The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Twenty-Two: Voices
Dawn rose as the outfitted tractor trailer continued its way west towards...God only knew. An abandoned town not yet stripped clean? A home not yet ransacked and burned to the ground?
For the seven travelers in the makeshift mobile home, there was no destination, only a desire. A desire to stay as far from the ghouls as possible, a hope that someday they might find a safe place to call home, but that hope was dimmed, a weak flame all but snuffed out as they watched Martha's Vineyard, a home said to be free of the undead collapse in a tidal wave of fire and blood. It was a flame they barely bothered to tend, as more and more they believed it to be a futile hope, one not worth keeping alive.
But hope is hard to kill. As they say, hope has three daughters; Rage, Courage and Truth, and they fight hard to keep their father alive. That was why, when they saw the military barracks, though clearly in ruins but offering some promise of shelter and supplies, they decided to toss a stick to the dying flame, if only to feel a little heat.
Slowly the group emerged from the vehicle, armed and alert, their ears tensing for the telltale moans of the undead, their noses constantly searching the air for the fetid odor of rotting flesh.
Michael Rayanson took point, Ron Birm bringing up the rear. The others stayed together, especially Steve Rankin, who jumped at every sound. Michael slowly approached the outer perimeter of the fortress, an area pockmarked with explosions, gunfire and littered with body parts, all of which were rotted and brittle.
The fort was marked with a sign, one that had been trampled on by many bloody feet.
It read Safe Haven.
Michael kicked at one of the limbs, watching it fall to pieces like a fragile doll. "Zombies," he said, motioning the others close. "Must've been a few thousand of them."
Ron nodded, his gaze sweeping the killing field, stopping on the walls. He walked over to them, surveying the stone and steel that had worked in tandem to make this area safe. "Man, whatever happened here, it was big."
Michael walked over to the gaping hole in the wall, and the debris from what had obviously been a powerful explosion.
"Sabotage?" Michael asked. "No way undead could break through walls like this."
Ron walked over to the damaged section of the wall. "Wall was blasted from the outside. Doesn't make sense. If there were a few thousand undead surrounding this place, no way could someone plant a bomb before they got eaten."
"Maybe it was some kind of raiding party," said Jake Marlow, walking over to the others. "They come in, blow the place up because the folks inside won't share, zombies do the rest".
Jake's wife, Sara Kern, was with the others. It was impressive how far she had come in the months they had been on the road, how strong she had become in a world where even the hardiest soldiers could be reduced to quivering wrecks, bawling for their mothers. Even Michael knew he was a different person. That was how things worked in the Graveyard: to survive in a world of the dead, you had to become something worse, something even the dead would fear.
And sometimes, even that wasn't enough.
"Okay, it looks like this place is empty, but we know how easily that can change," Michael said to the others. "If there's anything worth salvaging, we need to find it, and we'll do it faster if we split up."
"Wait, wait a second," said Steve Rankin, the fear clear in his voice. "Wouldn't it be safer if we stay together?"
Michael nodded. "Sure, but that rig isn't exactly built for silent running," he said, pointing to the truck. "There may not be any undead here, but if there are others around here, I guarantee they heard us. We don't have much time, so we need to be as quick as possible."
"Well, I just think that we-" began Steve.
"Oh, for Christ's sake!" shouted Michael. "Man up, you little worm. We don't have time for you to wet your pants. You go with Jake and search the west wing. At least one of you will know what they're doing. Sara, you take Kaitlin and Creepy Girl and take the east. Ron and I will take the lower levels. We meet back in thirty minutes. Then we're gone."
Jake and Steve moved slowly through corridors of the barracks. Power was out, and lacking windows, the pair had to rely on flashlights to see where they were going. But all was not lost. In whatever chaos had claimed the fort, several sections of the walls had been demolished, letting in some light.
The thought of what had broken through those walls put a damper on that particular benefit.
Steve looked back from where the two had entered, a look of longing on his face that even the mask he wore couldn't hide.
"Relax," said Jake as they continued on. "Long as you got that armor on, undead can't hurt you."
"It wasn't that, I was just wondering why Michael has to give me so much shit all the time.'
Jake stopped and turned to Steve, the beam of his light shining in his face. "You still haven't figured it out, have you?"
Steve took off the mask. "Figured out what?"
"When Matt gave you his armor, he wasn't just handing you a fancy set of threads. He made you one of the leaders of this group. Mike, Ron, Jon, Marie and Matt. They all wore the same armor, and we all followed them. They're our best chance of making it out of this Hell in one piece, and we follow them, do what they say, even if it doesn't make sense. Because in the end, they're survivors."
Steve backed away, panicked. "Me? He put me in charge? I can't do this."
"Yes you can," Jake said. "Matt saw something in you, and he trusts you to lead us. That was why he gave you the armor."
Steven began to remove the gloves, tugging furiously at the zippers on the jacket. When it failed to come off, he sank to the floor, sobbing. "I...I...I can't do this. I just can't."
Jake looked at Steve for a moment, then unceremoniously kicked him hard in the ribs. Steve fell to the ground, and Jake stuck him again and again, his eyes glowing with anger. He grabbed Steve by the collar of his jacket and threw him to the ground. Steve crawled over to the wall and held up his hands, pleading. "Stop! Stop it!"
