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CHAPTER 9 – A Marine Forever

“Come on, you goddam useless piece of shi...uh, sorry, Judge.”

“That’s quite all right, Charlie,” The Judge said with a smile. “If calling this goddam bucket of bolts a goddam useless piece of shit will make it more responsive, by all means, do it.”

Charlie’s eyes left the debris-littered street just long enough for a subtle double take in his passenger’s direction before he went back to concentrating on maneuvering the now empty flatbed past a large pile of building wreckage that all but blocked the intersection. They were trying a different route on this return trip to the supermarket. Even as bad as this street was, it still beat the first way they had gone.

As the right rear duel wheels bounced and bumped their way over a section of fallen wall, he shook his head and said, “No, that’s okay, Judge. I think we’re past it, now.”

Charlie never ceased to be amazed at the man who lived alone in the big house just up the street from him. Hearing him swear is like watching the Queen of England spit. Knowing he can do it doesn’t lessen the shock when it happens. Sometimes I think he does stuff like that just to rattle me. Look at that smirk.

The block ahead was almost a solid line of burned cars and trucks. The only way Charlie could get the flatbed past was to drive with the left wheels on the sidewalk for half the distance, then completely on the sidewalk from there on. It was a good thing the city had decided during the past year to remove the parking meters in the area. It felt truly odd, him being a law-abiding, law-respecting citizen and with The Judge sitting right next to him. But, then, he figured it wasn’t like there was likely to be a traffic cop pulling him over. “Sure wish there was, though,” he mumbled.

“What’s that, again? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”

“Just grumbling, Judge. Just grumbling.”

They encountered occasional survivors wandering like zombies through the devastation as Charlie urged and induced the flatbed to and from the Veterans Memorial, but unless someone was in dire need of immediate assistance, they just kept going. Early on, The Judge had pointed out that everyone needed some kind of help. But if they stopped for everyone, they would never accomplish their task. And, once the food supply situation had been handled, that would help more people, by far, than they could do by stopping for even half of everyone they saw.

They were nearing the end of the block, and Charlie was deciding which wrecks to drive between for the best position to make it around the corner and onto Washington Street when two men on foot came tearing around the corner toward the flatbed. But the terrified men ran past as though the jouncing flatbed with the racing engine and slipping clutch was just another lifeless hulk.

Charlie’s mouth opened to remark to The Judge when three more, two women and a man, came around the corner, similarly running for their very souls, it appeared.

“Charlie, stop!” The Judge’s door swung open even before the truck settled to a halt and he climbed down to the pavement.

“Hey, now, Judge, don’t you—”

“Just give me a minute. I want to look around the corner.”

Charlie sat for a moment, then opened his door and jumped down before The Judge even reached the corner. Just then, another man, running and hobbling with one foot heavily bandaged in a bloody cloth ran around the corner and straight into The Judge. Both went down. The Judge began to slowly push himself back to his feet, but the other man scrambled so fast he kept slipping back down. Finally, The Judge helped him to his feet. Without a word, the man ripped his arm free from The Judge’s helping hand and took off again, but he got only as far as Charlie.

“Whoa! Hold on a second, buddy,” Charlie said as he gripped the frightened man by both arms. “What’s everyone running for?”

The man’s eyes peered at Charlie, terror showing in the white ring around the irises. In a quavering whisper, he answered, “They’re back.”

When Charlie released him, the man skittered on down the street, limping with a running hop only when he had to on his injured foot. When Charlie looked back for The Judge, he was peering around the edge of the largely intact building on the corner.

After a moment, The Judge pulled back and turned to Charlie with fear creasing his forehead. “We’ve got to get off the street. They’re on foot down there and shooting.”

Charlie quickly stepped to the corner and peeked around. Four short blocks away, in the heart of downtown, he saw several figures. Some were humans that dashed madly about as they tried to dodge the shots of the others. The others were something not human. They ran with an odd, loping gait, and it appeared they seldom missed their targets. Some turned north on Main Street, some south, and some were coming west. Each one paused occasionally and fired, and, although their targets had quickly ducked out of sight, Charlie didn’t doubt that people were still dying. It was gratifying to hear answering gunfire, even if it was sparse.

“Damn! Get in,” Charlie called back as he ran back and reached for the driver’s door of the flatbed. But he never opened it. He gasped as a thought suddenly struck him like a thrown brick.

“Oh, my god!” he moaned then turned slowly to look back at The Judge. “Vonnie and the others –! The house is just up the hill from them.”

The Judge glanced back over his shoulder at the corner of the building. “We’ve got to – but we can’t use the truck; we’d lead them right to it. It’s been a lot of years since I played soldier in Nam, and never behind enemy lines. How long since you were a Marine?”

“Judge,” Charlie responded, his eyes glinting. He felt himself slide back into a mindset he had learned back about the time he got his first tattoo. “A Marine is a Marine forever.”

His senses sharpened and his mind focused. He gazed at the neighborhoods of homes across the wide street they had to cross. The hills began just on the other side, with block after block of houses of all sizes, styles, and ages built over the decades. Most were burned-out ruins, now; whole blocks had been destroyed. But, scattered among the devastation were many houses that had escaped the flames. The Judge’s three-story Victorian was one such. Although it was taller than most, it didn’t really stand out because of the hills and the number of trees, even blackened ones, that towered over them. Even with the number of trees that had burned, plenty remained to at least partially shield undamaged houses from prying, alien eyes.

