River Rats

Posted: April 26, 2015 in Book I Terror in Texas
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Liz pulled herself to her feet and ran. She could hear the infected getting closer. They were stumbling down the embankment all around her. She heard moaning and faltering steps following her, but she was focused on escaping the infected in front of her. She didn’t have time to look over her shoulder.

Tears slid down her face as she dodged around outstretched arms. She prayed sending her girls through the fence would keep them safe. With her they had no chance, they would have died. She could only pray Amy would find a safe place to hide.

“Run Amy” She called out. “Hide! I WILL find you!”

Twenty minutes later, Liz was exhausted and could barely stay ahead of the infected still following her. She had no choice but to keep running away from her daughters if she wanted to survive. Even though she was leading a growing crowd of infected away from her daughters, she was also moving farther and farther away from them herself.

Her sides ached, her breath grated in her throat, but she kept moving and dodging around the blood-covered, creatures. Their reaction to her passing was slow and confused. By the time the infected grabbed for her, she was out of their reach. She just had to keep moving and not let them close in around her.

Liz’s mind fought to make sense of the horror movie come to life. What could cause people to turn on each other and tear flesh from their victims? Liz was terrified for her husband and daughters. She prayed they would stay safe.

She passed three vehicles and noticed a van parked at the side of the street with a side door open. She had outpaced the closest infected and dodged around the stalled cars. She duck-walked around the car nearest the van keeping low enough the infected could not see her. She eased up to the van and peeked inside. When she saw no movement, she slipped inside and slowly slid the door closed as quietly as she could.

The van smelled of insecticides and chemicals. The smell was so overpowering she had to fight gaging. She looked around and noticed one of the sprayers had been tipped over and chemicals had spilled on the floor of the van. She righted the sprayer and used a rag to mop up the liquid and dropped the cloth out the window. With the chemical smell saturating her sinuses, she couldn’t tell if it helped much.

She squatted behind the front seat near the open window and balled up a wad of her white sun-dress skirt and covered her mouth and nose. She took shallow breaths while she listened to the infected stumbling past the van still looking for prey.

An hour later, she peeked out the window from behind the seat. She crawled to the back of the van and looked out the back window. She saw nothing moving on the sidewalks or street. She made her way to the front seat and looked over the seat through the windshield. A few of the infected stood before a door half a block away but otherwise the street was clear. She figured it was as good as it was going to get. It was time to get back to her girls.

Liz slowly slid open the van door glad to finally escape the chemical smell. Her head felt light and her stomach rolled in protest. She stepped out into the night air and took a deep breath to clear her throbbing head but instead was forced to her knees by a gnawing pain in her stomach. She vomited again and again, unable to move.

The insecticide made her violently ill. After several minutes, she had nothing left to throw up and her stomach began to calm. She rose to her feet looking from side to side, ahead and behind. If any of the infected had taken notice, she would be dead.

She took a steadying breath and stepped around the side of the truck and made her way to a darkened doorway. Her heart pounded as she moved out of the shadows and sidestepped along the side of the building to the next doorway. She fought against nausea as she made her way down the block, doorway by doorway, building by building. She came to the first cross street and stopped to catch her breath.

When her pulse steadied from the exertion and the sound of blood pulsing in her ears silenced, she could hear growls and slurping nearby. She imagined a starving animal would make such sounds after a fresh kill. She forced herself to look around the corner and her breath caught.

Three infected soldiers huddled over a body laying a few car-lengths down the street.

She had to get across the juncture without being noticed if she were going to get back to her girls. She cursed under her breath. Her skirt billowed around her as if a white flag of admission of defeat. At least her sandals made little noise on the pavement.

Liz gathered the unruly skirt in her fist and took slow deliberate steps to cross the intersection. All the while, she watched the feeding trio. Every breath she took was slow and deliberate for fear the infected would hear.

She spent the next three hours working her way down one street to the next, detouring around a gathering only to return to the path again. One detour was several blocks out of the way because the surrounding infected were all heading toward the street in front of a balcony where a man sat on a deck chair, gulping Jack Daniels and hurling curses and bottles at the assemblage below.

Despite the detours, she was steadily making her way back to the small strip center where she hoped her girls were hidden.

Just thinking of the monsters with their hands on her children made her tremble with fear. Liz’s breath caught. They had to be alive. They had to be safe.

She came to the corner of the fence surrounding the retail buildings at the side of the freeway. She saw the brown UPS truck in the distance and realized she was within blocks of where she had put the girls through the wire fencing behind the buildings.

