Chapter 42: Rescue
George shook me. “Bel, they’re coming up the tree.”
I shined my light down. “There’s nothing in the tree. Be brave, buddy.”
Lightning flashed in the distance. Thunder rumbled across the woods. This seemed to calm George in some weird way. I swept the branches for signs of trouble. George, among other things, had spooked me.
“I am. I wanted to wake you before, but didn’t,” he said with a hint of pride. “I’m hungry.”
Well, he answered that question. My belly ached. “Everything’s going to work out.” I wished I believed my words.
We sat in silence and the night wore on. After what felt like hours, the faintest promise of dawn stained the horizon orange. My mind blazed with questions and possibilities. I needed time to think and to try to understand.
That Nana trained me from a young age seemed evident. But to what purpose? Were these dreams as I supposed? Or something else altogether? I conceded that all along I’d been receiving revelations from Nana. What did it mean? Perhaps there was something to Nana and Mom’s belief and deceased souls did need help moving on.
Did I unknowingly prevent Nana from leaving? Or did she tarry willingly? One thing was for sure, she begged me for release.
“Do you really think they’ll find us, Bel?”
Certain of my answer for no logical reason, I replied, “Yeah, it’s just a matter of time.”
I pulled George close and decided some light would improve his spirits. I turned my pen light on and let it hang from my wrist.
“George, what do you want to do when we get to the farm?”
“I don’t know. Find some friends to play with,” he said after a moment. “Dad says the farm will be fun but all he ever talks about is work,” he said glumly. Excited, he said, “Dad says we’re going to raise chickens. I like chickens. Might be fun.”
“What about ducks?” I smiled, thinking of Theo.
“Yeah, ducks might be fun to chase.” He returned my smile and kicked his feet back and forth.
“Ducks it is,” I replied absent-mindedly while I scanned the darkness. “Tell you what; I’ll get Theo to help. He’d make a good duck farmer.”
George laughed in pure joy, something I hadn’t heard in quite a while. “Hey, Bel, do you like Theo?”
George’s laughter turned infectious. I chuckled with him. “You know what, kiddo? I think I do.”
“I knew it.” He punched his fist in the air.
“Is it that obvious?” I bumped him with my shoulder.
“Yeah. Susan says you have it real bad.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” I sighed.
“Susan says you love him.”
I scarcely heard George. I untied the scarf, stood up and peered down the road. Headlights headed our way. “You know what, George, I think I do. And here he comes!”
George yelled, “I knew they would find us. I just knew it.”
Yes, they were coming, but how would they locate us? Weak with hunger, my mind failed and I drew a blank.
“Hey, George. Any ideas on how we can get their attention?”
“We’ll just yell real loud.”
“I don’t think they’ll be able to hear us.”
“Oh,” he said. “To bad we can’t use the secret knock.”
Yeah. Why not the secret knock? It would be recognizable to the rest of our family. Hell, even Theo knew it.
Dawn broke under a line of clouds. I peered down at the herd. At several hundred strong, an escape, even with outside help, would not be easy. Moaners pressed in on each other to make movement just about impossible.
One of the more athletic beasts managed to claw its way on top of the writhing horde only to fall down when the mass of bodies shifted. I shuddered at what could happen if just one managed to make it into the tree.
The convoy inched closer. If they stayed on the road they would come no nearer than half a mile. It would take more than the secret knock to help them find us. I took my coat off and handed it to George.
“When I tell you, we have to hold this up so they can see us better. Okay?”
George nodded and clutched both the branch and the red coat.
“You’re doing good, George. Thanks to you we’re almost rescued.”
The convoy slowed down when they approached the crossroads. I flipped the safety off my pistol and shot a moaner in the head. I counted three Mississippi’s and dropped two more in quick succession. Pause, count. I unloaded my last three bullets into the horde.
I’d done all I could to alert them to our presence. I squinted at the trucks, elated when all of the vehicles stopped.
Penri and Susan scanned the terrain with their binoculars. Problem was; they faced the wrong direction. A figure emerged from the wrecker and limped a few paces. Theo!
He reached down to pick up something from the road. He turned to the others and pointed toward our side of the highway. Susan and Penri trained their binoculars toward the woods we were in but they were still far off our position.
“Now, George.” I took one arm of the coat and we raised it up.
Tense minutes passed. At last, Susan pointed our way.
“We’re saved, George!”
“Beeel,” he shrieked.
Two moaners clung to a bottom branch. How could I have been so stupid?
All of the moaners I’d ended were next to each other at the base of the tree. The corpses gave the beasts enough height to grasp the lowest branches. They lost their grip and fell down. More took their place only to be pulled away by their fellows. Two moaners broke free from the scrum and made it onto the lowest branch.
