The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Fifty: Not Ready To Die
The undead creature's head hit the stone wall so hard that teeth flew in all directions, scattered like so many casually tossed stones. Or maybe Tic-Tacs. Hell, something small and kind-of white-ish. An injury like that would have left an ordinary man clutching his skull and moaning for mercy, but these creatures knew nothing of the living, save one thing-their flesh was delicious.
So it came as no surprise when the ghoul merely turned and snarled at the one who had inflicted the damage, preparing to strike again. It never got the chance, however, because the other figure knew well the abilities of zombies, and followed up its first assault with another, grabbing the undead with both hands and slamming it into the wall again and again. Each time, the figure would increase the force of its assault, determined to inflict as much pain as possible.
But it was a futile attempt. The dead knew no pain, and as much as pleasure as Ron Bern took in decimating the zombie before him, it was tempered with an equal dose of frustration knowing it would never felt what he felt each and every day.
Soon enough, the thing's brains decorated everything within spitting distance. Gross. He watched the ghoul slump to the ground. It gave a few final shudders before lying still, whether a death rattle or one final attempt to consume him, he couldn't tell. These things were biological machines, and the only way to truly bring them down was to pull the plug.
He motioned to the group behind him. Jake Marlowe came forward, glancing down at the zombie before standing beside Ron. He looked ahead, then back at the group. Looks all clear, folks. Just a few hundred feet ahead, then we head topside, grab some wheels, and get the hell out of here."
The relief was palpable on their faces. These ordinary men, women, and children had been force-fed into this hell called The Graveyard, and it was a never-ending battle just to get through the day. Hope was a fragile thing, but that fact made them cling even tighter to it, even for just a moment. In this world, it was all they had.
The survivors moved ahead, with Ron and Jake in the lead, ever cautious for a zombie lurking in the shadows or under the ankle-deep water they were walking in. Jake kept an eye out for any signs of sickness-this water was a few miles from being clean, and few of those in the crowd had suitable footwear for the situation. If any of them had cuts, the water could easily infect them, and given how many undead they had dispatched, becoming one of them was certainly possible. Thus far, everything seemed fine, but Jake knew from painfully personal experience how quickly that could change.
A short time later, they came to a ladder leading to manhole cover. If their math was right, they would come up a short distance from the garage. If not, well, at least they'd breathe some fresh air.
Ron paused, one hand on the ladder, his gaze directed upward. He seemed a little torn, as if unsure that this was the right place, which he had good reason to be. Their guidance was part deduction, part memorization of the roads as they had torn through after the walls blew, and part guesswork. Odds of them being in the exact spot weren't good.
Jake moved toward him, and Ron shook his head, began ascending the ladder. Sunlight from the holes in the manhole cover streamed off him, and in his armor, he looked like a holy soldier, one tarnished from too much time on the field of battle. Which in truth, he was. But he pressed on, for the simple reason that he wasn't quite ready to die just yet. He placed a hand on the manhole cover, and with a grunt, he heaved it off. He raised his head, then quickly ducked down and climbed down the ladder, a grimace on his face.
Jake was right there as he reached the tunnel floor. Don't tell me we're in the wrong spot."
Ron looked at him, a bemused and defeated expression on his face. Nope, we guessed right,he said.
So what's with the look of doom and gloom?"
Seems like Hell moved in while we were gone."
The garage was utterly demolished. One entire wall was gone, and the vehicles were little more than burning hulks, many in pieces from the fires getting to the gas tanks. Ron guessed that a series of charges had been set, then detonated, denying their best chance to escape from Boulder. One by one, he and the others checked the cars, trucks and vans, and little by little, their hopes sunk as each one was found to be good for nothing but scrap metal. In frustration, he stomped a rear-view mirror which had been blown from one of the cars, grinding the glass beneath his boot heel.
Jake ran over, despair etched into his face. After all this time, it was a familiar feeling. They're all gone,he said. They torched all the cars. Maybe if we had a month we could cobble something together..."
