The four-wheeler bounced over the small hills of the forest, despite the lack of any brush or branches on the clear path. Frankly, I was surprised it had kept this clean if no one had kept it in use for months. Al had said that it was a straight shot from the house to the edge of the woods. Apparently, it would open up to the highway after about two miles. At the entrance, there would be a loose chain from hanging between two stakes in the ground. He said the trees would be thick around the entrance, and there was a four-foot deep trench around it. I understood what this meant before he had to tell me. I would have to leave the four-wheeler behind.
The chain wasn’t loose enough to life it, and I wasn’t going to be able to break it off. Simply unlocking it was out of the question, too, because Al’s damn brother had thrown away the key when he and Diane had come here for good. The trench and bushes prevented me from driving around, and there was no way I could life the damn thing, even without the weight of my supplies.
Just as I had these thoughts, I pulled up to the barrier. I slowed to a stop, and considered leaving the keys in the ignition, but I know it’ll take more fuel to start it back up. So I hopped off and scouted the place out. It was true; the trench was too deep, and the brush was too thick, even without any leaves to obstruct my vision. I walked to the loose chain hanging between the two white posts. The chain itself was rusted to an unattractive orange. I held it in my fingers and rubbed some of it off. I made a face and bent to wipe it off on the ground. When I stood again, I lifted my leg over the chain and stepped to the other side. The road was surprisingly open and clear. It was that much more appealing. The air was cold, though, I noticed as I was in the open. There were two lanes on each side of the grassy medium, but the grass itself was a wilted brown due to the lack of any rain. The thought reminded me of the time of year. It was somewhere in November now, probably, although I might have been wrong. I loose track every time I stop thinking about it.
I pulled the camo jacket over my body tighter and finally zipped it, deciding I wouldn’t need my weapons soon. I took a breath and reevaluated my situation. I walked back to the posts in the ground and kicked at one of them in frustration. Jesus Christ, there was no way I’d be able to make it out of here for two miles before needing a break from the cold, or to eat. And I wouldn’t be able to last one night out here. This was a mistake. I couldn’t do this by myself. I sighed and looked down to the ground. I dropped down to a squat by the side of the road, and fell to me butt. I tried to lean against the post, but when my back finally found it and leaned back, the thing collapsed backwards with me. I fell back until the post stopped at about a 75-degree angle.
I sat up straight and turned around, facing the white post in bewilderment. The thing wasn’t in the ground nearly as deep or steady as I thought it was. The thing could be pulled out if it wanted. The chain did nothing to keep anything out…
Or anything else in…
I hopped up and jumped in giddiness. I high-fived myself and went to grab the post. I brought it back towards me at an even more extreme angle. Then forth, back, forth. Eventually, it was loose enough that I could pull it right out of the ground like a loose tooth. It was heavier than I thought, but my sudden ecstasy was taking over, so I threw the thing over to where it’s brother stood, still in the ground. Hmph, it had seemed longer in the ground, but from here, I could see that it was only about four feet of wood.
I kicked the rest of the chain on the ground over to the other side into a tangled pile. From there, I remembered that the four-wheeler was still running on gas, and I only had a few extra cans of fuel for later. I ran back over to it and called for Zombie. She was missing now, but she quickly came running from a little away from the path. She jumped straight on when I patted the back seat part. She sat, and then lay down when I revved the engine and began forward. I turned right, as Al had told me to do. I was headed north for the city; he had said it would be a few days before I reached the destination if I could make the four-wheeler last that long. I wouldn’t be able to, but it’d get me further than just on foot.
I was thankful for at least that.
We were headed up the highway for the entire day, which was good, I suppose. Lynn was in charge of the map, and setting us in the right direction, and Zeke was driving calmly, although he kept an eye on Uriah in the corner, where he was leaning over our entire array of weapons. I could only assume that he was taking inventory of everything we had. It was a compulsory kind of thing of his; counting and keeping his things in order. And it wasn’t a bad thing, either. Having an inventory would keep anyone from stealing things, or wasting anything, too. If we began to run low on any of the supplies, we’d hold up on using it.
Eric was on top of the RV, I think. He had strapped a folding chair onto the roof, and then strapped himself to it. It was stupid, yeah, we all knew it, but he didn’t care for our opinions. We couldn’t leave him, and it was nice to have him out of our hair.
I told the guys and Lynn that I’d be taking a nap, and I walked to the bedroom and slid the door shut behind me. I moved a chair in front of the knob and sat on the bed. I slipped my shirt off and sat on the bed, but then laid down, resting my head on the center pillow. I pulled my arms up behind my head and I thought. I thought about the future among other things. I wondered if I’d ever get the life my parents had had. Well, not the fighting part, but rather the life they had before that. I had seen framed photos of them before I was born. Mom was young and beautiful and happy. Marcus had been happy, at least with her. Their wedding was gorgeous, too. When the photos started changing was really nineteen years ago. Around the time that Mom was pregnant with me.
