The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Twenty Three: Serve and Protect
It was a quiet, starlit night. The kind some spend in quiet contemplation, pondering the mysteries of the world or their own small existences. Staring at those tiny pinpricks of light, it was easy to let the mind wander onto different paths, roads rarely traveled in our day-to-day lives.
It was just such a journey which Addie's mind was taking that evening, but it was not her own future she was contemplating, but that of the small life sleeping in her arms. Her own destination was clear to her, though she would have given anything to change it.
But that was the price of honor, the price you paid to sleep peacefully, the coins you exchanged for the right to look yourself in the mirror and stomach the face you saw.
Addie only felt revulsion when she saw her reflection. The face she saw wasn't that of a mother or wife, but a deceiver and murderer. Every night she heard their screams, those three innocent souls she condemned to death in order to get her, her boyfriend Tyrone, and their companion Joe across the border. Three for three. It had been an even exchange.
But if that was true, why did she awake every morning crying?
For Addie, the price to buy her honor back was high, but it was one she had to pay. After what she had heard, she felt the choice unavoidable.
Her gaze drifted to the ham radio in her room. At night, she scanned the frequencies, searching desperately for signs there was life in the Graveyard. Most nights, she got static, a symphony of despair with brief, second-long intermissions of voices.
Until three days ago.
She was scanning the airwaves, listening with half an ear, a part of her mind having given up. Then she had heard it. She had heard him.
At first she didn't believe her ears, and turned up the volume, clicking on her tape recorder to document the first human voice she had found since she began her search. Over and over she listened to Stradd speak of sanctuary, a safe place where people were living real lives. But she already had a life here, didn't she?
"No," she said to herself. "This isn't a life; it's a lie. And I refuse to live it any longer."
She looked down to the small form in her arms. Matthew, her beautiful baby boy, a mere two months old, yet already so full of life.
"You probably won't forgive me when you get older and learn what I've done," she said to her son. "You'll call me a coward, a fool who left on some romantic quest for redemption, to appease my inner demons. Truth is, you'd be right. I know that what I'm doing is insane, but I've searched my soul, and this feels like the only way to set things right. I've done terrible things to come here, to make this new life, and I need to balance the scales."
She kissed young Matthew on the forehead. The infant continued to sleep, stirring only a little when his mother's lips touched him.
"I'm going to find this Stradd. If there is a city of survivors, they'll need help. I've taken so much to get here. It's time I gave some back."
"Okay," said Tyrone the next morning. "I understand."
"You do?" said Addie, her eyes alight with joy.
Tyrone nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I understand. Joe, grab me the phone book and look up the nearest insane asylum."
"Will do," Joe replied, heading for the phone.
"Look, I know this sounds crazy..." Addie began.
"Crazy? Well, let's see. After fighting for weeks to get here, you want to leave me and your son behind to go back to the Graveyard to find a city that for all you know doesn't even exist so you can play Mother Theresa," Tyrone said. "Yes, it does sound crazy, hence my decision to call the looney bin."
Addie stared at her lover, her eyes welling up with tears. She took his hand, felt it tremble for a moment, then grow firm. "I need to do this," she said, her voice breaking. "Every time I close my eyes I see them, screaming at me, calling me a killer. I can't go on like this."
Tyrone looked at her, his expression softening for a moment. He sighed deeply, trying to make some sense of why Addie was saying. "If you go back there, you'll be killed," he said. "You know that. We barely got out of the Graveyard once, and we were fucking lucky to do it. People don't get that lucky twice in their lives."
"What if...what if it's something I was meant to do?" asked Addie.
Tyrone turned away from her, head on his hands. "Meant to do? Meant to do? Do you have any idea how idiotic that sounds?" he shouted. "Meant to do! Maybe you were meant to get to Canada! Maybe you were meant to start a new life here with your boyfriend and son! Is all that meaningless to you now?"
"No!" she screamed. "I have agonized over this decision. Do you think I want to leave the two of you behind? I have to do this. Something just...it just tells me I have to find these people. They're going to need help, someone who knows how to survive in that Hell."
Joe raised his hand. "Uh, not to shit all over your parade, but we got out of there because we knew we couldn't survive in that Hell."
Tyrone turned to him. "Look, just stay out of this, okay?"
Joe shrugged. "I'm just saying..."
Tyrone turned back to Addie, his next question difficult to ask, but he knew it might be the only way to talk her out of this suicidal mission of hers.
"What about Matt?" he asked. "If you go back, you'll die, that's a fact. Do you really want him growing up without a mother?"
Tears ran down Addie's face. She had asked herself this question over and over, and after all that time, she only had one answer.
