Charged~ Electric Book One

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Chapter Five~ Chaos

Back at Brie’s we grab our bags. We still have a few minutes, and perhaps out of habit, she flicks on the TV while we wait. The screen catches all of our attention:

“…at this rate, the numbers are staggering. Within just a few days the entire eastern seaboard will be affected unless we figure out how to stop them.”

Another reporter’s voice cuts in, “The issue with that, Jim, is that at the rate people are falling to this, all of the scientists with the knowledge to fix them will be overtaken before they have a chance.”

The screen changes from the debating reporters to a news studio. “If you are just joining us, we are reporting live, up to the minute coverage of the nanobot invasion. Early this morning Michael Roberts, the man with the first successfully regenerated limb through nanotechnology, was found dead in his room. Upon discovery, police were called on the scene. It didn’t take long for people to notice things changing.

“In the beginning, four out of six people exposed to Michael’s body began exhibiting symptoms of a fever and a rash. Within thirty minute, the numbers had risen to sixty. Approximately twenty minutes after the onset of symptoms, those affected have lost consciousness. When they awaken, they no longer appear human. Their emotions are gone, their movements calculated. Dr. Julian Ford explains.”

In his own small box in the corner, Dr. Ford appears uncomfortable on the screen. I assume he is being shot on location in his lab at BioNano. His voice is shaky as he begins. “Thank you.” He clears his throat. “The onset of symptoms is the indicator that these rogue nanobots have infected a body. They appear like that of a virus, because the nanobots are infecting a body as a foreign entity and the body is trying to fight it off.” His voice grows somber. “Upon exposure, there’s no hope of containment and currently, though we are hard at work, we do not have the ability to stop them. They appear to be taking control of those they have infected. At this time, we don’t know what intentions they have, if any. Please remain indoors if possible, but remember that exposure does not stop with people. These nanobots work on a molecular level. Everything they come in contact with: people, animals, buildings, even water can become a carrier.”

It’s the noise outside that breaks our trance with the television. Mason moves towards the window. “You guys should see this.”

Brie and I move to the window. It’s pandemonium outside. The roads are jammed; drivers seem to be laying on their horns. People are running past each other on the sidewalks. Scared, I turn from the window and grab my phone. I try calling my mom, but it beeps, saying there’s no service. I frown and try Brie’s house phone. It’s dead, too.

I see Mason with his phone in his hand. He shakes his head. Brie rummages through her backpack and pulls hers out. I can tell by her frustrated expression that it’s not working either. My mind is racing. We all want to find our parents. It doesn’t seem safe to separate. We need to stay together.

I take my backpack and dump it out on Brie’s kitchen table. I pluck a few things out of the pile, and rummage through Brie’s kitchen. I throw matches, an LED flashlight and a can opener into my backpack. “We have to go.” I tell Mason and Brie. “We can try to find our parents, but once we do, we can’t stay here. BioNano is less than an hour east of here. If these things are spreading, we need to go west as quickly as possible. Judging by the traffic outside, we better go on foot.”

The contents of their bags have joined mine. My mind is still racing. “Brie, pack a change of clothes and anything else you think you might need, but make sure you can carry it. We’ll leave a note for your mom to stay put. We can go check my house and Mason’s and then come back.”

“What if nobody’s there?” Brie looks terrified.

“We can go look for them.” Mason suggests.

I bite my lip. “I think we should take everything on an individualized basis right now. I really don’t think we should assume anything.” I pull some water out of the fridge, two bottles for each of us, and toss Mason and Brie their bottles. “We should hurry.” A scream out front confirms this.

Brie takes off to her room. I throw a couple cans of food into my bag and Mason’s. When I stop, I break down. Mason holds me as I temporarily lose it. “What if they’re not there, Mason? What do we do?”

He sighs. “I don’t know. I think you’re right. It seems crazy out there…we’ll have to take it as it comes.”

I nod, slightly mollified that I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what to do. Before I can freak out anymore, Brie is back and ready to go. She’s changed into more suitable walking clothes. “Got everything?”

