Archive for June, 2015

Tate drove for nearly an hour before she could find a place to stop the rig after leaving the horrors of bloodied horde. She parked on an overpass with a clear view of the road ahead and behind. She imagined the steep incline on either side of the road would give her plenty of time to jump back in the truck and escape any wandering infected.

She climbed out of the rig and down to the road. She walked to the side of the asphalt and squatted in the dirt. Once the pressure of her bladder was relieved, she buttoned her pants and walked away from the stench of the infected clinging to the rig. She pulled her cell from the truck and tried to call her mother, then her sister. As before, all the circuits were busy. She didn’t have a number for her cousin, Randy, but had directions from State Road 180 and Pine Canyon Drive north of Van Horn.

She paced back and forth wondering what to do next. She had food and water for several days and nearly a full tank of gas. But where should she go? The radio still advertised refugee camps north of Austin, Waco, Wichita Falls and Navasota. Where would her family go? Would they know to go to Randy’s? Or would they be bussed to one of the refugee centers?

Tate climbed back in the truck and opened the navigation screen. She expanded the screen view until she figured out she was approximately sixty miles southwest of San Antonio. Houston was evacuated. No point in trying to go east. She had told Charlie she’d be going to stay with Randy. In the end, that was her decision.

The last time she had seen him, Randy had acted really strange. He was talking about the end of the world. When his mother passed away, he sold the family home and everything in it. He had moved to land that backed up against the Guadalupe National Part and moved into a cabin. She didn’t even know if it had running water. The closest town was Van Horn a town of two thousand people. Van Horn would be lucky to have a Quick Stop and a liquor store. She was four hundred miles from the little wide spot in the road and normally, that would be only an eight or nine-hour drive. Now, all bets were off.

She picked up Charlie’s state map and looked at the warren of side roads that got fewer as the further west she looked. She figured the major roads were probably choked with traffic and the infected. The narrow asphalt road she was on seemed clear enough for now. She could travel from one blacktop to the next always heading north and west until she got to Van Horn. From there she could drive straight north to find Randy’s place or she at least hoped she could.

As she pondered her situation, she climbed back out of her truck and walked around the front. She cringed at what she saw. Remnants of human bodies were wedged into the grill and brush guard at odd angles. She walked back to the tool box and pulled an old pair of gloves on. She spent the next ten minutes pulling limbs from the gap between the guard and the front grill and from around the bumper. She wished she had the water to wash away the remaining blood and gore, but she didn’t. If she found a stream she’d use a towel and try to clean it better.

Satisfied she had done all she could to eliminate the smell clinging to the truck, Tate got back in the cab and pulled the basket of cold chicken and biscuits from the back of the cab. She picked up a wing and tore off a mouthful of cold meat. She chewed while she studied the road ahead. She saw rolling hills and granite outcroppings in the distance.

She would be driving through limestone and granite formations with massive boulders and a thin layer of topsoil that could only support: yucca, prickly pear cactus, cedar scrub, and Texas live oak. Several tributaries of the Colorado River including the Llano and Pedernales rivers crossed the region. The area also included a number of caverns; the deeper of which formed aquifers which served as a source of water for the region.

Tate tossed a bone outside and opened a gallon of water. After a long drink of tepid water, she capped the bottle and cranked the big rig engine. She clutched and shifted until she was doing a sedate forty-five miles per hour on the narrow blacktop road.

She turned on the radio and after a few minutes only found one station still transmitting and it was repeating evacuation instructions. Nothing seemed to be broadcasting active reports. She leaned over and turned down the radio and turned on the CB radio.

At first, all she heard was static. She made sure she was on channel 19 and adjusted the squelch. The static began to clear and a faint voice called out.

“Infected blocking….”

“out of fuel…crushed.”

“fucker bit my leg. Gonna run over as many of the bastards as I can before I turn….”

“Breaker 1-9 for a 10-33, breaker 1-9 for a 10-33…”

“Go ahead 1-9” A deep male voice answered. Tate leaned closer to the receiver. The voice pulled at a memory. It sounded familiar.

“Emergency one mile west of intersection 16 & FM 46. There’s a kid on top of a UPS truck. Got eyes on him, but I can’t help him. He’s trapped by a dozen or so infected. ”

“I wish I could help.” The deep voice responded. “I’m out of commission, man. Sorry.”

Tate waited for someone to jump in, but there was only silence. Finally, she picked up the mic. “Breaker 1-9. I’m 10-51. Three minutes east of FM 46 location.”

“Who is that? Tate?” The deep voice called back through the speaker.

“10-4. Is that you, Doyle?” Tate asked with a hint of excitement in her voice. Someone she knew?

The deep voice laughed. “Yep. I’ll be damned. Little girl, you take care picking up the kid.”

“I’ll get back with you when I have the kid. You gonna be around?”

“Got no choice. I’m out of fuel just outside Bandera Falls.”

“Maybe I can help with that situation when I’m 99.”

“3s and 8s, Tate.”

Tate left the CB turned on, but laid down the mic. She had just passed state road 46 and knew she was getting close. Up ahead, she saw dozens of vehicles scattered across the road in a traffic jam. In the middle was a brown panel truck. She downshifted and slowed the rig.

She studied the collection of vehicles around the panel truck. The infected milled around the truck staring up at a figure sitting cross-legged on top of the panel truck. The kid was rocking back and forth with one arm stuck out and the other strumming air.

“Dipshit’s playing an air guitar,” Tate mumbled. She picked up the mic. “Not sure this dipshit is worth saving. He’s sitting on the van roof playing an air guitar while a dozen infected look up at him like he’s a big Mac.”

Doyle came back. “10-9. Come back?”

“Never mind,” Tate answered. “I see the kid. Give me a few. If I don’t get back to you in half an hour send in the Rangers.”

Tate dropped the mic. She studied the trail of vehicles leading up to the panel truck. Left of the red car, right yellow, between the white and black, around the blue to the right. Tate grinned to herself. Then pull alongside close enough for him to climb in the window. And mow down any infected that get in my way. It ought to work since it looks like someone else cut a path through the vehicles before I got here.

