Refuge

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CHAPTER 31 – Power of Kindness

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

Vince herded his group down Kentucky Street at a slow creep. He resisted the urge to push them into a hard run after their fleeing quarry because they may no longer be fleeing. They could as easily be hiding.

From back at the corner of Washington and Keller Streets, before he, Carl and the others were half way to Washington, Logan had seen Erin and the other two go down this way, and they hadn’t come back out again. Vince knew he should have signaled for Logan to go on ahead to watch where they went before he could get to where Logan waited, but he was reluctant to split his group. He didn’t trust any of them to return to him once they were out of his sight and control. He had no misconceptions about their loyalty. And now the problem was that he didn’t know if his quarry lay hidden in one of the collapsed buildings along either side of the cluttered street, or if they had gone on to the end of the block and beyond.

He kept Mandy with him to lean on—in his haste, he had left the house without his cane—and he held the end of Rachel’s chain with his right hand. He kept his eyes open for a makeshift crutch for his right side to relieve his knee of some of the pain better than trying to hop along beside Mandy, but so far had found nothing suitable. He thought of using Rachel for that purpose, but he didn’t think he could rely on her to provide him the constant level of support he needed. At the same time, he could not bring himself to allow Rachel to wander about without a physical tie back to him, so he had to keep his hold on the end of the leash. He would not allow her to leave him again.

This left Carl and Logan to search the buildings they passed. Many of the ruined stores were choked with blackened debris that would have prevented anyone from entering more than a few feet, so they didn’t have that many to look through. With occasional words biting like a cutting whip to urge them on, they dallied little.

With obsession driving him, Vince was only vaguely aware of the perils they were skirting by little more than luck. An alien, prowling on Washington Street back at Keller had entered the partially collapsed ruins of a movie theater to investigate strange sounds from within, and it missed seeing either Jason’s group or Vince’s. The alien Jason had spotted going over the hill above the park had started to return to the Washington/Kentucky Street area, but the sound of a man running out the back door of a house farther north drew the creature back in that direction. And, although Vince hadn’t noticed these serendipitously missed encounters, his own survival instinct kept his commanding voice to a harsh whisper.

After Vince’s blow-up back at the bar, he no longer reverted to periodically idolizing the memory of his mother’s loving care of Vic and him as young children. That part of his mind had ceded all function to either punishing the source of betrayal in those memories or obsessing in avenging Vic’s death. Vince’s thoughts were never far from memories of Vic, so when Rachel again disrupted his browsing of those memories by lagging, he yanked the chain and sent her sprawling—again.

Her knees bled anew as she picked herself up—again. She hunched her shoulders to reposition the shoulder straps of the backpacks. She was becoming numb to pain and hardship.

Since Vince came to realize he actually did have some terrifying new power, he couldn’t resist playing with it. And, of course, she was always his preferred plaything. Her abuse continued after they arrived at the house near the destroyed church when he ordered Mandy to demonstrate her continuing loyalty. But, after that, it was always the clenched fist. Sometimes just enough to get a flinch from her, other times he would hold it until just before she screamed. But that was only because of the prowling invaders, not mercy.

With each sadistic if brief assault her fragile mind, brittle since the death of her aunt back at Muir Beach, began to shield itself, not with sensitive scar tissue but a hard callus. The degree and frequency of his cruelties aimed at reducing her to a quivering heap of repentant tissue instead had the effect of focusing her mind on payback. Erin had told her, and she believed it more with every step he forced her to take and at each rest stop he allowed during which he amused himself by wrenching her insides, that she could win—if she survived. Each time she survived one of Vince’s playtimes in which he watched her squirm on the floor in agony, she heard Erin’s words and repeated to herself, I will survive. I will win.

With glaring eyes, she re-affirmed her vow to not only survive, but to see each one of her captors die. Bowed over from a deep ache in her abdomen that might ebb if given time, but that never went away, she walked in the direction the rope pulled her, and trickles of blood ran down both shins.

