“Where am I?” came the voice from the back seat, startling Ruben. He was in the driver’s seat, trying not to doze off or let his mind wander, things happened when his mind wandered and it was a struggle to keep control. In the passenger seat beside him Stewart snorted softly in her sleep. The two cars were parked side by side in a rest area and Ruben was on watch in one car. Javier had been comatose in the backseat for the better part of eighteen hours.
“Javier? Kid? Are you awake?” Ruben asked softly, leaning forward and then half turning to look at the young man in the darkness. According to Ruben’s watch it was two in the morning, though his watch was set according to a different time zone, so who knew what time it was here.
“Ruben? That you? What happened?” Javier’s voice sounded different, like that of a kid, Ruben realized.
“You got into an accident; you were thrown through the windshield and ended up in the other guy’s car. You don’t remember?”
“I remember firing at some idiots in a crossover vehicle, then…” Javier paused, thinking, “Well not much after that; sounds mostly; breaking glass and stuff. Then darkness.”
“Well, then you didn’t miss much.” Ruben said with relief. He had been worried about brain damage or other trauma. “How are you feeling?”
“Good. Better than good, really. I mean I feel really, really…hungry!” Javier said, “Man am I hungry!”
“We got our packs in the trunk.”
“That you Javier?” asked Stewart groggily.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, such as it is. You okay?”
“Yeah, fine. Just hungry.” Javier said again.
“Cool. I’m going back to sleep.”
“C’mon, let’s get out and see what we can rustle up for you to eat.” Ruben opened his door, which caused Stewart to grumble about the light, but she burrowed down into her fatigues and draped her arm over her face to block it out.
When Bill saw Javier and Ruben get out of their vehicle he opened his door and went to meet them, leaving Max asleep in the back seat. Javier repeated for the third time that he was fine and just hungry as Bill tossed the same questions at him as the others.
Javier tore into his pack and gabbed several of the plastic bagged military rations that had been sent with them. None of them thought they were too bad, not at first, but after a few days of the military food they had started grabbing whatever they could find locally to eat.
“I see why every pack comes with some sort of hot sauce.” Javier said when he slowed down from eating his second meal, “It adds a little spice to them. I mean, I don’t even like hot sauce.” He said this as he dumped the small glass container of the red liquid into the open pouch in his other hand.
“Better than the c-rations we had in my day.” Ruben said.
“I think it is ‘cause they all taste the same. I mean you might call one ‘Chicken with Noodles’ and another ‘Chili and Macaroni’, but they don’t taste all that different to me.” Bill said.
Javier shook his head and said between bites, “No way man, the breakfast one rocks!”
The other men nodded and Ruben said, “It always seems like one meal pack in any generation is better than the others and that everyone will trade anything to get it. I never would have thought packaged sausages and blueberry granola would be in such high demand. So, Javier, what happened?”
He shrugged, swallowed and said, “I don’t remember much, I knew they were going to hit me, I remember that and being just…stuck to the truck. Like I couldn’t move, I wanted to jump out before they hit and I froze up. I was so scared, then..” Javier waved his spoon around at the two police cars, “Waking up. What happened?”
Bill spoke to him about getting the police cruisers and their mad dash through several states over the course of the last sixteen hours, ending with them stopping at their current location.
“Is it safe?” Javier asked.
“Max hasn’t seen anyone close to the main road. At least not really close. He says that there are a lot of dead people out on the edge of his mental zombie radar. He couldn’t see any zombies when we stopped here, so we thought we could get a few hours of sleep. Me and Ruben drew short straws and get to watch first. Max and Stewart will take over in a couple hours and let us get a little sleep. How’s your leg Javier?”
Javier looked down at his legs, “Which one? What was wrong with it?”
Ruben laughed, “Well I guess that answers that.”
“Your leg was busted up ten ways from Sunday when you played ‘stiff man’ on us. I’m no doctor, but what I saw…well you shouldn’t be able to walk on it now. Do you know what happened?”
“No.” Javier shook his head and smiled in the moonlight, “I guess I got something too, huh? I was hoping for wolverine claws or maybe flying like superman, but healing up fast is sort of like wolverine isn’t it?”
