The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Five: Family Ties
"John Kasada, Michael Rayanson, Ron Birm, Marie Hinelli," said Matt Erickson, pointing to each of the four armored figures on the bus.
Matt winced and rubbed his jaw. Shortly after taking off his mask, Jake had leveled him with an impressive haymaker, saying 'that was for Greg.' It was only Matt's intervention that saved the former editor from dying in a hail of bullets.
"So, now that we're all one big happy family we can decide where we take this rolling lunch wagon," said Matt, as if the eleven of them were on vacation.
"What's left out there?" asked James Cater, taking a swig from a bottle of brandy their rescuers had stowed with the rest of their supplies.
"In this area, not too much," said Ron, a thin man of almost sixty years with a gravelly voice like an old homicide detective. "I came from Illinois to try and get my kids out of Boston. Not a pretty site. There or here."
The rescued reporters could only stare at one another. The fact that Massachusetts was a bloodbath came as no surprise, but the idea the plague had spread so far shocked them all. "How did this happen?" asked James.
"No one really knows," responded John. "I heard it started up in Maine. A dairy farmer got bit by a hiker, or something like that. Maybe it was some kinda chemical leak, or radiation from a power plant."
"Maybe it was a biological weapon," chimed in Matt. "Maybe someone wanted this to happen."
"No, no way," said Kaitlin Comeau, shaking her head furiously. "No one's that evil. No one could do that."
"Why not?" asked Matt. "I heard it on the news before the power went out. No other nations have been infected with this plague. Only us. You know what those reporter dicks were calling this country? The Graveyard. Kinda morbid, but it fits."
"But why?" asked Sara Kern.
He could only shrug in response. "Why not?"
"Still doesn't tell us where we need to go," said Ron as he lit a cigarette.
"We have to get our kids," said Sara. "We left them with my parents in Plymouth, and we have to get them."
"No. Fucking. Way," said Matt. "One, your kids are probably lunch meat, and two, we're no search and rescue team."
"You came after us, you can go after them," said Sara, panic rising in her voice. "With this bus and your guns, it'd be easy."
"The only reason we came after you is because we were passing by and heard the shouts," said Michael as he ran a whetstone over a hatchet blade. "We knew you were alive."
"I'm sure our kids are alive," said Jake. "All I'm asking is for you to drive down there."
"Oh sure, why not? And while we're at it, we can all hop the ferry to Martha's Vineyard?" said Matt in a sardonic tone. "The only place we're headed is north. More wide open spaces and fewer people to contend with."
That was it. Sara flew across the bus and slammed Matt into the side. "What is wrong with you?!" she screamed. "They're kids!"
The sound of unsheathing metal brought the woman back to her senses. Though she couldn't see them, she could feel the unmistakable sensation of sharp blades pressed against her neck. She turned to see a pair of axes and three knives pointed at her, while a pair of handguns kept the others at bay.
Matt straightened his body armor and calmly walked back to his comrades. "You're right, they're kids. Know what else they are? Not our problem. Unless you're willing to convince us to make it our problem."
"What do you mean?" asked Jake as he took his sobbing wife into his arms.
"Pay us," said Michael, his axe still pointed at the six survivors.
"Pay you?" said Jake incredulously.
"That's right. True, we want to save who we can, preserve the species, but we're not fools. We're not gonna risk our necks for your half-retarded little groin spawn just on your say-so. We're not all about this humanity coming together horseshit. You want our help, it's gonna cost you."
"Sorry, I left my Mastercard back at the office," said Jake.
Michael nodded to his hand. "That wedding band of your looks like it'll fetch a pretty price. Yours and the lady's."
Jake opened his mouth to say something, no doubt something that would result in the loss of a major organ, when Sara stepped forward and, without hesitation, dropped her ring into Michael's waiting palm. Mouth in a tight line, Jake wordlessly followed suit.
Michael held the rings close to his eye, inspecting them. Satisfied, he dropped them into a rusted cash box. "All right then. Let's go save the little darlings."
With a population of over 55,000, Plymouth now boasted its very own army. Problem was, it was an army that followed no general, saluted no flag, and called no country home. An army of the dead.
With dozens of boats, the town had been the first in the area to be hit by evacuees. Passage was bartered, bought or taken, and more than a few lost their lives to something other than the zombies. A few boats still remained, but it was a long, hard road to get there. Undead from surrounding towns had followed the evacuees in, and now they were so thick on the ground, especially on the highway, where the bus was now traveling, even a tank would have difficulty getting through.