Jake didn't say a word, only grabbed the other man and dragged him across the floor, throwing him against a wall. The armor protected him from any danger of broken bones, but Steve still felt the pain, reverberating through him with each attack.
Finally Jake stopped, breathing hard, his hands on his knees. When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. "Do you have any idea how lucky you are?"
Steve stared at him, dumbfounded.
"You get to be in that armor all day, protected, safe. You don't have to be afraid all the time. You don't check yourself every time you even get near a zombie to make sure you haven't been bitten or scratched," he said, wiping his eyes. "You don't spend every night with a gun in your mouth, hoping that this time you'll have the guts to end it once and for all. You get to be safe, and warm, and protected, and still you're acting like such a fucking pussy. He chose to give the armor to you, and all you do is whine and bitch. God damn you, Steve Rankin."
"Hey, if you want this shit, it's all yours."
Jake only looked at him, then shook his head. "No," he said, backing away. "He didn't choose me. I can't bear the burden."
"Neither can I," said Steve. "That's what I keep telling you. It was different back on the island. I was scared all the time. Whenever we went out on patrol, I always thought, 'this is it. I'm going to die.' But back then I had a team with me, so it was easier to hide my fear. Here, I'm all alone. I've got nothing."
"He chose you," Jake said. "He chose you for a reason. Make him proud, or I swear before God and the Devil that I will kill you myself. I'll kill you and feed you to the ghouls piece by fucking piece."
Just then the radio at Jake's side squawked. "Hey, you guys find anything?" asked Michael over the transmitter.
"No, nothing yet," Jake responded.
"Well pack it in and head back," Michael said, his voice laced with static. "Your thirty minutes are up. Besides, we found something."
"What?" Jake asked.
There was a brief pause. "Best thing you can hope for in a big city. Our own parking spot."
Jake and Steve found the others in the radio room, clustered around the communications equipment. Much of it had been destroyed, and great swaths of blood covered the walls and floors. Strewn across the floor were bones, human bones, the flesh stripped as if by wild animals. Many had teeth marks, but they weren't from wild dogs or mountain lions.
The marks were clearly human. Or something close to it.
Jake walked over to the others, shoving Steve aside as he did so. The others were talking excitedly, turning knobs and pushing buttons. All he could hear over the radios was static, steady, droning, occasionally punctuated by squeals or beeps.
"So what did you guys find?" he asked. "And what's this shit about a parking spot?"
Michael turned to the older man. "Problems?" he said, noting the anger in Jake's voice.
Jake looked to Steve, then back to their leader. "No, nothing. So what's going on?"
Michael smiled wide, and Jake found his hand drifting to his gun. Jake didn't know him well, but he knew from experience that Michael's smiles usually preceded high body counts. "I think we have a signal. Ron?"
"Almost there," he said, turning knobs carefully, his ears leaning toward the speakers. "Just give me-there!"
The static continued on, and for a moment Jake thought this was all a cruel joke at his expense. But then he heard it, faint, a voice amid the electronic garbage. Slowly it gained volume as Ron adjusted the signal.
"To anyone that can hear this," the voice said in an authorative tone. "My name is Jason Stradd. I am the leader of a group of survivors in Boulder, Colorado. We have retaken the city. I repeat, we have retaken the city from the living dead and have sealed it off. We have food, electricity, water, medical supplies. It is safe here. We can protect you. If you are hearing this, please come find us. You have a home. We'll be waiting."
The message repeated itself again and again. It wasn't until the sixth time he heard Stradd's message of a safe home that Jake said something.
"Let me guess, they're all dead and this place is a deathtrap worse than Martha's Vineyard."
Michael turned to him. "Why would you say that?"
Jake shrugged. "It's what usually happens."
Michael smiled, "Too true, too true."
Ron turned the volume down, though all strained to hear Stradd, as if his promise alone made it real. "That's an automated message, a recording that's being looped. No one needs to be there for it to keep playing."
Steve stepped forward, ripping off his helmet to reveal a man on the verge of tears. "What do you mean," he turned to Michael, grabbing his jacket. "What the fuck does he mean?"
Michael pried Steve's hands off as if he were swatting fly. "He means that everyone there could in fact be dead, and we'd have no way of knowing without going there."
Steve looked to the communicator, as if willing it to give more information, to tell him that the people were alive. "Then, we shouldn't go there, should we?"
"I think we need to," said Sara. "Look, I love you guys, but we need a stable situation. That's been our goal from the get-go."
The others nodded in agreement. "That truck ain't gonna last forever," Ron said. "I'd rather be someplace with high walls than aluminum doors when the dead come a'knocking."
"But, if everyone there is dead, we'd be walking into a worse mess than the Vineyard, right?" asked Steve.
Michael looked at the other man quizzically. "Gee, I would think an island filled with walking corpses would be as bad as it gets, but hey, if we can do better, let's motor, good buddy," he said, slapping Steve on the back.
The survivors solemnly nodded and began to gather what they had been able to salvage from the ruined fort. They all knew they could be walking into certain death. The city could be nothing more than another mass graveyard, or worse, some kind of trap like the one that had doomed this "Safe Haven."
Steve watched them go, shaking his head in disbelief. "They're insane," he said to Aiko, the only one left in the room. "They're insane, and they're going to get us killed."
Aiko looked at Steve as if he were a child failing to master basic math. "Well, duh," she said, before leaving, skipping along and humming a happy tune.