She nods, “Oh, the note!” Quickly, she jots down a note to her mom leaving it in plain view on the counter.

We make sure the house is locked up tight before we stand by the back door. The back yards appear empty, but we can still hear the panic on the streets out front. Locking the back door behind us, we creep through the backyards without incident until we reach the street we have to cross, in order to get to the next set of yards.

I’m not surprised to see it’s as chaotic as Brie’s street. Everyone is hysterical and trying to get out of town at once, with no regard for anyone’s safety. “We have to get across, try to stay together and not to draw attention to ourselves. The last thing we need are people catching onto our plan and tearing through the yards after us.” I whisper.

I take another look, and Mason pulls me back quickly as a car flies down the sidewalk. It misses me by inches. Seconds later, it crashes into a telephone pole. The front of the car catches fire, smoke billowing a few feet away. I figure this is about as good a chance as we’re going to get. “Go!” I yell, and take off weaving through the mess of cars and people, hoping Brie and Mason are behind me.

When I round the corner behind the house across the street I stop and try to catch my breath while resting my hands on my thighs. To my relief, Mason and Brie appear next to me almost instantly, mirroring my actions.

“That was like an obstacle course!” Mason says energetically.

Really,” Brie agrees, taking big gulps of air.

I want to wait to catch our breath more, but another explosion from the road tells me it’s time to move again. “C’mon.”

It’s not easy, but we push forward. Our surroundings are like something out of a bad movie and the intensity of it hangs thickly in the air. Mason’s in flight mode and I’m fairly sure that Brie’s in shock.

My house is empty when we get there. I change quickly, throw some clothes and some more supplies in my bag, and leave my own note for my mom. We find Mason’s house empty too. It’s discouraging, and we take a minute to figure out our next move.

“Let’s go up to the attic.” Mason suggests. “We can at least have a better view of what’s going on outside.”

It’s a good thing we did, but my heart falls as I look towards the downtown area—the place where all of our parents work. It looks like a war zone, completely impassable. My heart breaks as I think of my mom. She’s working at the hospital. If people came in infected, there would be no hope for her. Staring at the smoke and throngs of people running, I know we can’t go there to look for our parents. Brie starts to cry, and Mason’s cheeks are wet. None of us have to say anything, we all know.

I’m the one to break the silence. “We have to go.” My voice is numb.

Brie nods. Mason tears his gaze from the window. “I have some camping stuff in the garage, should I grab that, too?”

“That’s a good idea. We’ll grab some more food and water. Do you have a map by any chance?”

He directs me to a bookcase and I grab a map of northern New England. As I turn to leave something metal catches my eye. I pick up an antique compass and hold it flat in my palm to see if it still works. It does, so I shove it in my pocket.

I take the map and lay it across Mason’s dining room table. The three of us stand over it to pinpoint the best way out of town. Once we decide on a course, we strap on our packs and make sure all of the houses are locked up tightly.

Like bad deja-vu, we all huddle by Mason’s back door and peek out, just like we had to at my house and Brie’s before. Our luck has run out with the backyards; other people have taken to fleeing through them, too. At least they’re leaving the houses alone. I stare nostalgically at my house, not knowing if I’ll ever see it again.

“Stay together.” Mason reminds us, opening the door and snapping me out of sobering thoughts.

Taking a deep breath, I follow Mason out the door. As we step into the chaos, we join hands. Mason leads us west. We hear loud screaming behind us, and suddenly people begin to race past us. I turn, and see an even larger mob heading our way. They must be running from the infection. It’s the only thing I can think of that would cause that level of fear.

Beside us, a young mother stumbles to her knees as she carries her young child. Mason releases my hand to help her up, and we huddle around her as a throng of people hammer past us. My back is hit multiple times, and I know I’ll have some bruises to show for it. Out of the corner of my eye, about five people packed feet from us, I spy an open garage.

“Mason!” I scream. When he looks, I jut my chin in the garage’s direction. He nods, and slowly Mason, Brie and I shuffle ourselves and this woman and child into the garage. Mason slams the large door down behind us. The relief of being out of that mess of bodies is immediate.

