Parting Gift

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Living Nightmare

Marissa:

Despite his young age, the little boy clinging onto my hip obviously had some kind of understanding about the gravity of the situation. He saw tragedy or the potential for it, as plainly as I had when I was little. Granted, I’d been older when my parents died, but his eyes bore the same look I remembered in mine as a kid. Every photograph I ever looked back on looked the same, part of the reason I hated looking at them. He needed someone there, someone to hold onto, just like I had. I couldn’t help but tighten my grip on him a little at the soldier’s words, even if just to reassure him. Before I could pull my hand away, Emma came up behind us.

“Is there a problem?” Unlike the cordial, kind voice she had shown me since we met, her voice was now no-nonsense, taking charge of the situation. Practically addressing the soldier as if he were a child, she continued, “It’s a state of emergency and Andy obviously needs comfort; I interviewed Ms. Steele myself. She’s okay to come with us.” The man hesitated, but now he seemed so much younger than Emma, that it didn’t surprise me at all when he allowed us through.

“This is ridiculous,” we were now seated on the bus, “trying to keep you from coming with us. We need all the help we can get keeping these kids calm.” I looked down at the boy I now knew as Andy. He was dozing off, his grip slackening ever so slightly.

“So do you really think the town is in danger of flooding?”

“I doubt it. In the entire history of the town, we’ve never been flooded. And believe me, we’ve had worse rain for much longer periods of time than this and there was never even a warning stage.” After that we fell into silence. Andy squirmed a little in my arms, and something inside me jerked. For a moment, in the rush of the evacuation, I’d managed to forget why I had even been at the school in the first place. My whole life had been one move after another. I wasn’t sure anymore if I was running from something, or towards it. At this point, it didn’t even matter.

Somewhere behind us, a loud, hacking cough began. I turned to look, and there was a woman at the back of the bus, hacking dry coughs. A man sat beside her, hand patting her back.

“Does anyone have any water?” The sick woman’s companion called out to the front of the bus, and it seemed like the soldiers were ignoring them. I was careful to slip out of my seat without waking Andy, and proceeded to the front of the bus.

“Excuse me, but someone in the back needs water. She’s obviously sick. Do you have any?” The soldier who looked up seemed surprised that someone would approach them. I stood there impatiently, holding myself in place with a hand on the backrest of the soldier’s seat, my other hand at my hip. His name tag read G. Thomas. Another moment passed before his green eyes registered that I was still standing there.

“Hello?”

“Sorry. Here,” he handed me a bottle of water out of a backpack he carried.

“Thanks.” When I turned around, he immediately began speaking to the other soldier beside him. I brought the bottle to the back of the bus, handing it to the sick woman’s companion. He smiled his gratefulness, and I went back to my spot by Andy.

The rest of the bus ride was as silent as a school bus could get, with a few murmurs here and there, the sick woman’s coughs in the background. I watched the soldiers, a gut feeling telling me there was more wrong than they were letting on. Thomas had seemed too distracted for a trained soldier, worry clouding his eyes before they registered my presence. For the rest of the ride I watched them, and I swore I saw them constantly looking back at the woman I’d given the water to.

Eventually, the bus stopped. We’d been on the road for almost two hours, and I had dozed off. At the sound of the soldier’s calls to get off the bus, I jerked awake, my arms tightening instinctively around Andy. It was raining again, and so dark out it was hard to believe it was only mid afternoon.

“Where are we? Is my mom here?” My heart broke at his question, and I felt helpless.

“Maybe. We have to get off the bus first, okay?” He looked exhausted and scared, so I let him stay in my arms as I walked off the bus. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten off that I realized the soldiers were carrying guns. They were all tense, looking the way I would imagine one looks on the battlefield. If all they had to worry about was a flood, I didn’t see why they clutched their guns so tightly, prepared to shoot. Nothing made much sense, but I seemed to be the only one questioning it, so I kept my thoughts to myself.

A few yards from where the buses stopped there was a large warehouse, what I assumed to be the shelter they would be putting us in. We were at the top of a hill, overlooking the town in the distance. Emma fell into step beside me, no longer having to look after the kids. All of the students except for Andy had been reunited with a family member. “Ms. Rose? Where is my mom?”