"I'd rather he cry on my grave than spit in my eye for what I've done."
Tyrone's hands clenched into fists, so tightly his knuckles cracked, and for a moment, Addie thought he might actually hit her. Instead, an innocent lamp was the subject of his wrath, as it went flying across the room to shatter against the wall.
"You fucking little idiot," he breathed, his voice filled with rage. "Go, get the fuck out of here. And if by some slim comic fluke you do survive, don't you ever come back, or I'll make sure Matt has a grave to cry on."
Addie packed her things that night. Tyrone had allowed her to sleep there one last time, and to set out in the morning. Along with clothes, food and as many guns as she could carry, she packed a small vial of cyanide tablets. She had taken them when she and the others began their trek to the Canadian border. Death was almost a certainty, and she decided she'd rather go on her own terms than as some zombie's main course. As Tyrone had said, the odds of her surviving were slim, and quick and painless was much more preferable to slow and chewy.
Her last bag packed, she went into Matt's room. Her son, her beautiful baby boy, who she had traveled all this way, risked everything, all to give him a chance at a normal life. She wondered what Tyrone would tell him when he asked what became of his mother. Would he tell his son the truth, that she had ran off on some half-cocked quest for redemption? Or would he make up some elaborate lie, a heroic one where their true identities were learned and she had sacrificed her life to save her son?
She smiled at that thought. Her a hero. It was so funny it hurt. I'm no hero, she thought, as she stroked her son's hair. Heroes don't let others die so they can escape. They don't abandon the ones they love for no logical reason. Heroes don't hide who they are out of shame or self-preservation. Heroes are proud.
And I'm none of those things.
"I won't tell him the truth."
Addie turned to see Tyrone in the doorway, her thought plucked from her mind.
"Not yet," he said. "It would destroy him to know. But when he gets older, I'll tell him."
Addie approached her lover, but he took a step back. She looked to the floor, tears painting her sorrow on the old wood. "I...I can come back...if there's no one there."
But Tyrone only shook his head and walked over to his son.
"He is your son," he said, looking down at Matt. "Your son. You're supposed to raise him; love him; protect him. It's your duty, your mission. And you're going to abandon him for some fucking quest to save your soul."
Addie kept her gaze fixed on the floor, not willing to meet Tyrone's eyes. "How can you live like this, with what we had to do to get here? Don't you hear them? Don't you hear them scream?"
She expected Tyrone to laugh, or just shrug his shoulders and walk away. Instead, his next words brought her eyes up with a start.
"Every night," he said. "I hear them every night. I can't sleep without downing a bottle of whiskey or a handful of pills. It's the only way to make them be quiet."
For a minute Addie said nothing, could only say nothing. A part of her hoped her lover shared her pain, but the fact he did and still wouldn't join her brought a burning question to her lips.
"Then how can you stay here?"
Tyrone looked at her, a sad resignation in his eyes. "Because they're dead," he said simply. "Nothing can bring them back, and running back to the Graveyard to save Oz from the Rotting Monkeys isn't going to balance the scales. When I die, if it's today, tomorrow or fifty years from now, I'm going to burn for what I did. Wouldn't matter if I spent the rest of my days caring for orphaned kittens. I let three innocent people, people I promised to protect, die, so I could live. Nothing's gonna get that stain off my soul."
Addie began to laugh, the sound empty and devoid of any joy. "Protect," she said. "That was our job, back before all this shit happened. Serve and protect. What a load of shit. The second things took a turn for the crappy, we hightailed it out of town, left all our brothers and sisters in blue behind to fight and die."
She walked over to the window. The sky was full of stars, their light that of diamonds in a black abyss. "And when things got even worse, we bolted for the border," Addie said, more to the night sky than to Tyrone. "We didn't even try to bring anyone with us, just picked up a few stragglers that we thought might come in handy."
She turned back to her love, her eyes dry, the tears that were there a moment ago nowhere to be seen. "They did come in handy, didn't they? We got over, got to start a new life, safe from the walking dead."
Tyrone shook his head. "Uh-uh. You ain't gonna guilt me into going with you. Like I said, I know where I'm going when my time comes. I've accepted that it's the price I had to pay to get here. And what's more, I'm okay with it."
Addie's eyes went wide. "Okay with it?" she asked. "You're okay with it?"
Tyrone nodded. "Survival of the fittest, bitch. I'm just doing what it takes to get by."
Addie walked past him, back to her room where her bags lay in preparation for her journey. She turned back to her lover, her eyes cold and hard. "I'll make you a promise. You don't tell Matthew what I'm doing, and I won't tell him what you've done."