Mandy picked her way through the debris and around shells of cars littering the street. She was a strong woman and bore Vince’s weight well. But, sometimes, even her sordid background and personal fortitude were not enough to ward off feelings of disgust and loathing from just being around him. If she thought she would have half a chance of survival on her own, she’d walk out from under his arm and leave him standing there on one leg. She’d have done it as soon as they walked into town, but she knew Carl wouldn’t leave Vince. He might even retrieve her if Vince so ordered it. And if she didn’t get away clean...she had seen the reaction Crissy’s attempt had prompted from Vince, and she was enough of a survivor to recognize her best strategy. So, she let Vince select the course then simply carried his disabled side with as little assertiveness as possible.

Carl poked through the crumbled interior of a variety store for some sign that the fugitives had passed that way, but the dust and ash on everything showed no sign of recent passage. He used the muzzle end of the shotgun to lift a section of ceiling from a rat-gnawed corpse of a woman sprawled just inside the doorway. With a grunt, he dropped it again and walked back out. Vince walked past with Mandy, trailing Rachel, and he didn’t want to lag too far behind.

He swaggered a lot, and he presented the world with a mien of what he considered to be masculine boldness, impudence and self-reliance. But, in fact, he walked in terror—terror of dying at the hands of the aliens, terror of going up against another man who would not be intimidated, and terror that he would inadvertently rile Vince and have that insane man vent his rage against him. He followed in Vince’s shadow, ran to do Vince’s bidding, and he was even prepared to rape and/or kill either Rachel or Mandy at Vince’s whim, because he saw Vince as his best chance of surviving in this changed, terrifying world.

Logan peeked out from each store he inspected before re-emerging into the street lest he step into the view of one of the horrible creatures that now roamed his world. He had always been a cautious man. He survived that first day of terror by burying himself in his basement and ignoring all the screams of panic and agony from his neighbors. He finally emerged like a mole testing the sunlight after the sounds of explosions and crashing trees and screams had subsided. Then, instead of wasting time looking for survivors needing help, he had scrounged up what supplies he could loot from the surrounding homes that were reasonably safe enough to enter and barricaded himself back inside his own house. When the black and white Bronco stopped at the bottom of the hill, and death again ravaged the community, he remained hidden in his basement. After he finally emerged and hooked up with his like-minded drinking buddies, it was clear that wisdom lay in allying himself with a strong leader.

True, he had suffered minor indignities at the hands of those new arrivals, but he also enjoyed many privileges that he had always been denied before. He and Cappy, and even that wimp, Kirby, had walked with a new power among their few surviving neighbors, a power inspired by fear of pain and death to anyone who protested Vince’s rule or the edicts of those who served him.

Logan slowly hefted the comforting weight of the target pistol gripped in his right hand. Vince had allowed him walk about armed, just like Carl with the shotgun since Vince kept the Python. All it took was for him to demonstrate his skill as a tracker and his willingness to be “one of the boys” by hacking to death the man back at the supermarket. Logan gripped the gun as he looked out into the street where Vince hobbled along. He stepped out into the brown sunlight again and went to the next storefront.

With sharp disappointment, Vince approached the end of the block without any sign of their quarry. Carl was the first to reach the corner of the building where a recess formed by the corner being cut off held the double-door main entrance for the two-story department store. He peeked around the edge and immediately spun around and hushed the others with facial expressions of stark terror and by rapidly waving his arms.

Vince resisted the urge to backhand Carl—just to relieve some of his own rage induced tension—when his old friend crept back to Vince’s side and whispered, “One of those things is just up the street, and it’s coming this way!”

With a darting gaze, Vince assessed their situation. If they stayed where they were on the street, the alien would certainly see them when it got to the intersection. They could probably kill it with one of their guns, but the sound of the shot might bring others. It was much too far to go back to the corner behind them. Their only chance was to get inside one of the buildings and stay hidden until it passed.