Ruben shook his head, he had a hard time keeping track of what the youth of today was talking about. Bill nodded and said, “I guess, bummer about having to zonk out like that though. I wonder what would happen if you got shot or worse, bit? Would you turn? Would you heal it up and be fine?”
“Let’s not find out.” Ruben said.
Javier nodded and reached for his third meal pack.
“Better be careful you don’t burst your stomach, we wouldn’t want you going all comatose for that.” Bill said.
“What? I’m starving here, I missed three meals while I was out and I think I need to make up for them. So what do we do now?”
“Well, Max thinks the guy is over on the coast, from what Aubrey told him, the east coast near the north end of Florida. We got a map and plan to scout the area starting later this morning. Max should be able to scan for the guy as we get closer. I think we are about a hundred miles from the coast, so it’s not like we are on top of him yet.”
Javier kept eating while Ruben and Bill chatted about their plans. Wiping his face after finishing Javier said, “So let me get this straight, we are just going to drive in, find the guy in his Doctor’s office and shoot him?”
“It probably won’t be that simple.” Bill conceded.
“We have the bomb, we might be able to set it close by and just turn tail and run. Nothing ever works out the way it is supposed to, but the simpler the plan the less we have to change when everything goes wrong.” said Ruben.
“Not much of a plan.” Javier said with a shrug, “I don’t have a better one.” He walked around the parked trooper cars, as if testing his legs.
“You have any pain?” Ruben asked him as he completed the first circuit.
“It’s…stiff. Like all tight and stuff. Were you ever in track Ruben?”
The old man gave a derisive laugh, “When I was young there was no internet, no video games and the television only had three channels, of course I was in track.”
“Ah, okay. Well it’s like the first time you get outside for the first day, you are all stiff and tight, it takes you a week to get back into things. That’s how I feel. Like the first day of track.”
“Well, I hope you don’t feel like the first night after the first day of track practice.”
“All sore? Me either. That would suck. Are you sure my leg was busted?”
“It was busted.” Both Bill and Ruben answered together.
Javier kept on walking, leaving Bill and Ruben at the back of the cruiser Stewart was sleeping in. “What does all this mean Ruben?”
“Coming to me for my ancient wisdom? Sorry, I’ve got nothing. Everything changes. I’ve lived long enough to know that. I think of this as the next step. You believe in God Bill?”
Bill shook his head, then stopped abruptly, “No, I mean, I’m not a church goer or anything. I just never caught the bug. Max’s wife was though, she talked about all the stuff she did with the church. I think she was trying to nudge us into it. It was lost on Max though. Why?”
“Well, I went to church. I mean for years. It goes back to that lack of video games and three channels on the television thing; there wasn’t much else to do and church was a good place to meet up with other people.” Ruben paused for a moment, then fished around in his pockets and brought out a pack of cigarettes, “Do you mind?”
“You don’t smoke. I mean, I’ve never seen you smoke.”
“I gave it up years ago, but the last couple of weeks has given me reason to believe that I might not be dying of cancer any time soon. So, I can light up?”
Ruben tapped out a cigarette and tamped it down on the trunk of the car, he lit it and inhaled a deep breath, “Ah! And the Lord said let there be light! Besides, what if I start? It’s not like they are still making cigarettes, even if I live through all of this, I think the cigarettes will only last a few more months before they are too stale to be worth it.”
“You’ll go through withdrawal again?”
“I’ll deal with it. So you don’t believe much in God. Like I said, I was a church goer, but Bill when you do something year after year, decade after decade, you can’t help but start to see the cracks in the walls. I’ve been to enough preaching that I’ve probably heard the bible a dozen times over by now. It is fair to say I was leaning towards agnostic before all this, if not downright atheism.”
“What changed?” Bill asked.
“Max. Stewart. You. Javier. Me. We changed. Them. They changed. They eat people and get ‘better’, if that makes sense. The dead have risen and among them we walk. The more they consume, the more ‘alive’ they get to be. And here’s the funny part of this improbable situation. If we kill them, we get stronger and better too. A heathen would call it magic. A scientist would analyze the living hell out of it until it turns up being….what’s that made up shit from Star Wars?”
