Chapter 24: First date
The tow truck hydraulics whined in the distance. I choked back a sob. I had heard the tow truck, that’s all. There’s no woman in the water, so she couldn’t have wailed. No, it was exactly what I now looked at, shopping bags and the wind….
Maybe Chris and Susan were right about me. When we reach the quarry, I would relax and take some time to sort myself out.
I peered along the riverbank, stunned to spot several more moaners. Even more were in the water. It seemed obvious the noise from the wrecker had alerted them to our presence. I felt around for the walkie-talkie. Damn, Theo had it.
The wrecker approached. I waved and the truck stopped when it pulled even with me. Jane, now in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window. Anthony approached from the other side and Dad opened his window. Wind howled through the cab.
“Dad,” I shouted, “there are moaners in the water. And they’re moving.”
Dad looked down toward the river. “Shouldn’t surprise me. I bet the warmer water prevents them from freezing.”
“Yeah, I think so, too.”
“Well, keep an eye on them. Did you let the others know?”
“No, couldn’t. I forgot a radio.”
Theo sat between Dad and Jane. He looked dejected. “Here, use this one.” He reached across Jane in a most rude manner and handed me the walkie-talkie.
“Go ahead,” Dad said, “We’ll get another one.”
Susan waved when the tow truck resumed its way forward. Not so jaunty now, she appeared cold and uncomfortable. I realized just how cold I was. The temperature had dropped all morning and I, well, my feet, were acutely aware of it. With nothing else to occupy my time, I watched the wrecker reach the levee. Jane backed up and the hydraulics whined when she dropped the car.
I turned toward Anthony with the thought to pass the time with conversation. “Hey, Tony, how old are you?”
Without looking at me, he replied, “It’s Anthony, and I’m twenty-three.”
He kept his gaze north, toward where his house lay. Arms crossed; he cupped his shotgun to his chest. That did not go well. I guess he’s not much of a talker.
Minutes of silence passed. Soon the tow truck backed toward our position. Theo sat in the far passenger seat. The wrecker stopped. He got out and handed me a bottle of water and Mom’s red dress coat.
“Present from your mom.” Theo helped me put the coat on.
“Thanks,” I said in surprise.
Anthony jumped in the truck and closed the door.
“You kids have fun,” Susan yelled from the back as it gathered speed toward the next vehicle.
I stared at Theo with my arms crossed, one eyebrow raised, and waited for an explanation.
“Err, your dad wants us to check under the bridge and, umm, maybe see how active the swimmers are.”
“Us?” I asked, both of my eyebrows raised.
“Well, he was going to have you and that other guy --” Theo jerked his thumb down the tracks, “do it.”
I could tell from his tone, Theo did not like that particular idea one bit.
“And, I wanted to get away from that Jane lady. She was getting on my nerves.”
“Couldn’t handle the truck, huh?” I asked, much harsher than I intended.
“No.” Theo shot back, “I kept killing it.”
I hadn’t meant to lash out. He looked unhappy with how things worked out. The bridge was supposed to be his big moment in the escape. Now, here he stood with me. Replaced by someone more capable of the job which had been his all these weeks. That had to hurt. He wouldn’t brood on it though. I knew he would have an entire different story to tell Chris when the time came.
“All right, outdoors buddy, let’s do this,” I said. Truth be told, if I were going to venture down to the river, I would have chosen to go with Theo.
He hefted his bat over his shoulder and headed for the guardrail. “It’s not like she didn’t kill the engine a few times herself.”
Yep, a whole other story.
I pulled my arrow from my boot and followed. We made our way down the steep escarpment. I felt unexpectedly happy to be with Theo. He’s better to be around than Anthony, I reasoned. We’d hunted moaners together for so long we knew how the other reacted.
I felt safe with Theo, much more so with him than anyone else. Even if I didn’t like him, I would still feel safe with him. I stopped while I let my last thought percolate around my mind for a minute.
We made our way under the bridge. At the river, we crept along the bank.
“How do you want to do this?” Theo asked while he scanned the riverbank.
“Let’s find one close to shore we can draw out.”
Along the shoreline, berms reached into the current. Most jutted straight into the river, but a few reached out fifty or one hundred feet then turned ninety degrees either upstream or downstream.
In a calm pool formed by the jetties, we found our prey. We made noise and called out to the swimmer. At last we got its attention. It floundered toward us.
Although by now unfazed by the sight of the undead, I must admit this one gave me the creeps. Slowly the corpse rolled over. Sometimes it disappeared under the water only to resurface a yard or two further downstream.
Theo pulled a tree limb from the water and taunted the thing with pokes to its undead eyes. The swimmer managed to orient itself and seize the branch. It drew itself along the limb while we pulled it toward shore. In shallow water, the beast gained its feet. It sloshed out of the river, straight at us.
“Damn.” Theo laughed. “These stink worse than the dry ones.”
Its dead and puffy eyes stared at us. We backed away. It attempted to lunge at us as it stumbled forward. Depth perception seemed to be a major problem for this one. The farther from the water it walked, the more uncoordinated and slow its movements became.
When it stumbled ten feet from the water’s edge Theo ran behind it. With his bat, he took out both knees. The beast crumpled to the ground. No longer able to stand, it crawled through the snow.
Theo looked at his watch. “One-thirty.” He pointed uphill toward a log. “Let’s go up there and see how long it takes for it to freeze.”
I thought about --it-- for a moment. She was just an it now. How easy and dangerous to forget. I brooded on this fact before I turned away to trudge up the hill.
She’d been well dressed when she died. Some sort of a businesswoman. I also noted the ring on her finger. Maybe she had been a mother, too.
Dangerous thoughts, Dad would say. Dangerous to fall into the trap of personalizing these things, for whoever they once were, they are no longer. Such thoughts slowed the reflexes.
We made our way up the gentle slope and reached the fallen tree where we settled down to wait. Theo faced the river. I jumped over the log to face the other way.
The wrecker returned to the levee with another vehicle. A big passenger van in tow, I watched them push the vehicle over the embankment. Two vehicles down, five to go. I pulled the bottle of water from my coat and took a drink before handing it to Theo.
“How’s our patient?” I asked.
Theo held up a finger while he drank. Gulped more like it. I could imagine it was his first drink all day.
After he drank half the bottle, he replied, “It’s still crawling toward us.”
This particular one was going to give me nightmares. Just what I needed: more nightmares. Something seemed so ordinary about her. No, I corrected myself, it. A year ago, it would have been common as it blended in with the rest of humanity. Just another someone who passed unnoticed through the world.
A gust of wind buffeted the hill. I shivered while the wind tore at my exposed flesh. In fact, I shivered more because of the she-beast than from the arctic blast. The way it rolled about in the water had unnerved me. So unnatural, and yet at the same time so human.
“Looks like it’s swimming,” Theo scoffed.
I glanced over my shoulder. Yes, it did look like it swam through the snow. It pulled itself toward us, progress measured in inches.
“Man, it sucks these things can swim,” Theo said.
I realized what frightened me so about this beast from the river. It hadn’t made me feel so uneasy. No, it had been where we found it and what it had been doing.
I looked at Theo. “Yeah, I know. It didn’t swim though. Think about it, every time it slipped under the water it would reappear a few feet away. Who knows how long it’s been in the water or where it came from.”
Theo looked shocked. I continued, “The whole river could be full of moaners and we wouldn’t know.”
“Shit,” Theo muttered, “You mean like walking along the bottom?”
“Yeah. Maybe. Or floating under the surface. You know what’s upriver don’t you?”
Theo shivered. “Yeah, Kansas fucking City.”