The woman clutches her obviously frightened child to her. “Thank you, thank you so much.” She says between gulps of air. The little boy peeks at us through his mother’s hair.

“No problem,” Mason says. Then he turns to me. “There has to be a better way to do this.”

Chewing on my lip, I try to figure out how we can do this. I turn to the woman. “I’m Kat, that’s Brie and that’s Mason. Are you trying to go somewhere particular?”

She shakes her head. “I’m Becky. This is Nate. I don’t think that there’s a safe place left to go.” She takes a deep breath, and looks me in the eye, terrified. “When I looked out our large window upstairs,” she stutters, “I-I, saw it. It looked like a swarm, from a distance. But it shimmered in the sunlight. I’ve been watching the news. I grabbed Nate and what I could carry and ran.”

I look at Mason and Brie. They both nod slightly, giving me the approval I’m seeking. None of us have the heart to send this woman and kid back out into that mess. “You’re welcome to stay with us. I’m not quite sure where we’re going yet, or how we’ll get there, but it might be safer than being on your own.”

I see her eyes water. “That’d be great.” She says in a small voice. She probably doesn’t want to scare her kid any more than he already is.

I spy a window in the back corner. Moving to it, I wipe the excess dust off with my sleeve. The small alley way between the house and the garage is blessedly empty. I open the window and put my index finger to lips, asking everyone to be quiet. I see Becky whisper into Nate’s ear, and his small head nods under her hair.

Climbing out the window isn’t as easy as it should be. The opening isn’t large, and I have to wiggle and contort myself through it. When my feet hit the ground and I find my bearings, I see Mason in the window behind me.

We need to go west, so I head left first. If we can get to the woods, we should be able to escape most of the pandemonium. That means crossing two more roads.

Both directions look the same. I know we can’t stay here. I motion to Mason to come out, quietly. It takes us a moment to convince Nate to let go of his mom, but he finally releases her, and clings to me instead while she makes her way out of the window. As soon as she’s out, a thought crosses my mind. I whisper in Becky’s ear, “If Nate will permit it maybe Mason should carry him, just until we hit the woods. He’s stronger and can move faster with him.”

She nods, taking Nate back, whispering in his ear while I quietly explain to Mason. Mason nods, shifts his bag, tightening the straps, and holds his arms out to Nate. Tentatively, Nate allows Mason to hold him. Mason places Nate in front of him, wraps the boy’s small arms around his neck, and then encases the boy by zipping his jacket up around the boy.

Everyone looks at me expectantly. I frown for a second, unsure when or how I became the person in charge. It’s a lot of responsibility when the world’s going to hell.

They follow me to the opening that we’ll have to sprint through. All of our eyes widen, things have gotten worse. The abandoned damaged cars are barricading any possible path. This must be what drove all the people into the back yards. Some cars smoke, others burn. The scene resembles a war zone.

Turning back to our small group, I try to speak loud enough to be heard by them, but not so loud as to attract any unwanted attention. “We have to go over the cars. It’s the only way.”

I go first. I don’t want Mason to be the first person out while he’s holding Nate. We stay close together. People still race down the sidewalks and through the front yards, but they ignore us in their panic. I get to the first car and climb on over it, then turn to help Brie. I motion her to keep going. I help down Mason and Becky, while Brie waits for them on the other side of the next car. We follow this leap-frog pattern until we are on the other side of the road.

My body is already screaming from over-exertion, but I know we are a long way from being able to stop and rest. One hysterical woman screams and latches onto Brie’s arm. Brie tries pushing her off, but the woman won’t let go. I feel bad but people are starting to notice us—not what we need right now. I slap the woman hard across the face.

She’s dazed and that’s all I need to pull Brie’s arm free. We run towards the next house, stopping momentarily and pressing ourselves against the side of it.

The next street is an identical scene to the one we just crossed. At least I know that beyond it lies the woods, and I’m hopeful that not too many others chose the same route. The looks on all of our faces are the same. Wary, tired, but also determined. I straighten my back and step out into the madness.