It was stupid to think this, but I couldn’t help it. I had always felt that I was the thing that ruined their marriage. I had ruined their lives, their love. Marcus had stopped smiling in photos, and Mom’s smiled became forced, which was worse than none at all. The yelling would start when I was six, but it escalated to fighting after a year. Then, he began hitting her, finally coming after me when I was nine.
He ended up killing her in the end, when her body, or maybe her mind, just couldn’t take it anymore. That was in part why he died at the beginning of the disease. He was never infected, although that’s what I tell everybody these days. They would believe it; there wasn’t any reason for them not to. But it wasn’t the truth.
The truth was that I didn’t save him. I easily could have, but I didn’t. Technically, I never killed him, but I just told myself that to clear my conscience. Realistically, I never saved him, which was the same as killing him in most people’s minds.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to think about. I wanted to think that I’d get a chance with a girl, someone who would love me, despite the issues. But those would be easy to get over since everyone in the world these days had some kind of issues. Either they had killed someone they once knew because they had become something they couldn’t unbecome, or they killed someone to protect themselves and others.
So the girl I kept thinking about was the girl I had already met… and had started shooting at. Yeah, it wasn’t the most pristine first impression, but I’m sure she understood.
I wanted to remember what she looked like, but it was fading quickly. The best memory I had of her was her socking me in the face with the blade, and then turning away as she ran into the corn. It was blurry, but I wanted to think what I saw in her eyes was regret. Maybe it was for hurting me, or maybe it was for leaving. Or maybe it was never even there, just my imagination.
I hadn’t asked Zeke or Lynn if they knew her name, if her partner had said it back when they shot him. I wanted to, but there was this thing called pride standing in my way. So I didn’t ask. I tried to let myself forget and fall asleep. I closed my eyes.
Lynn was shaking my shoulder when I woke up. I immediately reached for my knife on the nightstand, but it was gone. Lynn was holding it away from me, waiting for me to calm down. Damn, she knew I’d attack if woken suddenly.
“Give it to me,” I commanded, a bit embarrassed. She handed it over, but started talking immediately.
“Look, Four,” she said quickly. I noticed we were stopped in the middle of the road, from the lack of motion. I worried that something had happened to Eric, maybe he had fallen off. But Lynn seemed more frantic than solemn, so I ruled that possibility out. “We’ve got company.” I sat up straighter. It was a simple sentence, but it brought lots of meaning. And questions.
Was the company a threat, or could they help us? Could we help them? Were there lots of them? Two or three? Were they armed?
I slid to the edge of the bed, and bent to my boots, slipping them on one at a time. I tied them tight and stood. I looked down to Lynn’s hand, which was holding my shirt. She handed it to me, but I also saw that she was holding her pistol, ready for a fight. I didn’t know if that said more about her or about the visitors. I moved into the main area and grabbed my coat from the bench. It made me warmer, but also made me seem bigger than I actually was, an illusion to assert dominance over the others. Uriah was by the door holding my rifle. He handed it to me, grabbing my wrist in the process. “Be careful,” he said. I nodded and stepped down from the RV. I put a scowl on to let the others know I was not one to be messed with. I saw that Zeke was standing by their vehicle, a large dark van. They all seemed to be out already, which was either quick for Zeke to command, or they wanted to get out. Maybe their leader had told them to.
I heard a loud thud come from behind me and turned to see Eric jump down from the hood of the RV to the ground. Uriah stepped out, with Lynn following. The three of them began following behind me.
I finally reached Zeke standing with another guy, a bit younger than the both of us. He was blonde and green-eyed. He was a thin dude, without much meat on him, although I didn’t want to underestimate him. He wouldn’t be strong, but he’d be quick. He could be a threat. Zeke introduced us. “Four, this is Will,” he said, motioning to the blonde. I nodded and held out my hand, holding the rifle in the other. He took my hand with a weak grip, which I wasn’t able to tell if it was a tactic or a legitimate weakness.
“It’s nice to meet someone new,” the guy said, Will was his name. He pulled his hand away and dropped it to his side. I noticed out of the corner of my eye his other hand massaging the other. I cocked my head.
“He says he’s from the more rural Illinois,” Zeke told me, away from Will’s ears. “They’re headed for the city, but one of them is hurt.” He paused. “They might need our help.”
“That’s exactly what we need,” Will said from behind us. We both turned to him. I had thought he wasn’t able to hear us. Eric’s finger twitched on the trigger of his pistol. I kept an eye on him.
“Well, I mean,” Will stuttered. “We don’t necessarily need your help, but it’d be appreciated. See he’s important to our team, one of our smartest, just not smart enough to avoid getting shot.” Eric snorted, but looked away after I gave him a look.
