Chapter 17: Dangerous Paths
Early morning sunlight broke through the window panes and flooded the room with a pure, white light. As the sun rose higher and higher, the light stretched further and further into the room. Eventually even the nook just below the windows, where Eli was sleeping, had been liberated from shadow.
With that he finally stirred, opening one eye and then quickly shutting it again. A look of annoyance passed over his features. He rolled over, trying to turn away from the brightness, and reached out an arm to place around Tisha, but he found only empty floor. Now he opened both eyes, sitting up as he did. She was not there, so he turned and looked about the room, but still there was no sign of her. He wondered at what point in the night she had left. He must have fallen asleep almost immediately after their encounter, so really it could have been at any point. He looked down at himself and realized he was mostly naked. His shirt was bunched up around his upper torso and his pants similarly bundled around his ankles. With embarrassment flashing red across his face he reached down and pulled his clothing back into place. Luckily, this was Texas, and the temperature during the night had probably not even dropped below seventy. Still, he could not help but shiver a little as he slid the clothing back over his exposed skin.
He rose and crossed the room. The door had been closed and, apparently, locked. It locked from the inside, so Tisha must have set it before leaving. At least she had been willing to leave him with his dignity intact by ensuring no one came into the room while he was sleeping.
He quickly made his way out of the room and through the building. Outside, the early morning light had brightened to near blinding as the sun edged over the tops of the trees. Long daggers of light gleamed hotly in Eli’s vision. He lifted one hand over his face to block out the glare, but could see little more than blurs of motion. For a moment he froze in terror, thinking zombies had made their way inside the base, but as the images began to clear he realized it was just an abnormal level of activity from his companions. By the time he reached the nearest person his eyes had adjusted enough to recognize them.
“What’s going on?” he asked, mainly to Daniel, who was the one passing by him, but really to anyone who would give an answer.
“Ask Marshall,” Daniel replied dismissively.
He was about to ask where he could find Marshall, when suddenly the bulky man was there, standing right next to him. “Woah!” Eli exclaimed, taking a step back. “For a big guy you move surprisingly quietly.” Marshall did not respond beyond giving Eli a quizzical look. Eli simply shrugged. “So,” he added, “what’s going on?”
“We’re going to town. Paul says it’s about twenty-five miles south of here. We’ll head there, hit it for some supplies, and come right back.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Eli replied.
Marshall’s expression made his impatience and annoyance clear. “I’ve already given this much consideration. I wouldn’t be asking anyone to do this if I didn’t think it absolutely necessary. We need to get this done, and the sooner the better. You don’t have to come. I’m only offering because I figured you would never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t.”
Eli glanced around before responding, and his eyes fell on Amber, who was watching them from some distance away. He held his cheek where she had punched him, wincing as his fingers fell across the bruise, and thought about her words from the night before. Suddenly he felt drained and tired. Taking a deep breath, he turned and looked back at Marshall. “I’ll go. Just let me grab my gear.” A growl rose up from his stomach, as if it was arguing with his sudden determination. “And maybe some food,” he added.
Marshall raised his arm, revealing that he had actually been holding Eli’s backpack, complete with two bats, the entire time. Eli blinked, surprised, and slowly accepted the bag. “Tisha said you might need it,” Marshall explained with surprisingly little judgment or curiosity in his tone, “And I had a feeling you’d agree to go. There’s some food in it, but you can grab some more from the kitchen if you want.”
Eli considered for a moment, and then slung the bag over his shoulder. “Nah, that’s all right. I trust you.” He turned his head and looked around for Tisha. She was busy talking to Kelsey, and seemed to be actively ignoring him. He waited until he managed to catch her eye, and then nodded his thanks to her. She rolled her eyes and walked away. He frowned, but honestly could not say he was particularly surprised. Apparently, what “felt right” to her was a one night stand that involved pretty much forgetting about the person the next day. Probably for the best, in the end, he figured. At least if he went and got himself killed in town he could rest assured that no one would be grieving back at camp.
He turned forward again and realized Marshall was already some distance off, headed for the office buildings. Eli sprinted to catch up, and then fell into step beside the larger man. “So, who’s all going?” he asked, as nonchalant as he could manage.
“Me, you, Matthew, Daniel, Devin,” Marshall replied.
As they walked they came upon Kira, who was standing by just watching them as they went. A sad, concerned expression hung on her face, but as far as Eli knew that was pretty much always the expression on her face. He nodded to her and smiled reassuringly, but suddenly she reached out and grabbed him by the wrist, stopping him in his tracks. Marshall kept on walking by, and she waited a few moments for the big man to move out of earshot. She leaned in close to Eli, her eyes wide but serious. “Don’t go,” she said softly.