When she looked from the alley to the freeway above the shopping center, dozens of infected milled around the cars. She looked back to the street and saw even more of the creatures in front of the row of buildings. She would have to make her way past a herd of monsters to get to her daughters.

She crouched low and hurried to the end of the block where she used an outstretched hand to catch the corner post of the hurricane fencing. Being so close, all Liz could think about was getting to the girls. She stepped around the corner. So close…so close.

She stopped at the side of the building, ready to slip across the open street to the next building. She peeked around the brick corner and her breath caught. Two infected men were on the street stumbling in her general direction. She stepped back into the shadows and watched as they stopped and milled around near a body lying on the street.

The monsters tilted their heads upwards.  Liz could hear them snuffle at the air. They sniffed left then right then back in her direction again. She realized they could smell her and began to slink back deeper into from the street when a sudden scream in the distance distracted the dead focused on her.

The monsters turned and headed toward a side street where the moans and growls of several infected announced they had spotted prey. The two monsters disappeared into a side street to join their brethren.

Liz hurried toward the neon sign at the end of the next block. She was so close. Yet she felt the distance between her and her girls was still so far with even more infected ahead in the middle of the street. She stopped and looked around the corner of a doorway.

She groaned in frustration. The street was chaos, cluttered with cars and wandering infected attacking anything that still moved. Doors hung open on some of the vehicles while windows were shattered on others. Writhing torn bodies remained belted in their seats.

In the street, the infected clustered around the body of a living person, pulling and gnawing their flesh, exposing white glistening bones covered in gore. Their final screams of terror mingled with the sound of deep-throated moans made by the undead.  More sounds of terror emanated from inside a building down the street.

Liz eased away from the corner and tip-toed her way to the side of a parked car keeping it between her and the meandering infected wandering the streets. She slowly raised her head over the hood of the SUV and saw half a dozen infected heading in her direction as if they knew she was there. Her breath caught as she looked over her shoulder. More and more of the infected were moving down the street in her direction. She ducked behind an open car door and peeked over the window. She reached into the car looking for a weapon. She grabbed a heavy flashlight lying at the side of the driver’s seat.

Suddenly two men bolted from a nearby building. Still looking over his shoulder at his pursuers, the leader almost crashed into the back of an infected woman. Both men skidded to a stop and turned toward Liz. She saw the terror on their faces as the closest man changed direction and ran toward the alley across the street. The second man followed suit.

The infected in the vicinity turned at the commotion. The leader slammed his fist into the face of the nearest infected. It was a bone-shattering blow. When he pulled his hand away it was covered in dark blood and gore. The strike left the infected with one eye dangling and bones caved in around the eye socket. The creature still reached out and grabbed the retreating arm.

Before the man realized it, the monster was taking its first bite. The man screamed in pain as two more attackers fell upon him. Staring at the attack on his companion, the second man crab-crawled backwards into the arms of three more infected. His screams filled the night.

“God.” Liz whispered as she fought the bile building at the back of her throat. Suddenly she could hold it no more. She retched and bile spilled onto the ground. How could she survive this? How could her children survive?

Still crouching behind the SUV, Liz jumped at the sound of a muffled moan behind her. She straightened up ready to jump to her feet and run, but a cold hand grabbed her shoulder holding her in place. She opened her mouth to scream, but her voice failed.

Frozen in fear, she waited for the pain of the monster’s teeth tearing into her flesh when suddenly she was drenched in cold sticky goo. She jerked away from the cold hand only to be grabbed again from behind.

A thick arm circled her waist as a meaty hand covered her mouth. She was pulled away from the prone infected on the sidewalk while a deep voice ordered. “Be quiet if you want to live!”

The arm around her pulled Liz from the sidewalk into the dark recess of a cave-like entrance. Her feet left the concrete sidewalk and scraped across wood planking. Once inside, a heavy wooden door closed quietly across the opening and a bolt slid into place.

She mumbled curses and orders to let her go while clawing at the hand covering her mouth. She kicked out, but the soft sandals made little impact against the heavy boots of her captor.

The man whispered into her ear. “I’ll move my hand, but you have to be quiet. Okay?”

Desperate to be free, she made a quick nod.

The arm around her waist and the hand covering her mouth fell away and she was free. Her freedom came so quickly she fell to the floor with the loss of support.

“Sorry lady, I couldn’t take a chance you’d scream and bring the rest of the crazies down on us.” The deep voice apologized. He reached out to help her to her feet.

