Chapter 11: Highway of the Dead
They continued on their way like this through the rest of the day, stopping twice more to take similar breaks, though on these occasions, finally, no new groups came to Eli’s car.
During the first stop, he stood leaning against his car next to Jay, watching members of the group wander about the nearby cars, grabbing supplies and draining gasoline into containers. “Why SUVs?” he asked suddenly.
“What?” Jay responded absently.
“Why SUVs? Who in the group was like, ‘Okay, it’s the end of the world, gas stations don’t work anymore, oil is in limited supply, let’s take the most fuel inefficient vehicles we can find!’”
“They’re not the most inefficient,” Jay protested. “We could always be driving RVs or something. Besides, if we’re ever attacked, they provide a lot more defense than little cars.” As he said “little cars” he rapped his knuckles against the side of Eli’s car.
“Hey, you got a problem with the car you got a problem with me, pal.”
“I don’t have a problem,” Jay was quick to refute, holding his hands up defensively.
The next time they stopped, Eli could feel himself growing restless. The hours were stretching on ever closer to night. Surrounded as they were by trees, even though it was still a few hours until sunset the sun was out of view, shadows covered all, and an eerie twilight filled the highway and surrounding woods. After finding a sufficiently private enough place to relieve himself, he hurried back to the group.
Stepping up to Marshall, he asked, “How far is this place?”
“What place?” Marshall responded, brow furrowing in confusion.
“This base, or whatever. The place we’re supposed to be headed to. That’s where we’re going, isn’t it?”
“Right,” Marshall answered, nodding his head dramatically with realization. “Devin says it’s only about another hour or so. He’s been to it before. There should be a turnoff about a dozen or so exits down the line.”
“Let’s hope so,” Eli said, looking around, a sign of concern painted clearly across his face. “I’m thinking the apocalypse is a bad time for camping outside.”
“Believe me,” Marshall said coolly, waving his hands in the air in an assuring manner, “nobody here wants to sleep outside any more than you do.”
Eli nodded, but the uncertainty did not leave his features. “I can’t help but feel like we should be worried about the fact that we haven’t seen a zombie almost since we left town,” he added.
“Don’t call them that!”
Everyone nearly jumped in surprise at the sudden comment. All eyes turned on Kelly, who had been standing nearby, silent until that point. “What,” Eli began, turning his head slowly to share a quick glance with most of the others standing nearby, “should I be calling them then?”
Honestly, up that point he hadn’t really thought about it. Despite Amber telling him not to use the word, there had been no doubt in his mind since he’d been attacked in his apartment that these horrible creatures were exactly that: zombies. TV and video games had forewarned him of this possibility, and these creatures certainly seemed to match all the typical characteristics.
“I don’t know!” She snapped, turning away from them. “Just, anything but that,” she added quietly.
“Maybe she’s right,” a woman Eli hadn’t met chimed in. “It’s a nasty name.”
“Um, there’s kind of precedence for this,” Eli argued. “All the lore about creatures like this call them zombies. They look like zombies, they walk like zombies, they talk like zombies. Therefore, they are zombies.”
“These things don’t talk,” the woman countered. “They don’t even seem to moan.”
“I’ve heard one moan.”
Eli opened his mouth to reply and then stopped short. Actually, everything from the past two days now seemed like a blur, and it felt like almost none of it could even be real. “Okay, maybe not. I guess I’m not sure. But no sounds might be even more creepy than weird moaning for people’s brains, and it still fits with zombie lore.”
“What lore?” The woman continued, shaking her head in disbelief. “And why should it matter? Can’t you at least just respect someone’s wishes and not call them that?”
“Elaine’s right,” Marshall agreed, “If Kelly dislikes that word, then that’s more than enough reason not to use it, despite whatever reasoning to the contrary.”
“Oh you would agree with Elaine,” Amber spat. Now it was her turn to have all eyes focus in her direction.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Marshall asked innocently.
Amber seemed to realize only then that she had spoken aloud. Her mouth opened but for several seconds only pathetic squeaks rose to the surface. “Nothing, I–” she began, but seemed unsure of where to go from there.
“Well, we still need something to call them,” Eli interjected.
“We can call them ‘Los Muertos,’” Rico offered.
“That sounds like some kind of gang,” said Elaine.
Eli had to suppress his laughter, considering Rico’s reaction to Eli saying almost the exact same thing only a few hours earlier. Rico, on the other hand, did not seem amused.
“Why,” he demanded, staring threateningly at Elaine, “cuz it’s Spanish?”
Eli scoffed and rolled his eyes. “God, you people are so easily distracted. It’s a wonder you’ve survived this long.”
“Let’s just call them the creatures,” Marshall concluded.
“But what if we come across a race of Frankenstein’s monsters?” Jay, who had just walked up said. “They’re always referred to as ‘The Creature,’ so what would we call them?”
“That’s not gonna happen,” Marshall snapped.
“You don’t know,” argued Jay. “Shits gone crazy. Anything’s possible at this point.”
“Fine. Then we’ll call them Frankensteins!” Marshall growled.
“But Frankenstein is the creator, not the monster,” Matthew pointed out. “It’s a common mistake.”
“Actually, since Victor Frankenstein was the creator that would technically make him the creature’s father. Thus, it would make perfect sense for it to take the same surname and so be called Frankenstein as well,” Eli commented.