The rest of the sentence went unfinished. They didn't have a month. They'd be lucky if they went another five minutes without running across the zombies or Stradd's goon squads. Ron grabbed a tire and flung it across the garage with a shout, the sound like a cannon shot in this momentary silence. The others looked at he and Jake, uncertain and afraid. They had trusted these two to lead them to safety, and now it seemed they were faced with another dead end. Jake placed a hand on Ron's shoulder.
Hey man, keep it down, we can't go attracting attention like that."
"Yeah, God knows we're doing so fucking well, it'd be a shame to break our lucky streak," Ron replied with a growl.
Jake looked around. Sheer luck that there were only a few undead nearby. He watched as a small group dealt with them with rocks and a crowbar. "Look, I want to smash shit as much as you, but we need to make a decision here. We cannot stay in the open like this."
Ron waved his arms, encompassing the fire-ridden garage. "Hey, this was my brilliant plan. Your turn."
Jake's response surprised them both. Without a word, he leveled Ron with a haymaker that would have done Tyson proud. The older man was on his feet in a second, and Jake was pretty sure he was about to experience why full body casts had been invented. "Kick my ass for that later, but right now, we need another plan, and this, as sick as it sounds, is your forte.
Ron clenched and unclenched his fists, and Jake could see the war between common sense and a strong desire to make the former reporter eat asphalt. In the end, common sense struck a strategic victory and drove back the desire to cause agony, at least for now. He raised an index finger at Jake, a promise to settle accounts later. "OK, we can't go back in the sewers. If those things figure out where we are, and odds are they will once they get through with the people up here, we'll be trapped, no doubt. Same if we stay out here."
He walked back and forth, trying to figure out another avenue of escape. His gaze traveled to a downed trio of zombies. They had been decimated, but not by hand or a gun. He walked over to the ghouls, and saw what he hoped against hope was their ace in the hole-tire tracks, made in blood and leading away from the ruined garage. He gestured to Jake, and when the other man walked over, he breathed, "Oh shit yes."
"Get the others, said Ron. We're not out of this yet."
Frank Tibalt, Addie Mayor, and Michael Rayanson moved slowly down a narrow alley near the edge of Boulder, a large group of survivors in tow. Since Frank opted to discharge himself from Jason Stradd's army and help Addie and Michael take down the squad of soldiers he was with, more people in their group now had the reassuring feeling of guns in their hands, along with knives and a few grenades. For now the explosives remained unused, but that likely wouldn't last long. One thing about the undead. They went a long way to prove that a world without guns was a bad idea.
Frank raised a hand, signaling the group to stop. He motioned for Addie and Michael to come forward, then pointed to a small garage, rather unremarkable. When Addie commented on this, Frank just smiled. "That's Jason for you. He's got a black belt in thinking ten steps ahead."
He pointed to the two windows beside the garage door, and they saw the gun barrels, painted black to keep light from reflecting off of them. On the door, a series of wires snaked from what looked suspiciously like plastic explosives and led inside. "Snipers and a backup plan in case they get taken out," Frank said, a note of pride that was hard to ignore in his voice. "That's Jason, all right."
Addie patted Frank's shoulder. "When you're through having your little love-fest for your former lunatic boss, maybe you can come up with a way to get inside. How many vehicles are in there?"
"Five, all-terrain and loaded for bear. And no worries on a plan, I've got the perfect way to get in there."
With no warning, he ran out in front of the building, his hands raised. The snipers immediately sighted on him, but relaxed once they saw who it was. A door opened, and two men, large and intimidating, came outside, smiles on their dirt-streaked faces. Addie and Michael watched from the alley as Frank quickly conferred with the soldiers, pointing in their direction. "Oh fuck, he's turning on us," said Addie.
"Gosh, a guy who turned on his boss, then betraying us...shocker,muttered Michael, as he racked the slide on his gun.
The soldiers made their way to Addie and Michael, guns drawn. Before they got within fifteen feet, both dropped to the ground, bullet holes in the back of their heads, courtesy of Frank Tibalt. Addie and Michael came from the alley, guns raised. "Don't you fucking move!" Addie shouted.