She stomped the clutch and shifted as the truck gained speed. Tate blew the air horn. The kid looked up as the rig rolled toward the collection of vehicles ahead. He pulled white earphones from his ears and waved his arms above his head and jumped to his feet. He began jumping up and down, his arms flailing and obviously shouting. The infected grew even more agitated. They were frantic to get to him. Tate blew the horn twice more and he stopped dancing around to watch her approach.

The Orange Bitch rolled down the hill and clipped the back fender of the first vehicle, a red hatchback with a flat tire. The little car skittered out of the way just in time for the truck to smash into a yellow Camaro and ripped the back quarter panel off as if peeling an onion.

Tate threaded the Bitch between a white sedan and a black SUV then rolled over half a dozen infected that had turned and made their way toward the truck.

She down-shifted, easing the truck into the back of a blue sedan sitting next to the panel truck. She used the guard to push it to the edge of the road and out of the way. Tate stepped on the break and came to a stop. She shifted into reverse. The engine whined as she backed up to stop next to the panel truck. Tate pushed the button to lower the window a few inches.

The kid grinned. “That was way cool. Shit, you’re a woman.”

“No shit, Sherlock. Are you bit?”

“No. Hell no. Been sitting on that truck since last night.” The kid answered. “You jacked my car, back there. The red one.”

“Get in. I got another dumbass to rescue.” Tate ordered as she opened the window all the way.

The kid slid to the edge of the panel truck and eased down until his feet landed on the open window. He stood there for a full minute shuffling his feet and trying to figure out how to get into the cab.

Finally, Tate called out. “For Christ sake, grab onto the mirror, slide down on your ass and get in here.”

With a little maneuvering, he did what he was told then flopped into the passenger seat with a sigh of relief.

Tate raised the window to block out the moans and stench of the infected. “Okay, what’s your story? How did you end up on the truck?”

“I tried to go around this mess last night. I ran over something and got hung up and my tire went flat. Before I could get away, the creeps showed up. Actually, I think they were already here. I just didn’t see them.”

Tate shifted into first and the rig began to move forward. She stepped on the clutch and shifted again. She maneuvered around a pickup and a sedan, then around the back end of a panel truck. She shifted again and clipped a caddie, taking out the tail light on the driver’s side. After clipping a green van and brown sedan, they were through the maze.

Tate stopped the truck and watched the three remaining infected continue stumbling after them. She opened the door, pulled her handgun from the holster and raised the site to the closest monster. She took a breath and fired. The first infected, a woman, still wearing green scrubs, fell to the ground. After two more shots, a teenage boy with black hair and an old man in dress pants and blood-stained white shirt lay on the asphalt.

She holstered her gun and turned back to the kid. “What’s your name?” Tate asked.

“Ben. Ben Lawson. Hey, you mind if I plug in my iPod. The thing is almost dead.” Barely taking a breath, he continued. “Is this your truck? What’s your name? I’ve never seen a woman drive a truck like this. It’s sure got cool seats.” He slid his butt around on the leather seat. “Smells like chicken in here. You got food and some water to spare. I haven’t had anything to eat in two days. I was scared to stop and get….”

“Christ!” Tate interrupted. “You keep talking and I’ll take you back and put you back on that truck.”

“Sorry.” Ben looked longingly at the charging port.

“Yes, you can plug in your iPod. It’s my truck and my name is Tate Hamilton. That’s drinking water in the jug at your feet. Don’t backwash. The food is in the basket behind the seat. Help yourself.”

Tate got the rig moving again, slowed as she neared the intersection with a sign pointing toward the south. Bandera Falls was less than three miles. She turned up the volume on the CB and picked up the mic. “Doyle, you still out there?”

“Sure am little girl. Did you collect the kid?”

Tate laughed as she looked over to see Ben wolfing down his second piece of chicken and third biscuit. “Yeah. I got him, but I don’t know how long I can keep him, he’s eating me out of house and home.”

A voice interrupted. “You got him? Thank you. You don’t have to keep him. He’s my nephew.”

“Uncle Phil?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, kid. I saw you and couldn’t do a damned thing about it.” Phil answered.

To Tate’s look of confusion, Ben clarified. “Uncle Phil lives on the hilltop not far from Bandera Falls. He’s in a wheel chair. I was headed there.”

Tate held up her hand. “Okay. I’ll see you get there, but not until I lend a hand to a friend of mine.” She clicked on the mic. “Doyle, I’m 10-51. Where exactly are you?”

“If you’ve turned toward Bandera Falls you’ll see my truck two-point-four miles from the turnoff. Can’t miss my rig alongside the road.”

“Hang tight, Doyle. We’ll figure out something when I get there.”

Two minutes later Tate pulled up next to the red GMC rig Doyle had been driving the last time she saw him. She waved at Doyle and he stepped out of the cab with a beer in hand.

“Well scrawny girl, I never expected to see anyone I knew again,” Doyle commented.

Tate jumped from her cab and into Doyle’s arms. “It’s good to see you, you ol’ goat.”

Doyle laughed and set Tate back on her feet. “Interesting hair color. Is that in honor of the fucked up world or to match your truck?”

Tate shrugged. “Before the world got screwed. It was just a wild hair while I was in San Antonio.”

With a big smile he asked. “Well, kid, what now?”

“Let’s see if we can get you some diesel,” Tate answered. “Bandera Falls is close. Have you seen anyone?”

Doyle chuckled. “Nope. After what I saw in Taco Town, I was hoping someone would drive by this morning and give me some idea what’s going on around here. I haven’t seen anything since I barreled through that cluster-fuck back up the road.”

Ben jumped from the truck cab. “My uncle has diesel. I’m sure he’ll help you.”

“Well, let’s head there, then.” Doyle laughed. “Sooner I get some fuel, the better. I don’t like leaving my rig on the road.”

“Let’s get going,” Tate answered.

The trio got back in the truck with Ben still chattering.

“When I was a kid, we used to come up to the cabin and Uncle Phil had all these neat toys for the kids….”

“Stop!” Tate raised her hand. “All I want to hear out of you is how to get to your uncle’s place.”