Liz drew a deep breath into her lungs and looked up at the bear of a man in front of her. She accepted the calloused hand and he pulled her to her feet.

As soon as was she standing, she pulled away to get a good look at her savior and his two companions.

As her eyes adjusted to the dark, relief faded. She had been saved by a trio of rough looking bikers. From the frying pan to the fire, she thought.

Her rescuer had hair long enough to tie at the back of his neck with a length of leather. He was a big man well over six foot with the lower half of his face covered in a thick, dark brown and gray beard.

She felt diminutive when he leaned toward her. Between the mustache and beard, a gentle smiled separated the unruly facial hair. His eyes mirrored his smile.

“You okay, lady?” He asked.

“You killed him,” Liz whispered as she looked down at her sundress covered in gore and her own vomit. She couldn’t tell which smelled worse.

“Yeah. They would’ve torn you apart if I hadn’t got you outta there.” He answered.

She began to tremble. “Thank you.” Slowly, Liz looked around. “My name is Liz Jameson.” She turned to the door. “But I have to leave now. I need to find my children. I put them through the fence behind a bar down the street and left them. I told my daughter to find a place to hide and stay until I came for them.”

“You can’t go back out there now.” A second voice stepped to her left and placed a hand on the door. “The town is overrun with those dead fucks.” He laughed hoarsely. “It’s a fucking Zombie Fest.” The man folded his arms over his chest.

“My name is Harry.” The bearded man stuck out his hand. “Harry Walters and this puny fella next to me is David Simon and that’s John Tilman. Look, I understand what you’re saying, but you can’t go out right now.”

“I hate to tell you this, but if they’re out there, they’re probably dead already.” John commented with a scowl.

“No!” Liz gasped.

Harry stepped up and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “We’ll figure something out in a little bit. If you die, you can’t help your young’uns.” When she didn’t answer, he let his arm drop and led Liz to a door marked private. “Let’s find you some clothes. You’re covered in Zombie shit and smell like puke.”

He turns to his companions. “Dave, watch the door and John, you stock up the bikes in case we have to leave in a hurry.”

Liz allowed herself to be led away unsure of what else to do. The blood from the infected was beginning to get tacky and dank on her skin. Not good, Liz thought. It smelled foul and toxic.

She looked around the room and realized they were in a run-down sports bar of some kind. The center of the back wall included a display of bottles behind a chipped and scarred bar-top. To the left of the alcohol display was a gas grill, a toaster, and chest freezer. On the opposite side sat two glass-fronted refrigerators sporting a collection of bottled beer, water, and soda. An old style television sat on top of the second refrigerator. At Liz’s raised brow, Harry shrugged.

“It’s a private club, sort of,” Harry commented at Liz’s look. “Don’t look so scared. The three of us are old toothless dogs.” He chuckled.

“Where are we going to find clothes?” Liz asked. “I don’t imagine you keep a collection of women’s clothes lying around.”

“Well, Lizzy, there’s a patio through that side door and it leads to the resale shop next door.”

Liz looked around and found they were leaving the bar and stepping out into an open courtyard. At the far end, a wrought iron gate with a smattering of ivy protected the open space from the street. Three small tables and a half dozen wrought iron chairs were arranged on a concrete patio. One of the tables included remnants of someone’s lunch. In a distant corner, something was covered with a blanket. It looked like a body.

Liz hesitated when she realized it could mean only one thing. “What?”

Harry sighed. “Edith.” He guided Liz toward a second door. “It’s her resale shop we’re going to. She called, said she wasn’t feeling well. We offered to drive her home, but she turned us down so we said we’d check on her later.”

“We kinda forgot about the call since we were watching all this crazy shit on the television and talking about what we’d do if we saw one of those crazies. We heard someone scratching and beating at the patio door.

“John opened the door and she fell into the bar and attacked John. I swear she was trying to eat his face. Anyway, Dave grabbed a crescent wrench on the bar and caved in her skull. After that, we couldn’t decide what to do with the body so we drug her outside and covered her up. Dave was pretty friendly with Edith, living in the apartment upstairs and all.”

Liz glanced at Harry. “I’m sorry. It sounds terrible.”

Harry just shrugged. They crossed the courtyard and Harry took out a set of keys from his pocket and opened a second door. He stepped inside a dark store room and crossed to an open door. He reached inside and a single dim light in a bathroom came on. He pushed the door closed leaving only a narrow beam of light.

Harry nodded toward the front of the store beyond a dark curtain stretched across the room. “We can’t turn on more lights or they’ll notice. When you’re out there, duck down and stay behind the racks. There’s glass across the front and we don’t want one of those crazies to look inside and see us.”