This time a quite large, hysterical man starts running toward me. Petrified, I react without thinking, punching him square in the nose. He falls and we quicken our pace. Now that we have a routine for the cars, we cross them much faster. Through the next yard I’m surprised by Becky, who throws a pretty darn effective punch of her own at a scruffy teenager running at Mason and Nate. It must be ‘mom’ strength because she’s such a small, slight woman.

I hear a hissing behind us, and discover one of the fires has spread to a new car. I push everyone forward. “Run!” I yell.

We just make it around the side of the house when the ground shakes and a massive boom erupts. Mason cradles Nate while the rest of us just stare at each other, wide eyed.

A good part of me knows that I probably don’t want to see, but the survivor in me needs to know what might be lurking around the corner. Brie grabs for me but I shrug her off, motioning for all of them to stay there. When I look, the new car on fire had exploded. Pieces of car are everywhere, and we make it just in time. I shudder when I notice someone’s hand in the bush next to me. My stomach turns and I fall backwards, crab-walking back a few feet. Everyone else jumps up, scared of my reaction.

“Well,” I say shakily. “There’s certainly no one following us anymore.” I sit down and try to shake the image of the hand from my mind. “We should keep moving.” I say upon standing.

My anxiety lessens a little as we begin our hike through the woods. We don’t hear or see anyone else. When we reach the Blackberry River (really more of a stream) Brie and I lead everyone to the fallen tree to cross. Since we are unfamiliar with the lay of the land, I wonder how we’ll make it out.

We take a short break when we get to the other side. I hand Becky a bottle of my water for her and Nate to share. Mason unzips Nate from his jacket and gives him back to his mother. After a few minutes we move on.

We hike west for hours without incident, resting intermittently. When we hit the Housatonic River we hike north a bit until we reach a shallower section.

“Do we try to cross here, or keep going until we reach a bridge?” I ask.

“Bridges mean people. I’d rather try my luck with the river.” Brie answers first, and we all agree.

Mason looks at me. “I’ll be right back.” Moments later he returns with a small rowboat and paddle. “This might help.”

“Where’d that come from?” Brie asks. I could care less where it came from; I’m just happy we have it.

“It was leaning up against the back of the last house we passed just over there.” Mason answers, lowering the small boat into the water. “Careful getting in. It’s light-weight, but should get us across in one piece.”

It’s a tight fit, but with Nate in Becky’s lap we all find a spot. Mason paddles us across the deep river. We reach the other side and decide to take a break.

“Let’s have something to eat while we can.” I’m hungry, and I’m sure everyone else is, too.

Mason digs through his bag, until he produces some beef jerky and peanut butter sandwich crackers. He passes them around. I fish out some oatmeal cookies and Brie pulls out some chips. We all eat quickly, and quietly.

I’m just ready to start packing up, when a branch snaps behind me. I pull my small knife out of my pocket, and stand quickly, facing the threat. Mason is beside me almost instantaneously, Becky grasps Nate closely and Brie stands in front of her. A kid around our age steps out of the woods towards us—hands up, palms out.

“Hey, sorry I scared you.” He says, stopping a few feet from our makeshift picnic area. We all regard him suspiciously.

“Where did you come from?” I ask a little more harshly than I mean to.

“I came down from Ashley Falls. Everybody there went crazy.” His face falls.

“Everybody from Canaan, too,” Mason says quietly.

“Where are you headed?” Brie asks him.

He shrugs. “West, for now. Those things are to the east, so I’m not going that way.”

I begin to relax a bit. It might be useful to have another guy with us. “I’m Kat. This is Mason, Brie, Becky, and the little guy is Nate.” His gaze follows my finger around our little group.

“I’m Jared. Where are you guys headed?”

I glance at Mason, then at Brie. They both shrug. “We’re heading west too.”

“Can I walk with you guys?” Jared asks.

I look at Mason. If this goes south he’s the only even match among us. Mason, realizing the decision is his, answers, “Yeah, we could use another pair of hands.”

