Chapter 10: Dia de los Muertos
It felt like an eternity, though in reality it was only a couple of minutes, before the high concentration of abandoned cars finally came to an end and they were able to increase their speed. Eli’s small car roared after the leading vehicles, ripping down the streets as quickly as he dared push it.
“It’s all back roads from here,” the man in the passenger seat said after a time. Eli shot him a glance, but quickly turned his focus back to the road ahead. “I’m Rico, by the way,” the man added, motioning to himself with his hand that wasn’t holding a shotgun. Then, waving into the backseat, he said “this here is my brother Lucas and my cousin Chuy.”
Eli blinked, turning his head just enough to glance sideways into the back seat. “Chewy?” he echoed in disbelief.
“Chewy” was playing with a switchblade, and at Eli’s tone he snapped the blade into place and leaned forward. “What, you got a problem, guerro?”
“Oh settle down, niño,” the woman to Chuy’s left said. “You gonna stab the guy driving the car? See how far that gets you.” Chuy shot her an evil glance, but settled down and went back to twirling his switchblade.
“The puta is named Lisa,” Rico added, as if as an afterthought.
“Lisa Perez,” she added, leaning forward to pat Eli on the shoulder. “They’re just angry cuz I kept throwing their worthless asses in lock-up.”
“You’re a cop?” Eli asked.
“Ex-cop,” Rico interjected.
“Still a cop,” Lisa snapped, narrowing her eyes at Rico. “You don’t stop bein’ a cop jus’ cuz the world ends.”
“I don’t know,” Eli said. “I think you stop being a cop when there’s no more government.”
“That’s exactly when you have to be a cop,” she argued. “You can’t let the world jus’ fall to shit. You don’t want it to be like the old west, people solvin’ shit with gunfights.”
Eli shrugged, not wanting to debate the issue. “And the rest of you? You’re just a bunch of criminals?”
“Man, we’re every bit as human as you,” Rico answered dismissively. “You could give us that much.”
“And yet the four of you end up together as travelling companions? How’d that come about?”
“It’s cuz of cop chick here,” Rico said, waving his hand in annoyance at Lisa. “She arrested Chuy on some stupid BS.”
“Hey,” she countered, “possession with intent is not ‘some stupid B.S.’”
“Whatever, gringa,” Rico said, rolling his eyes. “He needed those guns for los muertos.”
“Los muertos?” Eli echoed, raising one eyebrow inquisitively. “Is that some extremely ironic gang name?”
Silence fell for a minute as all eyes turned on Eli. “That’s what we’re calling the dead,” Rico answered at last, his voice quiet and sardonic. “What the hell’s wrong with you man?”
“Regardless, I didn’t know about the plague at that point.” Lisa spoke up, interrupting the moment.
Rico turned to her, his momentary calm forgotten. “You’re a cop. Shouldn’t you have heard reports or somethin’?”
“Yeah, reports,” she consented, “As in, rumors, stories. Nothing concrete. Nothing I could confirm with my own eyes. How was I to know what he wanted the guns for? Someone walks around with that much ordinance, I take them in. That’s my job, Rico.”
“Yeah, whatever. So like I said: B.S.,” Rico concluded. Lisa let out an exasperated groan but did not pursue the matter further. Rico continued on, unfazed, “So me and Lucas show up at the station, to try and get our cousin. That’s when they attacked.”
“What?” Eli asked, confused. “Who attacked? Los muertos?”
“Los muertos,” Rico confirmed, saying the words slowly and emphatically.
“You’re telling me,” Eli said, pausing a second as all the thoughts raced through his head, “that these creatures, these undead… things… that they attacked a police station?”
“Well attack is probably the wrong word,” Lisa spoke up. “I mean, they’re mindless wanderers, right? They just seem to roam around and sometimes they end up somewhere. Like a police station.”
“Yeah, well, it sure seemed like an attack,” Rico muttered. “I mean, there were, I dunno how many. A hundred?”
“A couple dozen at most,” Lisa argued.
“Man, there were more than that. They overran the station. They were everywhere.”
“Well, it’s a small station. And we were practically the only ones there at the time.”
“So you guys fought your way through the creatures and met up with the rest of the group?” Eli blurted, trying to put a stop to the argument before it got too far along.
“Nah man, we didn’t meet the rest of these people until a few days ago,” Rico replied. “First the pigs – the ones that survived, anyway – decided they couldn’t let rabble like us run around free no matter what was happening. They were gonna try and take us to a different station, one that wasn’t overrun. We never made it, though.” Rico’s voice suddenly trailed off and he went silent. Turning, he faced out the window to his right and watched the countryside passing outside the car.
Eli turned one quizzical eye on the young man. He seemed to be effected by some bizarre and rapid mood swings, but he found himself unable to judge too harshly. Perhaps events like the end of the world just tended to give everybody some sort of psychosis. “So there’s more cops in the group then?” For a long moment, nobody said anything. Eli got the sudden impression of committing a serious faux pas, of asking something it would have been better to remain silent about. “What?” he asked, defensively.