“I’ll ask the soldiers, honey. She might be here.” Emma walked towards the nearest soldier, who happened to be the one who’d given me the water bottle, but didn’t come back with a better expression on her face. When she spoke, I could feel Andy getting more scared. “She was taken to a different shelter, Andy.” Once inside the warehouse, we were led to a small corner of the large area. The entire building was set up like a shelter, with cots for people to sleep in. Once we were seated, Emma explained to me that Andy’s mother worked in the next town over, and wouldn’t have been evacuated to the same area we were, if they had been evacuated at all. Apparently the soldier hadn’t been very specific in his answer.

At his teacher’s explanation, Andy held onto me tighter. I knew what he was going through. I wondered where his father was, that he was only worried for his mom. I tried to console him, but I knew it wouldn’t do much good. It had never helped me. No matter how much a person tried, I had never felt okay; I don’t think you can ever feel okay after something like that. I tried not to think about it, to keep my own losses from coming through to Andy.

“So, Andy, how old are you?” He seemed surprised that I would ask him a random question, and looked down at his hands, fiddling with them, when he answered.

“Six years old.”

“Oh, so you’re a big kid, huh?” At this he looked up at me and smiled shyly. Puffing out his chest, he responded.

“Yeah! My mom says I’m the man of the house now, ‘cuz my dad’s not around anymore.” I couldn’t tell if the dad’s absence was due to death or walking away. Regardless, I didn’t pry.

“I see.” And as small children have a tendency of doing, once I got him started, he wouldn’t stop talking.

“I made her a present yesterday in art class. Do you wanna see it?” With the enthusiasm only a child could have, he quickly took off his backpack and pulled out the small gift before I could agree to see it. He held it out proudly, a full smile on his face. I marveled at the child’s ability to forget his surroundings. In his hands he held a small, sort of cup-shaped object made of clay. It was grayish in color, small enough to fit in one of my hands but still big enough that he had to use both of his. The clay cup had his finger’s imprints all over it, as well as four small balls of clay at the bottom that kept it standing. “It’s a teacup! My mom likes tea a lot, so I made her a teacup to drink it.”

The teacup had a kind of beauty only a child could give something, and I couldn’t help but smile at him. “It’s very nice, Andy.”

“Thank you, Ms. Steele!”

“You can call me Marissa, okay?” He smiled again, nodding. I was happy to have made him forget about what was going on, if only for a little while.

“Attention everyone!” The shelter had been extremely loud until the voice came over the megaphone. “Please remain calm. These are only temporary accommodations until we can move you to a more well-furnished facility.” Evacuations should be temporary; why would they move us somewhere with better furnishing? “The evacuation was sudden, but we need everyone’s cooperation for the next few days until things return to normal. We-” A bloodcurdling scream rang out through shelter, cutting the soldier off, and people scrambled to see what was going on. I told Andy to stay put while I checked what was happening.

At the center of the newly formed crowd, I recognized the woman who needed water on the bus. She writhed on the floor, apparently in extreme pain. From what I could tell, it looked like she was having some kind of seizure. Her howls of pain turned guttural, and sounded almost like growling at one point. When she stopped twitching, it seemed like the seizure had passed. The man who’d been with her on the bus crouched down to ask if she was okay, and a few of the others gathered around went to help the woman. Before he could even finish his question, the woman lunged at him, teeth bared. I couldn’t believe what I saw. She took a bite clean out of the man’s neck. What the hell was going on? The man was now on the floor, bleeding out as the woman stood, writhing similarly to how she had been moments earlier. Everyone began to fall back as she reached for another person, and soon the whole center was in chaos.

My stomach felt weird, like some kind of physical instinct propelling me forward. Immediately, I turned around and ran to Andy, knowing I couldn’t leave him behind. He was standing on his cot, trying to look over the crowd. I grabbed him so his arms and legs wrapped around me and ran, leaving his backpack behind.

“What…?”