John pulled the vehicle to a stop and swore under his breath. "How the hell are we getting through that?"
"We're not," was all Matt would say, a poignant summation. He looked back down the way they had come. The roads behind them were clear, the zombies following them nowhere in sight. As resilient as the undead were, once they lost sight of a living thing for long enough, they stopped pursuing it. "Turn this crate around, we're getting out of here."
Sara grabbed the steering wheel. "Wait, we can't give up now."
"Sure we can, in fact here we go now," said Matt.
"But we haven't even checked the house," said Jake.
Matt pointed down the road. "Are you two blind or just idiots? There is no way they could be alive. We wouldn't be alive facing that. Trust me, your kids are nothing more than bowel movements."
Tears of despair welled in Sara Kern's eyes, but then she smiled. "Wait, I know how we can get in."
The armor-clad figures turned to her, doubt on their faces.
"We can take the back roads. There are bound to be less of them there."
Matt and the others turned their backs to the six journalists, speaking in low whispers. When they turned back, and Sara and Jake could already see the answer in their eyes. Before they could speak, though Jake stepped forward.
"Hey, we paid you to get our kids. The least you can do is make sure we get our money's worth."
"I can't believe we're doing this," said John as the bus crept along the narrow back roads of Plymouth.
True to Sara's word, there were fewer zombies. She surmised that most had stopped on the highway to feast on those making for the harbor, while the others were down by the boats. Like following a trail of bread crumbs.
With the power out, the residential roads they now traveled looked more like a graveyard. Windows were smashed, and the homes looked like corpses themselves. More than once, the group passed a home claimed by fire, now little more than charred timbers. Clothing and other possessions were strewn across the ground. The people here had left in a hurry, and from the sight of bones on the front yards, not all of them had made it.
"Relax. If things look hopeless, we'll just turn around and leave," said Matt, his eyes scanning the few zombies along the road.
"They ain't just gonna let us turn around," said Ron, viewing the gutted houses.
"Then we leave them behind," said Matt. "Plenty more people out there. Besides, I have an idea."
Ron and the others looked to him, but Matt said nothing, his eyes on the road.
Sara, Jake and the others watched the desolate scene, disbelief in their eyes. This has been their home, and many of the houses now looted or burned to the ground had belonged to friends. Sara turned away, tears in her eyes. Jake laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "We'll get them out. Don't worry. They're smart kids."
Sara could only nod as her body shook with sobs. Nearby, James, Kaitlin and Marcus Flat looked around, not at the houses, but at the people coming out of them.
Though they were few in number, even one zombie was enough to chill their bones. Some had the look of suburban housewives, while others were dressed in sharp, yet inexpensive suits, blood covering their crisp white shirts. One, a young girl no more than six, snarled and reached for the bus, a doll still clutched tightly in her little hand. When the vehicle disappeared around the corner, she resumed her meal, a small orange tabby cat.
"Can't believe there's so few of them," whispered James, afraid his voice would jinx their first dose of good luck in many days.
"Maybe there's someone else here," said Marcus.
"There is," Matt.
A short distance ahead there was a small condo complex. The homes were small and clustered in groups of three or four. Surrounding one of these clusters was a horde of zombies several hundred strong.
"Oh, sweet Jesus Christ," said Sara, fresh tears forming in her eyes.
On top of the roof were two girls, one fourteen, the other eight. They were surrounded on all sides by the undead, rotted hands reaching for them. The children saw the bus and waved frantically. Even from their distance, the group could see hands reaching through the windows. If they didn't act soon, the children were as good as dead.
Sara moved like lightning, and it was only through the quick action of her husband that she didn't open the front door of the bus and run to the house. "Let me go! Fucking let go!" she shrieked, trying with all her might to rip open the locked door.
"No, you'll be killed if you go out there!" said Jake, who, though considerably stronger than his wife, was having a difficult time keeping her still.
"Let me out! Let me out!" she screamed.
Sara jerked suddenly, and slumped to the floor without a word. Jake looked up to see Michael holding a taser. "Christ that bitch can wail," he said, rubbing his ears. "She should be out for a little while. I'll appreciate the peace and quiet."
John looked at the teeming horde of cannibals, then to the children on the roof. "Doesn't look like the corpses see us."
"Too busy with the Happy Meal up top," said Matt.
"No way we can get to the kids as long as they're there," said Ron.
"We need a plan," said James.
