Leaving Miami had been easier than any of the three of them thought it would be. Nick had full access to all the stores of “Max’s Café American” and pilfered supplies for the trip in just a few hours. They opted to leave early in the morning and were outside of town walking on old highway 1 by sunrise.
Nick had spoken with his father the night before, but had not mentioned his plans, nor had Max had much to say to his son. Stewart was having busy time with the bar and quite a few of the place’s regulars were gone. Probably off on a secret mission for dad or maybe the military guy they keep talking about.
The chill of the morning quickly took on the oppressive humidity and heat of south Florida, only partly tempered by the sea breeze.
“We should try up here.” Hank said, with a wave of his hand toward some tightly spaced condos off in the distance.
“There won’t be anything there.” Nick said, “We’re too close and even if there were the cars would all be dead.”
“You want to walk five hundred kilometers?” Hank asked.
“No.” Nick said, “We could have taken my dad’s truck.”
“Or the Humvee.” Nick said, “That was yours in the first place. I think the Navy took it back because my dad told them too.”
“Well, that Humvee was of dubious providence, as my old man used to say.” Hank said.
“He means it was given to us fair and square. Probably, it was stolen from someone else by the people who gave it to us.”
“Red and those guys?” Nick asked.
Juan nodded. “I hope they took care of our people.”
“They did.” Hank said.
Despite Nick’s protests they took an overgrown road to the subdivision, which was not as empty as they thought, even a couple hours walk from Miami people had moved in. They didn’t shoot at the trio, but their guns were out. Hank and Juan just asked about any old vehicles in the houses and the people said they were all broken down, scavenged or both.
“Show us the best ones left.” Hank told the sunburned white man in a wife beater shirt.
“Helen?” The man called, “Where is Dorothy and Melvin?”
“At the beach, you know.” The woman called back, “She had a bad time with the Thompson twins yesterday, so you just know she’s off sulking near the water.”
“Red hair, you can’t miss her. I try to stop her running all over, but she’s a kid. We have zombie-fold about here too, good people and they love her to pieces, so there’s bound to be one or two watching. If they give you any trouble just tell them Ron said it was okay for Dorothy to show you around. She would know better than me what’s up further north, in people’s garages and what not.”
They headed to the beach and saw, off in the distance, a young girl and a scruffy mutt with heavy Labrador in it, playing in the surf. The girl was naked and her skin didn’t take after her father’s; it was tan and without freckles. When they approached a man stepped out of the low grasses above the beach and looked them over.
“Don sent us!” Nick called.
“He means, Ron!” Hank yelled. “We’re gonna see if Dorothy can show us around.”
The girl had taken that moment to pull on a thin dress and stood waiting for them, leaning up against her down, which was eyeing the approaching men, but not growling.
“Yeah? What do you want?” The girl asked.
“Your dad, Ron. Said you know where everything is around here, especially north of here in these old houses. He said if anyone could help us find an old car, it would be you.”
“Maybe. They’re all junk now.”
“Well, me and my friend here are magic mechanics, we might be able to get one working and if we do, we’ll give you a ride to your dad’s house. You ever been in a car before?” The girl looked to be about eight, it wasn’t unlikely that she had been on motorized vehicle.
“Naw, we stay here. I never been to Miami.”
“Well we aren’t going to take you to Miami, but maybe we can manage a ride around your town.” Hank said.
“Can we go by the Thompson’s place? And not give them a ride? Even if they beg?”
“Do you know where there is a car?”
“Yeah!” she said energetically, “C’mon!” She went racing up the beach with her dog beside her. “C’mon, Melvin!”
Hank, Juan and Nick followed her, none of them burst into a run.
“Who let’s their kid wander around alone?” Hank asked.
“She isn’t alone.” Nick said. “She’s got Melvin and this guy.” He hitched his thumb at the zombie, which was discreetly following them.
“You doing okay, Hank?” Juan asked.
Hank was sweating profusely, and his face was scarlet.
“Yeah, Nick you wanna turn up your juice?” Hank asked.
