“You see anything, Juan?” Hank asked from behind the car.
“No. Nada y nadie.”
“Do you think it was our zombie friends?”
Juan shook his head, “Wrong way, unless they passed us by.” He shook his head again. “Ed’s up that way. Looking for tires.”
“Well shit. We better go get him. Nick?”
“You wanna stay here with Dorothy?”
“Sure, her and me will protect the car.” Nick said.
Dorothy nodded, “Gotta stay down. The others will be here soon.”
She whispered when she spoke again, “They always come runnin’ when someone fires a gun.”
“Does it happen a lot?” Nick asked.
“Not so much anymore. I ain’t seen a fight in a long time.”
No more shots had been fired. Hank looked to Juan, “Shall we just go up there and see if they will be reasonable?”
“Si.” Juan said, his rifle was already unslung. Hank’s was not.
The two of them disappeared around the corner of the car closest to the front of the house and Nick watched them go through the side windows. They were sticking to the edge of the place, trying to be unseen. “Why don’t they just use their powers?” he mumbled.
“Fixin’ the car?” Dorothy asked.
“They can do other things too, their special.”
“I had a brother who was special. Wasn’t really my real brother, but he was nice. Mama always said he was special, big and stinky, but fun to be around. I used to make him go for swims so he wouldn’t smell so bad.”
“Good idea. What happened to him?”
“He wandered off one day. Pop says he’s still out there somewhere, roaming around, trying to find his way home. I don’t know though, I’ve looked everywhere for him and even Melvin has tried.”
“Back away from the girl!” called a voice behind him.
Nick glanced over his shoulder and kept his hands on the car, a woman in her forties held a gun on him, more figures were quickly approaching.
“He’s al’right, Sia! He’s with me and Melvin!” Dorothy pointed at the dog beside her.
Sia nodded and ran up on the other side of the dog, “If you say so, Dorothy, then I believe you.” She still gave Nick a hard stare. “I guess I believe Melvin even more. What are you doing up here? Your pop, is gonna have a conniption!”
“He sent me with these guys to show ‘em an old car.”
“Guys? Where’s the rest of ‘em?”
“They went up after Ed. Least ways we think Ed is in trouble, he was up tha-da-way and that’s when we heard the gun.”
“My two friends went after Ed.” Nick said. Other members of Dorothy’s community arrived, taking cover in the garage and behind the tree and car. Sia filled them in on what was going on. After less than a couple of minutes there were a dozen armed people and zombies gathered around, they opted to split up into fours, with one set proceeding up the old street, one taking the back yards and the last walking up the beach. Nick was invited to go with the street group while Sia stayed back with Dorothy.
“I thought they would be back by now.” Nick said as his group went up the street.
They didn’t have far to go, perhaps a block and a half. Ed was sitting in the rock-scaped front yard with Hank and Juan beside him. Half of Ed’s head was missing from beside his nose on up and all the way out the back. The zombie was rocking back and forth, mumbling incoherently. Two tires were laying to either side of the man, not tires exactly, Nick noticed as they approached, but small durable rubber donuts, used for spares.
Hank looked over at the group, who were all pointing their guns in his direction, “They went that way.”
Juan was staring at the group too and Nick didn’t like the way the man looked at him. Stepping up closer Nick watched the two men closely and asked, “What happened?”
“A couple of guys with guns, they hit this zombie, took have his head off…”
Nick focused his power on Juan and watched as the man’s skin peeled away and fell off like wisps in the wind. Juan didn’t seem to notice, and the man underneath just kept nodding and staring at the group, in his hands he held a sawed-off shotgun.
The rest of the group yelled and ‘Hank’ turned to look at Juan and whipped back around with a rifle unlike any that the real Hank possessed as far as Nick knew. The men and women with him were fast, but not quite fast enough, ‘Juan’ fired his gun, only one barrel and Hank shot one of the rescue party before both men went down in a flurry of bullets.
“What the hell? What the hell?” Asked one of the women with them, two others were bent over the man next to them, trying to restrict the blood flowing out of his leg.
“I don’t know. Something didn’t look right, so I scanned them.” Nick said, “Those weren’t my friends.”