“We need to cross Washington, but we can’t just go running across. If they spotted us, they’d probably follow even if they couldn’t hit us. It’d be better to cross over a couple blocks west of here, beyond the bend, but it’ll take a bit of runnin’ to get there. Then, it’ll take even more to get back to your house, and better’n half of it uphill. Can you keep up?”

“You set the pace, Charlie. I’ll keep up if I can. And, if I can’t, you go on.”

“Now, dammmit, Judge, you know I ain’t gonna –”

“Yes, you will. Vonnie and the others need you more than I do. Now, lead out.”

Charlie thought for only a moment. “Get in.”

As Charlie was climbing into the driver’s seat of the flatbed, The Judge said, “But we can’t use it, remember?”

“We can’t use it to drive to the house. But if we just haul ass – sorry – drive out beyond the bend, we can turn up into the hills without them seeing us. Maybe they’ll just assume we went on out of town and go chasing after us clear out to the coast. Now, get in – sir.”

The Judge had just closed his door when Charlie tromped the gas pedal.

The unwieldy truck bounced over the curb as Charlie cut the corner getting past a wrecked bulk milk tanker. He expected laser beams to light their way, but none came. When he glanced in the side mirror, some of the strange figures had gotten somewhat closer in the seconds since he had looked around the corner. A couple stopped and seemed to be looking and gesturing at the truck, but they didn’t shoot.

Too far? Maybe. If they can’t shoot even as far as a couple of blocks, maybe we’ve got a chance.

Two blocks west, Washington Street became Bodega Avenue and curved a bit to the right as it crested a slight rise, putting them out of sight of anyone or anything downtown. At the first opportunity, Charlie wheeled the truck up a side street and roared up the hill. He zagged over a block and sped further into the hilly maze of razed blocks. Four blocks from Bodega Avenue, he pulled into a long driveway beside a gutted house.

He turned to The Judge and said, “We’ll have to hoof it from here. Don’t want to leave this thing too close to your place in case those guys find it and recognize it.”

Charlie took The Judge at his word and set a brisk pace. Although, to his surprise, the older man stayed with him, step for step. He knew The Judge was pushing himself, probably harder than he should, but they both knew the necessity. He didn’t leave his friend, but he didn’t slacken his pace much either when a gasp or a wheeze indicated they were fast approaching the old man’s limit. Finally, before Charlie was forced to make that ultimate choice, they turned onto The Judge’s block.

Their neighborhood had been hit the day before, fairly badly, but nothing like some they had just passed through. Many of the homes of people they had called neighbor were blackened shells, a couple still smoldered, and the whole area still smoked like some massive factory with innumerable stacks belching out poison.

From half a block away they could see enough of the Victorian to tell that it, too, now billowed smoke from the windows.

It took all of Charlie’s willpower to keep from screaming Vonnie’s name as he ran, pulling steadily ahead of his panting friend. He braced himself for the sight of invaders skulking around the yard and firing into the old structure as they watched it burst into flames. But, when he reached the property, vaulting over the low, spiked-iron fence along the sidewalk and dashing for the door, no alien soldier challenged him. Maybe they were inside.

Once he was inside where he hoped the walls would muffle his voice, he cried out, “Vonnie! Vonnie, where are you?” He almost wished one of those unholy looking monstrosities would come around the corner so he could wrap his hands around its neck while pounding his fists into—. “Vonnie!”

The air was smoky, but not thick like he expected from the amount of smoke pouring from the windows. It wasn’t much more than a partly clogged fireplace chimney would cause.

Vonnie appeared in a doorway down the main hall with the baby in her arms. She looked frightened, but not like if the house had been under attack. When she ran to him, he scooped her up and buried his face in her hair at the side of her neck.

“Oh, God, Vonnie, I thought … we saw the smoke and –”

“It’s camouflage.”

Charlie jerked his head up at the voice and saw Adam coming out of another room.

Vonnie said, “When we heard about the invaders on the ground, we put smoke pots at some of the windows to make this place look like the others. You know, so they wouldn’t think it was occupied.”

“Smart,” Charlie said, looking at Adam. “Your idea?”

Adam nodded once before wincing and touching the side of his head. “They might not buy it, but they might.”

Vonnie pulled back from Charlie far enough to look into his eyes. She said, “There are people here that can’t run away. We had no choice but to try something.”

The Judge staggered in the door and leaned against the wall, panting and holding his side. He quickly glanced about as several of the other fellow survivors came out of other rooms and down the staircase to join Vonnie, Adam and Charlie. By the time Charlie explained the smoke, The Judge breathed easier.

“Excellent idea. It certainly fooled us. But, now what?”

When Adam spoke, everyone present was happy to listen to someone who sounded like he knew what he was talking about. “Now we disappear. We become part of the scenery. We withdraw into whatever shadows and holes are handy, and we stay put. Yesterday, they just about destroyed the whole town, and now they’re back to see how much they missed. We just don’t give ‘em reason to believe they missed us up here on the hill in this old burnin’ house among all the other burnin’ houses. They may check each house, but it could be several days or even weeks before they get to us. Right now, we’ve just got to be able to recuperate for a few hours – many of us, anyway. By tomorrow, most of us should be better able to move around and help the others if we have to relocate.”

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