Sitting on the edge of the sleeper mattress, a little more subdued, Ben guided them down the blacktop to a gravel road.

Tate turned on the gravel road and followed a narrow path as it wound around the perimeter of an uplifted outcropping at least half a mile in diameter. As they drove the last hundred yards the overhanging vegetation opened up to expose cleared grounds surrounding a fenced compound.

An eight-foot hurricane fence enclosed half a dozen buildings. Two of the buildings looked to be barns. One building was a metal shop with an open front and another was a multi-door garage with what looked like an apartment on the end. One of the last buildings was a two-story log house with a tower above the second floor.

Tate downshifted at the sight of the compound gate. When she got the rig stopped, she turned to Ben. “Well, where do we go from here?”

“I got this.” He jumped from the cab and walked to the keypad and entered a code. The gate began to roll back with the rattle of chain and wheels on a rail. Tate drove through and the gate began rolling back into place.

Ben jumped the cab step clinging to the mirror and window. He pointed toward the house where a man was rolling a wheelchair down a ramp. With the rig barely moving, Ben jumped to the ground and ran to the man in the chair.

Tate stopped and killed the engine. She and Doyle stepped to the ground and walked slowly toward the reunion.

Tate smiled when she saw the old man wipe tears from the corner of his eyes. The man had a broad chest and strong muscled arms despite the wheelchair. His gray hair was thick and had been slicked back exposing his weathered face and sparkling blue eyes. He showed no sign of decline despite the wheelchair.

“I’m glad we’re able to help,” Tate stated.

“He’s family.” The old man answered. “I can’t repay you two for this.”

Doyle chuckled. “Wasn’t me. She did it all by herself without any help from me.”

Ben grinned. “She’s kick ass, Uncle Phil. She killed all those creeps. She ran over ‘em then shot the ones that were left.”

Phil nodded. “I saw it.” He turned to Doyle and Tate. “Please, come inside so we can talk. I could use any information you folks can share.” He turned on the back wheels of the chair and led them inside.

Once in the house, Ben raided the fridge and brought out a bottle of soda and three bottles of water. “Where is the family, Uncle Phil? Without even waiting for an answer he headed for the back of the house. “Can I shower? I really stink. I still got some clothes upstairs, right? I’m so glad to be here, really, I am. I’ll be back in a minute. Okay? Well, later, folks.”

“Go on boy. Make it a quick shower.” Phil answered at Ben’s retreating back. “We’ll discuss the family later.”

Phil turned back to his guests. “You folks come from the city?” At Tate’s nod, he continued. “Can you tell me about it?”

Tate spent the next ten minutes telling Phil and Doyle what she had experienced. When she was done, Phil turned to Doyle.

“Where were you heading?”

Doyle laughed. “I didn’t really have a place in mind. My ex-wife was in Houston, but I really hadn’t thought about where I was heading to as much as what I was running away from.”

“I can relate….” Tate commented.

Phil leaned closer. “Where ARE you two planning on going when you leave here?”

Tate squared her shoulders. “I got family out west. They evacuated Houston so I’m hoping my mother and sister will end up at my cousin’s place at Pine Canyon.”

“What about you Doyle?” Phil asked.

Doyle cleared his throat. “Find diesel and get my truck.”

At Phil’s puzzled expression, Doyle explained how his rig ran out of gas on the highway heading into Bandera Falls and was still sitting there.

“No problem,” Phil stated. “I’ve got a tank of diesel out by the tool shed. You can fill a couple five-gallon cans to get back here to fill it up. It’s the least I can offer, after getting my nephew here. If you want, you’re welcome to spend the night.”

“What are we doing here?” Larry asked as the Humvee moved out.

“What we have to,” Matt answered. “Get us about five miles or so from here then find a place we can stop. We need to know what we have to work with back there.”

They drove for a three miles leaving the horde of infected behind then Matt picked up the radio. “Jenkins?”

“Sir?” Jenkins answered.

“What’s the status back there?” Matt asked.

“We’re checking out the kids and most seem to be pretty hungry and dehydrated. It was hotter than hell in here and the water tank ran out yesterday. If we can find a place to offload the waste tank it would help a lot.”

“You got a bathroom?” Matt asked.

“Think airplane bathroom.” Jenkins chuckled. “The sanitation tank hasn’t been emptied in a while. They did have a few bottles of water or all this would have been a wasted effort.”

“Got it. We’ll be stopping soon. Just hang on a few more minutes.”

“There’s one more thing.” Jenkins began. “Oh, never mind. We can sort it all out when we stop.”

“You sure.”

“Positive,” Jenkins answered.

They stopped alongside the road ten minutes later. After a quick perusal of the area and seeing no infected, Matt and Jake carried two cases of water to the bus. When the door opened, the smell of waste and urine made Matt nearly back into Jake. Two soldiers accepted the water with a shrug and climbed back in the bus.

Jenkins stepped out of the vehicle.

“Holy shit!” Turning away Matt took a deep breath. “We need to empty the fuckin’ tank.”

Jenkins nodded toward the bus. “I know it’s not good, but we gotta get as far away from here as we can. If Bishop starts worrying about survivors and someone reporting him for deserted his post, he might come back to send a rocket up our ass. He’d recognize this bus.”

“There’re some campgrounds southwest of Kerrville. If we take back roads we can be up to the area in a couple hours.” Matt commented.

“A campground would have connections for the water and the sewer line,” Jenkins answered. “If you can spare a couple more cases of water and something for the kids to eat we’re good.”

“I wish we could do something about the waste tank and….” Matt began.

“No worries. We got the windows open. My team has been using an ammo can for the last three days. This ain’t much worse.” Jenkins grinned. “You got us outta a tight spot. We’re grateful.”

Matt and Jake brought back more water and two boxes of snack foods to the bus. As Matt walked away, he turned to Jake and shrug. “I guess you can get used to almost anything.”

“Not me, man. That’s bad. Really bad.”

Three hours and more than hundred miles from the roadside park, Larry turned off the highway onto Goat Creek Road. Ten minutes later, he pointed at a Camp Verde Campground sign. “Should we try it?”