The store was a typical resale or second-hand store. Racks and rows of clothing filled the place. After a quick scan, she realized the children’s clothes were up front and women’s clothes hung on racks to the right of a main walkway.

Harry stood to the side with his arms folded across his chest. “Get a couple sets of whatever you need. There’s a shoe rack on the far side. Myself, I don’t much care for someone else’s toe jam in my shoes, but under the circumstances you can’t be too picky, I guess.”

Liz gave a quick nod and made her way to a rack of jeans. She pulled a pair of size six from the hanger, stepped out of her sandals and into a pair of pants. She decided they would do, buttoned the waist, and left them on. She pulled two more pairs from hangers. After a quick examination, to make sure they weren’t shredded on the legs she draped them over her arm and moved on to a rack of t-shirts.

She glanced over her shoulder toward Harry and saw he was watching the front window. She pulled four dark colored shirts from the rack then headed toward the front of the store where racks of new underwear and socks were displayed. As an afterthought, she grabbed a card of hair bands.

When Liz got close to the front window, she ducked below the checkout counter to make her way to the display. After a quick perusal, she found the right size socks, grabbed two packages from the shelf and retrieved a package of boy’s briefs when she didn’t find anything but frilly scraps of nylon for women. She stooped behind a row of racks displaying purses and bags. She grabbed a backpack from the display.

As she walked away, she stuffed clothes in the bag keeping one shirt out to put on after she got cleaned up. Her last stop was the shoe rack.

She found her size but saw nothing she thought would be practical so she moved down the aisle to the boys shoes. She found a pair of boy’s work boots with a steel toe. She picked up her foot and pressed the boot to the bottom of her bare foot. With a shrug, she settled on a stool and slipped on socks and the boots and tied the laces.

After her four-minute shopping spree, she made her way to the back of the store staying below the racks. She nodded toward the bathroom. “I need a minute?”

Harry shrugged. “Feel free. Try to be quick.”

Liz slipped inside leaving Harry in the dark. She looked in the mirror and realized how much blood covered her neck and shoulder. She jerked up the dress and turned the water on. She grabbed a clean handful of skirt soaked it in water and began scrubbing at the gore still clinging to her skin.  She scrubbed the wet cotton against a white bar of soap and cleaned her skin. When she was satisfied she no longer bore the remnants of carnage, she splashed water on her face then dried with paper towels. She pulled a white wife sleeveless wife-beater undershirt on, then a cotton t-shirt.

She finger combed her shoulder length hair and used one of the hairbands to pull it back from her face. She fought it, but tears glistened in her hazel eyes. Her oval face was void of makeup but still flushed from exertion. Where was Brian? Where were her children? Were they safe? Please God.

“You about ready, Lizzy?” Harry whispered through the door. “The natives are getting restless out front and I don’t like being in here with all that glass.”

“Sure,” Liz answered. She slipped a t-shirt over her head and picked up the backpack. Being small busted made the lack of a bra a non-issue. She squared her shoulders and stepped into the gloom of the darkened store.

“You get everything you need?” Harry asked.

“I need my daughters,” Liz answered.

“I hear what you’re saying, but right now we can’t do anything. “It’s dark,” Harry answered as he locked Edith’s shop. “The streets are crawling with those fucks.”

When they stepped into the bar, Liz could smell cooking meat.

“Hey. Are you two hungry?” John asked from behind the bar. He held up a beer and nodded toward Liz.

Liz sighed. “Water, please.” She dropped the backpack at her feet.

Harry settled on the bar stool next to Liz with a deep sigh. He unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled up the cuff twice. He stared into the mirror behind the bar while he clutched the opened bottle in front of him. Finally, he took a long swig of beer.

“Beer tastes like shit with the smell from outside creeping in here,” Harry complained.

Liz glanced at him then turned back to study the pictures taped to the cracked mirror. She saw images of young soldiers that included Harry and his two companions. Despite the picture being at least 35 years old, she could recognize the three younger versions of the men.

John laughed. “Far as I’m concerned, beer has always tasted like cow piss. Only now you can smell it, too.”

Liz continued her musing while they discussed beer. She imagined the trio was Viet Nam Vets so Harry and his friends had to be at least sixty years plus in age. All three wore jeans, heavy chambray shirts and leather vests with an emblem with a caricature of an angry rat holding a machine gun. The two-word moniker, River Rats, was embroidered in gold and black thread. The angry rodent was surrounded by a medallion edge of bamboo.

