Second Dead

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Chapter 40: Did you go before we left?

A mile out of Farrar we turned onto highway 37. The road took us back toward town while we ascended the hill which overshadowed the river valley. We attained the top of the bluffs and stopped to observe events. Penri remained on the highway below to keep the moaners interested and headed through town.

Most of the horde had already poured through the compound. There were stragglers to be sure. Some, too degraded in body to travel with the herd, lagged behind. These strung out all the way down the highway and out of sight. The survivors would deal with the left behinds in a day or two when they emerged from their shelters.

The drive through town had been a surreal experience to say the least. After we parted ways with Wenk, we waited on the highway while the herds approached and merged. With less than one hundred feet between the fastest moaner and us, we made our escape and headed into Farrar.

When we passed through the gates the town appeared abandoned, the exception, Sergeant Wenk and another soldier high up in a bell tower. Our Savior of the Guiding Light Catholic Church, I had read when we passed along the rather grand facade of the building. Where’s our savior now?

Out past the barricades, the scene became more bizarre still. Five soldiers, Goosby’s goons, I knew from the radio chatter, stood tied up along the highway. This gruesome procession began less than half a mile outside of town. Spaced several hundred feet apart, the last man stood at the juncture with highway 37. A few of the soldiers begged for their lives. The rest cursed us, Wenk, God, anything or anybody they could think of.

Penri had described in graphic detail the crimes committed over the last several months. I guess Wenk decided these men, like Goosby, had one last service to provide. Justice of a kind, I suppose.

Penri’s Humvee sped up the hill toward our convoy. He cut it close. Hundreds of moaners peeled away from the main herd and made their way up the hill toward our position.

“Get us out of here, Theo,” Dad said over the radio when Klara cleared the herd.

Theo didn’t need any encouragement. He put the truck in gear and we headed away. The herd would follow us. In a couple hours, they would lose interest and break apart. A few would continue.

It didn’t matter. I gazed at my map. Twenty miles to New Velda, and a few miles past that, we would turn onto another highway. Then, at long last, we would be headed straight for the farm.

Occasionally we came across moaners in the deserted countryside. For the most part, these were well off the road and we sped by without trouble. Often, we passed them before they were even aware of our presence. On several occasions though, we ran across the undead on the road itself.

“I learned that from a video game.” Theo sniggered when we came across the first one and he slowed down to smack the moaner with the corner of the bumper.

Theo blew through New Velda without even bothering to slow down. We left a wake of disturbed leaves and debris which carpeted the road. Deserted, except for a few stray dogs who barked when we passed through, New Velda defied my expectations.

This town had escaped the violence. Here or there, a broken window or wrecked car marred the otherwise tranquil facade of normality the storefronts presented. Strange to see, not even a dead body lay on the road. The irony depressed me; New Velda had become a ghost town.

We reached the outskirts and blew past the local high school. With a sense of déjà-vu, I recognized high up on a hill the haunted house Chet took us to every Halloween. Billed the scariest haunt in the world, it was New Velda’s sole claim to fame. Pathetic. So much had changed from my old life that the desire to be frightened seemed absurd.

However, was it absurd? Could this not be some vestigial memory of a far darker time long forgotten? An era when humanity found itself confronted with the same dangers and terrors we faced today. What about the attractions inside those four walls had so appealed to our subconscious need to be scared? Ghouls, goblins, werewolves, vampires, mummies in their crypts, all struggled to lay hold of the thrill seeker and in some manner consume their life.

Certainty flooded me. Yes, this memory kept alive the healthy fear of the monsters which lurked deep in our past. To add an exclamation point to my sudden insight, up on the hill three moaners ambled toward us, as if in costume, they played their parts.

Theo snorted when I shared this particular revelation with him. “Don’t forget about ghosts,” he said.

Who could? The disturbing possibilities haunted my every thought.

I started to get both excited and nervous when we turned onto highway D. Fifty miles to go and we would be at our new home. The highway meandered south and soon we were twenty miles from the interstate, our last known obstacle.

A funny idea occurred to me. A vision if you will, of Theo milking a cow. I turned to him, intent on sharing my whimsy. He concentrated on the road and the many obstacles around each hairpin turn. Forget it, I thought. Besides, Theo’s much more of a herdsman. A duck herder. I laughed to myself.

I turned my attention back to the road, which twisted and turned in ways only a country highway could. Rising elevation seemed to be the only constant. We headed upwards at a gradual grade. Soon we found ourselves on top of a ridge. Ahead, the road plunged into the valley on the other side.

Hmm, not bad. In fact, it was rather beautiful. Empty fields filled the bottom of the valley and a picturesque river cut through the fields on either side. Farmhouses and barns of various colors and descriptions dotted the landscape. Uncountable shades of brown melded with the white of un-melted snow still deep in patches along the valley. Set against a backdrop of the bluest sky, these elements formed a postcard perfect scene of tranquility.

Once again the squeal from the walkie- talkie assailed my ears. Seconds after, Susan’s voice came over the radio. She told us to stop at the crossroad just past the bridge.

The river, beautiful and clear, flowed swift from the snowmelt. Theo brought the wrecker to a halt less than fifty feet past a bridge. I turned around and watched Penri’s Humvee pull alongside Dad’s truck.

Farm structures lined the river and road to our left. Dad instructed Theo to turn right. We made our way down a steep incline and found at the base of the bridge wall an overturned truck, tan and drab. Some of the cargo had spilled onto the rocky ground.