“If you think it’s got what we need,” Matt answered.

“It was pretty rough back in the day. It’s been years since I was out here working at the camps.” Larry answered. “Let’s do it. We have to stop. Those kids won’t last much longer.”

“We should be off the beaten path enough to be safe unless it’s got a bunch of infected wandering around the campgrounds.” Matt answered before he pressed the transmit button on the radio. “Hey, Jenkins, we’re going to check out the campsite. Try to sit tight.”

“These kids can’t take much more.” They need out of here and something more to eat.”

“Roger that. Hang back while we make sure it’s safe.”

Larry guided the Humvee onto a narrow asphalt road. They drove around a narrow curve and faced newly painted sign advertising a secluded, recently upgraded campsite that included electrical hookups, waste and water hookups. Matt nudged him in the arm and Larry guided the vehicle onto a gravel road and up the gentle slope through the open gate of campgrounds.

They found the fenced compound a mile from the highway.  There were only two buildings inside the secured campgrounds. A large concrete structure in the center of the compound had signs advertising public restrooms with showers and a recreational center. Toward the back of the grounds, they could see a small brick building with a sign identifying it as the rental office. Beyond the office they could see a fenced paddock and another outbuilding. The place looked deserted.

“If there’s anyone here, they’ll be in the buildings,” Matt commented. “I don’t see any vehicles.”

“That’s a good sign,” Jake answered.

Larry stopped the Humvee at the front door of the Rec-Center. Matt and Jake slipped out of the Humvee closing the doors.

“You know the drill. Anything bad happens get the hell outta here.” Matt pulled the machete from the scabbard on his gun belt.

Jake, with a crowbar in hand, went to the door and pressed his ear against one side of the double wooden door of the Rec-Center. He turned back to Matt and moved his head from left to right and placed his hand on the doorknob. He gave his wrist a slow turn. It was unlocked.

Matt pulled a flashlight from his belt and gave a quick nod. Jake opened the door and pointed his flashlight to the left while Matt pointed his to the right. They both peered into the gloom. After a quick scan inside the massive open space, Jake kicked the door-stop in place to prop the door open and followed Matt into the gloom. They made a quick circle through the fifteen hundred square foot room then each headed for a bathroom.

Matt walked into the men’s bathroom with the machete ready to strike when he heard scratching. He stopped and listened. For a full minute, he heard nothing but his own rasping breath then he heard the scratching sound again. He stepped up to the first stall and eased the door open. It was empty.

He made his way from stall to stall, stopping at each stall door and gently pushing it open. Each time there was nothing. He rounded the corner to the showers and stopped mid-step when he realized the sound was really close.

Matt felt moisture slide down his back and wished he had a drink to settle his nerves. He stepped up to each of the curtains, eased it back and peeked around the corner. Each time the stall was empty until he got to the last one. Just as he slid his foot forward, he heard the scratching and a screech. He took a deep breath then peered around the final curtain. The light flashed across a small furry animal as it darted across Matt’s feet to escape up the wall and through an opened window.

“Fuck!” Matt gulped air and fell against the wall.

Matt stumbled from the bathroom still struggling with his racing heart rate.

Jake looked back from the blinds he was opening. Light spilled into the room from the head-high row of windows on both ends of the building. The room was slowly brightening with each blind being tilted open.

“Man you look like shit. What happen?”

“Nothing. Just a fucking ground squirrel scared the shit outta me.” Matt forced a laugh. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

Together they walked to the opposite wall and opened the blinds. The room filled with afternoon light from the high windows.

When they were finished, they walked out into the afternoon sun and waved at Larry to follow them to the manager’s office. When they got to the building they knocked on the front door. The door was locked.

Matt called out. “Hello in the house.”

There was no sound from inside and glancing through the window showed the inside of a small office. The room was neat and clean as if someone would appear at any moment ready to do business.

“Let’s see if the back door is open before we break in.”

Matt walked around to the back of the building and under a covered patio found a sliding door with a folded white sheet of paper taped to the window.

Matt opened it and read. The door is unlocked. We’re leaving and don’t figure on coming back. Use what you can. Generator in back will run the water pump and water heater if power fails. Extra gas in the shed. The note included a few instructions to switch to generator power and a scrawled signature.

Matt slid open the slider and stepped inside the building to see an office, a living room, kitchenette, small table. He walked to the back of the building and found two small bedrooms.

“Dibs on a bed.” Jake laughed.

“Sure. It’s half your size, asshole.” Matt answered as he stepped out the front door and opened it. He waved Larry closer and then called out. “Call ‘em in.”

Matt turned back to Jake. “When they get inside the compound, close the gate and get a couple men to walk the perimeter and make sure that deer fence is secure. I don’t want any surprises walking in on dinner. Larry can get the girls settled. Jenkins and his men can help me get the kids out of the bus and fed.”

Larry pulled the Humvee to a stop in front of the manager’s office. He helped Amy to the ground then released the carrier from the car seat and pulled Claire out of the back seat. Amy retrieved the diaper bag and followed Larry into the house. She stepped into the living room, sat down the bag then made a quick tour of the interior of the house.

Amy looked into each of the rooms, opened doors and looked into closets. Having satisfied some question concerning her surroundings, she sat down next to Claire’s car seat, released her from the harness and laid her on the couch to change her diaper.

Larry carried a case of water, a case of food and box of baby supplies inside then squatted down next to Amy.

“Little Mama, I’m goin’ outside to help the others. Can you take care of your sister?” He walked to the window in the living room and opened it then headed into the kitchen and opened one above the sink. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”

Amy called out. “We’ll be fine. Claire Bear needs a bottle. I can take care of her.”

“There’s water and food if you’re hungry. I’ll be back soon.” Amy gave him a thumbs-up and Larry added. “If it gets too hot inside, you two can come outside once the bus is parked.”

Across the campgrounds, Matt guided the bus around several picnic tables and smattering of trees to a camper hookup near the public building.