“The others…” Lisa began, her voice trailing off as she searched for the right words, “They didn’t make it.”
“Oh,” Eli said. “I’m sorry.”
They drove on for a long moment in silence. The mood seemed to have seriously dampened again, as it was probably destined to do, with the reality of the world being what it was. Eli began to wish he’d been stuck with a different group. This one was too depressing.
“God, I miss the radio,” Lucas said suddenly, making everybody jump.
“I, uh, have some CDs,” Eli replied, his face reddening a little with embarrassment as he considered the ones actually in his car. “I don’t think you’ll like them, though.”
“Man, anything might be better than silence,” Lucas shot back.
“Okay,” Eli relented. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He reached over to his dashboard and hit the power button on the radio. Suddenly, screaming power chords ripped to life to the beat of thundering drums. Angry, scratchy, out of tune, and mostly incoherent vocals followed suit. The music roared out of the speakers like a violent storm, filling the car with a booming, uncompromising rage.
The song lasted about 5 seconds before Rico reached over and pressed the power button and the noise suddenly died. There was silence in the car as all eyes focused on Eli. “What?” he demanded, feeling extremely uncomfortable. Nobody responded. “Well, I did warn you,” he snapped.
Everyone decided it was better to just drive on in silence.
Around them, the houses and strip malls began to slowly fizzle out, dropping from a constant stream to an occasional trickle, until they gave way altogether to a thick, leafy forest. The highway opened up from a stifling two lane to a four lane, and then eventually the two directions split apart, torn away by a grassy median until they almost fell out of sight of each other completely. Cars dotted the highway, their owners now dead or walking undead, generally spaced out and off to the sides of the road but providing enough of an obstacle to keep the caravan’s pace down to a safe speed. The occasional undead could also be seen, sometimes standing still with no direction, sometimes shambling in that awkward gait they all seemed to possess. There was nothing like there had been earlier, no giant waves waiting to converge on their small group.
Two hours passed mostly in an awkward and generally uncomfortable silence. When the leading SUV rumbled to a steady stop up ahead, despite concerns over potential threats it came as somewhat of a relief.
“What’s going on?” Rico asked to no one in particular, and no one in particular responded.
Up ahead the other vehicles pulled up close to the leading truck and also rolled to a stop. People began filing out of the vehicles and stretching limbs. Eli smiled in one corner of his mouth as realization dawned on him. He cast a glance at Rico. “Rest stop,” he explained.
He pulled the car up near one of the others and parked. The group quickly stepped out and moved away, taking the much needed opportunity to go for a walk and relieve themselves quietly in the trees.
“Don’t go too far,” Marshall shouted to the people headed out to the woods off the side of the road. “We don’t know what could be out there.”
Eli watched the man, or more accurately watched Amber, who hovered around him like a wasp just dying for a drink. They were carrying on a hushed conversation, but when she noticed Eli watching, she frowned and moved out of view around the side of the nearest SUV.
With a sigh, Eli turned to find something else to keep his interest. Turning left, he noticed Chuy leaning inside an abandoned car across the grassy divide on the eastbound side of the highway. He felt himself being drawn over by curiosity.
“Whatcha doin’?” Eli asked, innocently as could be, once he was in earshot.
The young Hispanic man turned two angry, dark eyes on his uninvited guest, and for a long moment did not provide an answer. Finally, he shrugged and turned back to what he was doing. “You never know what kind of useful stuff you might find. Ha!” He added at the end, pulling out a pocket knife from the pocket on the back of the passenger seat. Chuy held it up triumphantly, smiling wide as he looked at Eli. “Here,” he said, and tossed it to him, “I bet you don’t have your own knife.”
Eli caught the knife with both hands and as little flailing as he could manage. He had never been too good at catching unexpected items midair, and usually just ended up batting them around a bit with each hand as he flailed desperately and unsuccessfully to grab the item before knocking it out of his own reach. Not wanting to look like an idiot in front of this big group of strangers, he was quite thankful and relieved when he managed to actually catch the item this time.
He turned the pocket knife over in his hands, looking at it. It was the multi-tool variety, complete with a number of items that would probably never be useful again, like a cork screw and wire cutters. “Thanks, uh, I guess,” he muttered. He turned his head and looked down the highway. Down the line, at another empty car, someone was busy draining the unneeded gas from the tank into a container. Someone else was similarly busy going through the vehicle for useful items. “What kind of stuff would be considered useful?” Eli asked absently.
“Oh, all kinds of shit,” Chuy responded from the backseat of the car. He was clearly being quite thorough in his search. “Weapons, pills, clothes. You never know what you could use. Or what you’ll find. Hey hey!” He stepped out of the car and waved a pair of aviators he’d found. In one fluid motion he slapped them on and struck a pose, asking “Whaddya think?”