Harry chuckled. “So you’ve been drinking a lot of cow piss so you’d know what it tastes like?”

John coughed. “Fuck you. Harry, you’re a disgusting fuck.”

Harry just grinned back and raised a hand with the middle finger extended.

Liz felt the corner of her mouth raise at the good-humored ribbing and continued her assessment. John was a man of medium build with dark hair thinning at the top. His eyes sported a fan of lines at the side and she imagined the hazel color sparkling when he laughed. The laugh lines at the sides of his mouth were hidden by more than a five o’clock shadow hinting at the number of days spent away from home.

Dave was the smallest of the trio. He was a nervous man that seemed to be more distressed by their confinement than the other two men. He would pace from side to side then suddenly stop in front of the door, open the peephole then peered through the opening at the streets beyond. After several minutes of watching, he would close the opening and begin pacing again.

Dave’s dark blonde hair was thinning and looked as if it had not been washed in days. A strong jaw hinted at having been a good looking man at one time, but now his mouth seemed to be in a perpetual frown. When he reached up to smooth back his hair his hand trembled.

Harry glanced over his shoulder. “Dave, come on over and have something to eat. We got a mission.”

Dave glanced toward the peephole in the door then turned back to cross the room to the bar. “Mission?” He mumbled. “Right. Good to go.”

Harry sighed. “When things calm down, we have to help Lizzy here find her kids.”

“It’s almost full dark. Maybe we can get out tonight.” John commented.

Laughing without humor Dave answered. “Haven’t you watched any of those Zombie movies? Those bastards don’t sleep.”

“Enough.” Harry walked to the peephole and looked outside. “If we can’t make it any sooner, we’ll wait until morning. The crazies are chasing anything moving right now. Good chance they’ll wander off when there’s no one to chase.”

Liz sighed. She closed her eyes and prayed softly. “Please God, send angels to watch over and protect my daughters.”

“Amen,” Harry whispered behind her. “We’ll do what we can, Lizzy. I promise.”

The evening was filled with terror. Screams continued to shatter the stillness as the night grew dark. Safe inside the bar, Harry, John and Dave took turns watching through the peephole in the heavy wood door. Liz took comfort in not hearing the scream of a child.

The infected moved up and down the street until they would suddenly congregate in front of a window or door. They would pound and push until the barrier gave way or glass shattered then they would stumble inside. Those who ran for their vehicles were quickly surrounded. They would try to dodge and weave around the bloodied bodies only to be pulled to the ground and devoured. Their terrified screams echoed through the night until they fell silent, time and again.

One such attack happened right in front of the bar door. They hid behind the door, but no one made a move to open it. They knew it would be a fatal mistake. The victim’s screams finally stopped. Liz stood by with tears sliding down her face.

Harry took a deep breath then whispered. “Let’s go upstairs and get some rest. Dave, can we use your place to crash again tonight?”

Dave looked as if he would protest then shrugged and turned toward a side door. “Sure.”

When Liz followed them up the side stairs she realized Dave had lived above the small bar in the apartment for several years. The one bedroom apartment included worn remnants of carpeting and the barest of furnishings. He had a few pieces of living room furniture, a dinette table, and two chairs while the bedroom held a battered dresser and a neatly made double bed. A couple cots and sleeping bags had been stacked in the corner.

Dave offered the bed to Liz, but she insisted she wouldn’t sleep so she could rest on the couch. As it was, none of them got much rest, the rest of the night was filled with the screams of those unfortunate enough to be found by the infected. As soon as it got quiet, another unfortunate soul would be torn from their hiding place and the terrified screams would begin again.

The men took turns watching the street from the second story windows while Liz curled up on the couch to worry if her children were warm and safe. As the night wore on, tears slipped from her eyes until finally exhaustion pulled her into a fitful sleep where she dreamed of Brian.

Her husband’s arms held Liz close. “If anything ever happens, head to your dad’s cabin. The General and I have plenty of supplies stocked up. It’s important you don’t wait for me. Get in the car and get there. I’ll find you.”

Liz sighed. “We can’t leave you.” As she stroked his face.

Brian pulled Liz away. “There’ve been things going on that really scare me, Liz. We live too close to the base for you and the girls to be safe. If I’m not able to protect you and the girls, you have to do like I say and if the base ever declares an emergency you have to leave right away. No question. Go to your dad’s and I’ll know where to find you.”

Liz snuggled into his arms and fell asleep knowing Brian would always be there to protect them.

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