“We need to get Lister back to the house before he bleeds out!” They got a bandage around the wounded man’s leg, while Nick checked out the men next to Ed. To his relief neither were Hank or Juan, which made him wonder where the two actually were.
As two of the other men lifted Lister up to head back, the woman left with Nick asked, “Now what?”
As she said that the back yard and beach crew blazed into the street from either side of the house, looking for hostiles.
“What happened Darlene?”
“Couple of super humans shot Lister. Looks like they got Ed too, or nearly did. The two of them were disguised.” She pointed a finger at Nick, “He did something to them and their cover just kind of melted away, they had guns on us. Not sure if they were going to kill us or just try and get us to move on. His pals are still missing. Did any of you see any signs of them?”
A series of ‘no’s and head shakes came from the others. “Well then I guess we have to keep moving north until we find out where they disappeared to. Someone want to tie up Ed? At least ankle him to something.”
Nick was going to ask what that meant, but he found out soon enough, one of the zombies pulled a thick, crude rope from over his shoulder and bound Ed’s ankle and then dragged the still moving zed to the mail box and tied the other end of the rope to that.
“In case he comes back as a shambler again.” Darlene told him, “I hope he makes it, he was good with Dorothy and Melvin.”
“I can go find my friends, you don’t owe us anything. Go back and keep your people safe.” Nick told the others.
One of the zombies, who was sporting a full beard, said, “To strike one of us, is to strike all of us. It was about being neighborly until they shot Lister and Ed. Now it’s a job we have to do.”
“We can’t be seen as weak.” Darlene added, “Other people would move in on us and none of us would be safe, if they hit us, we hit them harder. Hell, I think we owe you a massive ‘Thank You’, you found them out before they got to us. Who knows what these freaks would have done if they had found the neighborhood first?”
Nick nodded. “Okay, does anyone know where to look?”
A rifle fired off in the distance, inland, from some swampy looking woods.
“I might have an idea.” Darlene said with a grin. “Telly, you go after Ricky and David, just make sure they make it to the hood okay, put everyone on alert and get another dozen of us as reinforcements, sent out a few pairs of scouts in every direction to make sure this ain’t a feint of some sort. Use the air horns if it is. Tell Sia to bring the kid back too if she hasn’t already. And if they air horn, we’ll approach from the west, got all that?”
A skinny adolescent zombie nodded, “I can do it.”
“You come with us.” Darlene said.
“I was planning to.”
“I think you mean that. Sorry about this next part, I really am.”
“You stay in front of us, where we can keep an eye on you and make sure your little pea shooter stays in that direction too.”
Nick stood there for a second, “You can’t think that we…that I am part of this?”
The others just stared at him for a moment.
“Ah, yeah, I get it. Well I’m not, so try not to shoot me in the back.” Nick turned and led the way toward the line of trees that marked the edge of the swamp.
“Watch out for gators.” One of the men told him.
Hank and Juan never found Ed. Juan spotted a trio of people moving back toward a line of trees off in the distance. “Go after them?”
Hank merely nodded, “I suppose. I don’t have a good feeling for poor old Ed.”
“Maybe they thought he was a shambler?”
“This region seems pretty settled, why wouldn’t they ask questions first?”
Juan nodded, “Outsiders.”
“But from how far outside. You don’t think it could be Californians, do you?”
“What? Estás loco?”
“Well they were pretty persistent.” Hank said.
“No. They have no idea where we are. Why should they care anyway?”
“Ruben said they might have an interest in Nick.”
“He might have mentioned it when we were up late one night.” Hank said.
“That old man gives me the chills. I believe him though, I just don’t like being near something divine.”
“He wasn’t divine.” Hank said.
“Angels talked to him.” Juan persisted.
“Mmm.” He shrugged his shoulders, “Okay, more your department than mine. What are we going to do when we catch up to these guys?”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
The two moved into the swamps, there was a defined, dry game trail weeding its way among the bogs and they followed that for a couple of minutes. Juan, in the lead, stopped when the path turned sharply behind some vines about three hundred meters ahead of them.
“Looks like a fair place to set an ambush, amigo.” He said.
“Yeah, I agree, do you want to check it out, or should I?”