Boxes of ammunition lay scattered about. Some were ammo cans but for the most part the containers were made of wood. Theo drove past, turned around, and returned to the trailer.

“Man, I wish George was here,” he said with a grin while we waited for further instructions.

“Yeah, I know. He would love to know we’re at his smiley face.”

“What? Nooo. Highway double P. I could have gotten him real good.”

Obviously we wanted George for very different reasons. Theo had tried to get me to say highway P.P. since, well, before we crossed that particular road. No way did I fall for that.

George on the other hand. I sighed, amazed. With all we struggled against, Theo could still act so stupid. Potty humor. Of course, the whole thing would have amused George.

I tossed my map onto the dashboard and hopped out of the truck. We joined the others and swept the secluded depression for moaners and were soon satisfied we were alone and now in possession of a treasure trove beyond our wildest dreams. Klara and Susan tore into boxes like it was Christmas day.

“.50 cal, Major.” Klara beamed when she held up a belt of seriously large bullets.

“Will this help?’ Chris asked when he rounded the truck with two M-16’s.

“Will they.” Penri grinned.

“All right, let’s make this quick.” Dad’s nervous eyes darted across the landscape. “Klara, take whatever matches our weapons and nothing else.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Wallis,” she replied, right before she climbed into the trailer.

We loaded the vehicles with all the ammo we could find room for. Penri backed his vehicle up to the overturned truck. Chris, Anthony, and Theo piled .50 cal cans into the Humvee. Klara squealed in excitement when she found four crates of loaded M-16 magazines.

Everyone helped and we formed a line to pass ammo to each other. Even the kids pitched in. George appeared to be unhappy. His grimy face told me he’d been crying.

After an hour, the pace slowed. It became harder to find places to stash the ammo. Theo and Maria took this opportunity to check the truck for gas. She found several gallons of diesel in the top tank of the overturned rig. Theo grabbed two empty five-gallon buckets from the wrecker and showed her how to siphon the gas.

George stood by himself and leaned against Dad’s truck. I walked over to check on him. He broke into tears while he tried to explain.

“Da -- Dad wouldn’t stop,” he whimpered between sniffles. “I couldn’t help it. It just happened and now they’re calling me a baby.”

“Who called you a baby?” I demanded.

“Laura and Carmen,” he sniffled.

About to ask George what he couldn’t help; I caught a whiff and understood. I hugged him. At nine years old, to soil yourself in front of other children seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen.

“Let’s find some pants and get you cleaned up,” I said with a gentle rub on his head.

“Thanks, Bel.”

We walked over to Mom’s SUV and found a pair of jeans. We inched our way down the steep but shallow river embankment. I glanced up and down the clear river before I plunged a towel into the ice-cold water. George kicked off his shoes.

“Just throw the pants away,” I advised, and handed George the towel. I turned away so he could undress. “Hurry up, George.” I smiled. Silly, but he’d reached that age.

“I’m done, Bel.”

I turned to find him on the ground putting his sneakers on. Movement at the water’s edge caught my eye. Sanguis crouched downstream. She hissed. Her back arched and her ears flattened against her neck. I jerked my head away from the cat and gazed toward the bridge. Moaners headed our way, all too close.

I kneeled next to George, put my finger to my lips and said, “Moaners. Let’s go.”

We scrambled up the riverbank to find hundreds more pouring from under the bridge. Worse, many of them were now between the convoy and us.

“Dad, moaners,” I screamed while I pulled at George and we ran up the slope toward the convoy.

It was no good. There were runners in the pack. At the sound of my scream, several peeled away from the main herd and came at us. Technically not running, runners moved damn fast nonetheless.

Theo, in the process of adding fuel to the Humvee, reacted first. He shot two moaners who closed in on George and me. That’s all he could do. The herd came between us and he could not risk a bad shot.

We ran parallel with the moaners. I pushed George ahead, hoping to flank the beasts and circle around to the convoy. There were too many. The runners were too fast. I stopped when I remembered my pistol. I dropped three of the closest beasts.

We were on our own. Undead pressed in on the convoy. Gunfire erupted. With mounting horror, I spotted even more moaners on the highway above us.

I had to act fast if they others weren’t to be overwhelmed. There was only one way to make my family leave. I reached into my coat pocket for the walkie-talkie, only to remember I’d left it in the truck.

I stopped and cried out, “Daaad. I’ll meet you at the other end of the smile. Ask Laura. She knows!”

Dad looked confused. Hell, I wasn’t even sure he heard me above the gunfire. With a backward glance, I saw Theo pull Dad toward the trucks. I grabbed George by the hand and we ran down the road, away from our family. We ran fast and soon put distance between the herd and us.

A new sound of rapid gunfire joined the chorus of weapons. Penri must have got the .50cal working. We ran a mile and then slowed to catch our breath. I pulled a chef’s knife from my boot.

“Like this.” I showed George. “Through the chin.” I thrust upward with the knife. At his height, this seemed about all he could manage.

I risked a backward glance. Runners again gained on us. Don’t panic, don’t panic, I repeated to myself. I raised my pistol and dropped two moaners with five shots. Not good. I broke into a run and changed clips in the pistol. I cursed when I realized I had but eight bullets left. Soon the pavement ended and we ran across gravel. Up ahead the road bent sharply to the left.

With no time to think, I made a decision. We plunged into the woods and left the road. I realized I did the worst thing possible by heading forward in a straight line. I didn’t feel like I had any other choice though. It might be feasible to divert the moaners into another direction, but at this point, I didn’t dare risk getting lost. I picked out a tree in the distance and ran in that direction.

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