Jared relaxes, “Cool.” He comes closer and sits down by our bags, taking his off and stretching out.

We sit for a while longer, getting to know Jared-and Becky for that matter, a little better. After one last drink, we pack up and resume hiking.

We walk until the sun hangs low in the sky. “We should stop for the night soon.” I sound as tired as I feel.

Mason looks around before dropping his bag. “This seems like as good a place as any.” Nobody hides their relief at stopping. We’ve all hiked further today than we probably ever had before.

Mason hands me two tents, which Brie and I begin to set up. Mason and Jared gather enough wood to build a fire that will last the night. Becky gets Nate settled with a clean diaper, a juice box and some crackers. Within a short time we have a pretty decent impromptu camp set up.

It’s decided rather quickly, and surprisingly smoothly, that Becky and Nate will share the smaller tent. Brie and I share the larger tent. Mason and Jared alternate watch duty while staying out by the fire.

We didn’t have room for sleeping bags or bedrolls. Becky sets a small blanket on the floor of the tent for Nate. Without thinking, I go to my backpack and pull out some of my extra clothes. Stuffing everything I have inside my hoodie, I zip it together and bring it to Becky’s tent, shoving it under the blanket for Nate so he’s not lying on the ground.

“Thank you.” Becky says her gratitude plain on her face.

“No problem. Don’t want the little guy catching cold.” I smile and watch Nate curl up on the now cushioned blanket. He falls right to sleep. Poor kid had a long day, just like us.

Jared and Mason have the fire going, so I dig through my bag for a pot, a can of something decent to eat, and the can opener I grabbed. Brie and Mason follow suit. Even Jared chips in, adding a few sticks of smoked sausage to our spoils. “Better eat it before it goes bad.” Jared says.

“Thanks,” I say. “We can all use the protein.” I don’t miss the way Brie is eyeing him up out of the corner of my eye. Jared’s pretty cute, so I’m not completely surprised by it.

We end up with a pretty decent spread, and the best part is that it’s warm. Becky wakes up a sleepy Nate, making him eat before she does. He quickly falls back asleep. After Becky’s done, she offers to clean up, but we tell her to go get some rest. She doesn’t argue, but joins Nate in the tent and zips it shut.

Four of us remain around the fire. The guys let it burn down to a smaller fire. We want to stay warm and keep any wild animals away, but we also don’t want to draw anyone to us. We got lucky with Becky and Jared, yet something tells me everyone we encounter may not have such good intentions.

Mason offers to take the first watch shift. I’m unsure if it’s because he’s being nice, or if he’s still a little uncertain of Jared’s loyalty to our group. Brie gives me a questioning look, but I shake my head slightly. I’m also not so sure that I want to leave Mason alone with Jared just yet.

I snuggle closer to Mason; he wraps his arm around me. It’s getting chillier, the fall night growing crisp. The only sounds are the skittering of animals and the crackling and popping of the fire.

The fire itself becomes somewhat mesmerizing. We’re all too tired to talk after the long day we’ve had. Something warns me that tomorrow won’t be any easier. After a short time, Brie’s head begins to nod, so she gives in and zips herself into the tent for the night.

My body hurts and aches in places that I never even realized I had, but I’m not tired. I’m still chock-full of nervous energy. I wonder if it’s from getting charged by the outlet this morning, or if I create it all by myself now. Do I have to let it out? More importantly, what happens if I don’t?

Even if I did want to go be some freaky science project, it’s not something that will happen during all of this madness. I shudder—whether it’s at the thought of being locked in a lab, or fighting my way to one, I’m not sure.

Mason’s arm tightens around me. “You’re cold. You should go, try to sleep.”

I glance quickly: at him, then Jared and back to him again. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” Mason says.

I give him a quick kiss and stand. “Just call if you guys need anything. Goodnight, guys.”

They both murmur goodnight as I unzip the tent and climb inside. I lay down next to Brie, and despite the nervous energy, I fall fast asleep.