“Just keep your eyes closed, Andy. Whatever you do, don’t open them until I say so.” I grabbed a thin blanket off the cot and put it over him. Before I reached the door, gunshots began to ring throughout the warehouse. Had they shot the woman? Had they shot her victim? I ran for the nearest exit, not wanting to know what extreme measure they might go through to contain us. Outside, spot lights had been turned on, and I could see a military truck some yards away. The large vehicles, dark enough to nearly blend into the evening sky, were pulling away from the area two or three at a time. From what I could see, they were only taking about four or five passengers each. Everyone tried to reach the trucks, and I did my best not to look behind me, for fear of tripping and not reaching one in time.

Rain splattered on my face, my chest heaved, and for a moment I thought I was going to collapse. Just as I thought I wouldn’t reach a truck in time, a pair of arms lifted Andy from me, and pulled me up into the vehicle. The door closed behind me and the vehicle didn’t waste any time in leaving. Emma hadn’t made it. As we drove away, I watched her fall, tripping on the heels she’d worn to work, and a crowd of people descended upon her. I prayed that the screams I heard weren’t hers. Before I knew it, Andy was in my arms again, and there was no way to tell if his shaking was due to fear or the chill.

“It’ll be okay. Shhh…everything will be fine.” My chest hurt, the strain from the run taking its toll. I couldn’t shut my eyes, for fear of picturing Emma’s pained expression. Instead, I focused on our surroundings, and the fact that we were driving away as fast as this truck could probably handle. A pair of young girls, probably teenagers, sat across Andy and me, while two soldiers occupied the front seats. I couldn’t make out anything but vague details through my dizziness from running and the darkness in the truck. It was uncomfortable, the likely panicked driver not caring about bumps and turns, shaking us all.

Once Andy had stopped shivering, I realized he had fallen asleep, or fainted, his body’s defense mechanism against the stress. In his small hands, he still held his mother’s teacup. I hadn’t even realized he’d grabbed it, but I was glad he did.

“What the hell is going on?” I directed my question to whichever soldier would answer. “Was that what I think it was?”

“We’re just soldiers, ma’am. We’re not sure what’s happened.” I recognized the soldier as G. Thomas. He was sitting with his arms resting on his legs, head in his hands. The other soldier was the one driving.

“You have to have some idea! They couldn’t just send you in blind…”

“All we were told was to shoot anyone who showed signs of cannibalistic violence. It’s some kind of disease. We have to avoid contact with those infected at all costs. We don’t know how it started, or why.” He grew quiet after that, looking at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes spoke of fear. After all, I doubt this kind of situation is something they prepare you for at boot camp, and this particular soldier didn’t look much older than me, anyway. If I had to guess, I’d say he was a relatively new recruit.

“Fucking zombies? Is that seriously what we’re dealing with?” The voice belonged to the young girl who sat in front of me. She couldn’t be older than sixteen, maybe seventeen, but her voice held the hint of experience. The only one to respond was the girl beside her.

“Amber!”

“What? Everyone else was thinking it,” She crossed her arms.

“So what’s supposed to happen now? How far did this spread, anyway?”

“We don’t know. There’s a checkpoint a few hours away, and they’re going to stop receiving refugees around eight tonight.” Unable to reach for my phone so Andy could keep sleeping, I couldn’t tell what time it was. We couldn’t have been at the center for long, but panic skews one’s perception of time, and I couldn’t really trust mine at the moment.

“Why? What happens at eight?”

“The entire area gets quarantined. No one will be allowed in or out.” My blood ran cold and I felt a jolt of panic in my stomach. Clutching Andy closer, I didn’t want to know what would happen if we didn’t get out. How could they just leave people sitting here like this?

“Even you?” I looked at the soldier and could tell he was trying to maintain his composure.

“Yes. It’s been nearly twenty-four hours since the viral outbreak. Long term exposure to it is a death sentence. Twenty-four hours is the cut off. We either get out, or die.”

Even Amber didn’t respond to that. We all sat in stunned silence, unable to really accept the situation. I had a stranger’s child in my arms, and I knew my chances of survival were greater without lugging him around. A part of me wanted to make him someone else’s problem. Despite that, I couldn’t bring myself to let my arms slack their grip on him.