“Sure, sorry, I keep it tamped down when Juan is around, just in case.” Nick didn’t break stride as he started flooding the area nearby with ability, which was to suppress the powers of anyone near him. It was a power that had kept him alive and make his body a weapon against most zombies even when he wasn’t armed; zeds that came into physical contact with him died. His ability had come to be known better when he joined the armed forces of Iowa and had been honed by both the commander of ‘F’ company and by Red when he spent time with the people of the void in Wyoming. Now he could control his ability much better and even project it to anything he could see, the power dropped considerably with distance, making it not so useful in a firefight. On his journey with Hank and Juan down to Florida he had discovered that just being nearby Hank would make the man feel better, as if it were stopping the concoction infecting him from working. However, using his powers also made super humans less able to use their powers, so Juan would become more mundane at the same time. This wasn’t a terrible option for Juan either; he was suffering from killing too many of the undead. The human frame could only hold so much and how much varied by the individual. Hank possessed a strength, stamina and healing factor beyond anything any of them had seen, in addition he could burrow through the ground as if it were water.
Both Hank and Juan had supernatural abilities with any mechanical devices they found, able to make old cars function again, with even just a pittance of old fuel. Juan’s ability was stronger, and the men attributed that to Juan being a better mechanic pre-outbreak. Hank was marginally better with newer vehicles.
“I don’t think she is Ron’s kid.” Juan said as they followed the girl.
“Nah, me either, though she is his, if you get it.” Hank said.
Orphans with new parents were so common as to almost be the norm now. Nick nodded, even in Iowa it was highly unusual for a kid to have both their parents. Something about the end of the world made marriages rarer and splits more common, even if a child was lucky enough for both parents to still be alive.
Up ahead Melvin started barking and they caught up with Dorothy confronting a trio of zombies at a beach access cul-de-sac. The girl was standing defiantly, while Melvin barked at the two men and one woman in front of her.
“Go away!” Dorothy shouted, “You just leave me alone or…or, I’ll sic my dog on you!” She brandished a piece of driftwood like a magical wand. The zombies fell back.
Nick and his companions shared a look.
“Maybe they saw us?” Mumbled Hank.
Juan shook his head, “No, there is something else. I can’t put my finger on it.”
“Do we want to find out what or let this mystery go?” Hank said as they caught with the impatient girl.
“Hurry up! I wanna go for a ride!”
“Sure thing, doll.” Hank said, “You wanna go speak to the zeds, Juan?”
Hank and Nick walked with Dorothy, while Juan stepped over to the zeds. He spoke with them for a few minutes, none of them were shamblers, nor did they seem antagonist to Hank or Nick, who were walking slow and keeping a close eye on things. Their guardian zombie had stopped at the end of the path and was staring at the three zeds.
Dorothy didn’t stop on the first block, nor the second, by the time they were halfway down the third block, Juan had rejoined them. He had leaped into the yard slightly behind them a distance of several hundred meters and a jump Dorothy was oblivious of, though the trailing zed, now two blocks behind noted the arc of his flight.
“Well?” Hank asked. His face was back to its pale, slightly sunburned face and he wiped a ragged bandana across it.
“Interesting.” Juan said, “They hadn’t planned any harm, they knew Dorothy was coming and though they had not ever met her before, they knew of the people around here. They take care of their own and pretty much anyone else who comes in peacefully. They seemed to be more afraid of Melvin and the zed than Dorothy.”
“Good.” Nick nodded, “I’ve dealt with super kids before and it’s…a challenge.”
Hank and Juan looked at him, with Hank saying, “Hadn’t really occurred to em.”
“I thought maybe…” Juan said, pointing at the girl, he shrugged, “Not many children survive contact with even a shambler.”
“The dog though? That seems unlikely. I mean cool if it happened, but dog teeth aren’t really good for cracking dog skulls, so how would they kill a zombie? If they don’t kill a zombie, how can they get powerful? Can a dog become a super? Shee-it, if a dog can, why not a horse or a cat or a mouse?” Hank asked.
Juan shrugged again, “What powers would a dog have?”