By the time the bus was parked, Larry had backed up the Humvee to the picnic area. He opened up the back. Matt and Larry began carrying cases of food and water to the nearest table. Matt pulled a knife from his belt and slit open the plastic wrap. They broke out packages of single serving pasta, plastic spoons and began setting them out at the tables.

As Matt went back for another case of food, he saw the bus door swish open and the first of the soldiers descended the steps each carrying a child and leading another. The first four children were under the age of six. The men set the small children on a bench.

Jenkins rumpled the hair of a little boy with big blue eyes. “Okay, Jimmy. My friends are going to get you something to eat and drink. When everyone is out of the bus we’ll start getting everyone to the bathroom. Just give us a couple minutes.”

Jimmy looked up at Matt and Larry. “Yes, sir.”

Larry opened a package and slid a pasta meal toward the kid. He passed the little boy a spoon. After a few words, the child accepted the spoon despite the far-away look in his eyes. Jimmy walked behind the next child and placed a meal in front of them and placed a spoon in her hand. Like the boy, she sat staring blankly.

Matt handed the two children bottles of water and three more kids arrived at the picnic table. He glanced around and realized there were at least two dozen children from age preschool to teens.

He opened packages of crackers and laid them on the table. The children sat stone-still until Amy, with Claire in her carrier arrived. She settled on the seat next to Matt and sat Claire down next to her. She pulled a tray of pasta to her and Matt gave her a spoon and package of crackers. She picked up the spoon and took a bite of the cold pasta. Amy took a big bite.

Amy turned to Jimmy and commented. “You know, I kinda like it better hot, but it’s not so bad. Besides, I really like picnics.” She turned to another child. “I got Oreo cookies. If you eat all your dinner, we can have some. Mr. Matt lets me have one when I eat all my lunch. Do you like cookies?”

“Ah huh.” The child across from Amy nodded. She picked up the spoon and took a tentative bite of pasta. After a quizzical look, she smiled and took a big bite. Within seconds, all the children including Jimmy began eating with surprising enthusiasm.

“Do I get a cookie?” A child asked from the next table.

Matt laughed. “Sure. Everyone gets to have a cookie. Drink some water, too. That bus was pretty hot and you were in it a long time.”

Half a dozen older teens came out of the bus to settle at yet another table. Amy jumped to her feet to carry meals to the new arrivals while she chatted and offered the prized cookies if the meals were eaten. With tentative smiles and a soft giggle now and then, the kids began eating while she coached them to drink more water.

“You have to drink all the water if you want cookies.” She called out as she headed for the Humvee.

Matt winked at Amy. “Thanks for the help, kid. I’ll keep an eye on Claire Bear if you want to keep doing what you’re doing. All these kids need to eat and drink lots of water.”

When one of the soldiers walked up and placed a small girl on the bench, he announced. “That’s the last of the kids. You need my help?”

“Just keep opening food and water. They’re really dehydrated.” Matt answered.

Three more people stepped from the bus. One of the girls had a tear stained face, the other walked as if in shock. The pair was being pushed toward the table by a third. Each picked up a tray, spoon and bottle of water. They settled quietly at the nearby tables to eat in silence until Amy showed up and began offering cookies.

“You have to drink all your water,” Amy advised each group of children. “If you gotta go to the bathroom, it’s over there.” She pointed at the bathroom entrances. “We got a playground. It has swings and a merry-go-round.”

She hurried to the next table and began her one-sided dialog all over again.

With the meals devoured, most of the children looked around as if confused about what to do next. Finally, a few of the younger children wandered toward the playground to sit in the swings.

Matt had been so focused on seeing the children fed when an adult hand grabbed for a meal, he caught the wrist and growled. “This is for the kids.”

“Yeah. Well, it’s still for one.” The woman shrugged. She looked exhausted but tried to smile as she placed her free hand on the bulge around her middle. “Sorry, I can wait.” She started to turn away, but Matt held out the dinner.

“Sorry. No. Please, take it.” Matt responded.

“My name’s Amanda. You gentlemen saved our lives. The soldiers told us what you did. If we’d spent another day, we would have died in that damned bus.”

Matt shrugged. “It was Jenkins. He and his men fought their way through the infected to get to the bus. They didn’t even know for sure anyone was still alive, but they were determined to try.”

“I know what PFC Jenkins and his team did. I also know without your help they would never have made it to us or even had a chance to save us.” Amanda spooned a mouthful of tomato sauce-covered pasta into her mouth. She brushed away strands of greasy hair from her face.

Matt handed her a bottle of water. She took a long drink and settled on the end of the picnic table. “We’re all dirty and smell. Is there any chance we can pull whatever luggage is in the bus and then shuffle kids through the showers?

The soldiers with Jenkins came up to the table and picked up bottles of water. Jenkins asked. “Enough food for us to have a meal?”

“Sure.” Matt looked over his shoulder toward the Humvee. He knew their supplies were disappearing at an alarming rate. He looked at each of the soldiers and realized two of Jenkins team were female soldiers.

The kids began to wander away to the bathroom then found a quiet place to rest in the shade. Jake and Larry walked up and grabbed a meal each.

Matt broke out boxes of cookies and walked from table to table. He studied each group and realized there were seven or eight kids under the age of ten, six eleven or twelve-year-olds and six older teens. And then there was the pregnant woman, Amanda.

He sighed. “When we get done eating, I want two of you breaking out any luggage still on the bus. Try to find things for the kids. Amanda, if you and Privates Lawson and Pierce can organize showers and clean clothes for the little ones it will make the kids feel a lot better. The older kids can take care of themselves. We need to be sure they all get rehydrated while we get the power on and water heater working.”

“Yes sir, we can sort that out.” Lawson and Pierce responded in unison then headed toward the cargo doors at the side of the bus that had been moved to a camper pad where one of the men had hooked a hose to empty the waste tank.

Amanda followed at a sedate waddle.

Matt turned back to the remaining soldiers. “I need someone to get the power on.”

One of Jenkins men raised his hand. “I’m pretty good at stuff like that.”

“There’s a shed behind the house with the generator. See how much fuel is on hand.” He handed the soldier the paper.”

The soldier looked at the paper and grinned. “Nice of the owner to leave directions.” The man took off at a trot.