Without realizing it, I had let my fatigue get the better of me and fell asleep, only waking up when the vehicle came to a rushed stop. It had to have been over an hour since we’d left the center. My arms tightened around Andy, waking him up as well.

“Where are we?” I looked out the window, not really recognizing any of the terrain. I was usually good with my sense of the direction, but this area seemed entirely unfamiliar to me. I must have come into town from the opposite direction.

“Why did we stop?” My question was answered as soon as I looked out to the front of the truck. In the middle of the road was a blockade of cars, practically piled onto each other. The wreck looked terrible, and there really didn’t seem like there was a way around it in the car.

“Let’s just find another way out.” Amber was eager to keep the truck moving. I didn’t blame her. Outside, I could hear the sounds of shuffling feet. No one wanted to sit still for long. We had all seen zombie movies at one time or another.

“We can’t. If we backtrack now we won’t make it to a checkpoint in time. We need to keep going on foot and hope we find a working car on the other side of the wreck, maybe a few miles down the road.” With some luck, we’d make it in time. By my guess, we had about two hours left to reach safety, but there was no way for me to tell how long the drive would have taken, let alone the walk.

At this point, Thomas wasn’t even paying attention to us. He was strapping as much gear onto himself as he could, following the other soldier’s lead. Suddenly, he handed me a gun.

“Ever use one before?”

“Once.” Dating a military man had its benefits, and my most recent ex had taken me to a shooting range. At his memory, my stomach felt strange again.

“Good enough. Let’s go.”

“WHAT?! Hell no. I am NOT leaving.” Amber solidified herself to the seat, the girl next to her looking unsurely between her and us.

“We don’t have a choice. If you stay here, you’ll die. If you come with us, there’s at least a chance of survival. Now come on.” Thomas tried to coax her out. We were wasting precious time. He opened the door, climbing out first. After helping us all off the truck, he immediately turned to lead the group, standing between us and any danger that might arise. I placed Andy on the ground, letting him hold my hand tightly.

“Don’t let go, okay?” I tried to smile in reassurance, winking at him to put him at ease.

“Okay.” His response was quiet, shy, and I squeezed his hand in an attempt to comfort him. Thomas’ gun in my other hand, I followed him, walking with the other girls as the second soldier covered our backs. It was dark out, but the rain had stopped, and some evening sunlight shone through the clouds. In an attempt to boost our morale, though I feared it had the opposite effect, the soldiers mentioned the checkpoint being less than two hours away. That wasn’t very specific.

“Marissa?” Andy’s small voice came from beside me.

“Yes, Andy?” I looked down at him, and he clutched the teacup against his chest, the only way he could keep it from falling.

“I’m scared…” His other hand squeezed mine, and I had to fight the tears that welled up in my eyes at his admission.

“It’s ok to be afraid, Andy. Even the man of the house gets scared sometimes.” I winked at him, and at least managed to get a small smile in return.

“Really?”

“Of course. I get scared sometimes, too. But you know what? You don’t look scared at all. In fact, I think you’re very brave. Braver than me.” He looked at me, confused.

“But you’re old.” I laughed at that. Children had a kind of honesty to them, shameless and innocent at the same time.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t be scared, Andy. But knowing you’re here makes me brave.” It was the truth. Seeing how well a child his age was handling all of this gave me hope. Everything would be okay. “How about we play a game? Have you ever played ‘I Spy’?” I needed to distract him again, to figure out a way to keep him from being afraid. He nodded.

“Okay, then you go first.” He scrunched up his face, the way kids do when they’re thinking hard, until he spoke.

“I spy with my little eye, something with wings.” I looked around, but couldn’t see any birds overhead or in the trees. Where was he seeing wings?

“Um…can I have another clue?” He smiled at my cluelessness.

“Okay! I spy with my little eye something silver, with wings.” I honestly had no clue what he was talking about. I thought for another moment before shrugging, giving up. “It’s your hairclip! You have a butterfly in your hair…” Andy was a clever boy, and so I laughed at how he’d beaten me, congratulating him on his victory. Suddenly, the soldier up front stopped us all in our tracks, hand outstretched, signaling us to listen.