Frank only smiled ruefully at their threat. Without replying, he turned back to the garage, aimed his gun, and fired at the explosive packed to the exterior. The explosion was deafening, and Addie's and Micheal's ears rang like church bells from the sound. The dropped to the ground, hands clamped to their ears, eyes shut from the light of the blast. When they opened them, they saw the garage was a smoking heap, and whatever or whoever was in their, nothing could be left.
"What...what...what the hell have you done?" said Michael, though the words came out slurred, as if he had just finished a dozen rounds at the bar.
"You'll be fine in a few minutes, just sit there and rest," said Frank as the other survivors ran to them, weapons drawn.
He turned to face another building, this one a dilapidated, run-down sister to the first building. Addie had to admit to herself that she hadn't even seen it before now.
Frank approached the front door. "You in there, listen up! I know you can hear me, and you saw what just happened. I know where Stradd placed the suicidal backup plan in case this place was compromised, and I've told everyone here about it," he shouted, holding up a grenade. "You either come out right now and I let you leave here with all your squishy organs where they belong. Otherwise..."
He put his hand to the pin, the intent clear. Silence reigned for a full five minutes, after which the door opened and three men and two women emerged, hands empty and raised above their heads. Frank motioned with a nod of his head and all five knelt on the ground, their hands still raised. He kept the grenade in his hand, his finger holding the pin. "Like I said, Stradd's a black belt in thinking ahead," said Frank to the group. "You were meant to make it into the first building, after the guards gave a convincing performance of trying to hold the place. Once inside, these assholes would trigger the explosive and kill you all. There were vehicles inside, but no gas, weapons, or supplies. That's all in this place, which is also rigged with explosives. I guess Jason lives by the 'if I can't have it, no one can,' philosophy. Another of his charming personality traits."
Michael raised his gun, murder clear in his eyes. After all these psychopaths had put them through, after all they had done, he had an itch for revenge, one that would only be satisfied with an assortment of sharp objects and a year during which to test them out. For now, though, he would satisfy himself with carefully placed gunshots to non-vital areas, areas which would cause unbearable agony. But it seemed that bit of fun wasn't meant to be, when Addie stepped in his path.
She knelt down in front of all five, carefully looking them over, studying them with a gaze that went beyond mere eyesight. A police officer before The Great Exhumation, she could analyze a person in a way unique to those of her trade, and one after another, she picked them clean of guns, ammunition, knives and collapsible batons. With an uptick of her chin, she gestured towards the smoke and the screams. "Now you've got the same chance we had," she said.
The five looked at each other, then back to Addie, uncertain of what she wanted. Frank made the point crystal clear by firing one shot into the ground in front of them, then pointing back into the city. "Move it!" he shouted, and the soldiers left, casting desperate looks back at the group. Clearly, being on top for so long had left them unable to deal with life as one of the weak. With a final pleading look, they left down another alley. Matt helped the survivors, distributing the weapons to those without any. Knowing what the soldiers planned to do with them made the irony hard to ignore.
Meanwhile, Addied walked over to Frank, her gaze a few degrees above freezing. "Maybe you wanted to fill us in on your little plan?" she asked.
Frank replied with a crooked grin. "Maybe, but you wouldn't have been so convincing if you knew what I was up to. These guys are scumbags, but you don't get the reins by being idiots. Why do you think Jason made me second-in-command?"
Addie considered this, then nodded. "Fair enough. You're a real bastard, you know that?"
"It's common knowledge," he said, opening the garage door to reveal five Humvees. "Loaded for bear and fully gassed. They've got those new electric engines, so they should last a good distance. I take one, and go on my merry way, and the rest are yours. Fair?"
Michael looked them over, confirming to the others that the vehicles were legit with a thumbs-up. "Fair," he said, walking back to Frank. "Just one question. Why follow Stradd for so long?"
Frank seemed to consider this, as if the question had never occurred to him. "Probably the same reason anyone follows anyone else. Being in charge sucks, and if you're a follower, you get to avoid any responsibility for when shit hits the fan. Just say 'it wasn't my idea,' and walk away."
"And you think that puts you in the clear for all this," said Michael, waving towards the city.
