, reloading his gun as he spoke.
“I heard 'em talking, they said...”
“Later, let's get out of her first. Max where are they?” interrupted Stewart.
“Shamblers coming up the hallway, Lips is gone, he is running back to the other hotel, the others seem to be clearing out too.”
“Should we be worried about that?”
Max nodded, “I am.”
“You all ready to go?” Bill called from the hall.
“Yeah, we can go down the stairway at the other end of the hall, it's empty, then cut through the building back to the lobby to get to the truck.” Max said.
“Okay, let's do it. Javier, you grab Ruben, Max and Stewart follow us, but stay closer than before.” Bill led the way down with Javier sticking close to Ruben.
“How come you paused with Billy back there?”
“I don't know, he wasn't armed, he was just sitting there, cowering, begging me not to shoot him.”
“No mercy Max. No mercy. You forget why we are here?”
“I know why I am here Stewart.”
“Good, I think your kids would appreciate that. Did you forget what the zombies have done to you? What they have taken from you? From everyone?”
“No, I haven't forgotten.”
“Next time you better remember faster, if it helps you, think of your wife.”
“Stewart! That is...”
“Don't 'Stewart' me! The few seconds you spent dicking around could have gotten Ruben killed. Next time it could be me or Bill or any of us. Get your head on straight! They are not human, we can’t just get along with them. We can't make peace! They eat us for fuck's sake!”
“Alright. I got it. Lay off.”
“I'm not mad, so don't you be. I just want to help you out. Peace?”
“Yeah, okay, peace. I still say he shouldn't be a 'Billy'.”
“Because he couldn't shoot for shit?” asked Stewart.
“Yeah, the name doesn't do the original justice.”
“You know the names of any bad shots?”
“That's 'cause they were bad shots, they never got into the press, they got dead. Hm, what about 'Nancy'?”
Max thought back to the super zombie who had pursued him so long ago back to his home in Denver, the zombie who had infected his wife, he shook his head, “I wouldn't want to honor her like that.”
They went down the stairs, still bantering quietly.
“She was a bitch. I don't suppose 'bitch' would work?”
“No, I’ve already got a patent on that one. You'll have to try harder. At least we have a name for zombies who are good with guns.” said Max.
“Yeah, 'Billy', though I hope we never have to use it. If we do it means someone has been shot.”
The group moved into the lobby of the hotel and looked out at their bullet ridden truck. Bill took the keys out of his pocket, “Think it will run?”
Ruben shrugged, “Only one way to find out. At least the tires aren't blown out.”
“No windows though.” said Max.
“The weather is good, we'll be okay. Javier, why don't you drop and see if anything is leaking out of it?” asked Bill.
Javier went to his hands and knees by the front door of the hotel and looked under the truck. He shook his head from there and said, “It looks okay Bill, I don't see anything dripping. The bomb is still there too, on the ground.”
“Our lucky day.” muttered Ruben.
“Yeah, next time old man, just leave it and fall back. We are the only ones with the codes to set it off, if we lose it we'd just have to figure something else out.” Bill finished and they were started by a loud 'beep', coming from the backpack.
They looked at each other and back at the pack, staying quiet. They heard a muffled sound, like someone speaking, after a few moments they heard another beep.
“What the fuck is that?” asked Stewart.
No one answered, because no one knew what to say.