Swearing and gritting his teeth against his pain, Vince ushered the group back to a shattered, secondary entrance on the Kentucky Street side and into the collapsed interior of the store. The lasers from the invaders’ flyers had slashed through the structure, destroying roof supports and wall integrity until much of the place simply caved in upon itself, but since it was largely brick and masonry, little burned other than merchandise. They filed through the charred wreckage, passing smashed display cases and toppled racks draped with some of Fashion’s finest. Buried among the rubble all about the store were corpses of employees and customers caught inside by the attack. Near the back of the store they found the elevator doors open and the interior of the car clear enough of debris.

Just as they crammed into the shadowy hole and crouched down out of sight, the silhouetted figure of the alien crept past the westernmost window on the Western Avenue side.

Vince’s words came out as a low growl, and no one doubted the implication. “No one move, or you won’t have to worry about that thing out there.”

They cowered together in the confined space and watched the creature outside move from one window to the next, stopping at each one and peering into the gloomy interior. It stopped at the set of double doors at the corner entrance and stood looking into the dark interior for long minutes, like it was critically studying the make-up of the variety of shadows, looking for some indication that a living creature lurked within. It could probably just see the open elevator car at the rear of the huge room, but not clearly enough with all the gloomy shadows to be able to make out any shapes within. Or, if it did, the lack of movement failed to provoke anything more than a passing notice of more bodies, and the town was full of those. It finally moved on around the corner onto Kentucky Street where, again, it stopped at each window, perhaps seeking a different angle of some shape or shadow that had piqued its interest. For a few, tense moments, it appeared that the thing was going to come inside when it paused, went on, paused and came back to peer inside again. But, finally, it passed on, apparently satisfied that the building held nothing worth going in after.

Before stirring from their hole, they waited until it had gone past the last Kentucky Street window, moving north, and had not come back after five full minutes. And, then, it was only Vince sending Carl over to the door to see how far away it had gotten. Carl crept silently back and reported the creature was over half way to Washington and still moving away. After holding everyone inside the stifling elevator car for another five minutes, Vince allowed them out.

Leaning on Mandy and leading Rachel, Vince followed Carl through the ruins toward the corner door. He paid little attention to the way Logan amused himself kicking and poking at each corpse he passed, not until the little man who wanted to be like Vince jumped back with a stifled shriek and collapsed trembling to his knees with his hands covering his face.

The latest corpse had grunted before he rolled away from Logan and twisted around and rose up onto hands and knees. One hand went to rub the place on his side that Logan had kicked, and his face turned upward. Terror widened eyes darted their gaze up at Vince and the others, then around the store interior before returning to Logan.

Carl stepped past Logan to hover over the frightened man. “Get up. What’re you doing?”

The man cringed and held his hand over his head to ward off expected blows. When he was not struck, he looked first at Carl, then back at Logan. He stammered, “I—I—I’m just.... Don’t hurt me....”

“Shut up!” Carl sneered. “Stand up where I can see you. Come on, or you’ll join them for real.”

“Okay. Yes—yes—okay. Please. Don’t hurt me. I’m sorry.”

Vince left Mandy with Rachel and hobbled up to stand next to Carl. He laid his hand on Carl’s arm and spoke in a gentle voice. “Go easy, Carl. The poor man’s scared to death already.” Then Vince stepped past Carl and helped the man to his feet. “Tell me, sir, are you injured? No? Oh, that’s good. There’s been so much death and pain. My friends and I have escaped from the very jaws of death countless times in the past couple of days, as I’m sure you have done yourself. Come, sit here.”

At Vince’s subtle hand-sweeping motion, Carl cleared the litter from the top edge of a beam that lay across several cases and racks.

The little man was still shaking but no longer paralyzed from fear. Gazing up at Vince at the rare kindness, his gratitude overflowed in a spate of confused words too long withheld, “Yes. Everyone… No one… So much death. All…afraid… My family...friends, too...all… Dead. All dead.”

“So, tell, me,” Vince began as he circled his arm about the man’s shoulders, “is this how you have managed to stay alive all this time? By playing possum?”

The man’s head nodded. “I can’t run fast. And there are so many...so many. They don’t even notice me as long as I don’t move.”