“How about both?” Hank
Hank grinned and for a second Juan saw a healthy, robust man, not one weakened by his fight against the plague. “Okay, you go low, I’ll give you a count of ten and I’ll go high.”
With a nod, Hank disappeared into the earth. “Uno, dos…” When he reached ten, Juan crouched down and then leaped up into the air, soaring above the trees in an arc that would land him close to three hundred meters away.
Leaping was not a precise way to travel and in the swamps half a meter off on the landing could mean the difference between wet and dry. With a splash Juan landed in a canal behind a prepared position where a man and a woman had been watching them. The woman, mouth agape, watch him splash down, the man was on a radio. Juan caught some of the words as he submerged and hit mud. “…supers, one just disappeared, the other leapt up in…”
His powers of leaping did require some terra firma to launch from so he found himself foundering about for shore, barely getting his head above water for a moment or two to breath. When he finally got to a place where he could keep his head up, he heard the gunshots. A three-round burst and the sharp retorts of a pistol. “Hank!” He shouted, redoubling his efforts to get out of the canal. A familiar hand reached out and grabbed his forearm. “Hank?”
“Better keep your feet on the ground, buddy.” He lifted Juan up out of the canal.
Behind Hank the man and woman were both dead, the man’s head had been twisted around until he was face up and his body was face down and the woman’s torso was embedded in the earth, with only her legs sticking out.
“I no sooner said, ‘Hello’ than they opened up on me.” Hank pointed to his chest, where fresh blood accented tiny holes in his shirt.
“Been hurt worse. Somehow fighting them makes me feel alive, Juan.”
Juan looked him over; Hank looked better, much better, the difference was startling. “Si. You look almost…healthy.”
“And it feels good, Juan, killing them felt good. I don’t like it.”
“They were both alive. I mean humans, not zombies.”
Hank nodded, “Yeah. I think my wacked out blood is feeding and I’m not even zed yet.”
“This is not good.”
“The opposite. A step back.”
“Well we don’t have any time to think about it now. Tell you what, you kill the living and I’ll mop up any of the dead that we can find.”
“If they don’t want to talk.” Juan said. A single shot rang out and the bullet flew just over Juan’s shoulder, near his neck and into Hank’s chest.
Hank grunted, “I’ll go low. Take care of yourself.”
Juan turned around to see a group of more than thirty people assembling on a hillock 70 meters away. A millionth of a second before the next bullet was fired, Juan sped up his universe, the blood in his head rang out with joy. This was being alive. He sped along the path, noting the curls of smoke vomiting from the guns of those in the distance, not caring; knowing none of the lead flying through the air would come close to hitting him. Each step was ten, each second was thirty. This group was throwing ammunition around like they had an unlimited supply, Juan’s pack wasn’t so full. He sauntered, by his point of view to the end of the line, pulling out his knife as he went.
There were zeds in the mix and Juan avoided them where he could, some were super, some were quick, none were as fast as he was. The humans in the group were a mixed batch as well, one of theirs, a young man with an angry sneer, tracked Juan, but moments behind. From his fingers spread a flame, appearing out of nowhere from just in front of his outstretched palms. Tic…tic…tic. Juan jammed his knife through the firebug’s chest, easing it in almost gently from his perspective, leaving it in long enough to make sure the man was dead. Pulling it out he continued to work down the line until he reached the children.
Zeds, humans, boys, girls. They all had weapons too, smaller caliber rifles, no pistols among them. Most were still looking back to the path were Juan started, but a couple were turning his direction. Not children. Not even zombie children, who might well be twenty now, trapped in the never growing frames that they had died in. Juan did a loop of the camp, taking out a couple of rear guards as he came back around. Hank was halfway through the lines by then, mopping up the dead that Juan had left. He had been shot again and there was a machete sticking out of his upper right arm and a knife in one kidney.
Spinning around him Juan pulled the knife and machete off as Hank picked up another zombie to use as a shield to approach the next one. The zombies were routing now, the kids, screaming for their parents were, for the most part paralyzed in place. Among them the zombie children had fled, one or two dragging a living kid with them. The one zombieboy who stood his ground had tossed his gun down and held only a raw piece of wood, a stout piece of wood perhaps 75 millimeters square, with a handle carved out of one end and nails protruding from the other.
