S0 what would you imagine lay beyond our gate? According to what pop culture told you, we should have been in the middle of the wilderness. Blank plains of grass that had run wild, stretching as far as the eye could see; Dense trees and shrubs. Maybe a dilapidated city that was scorched and blackened from fire run wild. We should have been terrified and ultra- alert the moment that our feet touched the ground. After all, hordes of deaders should have appeared immediately, wandering out of the woods, or rising from the fields of grass, or shambling from dark doorways…
You know what was over the wall? The other side of Branberry Street. I know; crazy, right? Try not to feel let down.
See, the entire enclosed block was laid out like a trident. The nearest major road was Mission Street, and it was just up the way. The route leading into our subdivision was Rocky Coast. From Rocky Coast, there were three cul de sacs, one of which was vacant, one of which others had moved into, and one of which was ours. Lewis and I might have been the first to erect a barrier, but the couple dozen people that took up residence on Rocky Coast had followed our lead pretty quick. The result was a well-fortified block with a bunch of relatively normal people going about what passed for normal lives.
As for the sudden appearance of deaders? Please, spare me. In the past however many months it had been we’d only had to repel three attacks, none of which had been overly concerning. Our walls were high, and- if I haven’t made this clear, yet- deaders are none too bright. A pack of two or three dozen is easy to dismantle when they can’t reach you. In addition to that, what I told Avery earlier in the day was true: if we stayed quiet, if we didn’t give them a reason to notice us, they generally wandered on by without a second glance.
While wise, this often got boring to me. If I wanted a little bit of excitement, I had to go out to find it. Generally, that was in the large span of uncultivated desert that sat on the north side of our wall. We weren’t that far from the epicenter of Las Vegas, and I could generally find one or two milling about.
“Hey, Martin!” Frankie called from beside me, waving to a lone figure that stood at the top of an A-frame ladder on the cul de sac next to ours. Middle aged Marvin waved back genially, hollering out.
“Hey, there, bud! You making a run?” Martin called. “What’re you heading out for? We’re looking pretty good over here. You need anything we might have?”
“Ain’t that kind of run!” Frankie said with a yokel’s stage chuckle, the kind that’s generally reserved for high school boys going to a nudie bar for the first time. My potbellied brother in law held his arms wide- crossbow in one hand, and the sheathed Samantha in the other- and started to thrust his hips forward suggestively. The expression on his face was comical and absolutely vulgar at the same time.
Martin laughed. Frankie laughed. I pretended, and laughed, too. I think I did a pretty good job of pulling it off. I may not have understood the joke, but Martin and his block were part of our group, even if just by proxy. I wanted to be polite; it was always good to be polite.
“Should have known,” Martin called back, gesturing to me. “Exterminator’s don’t go out without a reason.”
“Cletus, here?” Frankie drawled. “Hell, I wouldn’t be caught dead out here without ol’ Cleet by my side.”
“Anything in particular that we should keep an eye out for?” I called up to Martin. I was only halfway trying to be part of the conversation. Don’t get me wrong; we all needed something, plenty of things, but it was the little stuff that we’d all learned mattered the most. Remember, duct tape, zip ties, and super glue could make your world a happier place.
“Shoe laces!” Martin called after a moment of consideration. The request surprised me, but only for a second. After all, in Deaderland, no request should have been a shock. Frankie wasn’t so subtle.
“What the hell do ya need shoelaces for?” he called as we continued to walk past.
“For shoes, you idiot!” Martin replied, his face breaking into a wide grin. “Nah, we use’em for bindings. We’re building an awning; Gonna have a wedding this afternoon. You and your crew should join us.”
“You should try zip ties,” my brother in law said, but Martin shook his head. “Nah, we don’t have anymore, and we don’t want to waste any rope or bungees.”
“Shit, zip ties are what me an’ Cleet are going out for,” Frankie said. “If we can find any we’ll bring you back a few extra. Give our regards to the newlyweds, will ya?”
“Will do,” Martin replied. “Frank,” he said with a goodbye wave before giving me a salute and a humorous smirk. “Cleet.”
Great, I thought. Another person calling me Cletus.
“Bahmp…bahmp…bahmp,” Frankie said next to me, singing under his breath as we walked up Mission street. “Another one bites the dust…Bahmp…bahmp..bah-“
“Will you shut the fuck up?” I said, turning my head to regard him. Frankie stopped, and didn’t look offended in the least. He seemed to have a higher tolerance for my moods than some of the others on Branberry. Maybe that was one of the reasons we got along so well.
“What’s got your panties in a bunch, sweetness?” he asked. I shrugged it off.
“I just don’t like that song.”
“Shit,” Frankie said, mollified. “Why didn’t you just say so?”
“I did; just now.”
Mission street was a fairly steep road, and in the fifteen minutes or so that we’d been walking we’d probably only covered about a mile. The road- like so many of them were- was empty. Most people that weren’t Exterminators didn’t venture too far away from safety if they didn’t have to. There were plenty of stores and shops in the outlying area, but in this section on the outskirts of Vegas, most of the undeveloped area was desert. Not “desert” like films you’ve seen showing off the Sahara; city desert. It was rocky and bumpy, covered with sagebrush and the sparse branches of desert trees. Garbage and refuse- old tires, beer cans, the occasional washer from circa 1962- littered the ground in abundance.
Most people don’t realize that deserts have trees, but they do. The branches are bare, sun bleached, and are often sharp and brittle. We’d thought about burning it down in the first few weeks. After all, twenty or thirty acres of dense shrubbery wasn’t conducive to a clear line of sight. In the end, we’d left it standing because we trusted our walls and defenses, and we didn’t want to destroy anything that we might have been able to use later on. It had been Lew’s suggestion, and I’d been fine with it. Those bushes held a few more deaders than he realized, and I slipped out every now and again to finish a few off. It helped keep my needs at bay. But we did clear out a nice, neat section around the perimeter of our wall.
“Hey, Cleet,” Frankie said, breaking my fond reverie from four and a half days ago. “You feel up to a bit of a ruckus?”
“Yeah. Get a bit batshit; a little bit of trouble. You know; red neck good times.”
Frankie pointed the sheathed tip of Samantha’s scabbard off over my shoulder, like the Great Bambino pointing out a home run. I turned to look, even though I had a pretty good idea what he was pointing at: the I-95 highway.
Cinema got it right when it came to highways. When the pandemic started to really take effect, a lot of people did flee. Traffic on the highway had been bumper to bumper not so much because of the exodus, but because the fools had done it during rush hour. People died, and I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how. Most of the bodies were gone, but the dead dinosaurs that were their vehicles remained.
Highways were a double edged sword for any of us that wanted to travel along them. You couldn’t drive a car up them because of the congestion. The maze of dead vehicles also made it impossible for bicycles. If you had a long way to walk, however, the highway was generally the fastest way to go. Not that many people walked that far from home, but if they did…well, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
There was a lot to scavenge if you were so inclined to dig through the muck and dried blood, but the downside was that highways were prone to a lot of deader movement. If you found yourself in a sticky situation, you only had three ways to go: forward or back, through an obstacle course of cars and refuse, or over the concrete barrier, which was a twenty foot fall. None of these were good options, and even I rarely ventured into that jungle of iron and fiberglass.
“We ain’t gotta go far,” Frankie implored, but he didn’t have to convince me. Although I only used the 95 when I had to, my need was pulling at me and making my skin itch. Frankie’s notion seemed like a fantastic idea. The walk would only take about another fifteen minutes. We could go out, have some red neck good times, and then head back down to more familiar areas to do our supply scrounging. In the end, it wasn’t much of a decision at all. We’d get our scavenging done as promised, but we both knew that had been just a pretense to get out. We’d gone over the wall with one purpose.
The walk was a short one. We cut through the arid desert, half hoping to have a little fun before we got to the 95. Each of us carried a handgun -it was an unspoken law that you had to be armed. I had my Sig, and Frankie carried a Glock .45- but they stayed holstered at our hips. Suzannah was slung across his back (the crossbow would be almost useless in the dense brush) but he carried Samantha naked in his hand as we pushed our way through. We walked unhurriedly through the desert, but had seen nothing by the time we reached the freeway onramp. Too bad.
The crowded entrance to the 95 was littered with refuse, but nothing readily usable. Most of the good stuff had been taken from the first few rows of vehicles long before people realized that it was wiser to stay away from the freeway. Our feet crunched on the broken asphalt as we moved up the steep, curving incline.
“Ah,” Frankie said from my left. “That’s what we need.”
He reached down and picked up a rusty tire iron that was lying near the cement wall. It wasn’t one of the T bars that had four heads; it was a stock “L”, the type that came in the survival kits that most cars had tucked beneath the rear seat or side compartment.
“D’wayne has plenty of those at home,” I said.
“Nah, I ain’t lookin’ to take it home,” Frankie said, giving it a whirl in his hand. He twirled about with a grace that was odd in a man his size, and smashed out the window of a sun faded red car. It was older; the type of nameless older model that I had generally started to dub “a 1987 Daihatsu Surprise.” The glass exploded in a tinkling crash that sounded loud in the silence of the freeway. Frankie hooted to himself, giving the tire iron another twirl.
“I have a bat,” I said dryly. “You could have just told me.”
“Ain’t no fun in that!” he said, grinning his yellowed grin. “Why tell you when I can do it myself? Besides, this is a healthy show of aggression; helps to relieve the tensio- huh?”
Frankie cut off in mid-sentence, his enthusiasm evaporating as his eyes focused on the interior of the vehicle. He ducked his head, squinting, and I wondered if maybe there was a deader cat in the back seat. Wouldn’t have been the first time that we’d found one. The virus could spread to a few different breeds of animal, and cats in particular were mean little fuckers. I realized that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up when Frankie’s eyes widened with glee, and he let out a whooping yell like a child on Christmas morning.
“Look at this, Cleet!” he shouted, reaching an arm in through the broken window to pop the door of the Surprise open from the inside. His front half disappeared, and all I saw were his ass and feet as he dug through something that I couldn’t see. He seemed happy enough, so I didn’t have any cause for worry.
“Aw, shit,” he exclaimed- he drew the word out until it sounded like shee-yit- his excitement rising to a new level. “By the baby Jesus, I love hillbillies.”
“Whaddya got?” I called over, my curiosity piqued. Frankie clambered out of the back seat with a wide, shit eating grin on his face.
“Somethin’ for both of us,” he said proudly, and if anything his smile got wider. He held out a crumpled red hat, the front and bill tinged with layers of old sweat stains. On the front was a circular profile of an Indian, the logo for Florida State University. “Hail, ‘Noles!” he yelled, popping the filthy cap onto his head. Frankie didn’t have much hair; he kept everything close to the scalp, maintaining it on a semi daily basis. I, on the other hand, hadn’t bothered to cut my hair in months, and it dangled at my shoulders, longer than it had ever been.
“That’s disgusting,” I said, wondering if some of the darker splotches might not be blood stains from the previous owner. When a deader managed to sink its teeth into you there generally wasn’t anything left but gnawed bone and the bits and pieces that it couldn’t reach. It was a messy affair.
“It’s pride is what it is, you pussy,” Frankie jested lightly, giving the bill of the cap a firm yank, “You don’t ever let your team down, and they won’t ever let you down.” He smiled like he’d imparted some universal enlightenment. That was Frankie; the Sun Tzu of North Dakota.
“Here’s the coup de grace, though,” he continued, holding out his other hand. Frankie’s meaty palm was wrapped around the neck of a white labeled bottle filled with brown liquid. My mouth immediately began to water.
“Is that-?” I began.
“Yep! Kentucky’s Finest, brewed from the recipe of Mister Beam, hisself!”
Frankie’s moonshine was alcohol if we wanted it, but it could also strip paint or degrease an engine. Of all the things that we’d prioritized in the early days, refined alcohol hadn’t been one of them. The bottle was sealed, but my brother in law cracked it open with a quick twist of his hand, throwing it back to take a long swig. He wiped his chin and held the bottle out to me. I remembered how Avery had backwashed into the water bottle earlier in the day, and I can’t say that Frankie was much better. But this was Jim Beam, and alcohol killed germs. Right?
I took the bottle eagerly enough, taking a long pull from the side that Frankie’s lips hadn’t touched. It had been a good long while since I’d had commercial liquor, and it burned my mouth as I swallowed. I’d just pulled the rim from my lips when I heard a loud, whooping bark from somewhere ahead of us. I knew that sound; we both did.
Deaders don’t roar; they don’t shriek. What they have is a loud, whoomping cough, much like lions did on the old Discovery Channel documentaries. It was deep, it reverberated, and it was a sign to the rest of their pack that they had found prey. It was also how the kept in contact with each other.
“Fuck yeah!” Frankie yelled, his face lighting up with enthusiasm. He cocked his new/used Seminoles cap up his forehead, and pulled Suzannah from his back. He knocked one of the half dozen bolts he’d brought with him, grunting as his fingers strained to pull the shortened drawstring back. I set the bottle of Beam on the trunk of the Daihatsu Surprise, and Frankie tossed me the cap to screw back on. No point in wasting anything that served a purpose, after all.
If we didn’t seem rushed it was only because we knew that we had a few minutes to spare. What we were both waiting on was a call from its peers so that we knew how many we were dealing with. I counted to myself, much like waiting for the clap of thunder that follows a lightning strike. I could see Frankie’s lips moving soundlessly as he did the same.
“Broomp!” a hacking, coughing call echoed out. It was deep; a male, then. One more confirmed, then. Frankie was looking more eager by the second, and his body was beginning to jive back and forth to the unsung rhythm of what I knew to be “Welcome to the Jungle.”
One, two, thre-
Two more; one male, one female. We waited, Frankie becoming more eager by the second as I sunk down into the dark place where my needs lived. It was time to focus; my release was coming. Some distant part of me took note that Frankie had started humming. That was always a portent of good things to come. Seconds ticked by, but there were no more calls. Four, then.
“Let’s get these donkeys,” Frankie said. “Gimme a shot first before you close on’em; I wanna see how Suzannah is working, now.”
It was an odd request, but Frankie was an odd guy. He’d been hunting turkey in the forests of Hicktown before most people are out of Pampers, and that skill had followed him into the enlisted ranks of the United States Military as a field sniper. I don’t know how good he’d been at his job, but the fact that he’d found his way home spoke volumes. I’d never bothered to ask him how many people he’d killed, the same way that he’d never bothered to ask me. We were just a couple of whores that had an unspoken understanding.
My brother in law was an amazing shot with his crossbow, but it was a tricky thing with deaders. Beating their heads to a pulp had its own dangers, but it was easy. To kill them with an arrow? That took a different type of finesse. You had to go straight through the eye, at just the right angle. As I mentioned earlier, the cranium is one of the hardest parts of the body, and-when hitting them in the forehead- the bolt just didn’t have enough power to drive deeply enough into the gray matter to hit the off switch. Essentially, unless you got lucky, the realistic expectation that you could hope for with an arrow was to take out an eye on things that were probably half blind to begin with. Hit a leg or shoulder? Remember, they don’t respond to pain the way that you and I do. But we were out for a ruckus, right?
“Yeah, Frank,” I said, my voice cold but breathless with eagerness. I was in my dark place, my cold place; the type of place that Charles Darwin would have felt comfortable. After all, if this wasn’t survival of the fittest, I didn’t know what was. “Take your shot.”
Frankie reached into one of his pockets and pulled out an aged can of Grizzly chewing tobacco. That can had gone dry a long time ago, but he had continued to fill it with his own shredded leaves. Like I said; recycle. He tucked a pinch into his lip, and then set the stock of the crossbow against his shoulder. At the last moment, I remembered to pull the bandana tied around my neck up over my face to cover my nose and mouth.
“Get at it, then,” he said in a flat voice, and I flowed forward like a ghost that had just been invited into a home. I worked my way between the weaving press of vehicles, keeping my back close to the metal doors and hoods. Frankie trailed behind me like a shadow, the steel tip of his bolt moving back and forth with his line of sight. We stalked this way- me taking the lead with Frankie as my back up- for a hundred yards before we found the lead deader.
He was a big son of a bitch, towering over me by close to a foot. Like all deaders, his flesh and skin had shriveled away, wrapping his skull like rotten shrink wrap. The hair had fallen from his head, half his teeth were missing, and the desiccated form was wearing the tattered remains of a UCLA pull over hoodie. If the sweatshirt was to be believed, this one had covered some distance, and was still mostly intact despite it. I started to run towards it when I heard Frankie call out from behind me.