"Yes, a matter of fact, it does. None of this was my idea. I tried to stop it, and when that went belly-up, I tried to save who I could, which wound up working out just fine. I figure I can walk away with a clear conscience, or at least one that's only a little tarnished. And if you have a problem with that, then know this-I do not care. Either shoot me and put me outta my misery or let me leave. Either one suits me at this point."
Michael raised his gun, and for a moment, it seemed he was indeed planning to leave a permanent reminder of what he thought of Frank Tibalt for all to find. His hand shook with the indecision of terminating a man who was in large part responsible for the misery which had befallen Boulder, and at the same time, the man who had delivered them their way out of this hellhole. His finger flexed on the trigger, and the entire time, Frank didn't move a muscle, which only seemed to piss Michael off even more. Finally, though, he lowered the gun. "Fuck it, you're not worth the effort," he growled.
"And you are?" asked Frank as he turned and made his way to one of the Humvees. He got in and sped off without another word.
As Michael watched him go, he could only mutter, "Probably not."
Addie turned to him and said, "So what now? We're short quite a few people, if my math is right. What do we do about the others?"
Michael looked to the survivors with them. They were tired, terrified, and looked on the verge of mental collapse. Indecision, the same that had gripped him a moment ago, returned with some friends, and once more he found himself caught in an impossible situation. Sort of par for the course. "We need to get the hell out of here, and these people, they're our responsibility now-the living, as opposed to those we can't say for sure are even still alive."
Shock blossomed on Addie's face. "Not that I'm surprised to learn you're such a cold-hearted bastard, but you'd really just bolt on your friends without knowing for sure what happened to them?"
Michael nodded. "It's what they'd do. We learned a long time ago that compassion only gets you killed here. Besides, the only plan we had was to save as many as we could and leave this death trap, then make our way to the nearest harbor and set sail. If the others are still alive, they're following the same plan, and if not...well, it's nothing new to me."
Before Addie could argue, he turned to the others. "OK everyone, listen up. We're heading out right now. Since you're with me, you're following my plan, and that is to head for the coast and make for another country, maybe an island if we can find one with decent supplies. No more runs back into the city, no last-ditch rescue efforts. We leave now while we have the chance. You don't like it, all the dissenters can take one vehicle and go where they please. The rest, you're with me and you follow my lead."
They all looked at one another, then as one, they walked over to the vehicles, their agreement clear on their faces and in their movements. Though they couldn't say for certain that Michael and Addie were the best ones to lead, the two had done all right so far, and that put them head and shoulders above Jason Stradd.
The lesser of two evils. It was a hell of a consolation prize, but Michael had learned something else a long time ago. In The Graveyard, you took what you could get, because you never, ever got what you wanted. If that was possible, his friend Matthew would still be alive, his family would still be here, and he'd be headed to the music store for a new Entombed CD. Instead, he was in the smoking ruins of a doomed city, leading a ragtag group of survivors into Christ only knew what. But as eager as he was to bring an end to the suffering that now defined his life, he wasn't quite ready to do it yet.
If death wanted him, it would have to fucking drag him kicking and screaming. That was what he wanted, and so far, The Graveyard was willing to give it to him. So he accepted that, that, and did not ask for a thing more.
He got into the driver's seat of the lead Humvee, Addie in the passenger seat, her judgment radiating off of her. Not that she had any right to judge, but Michael didn't need to know that. Her sins were just that, her own. When the time was right, she would share them. But for now, she was needed, and she only prayed that her lover and her child would wait just a little longer. She planned to return to them, just as soon as her mission was completed.
The others got into the vehicles, and Michael started the engine on his, the modified diesel roaring to life. He shifted it into gear and pulled out, following the same path that Frank Tibalt had taken. Soon enough, they came to a road leading outside the city. He pulled to a stop and gazed into the rear-view mirror back at Boulder. Part of him screamed to go back, to make one last effort to find Ron, Jake, and yes, even Steve Rankin. But another voice spoke to him, the spirit of his lost friend Matthew, and he told him that the good of the group with him outweighed the good of the others. If anyone can survive, Matt said, it was them, and he really had nothing to worry about.
Michael smirked, put the vehicle back into gear, and took off down the road. As he did so, he said to himself, to Matt, to Ako, to anyone out there who may be listening.
"Don't take too long."