“Ah…the stuff in the blood…midi-chlorians? Fans hated that.”
“Sounds right, I was going for the ‘Force’ though, I don’t know about blood or anything. Well they got it wrong. It’s not magic, it’s not the force, it’s people’s souls. The zombies consume a person’s soul. We can’t do it without them processing it first, but if we are close by we can absorb it from them before it gets free to go to its reward.”
“Interesting theory.” Bill said.
“It makes sense. It throws all the church leaning into perspective. There is a soul. We have seen it at work. Twisted to Satan’s ends, for the most part, but it proves there is a soul. And with a soul, there must be heaven and a hell. It fits.”
“It could, but I am still skeptical, where is God in all of this? Why doesn’t he just step in and end it all? Send down the golden ladders or whatever and close this chapter of the book.”
“Ah, that sounds like a scientist. I don’t have all the answers. I am pretty sure about this one and I am scared Bill.”
“Well if it’s all true, I haven’t been a very good Christen.”
Bill snorted, “You and the other eight billion people on the planet. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“This is everlasting, unending afterlife we are talking about. If I end up in hell…well as the kids say today, that would suck.”
Laughing Bill said, “You’re not dead yet, can’t you repent?”
“I already have.”
“So you should be all set. Are you trying to save me now?”
“No, I sat through enough sermons to know I ain’t a preacher. But Bill, I have to tell you something.”
“I prayed a lot over the years and never saw anything come of it, I never got an answer. But lately, Bill, I’ve been getting answers.”
Bill stared at the old man for a minute, “Like, voices in your head answers? Or ‘prayers coming true’ sort of answers?”
The old man looked out into the night, focusing on something that Bill couldn’t see, he cleared his throat before answering, “I’m not crazy, at least I don’t think so. At first I ignored them. It’s like, well you ever been to a baseball game?”
“I’ve been to a few I-Cubs games, but never to a major league game.”
“It’s kind of like that, the crowd just sort of murmurs in the background, making a noise you just overlook to get on with your own talking. But when you are at a game and your own conversation stops, you might pick up on what people nearby are saying. You following me?”
“Yeah, or even at a restaurant.”
“Yes, like that. Well if I kind of stop thinking about anything in particular, I can hear people. I thought it was just people like you and Stewart the other day. But it’s not just them. It’s people I can’t see. People I am pretty sure are dead.”
“And you think it is God?” asked Bill.
“I know. Crazy. Not all God. But yeah, I think he is using them to talk to me, to give me advice. To tell me things I should otherwise have a way of knowing.”
“What kind of things?”
“Where people are, where zombies are, what they are doing. If I can make a difference in any given situation…or not.”
“That’s how you found Stewart. But how did you get over the fence?”
“There was a hole cut through it by the side of the building, it was hard to see from where we were, but they, the voices, told me it was there. They said Stewart would need my help and I had to go to her.” Ruben said.
“They said ‘would need’, so they told you the future?”
“Sort of, maybe they were guessing. With Stewart that isn’t much of a guess, is it? She’s always in the thick of things.”
Bill laughed, “Aren’t we all?”
Javier finally stopped pacing and asked, “All what?”
“In the thick of things. How’s your leg?” Bill asked.
“Good, I think I am okay, but I am still hungry.”
“You better wait at least fifteen or twenty minutes, I don’t know how much more you can hold.”
“The meals aren’t that big. How about I wait ten?” said Javier, eyeing the trunk.
“Your call, I won’t stand between you and food. We’ll have to see what we can pick up locally in the morning to make sure you have enough.”
“Okay.” Javier set off on another loop around the parking lot.
Ruben finished his cigarette, “So Bill, am I crazy?”
“Near as I can tell, yes. You should have stayed in Iowa old man.”
“I couldn’t do that, not when people half my age are running around trying to save the world. Not when I could make a difference.”
“Ruben, just watch what you are doing, okay? I mean if the voices tell you to do anything crazy just think about it before you act. Don’t just give in to them.”
Ruben nodded and tapped another cigarette out of the pack. As he smoked he thought about a pop song he had heard so many years before, one that wailed on about good advice you just couldn’t take.