“Shot!” he hollered out, reminding me that I’d promised to give him the first go. I dropped down on my haunches, the deader maybe a dozen steps in front of me. It’s clouded eyes had just started to notice me as I heard the sharp twang of Frankie pulling the trigger to the crossbow. A wispy hiss cut the air over my head, and the bolt took the deader on the left side of its nose, ripping through the dehydrated flesh. The arrow barely slowed as it barreled through the back of the skull and soared out over the freeway’s edge. The deader’s head snapped back from the impact, and if it hadn’t been for the support of the SUV behind it, it would have fallen. As it was, it pulled itself upright with nary a flinch or shake of its head.
“Ho-lee shee-yit!” Frankie yelled, jubilant . “Did you see that?”
Yes, Frankie; I saw that. I was here when it happened. But it’s still alive, and now it’s my turn.
I barreled forward, leaping onto the hood of a car. In the distant background, I heard Frankie shouting out the opening line of “Welcome to the Jungle.”
The deader turned its milky eyes at me. It tried to snarl, to howl, but the lower side of its jaw was gone where Frankie’s bolt had ripped it clean off. The result was a disgusting gurgling that caused the ruined face to gyrate. Creamy white orbs laced with bloody cataracts turned black pupils my way, uncaring that the lower half of its face was gone.
Standing on the hood of the car as I was, the head of the towering deader was a couple feet below me. Its eyes trailed up my way as it lashed out with a gnarled fingered hand. Stupid bastard, I thought with a gleeful, internal chuckle, you’re too slow. The end of my bat cracked into its temple with a hollow, tinging sound. Stagnant, black blood splashed out of the head as the side of the skull caved in. The corpse fell, never giving any indication that it had felt an ounce of pain…or remorse…or semblance of the person he used to be.
UCLA hit the ground with a thud. There was a good sized concavity in the side of his head, and from between the shards of skull I could see maggots wiggling. Their pale, worm-like bodies wriggled back and forth, some searching for deep cover while others were brave enough to squiggle their way out of the broken calcium coffin.
I had to kill them. I smashed my bat down a few more times, and then stomped any of the pests that made their way free- inching their way across the highway- beneath the heel of my shoe. You had to be careful with maggots. They weren’t dangerous- in the sense that they would attack you- but they carried the infection. They gave it to the birds that ate them. The birds gave it to the cats that killed them. The cats gave it to…
You get the point. This, we think, is part of the reason that the infection spread as fast as it did. As an example: Bulls went rabid in Texas and Montana, gone feral from the grass that they ate, grass that was contaminated by their own shit stuck in the curves of their hooves, shit that was contaminated by the worms in their stool…
Moral of the story? Kill maggots when you see them. Trust me; it makes sense.
“Good kill!” Frankie yelled enthusiastically as he trotted up my way, his work boots trampling a few of the squirming maggots that had escaped my attention. “Did you see that shit?” he repeated, “I didn’t think cutting the cord down would make it that strong.”
“Well, it worked,” I panted with the exertion of adrenaline as I wiped my bat off on the limp deader’s hoodie. “Focus up, though; we’ve got three more.”
“Right,” Frankie said, spitting a thick brown stream off to the side through pursed lips as he fit another bolt into his crossbow. “You wanna take lead, or you want me to get in there?”
“I got lead,” I said. To be honest, I never liked sharing the lead position. I trusted Frankie; I trusted his accuracy…but I didn’t like giving up any of my kills. UCLA had been the tip of the iceberg, but now I was ready to get some real work in. “Hey,” I said, breathless with enthusiasm, “sing that song again.”
“Bahmp, bahmp, bahmp,” I sang, imitating his deeper voice as best as I could, “another one bites the dust.”
Pause. “Thought you said you didn’t like it?”
We moved forward on full alert, Frankie singing under his breath. We knew that the other three deaders had to be close. As much as they seemed to work on their own agenda, when they found each other they had a tendency to stay relatively close together. This is how the packs formed, and it might have been the last vestige of humanity that they had left. The others couldn’t have been far, so we worked our way up the highway, moving about the clusters of vehicles with the type of practiced precision that came with the comfort of dozens of hunts together. We were rewarded after a hundred yards or so.
I’d barely had a moment to tense up before I heard the creaking thump of metal bending. The lead deader- another male- had leapt onto the hood of another car just off to my left. Its right arm was gone, ripped away at the elbow. The nub was hidden by the tattered sleeves of his shirt, but there was no disguising the wide shoulders and narrow waist of an experienced athlete. It sat there, propped up on three appendages like an image from a comic book, gazing around with the dead intensity that I’d come to expect. The other two weren’t far behind.
One was a middle aged male, dressed in the tattered remains of a white dress shirt and black tie. While it had deflated as the corpse had aged, there was more than a bit of beer belly on him. The second- female- stood close to his hand. Judging by the ragged strands of shoulder length blonde hair hanging from her scalp and the ample amount of decaying bosom, she might have been pretty before she had been infected.
I didn’t spare them too much consideration; it was time to kill.
I moved forward around the bumper of a car, swinging my bat at the lead male- the athlete’s- ankle. A tip from the pros? Always, always, attack first if you can. It’s always better to be acting than reacting. The creature surprised us both, though. Rather than attack me- the closest- he darted off to the side, slipping out of the reach of my bat and bounding across the hoods of nearby cars with an eerie, arachnid ease. I heard the twang of Frankie’s crossbow, but since the deader had changed direction so suddenly the bolt flew over the edge of the freeway. Slick as he was, Frankie didn’t have time to reload.
The deader landed within a few feet of him, coughing and hacking, noxious green spittle dangling from shriveled lips. Frankie cursed, his song cutting off in mid chorus. Susannah dropped from his hands to dangle on his back strap. His hand dipped towards his holstered .45 out of instinct, but then stopped and moved towards Samantha’s haft. He pulled the katana from its sheathe faster and more gracefully than you’d imagine a man his size was capable of just as the deader took a swipe at his face with its remaining arm.
Honestly, my brother in law should have died a slow death, right then and there. Frankie had a killer’s trained reflexes, but the deader was faster than he was. It was sheer, blind luck that saved him. The athlete’s swipe connected with the side view mirror of the vehicle, giving just enough time for Frankie to leap back.
“Fuck, donkey!” he spat as he hacked Samantha into its hand like a lumberjack. Three shriveled digits fell to the asphalt at his feet, but the athletic deader didn’t hesitate in the slightest, continuing to clamber forward. Beer Belly and Used to be Pretty picked up their pace and followed him, centering on the heavyset, ex-soldier hillbilly with the FSU cap perched on his brow.
There were still two cars separating us, and I weaved around them as Frankie swung a second time. The hardened blade glanced off of the athlete’s skull, but took a thick flap of brown skin with it. I had managed to get close enough, and the deader’s ass was propped up in the air as I cracked my bat into its extended leg, right at the knee. The tip of the silver Louisville connected with a crunch, and the deader flopped to the side as it lost its precarious balance.
The deader continued to cough and hack, reaching its maimed hand Frankie’s direction. Lying flat on the hood of the car- with a shattered knee, no less- it didn’t make much progress. Frankie stepped forward with a savage grin and chopped his pawn shop katana down onto the hairless skull. The rolled steel blade wasn’t particularly heavy, but the edge could split a hair and Frankie was a strong guy. The sword split the cranium, driving deep into the dehydrated brain with the sound of a sledgehammer smashing a melon. The creature groaned, twitched, and then went limp. We didn’t have time to celebrate, though; the other two had drawn within arms reach.
Frankie gave the hilt of the sword a tug, but the blade was stuck fast. He gave up on it and pulled up the crossbow dangling near his hip. His hands worked to place another bolt, but the stubborn drawstring was too hard to pull with one hand. The arrow tumbled loose, and fell over the edge of the freeway. For the moment, Frankie was defenseless, and that meant it was my turn.
I dashed forward, jumping and sliding over the hood of a car like it was the General Lee and I was Bo Duke. Beer Belly was within reach, and I cracked my bat across his pelvis as I slid. There was a loud ting of impact as the aluminum connected with the hard bone of its hip, but the strike didn’t have enough power behind it to do any real damage. I’m sure it looked really cool, though.
I landed on my feet as I slid off the other side of the hood and rose, still swinging. I cracked Beer Belly across the wrist to knock its reaching hand aside, and then struck the inside of its lead knee as hard as I could. The joint crunched, buckled, and the deader stumbled just long enough for me to bust it across the temple. It toppled silently to the side like a garbage bag filled with meat and bone.
I whirled on the remaining female, but Used to be Pretty had stopped, not attacking the way that I would have expected her to. A soft, thin mewl whispered between her lips as she looked at Beer Belly’s lifeless, oozing form, and then she turned her milky eyes on me. I didn’t know I had the ability for this type of fear driven reaction, but I stopped in my tracks. A deader’s gaze is a vacant thing, much like a running car in neutral pushed down a high hill; the engine might be running, but there’s no one behind the wheel, so to speak. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but Used to be Pretty was different. There was an alertness in her eyes, an odd awareness that was somehow-
No; can’t be.
Used to be Pretty took a measured, calculated step out of my reach, and there was no denying the undisguised hatred for me on her mottled, shrunken face. Her still generous cleavage expanded as she drew in a deep breath before giving a loud “Broooooomf!” that I could feel reverberating through my eardrums. The resounding call had just died out when I watched the feathered shaft of one of Frankie’s arrows plant itself in the center of her forehead. The quarrel exploded through the rear of her skull and sailed out over the edge of the freeway, much as the other had done.
The female deader crumbled, flopping over backwards. She landed in a heap with her skirt flipped up over her waist to expose her girly parts, and her flower print panties were dark and soiled with filth. The echoes of her call were still ringing in the air.
“Holy fuck stick, Cleet,” Frankie gasped, calm despite the confrontation and close brush with infection. It wasn’t surprising; we’d both done this enough times that a good, solid adrenaline rush wasn’t the same thing as fear. “That first fucker almost took my face off.”
“Probably would’ve been doing you a favor,” I said, panting slightly as I nudged UCLA with my toe. You could never be too careful with these things. The body shifted rigidly, and gradually slid off the car hood to collapse in a lump. My nose crinkled; God, these things smelled bad. “You need to lose some weight, anyway. Gotta start somewhere.”
Frankie gave a couple hefty slaps to his paunch. “I’m all man, pussy,” he said lightly, with a jovial smile. “Where’d we leave that Beam at?” he continued, refocusing on priorities. “I could use a swig. Mr. Beam knew how to do it right.”
“Back down the way,” I replied absently as I walked over to look at the ruined features of Used to be Pretty. Now that she’d been put down she looked no different than any other deader. But she’d been aware, somehow, in a way that I hadn’t seen before. It was disturbing, and there was very little in the world that disturbed me. Now she was just another lifeless meat sack, and I couldn’t glean any answers from the shattered remains of her face. With a last considering glance, I turned to follow Frankie back down the highway.
I reveled silently in the wonderful sense of relief I felt as I caught up with my brother in law. I gave him a nod, and he wordlessly held the knuckles of his closed fist out my way. I bumped my own knuckles against them, and we continued back down the onramp of the I-95. We’d gone maybe fifteen yards in silence when a chorus of distant calls erupted. It sounded like a massive pack of hyenas, but to the best of my knowledge, there were no hyenas in Vegas.
We both stopped, our eyes turning to the west. With almost a year of no traffic, the ever present haze that hung about the Las Vegas Strip had dissipated. The hotels and casinos were as tall and massive as ever, and from this distance you couldn’t even see how dilapidated they had become. Some might have thought it was a pretty sight, but I’d been seeing it for so many years that I didn’t notice it. What we were focused on was the sound of those cries, and what it meant. It was a pack, and judging by the number of whooping, barking coughs, a big one. It was the type that I would advise my own people to run- as fast as you could- away from.
Frankie and I shared a look just as another set of calls took up from slightly further north. They were even more muted than the first group, but it wasn’t hard to deduce that they were only a handful of miles apart. Eager as we both were for some redneck good times, we both knew that a pack that size- let alone two- was well beyond our skill set.
“Yep,” Frankie said in a philosophical way, his eyes turned off towards the horizon, “now I definitely need another drink.”
We didn’t necessarily hurry back down the onramp, but we didn’t move at the leisurely pace we’d started out with, either. The packs- both packs- were miles away, and had no reason to even know of our existence. They’d undoubtedly picked up the call of the female deader that Frankie had put down, but beyond a vague direction they couldn’t possibly know where we were. Still, that was no reason to abandon common sense. We only made one brief stop, and that was at the Surprise so that each of us could take another deep swig from the bottle.
“Bring it?” Frankie suggested, holding the still plenty full bottle up. I gave it a moment of consideration.
“Nah,” I replied. I was already starting to feel a bit light headed. “Tuck it in the trunk. I don’t really want to share it, and this way we know where it is the next time we come out.”
Frankie thought about it, then nodded in agreement. Mr. Beam’s recipe was too good to partition out, after all. We emerged from the 95 onramp no worse the wear despite our “ruckus,” and turned south to where our rummaging grounds are. We’d had our fun, but now it was time for us to get to the work/ excuse that we’d come out here for. Although it was miles away, we could still hear the sporadic yips and yelps of the two packs of deaders.
“You wanna get your arrows?” I asked as we rounded the last bend of the freeway. I’d noticed that he was down to his last one.
“Nah,” he said, brushing it off with a wave of his hand. “I got plenty back home. I didn’t expect Susannah to have that much power. I wouldn’t even know where to look for the bolts that flew off, anyway.”
Sounded good to me. I didn’t want to waste my approved day out on a pointless search around the desert for the needle in the proverbial haystack. We rounded the curve of the road, heading down to the dilapidated area where we did most of our “shopping.” It was a funny little area of Vegas that we called home. On one side of the freeway you had the “well to do” neighborhoods. Three miles the other direction, however, you found yourself in hillbilly Hender-tucky, capital of Podunk Town. Honestly? If those hillbilly meth- heads had banded together, they probably would have flourished. Maybe even better than we ourselves had. Call’em what you will, but red necks were survivors, and they had an odd but surprising list of skills and abilities.
As it was, though, most of them got too aggressive in the beginning, seeing the zombie apocalypse as just another excuse to drink beer, smoke dope, blow shit up, and promote the general idea of anarchy. They were just as effective at wiping themselves out as the deaders were, and had left us as the survivors with a veritable treasure trove of random shit that stretched out over dozens of square miles of hillbilly heaven. There were trailer parks, dumpsters, and even a few landfills. These were all interspersed with the beautiful neighborhoods that had been filled with rich people that hadn’t had the foresight- and common sense- that those of us on Branberry had. If for whatever reason we ever ran out of room in our little compound, we knew where we could find a nice double wide to drag in.
Frankie and I spent a couple of hours searching through the sprawling mesh of trailers and mobiles, trying to focus on ones that we hadn’t really been into, yet. I don’t want you to think we were working too hard, though. Honestly, it was a great time for both of us. We smashed shit, broke windows, rummaged around, gathered things that we found useful as well as the items on the list that we’d brought with us. Frankie shoveled everything into his green duffle. There was no discrimination in our world; all of our supplies could live happily together, no matter what purpose they served.
We ran into four more deaders over the course of our exploration, each one wandering by themselves. See, the funny thing about deaders? If they don’t find a pack- if they don’t have any of their own around them- they tend to stay in the same little areas that they used to inhabit. They don’t really feel the need to move unless they hear the call of a pack or something they can kill walks into their vicinity. Frankie and I took them down easily- one by one- and had a blast as we did so. One of them, a skinny, narrow shouldered male in a stained wife beater tank top even had a treasure hanging across his chest in the form of a heavily stocked bandolier.
“Ah, hell yeah,” Frankie crowed in excitement as he knelt down next to the deader that had just stopped kicking. “These’re thirty aught sixes.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said flatly from where I stood, keeping an eye out for any others.
“Rifle shells, Cletus!” he chortled, pulling the bandolier off of the scrawny deader and stuffing it into his duffle. The belt would probably have to go- it was undoubtedly contaminated- but the shells were still good. “These’ll fit my Springfield!”
“You’re Goddamn right, it’s amazing,” Frankie crowed, flashing the grin that told me he was fully enveloped in his red neck good times. “Now, let’s see what else we got,” he said, delving into the pockets of the deaders black jeans. I could see his hidden fingers rustling beneath the fabric over the skinny hips.
“Ah, what do we got, here?” he sighed, pulling his hand out. His fingers were clasping a small plastic baggie filled with white powder. Frankie shook it back and forth.
“Looks like coke,” I said, my lips shriveling in disdain.
“Nah, country boys like this can’t afford coke,” Frankie countered. “This here’s heroine.”
“I don’t care if it’s fucking ambrosia,” I said. “Toss it; I don’t want that shit anywhere near Branberry.”
“Stop being such a puss, sweetness,” Frankie said without any heat. He held the baggie up to me. “This here is an opiate, just like morphine. Percocet, Percodan, Oxycodone… it’s all the same shit. It kills pain. Hell, they used to use this like candy back in World War II. It won’t hurt us to hold on to it; throw it in Larry’s stockpile, just in case.”