I awake with a start to a rustling sound. It’s still dark, and I’m disoriented, but I hop up and unzip the tent quietly to investigate. It’s just before dawn; I can see the sky lightening to the east. I creep slowly out of the tent and zip it back up. Both Mason and Jared are fast asleep, the fire now a small pile of smoldering embers.

Peering around in the darkness, I look for the cause of the rustling. I hear it again—my eyes adjust and focus in on our intruder. A small, black bear pokes through the remnants of last night’s dinner. A baby bear means that there’s a mama bear somewhere close.

We lock eyes, less than three feet away from each other. It cocks its head and looks at me quizzically. I try to remember what to do in a bear attack. Do you stay still or make noise? I can’t remember. I decide to stay still until I know where mama bear is.

I want to wake up Mason and Jared behind me, but I don’t dare move. The little bear doesn’t seem to even notice them and I’m worried if they wake up it might turn on us. It is awfully small though.

I frown. Surely the mama bear can’t be that far away. Baby bear goes back to munching and I take a quiet step backwards, pivoting one foot for a better view of our little campsite. Looking all around, I can’t see anything.

From the darkness of the woods a ferocious sound is heard behind the baby bear. Here’s the mama bear. Mason and Jared shoot upright, and to my horror the baby bear charges me. I cringe and brace myself to be mauled, yelling at Mason and Jared to run and praying that Brie, Becky and Nate don’t come out to investigate.

I feel a massive force slam into my legs, almost knocking me over. I wait momentarily for the searing pain of claws and teeth, but it doesn’t come. When I finally look down, I find the baby bear is trembling and wrapped around one of my legs.

Before I can think about the odd nature of this I see mama bear come through the trees. Mason, Jared and I freeze in terror. I stare at the large black bear as its baby clutches me in fear. I notice the metallic sheen reflecting off of it in the growing light of dawn. As it gets closer, I see its eyes are an unnatural metallic color too.

Infected. The situation suddenly becomes much more serious. No wonder the baby bear is scared. The look in Mason’s eyes alerts me he’s made the connection too. The outbreak is gaining on us. Besides the eminent danger, it’s not safe here anymore.

The large, infected bear looms closer still. Before I can even think, my hands extend outward with palms facing inward to create an energy sphere. I try to make it powerful, but hopefully not enough to kill it. Mama bear takes one more step and I throw it at her.

To my dismay, I miss. The sphere falls just short, but distracts her long enough for me to start again. It appears the spatters of energy are eroding the metallic sheen. I don’t have time to watch more. This time, the sphere connects with the Mama bear. My heart breaks a little, as the poor thing closes its eyes and drops on its side. Its metallic shimmer’s gone, and she is now just a regular black bear.

Movement on the ground catches my eye. On the ground a small shimmer moves slowly towards me. With more energy than I’ve ever inserted before, I make one last powerful sphere. I turn back to Mason and Jared, “Get down!”

Mason pulls an obviously shocked Jared to the ground next to him. I throw the sphere at the metallic ooze-like substance then crouch down for cover, wrapping my arms around the scared baby bear. I feel the aftershock of the explosion, but my body absorbs it. When the dust settles, I stand with a surprisingly soft fur ball in my arms, and check on Mason and the others.

Mason stands, coughing a bit and dusting himself off. “That’s very effective.”

Jared just stares at me, gaping. I hear Brie inside the tent, “What the hell is going on!”

“It was an infected bear!” Mason calls back. “But Kat zapped it. You can come out now.”

I hear both the tents unzip. My gaze drifts back to the poor mama bear, lying dead on the ground. I take a step closer to her, but Mason’s hand on my shoulder stops me. “Don’t, Kat.” He turns me to him. “There’s nothing you can do. If you didn’t stop her, she would’ve infected or killed all of us.”

I know he’s right. But knowing it doesn’t make it suck any less. I hear movement far off in the woods. “We need to move.” I don’t have time to dwell on the guilt now, so I bank it in the depths of my mind to think about later.

Brie and Mason begin to pack up camp, as quickly as possible. Becky quietly follows suit as best she can with Nate, and I trail with an armful of bear that refuses to be put down. Jared finally seems to snap out of it. “Did you…did I see…” He takes a deep breath and starts again. “What did you do to that bear?”