We could hear the shuffling around us, and I pulled Andy closer, afraid something would launch itself from the darkness to take him. Everyone walked gingerly now, slightly hunched over, trying to pass by the unseen threat unnoticed. I couldn’t make out any bodies, but I could hear them, and that was terrifying enough. We were all quiet, afraid of triggering any danger. We weren’t quiet enough.

“Watch out!” The sides of the road were lined with trees, and despite the meager lighting that would poke through the clouds, a lot was engulfed in shadow. No one saw as the man lunged at Amber’s companion, not until it was too late. I grabbed Andy and pulled him away, turning him so he wouldn’t have to see, pointing my gun at the man that was already being shot by Thomas. Unfortunately, it was too late for Amber’s friend. She lunged for the girl, falling to her side as she writhed in pain.

“Lita! Oh God…” The man had hardly been on her for ten seconds, but it was enough for him to bite a clear chunk of her neck away. The gore and blood spilled onto the concrete, as she gargled for breath. It was a sickening sound, the gasps of someone drowning in their own blood.

The soldier picked her up and pulled her away from the gore. She tried to reach for her friend again, but the soldier held her still.

“If you come in contact with her blood, you’re dead. The infection is extremely easy to transmit. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to mourn her from afar.” The soldier was cold towards Amber, but I could see in his eyes that it wasn’t any easier for him to see a young woman die like that either. When you go into the military you expect to see war related deaths, not crazed cannibals turning people into zombies.

As the soldier hurried us away, this time Thomas brought up the rear, and I could hear the single gunshot that sounded behind us, ensuring that Lita wouldn’t show up again later.

We’d been on the move for almost two hours, and I knew there couldn’t be much time left. There were cars left abandoned, the remnants of wrecks caused by refugees littered the roads. The debris and destruction made us stay on high alert for another ambush. It was a lot darker than it had been when Lita was attacked, and the wrecks only provided more cover for the zombies.

“So what will happen to the surrounding cities?” I could tell Thomas was doubtful about telling us, and that he’d known more than he was letting on. What was the point, though? It’s not like lying to us would keep us alive.

“Garth was the first to fall. That’s where the infection started. We’ve been trying to evacuate the surrounding cities since, but it’s like we’re always a little too late. This area is isolated enough, though, that it shouldn’t reach outside the valley.” At the mention of Garth, Andy’s hand tightened around mine. Was that where his mother was? He didn’t speak, hadn’t said anything at all since Lita’s death, and I feared he was going into some kind of shock.

Moments later, there was a narrow pass created by cars shoved on either side of the road. Up to that point, we had been sticking to open spaces, away from anywhere that zombies might be hiding, but it looked like we didn’t have much of a choice but to cross through the accidental passageway.

“Stay alert and be careful.” This time, both soldiers led the way, aiming their guns inside each car window. I did my best to shield Andy, and in doing so scraped my arm against a broken window. It wasn’t until we reached the other side of the short passage that we heard the crackle of a radio, and Thomas pulled out the small machine.

“Hello? Hello? Thomas you there?”

“Yeah. Cruz is that you?” Hope bubbled inside me. Were we going to make it out?

“I’m in a helicopter just outside of town. The GPS says you’re nearby. Find an open area and I’ll come get you.” It seemed too good to be true, but it looked like we would be okay. Through all our fatigue and stress, everyone managed to run after the soldiers, not caring what kind of noise we made. Against my better judgment, I picked Andy up, knowing the kind of toll it would take on me. We ran for a long time, but no one stopped, not even to breathe. Andy clung to me tighter as he bounced with every step I took.

Behind me, I could hear the shuffling increase, and I prayed to any deity that would listen for us to be faster than the zombies. All we had to do was reach the landing point and we would be okay. I pushed myself harder, and could feel relief spread through me when Thomas and the other soldier stopped. The helicopter descended into a semi-clear strip of road.
Bullets rained from the helicopter, and for a moment I thought we were being killed. The alternative was a million times worse. There were zombies closing in on us. I hadn’t realized they were so close. Not many, but enough to outnumber those of us on the ground, especially when only three of us could defend ourselves. The two soldiers and I formed a shield around Amber and Andy, shooting at everything in sight.

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