A girl walked around from the other side of the van, curly dark hair bouncing with every step. I hadn’t been washed in a while; that much was obvious, but it was a nice kind of dirty look. I noticed Lynn roll her eyes. I didn’t want to think it was because she was jealous of the girl’s hair, but there wasn’t anything else about the girl that could have gotten that reaction.
The girl walked to Will, and as she did so, I read her. She was a fighter, and she endured, I gathered just by the way she was dressed. She wore a white camisole, although it was stained with blood, along with the upper part of her exposed chest. I decided it wasn’t hers. Her hands were stained, too, but they looked as if they had been washed. Her arms were bare, which was a bad choice, but a small jacket was tied around her waist, probably waiting until she got cold enough, which I figured would be quite soon. Her thin legs were straight and stick-like, and they were covered by skinny blue jeans that went straight into black combat boots. I noted the handle of a knife sticking out from her right boot.
She nodded to Zeke and looked to Uriah. She quickly looked away and turned to her companion, Will. She began speaking to him quietly, but I could hear a bit of it. Enough to know that it wasn’t English. I advanced towards the couple and held out my hand. “English please,” I told them. “I don’t want you getting any ideas.” The girl turned to me and opened her mouth, but Will cut her off.
“It’s Spanish, and it’s all she knows. This is Marlene,” he said. “And I don’t know enough to communicate an elaborate escape plan or whatever it is that you’re thinking. I only took a few classes in high school, I can only understand her a bit.” I stood there, evaluating the validity of his statement. I finally stepped back and nodded, letting them continue.
She spoke a little more, and Will finally answered in broken Spanish, proving his point. He was definitely not a native speaker. When they finally finished with the girl mostly dominating the conversation, Will nodded and sent her back to the back of the van.
“If you could come with us,” Will suggested. “Mar’s the closest thing we have to a medic, and she thinks he’s ready to see others. I forgot to ask you, but I’m sure one of you have dealt with a bullet or two, right?”
None of us answered but Will still smiled and waved us along with him. I turned to see Lynn just in time for her to finish nodding. Lynn started behind him first, and the four of us followed her. I became a bit more skeptical of the new people when we turned to the other side of the van to see them standing around. There were only two others a few feet away. They were both girls, neither of which looked strong enough to survive on their own. Will waved in their direction. “They’re Lauren and Molly,” he informed us. “Found ‘em with some other guys, but they bailed a few days in. Probably glad they got the two of them off their chests.” Marlene was right by the entrance of the van now, grabbing a handle and pulling herself up into the back. She crawled over to where someone was lying around, covered by a dark blanket. She held his hand and began speaking to him. She leaned him up to sip some water, and we made eye contact. He looked to the others in my group, but Marlene was already laying him back down. He said something to her, but I was looking to Lynn, who was already on the edge of the van. I called to her, “Lynn,” I said. She looked to me, raising her eyebrows, but that’s all I saw. Marlene pulled the knife from her boot, and looked to Lynn, then to me. I widened my eyes to her in warning, but it didn’t register in time.
Marlene launched herself forward, bringing the knife up and around to hover over Lynn’s throat. He hands flew up to the knife, but Marlene wasn’t budging. In a little over a second, I had brought my rifle up from my side to point to Will. And even though Zeke had searched him, we hadn’t accounted for weapons that could have been inside the van. He had reached into the van, where a rack must have been holding a plethora of guns and knives. He had grabbed two standard issue pistols and pointed them to Uriah and Zeke.
“Don’t try anything,” he said to the two of them. “Drop your weapons.” The two brothers hadn’t been quick enough, and their weapons were still at their sides. Uriah looked to Zeke, and he nodded back to him, disregarding whatever I would have said. I respected that; he was only trying to protect his brother. They lowered their guns to the road. They stood up straight and put their hands up. “Now kick them over here.” They complied. Will moved his focus aim to Eric and I.
He called the two other girls over here, but they hesitated before coming. Something was telling me they didn’t know how to fire rifles like Uriah’s or Zeke’s. They showed up finally and took the weapons and Will’s insistence. Even if they didn’t know how to fire one accurately, they could still pull a trigger, and I wasn’t about to take that chance.
“What’s up, Marlene?” Will shouted in English to the girl in the van, who currently held Lynn’s life in her hands.
She answered back in perfect English, which I swore to myself for. “Caleb’s saying he knows them,” she said. “He said the tall dark one shot him, and this one here hurt Tris. You know what that means, right?” She paused for a beat, but my mind wasn’t where theirs’ were. It was far behind. I didn’t know what she was talking about at all, but Will seemed to. Dawning shone perfectly on his facial expression.“They took her, Will. They took Tris.”