Frankie’s face split into a devilish grin as an idea hit him, and he rummaged about in his duffle for a moment before emerging with a pack of Sharpie markers that we’d found earlier. He pulled one out, popping the cap off with his thumb, and started to write on the clear plastic baggie.
“Jee-sus,” he sounded out at he wrote, smiling to himself. He held the baggie out to me once more for inspection. “I should give this to Nancy!” he exclaimed proudly. “Tell’er I found Jesus! That’ll shut’er up for a minute!”
“Nancy is one of ours,” I said. Something in my face or tone must have changed, because the smile dropped from Frankie’s expression. “What was it you said earlier?” I asked, “take care of your team and they’ll take care of you?”
Frankie’s shoulders slumped and his face flushed, a bit. “Shit, you don’t have to be a whiny bitch about it.”
That was as close as I could expect to Frankie telling me I was right.
“Put it in the bag,” I sighed. That was as close as Frankie would get from me. We understood each other, and my brother in law tossed it into the duffle. “What time is it?” he asked.
I glanced at the solar powered watch on my wrist. It wasn’t anything nearly as fancy as a Rolex or Bulgari; quite the contrary. It was a kids velcro watch, and had a small gray bar along the face that allowed the sun to fuel it. I couldn’t have told you how accurate it was, but it gave us some idea of the time, and was a damn sight better than trying to watch the sun trail across the sky. “Quarter to four,” I said.
“We got most everything we need?”
I ran through my mental list. We’d managed to find almost everything we’d been scrounging for, including Martin’s shoelaces and Lacy’s zipties. Although I’d never allow her to even see it, I could even count the baggie of heroin towards Nancy’s Zoloft. I nodded to Frankie.
“Probably about time to be heading back, yeah? Lacy pitches a fit if I’m gone too long.”
I sighed, but didn’t argue. I may not have been married to her, but I knew my sister. “Yeah. Figure we’ll get back there, what, around four thirty?”
“‘bout three miles, or so,” Frankie said, turning the numbers over in his head. “Yeah, sounds about right.”
“Wanna race?” I asked with a smile as Frankie shouldered his duffle. He gave me a look like I was stupid.
“Do I look like I run anywhere?” he quipped back, gesturing to himself. Frankie was broad in the shoulders but equally broad in the belly, and the combination of Samantha, Suzannah, and his duffle was understandably cumbersome. I snorted in humor, but cut off as my eyes caught a flash of color fluttering near the wheel of one of the mobile homes.
I walked over and plucked it up from beneath the tire. It was a small, ragged square of white wax paper with a jubilant yellow smiley face sticker in the center of it. Roughly the size of a baseball, the sticker was the type that a grocery store clerk used to give small children for good behavior while they waited in the checkout line. I fancied it, and peeled the decal off, letting the wax paper flutter away in the breeze. I pressed it onto the face of my bat and regarded it. The sticker gave me a jovial, frozen grin, and I smiled back.
“That’s some gay ass shit, right there,” Frankie said. I turned my upright bat to face him, so that he could get a good look at the lifeless black eyes and frozen smile.
“Don’t worry; be happy,” I said, starting to whistle a tune I’d heard in my youth as I turned to begin the walk back to Branberry. The song wasn’t as good as “Welcome to the Jungle,” but it was close.
Things went ass up when we were about a mile from home.
Remember the packs we’d heard while on the freeway? The yipping, coughing yells like hyenas in the distance? The packs that couldn’t possibly have any idea where we were beyond a vague direction? Well, they’d gotten closer. A lot closer.
“Drones,” Frankie whispered, tilting his face over my shoulder to peek around the edge of a brick wall. We were both tucked tight against the wall of what used to be a grocery superstore, doing our best to stay in the shadows and keep out of any direct line of sight. Frankie had a huge plug of tobacco tucked in his lip as we surveyed the layout. He wasn’t spitting, though; we couldn’t risk the sound.
In case you’ve never seen one, drones are the equivalent of an army scout. They venture out from the pack, but never get so far away that the rest of the group can’t hear them when they call. A small pack might have one or two; a larger as many as eight to ten. It’s hard to explain how to know the difference between a drone and your average deader. They moved differently, more along the lines of Romero’s depiction of zombies. They were (slightly) less aggressive, and somehow even more mindless. But they would bark at anything that caught their attention; this could be anything from prey to a random beam of light reflecting off of a piece of broken glass.
A handful of them wasn’t an issue, if you knew what you were doing. Actually, it could be fun; like shooting fish in a barrel. Circle around behind them, sneak up, couple sharp cracks of the bat- ting, ting- and they’d never even get a call off. But this...this was different. There were dozens- scores, even- of drones wandering across the cross street that we’d been heading up; the street that was heading to home. Worse than that, they were moving in mixed pairs, much as Beer Belly and Used to be Pretty had been.
Frankie and I were both good at what we did. Hell, we both loved what we did. Put him and me together in the desert with a dozen deaders to take down, and that was my version of redneck good times. But our current situation was different. This was where I would take my own advice and run; just go the other way. Problem was, there were too many of them fanned out across the parking lot and street that we needed to cross for us to do any such thing. All roads may lead home, but the road that most certainly did lead home was covered in deaders.
I was gazing down the open road of Mission street, the road that lead down to the entrance at Branberry. It was maybe a half mile off, but there were at least three dozen deaders spread and paired off in the distance. The run down Mission to Rocky Coast was another quarter mile. They might be mindless and halfway retarded, but drones are just as quick as any other deader when something catches their attention.
“Might be about time for the ammo, Cleet,” Frankie said, breathing deeply. His tobacco scented breath was heavy against my cheek as he gazed over my shoulder around the building. His hand started to dip to the handle of his .45.
“Not yet,” I whispered, resisting my own urge to pull my Sig out. “Give it a minute; let this group get past us. We can use the space behind them to make our run.”
“What if there isn’t a space?” he countered stubbornly, echoing my own turbulent thoughts. “What’s the plan, then?”
I didn’t have an answer, but was saved from being forced to admit it as a loud noise erupted from the other side of the grocery store that we were taking cover against. A clatter of metal, a loud “Broomf!” and a strangled yelp. A rat, a cat, a scavenging coyote...I couldn’t have cared less. All of the drones halted, their heads turning as one at the ruckus. I felt Frankie tense up behind me.
“Wait,” I implored in a hushed tone, putting my hand against his thigh. “Give it a second.”
In a shambling line that was quickly picking up speed, dozens of deaders started to move towards the opposite side of the grocery store like a colony of ants milling from their hill. I felt a strong urge to throw myself against them, but common sense won out. When all of their attention was directed at the other side of the building I slapped Frankie on the leg. “Now.”
Frankie and I bolted, running bent over at the waist, ducking and hiding behind deserted vehicles in the parking lot. We’d wait for a deader (or pair) to pass, and then shuffle over to the next hiding spot. The geeks were flowing past us, and more and more were starting to yip and yap their whooping coughs as they converged on the grocery store that we’d so recently fled from. For just a second I thought we’d made it past the worst of it when a yelp erupted from a pair of deaders that were just on the other side of a minivan in front of us. Frankie and I both dropped straight to the ground like puppets whose strings had been cut. It wasn’t that either of us were worried about these two in particular; it was the thirty or forty others in the parking lot that had us both thinking that discretion was the better part of valor.
Unfortunately, I landed hard, and it was a struggle not to let myself slam against the side panel of the minivan, to produce the sound that would surely draw this massive pack of drones towards us. My trustworthy Levi’s stopped the skin of my knees from tearing, but couldn’t protect my knee cap from the jolt of impact. It was hard not to grunt at the jolt of pain, but I knew that if I did they would hear. Frankie grabbed my thigh hard, urging me to silence as the two deaders started to come around the other side of the van, following the calls of their rotten brothers and sisters.
With their brown, shriveled skin, drawn teeth, and scabrous, oozing bodies, all deaders are disgusting. The pair next to us was exceptional, though. Once again, it was a male and female moving side by side, their vacant eyes focused on where the rest of the drones were yipping and yelling frantically on the other side of the building to the sound of falling trash and metal. Both were shirtless, and the only way I could tell that one was female was from the singular, shriveled tit dangling towards her stomach. The other had been torn off, the putrid skin where it should have been wrinkled and puckered with faded bite marks.
It was in moments like these- and don’t be fooled; I’ve had more than a few- that I always thought of the movie Jurassic Park. In particular, it was the scene where the lead scientist had a stand off with a T-Rex and played the “if I don’t move, you can’t see me” card. But deaders weren’t dinosaurs, and while their eyes were milky and blood splattered, they could see you just fine whether you were moving or not. We needed these two to not see us. Having them this close, it was hard for me to resist not killing them. A completely reasonable, rational part of my mind was trying to tell me how- if I cut their eyes out- they would definitely not see us. The other part of my mind argued that said action wasn’t prudent.
“Get ready,” Frankie whispered beside me, his voice barely more than an exhale of breath. The two deaders were moving past us, and Frankie gave a shove to my thigh, the silent signal to move. We shifted around the front bumper of the minivan, and my always stalwart brother was starting to breath heavy.
“Gimme that,” I whispered, reaching for the duffle Frankie had over his shoulder. Frankie was strong as shit, and bigger than me by a significant margin, but it wasn’t all muscle. He’d been carrying his duffel for the past few hours, and it had only gotten heavier. We needed to move- fast- and Frankie was one of mine. I was fond of him in my own way, and wouldn’t allow him to die just because the weight of our supplies was bearing him down. Plus, Lacy would be pissed at me.
“Get off me, pussy,” Frankie said in a whisper, his voice still good natured as he slapped my hand to the side. “I got this. We’ll trade in a bit, but right now we gotta get out; ain’t got time to be shufflin’ shit around.”
I nodded to him, and we both worked our way around to the front of the minivan, still bent low. We darted back and forth, running and scuttering to any form of cover that we could find. It took a few frantic minutes of “life or death hide and seek,” but we reached the main road, ducking for cover behind a dumpster at the edge of the parking lot. If we could push hard, Branberry was only a ten minute jog away. I was just trying to figure out how to make it across the road when luck favored us.
An explosion of hyena barks erupted from the backside of the grocery store that we’d fled from. Entranced as they already were, every deader in the area started to bark loudly. They streaked towards the back of the building, moving faster than you would assume their rigored limbs could go. Just like that, Frankie and I had a clear path across the road.
Needless to say, we booked it; hauling ass down the gently descending slope of Mission street. Frankie was huffing loudly, and I grabbed him by the duffel's strap and hauled him forward, driving him to keep my pace. He managed, his heavy feet moving faster, and I pulled the worn strap from his back when we reached the other side of the street, looping it over my chest as he caught his breath.
“Fuck, Cleet,” Frankie gasped, hands on his knees as I shouldered the pack. “Maybe you’re right; I need to lose some weight.”
I started to chuckle. After all, we were safe now, and that’s what’s you’re supposed to do. I had a witty response prepared, but it fell mute on my tongue as my eyes landed on the side of the road that we’d just left; the opposite side of the grocery store that we’d just vacated. Frankie was awaiting my rejoinder, my quick response; that was how he and I worked, after all. When it didn’t come as expected, he stood up straight and followed my gaze to the other side of the street to where the drones- of which there must have been sixty or seventy, now- had converged into one pack. They were moving in our direction with the mindless instinct of a band of starving wolves. It was almost easy to dismiss the tiny black body that was bolting towards us as fast as its four legs would allow, trying to stay ahead of the horde.
“What the fuck is that?” Frankie asked.
“That,” I said with a distinctly uncomfortable swallow, “is a Chartreuse.”
I wanted to be wrong, but I wasn’t. Sure as shit, the scampering form running in front of the swarm of deader drones was Nancy’s (assumed dead) dog. The canine had been gone for the last ten months, and while it had clearly survived, it looked more than a bit worse for the wear. Now, I’ve read that Scottish Terriers- pound for pound- are some of the toughest, strongest dogs on the planet. If I’d had any doubt about it, Chartreuse was currently proving the assumption correct. The poor thing was emaciated, its black coat grown long and matted. But it was alive, had managed to survive on its own, and was currently hauling ass to keep in front of the deaders pursuing it.
Problem was, it was running straight towards us. With all of those drones following, it was an unfortunate time for Chartreuse to remember the way home.
“Ah, shit,” Frankie muttered as the dog darted towards us, the deaders following on its tail at a distance that was gradually getting shorter. The gated entrance to Branberry wasn’t much further behind us. Frankie’s face went blank, flat, taking on the waxy, lifeless look that he’d worn when he’d first returned home from his final tour in Pakistan. Most people wouldn’t have understood what that look signified, but I did.
Frankie had turned his emotions off. He wasn’t a person, anymore; he was a machine with a job to do. “What’s the move,” he said in a toneless voice, spitting off to the side. The terrier had spotted us, and despite its understandable terror, its tail was wagging as it recognized two regular people that weren’t going to eat it.
“Take it down,” I said. I didn’t waste time weighing my options, because there were no options. “That thing gets to us, the whole horde follows it. Everything comes straight back to Branberry’s front door.”
“Copy that,” Frankie said, pulling Suzannah up and cranking in his last bolt with a grunt. He dropped to one knee and placed the stock into his shoulder, taking sight across the length of the shaft with one open eye. He drew in a slow breath, and as he exhaled he pulled the trigger. The trigger pull freed the drawstring, the drawstring loosed the bolt, and the bolt shot out at the trusting little dog that was running towards us.
Frankie’s shot was true, and the arrow followed what I could already see was the perfect trajectory to embed itself in the dog’s skull. That is, until Chartreuse stumbled a bit and jigged to the left. Instead of putting the dog down humanely with a clean shot to the head, the arrow drove deep into its rear leg, ripping through the fur and tissue with a spray of blood. The dog yelped and spun to the side from the impact, but recovered the way that animals seem to do when they sense that they are at the moment of their death. Adrenaline set into that little body, and the creature continued to run towards us, maybe even faster than before. The swarm of deaders were only fifty yards behind it.
“Shoot it again!” I whisper shouted.
“I don’t have any more arrows!” Frankie hissed back, his voice taking on the heat of exasperated anger. The dog was almost to us, and I realized I had to take care of it, now. This might have been a proper time to use my gun, but at this distance with a moving target...Frankie could have made the shot, but I didn’t have the skill. There was no time for me to tell Frankie to draw his Glock. I ran forward, my newly decaled bat in my hand.
Despite a wound that would prove mortal, Chartreuse managed to kick it into the next gear and bolted towards me. He had a hopeful look in his big, brown canine eyes. These are people, he was probably thinking. They’ll protect me; they’ll fix me. I love them, and they love me. Protect your team, and they’ll protect you.
My bat took the hound across the side of the head, right across my new smiley face sticker. The dog gave a shrill, broken squeal, and then his limp body flew to the side in an unmoving lump.
“Shee-yit,” Frankie exhaled, letting his crossbow fall on its strap. “C’mon, Cleet; we gotta move.”
I regarded the broken black body that lay unmoving in front of me, regardless of the drones that were only thirty yards or so away. They hadn’t stopped when I’d put the dog down; no, their eyes were on us, and- having spotted bigger game- started to pick up speed.
“Should I bring him back?” I asked Frankie. “He’s got a good five pounds of meat on him.”
Frankie gave me a look, a look that I’d never seen before. Frankie, who had smiled and laughed about giving a bag of heroin to Nancy. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asked as he turned towards home. “You don’t eat your friends.”
Frankie started to jog off, and was moving at a better pace now that he’d had a moment to catch his breath and rid himself of some of the gear. I shouldered the duffle holding our supplies, humming to myself. I’d gotten my rush today, after all. We had a fight coming, and time was short. But I couldn’t deny the excitement in my breast.
Don’t worry; be happy. Today was going to be a good day.
“Lock it up!” I yelled as loudly as I could as Frankie and I dropped over the wall to the inside of Branberry. There were only a few people out: Lew, talking with Sister Tracy in the middle of the road, and D’wayne, still working on the car. All heads turned our way as Frankie landed heavily behind me with a grunt.
The retired nun and mechanic looked confounded for a moment, but Lew caught the dire tone of my voice. His eyes widened in alarm, and he started towards us in an uncoordinated, gangly jog. He was a smart guy, but had never been overly coordinated. On his best day, he’d always looked like Pinocchio after the strings had been cut. Sister Tracy was quick to follow, and as much as I didn’t like her, I was forced to admire the old broad. Her wrinkled face hardened in determination as she walked behind Lew with firm steps. Despite the times, she still found a way to work a stiff crease into the legs of the worn khakis she donned everyday. I couldn’t tell you how she did it, but I also didn’t care. D’wayne was the only one that lagged, tossing a rachet off to the side as he rose on rusty joints.
