Second Dead

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Chapter 37: Again the tracks

Klara called out for Sanguis. Penri told her to hush and start the Humvee. She did, and the cat streaked across the barn and leaped through the driver’s door.

People scrambled to get to the right vehicle. Evidently, Dad and Penri had discussed new seating assignments. They directed people to various trucks, accompanied by much confusion. Susan moved to Mom’s SUV while Carmen and George were now with Dad. This left Klara to drive Penri.

“No lights, and take the lead, Theo,” Dad’s voice crackled across the airwaves.

Theo had just enough moonlight to guide us toward the railroad.

It struck me how warm it had become overnight. The steady southwest breeze brought moist air up from the gulf. Between the heat and the rain, the snow was turning to slush and melting fast.

Theo took the walkie-talkie and said, “Hang on. I want to check something.”

He stopped the truck and beckoned me to follow. Unsure of his intentions, I recognized the -- I’m about to do something stupid grin -- all too well.

Theo limped to a moaner in the snow. “What do you think?”

“I think we have a problem.” My flashlight illuminated the beast. It struggled to break free and regain movement. Flesh creaked like a tree in the wind as its muscles strained.

Theo hobbled over and thrust his machete into its skull. He pushed hard and broke through the bone to end its existence.

“Let me see your knife,” he said.

He bent down, jabbed it through the thigh and encountered much less resistance. He cleaned the blade on the coveralls.

We returned to the truck and Theo grabbed the walkie- talkie from the cup holder. He put the wrecker into gear.

“They’re mush,” he said. “Soft on the outside but still frozen inside.” He shifted into second gear.

“How long before they’re able to get up?” Dad asked.

“Well, they’re not ready for the grill, but they’ll be joining us for lunch.”

Theo turned onto the tracks. The familiar bump, bump, bump of the tires on the railroad ties commenced.

Dad’s lights flicked on behind us. “That’s it. Lights on. We’re gonna make a run for it. Theo, go as fast as you can.”

Theo turned to me with that grin. “Hang on. It’s about to get fun.”

He got the truck up to thirty miles an hour. We didn’t bounce as much, but each thump of the wheel hit sharper and more uncomfortable. The wrecker protested with each bang and made a god-awful racket. Vibrations enveloped the vehicle. Theo and I traveled in silence; so much noise surrounded us, conversation proved impossible.

Silvery moonlight illuminated a flat, featureless landscape. Only the occasional cluster of trees or buildings broke the monotony. To my right lay the Mississippi River. Somewhere to our left, the highway marched northward. This road never entered into Dad’s plans. He felt it would be far more dangerous than the railroad. Penri, Jane, and the weather changed all that.

Half an hour passed before we approached Glenfeld, the first of the towns we would travel through. A collection of corrugated metal garages and one large warehouse complex loomed ahead. These, along with part of the town, formed a defensive compound. A rusted eight-foot high chain linked fence surrounded the buildings.

Bodies lay heaped on the ground. The scenes of death, especially the children, overpowered.

I saw for the first time that ubiquitous symbol of American military might in the form of two Abrams tanks parked inside the compound. Strange, in all of the disaster movies I’d ever seen, these things were everywhere. Yet in our own all too real calamity, they proved to be an elusive sight.

Here stood the aftermath of an epic failure for humanity. A desperate battle to the death turned this town into a graveyard. Well, not death.

We passed these compounds and found the breach which led to this redoubt’s fall. A road crossed the tracks into town. Erected across the road stood a gate: the weak link. In the end, it proved inadequate for their needs. One wing of the chain link gate lay buried under mounds of corpses heaped around the barrier. The other wing still stood and opened into the compound.

To the right of the gate, the fence reemerged from under the bodies. The fence regained its vertical stance, evidence to the power of the horde that pushed it down. We drove past downtown. Whole buildings were bombed into rubble. The destruction testament to a failed strategy.