John looked up, smiling. "I can do plans," he said, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
The bus sped towards the condo, crushing dozens of undead as it tore across the road. More than once, the tires became caught up on the bodies, and risked becoming stranded.
"This is your brilliant plan?" asked James as he hung on to his seat.
"Oh, you wanted a brilliant plan?" responded John, who was having far too much fun playing GTA with the dead. "Shoulda said something earlier."
Leaning out the windows, Michael and Marie picked off as many as they could with their shotguns. As the bus neared the small home, Matt and Ron, now masked, climbed through a specially-built hatch on to the roof of the bus and jumped to the house. Michael and Marie followed after them, staying on the roof of the bus to clear as many undead as they could.
On the ground, the undead surrounded the bus. Hands banged on the sides and doors, and a chorus of hunger-ravaged howls filled the air. The bus shook from side to side as the zombies tried to roll them over. "Shoot the fuckers!" yelled John.
The others needed no encouragement. Grabbing handguns and rifles, the journalists opened the windows and fired into the crowd. Though none had experience with a firearm, they proved to be quick learners as one by one, the howling cannibals fell to the ground, holes through their skulls.
The bus continued to shake, despite the dozens of zombies that fell. The two shooters lost their footing, slipping on the slick roof of the vehicle. Shrieking in fear, Marie dropped her gun and grabbed the roof hatch.
Michael was not so fortunate. Arms flailing, he fell off the bus and into the undead, disappearing beneath them as if he fell into the ocean. The zombies converged on the fallen human, and for a moment there was no sound save for the savage howls. A moment later, the chime of metal cutting through bone added a macabre solo to this orchestra of death. Michael emerged from the dead, a sword taken from a military surplus store cutting heads and severing limbs.
The zombies converged on him, hands reaching for the supple flesh beneath the hard Kevlar shell. The bites of the dead were useless against the armor, but all knew it was only temporary. Michael's suit was being bitten a hundred times a minute, and eventually, it would give.
Matt didn't intend to wait for that. As the children dove into the bus, he unsheathed his axe and jumped, landing hard on the horde of undead, crushing several on impact. He was on his feet a moment later, cutting a swatch to get to his friend. In moments the black body armor had turned a dark and sickly red, organs, bone and skin decorating them, making them look like walking autopsies.
John took advantage of the distraction, jamming on the gas and speeding away from the house, tires blending red blood and gray brain matter with the black asphalt. As he drove past his comrades, the two grabbed onto the back of the vehicle, leaving the dead far behind. Matt wiped blood off his visor, laughing to himself.
"I never get tired of doing that."
"Yeah. It's hard to call it work when you enjoy it so much," replied Michael as he picked rotted teeth from his suit.
It was a tearful reunion as Sara and Jake took turns hugging their children. The grandparents had been killed a few days ago when the zombies broke down their door, but not before getting the children up onto the roof. Despite the joy they felt, Sara couldn't help but cry when she learned her mother and father were no more.
"We wanted to stay and fight the zombies, but they made us leave," said the Tina, the older of the two.
"Mom, where are grandma and grandpa?" asked the younger girl, Kristin, who, at the young age of eight, didn't yet grasp the reality of death.
Sara mustered the best smile she could, brushing back a few loose strands of her youngest daughter's hair. "I'm sure we'll see them again, honey."
The child seemed to brighten at this, and Marie had to turn away so no one would see her cry. Matt stepped forward, not wanting to break up the tender family moment, but unwilling to ignore the possible threat. "All right, all right, as touching as this all is, we need to get the kids checked out."
"Checked out? You don't think..." began Jake.
"Yes, I do. They've been surrounded by the things, plus they were almost eaten. We check them out, or we leave them," he said motioning to Marie. "It'll just take a second."
Sara hesitated, but nodded quickly. "It'll be fine. They just want to make sure you're not sick."
Marie took their hands and led the children back to the bus. Sara and Jake watched as she drew the curtain. They turned to Matt and the others. "I don't know what to say. My babies would have been dead if it wasn't for you," said Sara.
Matt held up his hand to stop them. "Let's get one thing straight. I didn't do this to make the you a family again. You paid us to do a job, we did it. Simple as that. And until Marie tells me otherwise, they're just another liability."
All turned their heads at the rustle of the curtain. The children ran back to their parent's open arms while Marie walked toward Matt, a look of dread on her face. "We have a problem," was all she'd say.
"What?" asked Matt, though he already knew the answer.
"They're infected. Both of them."