I sigh. In my fear and haste to protect everyone, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that my new talents would freak Jared out. Becky, too, for that matter. I’ll have to remember to be more careful in the future. “I’ll explain while we walk. Let’s go.”

We head off west. Baby bear isn’t all that heavy, mostly fur and I have to admit, awfully cute. How big do bears have to be to survive on their own? Bigger than this, I’ll bet. Oh well, guess I have a foster cub for a while. Even if I could put the poor thing down, it wouldn’t survive long. If it didn’t die of thirst or hunger, or get eaten by a predator, it would surely get infected. And maybe I owe it to his mom, killing her and all. Infected or not. I adjust my arms and snuggle the bear a bit closer. I feel it relax.

Mason explains (quite eloquently by the way) to Jared and Becky about my accident with the guitar amp, and my new electric skills after. I don’t miss the fact that Jared stays as far away from me as possible, and a small part of me whispers satisfactorily that if he fears me, it may be safer for the rest of us.

Becky stays quiet, though her face betrays her; first shock, then fear, followed by understanding and finally, sympathy.

This throws me a little. Mason thought it was cool, Brie thought it was weird, but the sympathy from Becky is making me feel weird. It rivals with the guilt and makes me feel worse. I definitely don’t feel worthy of sympathy right now.

Dawn progresses to morning, then to mid-morning before we stop to rest. Baby bear finally allows me to put him down. My shoulders are tight from not being moved all morning. There’s only a little water between us, so we each have a small amount: nowhere near enough to quench our thirst. We need to refill at the next stream, and we’ll have to boil it somehow tonight, if we’re lucky enough to have a fire again.

I lay the map out and place the compass alongside it. We’re approaching a major road that’s unavoidable. That’s going to mean people, and the possibility of infection. Brie, Mason and I hover over the map.

“Here, I think.” I point to a spot on the map, “From one side of the woods to the other: the less chance of bumping into people, the better.”

“I agree.” Brie says. “I’d prefer to not be latched onto by some insane person again.”

We all nod our agreement. Mason looks solemn. “Maybe it’s time to think about protecting ourselves, getting weapons of some kind. Only to be used if necessary, of course. If we get cornered by someone who’s infected, we need to be able to defend ourselves.”

“We always have your girlfriend.” Jared points out.

Oh, no. I hadn’t thought of that. Could I do that? Kill a person? Infected or not, it is still a human life. Doesn’t that cross some dark line that I don’t want to know about? I put the map in my bag, the compass in my pocket, and pick up Baby bear again. He’s soft, cuddly, and comforting.

Mason notices the change in my demeanor. Wrapping an arm around me he says softly, “You know you don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with doing, right?”

I nod, but I’m lying. I don’t know, and I don’t think I could sit by and do nothing if one of us was in danger. Could I let poor little Nate be harmed? Something tells me regardless of which decision I make, that I’ll be losing sleep over it.

Mason kisses my cheek, and then releases me to hunt for some sturdy branches with Jared. After they procure enough for everyone (well, everyone but me) I recheck the compass and we start off again.

When I think we’re getting close to the road, I stop everyone. “I think one or two of us should go ahead, see what we’re up against.”

“I’ll go,” Jared volunteers.

“Me, too,” Mason offers.

I shake my head. Brie and Becky give me a questioning look. “They’re both the strongest, physically. One of them should stay behind in case something happens.” I explain.

Becky’s eyes widen. “I don’t think we should split up. We could get permanently separated.”

“We won’t let that happen.” Brie tells her.

“Yeah, we’ll only run back to you; you guys run back to us.” Mason adds.

“Besides, if it’s not safe it will be easier for a couple of us to fall back so we can change directions.” Jared notes.

I look at Mason for a moment, trying to judge his reaction to what I’m about to say. “Jared and I will go.” I trust Brie, Becky and Nate with Mason more than Jared. “You guys rest here for a few.”