“George, do you have any bullets?”
“One,” he whimpered.
“Cover me.” I climbed down several branches.
The two moaners struggled to move higher. Hands clawed at them as others attempted to get into the tree.
I steeled myself for what I needed to do. Panic froze my body except for the tremble in my hands. I fought against my fear of moaners and heights. One climber managed to free itself from the pack, haul itself upright and clamber toward us. I could delay no longer.
I scrambled down. With less than three feet between my boot and the outstretched hand of the moaner, I chose a position. Arrow in hand, I waited for the monster to come within striking distance. Mom’s red coat floated down and landed on the moaner’s head.
My foot struck out and connected with its head. It snapped back and the coat slid free to tumble down onto the horde. Again, I lashed out with my foot, and placed another kick to its head.
I didn’t pull back quick enough and the beast grabbed my ankle. I kicked and stomped in an attempt to break free. The moaner held tight and dragged my foot toward its jaws. My grip on the branch loosened. I clenched harder.
“George, shoot,” I screamed. My hold slipped even further.
A shot rang out. George nailed the beast right between the eyes. I thrashed free of its death grip and scurried up onto the bough. My arrow tumbled from my hand. I panted hard and hugged the tree.
Gunfire erupted and bullets ripped into the other climber. It tumbled out of the tree. Heedless of my fear of heights, I scrambled up to George. Rounds zinged below and moaners fell by the dozens. Lead pounded the tree and a maelstrom of bark, blood, and flesh flew about.
The constant thump, thump, thump decimated the horde who, heedless of the danger, continued to claw toward us. I sobbed and laughed while I rested against the trunk.
“Thanks, George,” I groaned.
George appeared about to hurl. He did. Sympathetic, I laughed nonetheless when the vomit sprayed the moaners. Everyone puked their first time.
I handed him my scarf so he could wipe his face. “Okay there, buddy?”
He shook his head and bent over to dry heave. I patted him on the back and turned my sights on the battle.
Penri fired the .50 cal at our tree. Klara stood next to him and took down moaners with her rifle. Saplings shattered under the withering fire.
Penri shifted his aim and concentrated on the grassland to my left. Some of our vehicles were parked on the side road. Susan stood through the sunroof and took down moaner after moaner.
Our rescue party fought their way toward us. I held my breath, enthralled by their recklessness. Theo stomped forward in the center with my father on his right and Chris to his left. Behind them, both Jane and Anthony popped off moaners with their rifles.
Penri shifted his fire again. Theo led the charge toward us. Toward me. Dad and Chris struggled to keep up. Heedless of his own safety, Theo stormed deeper into the horde.
Rage and pain filled Theo’s face while he thrust and pounded his way ever closer. He wielded his special bat and smashed with such violence I stood amazed it didn’t break.
“Come on, George. It’s time to go.” I made way so he could scuttle down first.
Penri kept the moaners at bay with a steady stream of bullets on the far side of the tree. Our rescuers stepped among the second dead littering the ground, poking every head as they advanced. George reached the lowest branch. Dad caught him when he jumped down.
I made my way to the limb and sat down. I hesitated, felt faint, and trembled. Eyes closed, I breathed deep.
A sudden lull in the gunfire fell over the woods. Theo, quiet, soft, and with such affection, said, “Come down, Annabel, I can’t wait for you forever.”
Theo had never uttered my full name before. I opened my eyes, fearful anew of what waited. Theo stood below. His bat tossed on the ground, he held his arms out to me. No longer filled with rage and battle fever, he looked up with a touch of fear.
I managed a shy grin and pushed from the tree to fall into his arms. He held me. I gazed into his eyes.
Gunfire erupted around us. “A little help here, sis,” Chris screamed.
Theo let go and handed me his pistol. I dropped two moaners behind Chris. We headed back toward the road. Dad stared at Theo and me while we walked. He forced a small, sad smile, turned away and started to shoot moaners.
“I dropped my arrow back at the tree,” I told Theo.
“Yeah, I know.” He pulled it from his back pocket. “Just can’t give you anything nice can I?”
Penri again fired his .50 cal, covering our retreat. Hunger and fatigue were gone, replaced by a reckless joy and a confidence with my place in this new world. I took aim and dropped a moaner. We made it the half mile to the trucks. Penri’s gun fell silent. He no longer had any targets to shoot.
Susan grinned like the Cheshire cat. “Oh, come on. Kiss him already,” she shouted.
About to say something, I turned at the sound of our mother’s scream. A shot rang out and seemed to echo for an eternity.