Hank finished the last zombie, leaving only the boy left.
“Kid. It’s over. Go away while you still can. Go help your friends.” Hank told him.
The kid screamed in defiance and plodded toward hand, the earth pulling up with each step he took, as if he were on a plain of sticky brown taffy. Step by step he plodded forward, each fall of his foot reverberating on the ground as it hit.
“They were my family!” He yelled, swing his club down at Hank. Juan blurred out and struck the club with his knife, only to have the blade knocked away.
Too late to give warning, Juan watched as Hank sunk into the earth away from the blow, coming up underneath the kid, grabbing him by one leg. The boy swung his club around at Hank, screaming all the while. The length of the weapon wasn’t right for such a close assault and the spikes missed the man altogether, leaving the handle to deal Hank a glancing blow.
The man grabbed the zombie by the neck and grunted with effort, pulling the boy’s head from his shoulders with sound of ripping fabric. Sand and earth fountained out of the separate pieces as Hank threw the body parts to the ground.
“Jesus.” Juan said.
“Wouldn’t have done it. Didn’t see much choice. Anyone around back?” Hank asked, taking a few steps in that direction.
“No, Hank, they were alive. I took care of them.”
The pair turned around to see the boy standing defiantly whole, rage snarling his face into a death mask. He charged Juan this time and when Juan made to move away he tripped, his feet embedded in the ground. The boy landed on him and Juan delivered a dozen stab wounds to his upper torso and head, which bled dirt and didn’t slow him down at all. Hank finally got his hand on the boy’s head and raised him up off of Juan.
The boy, lived above Hank’s shoulder, spun and began to twist in Hank’s hands. “Be right back.” Hank winked at Juan and disappeared.
Juan picked himself up, cautiously taking a few steps. “Jesus.” He crossed himself and waited another few seconds for Hank to reappear.
“Shitty ole earth around here. Not sure what the rock is, but that should hold him for a hundred years.” He stepped up out of the ground near Juan and scanned the area. “Can’t be too careful.”
“Yeah, he was different.”
“They all are.” Both men fell into a sinkhole, which formed large enough to break into the surrounding swamp and begin filling with water.
Hank lunged for Juan, and Juan tried to get purchase on the flowing debris to reach his friend, knowing what he intended. It was only by pure luck that the earth and water began flowing in a circular motion and that Juan, in front of Hank was able to push himself off of a tree back toward his friend, catching him around the legs. Everything went dark and quiet for both men as Hank merged with the earth one more, the motion stopped immediately, and he felt his way through the gloom for a hundred meters before making his way to the surface, which ended up being in a natural part of the swamp, in only a few centimeters of water and half a meter of sticky muck.
“How do we deal with this guy, Juan?”
“Talk to him?” Juan sputtered, spitting out earth and water. When Hank brought people with him under the earth, he didn’t bring an air supply for his passengers. Air wasn’t something Hank seemed to need when he used his power.
“Okay. Maybe we should give him some time to cool down?”
Juan nodded, “Si. We better go check on Nick. Steer him clear.”
“Leap or burrow?”
“Leap.” Juan said. The two scrambled up onto a watery tuft of ground and Juan looked for something to leap from. “C’mon.” He said extending a hand to Hank.
“I always feel so foolish when you leap with me.”
“Like I do when you hold me like a babe and take me underground.” Juan said.
“Remember that time in New Mexico? When we had those air tanks?”
“Exactly what I was talking about.”
“Well I guess if you come down in water I will be able to take over from there and get us further along to the beach.” Hank said. He put his arms around his friend’s neck and Juan gripped him around the waist in a hug.
“Not a word.” Juan warned him, “Or I’ll drop you mid-flight.”
Hank looked like he was going to say something, but nodded and looked away instead. Juan arced them up and out of the swamp by a good distance, landing almost a kilometer away and in the sandy dunes above the beach, which was empty.
“A couple more should have us back to the wagon.” Hank nodded.
It did and when they arrived they saw there was no one there.
“Now where did they get to, Juan? Back to Dorothy’s house, I imagine.”
Gunfire came from the woods they had just left.
“Or not.” Hank amended.
“C’mon.” Juan said, holding his arms out to Hank.