Matt turned back to the remaining men. “I know we’re all tired, but we’ll need to go on a supply run and it has to be now so we can get back before dark. We just depleted half our supplies.” He nodded at Larry. “I’ll take Jake, Jenkins and one more of your men. The rest of you, get with Larry. Put the supplies from the back of the Humvee into the manager’s office then get the generator running. Set up guard posts and secure the compound. Look around. See if there is anything we can use.”

Larry led his team away and Matt pulled a map from a pocket of his pants leg. He spread the map on the table placing bottles of water on each corner. After a few minutes, he pointed at a point on the map.

“We’re here. We have three towns within thirty miles. Any thoughts here, Jenkins?”

He pointed at a point on the map. “No point in going that way. That town had half a dozen fires burning when we drove through. How in the hell it happened so fast is beyond me.” He studied the map a minute. “Maybe, Martinsville. Bishop was heading north and I think it would be smart to avoid him. Besides I don’t really want to be brought up on charges for killing the asshole. If I run into him, I will shoot him.”

Matt nodded. “Martinsville is further west so we shouldn’t have a problem.”

A piercing scream shattered the quiet of the afternoon.

Matt and all of the men drew weapons and raced toward the sound of terrified shrieks and shouting. Another shriek and someone began screaming over and over again.

“Jenkins!” A woman’s voice called out.

Matt and the crew at the table were the first to race around the front of the bus. Lawson was flat on her back struggling to hold back the gnashing teeth of an infected juvenile on top of her. She was shoving against the monster’s throat while Pierce stood aside screaming. Blood poured from a long gash in Pierce’s arm.

Jenkins made it to the infected first. He grabbed the kid’s belt and threw him off Lawson. While he was still down, he made a quick stab of his ka-bar to the kids head. The child laid still, a thick black fluid leaked from the wound. Jenkin’s reached down and pulled Lawson to her feet.

“You hurt?” Jenkins asked.

“No, but Pierce got bit.” Lawson rushed to Pierce.

Pierce had quit screaming and cried softly while Jake wrapped a field dressing around her hand. “I thought he was just scared. I thought he’d been locked in the luggage compartment and all.” Pierce sniffed. “I reached for him and….” She took a breath and sighed. “I don’t want to turn into one of those things.”

Lawson led her away from the bus and sat her on a picnic table away from the others.

“Damnit, Liz!” Harry cursed as he stepped away from her. “That wasn’t a kid. The kid died when one of those monsters tore out his throat.”

John looked at her with real pain on his face. “You did him a favor. Trust me. If it happens to me, I’d want you to do the same thing. Blow my fucking brains out.”

Liz nodded. “I know, but I can’t help, but think of my girls. It’s making me crazy.”

Harry turned back to face her. “Your daughters are fine. They’re with three men that are better equipped to survive this than anyone else I know. Our job is to stay alive until we find them.”

After an impatient swipe at the tears streaking her face, she nodded. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

They searched the back roads the entire afternoon and when it started to get dark they decided to spend the night in an abandoned gas station.  At first light they headed out again.  Despite Wandering the back roads they saw no trace of the Humvee. By mid-afternoon, they were exhausted and back on a two lane back-top stopped to discuss where to head next. They stood around drinking warm water and eating energy bars.

Harry commented.  “I think we’re ahead of them.  It’s the only explanation.”

“There hasn’t been any sign of the Humvee.” Liz answered. “Maybe….”

“Shush. I hear something.” John interrupted.

All three stood with their heads cocked to listen beyond the normal sounds of chirping crickets and birdsong.

“Motorcycles,” John commented. “At least a dozen heading this way. Coming fast.”

“John, give me your jacket,” Harry ordered as he handed Liz her helmet. “Keep the helmet on while we talk. Liz, tuck your hair inside the jacket. Don’t speak until we find out what we’re dealing with.”

Harry reached into one of the saddlebags and drew out a sleeveless denim vest with a Harley emblem on the back. He threw it to John. “Put this on.”

“What do you want my jacket for?” John asked as he peeled out of his leather. “It’s way too big for her.

“That’s the point.” Harry took it and gave it to Liz. “I don’t want anyone knowing she’s a woman.”

Liz twisted a band around her hair and set the helmet over her head. She slipped into the jacket and then settled behind Harry on the bike. They took off fast heading west on the narrow blacktop.

“We can’t turn and outrun them. Slow down and follow my lead.” Harry called out to John. “John, try to look tough. “ Within minutes, they caught their first sight of the gang racing toward them fast.

John turned back with a fake looking scowl on his face then burst out laughing. “Mean enough for yah?”

Harry scowled. “Man, get serious. This could be bad.”

Liz’s heart raced as the first biker on a custom Harley Davidson soft tail motioned for his fellow riders to spread out. The road ahead of them was blocked by a dozen and a half bikers. They all looked rough and mean.

Two of the bikers pulled up in front of John and Harry. They sat facing the Spyders gunning their engines letting the gang surround them. When there was no escape, they killed their engines.

Liz clutched at the front of Harry’s jacket. He gently eased her hands free of the leather.

“Hang tough, kid,” Harry whispered through the helmet mic. “Whatever happens, don’t speak.”

Liz loosened her grip and straightened up on the seat. She glanced around and counted a total of sixteen riders surrounding them.

They sat quietly, turning off their engines. The gang facing them suddenly began moving apart to let a single rider approach. The rider was a bear of a man with wild black hair barely controlled by a do-rag covering the top of his head. He pulled aviator glasses from his face and studied Harry, John.

Finally, he commented with a sardonic grin. “Hell of a good day for a ride.”

Harry pulled his helmet off and rested it on the gas tank in front of him. “If you don’t mind all the dead bodies walking around, I guess.”

“Right.” He made a loud guffawing sound. “No fucking joke. My name is Willie Ryder. Most people just call me Ryder. Where’d y’all come from?”

“East,” Harry answered. “You?”

“A lot of places,” Ryder answered. “Who you got riding with you on that tricycle?”