Did they understand at any point in this titanic struggle that they doomed themselves? Did they come to realize their very act of defiance drew ever more moaners to their defenses? Until overwhelmed by sheer numbers, they fell before the onslaught. Did those in charge even consider the possibility the very noise of their method of defense made inevitable the outcome of the struggle? Probably not. I sighed. How simple, how wise the axiom: silence is golden.

I turned away from the carnage. Off in the distance a line of trees and the Mississippi river moved in on us. I shivered. Never again would I take joy in a swim in a river. Not unless it was goddamn crystal clear.

The highway came into view when we left town. It traveled in lockstep with the railroad and both made their way north. From my vantage point several feet below the road, it appeared clogged with vehicles.

Two miles later, Susan’s voice came over the radio. “Dad, I can see a way onto highway 7 ahead. We can get off the tracks there. It’s clear--ish.”

“Got that, Theo?” Dad asked.

I picked the radio up and replied, “Yeah, Papa bear. Got it.” Sometimes nicknames just stick.

After all the vehicles made it onto the highway, Dad said, “Let’s make up for some lost time, son.”

Theo hit forty just as dawn broke. We weaved between the vehicles scattered along the two-lane highway. At last, we were on the open road. A few hours at this rate and we would be at our new home, ready to begin a new life.

I rolled my window down and breathed the fresh morning air. Anything seemed possible now. I leaned out to let the wind blow through my hair and experience the wonderful sensation of freedom. We were past the densely populated cities and free from their ever-present dangers. Four small towns and one hundred and forty miles separated us from our new home.

I glanced back and laughed. Susan stood through the sunroof of Mom’s SUV, arms outstretched and held above her head. She too enjoyed the feel of fresh air on her face.

Finally, after all those long months trapped in Fishers Creek and two torturous days circling the metropolis, we were free. Like a comet having rounded the sun, we hurtled into the unknown. Liberated at last from the city’s pull, we were on our way, really on our way.

I put my head back in the truck and gazed at Theo. He smiled, relieved to have made it, after so many struggles, onto the open road. Time to give this man his greatest desire. I extended my pinkie toward him. He laughed. Our pinkies touched. Theo got me to do his stupid pinky punch.

I chuckled. “What a dork.”

Theo had tried to make the pinky punch a thing since, well since his senior year in high school. Now, here at the world’s end, he had his dream come true. No, not the world’s end, a new beginning.

Theo turned his attention back to the road. I opened the glove box and pulled out a cassette tape. Hmm, Ann Murray. Well, it’s something. I inserted the tape into the stereo and turned up the volume. Ann’s voice serenaded us while we sped along the open road.

Mile after mile slipped past while the sun climbed up from the horizon. Theo pointed ahead where two moaners attempted to move. They looked like sunbathers basking in the morning sun. Theo sped past and splashed them with slush.

“That’ll show ’em,” I yelled over the wind and music.

Soon though, it stopped being funny. More and more moaners appeared. It became clear we had driven into a massive herd. I turned off the stereo and picked up the radio to warn the others.

“No shit.” Susan’s annoyed voice screeched over the radio. “I’ve been trying to warn you for five minutes. What are you guys doing up there?”

“Umm, listening to music,” I replied. Even I could hear how lame that sounded.

“Well, knock it off.” Dad sounded angry. “We’re not on some Sunday afternoon jaunt in the goddamn country. Susan, watch your language.”

Theo glanced at me. “Over eighty miles so far. A few more hours and we’ll be there.”

I rolled up my window. “Man, you look like shit.”

“Oh thanks.”

“Does it hurt?” I longed to touch his face and soothe away the pain.

“Only when people stare at it.”

After ten minutes, we cleared the herd. The road swerved to the right. Before long, we left the relative safety of the cliff wall. Back into open ground, the highway straightened out and stretched northward out of sight.

We zoomed past a road sign listing the distances to the next three towns. I said, “Farrar, twenty miles.”

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