Vince patted the man’s back and said, “Wow, that’s really clever. I saw how convincing you can be. That thing that just went by looked in, looked right at you, but it must have believed you were dead. You say you lost your family, huh? All of them?”

The man’s head drooped and nodded.

“I’ve lost almost all of mine, too. They all died on that first, terrible day—all except for little...Kathy, my sister. I’ve been tracking her ever since. I think she’s with a man and woman that lived next door to us. She must have gone with them when Mom and Dad were killed. What else could she do? She’s so young, only...nine years old. And I wasn’t there to take care of her. I was out, you see…I volunteer at the homeless shelter. By the time I got home, all I found was Mom and Dad, and my dog...Skippy—all dead. I found some clues that led me to believe Kathy was with the...Nelsons from next door, so I began searching to find her. I almost caught up with them a couple of blocks back, but I couldn’t move very fast…a souvenir from Afghanistan, and I lost my cane. But, they moved away before I could catch their attention. I didn’t dare shout, of course. I think they came down this way. …Say! You didn’t, by any chance, see them, did you? I mean, if you were inside here, you may have seen them go by outside. It was just a man and a woman and...little Kathy. They were probably running. I think one of those terrible things started chasing them. Did you...could you help...could you possibly...?”

The little man’s fear seemed to fade with Vince’s agonizing tale of, so familiar, family loss and the quest to find his last, surviving loved one. “Yes, I think I did see them. They came by just a few minutes before you came. They did seem to be running from something, all right. And that pretty, little girl...your sister? They went over that pile across the street.”

“Over it, you say? Not that way…or that way? They just went right over, huh? Wonderful!” Vince exclaimed as he stood up and winked at Carl. “You see, Carl? You had this poor fellow so scared he couldn’t have told you his own name. Now the kind gentleman has told us where dear little Kathy and the Nelsons have gone. You see how much more effective kindness can be? Never rule out the power of kindness.”

Vince patted the man’s back again. Then he moved his hand up to the back of the man’s neck and encircled the scrawny thing. “You can always have your fun after you get what you want,” he said with a soft smile.

His hand gripped the man’s neck and held it until his other hand slowly, almost gently, completed the enclosure from the front. The man’s eyes darted from Vince’s smiling face to Carl’s blank face to the vague look of sorrow on Mandy’s and the grinning countenance of Logan who had since picked himself up.

Vince’s strong hands tightened upon the man’s neck and throat, working the fingers back and forth to feel the muscles and tendons that ran up both sides of the neck. The calm and peaceful expression on his face never altered as he wrenched the man’s head sideways. A muffled pop sounded from the man’s neck, and the growing fear in the widening eyes froze in place when Vince gave the man’s neck one more hard twist just to be sure the spinal cord had not been spared. Vince let the body fall to the debris-covered floor where it thrashed once then lay still.

“Carl, take a look. Just make sure there are no more...things out there. Mandy…your shoulder.” His perpetual scowl had almost evolved to a smile as he picked up Rachel’s chain and gave it a slight tug. “Rachel, Heel!”

Carl led the way out through the rubble to the doorway at the corner where he peered across the street at the pile of the collapsed structure filling the space between the buildings of one block and those of the next one to the west. He turned to Vince and said, “You gonna be able to climb over that?”

Vince pondered for a moment, then answered, “We’ll go around, come back to it on the other side and see if there’s any trail Ed can pick up.” He started to step out onto the sidewalk, paused, and said, “Is it clear?”

Carl first peeked around the corner to the right to check Western Avenue. Then when he did the same around the left corner to confirm the way was clear on Kentucky Street, he gasped and jerked back inside, pressing his back against the interior wall. His blanched face and look of terror conveyed his message clearer than words. “Mo-more...more of ’em. There’s...t-two of ’em. At…at the alley…coming…this way.”

Vince shoved Logan out of his way and headed back toward the elevator. “Come on, and be quiet about it! Carl, shake your ass loose. Carry Rachel to the elevator. It’d be just like her to stumble or something and make a noise. Come on, hurry up!”

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