“What’s happening?” Lewis asked as he trotted up to us. His eyes glanced off of the dead dog that was dangling from my hand- tilted his eyes to me, briefly-but didn’t say anything. He either didn’t recognize it, or didn’t care. Meat was meat, after all, and he could tell by my urgency that we had a larger meal on the table.
“Drones,” I said, panting. It wasn’t the heavy breathing of exertion like Frankie; no, mine was more of anticipation. There was a certain level of trepidation to be sure, but at the end of the day, I’m an Exterminator, and I lived for this shit.
“Lot of’em,” Frankie gasped as I shrugged the duffle off. Sister Tracy stepped forward and picked it up, pulling the strap over her shoulder. Despite her small stature, she hefted it easily. None of us tried to discourage or take it from her. At one point or another, she’d made us all aware that she was perfectly capable of doing things herself. Even Frankie generally doffed his cap respectfully when the Sister made “suggestions.”
“I’ll put this on your porch,” she said in her no nonsense voice as she turned to walk away. It wasn’t the type of nun voice that told you God was kind; it was the nun voice where you anticipated a ruler cracking your knuckles to follow. “When I get back, I expect to hear concise details. Get your jibber-jabbering done while I’m gone.”
“She’s just mean,” I said, my eyes on her departing back, not realizing I’d spoken the thought aloud until Lew snapped his fingers in front of my face.
“Focus!” he said, swerving his head until his eyes were in line with mine. “What’s the count?”
Lewis’s face was blank and intense. I knew him well enough to know that my childhood friend- my only friend- was gone, right now. This Lewis was the one that had been appointed the leader of Branberry; the one that had organized everyone and convinced us to work together. This Lewis had no time for joking or palaver. Now was the time for facts, and our survival depended on everyone knowing as much as possible.
“Sixty, at least,” I said. “All drones.”
A slight widening of the eyes was the only thing that gave Lew’s shock away. Sixty drones was bad news, and he knew it. Drones were a give away to the actual size of the main body of geeks. I considered telling him about my odd encounter with Used to be Pretty, but decided to hold off. My suspicious concerns could wait until tomorrow. We needed to deal with the current issue at hand.
“Where’s the pack?” Lew asked, still all business.
“Dunno,” Frankie said, still fighting for breath as he rearranged his crossbow to sit more comfortably. “Didn’t see a full pack, but we heard both of’em.”
“Both?” Lew asked. His eyes flicked back to Suzannah, and his brow furrowed as he went off on an angry tangent. “You weren’t supposed to bring that fucking thing!” he barked.
“Yeah,” I agreed, speaking up, distracting Lew from his ire and getting him back to task, “two of them.”
We were weren’t able to delve any deeper into the briefing as a half manic, heart broken shriek erupted from the side.
“Nooooo! What did you do!”
Ah, shit; here we go, I thought, turning my eyes to the home of the only addict besides myself that lived on Branberry. Nancy came bounding down her driveway, moving stiffly and clad in a tattered blue nightgown that had seen many years and better days. Even in the short few hours that we’d been gone her skin had grown more pallid. Her cheekbones were shadowed, and the perspiration at her hairline was thicker. Her fevered eyes were wide and manic, attached to where I held the dead Scottish terrier in my hand. She began shrieking in a strident voice before she even reached us.
“That’s my Chartreuse! You killed her, why did you kill her, you kill everything, you’re horrible, horrible!” she wailed, collapsing on her knees in the middle of the asphalt road where our little group had gathered. She threw her head back, wailing at the sky in anguish. Lew’s visage cracked for a moment as he turned heated eyes my way, lips compressing.
“Get Larry-” I started to say to D’wayne, but Lew cut me off with a venomous look that could have felled an elephant at twenty yards. My best friend turned his attention to the soiled mechanic, the anger washing from his face as he replaced it with the congenial expression he adopted when trying to calm/ convince someone to do something.
“Do me a favor,” he told D’wayne in a congenial, business-like manner. “I need your help, right now. Bring Nancy to Dr. Larry. Ask him to give her something that will calm her down. Tell him I said it was okay.”
D’wayne cast a look at me, but gently lifted Nancy from the broken asphalt and guided her to the house that Larry and I shared. Nancy sobbed on his shoulder, and I wondered if the tremors of her body were from the sight of her dead dog, or her body calling out for her meds. Lewis gave me a scathing glance, but didn’t say anything more. We’d have words later, but now wasn’t the time and he knew it.
“Will they come here?” he asked, going back to business.
“Yes,” I said at the same time that Frankie replied “Hell yeah.”
Frankie and I looked at each other, trying to gauge the time and distance. We mumbled back and forth for a moment before deciding:
“Five, maybe six minutes. They’ll be circled around the desert side in no more than ten.”
I could see Lew’s shoulders tighten as he thought things through. Our differences had always been many, but there was none wider than the fact that I welcomed physical confrontation while Lew abhorred it. He held his social position through leadership. He could rally people, calm them, and make the hard decisions that sometimes needed to be made. But there was no denying how much he hated what was coming.
“Sister,” he said calmly as the wizened nun returned to us. “Get the sheep to the pool, please.”
As much as it may have sounded like it, Lew wasn’t speaking in code. He was being completely literal. The pool was just that: a drained, ten foot deep pool that sat in the backyard of one of the vacant homes along our street. I admit to more than a little bit of pride that the concept had been my idea. Not to say that I was some sort of strategic genius; the concept had come from “American Gladiators,” a show I’d loved as a child. The basic ideat had spawned from the “Joust,” and I turned my eye to a neighbor’s greening pool. If we got rid of that stagnant water, we’d have a helluva...
After draining the pool, we’d constructed a stout pillar in the center. It was as sturdy as D’wayne could design it, and rose to a supported platform roughly fifteen feet in the air. The concept was that the drained pool would act as a pit that the deaders would fall into, and the platform was too high for them to reach. They could mill around as much as they wanted, but once the ladder was pulled up they had no way to get to the sheep perched on top.
The term “sheep” had dual meanings. The first time it had been used it had come from Sister Tracy, meaning the lambs under the care of that grand ol’ shepherd in the sky. The second meaning was unspoken, but it was a more literal term: those that couldn’t defend themselves, let alone anyone else. It was the term for our remaining children- Avery, Bree, and Troy- Nancy, D’wayne’s wife Cecille, Lacy, Lew’s lesbian girlfriend- Jamie? Janelle?- and a handful of others that would just be in the way. We’d tried to get Sister Tracy to go there as well, but the old nun would have none of it. We’d all agreed on a compromise of her acting as an intermediary. She would gather everyone, get them them to the pool, and then hold her position as a final sentry on the ground.
Tracy gave a curt nod to Lew’s ever so polite command, shooting me a cold glance before turning to go gather the others. Her knees moved stiffly with her advanced age, but that didn’t stop her shambling gait as she shuffled briskly from door to door, knocking. We’d practiced this drill before, and it wasn’t long before we had every single member of Branberry mingling in the road. After the past year, there were just over a score of us left. Organization asserted itself rapidly, and Lew looked at me with stern eyes.
“This is your show, now,” he said. “You got this?”
I nodded, but rather than be pacified, he glowered. He seemed even more stern, more worried. God, he was a pussy sometimes. “Don’t bullshit me-” he began, but I cut him off.
“I’ve got this,” I snapped, trying to sound calm and confident while I fought down my eagerness. “You take care of our people, then get to your spot.”
“Get in position!” I shouted out, not that it mattered. We didn’t have time for it to matter. I’ve read that every battle plan lasts until the first arrow is fired, and our first arrow was fired several hours ago.
The drones- close to a hundred, now- were pressed against our gate and walls less than a minute after we’d climbed up to our stations with weapons in hand. There were only a half dozen of us to hold the perimeter: me, Frankie, Jordan from down the block, D’wayne, and a few others. Lew was standing atop Lacy’s house with a set of binoculars to track the movement and shout out warnings for where we needed to go. We all knew our positions, knew what we had to do, but we trusted in our walls more.
I took the lead section- my section- a twenty foot expanse at the main gate. The roads acted like a funnel, and this was where the deaders would be the most numerous until they found their way around to the desert. I was holding the point guard position in between Jordan and Frankie. It wasn’t hard to see that Jordan had yet to forgive my brother in law for the crossbow incident, and despite the deaders on our doorstep he still managed to shoot Frankie the occasional venomous glance. Jovial and irreverent as he normally is, Frankie was all business, now, and didn’t even notice.
We were as well armed as we could be, given the time. Each of us had a firearm, but even in this scenario they were still a last resort. Frankie had even spared a half minute to dart back into his house, emerging with an assault rifle hanging from his back. I could make all the jokes I wanted about him being a hillbilly Rambo, but that thing looked mean, and his hands curled around it with the familiarity of an old lover.
Our walls were still our first line of defense, but we’d armed ourselves with things that were silent: crossbow, bat, long handled axes, metal poles. Now more than ever, we had to be silent, and we used anything heavy that we could strike a deader down with. After all, the tallest deader in the world couldn’t get over our walls very quickly, and we had the time to dispatch them.
But in the handful of attacks that we’d faced in the last year, we’d never had a pack- let alone a group of drones- this large. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Lewis break his face away from the rims of his binoculars to wave an arm high over his head to the street which neighbored ours, the one that Martin and his group lived on. The attack began right after that.
They crashed against the walls and gate with mindless fury, barking and coughing as they slammed themselves bodily against the barrier. There were dozens of them, each uglier than the last, with faces full of hatred and hunger. We walked the edges of the perimeter in our zones, each of us only inches away from their grasping fingers as we dispatched them as quickly as we could. Not every shot was a clean strike. We batted away fingers and hands more often than not. But my bat never ceased swinging as I moved and ran along the distance of my zone. I’d take a few down, and then run over to reinforce Jordan or Frankie. They in turn would return the favor and do the same for me when I needed it.
Even above the gurgling growls that surrounded us, I could still hear the sharp twang of Frankie’s crossbow every thirty seconds or so. Jordan’s rusty ax- the cheap, plastic handled kind that you bought at knock off hardware stores- was moving almost as much as my bat was. But the black man’s face was tightlipped, and I could tell he wasn’t enjoying the commotion nearly as much as I was.
I felt alive, joyous, even, as I cracked knuckles and jaws, hands and craniums. Despite the danger and imminent threat, this felt amazing. I found myself humming my happy song, and the yellow smiley face decal on my bat was covered in putrid gore by the time I ended the first stanza.
I heard Frankie’s call, and the near panic in his voice cut my exuberance short. I looked his direction to see him backing away from his position and striking out with a heavy length of pipe. The heads of a half dozen deaders were peering over the lip of the wall with milky eyed gazes, gaping and snarling as they reached their arms out Frankie’s direction. Frankie carried a lot more weight than I did, and he didn’t find it quite as easy to balance on the thin ledge. His thick soled boots were dancing across the narrow cement wall to avoid their grasping hands. I got over there just as he pulled the assault rifle from his back and put the stock against his shoulder, sighting on the nearest one.
I slapped the muzzle to the side with the flat of my hand before he could pull the trigger, and cracked my bat across an arm that was grasping at his ankle. It was a good swing, and connected with enough force that the limb ripped free with a wet squelch, flopping forgotten to the ground. I don’t know what had the stolid Marine so spooked, or why the deaders had nearly managed to breach this section of the wall, but-
Yep, I thought, looking over into the spread of desert that was Frankie’s section of the wall. This is a problem.
It had only been a few minutes, but my team and I had already brought down a couple dozen deaders. Normally this would have been a cause for celebration, but now it was a problem. Pressed against the walls as they had been, the bodies had fallen atop themselves, one atop the other. The snarling animals attacking us were using the bodies of their fallen brethren as a stepladder to get higher and grip the edge of the wall as they attempted to pull themselves over. There was easily a score of them pressing against the cinder blocks that were Frankie’s zone, clambering over one another as they stepped up higher.
“North wall!” I called out, waving my arms at Lew and the others. “North wall! North wall!”
We couldn’t afford a breach like this. We hadn’t had a deader inside our walls since we first consolidated our boundary. If one or two got in, yeah, that could be handled with little to no casualties. But if we let this go- with this many drones around us- we could be overrun in the space of an evening. It was worth pulling the others from their posts to take care of the issue. Avery and her siblings were depending on me to keep them safe. I’d protected them before, and I would do the same, now. My neighbors worked their way towards us as fast as they could, swinging and cursing, sweating and bitching, bashing at anything from the other side that decided to rear up. We were fending them off, but I knew we were in trouble.
I twisted around, cranking hard from the hip as I struck a gray faced deader across the skull. Gray and brown hands clawed at me, pulling at the tip of my bat. There were a few times my balance was precarious at best and I kilted over the wall at an awkward angle, but my smiley face sticker was just as jovial as it had been all day. From the corner of my eye I could see Lew atop his perch, frantically waving his arms at Rocky Coast,Martin’s street. I realized that I could hear dim screams coming from that direction. I guess the wedding wasn’t going as well as they had hoped.
This could be it, I thought with a fun mixture of eagerness and fear. There were still scores of deaders along the length of the wall, more than Frankie and I had even anticipated. The carpet of bodies on the desert side was a slope almost four feet high. If they pressed hard now, there was no way that we could hold them back.
To my surprise, they didn’t attack though. We’d broken apart the group that had come perilously close to breaching Frankie’s section, but the rest of them held back motionless as we all sucked in heavy breaths. One and all, male and female, the scores of deaders held their position a dozen yards away from the wall. This wasn’t like them; this wasn’t the predictable behavior we’d come to know.
“What the hell?” Frankie said from my side, breathing heavily as he watched the spectacle. D’wayne and Jordan were the closest to us, and they had nothing to say as they gazed out into the desert. Neither did I. This wasn’t right.
“Broomp!” one of the males barked out, its call echoing across the desert. It was less than a second before a female responded. “Broomf!”
All of the deaders that were hanging back took up the call, their yapping, coughing cries picking up urgency. It wasn’t long before we heard a cacophony of echoing calls from not too far away. Another batch took it up from the other direction, but equally close. The tone of the second group was different, but the multitude of calls was just as large. There was no doubt that the two packs from earlier in the day had zeroed in on us, and- while the distance could be tricky to judge- they might very well be as close as the abandoned grocery store that Frankie and I had taken shelter against. Those of us that were manning the walls looked off into the distance, almost like we were each imagining the swarm of deaders that we couldn’t yet see.
“Gosh dammit,” D’wayne said despondently, his Cajun twang filled with dread. “T’were fucked, ain’t we?”
Everyone drew closer to him in silence, and I used the moment to turn my back to the little group. Sure that I couldn’t be seen, I nonchalantly pulled up the sleeve of my flannel to look at my left wrist. Looking back at me accusingly was a half moon ring of teeth marks that had managed to find my skin between the meager space between the wrist of my glove and the hem of my sleeve. I hadn’t felt it when it happened, but I sure as shit felt it now. The skin was punctured in a few places, and thick green lines of froth mingled with the bright red lines of my blood.
“Nah,” I said to D’wayne, pulling my sleeve back down to hide the deader bite. “We’ve got this.”
The deaders hadn’t pressed forward after we’d stopped their initial assault. The minutes ticked by, but the remaining drones continued to hold back, standing in a loose ring around Branberry’s wall. They stayed well out of reach, and were slowly growing in number. They continued to bark and yelp, and the echoing calls of the other two packs called back as they drew closer.
There were things that needed to be done as quickly as possible, and we’d left D’wayne up on the wall with his panic whistle. He’d give a sharp tweet on it if things changed. Lewis climbed down his ladder from his perch, and we brought the sheep down from the pool so that we could have a little pow wow.
“Everyone gather up!” Lew called over the worried ruckus of multiple people talking. We gatheredaround one of the bleach tubs in Sister Tracy’s garage. There were several of them, and we’d filled each one to the brim with any brand of bleach we could find. The thirty-one gallon Tupperware containers were makeshift dipping stations, used to kill the bacteria and infection on our bloodied weapons. As long as we kept the totes covered and in the shade to avoid evaporation, we didn’t really have to worry about trying to replenish or change them out. It was bleach, after all; the place where germs went to die. I gave a brief thought to plunging my hand into the tub, but knew that it would be pointless. I’d seen it too many times, before; the damage was done, and there was no undoing it. Best to get over it and move on.
Larry was there with us, wringing his hands as he looked everyone over. The pharmacist was a great asset if someone twisted an ankle, or cut themselves making dinner, but there wasn’t really anything that he could do if someone came in contact with the virus. He was well aware of his impotence, and the stress of it added to his already jittery demeanor. If nothing else, though, it gave the nervous man something to do, and the people of Branberry felt better knowing that he was there.