Harry’s face reddened by the remark. “My kid. He’s only fourteen. He saw his maw get her throat ripped out by the fuckin’ neighbor.” Harry continued. “I found him in a closet and he hasn’t spoken since.”

Ryder eased his bike up between John and Harry and slammed a fist into Liz’s shoulder. “Gonna have to man up, kid. It’s a rough world out here.” He ignored the flinch of pain and continued. “Where you headed?”

“Way the hell away from here,” Harry growled. “We got family in Montana.”

“You got supplies to go that far?” Ryder reached out and grabbed a bottle of water from the back of John’s bike.

John snorted a protest. Harry answered before it could cause offense. “Hey, not likely. Thought we would scrounge what we needed as we go. You lookin’ for supplies?”

Liz looked over her shoulder behind them. Several of the rough looking bikers had trailers attached to their machines. She raised her hand to Harry’s side. He pressed his arm against her hand in response.

Ryder pointed to the men with a wave. “Fuckers eat a lot. We can always use more supplies. You got anything to share?”

“We can’t carry much, but we passed a jack-knifed trailer outside of Boseman near a railroad overpass. It had pallets of food inside. We took a few things, but the trailer was loaded with stuff. I can tell you how to get there.”

Ryder laughed. “We aren’t real good with directions. I think maybe you need to take the time to lead us to the place.”

“Fuck no.” John blurted out.

“That wasn’t a request.” Ryder pulled a handgun from his waist and pointed it at Harry. “We need supplies, you know where they are. So to make sure you don’t try to double cross us, turn over your weapons.”

“Hey, man, no need for that. We’re glad to see you get stocked up then we’ll part ways. None of us will be the worse for the detour.” Harry answered with a forced grin.

Ryder held out his hand pointedly.

With half a dozen guns pointed at them they had no choice but to comply. Afraid they would search her if she didn’t produce a weapon; Liz pulled the pistol from her waist and handed it to a greasy little man with bad teeth.

“Turn around and let’s go,” Ryder ordered.

Harry made a quick nod and cranked his bike. In orderly chaos, all the riders cleared enough space for Harry and John to turn their bikes around and head back the way they had come.

With helmets back on and the roar of bikes to cover their voices, Harry spoke to John. “Hey, you have to take it easy, John. Don’t give these guys any shit or we’re dead.”

“Pricks!” John interjected.

“Yeah, but we have to deal with them. Liz, if we stop, keep away from the group and your head down. Keep the jacket on and the collar pulled up. You’re small enough to pass for a kid. Don’t speak if you can help it.”

Liz tapped his side to let him know she understood and whispered. “Got it.”

“When we get a couple miles down the road, John try to ease up on the gas. We’ll try to work our way to the back of the pack. I don’t want to be up front when they hit the pack of dead that was following those soldiers if they’re still hanging around the trailer.”

“Got it,” John answered.

Silent tears slid down Liz’s face as she imagined her girls being driven further and further away. They were losing a full day of travel going back to the trailer. Whatever prayer they had of finding the soldiers in the Humvee disappeared as the sun began to sink into the west.

Liz was exhausted by the time Ryder decided to check out a massive fueling station near an interstate intersection. He ordered three of his crew to keep an eye on their guests while the gang cleared the facility. They charged off amid the roar of bikes as if it were a two-wheeled rodeo. Whoops and hollers rose above the sound of the bikes and sporadic gunfire.

Liz was appalled as she whispered into the mic. “They like this?”

Harry shrugged. “Definitely, not the cream of society. We have to be careful, here.”

“We’re so fucked.” John chimed in.

The gunfire grew more sporadic then faded to silence. Ryder reappeared at the edge of the road. His gang stopped amid a volley of curses and laughter when he raised his arm to call a halt.

The biker closest to Harry nudged him in the ribs with a rifle. “Get moving, pops.” He nodded toward John. “You too, shithead.”

Harry and John cranked their machines and moved out with their escort on either side and behind. They accelerated up the ramp leading into the fueling station. The front riders flocked around the fueling islands, each taking turns at the pump. The escorts guided Harry and John to do the same. Once all the bikes were fueled up, they were escorted to the front of the novelty shop.

Harry made a wide turn and walked his three-wheeler bike next to John’s ride facing away from the building. When he cut the engine, he stepped off the machine and turned back to Liz, but she brushed away his hand. She climbed off the bike and stepped behind Harry. The escort guided them into the novelty shop and nudged them toward a bank of tables and benches at one end of the room.

Harry grabbed bags of jerky, cheese sticks and bottles of water as he walked by a display. They walked to the furthest table and Harry nodded to the bench facing away from the room. He guided Liz inside then fell in beside her. John slid into the seat facing the room.

“We’re lucky the electric service is still on,” John commented.

“Won’t be much longer,” Harry answered.

The men removed their helmets while Liz sat still without following suit. Harry nudged her with his elbow and she removed it. She made sure the collar of the jacket jutted up to near the top of her ears.

“I have to go to the bathroom.” She whispered.

John stood and whispered. “Let me check it out.”

He crossed to the hall with a sign overhead proclaiming the restrooms and was halted by one of Ryder’s men. The bearish sized man stood at the hall entrance his massive shoulders blocking the way.

“Where yah think you’re going, dickhead?”

John jabbed his thumb toward the sign. “Unless you’d rather I piss on your boots, no matter to me.” He made a show of going for the zipper of his pants and the guy stepped aside.

The man stomped away with a scowl on his face. “Get in, get done then get your ass back to the table.”

“Got it,” John answered with a wave. “No problem, big guy.”

When he got back to the table, he whispered. “Everyone is ignoring the family bathroom off to the right. You can walk down the hall and she can dodge in there. She can wait until you come out of the men’s then come out and both of you head back this way.”

“Might work,” Harry commented. “They’re all hitting the beer pretty hard.”

Harry stood and stepped aside facing the rowdy gathering. Liz slipped out of the seat and stepped behind Harry. He strode toward the restroom without looking back. He was not challenged at the hallway entrance so he strode forward without glancing at the gang members celebrating the cache of alcohol. When he got to the family restroom door, he hesitated while Liz stepped around him and slipped inside.