Mason doesn’t argue. He has probably figured out what I am thinking. He’s good like that. Besides, Jared is kind of scared of me. He won’t try anything, and if there’s anything by the road and it sees us before we can run away, at least I’ll be there to zap it. I try not to think about that part too much.

“Be careful.” Brie looks at me hard.

“I promise.” I squeeze her hand and move over to Mason. “I’ll be right back.” I quickly hug him and hand him Baby bear to hold.

He leans into me, giving me a rather effective one armed hug. “If he’s tries anything, you blast him.” He whispers into my ear, and I nod my understanding. When Mason releases me, Jared and I move through the woods towards the road.

We really couldn’t have asked for a better vantage point. We are approaching the road from an embankment which looks down to the road about 20 feet below us. This gives us a great view of the surrounding area, and keeps us out of sight. We look closely, crouching down. The road is full of abandoned cars: some of them are still running, but I don’t see any people.

“I think we should look over there more where it will be easier to cross.” I whisper to Jared. He nods in agreement. We creep backwards and stand when the road is no longer visible.

We follow the road at the edge of the woods for a minute, until we reach a spot that would be more level to cross.

I look at Jared before I creep out of the edge of the woods. “Stay here,” I tell him. “I’m going to see if anyone is hiding out there. If anything happens, go back to the others and keep them quiet. If I don’t show up after a while, take them north.”

His eyes widen, but I don’t give him a chance to respond. Cautiously, I make my way towards the road. I climb over a few cars, making it to the other side without incident. I look and there’s still no one around. Shrugging, I begin the climb back over the cars.

Looking into the sunroof of one car, I spot a gallon of water inside. I glance around, just to be safe before I hop down to the pavement and open the car door, grabbing the water we desperately need.

When I climb onto the next car, I spot something a short way down the road that allows me a small glimmer of hope. I’d better check in with Jared before I go look. I bring him back the water, and tell him everything’s clear but to just sit tight for a few more minutes.

I cross the road again and make my way to the most rugged Jeep I had seen. It’s badass. Like, drive through the woods, off-roading 4X4, I have a winch if I get stuck, four-door Jeep. It’s even on the right side of the road. As I approach it, I silently prey to find keys inside.

They’re there! Doing a happy dance that almost makes me fall off the side step, I catch myself in time to open the door, and pocket the keys, just in case someone else comes across it before we can get back and gets the same idea I had.

Making my way back to Jared, I wonder why such a fine vehicle was abandoned. Stopping, I can feel the blood drain from my face. Everyone ran so quickly. Surely there was a good reason. I proceed to Jared, this time almost running.

“What’s wrong?” He looks panicked.

I shake my head. “Nothing, it’s just creepy down there, and it looks like everyone left in a hurry. But I have good news.” I hold up the keys. “It might be a tight fit, but it sure beats walking.”

Jared looks confused. “I thought we are staying off the roads?”

“We are.” I smile. “C’mon, let’s get the others, and then you can see what I mean.”

It doesn’t take long for us to get back to the group. Mason and Brie look happy to see me back in one piece. Everyone’s excited about the discovered water, which we all use to fill up our respective containers. I tell them I have a surprise, but I don’t tell anyone what just yet.

I let Brie carry Baby Bear, just in case someone or something has popped up. Mason takes Nate from Becky. We all walk silently through the trees, and I lead them to the spot where the road is more level with the woods.

We have group car hopping down to a science, and Jared quickly picks up on it. I wait on top of a middle car until everyone is safely across. I don’t miss Brie’s blush when Jared helps her down over the last car, or Jared’s approving glance at her. So far, Jared has shown himself capable and trustworthy, so I guess it’s cute. I climb over the last car and join everyone.

“So, what’s the surprise?” Brie asks. She hates surprises due to her lack of patience.

“Follow me.” I lead them to the Jeep. Mason grins as soon as it comes into sight.

“Oh,” Jared finally gets it.

I pull out the keys. “I figure it will be a tight fit, and I’m not sure how far we’ll get with the woods and gas and all, but it sure beats walking for a few miles.”

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