“I’m fine,” I lied easily as Larry approached me. I felt like I’d been lying all of my life, but you know what they say: practice makes perfect. I was acutely conscious of the burning sting on my wrist as I gave Larry my best smile. I wonder how long it will take? The pharmacist took me at my word, and then moved on to check someone else as Lewis threaded his way towards me.
“How do we stand?” my best friend asked me. While he was almost self appointed, this was one of the characteristics that kept Lewis as the head of Branberry. From his vantage point he’d been able to see what had happened; how things had gone. Moreover, he’d probably been able to see things that we couldn’t. But he was still wise enough to look for input from those of us that had been on the front line.
“Ain’t lookin’ good,” Frankie drawled from my side as he took count of the remaining arrows in his quiver. My brother in law was calm and even. When shit got hairy, Frankie was always calm. Say whatever you will about the destruction of civilization, or zombies, or whatever...but those didn’t compare to some of the things that Frankie had seen during his tours to the middle east; things he flat out refused to talk about. The tighter a situation was, the calmer Frankie became, which was a good characteristic as far as I was concerned. My patience always wavered when dealing with people that couldn’t control their emotions. Lewis nodded, as if Frankie’s report had been something he hadn’t been aware of.
“Listen up,” Lew said, and the worried mutterings around us quieted down. “I know your all worried, but the situation is under control.”
Relieved mutterings filled the garage by those who didn’t know how bad things were. Lew held up a hand, and they quieted once more.
“Rocky Coast is gone, though,” he continued, referring to the street next to us. “The deaders snapped the hinges on their gate and got in. We’ve got four people that managed to get onto our side from over the wall, and they’re going to need our help. Would you mind taking a look at them, Larry?” he finished, switching his gaze to our bush doctor. Larry nodded uncertainly, his eyes scanning the room and failing to make contact with anyone else’s.
“I could use a hand, if you could spare one,” he said. “Just in case there’s more than I can handle on my own.”
While it could have been a reference to having assistance with the wounded, we all knew what he really meant: in case one of them was infected and had to be put down. The pharmacist had never been one to flinch at the sight of blood, but when it came to putting deaders down he could be a bit squeamish. If there was ever a need to mount our walls- such as this one- the pharmacist generally found something to do elsewhere. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think he’d even ventured beyond our walls once he’d taken up residency.
“Take Nancy,” Frankie said drily, putting a pinch of tobacco in his lip now that his hands were clean. “She’s not doing anything useful.”
“Francis!” Lacy said from where she stood near the others. My sister gave her husband a heated look of outrage, but Frankie just shrugged it off as Larry continued to wring his hands nervously.
“Nancy isn’t in the best position to assist, just yet,” Larry said, chagrined. “I got your orders Lew, and I followed them.” He seemed embarrassed. “She’s liable to be asleep for a few more hours.”
Lucky her, I thought, and then: Lucky me.
“I’ll go,” Sister Tracy said firmly, her no nonsense attitude as stiff as the crease in her pants. “The Lord’s hand is at work, and a shepherd is needed for his flock.”
“Thank you, Sister,” Lew said gratefully as the nun strode past him. I think I was the only one that realized the gratitude was false and forced, and I smirked on the inside. I had to give him credit; he was a crafty son of a bitch when he wanted to be. Most leaders and politicians are, I’d imagine. Sister Tracy stopped next to Lew’s girlfriend- Jamie? Jalinda?- and touched her lightly on the shoulder.
“I could use your aid,” the nun said sternly, but with an undertone of gentleness that wasn’t lost on me.
Pretty and petite, with blonde hair that reached halfway down her back,- Juanita? Jessica?- bobbed her head and followed. Lew pointedly refused to let his eyes follow them. I was probably the only one that knew him well enough to see the slight tightening of his lips, and I barely stopped from shaking my head. I swear, that woman was going to be the death of him. Lew cracked his neck from side to side, a habit he’d used since childhood when he was stressed.
“Lemme talk with you for a minute,” he said, gesturing off to the side with a flick of his chin. To everyone else he said “I want three more up on the walls. Everyone else grab your panic packs and lock yourselves in. If you hear the whistle get to your spots.”
Lewis had wandered a few feet down the driveway, and I walked over to meet him. I was more than aware of the hidden bite on my wrist. The other residents of Branberry were quickly dispersing, leaving Lew and me in relative solitude.
“How bad?” he asked in a low voice. I just gave a minute shake of my head, letting silence convey the answer. Lew sighed, rubbing a hand over the stubble on his face. He popped his head from side to side once more, but there were no cracks this time. “What do you think?”
I paused, pretending to think things over. He couldn’t be allowed to know that there was a part of me that was enjoying this immensely. I was going to be dead within the week, and had already made plans on how I wanted to go out.
“The Dozers,” I said. “I’d say take the Dozers out. See if we can clear enough of them out of the way that we can put down the rest. If we hustle and get it done quick, those packs might not be able to lock in on us. We stay quiet, and they might just move right by.”
Lewis looked more than a bit skeptical. The “Dozers” were a project that D’wayne and Frankie had put together in their (more than ample) spare time. They’d taken two pickup trucks from the street and welded an angled sheet of metal to the front bumper. In theory, the dozers could be driven through crowds of deaders, breaking into them with blunt force trauma as they sloughed off to the side. It doesn’t matter what TV said; no amount of deaders could slow 300hp in four wheel drive. The enigma was that we’d never tried them. Honestly, we’d never been in a situation where we had to. It had been nothing more than a project to keep idle hands busy; to fill the spare time and help people feel useful.
“You’re talking about opening the gate,” Lew said slowly, giving a disbelieving shake of his head. “We’ve got a couple hundred drones and a pack- no, two packs- coming in on us. Does that seem like sound logic to you? Did you lose half of your brain cells since the last time I saw you?”
“Key the trucks up,” I said calmly, letting his insults roll off of me. They didn’t bother me; he was having a rough day and I knew him well enough to see when he was just being pissy. “Put them right at the gate. The geeks are still hanging back from the walls. We’ll shoot both trucks through, one at a time, and then you close up behind us. We can get both of them out; that quick, that simple.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lew said, sarcasm and heat filling his voice. “That quick? That simple? Let’s say we do this; what happens when the Dozers need to get back in, genius? We have to open the gate again, and you’re out of your mind if you think they won’t be following you.”
“If it works,” I hissed back, “then there won’t be a reason to be afraid of opening the gate, genius.”
I stopped and took a breath to calm myself as best I could. Maintaining a calm fascade had always been a skill of mine, but it was harder than normal this time. My wrist itched.
“Look,” I said soothingly, trying to start over. “We can get out. Both trucks, pretty easy. We do what we can. If it works, great. If not, we get close to the wall, hop out, and get over. The only risk is leaving the Dozers out there for a few days until we can go and get them.”
Lew’s lips tightened stubbornly as he shook his head. He stayed this way for a moment, but then his facade cracked. He bowed his head, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes.
“I’m tired,” he said, and I knew he wasn’t talking about the day's’ events or lack of sleep.
“I know you are,” I replied, putting my arm around his waist. He was enough taller than me that his waist was the only place my arm could go. “You’ve done your part, and you’ve done it well. But this is my job, remember? You want my opinion? Well, that’s it; get the Dozers out.”
“Who’s gonna be the other driver?” Lew said, composing himself. “Frankie, I guess? God that sounds like a bad idea. He’ll be doing donuts the entire fucking time and shooting that damn crossbow out the window at some cactus.”
We both knew better, but this was Lew’s way of trying to blow off some steam.
“Not Frankie,” I said, all seriousness. “If for whatever reason shit does go wrong I want Frank here. You need him. This isn’t hand to hand; it’s not wet work. I don’t need a fighter, just someone that won’t get too squeamish steering a wheel.”
Lew sighed. “Who’d you have in mind?”
Our options were limited. Of everyone that served a purpose on Branberry, none could be spared to drive the other vehicle. I thought things over for a moment. “Who came over the wall?” I asked.
“Couldn’t tell,” he said. “I think I recognized two of them. Three females,” he said, recounting, “and one male.”
“Who’s the male?”
“I don’t know. I recognize his face, but I couldn’t tell you what his name is.”
I was forced to recall that Lewis never went outside the walls of Branberry anymore, not for any reason. That’s what he had me for, after all. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he wouldn’t be acquainted with anyone that lived beyond our border.
“Alright,” I said, turning to walk to the back wall that ran along the back yards of the houses on the south side of the street; the wall that was a barrier between Branberry and Rocky Coast. Presumably, this is where Larry, Sister Tracy, and- Jeanine? Jennifer?- would be catering to our newest members. “Let’s see if any of them want a piece of this.”
The gate squeaked open as we walked into the backyard of the house adjacent to mine. Lew walked next to me, checking the slide on his Beretta. I took in the scene quickly as he holstered the side arm. Lewis and I were late arrivals to this party, and between my people and our new residents there were close to a dozen people in various states of composure.
Larry and Sister Tracy were working together to tie a splint to a woman whose arm was very obviously broken. Lew’s lesbian girlfriend was rubbing the back of a bawling woman in a dingy white dress that had seen better days. It wasn’t the consoling type of rub; it was a “both hands on your shoulders while I caress the back of your neck” type of rub. I resisted the urge to snigger. And people said that all men ever think about is sex. The woman in white continued to sob.
The final female was just standing there with a blank stare. Her cheeks were smudged and dirty, and there was a thick swath of bright red arterial blood staining the front of her white shirt. A bundle of yellow flowers hung forgotten in her hand. The single male, I was surprised to see, was none other than Martin, whom I’d spoken with earlier in the day. More surprising to me was the expression on his face when his eyes alighted on me.
“Did you bring them here!” he roared in anger as he stormed towards me with his hands clenched at his sides. There was death in his eyes. It was a look I understood. Martin was bigger than me by a fair margin, but I gave myself better than even odds as I took an aggressive step to meet him. After all; I didn’t have anything to lose, right? My clock was already ticking. Lew stepped between us before we could meet each other, arms spread wide to create a space. Martin stopped advancing before I did.
“Stop it!” Lew shouted, shoving me back. “Both of you, stop it!”
Martin relented, but continued to glare augers at me as he began to pace back and forth on the other side of the Lew-fence. Despite my initial aggressive reaction, I couldn’t fathom why he was mad at me until I remembered his question: Did you bring them here?
“Yeah, Martin,” I said with as much condescending sarcasm as I could muster. There was plenty; it has always been a talent of mine. “I brought them here. I scooped’em all up, and just carried them down the street. It was adorable, you should have seen it. Little baby zombies clinging to my back, riding around my legs. We played tag, and hide and go seek, and then I invited them over for a barbeq-”
Lewis gave a sharp snap of his fingers, cutting me off, and giving me a heated look that demanded silence. Yeah, he and I would definitely be having words later. I stopped talking but gave Martin a final look that had more than an ounce of snide condescension in it. Fortunately, between my scathing retort and Lew’s intervention, the heated air in Martin had deflated.
The poor man slumped down, elbows on his knees as he clutched at his head, fingers curling tight into his shaggy brown hair. I allowed my own aggression to dissipate. Martin was one of mine, now, and he’d had a rough afternoon. The woman in white continued to wail, and I did my best to keep my irritation in check. Seriously; I’ve never understood why people cry. It serves absolutely no purpose.
“Here’s where we stand,” I began, but Lew cut me off.
“You’ve all suffered a tragedy, today,” Lewis said, his voice sad and soft; empathetic in a way that I could never force mine to be. “I’d love to tell you that it was all over. Really, I would. But we don’t have time for that, right now. We can grieve, but it has to be later. We’re all still in danger, and none of us can spare a moment for anything else until that’s been dealt with.”
Lew, slick bastard that he is, had a hypnotic tone of voice when he put his mind to it. He made eye contact with each of our new members by turn- oddly glancing over Janis? Jorrelle?- and making his words personal. Even the woman with blood spattered across her chest seemed to be paying attention from within the depths of her shock. Seeing that he had their attention, Lew gestured to me. “This is-,”
“We know who your Exterminator is,” Martin said, cutting Lew’s sermon off as he turned red rimmed eyes my way. The haggard man stood up and took a ragged breath. “Cletus,” he said, extending his hand to me. “Sorry about that; wasn’t nothing personal.”
“It’s understandable,” I said, clasping the extended hand and giving it a solid one-pump shake the way my father had taught me. Lewis gave me a look, glancing back and forth between Martin and myself. He didn’t need to say anything; the look itself was easy enough to read: how many people call you that? I just gave him an indifferent shrug. We had more important matters to deal with.
“Here’s where we stand,” I said, picking up from where I’d been interrupted, “and I’ll keep it short. The group that took your street down, they’re just the drones. There’s two more packs following up behind them, and they’re big ones.”
The woman in the dingy white dress broke out into a new gale of sobs, burying her face into her hands. Lew’s lesbian girlfriend continued to console her. I hadn’t even put forth my proposition yet, but I knew that this broken woman wasn’t even going to be a considerable option. One down, three to go. Well, two to go; I couldn’t see broken arm girl being in any shape to assist.
“We’ve got to get rid of as many drones as we can,” I continued. “If we can neutralize the drones before the packs come into range, then maybe they’ll just keep searching and pass us by. We’re gonna take two trucks out past the gates and run down as many as we can. I’m gonna drive one; either of you interested in driving the other?”
Martin scoffed out loud, and Lew gave me a look that told me I’d been too blunt in my proposition. I gave a look back that very clearly said “fuck off.”
“We’re not going out there,” Martin said, slicing his hand emphatically through the air. “I just watched my entire street die. Get your own people to do it.”
“You’re part of my people, now,” I said. “You have the same goal that we do: survive. I just figured that at least one of you would want some payback.”
“I’ll do it,” a soft voice said from the side. I looked over, and was surprised to see that the words had come from the woman with blood spattered across her. Even though she’d spoken, she seemed detached and vacant. Her pupils were dilated, and she seemed like she was in the “coming down” stages of shock.
“They killed my brother,” she said softly, sending the woman in white into another strenuous gale of that annoying crying. “He was supposed to get married today.”
“When was the last time you went over the wall?” I asked. She looked at me with vacant eyes, but there was anger, there. Anger was good. To my thinking, there are only three true emotions that people have: Happiness, fear, and anger. Any other emotion stems from those three. Anger is the most useful; happiness, the least. The strange young woman still seemed shell shocked, but there was anger in her eyes. I could see it.
“Does it matter? she said.
Nope, doesn’t matter at all. Despite what I’d told Lew, even if things went well this was damn near a suicide mission. That worked for me. Even if things went right, just the way I told him, we’d take the deaders out and stay silent and hidden from the two packs converging on us. I knew that I could find a way to die in the process so that none of my people would ever know that I’d been infected.
It was the samurai thing to do.
It might sound dumb, but I’d always loved movies with samurais. They’d inspired me to try and be more noble than I knew I was. But there were no more samurais. Hell, maybe I could even take it as a point of pride and consider myself the last. After all, dying to save others? That isn’t a bad way to go out.
“Can you drive?” I asked, looking her over. She was slightly shorter than I was, sturdily built, and had the olive skin tone I associated with surfer movies. I wasn’t asking if she was capable of driving; I was asking if she knew how. Her eyes had the age of someone that had seen far more than they should have, but I would have been shocked if she was a day over nineteen. Her eyes snapped up to mine, her dilated pupils constricting sharply. Yeah, I’d been right; there was plenty of anger there.
“Better than you,” she said. I nodded, and then turned to Lew.
“Tell D’wayne and Frankie to get the Dozers pulled up to the gate.”
Whether you’ve met one or not, I want you to imagine a Marine or Navy SEAL; any Marine or Navy SEAL. Now, in your imagination, ask them if their preferred vehicle of combat was a 2011 Dodge Dakota. It’s probably safe to assume that you’d imagine the Marine or Navy SEAL laughing in your face.
“Of course not!”they’d say, you imagine. “They’re not combat ready, not capable, not anywhere near what we would need!”
I think you would’ve imagined wrong, though. I think that they’d look you square in the eye and tell you that they’d take anything they could find to accomplish the mission; anything they thought would get the job done, and they’d mean it with every fiber of their being. That’s pretty much where Mackenzie- the new girl- and I stood right now: using what we had to get the job done. Our tools- the aforementioned 2011 Dakota, and a 2009 Silverado- were what we had to work with.
The trucks had been pulled up in line at the gate, parked bumper to bumper as close as they would go. The engines weren’t running. Hell, we hadn’t even started them, yet. We’d shifted both of them into neutral and pushed them where they needed to be. The noise of their engines were something that we didn’t want to risk, and we had to preserve as much of our homemade fuel as possible.