There was no one to see Addie off the next day. This was no tearful good-bye, no friends or family lining up to wish her well as she prepared to begin the long journey. There was no sun shining, no birds singing their lyrical farewells; the sky was overcast and dreary, the temperature so cold her jacket may as well have been made of tissue paper.
And the only tears being shed were Addie's, the droplets of salt water freezing as they rolled down her face.
She had no idea how she was going to get across the border, but she doubted it would be a problem. The army was there to keep people out of Canada. If someone was crazy enough to want to leave the country, well, that was no business of theirs. Worst-case scenario, the leftover explosives from their first border crossing would be her Get-Out-Of-Canada-Free Card.
She stopped at a small grocery store, the one ran by the kindly grandfather. She had come to like the elderly gentleman, though he would probably sell her out to the authorities at the drop of a hat. Not that she blamed him. Nothing good came out of the Graveyard.
She as the proof.
The old man eyed her bags as she selected a loaf of bread, a few boxes of crackers, and several strips of jerky. "Taking a trip?" he asked, his hands moving automatically to bag her groceries, his eyes meeting hers.
Addie smiled. "Yeah, I've got some people who might need my help."
His eyebrows rose. "Might?"
Addie nodded. "Yeah, I know where they are, but I'm not sure they'll be there when I arrive. Kind of a long trip."
The old man nodded sagely. "Yes, well, Colorado is a long way from here, that's for sure."
Addie gasped, and her hand flew to the gun at her hip. The old man raised a hand, silently pleading for her to stop. The woman relaxed, but her hand didn't move away from her waist.
"Now, now, no need for violence, especially against your own countrymen, eh?"
Addie looked around the store, expecting to see the customers just before they tackled her to the ground. But the store was empty. She looked back at the elderly clerk, saw him take out a dirty old patch, which read "All Points Bussing, Orlando."
He smiled. "I hated driving those fucking busses, but in the end, they were what saved my life. I was taking an empty one back to the station to pick up some Japanese tourists when everything went to shit. I got to the station just in time to see those poor bastards get torn to shreds by the other drivers, 'cept they weren't drivers anymore, they were...well, you know what they are," he said, his eyes misting over at the memory. "Anyway, I kept driving that bus; picked up people when I could, and it made a pretty good battering ram whenever those monsters got in our way. I managed to get across the border before the government set up their blockade, and got myself a fake ID not soon after."
He smiled at her, like they were a pair of grade school students sharing a secret. "A couple nights ago, I heard the transmissions on my ham radio. Yes, I got one too," he said. "It helps me fall asleep at night when I can listen to broadcasts from the Graveyard, to know that maybe someone is still alive there."
Before her brain knew what her body was doing, her hand shot forward and took the old man's. "Come with me," she said, her mouth joining the list of AWOL body parts. "They'll need help."
But the old man shook his head. "No, my hero days are over, if they ever really existed. I'm just an old man with a bad ticker. I wouldn't last very long, even if things went smoothly, which they never do," he said with a chuckle.
Addie drew her hand back, embarrassed for her actions. The clerk patted her shoulder, then bagged up her groceries. When she reached for her purse, he held up his hand and shook his head. "We Americans got to stick together," he said. "After all, we're a dying breed."
As Addie turned to leave, the old man called out to her once more. "So just how are you planning to get over the border?"
She looked back to the clerk. "I'll think of something," she said, her voice not conveying an ounce of confidence.
The old man smiled. "I may have something that can help you. And it'll help you get to Colorado a little faster."
Private Jacob Triam paused in his rounds to light a cigarette. He fumbled in his pockets for a lighter, which was gratefully provided by his fellow soldier, Andrew.
"Thanks," Jacob said, inhaling the tobacco. "Quiet out there today."
Andrew looked over at the wall of razor wire and, out toward the land pockmarked with detonated and mines. Much of that was now covered with bones and rotted body parts, a silent testament to the effectiveness of then blockade.
"Maybe they're all dead," he said.
Jacob looked up from his cigarette. "Who? The zombies?"
Andrew shook his head. "No, the Americans. Maybe they're all dead. Maybe we can finally take this stupid thing down."
Suddenly the blare of a horn cut through the silence. The soldiers looked over to see bus speeding down the road. The words "All Points Bussing" were stenciled on the front in wavy blue letters with a backdrop of a map of the United States. Addie was at the driver's seat, and she motioned the soldiers to move aside as she floored the gas petal.
Andrew and Jacob dove as the tour bus smashed through the blockade, dragging bits of it behind. Addie sounded the horn and flipped the two bewildered troops off as she crossed back into the Graveyard.
Jacob watched the bus as is disappeared over the horizon. "Nope, there's still one left."