Eli felt it pertinent to not respond with what he actually thought about aviator sunglasses, and instead opted to simply say, “They’re you.”
“Eff yeah,” Chuy emphatically exclaimed, then headed around the car to the trunk.
“So uh,” Eli began, feeling a little sheepish, “how does one get the name ‘Chewy’?”
Chuy shot his unwanted companion a look that seemed to be half hatred and half disbelief. After a moment he quietly replied, “Chuy’s a nickname. My name’s Jesus.” He said the word so it sounded like “Hey Zeus,” as though he were casually greeting the god of thunder.
“Oh,” Eli responded simply, now even more embarrassed. He decided to leave before he revealed even more of his cultural ignorance. “Well, good luck with your search,” he said, tapping the car’s roof a couple of times before turning and hurrying back to his own vehicle.
Around his car, a small group had already gathered. Eli noted with some annoyance and even disappointment that this would be the third unique group of passenger’s he had carried in as many chances. Leaning against the passenger side door was Jay, the kid from the night before. Beside him stood an older man Eli was pretty sure was Stephan, and the woman he recognized as Kelly. Across the car from them, on the driver’s side, stood a young woman with light red hair and a dark expression across her face.
“What’s this?” Eli asked, coming up near Jay.
“Oh, hey man,” Jay said, standing up straight. “So your name’s Eli?” Eli nodded an affirmative. “Rico asked us to switch cars with him and his brothers. Something about you being a total nutbag?”
Eli blinked in surprise, somewhat taken aback. “He called me a nutbag?”
“Oh, no,” Jay replied, shaking his head. “Nutbag is my own invention. I believe the actual words he used were, um, ‘gringo?’ And I think maybe ‘loco.’ And probably ‘estupido’ was in there somewhere. And a bunch of words I don’t remember them teaching me in high school Spanish. I can go ask for a direct translation if you’d like.”
“That’s okay,” Eli answered, holding up his hands in defeat.
“This is funny to you?” The man next to Jay snapped at them, stepping in front of the woman next to him as if guarding her from the shenanigans of these youths. “Young people today, everything’s a joke to you, isn’t it? It’s the end of the God damn world and you’re still laughing it up. In my day we would have treated a situation like this with the gravity and the respect that it deserves!”
Jay and Eli exchanged quizzical glances. “You’ve… been in a situation like this before?” Eli asked skeptically.
The man pounded his fist on the hood of the car. “This is war, son!” He snapped, fire burning in his eyes. “This is foreign invasion on American soil. This is people forcibly evicted from their homes with terror! This is man and wife, son and daughter, brother and sister turned on each other in civil combat! This is no humor to be had in this situation. This is devastation, pure and simple.”
Eli’s expression became doubtful. “You don’t really look that old,” he remarked. “What wars have you been in?”
“That’s not the point!” The man protested, but he fell quiet, pulling back and grumbling to himself something about how different things were in his day.
“This is Stephen, by the way,” Jay said by way of introduction, not realizing Eli already knew. “And that’s Kelly.” With one thumb he motioned across the car. “The redhead trying not to be noticed is Kira.”
“Hey,” Kira said simply, without really looking at them.
Back by the first vehicle, Marshall stood up straight and let out a shrill whistle. “All right,” he called, waving his arms in towards himself as though he were beckoning to everyone, let’s start bringing it in. We’ve got a long ways still to go before nightfall.” The group turned and watched as people began making their way out of the woods and headed back towards the cars.
“Yes, let’s get going,” Stephan agreed, pulling open the door to the backseat. “This is hard enough on all of us without you two cracking jokes at everybody’s expense.”
“What?” Eli blurted, eyes widening in shock, but Stephan didn’t answer. He simply followed Kelly into the car and slammed shut the door. “But, we didn’t make jokes at anyone’s expense,” Eli protested.
Jay merely shrugged. “Don’t mind him. He’s just a bitter old man. Thinks he’s the only one to lose somebody during the outbreak.” He turned around and crossed eyes with Kira. The two stood in silence for a long moment, watching each other across the gulf between them. She suddenly pulled open the car door and dropped into the backseat. “We each have our own way of dealing with it,” he added, quietly, almost as if to himself. He looked back at Eli and smiled. “Well, let’s go.”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed, but for a moment he turned and watched all the people climbing into the mammoth, white SUVs glistening in the early afternoon sun. All the stories these people must have now, now that the world had become a dark and scary place. All the families and friends they must have lost. But here they were, for whatever reason, facing the oncoming storm with grim determination despite it all. Jay was right, they really did seem to all have different ways of coping. He realized he couldn’t stand there any longer, or the darkness would overwhelm him.
He hurried across to the driver’s side of his car and quickly climbed inside.