“This is horseshit,” Frankie grumped as he lugged up a few gallons of his moonshine to pour into the tanks. He carried the red spouted tubs easily enough, but the sway of the fluid inside still made his gait awkward. I kept my face carefully blank, refusing to roll my eyes. This wasn’t the first time that he’d made the argument, but I’d let him go at it until he’d run his course. “That little twat isn’t going to be able to hold up. Kick her to the curb. I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not,” I said with a sigh. We’d been over this already, several times. “I need you here, Frankie. Branberry needs you. We’ve all done well, but these people aren’t fighters. They need someone to lead them when it comes to this type of thing, and you’re the only one that I trust. Besides,” I paused for effect, “Lacy would have my ass if I took you out there. Yours, too. We both know that this isn’t going to be as clean and clear cut as I told Lewis. If shit goes ass up, if I don’t make it back,” -which I wouldn’t- “I need you here so that I know that my sister and the kids are safe.”
Frankie didn’t say anything, and that was answer enough. He wordlessly poured his brew into the gas tank of the Chevy.
“How long do you think that’ll last?” I asked, hoping that I’d gotten the point across.
“Hard to say,” he grunted after a pause. “It’s a good batch; figure about a hundred and ninety-six proof. But these are both V-8’s. I’ve only got enough for a gallon each.” My brother in law spat off to the side, cocking his FSU hat up his brow with a thumb. “I’d give’em about a quarter of an hour, considerin’ how you’re gonna have to run’em; maybe a little under.”
I kept my sigh to myself; that wasn’t a lot of time, but it would have to be enough.
“Why are you sweating?” he asked out of no where, squinted eyes on me. I swept a finger across my brow to find a slick band of luke warm perspiration. “Just nerves,” I lied, suddenly incredibly conscious of the bite hidden on my wrist.
“Bull shit,” Frankie said, eyeballing me in a speculative way. “You don’t have any nerves, Cleet.”
“Well, maybe I do now,” I snapped back, feeling my face flush with anger. “Maybe I’ve never driven some half-assed, jimmy rigged truck out into the middle of a bunch of deaders.”
Frankie didn’t rise to my bait the way that he should have. He didn’t seem angry at my heated tone. He was silent for a moment, and then let his innate hillbilly fall to the side for the moment as he watched me with a soldier’s wizened eye.
“You planning on coming back?” he asked, his southern twang disappearing. In all of those events in Afghanistan that he wouldn’t talk about, he’d seen suicide runs before, I’m sure. He knew me well, and maybe he’d caught a scent of what I was really anticipating.
“Probably not,” I sighed, my shoulders loosening. I probably could have fabricated some heroic story, but like I said; why lie?
Frankie regarded me for a moment, and then pulled the nozzle of the gastub from the the tank, letting the remaining liquid slosh around inside. He lifted the spout to his lips, and let his home brewed ‘shine run into his mouth. He coughed as he swallowed, and then held it out to me. I wasn’t one to pass it up. It was liable to be the last sip I ever had, after all. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t afraid of my impending death, but i’d rather not do it stone cold sober.
“Give’em hell,” Frankie said with finality, wrapping me in a very masculine “man hug,” the type that involved a handshake combined with a one armed hug and much back slapping. I clasped him back, and for once in my life I meant it. I’d always liked Frankie.
“Watch out for our people,” I said as I pushed away with my own sense of finality. “And take care of my sister.”
The engines of the two trucks flared to life, and Mackenzie and I peeled through the narrow space of the opened gate as quickly as we could without colliding with each other. Both of us fish tailed, a bit. I’d always loved driving, but it had been long enough since I’d done it that I was a bit rusty. You know what they say about riding a bike, though...or in this case, driving a pick-up.
The shovel head of the Dakota wasn’t three feet past the gate when I plowed into the first deader. The walking corpse slammed into the slanted sheet of metal, exploding onto my windshield like rotten fruit before sluicing off to the side and out of my view.
Holy shit, I thought, it really does work.
I heard a screech and squeal of tires behind me, and glanced into the rear view mirror to see Mackenzie zooming in on my bumper. I flicked my eyes back to the road and hit the gas pedal. A fender bender was the last thing we needed, right now. The V-8 engine of the Dakota roared to life.
In the relatively short amount of time that it had taken us to get the Dozers set up, the number of deaders had continued to increase, and I hadn’t expected the number that I found waiting for me. There were hundreds of them, and it was easy to tell that they weren’t all drones, anymore. There were forerunners of the pack, and here and there I caught the considering gaze of one that seemed more alert than normal. DIdn’t matter to me; I was going to take out as many as I could.
The Dakota was like a living thing beneath my ass and heels, romping and roaring, bouncing and squealing across the road. I couldn’t tell you how many zombies I ran through in those first few moments, but it wasn’t long before I had to turn on the windshield wipers to peel away the blood spray. Unfortunately, there was no fluid in the pumps, so rather than clean the windows the blades just left greasy smears. Still didn’t matter, though; I could see well enough for what I needed to do.
Mackenzie was behind me, but peeled off in the opposite direction. She was doing the same grisly work that I was, and from what I could see out of the rear view mirror, she was doing it well. I hooked a hard right on Mission street as she peeled left to head down Rocky Coast. My eyes were glued through the windshield, but I cast a few flickering glances up to the rear view to track Mackenzie’s progress until she disappeared from view.
Even aside from drones, deaders are mindless things, and it worked to my advantage. They didn’t realize that the Dakota barrelling through them would run them down; they just saw something moving and went after it. They crashed and rebounded off of the quarter panels, or ran directly into the the angled dozer head before canting off to the side in a mixture of loose slop. It reminded me of the 8-bit video games I used to play when I was a kid, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying myself immensely. I knew that my clock was ticking, but God damn, this was a helluva way to go out; this was samurai.
I’d spent five or six minutes running them down, whipping the ass end of the Dakota around to go back over the same path, before I realized something was wrong. I was on the desert side, north wall of Branberry, whipping and careening back and forth through the dirt and open paths. I couldn’t tell you the last time that I’d seen Mackenzie and the Chevy. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many deaders I’d run down, but it was only a fraction of the number that continued to dash directly into my path.
That’s when I noticed the problem. For every five deaders that I would run down, there was one that hung back. It’s not that these particular geeks were just laggards trailing at the end of the pack; no, these hung back with purpose. It was hard for me to miss as I watched desiccated heads and shrivelled eyes swivel to track my progress with each pass that I made. It wasn’t wholly uniform, but for the most part they stood in pairs, male and female, well away from wherever I was. It was the same type of behavior that Frankie and I had seen earlier in the day. It was the same as when the horde hadn’t swarmed our walls. It was the thing that I hadn’t told Lewis about.
It wasn’t normal.
There was an intelligence in their eyes, a bright gleam of attentiveness that I hadn’t seen until this morning. I wouldn’t call it life by any means, but there was definitely a level of alertness that wasn’t the norm. The ones that I was focusing on didn’t have the rogue action or mindless bloodlust that the drones were displaying. These were thinking, considering, and it was a bone chilling concept to behold. These were the ones that were very purposely moving out of the way of my truck.
The withdrawn part of my mind garnered that if there had been two or three of these things it wouldn’t have been cause for concern. Hell, Frankie and I had already taken down a couple this morning, and they’d caused no more consideration than an itinerant thought that their behavior was peculiar. But now there were a couple score of them, lingering back with knowing eyes, staying well beyond my reach.
The Dakota gave a lurch beneath my ass, and the engine in front of me took in an unhealthy gurgle. It revved up in pitch for just a moment, and then began to stutter. I felt the power beneath me seep away as the truck gradually started to slow down. The roaring, high pitched throttle of the engine disappeared completely, and the well worn steering wheel grew stiff in my hands as all the power faded away. The truck staggered to a slow, grinding halt in the sand, and I could already see several dozen deaders converging on me.
I’d never been one to call myself overly emotional, but this in particular was a cold moment of consideration for me. I looked over at the wall that encircled Branberry, roughly a hundred yards away. I reached down and turned the ignition key of the truck into the off position, more by reflex than necessity. I glanced down at the Sig 9mm on my hip. It was for emergencies only- and if this wasn’t one, I don’t know what was- but the thirteen bullets in the clip wouldn’t serve me much, right now. Moreover, the sound of the gunfire would just draw the rest of the packs closer like a moth to a bright light. I snapped the holster open with a click, and tossed my handgun over to the passenger seat. The others could find it later, after everything was done.
I wrapped my hand around the haft of the aluminum bat that was leaning against my knee, sparing a brief glance for the smiley face decal. It grinned at me, and I grinned back as I put my handle on the truck's door latch to step out. I’d just started to tug it up when I heard movement from behind me, from the small half-cab behind my seat. At the sudden sound I whirled around fast enough to give myself whiplash, and found myself staring into the bright green, adrenaline filled eyes of Avery, the oldest child left on Branberry.
“What’s that button do?” she asked, voice thready with excitement as she pointed to a random knob on the center console. My jaw dropped open, but no sound emerged.
It took a supreme effort, but I crushed down my immediate resentment and irritation for the little brown haired pre-teen.
No! This was my time! I was supposed to die here! I wanted to die here!
Rationality reasserted itself quickly, however; there wasn’t time for it to do anything else. While it may have been my plan to die with honor- without anyone on Branberry ever knowing that I’d been bitten- that plan had changed the moment I’d realized the little girl had hidden behind my seat. I swallowed down on my bitterness. If anything, I should have been ashamed of myself for not realizing that she’d been there, earlier. My eagerness- my need- had clouded my senses. That, and the high backed front seat that she’d hidden behind.
No time for regret, though. The deaders had reached my trusty Dakota, and were beating themselves bodily against the windows and hood. I estimated that it would take less than a minute before they got frustrated and started bashing themselves against the glass hard enough to break it. That meant that I had less than less than a minute to get my little stowaway ready for something that she wasn’t prepared for, no matter how much the harsh world had toughened her. There was no question in my mind; she was one of mine, and I was going to get her over the wall and back home.
I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her bodily into the passenger seat. I’ll admit that I may have gripped her harder than I meant to, but there was no time for remorse as I pulled her slender form over my shoulder. She plopped into the seat beside me, limbs akimbo, but her indignant squawk was cut off as I ripped my Sig from under her ass, causing her to cant further to the side.
“Shut up!” I barked, and then continued speaking before I’d even realized that she’d listened. Her lips were pressed tightly together with fickle, pre-pubescent angst. “You stay next to me!” I shouted, checking the slide of the Sig to make sure a round was already chambered. “I don’t care what you think, what you see, you stay next to me unless I tell you otherwise. You don’t run until I tell you to, and when I do, you get to that God damn wall!”
I flicked the safety off, and then fired two quick rounds through the glass into the skulls of the deaders pressed against the driver side door. All sound was drowned out beneath the eardrum shattering concussions in the enclosed space as the bullets ripped two coruscating holes in the window. Avery might have screamed, but if so, I didn’t notice. The bodies toppled to the side, and I opened the door, slithering through the gap and sliding out. I grasped Avery by the scruff of her neck and dragged her with me. My ears were ringing like a dog whistle had been blown into them, but I frantically took in my surroundings as Avery plopped down into the hardened desert sand next to me.
“Move!” I shouted urgently, cracking a deader across the dome with my Happy bat. The strike didn’t have my normal conviction since I was wielding it with a single hand, but it got the job done. Avery flinched at the sound, her face going pale. It didn’t seem as fun to her now that she was in the midst of it. I could empathize; I would have been having the time of my life if she hadn’t been here to distract me with my sense of duty.
We still had a few feet of space as we maneuvered around the blood spattered truck, and while Avery didn’t close her eyes when I had to use my Happy Bat again, she did flinch and cover her ears with her hands when I was forced to fire another round off on a deader that had gotten too close. The rational part of my mind was keeping count: Ten rounds- ten emergency rounds- left for me to get her back over the wall.
“Move, move, move!” I hissed at her, my eyes locked on the dozen or so deaders that were an immediate threat.
The next few seconds were an odd blur of euphoria and panic, and I don’t remember them clearly. In those long, drawn out seconds that lasted less than a minute, I squeezed the trigger of the Sig three more times. I went back to work with the bat in between shots, focused on putting down anything that came near us. Another two pulls of the trigger, and then the aluminum tube was glinting in the fading light once more.
A scream from my rear made me whirl in distracted alarm, at a time when I couldn’t afford to be distracted. Avery had followed my hurried instructions to stay by my side, but now, half the distance to the wall ( and what must have seemed like leagues of blood filled atrocity and horror to her) she’d broken. Her scream wasn’t one of torture, or agony as she was ripped into and eaten. No, it was a little girl’s scream. It was the scream of a child that had bitten off more than she could chew, and had finally admitted to herself that she was terrified. It was the scream of the little girl that had broken away from my side to go dashing back to the dead Dakota sitting in the midst of the desert.
God Dammit, I thought with a cold heat, getting ready to dash after her. I’d barely taken my first step when I heard the harsh crack of gunfire. A high pitched whine shrilled past my ear, taking the head off of a deader that I hadn’t even seen. I cast a fast, neck breaking glance over my shoulder, and saw the half moon flash of light off of the scope of Frankie’s rifle. He waved his arm at me, telling me to make my way to the wall, to get over.
My ears were still ringing, but I heard a telling thump from the other direction. I looked away from the safety of the walls, and saw that Avery had made her way back to the Dakota, and had managed to lock herself back inside the cab. Dozens of deader eyes had turned towards the truck at the sound of the door slamming closed. I was forced to evaluate my options as quickly and efficiently as I could, and a few facts stepped forward.
Even with Frankie playing hawkeye, there was no way that I was going to be able to get back to the truck, get the girl out, and get her over the wall. Even if I could manage it, if I could fight my way back to the truck with my hillbilly angel on my shoulder, the sun of the day was almost gone, which meant Frankie wouldn’t have a clear line of sight; he’d be useless to us.
There were enough deaders around me that I had no way of winning; no way of being samurai, either. I’d die if I tried to fight my way through, and that meant that Avery would die shortly thereafter. I could see her in the passenger seat of the useless Dakota, the top half of her face pressed against the window as she watched what was happening. I could see her cheeks bobbing as she sobbed, and then when she began to sob harder as she saw the drones turning their attention on her location.
I had only one option if I wanted to save her.
“Hey!” I yelled out as loud as I could, my voice breaking high. “Right here!”
I knew that they couldn’t understand my words, but scores of eyes turned my way. Not many moved, though; they wanted the morsel in the Dakota. They needed an incentive, so I pulled the Sig in my right hand, popped a couple rounds into the heads of some of the closer ones, and continued to yell at the top of my lungs, waving my arms as I continued to work my way towards the wall. Aside from the ones that were hanging back- watching everything with vapid, milky eyes- most of the deaders had turned my way. Most, but not all. There were at least a dozen of them still slamming themselves against the truck. My voice doesn’t carry that far, apparently. I only had one- or three, depending on how you looked at it- way of getting their attention.
Bat held in my right hand, I held the Sig towards the sky and fired off my remaining three rounds in short intervals.
I realized it was a stupid decision the moment my chamber clicked empty- those bullets could have gone into other deaders, after all, instead of sailing uselessly into the sky- but it worked. Every deader eye I could spy was focused on me with a lifeless, hungry intensity. The truck had been forgotten, much like when a toddler casts a favorite toy to the side in lieu of something shiny. The animated corpses were moving slowly for the moment, but I knew they’d be moving much faster in a second or so. Now, all I had to do was get back over the wall and hope they followed me.
Kind of ironic, if you think about it; I’d been willing to die out here by myself to help protect my people, but now I had to save my own life while I left one of my own behind. I knew what I needed to do in order to save Avery, and if I wasn’t inside the walls to make it happen she would die. I had to leave her in order to save her life, and while it was a bitter pill to swallow it was the only acceptable option that had a chance of success. It was time for me to move, but I pointed a finger to where Avery was still cowering in the Dakota.
“Stay there!” I shouted as loudly as I could, loud enough that it felt like the lining of my throat ripped. I don’t know if she heard me or not, but she didn’t move. Without another glance I turned and started back towards the wall, wrapping both of my hands around the shaft of the Happy Bat.
Drones were converging all around me, spread out in every direction. There were far too many for me to even consider using my circling trick. If I was going to succeed, it was going to have to be down, and dirty; straight forward.
I smiled eagerly as I darted forward. This was going to be a challenge.
Neither my bat nor my feet ever stopped moving. I struck at knees, ankles, and hips, only going for the head if it was a clean kill shot. I didn’t have time to finish any of them off; there were simply too many. Frankie’s rifle barked a few more times, taking out those that had gotten a little too close to my back. I’d thought to wave him off; tell him to stop guarding me. I didn’t want the deaders to orient on the sound and resume their assault on Branberry. But then I realized that- if I did manage to reach the wall- they were all following me, anyway.
Huh. Maybe TV was right on that one. Fuck it, then; let him keep shooting. He deserved to have a good time, too, right?