“Here! Here!” Dorothy pointed at a house with a trashed garage door. This wasn’t unusual; almost all the garage doors on the block were either open, destroyed or both. About one in every five houses was a crumpled mess due to the storms of almost a full decade without maintenance. A palm tree had fallen onto the house above the garage and that catastrophe hadn’t happened anytime recently. Dorothy scrambled through the weeds and vines growing over the opening and disappeared inside with Melvin. “C’mon and see it!”
The men had to clear some vegetation away to get inside the garage, but were rewarded with a car that looked almost drivable. It was a white Ford Taurus, the kind with a rear hatch back. The garage had collapsed on the rear half, with one two by four broken and thrust through the rear hatch. The weight of the rubble had flattened both the rear tires over the years, but other than that the vehicle looked good.
“This is it?” Nick said, “I don’t know…”
“It’s fine.” Hank said, moving around to the front, where the hood seems to stick up unnaturally high.
Juan ran his fingers along the body of the vehicle, while Melvin sniffed about the second, unoccupied garage bay, shuffling through some rags and paper scrapes, as well as dried palm fronds and sand which had blown in from outside.
“Bad gas in the tank, battery has a spark.” Juan said.
“Needs tires on the back, we can force these in the front to work. The suspensions probably shot from all the weight on the back end. We’ll need to get the tree cleared and all that stuff pulled off the front. A shadow blocked out the light coming in from the garage side of things, they looked to see the zombie pushing his way through.
“Dorothy? Are you alright?” The zombie asked.
“It’s okay, Ed! Daddy sent them.”
“I know. Are you alright?”
She rolled her eyes and said, “I’m fine. I have Melvin! I always have Melvin!”
“It is good to hear you are alright. What are you doing?”
“We are going to fix this car up and drive it out of here.” Hank said.
“They are going to give me a ride around the houses, past the Thompson’s place!” Dorothy said.
“A ride? In this?”
“Yes, Ed! You can come too, right guys?” Dorothy said.
Hank mentally calculated the seats to people and pets ratio before slowly nodding. “I suppose. It’ll be tight…”
“I get to drive!” Dorothy said, “It’ll be like the movies!”
“No!” Hank and Juan said together.
“You said you would let me!” She protested.
“I said we would give you a ride.” Hank said.
“I think she should drive.” Ed said.
Hank looked the zed over, he seemed about to say something, but Juan spoke before he had a chance. “First thing is we have to get it out of here. Then we need tires or an air compressor. Ed do you know what an air compressor is?”
By giving everyone tasks the conversation about who was driving was deferred. Ed took Dorothy and Melvin with her to look for an air compressor in the house and wrecks along the street. Nick and Hank busied themselves clearing the driveway and Juan concentrated on keeping the house from collapsing as the other two jostled things around.
Their part of the project only took about ten minutes thanks to the enhanced strength of the men doing the labor. Hank was again exhausted and red in the face and Nick moved to touch his arm, stopping the toxins in his blood from aggravating him further. Dorothy came running up the sidewalk with a small black box, “Is this it? Is this an air combustor?”
It was a small compressor, the kind that usually goes into a car’s trunk to inflate tires after a roadside repair.
Hank took the black box and turned it over in his hands, there was a gauge on the front of it and one side held a compartment, from which a plug went to the car’s power and a heavy rubber like tube that was meant to be connected to the tire that needed to be pumped up.
“This’ll do nicely, thanks!” Hank said, “Is Ed coming back?”
Melvin pressed against Dorothy’s legs, looking up at the girl’s face, “Ya. He said he would look for the tires you told him about, most are all flat though. What if we can’t find good tires? Can we still ride?”
“Well, I am sure there will be something we can do.” He reached out and tousled her hair, getting a growl of warning from Melvin and a shrug from Dorothy before she ducked away.
The dog stayed between him and the girl as she skipped over to the car, “What’cha doing now?”
Juan was lifting the car up and Nick was putting the little tire jack under it, “We are going to take these old tires off.”
“You’re strong, mister, can’t you just hold it while he takes the tire off?” She pointed at Nick.
“I could, if I had to, but this way, I can help with other things too.” Juan lowered the car onto the jack.
Down the street gunfire barked into the silence. Instinctively the men and dog huddled around Dorothy who laughed as she scrunched down behind the car.