“What?” He replied dumbly. He had heard the words just fine, but could not begin to fathom what had possessed her to act like this.
“Don’t go. I’m serious. You’ll die.”
Eli’s eyes went wide as quarters and he opened his mouth to say something, but only random noises came out. He turned to look at Marshall, to see if the man had any explanations, but he was already far away and did not seem to have noticed that Eli had been stopped. He turned back to Kira, but she was gone. He looked in the direction of the dorms and saw her hurrying across the field back toward the girl’s building.
“Hey, wait!” he called after her, but it was pointless. He wanted to ask her several questions, like why she was just warning him, and thus why he seemed to be the only one she thought would die. Or why she would be concerned about him at all. But she was gone, and he knew he needed to hurry to catch up with Marshall and the others.
Devin was already waiting for them at the entrance to the office buildings, casually leaning back against the building with an M4 splayed across his legs as if it were nothing more than a sandwich.
“Holy hell,” Eli exclaimed, motioning to the gun, “where did you get that?”
“What, this?” Devin asked casually, as if he was talking about an old shirt that normally resided in the back of his closet. “I’ve had it since I left base camp. Never parted with it.”
“That’s good,” Eli replied, trying to keep his voice from cracking. He had never been terribly comfortable around guns, and even now was not too sure exactly how he felt about being so close to somebody holding a fully automatic rifle.
Matthew and Daniel came jogging up, each wearing a backpack of their own and carrying large bags that seemed to be empty. They nodded to Marshall who nodded back to them in return. “Everyone ready to go then?” He looked to each person in turn, and when nobody argued they set off.
They made their way through the office building and back out to the parking lot they had first entered through. Beyond the gates the way was clear. Fortunately the moves Eli and Jay had employed to pull away the running zombies had been more than successful, and the stragglers seemed to have just wondered off to somewhere else on that first night. In the parking lot, Donald and Aliyah were waiting with keys to the SUVs that were blocking the entrance gate. Marshall nodded to them and they nodded back, then climbed inside their respective vehicles. Everyone else climbed inside the remaining SUV, with Marshall climbing into the driver’s seat. He started up the vehicle, wincing a little at the roar of the engine. How loud it seemed after spending almost an entire week without a single car being used anywhere.
He backed out carefully from his parking space and lined himself up with the exit gate. Aliyah and Donald both inched their vehicles out of the way until a gap had been made large enough for them to pass through. Marshall took them out, and behind them the gap was closed off again. Eli watched as the back end of each car closed in, feeling rather like they were sealing his doom as they did.
They hit the main road and turned south. As it was days before on their journey to the base, there was not a zombie in sight. In a car, twenty-five miles was not much of a distance, even when driving slowly and carefully at high alert. The road in this part of the country was almost completely empty of cars. Were they headed to a bigger town, this might have been suspicious, but out here in the middle of nowhere cars had never obtained the same level of importance. This was an area where it would not have been unusual to see people driving tractors down the highway instead of cars. In fact, they even did pass one tractor, turned the wrong direction off the side of the road, with its engine casing open as though somebody had been working on it.
As the first of the houses and small business shops crawled past the windows, everyone inside the car tensed and readied their weapons. Eyes were locked on the passing world, ready and waiting for any sign of movement, but none came. The place was quiet, each store front dark, each vehicle silent or even upturned. It looked as though nobody had lived here for a very long time, at least years. It was hard to believe it had been just a little over a month.
“Kind of gives new meaning to the term ‘ghost town,’” said Eli.
“That’s not funny,” Devin snapped almost immediately.
Eli considered replying that he had not really been joking, but decided it best to just keep his mouth shut.
Marshall seemed to know where he was going, which was more or less the truth. Although he had never been to the town before, Paul had given him some directions to a few of the places that would prove most useful to them. Near the center of town there was a hardware store close to a gardening store and a small supermarket. Marshall had decided that this would be the best place for the quickest in and out for the most important supplies they would need. They might leave a few things off his list, but better that than to not make it back at all.
He pulled to a stop near a tree that provided a fairly comparable midway point between the three stores. The five men waited a long moment for any sign of movement, then quickly exited the vehicles. Eli, who had been sitting in the back seat, exited last.
He watched the others as they moved, kneeling low and locking their view into a different direction with each step. They almost looked trained for this, as if they were some crack military unit and not just a bunch of random civilians merely trying to stay alive after the worst really had come to worst. Devin alone seemed appropriate, still dressed in his military camouflage, M4 raised and ready for the first sign of trouble. He certainly had some training that could have prepared him for this moment, but Eli’s understanding was that there could have been no way Devin had time to teach anyone what he knew before Eli joined the group. Thinking about it now, he supposed that Devin could have been preparing them for the past several days while he sat up in an empty office building. Suddenly he was feeling very left out.