I hacked at the ankles of the two deaders in front of me, and their ankles shattered with the gratifying cracks of a tree branch being snapped in half. Both toppled to the ground, but didn’t stop barking and coughing as they attempted to claw their way towards me. The space that they’d occupied gave me a clear view, and I saw that I was only thirty feet from the wall with a narrow, but clear path. I darted forward, sprinting as fast as I could.
“Hurry the fuck up!” I heard Frankie yell from his position.
I couldn’t respond. Not because I was too out of breath; no, I couldn’t reply because my eyes had focused on the wriggling mound of fallen deaders stacked in front of me at the base of the wall. The limp bodies sloughed to the side as a lone deader stood tall, hacking black spittle as it gave a loud “Broomp!” It took less than an eyeblink for me to realize that this was one of the more alert ones, and the back part of my mind noted that it had been intelligent enough to work its way towards the wall and hide itself within the mound of dead bodies.
Bald and brown, putrid and stinking with decay, the male was taller than me by close to a foot. It hissed at me, and part of me was horrified to realize that- in my current position, with my current momentum- I didn’t have time to get my bat up in defense or change my trajectory. Once again, I found myself with only one option. I let my Happy bat fall to the desert floor as the deader swiped a claw at me. The hand sailed harmlessly over where my head had been as I ducked down and barreled forward.
My shoulder slammed into the male’s hips as I wrapped my hands behind its knees, pulling forward. Dessicated or not, the man had been huge in life, and was still big as a deader. The towering corpse had about seventy pounds on me, and even with the adrenaline coursing through me I shouldn’t have been able to budge him from the ground.
I did, though, hoisting him up easily and tossing him over my shoulder like a bump-man in a professional wrestling circuit. The giant tumbled awkwardly through the air before landing on his head. The dry desert ground was unforgiving, and I heard a satisfying crack as his neck broke and the body flopped to the side. I stumbled to the side from the effort, and looked up to see Frankie leaning out over the wall and holding a hand out to me.
“C’mon, Cleet!” He yelled, stretching his fingers down. “Move!”
“Can’t,” I panted breathlessly as I regained my balance. I couldn’t risk letting Frankie touch me. My brother in law’s hand was bare. He’d removed his glove from his trigger hand,and my jeans and flannel shirt were covered with the excrement of the deaders that I’d put down on my suicidal dash towards the wall. Even if I would have allowed the contact, I was tired from the rough exertion. There was no way I could get high enough to pull myself over the wall.
It wasn’t hopeless, though. I cast my eyes towards the base of the wall, where the deaders that had attacked us early had fallen in a mound. The pile was close to three feet high, and would work well as a stepping block. I dashed over, clambering up the mound of corpses that had finally decided to die. My stolen, expensive shoes slipped and squelched beneath my heels as rotted flesh peeled away beneath their tread, but I managed to get to the highest point, putting the lip of the wall a mere foot beneath my chin. I jumped, slung an elbow over the top, and ran my feet against the wall until I could throw a leg over the edge and hoist myself over.
Unfortunately, my endurance was shot and I couldn’t maintain my balance. I fell over the other side.
The eight foot fall was short, but somehow incredibly long. Fortunately, I landed flat on my ass rather than my head or back, and was only punished with a sharp burst of pain that erupted its way up my spine like a firework. My breath exploded out of my lungs from the sudden agony.As I lay gasping, trying to force the air back into my lungs, I heard a crunch of gravel near me as Frankie’s boots hit the ground.
“Stay still,” he said urgently as he ran over to me. “Don’t move.”
“I’m fine,” I replied through gritted teeth as I started to stand up. I was rewarded with a dazzling burst of pain at the top of my butt, and a distant voice in the back of my head calmly informed me that the fall had broken my tailbone. It hurt- a lot- but was somehow...manageable.
Besides, who listens to little voices in their head? People like that are just crazy. Seriously. I gained my feet and took a few cautionary steps. I had to limp, but it was doable. I could manage.
“You need to sit the fuck down!” Frankie barked. “Now, Cleet!”
I didn’t like the tone of his voice, and sudden anger began to build in me. Nobody tells me what to do. Not Lewis; not Frankie. I looked at him, and for a brief moment considered ripping his throat out. It was a funny realization. Outside of wanting to strangle him on occasion- in a friendly way- I’d never had any inclination to hurt my brother in law. I liked the guy. I was mystified by my sudden animosity towards him. Something in my facial expression must have changed, or he’d seen my thoughts in my eyes, but Frankie drew back, his chin twitching to the side as he watched me with sudden apprehension. Fortunately, neither one of us was forced to respond as Lew ran over, D’wayne and Martin trailing behind him.
“Avery’s in the truck,” I announced before any of them could say anything. Frankie continued to eye me in a speculative way. I ignored him, choosing instead to rip off my filthy and infectious flannel shirt. Buttons popped off as I tore the breast open, but it didn’t matter; the shirt was ruined anyway. I started walking towards my house at the end of the street, doing my best to ignore my limp and walk normally. I knew what I needed to do, and the first step of my plan started at home.
“We know,” Lew said, drawing up on my right side. Calm as he normally is, I could see the flush in his cheeks, a sure sign that he was close to panicking. “We were watching. What do we do? We can’t leave her there, can we?”
A dark suspicion bloomed in my chest, baring its invisible fangs at my best friend. Something about the way that he’d asked the question- We can’t leave her there, can we?- had the tones of polite society while asking permission to do just that. I shook the macabre thought off. Now wasn’t the time to allow myself to grow paranoid over a slight inflection of voice. Paranoia, much like voices in your head, is for crazy people.
“We’re not going to,” I said, forcing myself to accept that I had to limp at least a little bit as I walked up my curving driveway. “But we need to move, fast, if we want a chance of getting her back. Where are the others?”
“Everyone’s holed up,” Frankie said from where he walked on my left side, his aggressive looking assault rifle still clutched in his hands, barrel pointed towards the sidewalk. “We got the whistles out,”- I noted the silver noisemaker swinging from the lanyard around his neck- “and the sheep know to get to the pool if we give the call.”
“Mackenzie?” I asked. I’d like to say that I was truly concerned about her, but truth be told I almost didn’t care. Yes, she was one of mine, now, but she’d willingly chosen to go on the same suicide run that I had. It was nothing more than a fluke that I’d come back; maybe she’d had the same chance luck. If nothing else, it was polite to ask.
“Came over the wall about five minutes ago,” Martin voiced, speaking up for the first time. “She went down Rocky Coast, ran down a bunch of those fuckers, and then pulled up next to the wall.” Martin gave me a withering look that still had a fair amount of heat to it. “She wasn’t stupid enough to wait for the truck to run out of gas. She’s with your nun.”
“Speaking of gas,” I said, ignoring my mourning neighbors comments as I turned to D’wayne, “do we have any left? The old stuff?”
I was referring to the stores of fuel that we’d pilfered from abandoned vehicles in the early days, back before we learned that rancid gasoline would clog and rot our engines. It took D’wayne a moment to catch on.
“Reckon we do,” he said slowly, voice twanging in that N’Alin’s style. “Twenty, m’be t’irty gallons, or so.”
“Good,” I said, stopping before the front door of my house. “Get some buckets, pitchers, whatever, and start pouring it over the walls onto the deaders we put down. Then we light’em up.”
Lewis stopped flat in his tracks, gazing at me with an expression that was just short of slack-jawed.
“Are you shitting me?” he damn near shrieked, if a shriek could be constrained to a near whisper. “You want to light a fire against the walls?” My best friend shook his head in exasperation, like I’d reached some new level of idiocy that he simply couldn’t fathom. “Don’t you think,” he continued, voice dripping sarcastic scorn, “that that might compromise the structural integrity, just a bit?”
I let his acidic tone roll over me. Yep, he was definitely panicking, now, although he was hiding it well.
“It’s concrete, Lew,” I deadpanned, “reinforced with rebar. Last time I checked, cinder blocks don’t burn, and- quite frankly- the walls are already compromised. They’ve almost gotten over once already, climbing on the ones that we put down earlier. Shit, man, you saw how I got back in. How long do you think it’ll be before the piles are big enough for them to walk right over the walls? It’s not a perfect solution, but I’m buying us some fucking time!”
I realized I was yelling- something I wasn’t prone to- and bit down on my tongue to stop the tirade. Lew’s lips tightened like he’d bitten into something sour, but he didn’t have an immediate response. I took a calming breath.
“Get the gas. Pour it out. Drop a match,” I said in a much more level tone, but I couldn’t stop my eyes from drilling into his. I realized that I was being much more confrontational than I normally would be, but given the circumstances I deemed it acceptable. “We light the bodies, and those other sonsabitches will come towards the light- praise Jesus- and burn up right beside them.”
The silence hung heavy for a moment, interrupted only by the calls from the deaders beyond our territory. If anything, Lew’s face grew harder and more bleak.
“Do it,” he said after a moment that stretched forever, his lips twisted with distaste. It seemed like the words were being torn from him, but he nodded to Martin and D’wayne, who started to move off with haste.
Yeah, you’re gonna do it, I thought to myself. Why the hell were you waiting for him to give you permission? I already told you that this was what we were going to do.
Lew waited a moment, his eyes on their departing backs, before turning once more to me. He took a step closer, and when he spoke his voice was pitched low.
“Is this really worth it?” he asked once D’wayne and Martin were far enough away that they couldn’t possibly hear. He might as well have been yelling as far as I was concerned. The dark phantom of suspicion reared its head once more, but this time I knew it wasn’t paranoia. I felt my molars grinding together. I knew what he was asking, but I wanted to force him say it out loud.
“Is what worth it?” I asked in a light, innocent tone as I continued to glare augers at him. He knew me as well as I knew him, and I had no doubt that he recognized the expression on my face. He knew that look, and I could see him wilt a little bit with guilt. He knew exactly what I was forcing him to, and it didn’t sit easy with him. He shuffled his feet, looking uncomfortable. It was a moment before he spoke, a moment more than we could afford.
“It’s only one,” he said under his breath, like the damning shame he felt compelled him not to use his big boy voice. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “You want to risk all of us, just for one?”
A fountain of rage exploded through me, hot enough to burn stone. By some miracle I managed to hold it in, although I felt my face go slack as I limped towards him until we were almost chest to chest. I spoke into his ear, my mouth uncomfortably close to his chin.
“I’ll open the gates myself, and let those things in here to kill every one of us,” I hissed softly, “before I leave her out there. She’s one of mine. Don’t test me on this, brother.”
In his defense, Lew at least had the decency to look abashed as he wordlessly turned to walk away. “C’mon, Frankie,” he said over his shoulder to where my brother in law stood silently on the curb. My sister’s husband had stayed so quiet that I’d forgotten he was there. “We need to get to work.”
“Nah, I’ll catch up in a sec,” Frankie said, disregarding Lew’s command with utter indifference. “Gimme a moment; I just wanna check on Cleet, real quick. Hard fall, and all.”
Lew didn’t argue or cajole the insubordination, a sure sign that he felt a modicum of guilt, like a bad dog caught digging through the garbage. He just gave a shameful nod and then walked off.
“I don’t have time,” I said urgently, turning to put my hand on the doorknob. “I need to talk with Larry.”
“Oh, I think you got time for this, Cleet,” Frankie said, and the flat tone of his voice caught my attention. I turned around, feeling wary. I couldn’t tell you the last time that I’d felt wary- truly wary- about anything. Frankie, my happy, jovial, hillbilly brother in law was staring at me with blank eyes, a plug of his chewing tobacco bulging from his lower lip. My eyes alighted on the protrusion from his jaw, and for just a moment a stupid conversation we’d had a few months back flashed through my mind.
Seriously, Frank, that shit is disgusting.
Stop being such a pussy. This is man shit, right here.
Man shit? You’re out of your mind. You spit that garbage everywhere.
What do you expect me to do? he said with a laugh. Swallow it?
You strike me as a swallower, I chuckled back. Don’t be a slave to your addiction.
I had expected a cutting rejoinder, but when I glanced over Frankie hadn’t looked amused. In fact, he’d looked grim. He’d looked at me for a moment, his face unreadable, and when he spoke his good ol’ boy accent had fallen away.
I do it to remind myself that I’m a man, and that sometimes men have to do hard things; things that they don’t want to do, but need to be done. I do it to remind myself that I’m tough enough to do those things, whether I want to do them, or not. Besides, he’d said with a wide grin that hadn’t reached his eyes as he drawl returned in full force, you ever known a tough country boy that didn’t like a chew now and then?
The memory flashed through my mind just before Frankie said “I notice you got a little hickey on your wrist, there.”
The casual way he said it may have sounded conversational to anyone else, but I knew him, and didn’t miss the way that he was clutching his assault rifle. His words didn’t sink in at first, but then realization slowly dawned.
I’d taken my flannel off. Frankie had been walking on my left as I limped towards my house. The deader bite was on my left forearm.
God damn it; I didn’t even think about that. How stupid can I be? So much for not letting anyone know about it.
“You noticed that, huh?” I asked in the same conversational tone, pretending that a patch of weeds in my front yard had caught my attention. “What were you thinking about it?”
It was utterly absurd. With everything else that was going on less than a dozen yards away in every direction, Frankie and I were having a calm, passive- aggressive conversation regarding the fact that I’d been infected and we both knew it. I looked at him, awaiting his response.
Waiting for a bullet in my head.
“Don’t quite know what to think, just yet,” he said, spitting off to the side. His hands never strayed from the placement on his rifle, though.
“I’m fine,” I said curtly, urgent to be on to the next step in my plan to recover Avery, and hoping to draw the conversation to a close.
“Nah, Cleet,” Frankie drawled, “I don’t think you are. See, I was there when you tumbled over that wall. I watched you hit the ground, and I heard something in you break. I don’t know what it was, but to my way of thinking, you shouldn’t even be able to walk right now. But hell; here you are. So what do you reckon I’m supposed to think about that?”
Despite the civility we were showing each other, it was a terse moment with a lot hanging on the outcome. I took a moment to think, choosing my next words very, very carefully.
“I think,” I began slowly, “that we have more important things to worry about, right now. I think that I told you I’m fine. I think that this is something we can talk about tomorrow.”
“Uh-huh,” Frankie said, unconvinced. “Assumin’ there is a tomorrow.”
“There will be,” I said, grim with certainty. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“Because this is the only thing I’ve ever been good at, and I know what I’m doing.”
I watched something break in Frankie in that moment, some stalwart wall that he always held firmly in place. It was just a twitch that most people probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but to me it revealed his indecision and anguish.
“How the hell am I supposed to handle this, huh?” he asked, his voice venting the emotions that his face wouldn’t show. “What if you turn? You’re going to. We both know it.”
“I won’t,” I replied, knowing it in my aching bones and body.
“Yeah? And how’s that, exactly? There’s only one way this story ends, Cleet.”
He was right, and we both knew it, but I didn’t have time to concern myself with it.
“Because I won’t let myself,” I said with resolve. “I’ll fight it every inch of the way.” I took a slow, deep breath. I hated myself for what I was going to say next, but it had to be done. “Look, I asked you today, I trusted you, to take care of Lacy. I put that faith in you. I’m asking you to trust me, now. I know what I’m doing.”
“And what is that, exactly?” Frankie asked. “We’ve been jaw-jackin’ for a few minutes now, but you still haven’t said what it is.”
“I’m going to get Avery home. Once that’s done and we’ve made it through the night, we can bring this little matter back up. Can you give me that much, at least? At least until she’s back?”
Frankie thought it over with a stone face. It was a tense few seconds; seconds that we couldn’t afford to spare. Frankie would never admit it, but he loved those kids just as much as my sister did. I’d never say it out loud, but maybe I did, too.
“Yeah,” he said after a moment, his hand loosening from around his rifle. “What are you gonna be doin’ while we pour gas on a bunch of corpses?”
“I’ll be getting a distraction,” I replied. A band aid had been placed on the issue for the moment. It wasn’t permanent, but it would hold for now. I gave him a nod and turned to walk into the house.
“A distraction?” he called. “The fire ain’t enough?”
Nope. Not for what I have in mind.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said instead as I opened the front door and stepped inside the peaceful dimness of my entryway. “Just get that fire lit. I’ll take care of the rest.”
I closed the door before Frankie could answer, reveling in the comforting silence and shadows. I knew what had to come next. I didn’t want to do it, but I’d never been one to shy away from my duty. Pondering what I was about to do, I missed my Happy Bat terribly.
Good thing I had another one.
Pills clickety-clacked against each other inside clear orange prescription bottles as I shuffled through the shelves that held the assortment of antibiotics, antidepressants, and anti inflammatories that Branberry called its pharmacy. None of it was what I was searching for, though, and I huffed in irritation. It was too dark to see clearly, so I put down the dead weight of the black plastic trash bag in my hand and picked up the battery operated lantern that sat next to my bed. A quick click of the press top button and, voila, let there be light. Finding what I was searching for was significantly easier at that point. I grabbed it from the top shelf and tucked it into my pocket.