By this point, Marshall’s head was in his hands. “Has everyone gone crazy? Can you people focus for five minutes? Look, there aren’t any Frankensteins or Frankenstein’s monsters or whatever! If we do come across some we can worry about naming them then. Until then, is everyone fine with naming the one’s we do have to deal with ‘the creatures?’”
There was some shuffling of feet and a chorus of grunts of agreement. “I don’t see how that’s better than zombie,” Eli muttered under his breath, but said nothing more.
“Fine. Good. Then what say we get back on the road. As Eli pointed out, nighttime is rapidly approaching and we don’t want to be caught outdoors when it gets here.”
With hardly another word everyone turned to make their way back to their respective vehicles. Eli turned around once and saw Marshall speaking softly to Kelly, a gentle hand upon her shoulder. Then she walked back with him to his car, instead of returning to Eli’s.
He did not see Amber. She was probably still avoiding him. He climbed into his car and started the engine. He took a quick look around to count heads, making sure everyone was on board – minus the one – before he took off. After a few minutes, the cars began to pull out, heading back along the highway to the west.
Eli kept looking from side to side and checking his rear view mirror. An uneasy feeling was growing in the pit of his stomach, and the further they travelled the more difficult it was for him to shake.
“Expecting to find something?” Jay asked after one of Eli’s now regular mirror checks.
“I just don’t like the fact that we haven’t seen a zombie in so long,” Eli replied.
“I thought we weren’t calling them zombies.”
Eli glared daggers at his companion. “When Madam Overly Touchy isn’t around I’m going to call them whatever I damn well please.”
Jay held up his hands defensively, “Okay, okay. No need to get all riled up. I’m hip to your cool, man.”
“What is it you’re trying to get at,” grumbled Stephan’s voice from the backseat, hoping to prevent Jay and Eli from getting carried away with their joking.
“I… I guess I don’t really know,” Eli answered. “It’s just that it doesn’t seem right somehow. I mean, if this outbreak is as bad as it seems, if this is a global pandemic and we are a small group of human survivors on a zombie planet, then that means that there’s something like seven or eight billion zombies running around the Earth’s surface. Even assuming that there are other groups of survivors like us, there probably isn’t more than a billion living left. That would still leave an overwhelming number of the undead. So why aren’t we coming across any? Why aren’t there some trapped in some of these cars we’re passing, or just wandering around the roads and forests with no direction?”
“Are you saying you want to be coming across more zombies?” Jay asked, incredulous.
“What? No! Nothing like that. I just mean, it’s weird. That’s all. I mean, I don’t think you understand the numbers. Ever watched a zombie movie? The survivors all blockade themselves into a mall or a warehouse or something, hoping to live out the end of days, but eventually there’s a swarm of zombies outside and it’s just too much. And there we’re talking, like, maybe a few hundred zombies. You know? That seemingly immense number that proves the death of our heroes, that’s not even one billionth of the number we’re talking about here.”
“I’m not sure about your math there,” said Jay.
“Regardless, the number difference is huge. And yet those survivors are forced into a small location just to attempt to live out the rest of their days, and here we are, wandering about in the open like nothing’s changed. Why is that? Were the movies and stuff... were they all wrong?”
“I don’t know, man,” Jay replied quietly. It was clear Eli’s words were getting to him, getting to everyone in the small car, in fact. A dark silence fell, stifling and ominous, and hung over each of them.
“Maybe it’s because they’ve been grouping up.”
The soft feminine voice surprised everyone. Until that point, Kira had literally not said two words for the entire trip, which made her words now all the more ripe with portent.
“She’s right,” Jay said, his eyes distant and unfocused, as memories came flooding back to him. “Just like this morning at the hotel. It was just massive waves of them from all directions. Or yesterday at the apartment complex. Same exact thing. And a week before that most of us were up at a farm north of here. Same thing happened there. It’s like they’re seeking each other out, and we’re just getting in the way.”
“So, what, they have some kind of… herd mentality?” Stephen asked.
Eli considered that. It certainly didn’t seem impossible. “Maybe,” he said simply, and the word hung in the air for a long time like a bee ready to sting. “Maybe it’s something else,” he added after a moment. “Maybe it’s some sort of natural human instinct to pair up with others of your kind.”
“They’re not human anymore, Eli,” Jay said, voice solemn and gravelly.
“True,” he admitted, “in a sense. But a part of them still is. In movies, they theorized that zombies did stuff like show up at malls, movie theaters, and grocery stores in mass because that’s what those people did in real life, and some sort of vague memory is firing up inside of their mostly dead brains. It’s like they still have access to certain human instincts. Maybe that’s what’s happening here. Maybe they know enough to know that they like to be among others, even if they can’t express that feeling or write sappy poems in dark rooms about it.”
“Well, either way, it’s bad news,” Jay concluded.
“Why?” asked Eli.
“Because one zombie by itself, that’s nothing. It’s slow, it’s lumbering, it’s weak. But a million zombies? That’s an endless sea of danger just waiting to swallow you whole.”
He was right, and they all knew it. There was nothing more to be said, nothing that could be added to that to make it either less frightening or more real. Outside the car, the world was beginning to grow dark as the light faded out through the trees. Eli flicked on the headlights in a futile effort to fight away the night.