Matthew and Eli quickly turned and headed for the market, while Marshall and Daniel headed for the hardware store. Devin stayed behind to guard the SUV and keep an eye out for any signs of life… or death.
“Supermarket” was the wrong word for it. It was a small building, probably no more than thirty or forty square feet, with only enough room along the front for one glass door and two rectangular windows wide enough to read “Jake’s Grocery” and not much else. The front door was, not surprisingly, locked, as the first attack had probably come in the night. None of the windows had been broken, and there was a metal gate in place behind the door and windows to further block entry. After staring at the door for a few moments, Eli motioned with his head to the nearby alleyway. “Let’s check the employee entrance.”
Matthew nodded solemnly and they hurried around the corner, weapons drawn and held low but ready. The door was set flush with the wall. It was a large metal door with some very heavy duty looking locks on it. “I think we’ll have more luck with the front windows,” Matthew commented. Eli frowned as he considered this. He spun around one of his bats and shoved it back into his backpack, then rounded to the far side of the door. He reached out a hand and wrapped it around the door handle. He glanced at Matthew, who had a confused look on his face for a moment. A light came on behind the other man’s eyes and he nodded, mostly to himself. He took a few steps back and raised his gun at the door, ready to fire. The two men exchanged a curt nod and then Eli pulled on the door.
As he had hoped, it was unlocked, and gave easily. It swung wide, exposing an inky black interior. The two companions each held their breath and waited, but no signs of movement came. Eli came around the door and drew out the second bat once more, holding the door open with his back. He waited for a long moment, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, and then stepped inside.
Eli stood in a small corridor. Before him was a second door, already open, leading into the main store. To his left ran a short corridor that then turned right and disappeared into what was most likely the back storage area. He turned and angled himself with his back to Matthew and the one wall, lifting one bat to point in each open direction. He considered heading into the back, but decided better of it. Instead, he sort of shuffled sideways into the store, bats leading the way. Matthew followed close behind, keeping an eye on the corridor.
The place was eerily silent. No music playing, no patrons talking amongst themselves, no sounds leaking in from outside, not even a clerk impatiently shifting from leg to leg. The room was as dead as the rest of the town. They checked up and down the aisles, into every corner, and around the back of the counter, but there were no corpses, living or dead, anywhere to be seen. Eli shook his head as they concluded their tour, as the feeling once again grew in his stomach. “There’s something not right about this,” he said aloud.
Matthew raised an eyebrow at him. “Are you actually complaining that there aren’t any zombies?”
“No, just confused as to why there aren’t,” Eli replied. “Even a town as small as this should be overrun. Failing that, there should be some trapped indoors somewhere. People who got bit and holed up before turning. The scary question isn’t even why there aren’t zombies, it’s who let the zombies out that were trapped?”
The question clearly made Matthew uncomfortable and he shivered. He pulled out two of the bags he had come with and handed them to Eli. “Just fill your bags,” he insisted, and then set to work on his own. Eli accepted his duties and set to work grabbing as many bottles of water and bits of canned food as he could shove into his bags.
“You’re not from Texas, are you?” he asked Matthew.
Matthew lifted off his Oklahoma University cap and wiped the sweat from his brow. Returning it to his head he asked, “What gave it away?”
Eli, who actually had not really noticed the hat, smiled with embarrassment. “Actually, if I had to guess, I would say you weren’t from Oklahoma, either. I was just thinking that no one around here pronounces ‘bag’ like ‘beg.’”
Matthew shot a surprised look at Eli, and then chuckled. “Man, I try not to do that anymore. Guess I’m a bit out of practice without as many people to talk to.” He paused for a moment and grabbed some more supplies off the shelves to stuff into his bag. “You’re right. I’m from Minnesota, originally. We moved down to Oklahoma when I was in high school. My brother has been working in Dallas for the past few years. He got sick a little before this whole mess. I was visiting him in the hospital when they brought a recently bit victim into the ICU.”
He stopped there, and seemed to almost fold up into himself. He let out a long sigh and then shoved a few more supplies into his bag. “You ready to go?” he said, zipping the bag up.
“Yeah.” Eli choked a bit as he spoke, and the word barely came out. He zipped up his own bags and threw them both over one shoulder so that he could keep a bat at the ready in his other.
The air rocked with a loud crack, followed by a couple more cracks, and then Matthew’s walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Everybody outside now! Time to go!” Devin’s voice sounded beyond urgent, possibly to the point of frantic. Eli and Matthew exchanged looks of shock, and then almost simultaneously they began running for the exit.
The outer door had closed on its own, but Matthew kicked it open almost without even breaking his stride. They rounded the corner back onto the main street and that’s when they saw it.
From the east, as though following the sun, was a wall of the undead.