“You don’t want that, boss,” a nervous voice said from my rear.
I looked over my shoulder to see Larry standing in the doorway. The one time pharmacist looked haggard, and the even light of the lantern cast shadows that gave great details to the worry bags that circled under his eyes. The last year or so- however long it had been- hadn’t been kind to him. This past day even less so, and it showed.
He’d been a bit skittish when we’d first met him, and had grown more so every day since. By my math, that added up to a lot of skittishness. He never drank, never smoked from the small cache of stale cigarettes we had from a previous tenant, and as far as I knew never delved into the shelves of various medicinal products we had stored in my room. Maybe he should start, I’d thought to myself on more than one occasion. Might calm him down, some.
The only time that Larry had ever seemed calm and in complete control of himself was when he was treating someone. Didn’t matter whether it was a scraped elbow or a broken bone; he was as cool as the underside of a pillow. He’d done well by us, and- quirky or not- I’d never reconsidered or questioned Lew’s offer for him to come with us on the day we’d met him. Now he stood facing me with an expression of utter seriousness.
“What type of syringe should I use?” I asked. From the corner of my eye I could see an orange glow gaining intensity from the window. The boys of Branberry- eager or not- had gotten the bodies lit. If it hadn’t been so before, time was now of the essence. If anything, it had now become even more of a commodity. Seconds were ticking by while Avery sat in that dead Dakota. “Twenty gauge?” I asked, referring to the bore size of the needle. “Twenty-two?”
“You don’t want it,” Larry repeated firmly, showing a resolute demeanor I’d never seen him display before. A little part of me bristled, but mostly I admired him for it.
“Relax,” I said, trying to make my voice sound soothing, the way that Lew would. “It’s not for me. I just want to try something out, and I want to make sure I’m doing it right.”
Larry seemed uncertain, like he could hear the lie in my words, but he’d trusted in Lew and me implicitly ever since he’d made the decision to make his home with us. We’d kept our word to him, and he’d valued that. He may have never come out and said it, but his staunch support of our actions and decisions had said more than words ever could. He walked over to a wicker laundry basket that housed a random assortment of medical supplies. After rummaging around for a moment, he emerged and handed me a single-use syringe wrapped in airtight plastic.
“Thank you, Larry,” I said as I took the syringe from him and tucked it into the back pocket of the almost clean jeans I’d rapidly changed into. I picked up the black garbage bag and turned to leave, my spare bat in my opposite hand. “For everything.”
I’d made it a half dozen steps before he spoke up.
“Are you going numb, yet?” he asked after I’d limped past him. I stopped in my tracks.
“What do you mean?” I asked. I was trying to pretend confused ignorance, but the pharmacist didn’t falter.
“You’ve been diaphoretic- sweating- ever since you got back. You’re pale; drawn. Stronger, too, I noticed. I saw when you ran back over the wall; the way you picked that deader up like it was nothing. In my experience, physical numbness is the next thing that starts to set in once you’ve been infected.”
I paused, and in that moment I thought about killing him. Thought about it very hard. Frankie knowing my secret was bad enough, but Larry knowing? The odds of me quietly disposing of myself were becoming more slim. But there was no denying the way that the broken ends of my tailbone were grinding together with every step I took, and how it didn’t hurt as much as it should. Moreover, Larry was one of mine, and I had no doubt that Branberry would need him in the next few days.
“How long do I have?” I asked bluntly. Why lie seemed to be my mantra for the day.
“Hard to say,” Larry said, looking uncomfortable. “Could be two days; could be a week.”
“Well, that’s plenty of time, isn’t it?” I asked, forcing a smile onto my face. “I’ve got something I need to take care of, so let’s keep this between us for just a bit.”
Bat in one hand, and garbage bag in the other, I turned and walked out of my home without another word.
The front door glided open with barely a sound as I stepped into the house.
Time was more precious than water at this point, but I’d taken a moment or two before entering to look around the perimeter of Branberry. The flames were rising high outside of our walls, and thick, stinking, plumes of smoke were rising into the black night sky. As I’d predicted, the hundreds of drones that surrounded us- drawn by the light- had started to walk straight into the flames, further fueling them. I hoped with all my heart that Avery had managed to hold out this long, otherwise this dark path I was about to undertake was a waste of time.
I held the door knob curled in my hand so that the latch wouldn’t make a sound as I closed it behind me. I’d never been inside this house before, and for a shuddering moment as I raised my lantern high, I was glad for it.
Sculptured, blown glass unicorns sat everywhere. Each wall held at least one crucifix or a picture of Jesus. The bench that ran along the windowsill held an assorted collection of snowglobes. The windows held ruffled curtains, and the couches were covered in fitted, thick, clear plastic sheeting to preserve their cleanliness. Precious Moments statuettes covered everything else. It smelled like old people. It smelled like sickness. It smelled like the urgency of craving addiction.
It smelled like Nancy.
The living room- which could easily have been the set for a rerun of The Golden Girls - was empty. The floorplan of the house was the same as mine, and if she’d been in the kitchen I would have seen her. Since it was dark and empty, I helped myself to her silverware drawer, choosing a single utensil.
I’d committed myself to my plan, but that didn’t stop me from being overly furtive as I crept down the hallway to the master bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open. In the even light of the halogen lantern, I could see that the walls of the room were covered in ornate picture frames. Pictures of her dead husband; pictures of her dead dogs in a myriad of fun and adorable poses; pictures of her husband with the dogs; pictures of the dogs in Halloween costumes, in Christmas costumes…
You get the point.
Nancy herself was lying beneath a rumpled, frilly afghan, wearing a worn nightgown. While she’d never been particularly sturdy in terms of stature, she looked undeniably frail, now. The house was relatively cool, but the glow of the lantern glinted off the light sheen of sweat on her brow. I was surprised to see that her half lidded eyes were open- that she was watching me- but they had the glazed look of someone still under the heavy influence of her “medication.”
“What are you doing in my house?” she rasped. Her voice was weak; her words slurred. Her tone carried none of the frantic urgency and strength that she’d had earlier in the day.
“It’s been a rough day,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice soothing and level despite the urgency. “I know it’s been hard on you, especially with Chartreuse- and I’m really sorry about that, but I had to- so I brought you some of your medication to help.” Pause. “I thought you might like it.”
While they didn’t lose their glaze, her eyes seemed to light up at the notion. She looked at me eagerly as I pulled the wrapped syringe from my back pocket, as well as the spoon that I’d pilfered from her kitchen. A lighter came next, and then finally the small baggie of heroin that Frankie and I had found earlier that day.
I’d been counting on Nancy not being cognizant enough to recognize what the devilish powder was, and she didn’t let me down. Her eyes did seem to focus on the word “Jesus” that Frankie had scrawled there in black Sharpie, but then she smiled up at me, her dilated eyes wavering back and forth a little bit at just about where I was. It was beautiful, in it’s own sort of way. It didn’t make her look younger; as a matter of fact, it highlighted her pallid hue, and the way her skin looked like old parchment.
But it did make her look happy; content, even. She wanted this. I was doing her a favor, and she was grateful for it.
“That’s kind of you,” she said softly as I took a seat on the edge of her bed. “You know how much I need my medicine. My knees hurt so much…” her voice trailed off, and I realized that she was starting to fall back into slumber. I couldn’t allow her to do that, yet. My conscience wouldn’t let me.
“Give me a second, Nance,” I said sharply in a hushed tone. The snap in my voice drew her back, and she looked at me vacantly, like she’d already forgotten I was there. “Your medicine?” I prompted, looking at her as earnestly as I could. It took a precious second, but her memory returned and she smile once more, wriggling her way up in the bed eagerly until she was in a sitting position.
While I’d never gone through the process before, I’d seen enough cop shows and Netflix dramas to have a fairly good idea of how it was done. I tapped out a generous amount of the white powder into the bevel of the spoon. I didn’t know how much to give her, what the right amount was, and then figured that it didn’t really matter. I tapped the baggie a few more times. I flicked the striker of the lighter, and held the flame beneath the spoon. I was slightly disturbed to see that my hand had a slight shake to it. No matter the circumstances, my hands never shake.
The heroine began to bubble and then caramelize, turning from a white powder into a brown fluid that ringed the spoon. I traded the lighter for the syringe, tearing the wrapping open with my teeth, and put the tapered bore into the belly of the spoon. I drew back on the plunger until the clear plastic cylinder held everything that it could.
“We’re ready, now, Nancy,” I said, dropping the spoon of poison to the floor. “I’ve got your medicine ready; I just need your arm.”
In her influenced state, Nancy didn’t seem to recall how much she hated me; how much she’d never trusted me. With her “medicine” in my hand, I’d become her best friend. She held her arm out to me willingly.
Now, on television, you’re supposed to tie a tourniquet or cinch around the upper part of the arm. The purpose of this is to cause a constriction of blood flow so that the veins pop up closer to the skin for easier access. Well, Nancy’s skin was already pretty thin, and I could see the veins just fine. They were like a finely detailed river on a map. I set the pointed tip of the needle against the largest one I could find, and slid it it. Nancy’s skin pierced as easily as butter coming into contact with a warm knife, and she never even made a sound as I pressed down on the plunger.
The effect was damn near instantaneous. Nancy’s eyes- glazed over to begin with- began to dilate as her lids drooped. The muscles in her face started to go slack, and her mouth dropped open.
“This is good,” she whispered, her voice slithering past her pallid lips as her head lolled to the side. “What is it? Oxycodone? Morphine?”
Something like that, I thought to myself as I pulled the syringe from her arm. I wanted to plant my thumb over the blood beading and leaking over her skin- that’s what they do on TV, right?- but then figured that there was no point.
“I brought you something else, too,” I said as I saw her starting to slip into unconsciousness.
“W’ass that?” she lisped, her words fumbled. Her body had started to slide down beneath the covers.
For a second, I hesitated. I wasn’t looking forward to this part. I glanced out of her bedroom window before answering. The glow of the flames around the wall was still holding strong. Thin tendrils of fire were licking over the edge of our wall. Avery was still out there.
“I brought Chartreuse to you,” I said.
“She’s dead,” Nancy coughed weakly, her eyes closing. “You killed her.”
“No,” I admonished gently, “she was just hurt. But she’s better, now, and she wants to see you.”
“Really?” Nancy said softly as she reclined further into her bed, eyes closed. “Can I see her?”
“You sure can,” I said, trying my best to sound jovial as I reached down to the garbage bag at my feet.
I pulled the stiff, lifeless body of the terrier out and placed it gently on Nancy’s lap. The black legs of the dog were sticking out stiffly, like the post of a mailbox. Dried blood coated its flank where Frankie’s arrow had ripped through her, and her squash sized skull was half caved in. Nancy didn’t notice, and started to rub her hand lovingly across the coarse black hair, caressing the dead dog and not noticing in the least when her fingers trailed through blood clotted hair. She began to laugh to herself, soft chuckles that barely made their way out of her mouth.
“I missed you,” Nancy whispered into the side of her pillow. She smiled vacantly, and I stood up to move over to the other side of her bed. “I love you so much. You scared me, but now you’re ho-”
Nancy’s mumbled words cut off as I placed her husband’s pillow over her face. She didn’t really react at first; she just kept petting the dead dog with her fumbling, flopping fingers.
“You’re a hero, Nancy,” I whispered as I pressed the full weight of my body against the pillow. “You’re a samurai. You’re going to save Avery, did you know that?”
Nancy’s hands had finally stopped stroking the collar of the Scottie, and had begun to paw feebly at my hands. I pressed my body down harder. Her back arched, but it was a weak attempt that I held down easily.
“I could have used a knife,” I said as she wriggled beneath my weight, unsure of whether I was talking to her or myself, “or the bat. But that would be murder, and I’d never kill one of my own. We’re in this together, all of us, right? You’re gonna be a hero, now. You have a purpose.”
Nancy didn’t answer me, and after a few seconds her flailing died down, her hands falling limp by her sides.
I waited a few seconds more before pulling the pillow away from her face. Nancy’s eyes- rheumy to begin with- were clouded and gray. At some point, she’d managed to throw up against the underside of the pillow, and the effluence was smeared across her face. I tossed the pillow to the side, and gently lifted the stiff carcass of the dog off of her flaccid breasts, placing it on the flowery comforter of her bed. Gripping Nancy by the wrist, I pulled her up to a sitting position, and with a grunt, hefted her on to my shoulder. Her dead weight wasn’t nearly as heavy as I thought it would be, but my nose crinkled as her hip settled next to my chin. Why? Because when people die their muscles relax. This includes the bladder, the urethra, and the sphincter. Fresh piss and shit has a less than enticing aroma.
I’m not a big person, but I’d always been strong for my size, and Nancy weighed much less than I anticipated. I shifted her weight around on my shoulder until it felt comfortable, and then picked up Chartreuse from where she was laying on the bed with my free hand and walked out of the room. It wasn’t hard to figure out where the backyard sliding door was; like I said, her house was the same layout as mine. Sliding the door open, I walked out into the backyard. I wondered for a brief moment how I was going to accomplish the next part of my plan, but fortune favored me and I didn’t have to wonder too hard.
Nancy, intentionally or not, had been courteous enough to place her patio table next to the cinder block wall that separated the lots on Branberry. It was more than a little bit uncomfortable with my hands full, but I stepped up on a chair, and then onto the table top. From there, I balanced precariously with my load as I stepped up to a Mojave style red clay oven. After that, a grunt of effort as I stepped up and onto the wall. Don’t get me wrong; I know that I said Nancy wasn’t too heavy, but try walking up a steep flight of stairs with ninety pounds of dead weight on your shoulders and tell me how you feel.
My feet were almost in a straight line, like a tight-rope walker, and I stepped carefully along the top of the cinder block wall. The stench of the burning deaders on the other side was cloying, and the smoke burned my eyes and nose, but I continued moving forward until I could feel the heat from the flames flicking over the wall licking at my toes. It was hard to see beyond the bright light thrown up by the fire, but I could see dozens upon dozens of sets green eyes glowing beyond our borders. I wasn’t happy about what had to happen next.
I set the terrier down over my feet, and shifted Nancy’s dead weight around over my shoulder until I found my balance. With my free hand I pulled out my panic whistle, placing it to my lips. I took a deep breath, and gave a long, shrilling blow. Even at night, even with the haze of smoke and the light of the flames, I saw scores of glowing eyes turn my direction at the sound. Good.
I twisted Nancy around until I got a good grip on her- throat and hip- and then threw her over the wall as far as I could.
To be honest, I didn’t think that I would do as well as I did, but her lifeless body flopped to the ground about ten feet from the outside of our wall. The deaders saw it, and almost as one they started to move forward. This next part I found particularly distasteful, but fuck it; I didn’t have time to be squeamish. I picked up the dead dog from where it rested on my feet. The little shit may have been the Pale Horse that lead the deaders to Branberry, but there was still a part of me that felt like it deserved better than what I was about to do. I had to be quick, though.
I pulled out my pocket knife, flicked it open with my thumb, and plunged it into the dog’s underside just below the breastbone. I wriggled the handle, sawing back and forth, and working the blade down. The stiff bristles of the coarse fur impeded the sawing, and part of me found that very inconsiderate of the dead canine, especially considering the current state of urgency.
Time seemed like it was racing, but it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds before I had the dog opened from sternum to stem. Stiffened in death or not, the little black pooch still had plenty of blood and guts to leak and slither out. I tossed the carcass over the wall, over the flames, as far as my arm could fling it. The black body cartwheeled through the air like an overweight ninja star, its intestines spilling out in looping coils as it spun. Chartreuse landed fifteen feet or so past where her owner lay akimbo.
Now I had to move, and move fast.
I jumped down from the top of the wall without thinking, falling the ten feet and landing on my feet in Nancy’s backyard. My tailbone screamed in protest, and I staggered drunkenly to the side for a moment, wincing. The pain should have been worse, though, and I knew it. I didn’t have time to think about what that implied, but I could hear Larry’s words in the back of my mind.
I’d just gotten back into the house, sliding the glass door closed behind me, when I heard another door crack open. The halogen lantern that I’d left inside was still casting its glow, and it clearly illuminated Lew’s girlfriend- Jade? Justine?- as she walked through the front door.
“Nancy?” she called out, glancing around towards the vacant master bedroom. “Where are you? The whistle was blown. We need everyone over at the pool.”
Her pretty little blonde head swiveled back my direction, and she startled as her eyes landed on me. I saw her. She saw me. Her eyes flicked down at my blood coated hands before looking back at me. Her eyes widened. She drew in a breath. Her mouth opened to scream.Dammit; this is unfortunate timing.