She pushed the door closed and activated the lock. She quickly used the toilet and then looked in the mirror over the sink. Her hair was a dead giveaway. She fished in her pockets until she found the Swiss Army knife she had been given by Harry at the bar. She pulled out the longest blade and checked the edge. It was surprisingly sharp.

Liz dropped the jacket and finger combed her hair around her face. She grabbed a handful of locks at the side of her face and slid the blade down the strands. A few seconds later, she was holding a handful of hair. She let it slip from her fingers into the toilet then repeated the procedure until she could finger comb the remains around her face. She worked at the back resulting in the ragged hair brushed at the top of her collar. She gave the front a last brush toward her face then closed the knife.

When she was finished, she used a damp paper towel to wipe what she could of hair that had slipped from her grasp and dropped it into the toilet. She glanced around one last time then flushed. With a push of the handle, the water rose and swirled as Liz watched her past disappear in the blast of water from the tank swirling into the bowl.

A gentle knock on the door interrupted her musing as the water washed away her life. She opened the door and saw Harry’s shoulder.

“Enough time?” Harry asked then his eyes opened a bit wider when he noticed her hair. “Oh?”

Liz slipped on the jacket. “Well?”

Harry winked. “I got a good lookin’ boy.” He chuckled. “Try to keep your head down, though. No telling how many perverts in this bunch.”

Liz chuckled softly. “No problem, dad.”

They made their way back to the table where John was now making sandwiches. He had a loaf of bread, lunch meat, mustard, mayo and bags of chips. He also had several bottles of drinks, everything from water to a collection of sodas.

Liz slipped in the booth and accepted the offered sandwich. It was all she could do to muffle a sigh. The bread was getting stale, but the thick globs of mayo and mustard made up for the dryness. She ate half of the sandwich and then drank a big gulp of water.

Around a mouthful of sandwich, she mumbled. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”

Harry nodded as he reached for the makings of another sandwich. “It’s going to get ugly in here if they keep drinking.”

The party cranked up a notch in the novelty shop when two of the bikers started taking pot shots at the mounted deer heads on the walls amid the open rafters. One bullet took out the left eye of the mounted head. Both men laughed and jabbed at each other.

Ryder walked up behind the shooter and cracked him on the head with the butt of his handgun. The other man stepped away quick enough to miss the same assault. Ryder followed and slammed his fist into the man’s face breaking his nose. The man fell to the floor with blood spilling from his face.

“Stupid fucks.” Ryder turned away and crossed the dining room to within a few feet of Harry and John. “It’s hell having to control a bunch of stupid fucks.” He took a swig of beer. “Well, kid, are you getting enough to eat. Looks like you could use some meat on your bones.”

Liz kept her head tilted down and answered trying to lower her voice. “Yes, sir.” She cringed at the squeak at the end of her answer. She ducked her head even lower.

Ryder reached over and slapped Liz on the back. “God damn, kid. It’ll get better. Give it a year and you’ll sound like a man.” He tousled Liz’s hair then nudged Harry. “I can see why he don’t say much. Little shit sounds like a fucking pussy.” He walked away laughing.

Harry’s breath exploded from his mouth. “You okay?” He asked Liz.

She nodded as she gaged on the bite of sandwich. A tear slid down her face. She struggled with the bit of bread and meat, wallowing it around in her mouth until she took a long drink of water and swallowed.

Finally, Liz whispered. “Fucking asshole.”

By dark, Ryder had found the breaker box and turned off the electricity. He said it was to keep from attracting attention, but Harry figured it was to shut down the party. Strategically placed emergency lights left the interior of the building with dim light scattered throughout the building.

Ryder had his men duct tape posters and newspapers over the lower portions of the windows then upturned tables against the glass. Harry, Liz and John helped then settled at the table again.

Darkness shrouded the interior of the store when Ryder posted guards outside the building after securing the back door. Harry and John and Liz stayed at the table opting to stay as far away from the rest of the gang as possible.

Harry mused. We’re as secure as we can be inside of a building with a glass front.”

“That’s not saying much considering whom we’re in here with,” Liz answered.

Harry, John, and Liz moved to the back of the room tried to get comfortable at a table shoved up against the back wall. Liz folded her arms in front of her and leaned her head down. She could no longer fight the exhaustion. John propped his head on one hand and soon settled into slumber as well. Harry slid around to watch the gang members as they settled down for the night. A couple of the bikers settled on the carpet in the eatery with them.

Steve had made random turns until they found themselves in a rural wooded area and had not seen a moving vehicle or an infected in nearly twenty miles. The afternoon light faded as the sun disappeared below the tree line. The road felt claustrophobic as Steve steered between the overgrown brush and trees encroaching from the fence line on either side of the crumbling asphalt.

“It’s going to be dark soon. We can’t just keep driving.” Steve announced. “Look for a place to spend the night, a vacant building, a barn or something.”

Steve guided the van around potholes and decaying asphalt while Della and the kids peered down each of the side roads and infrequent clearings.

Ten minutes later, Della pointed to a weathered barn in the distance. “There! A barn.” Della announced. “We should check it out. We’re all exhausted and I don’t see how we can all spend the night in the van.”

Steve nodded. “I know. Let’s check it out.”

Steve turned the van down a narrow trail barely more than two dirt paths overgrown with grass on either side and in between. Trees and brush on both sides of the path scratched against the sides of the van as they followed the pot hole riddled path of bare dirt.

Driving on the rutted path tossed the occupants of the van back and forth. As they drew closer, they saw a weathered gray two-story building with a double door at the front. When they pulled up to the barnyard they saw the doors met at the center of the opening with only a few inches separation. The knee high grass in front of the barrier gave no hint of recent uses.

“Doors look closed,” Zack noted. “That’s good, right?”

“Yep, buddy.” Steve stopped the van, turned off the engine, opened the van door and stepped outside. “I’m going to have a look inside.”

“One of us should be doing this.” Della protested.

He reached across Della to the glove box and pulled out a flashlight. “No. I can run faster with the blades than anyone else in the van. Besides, my ass is killing me.” He added with a wink.

The aged wood of the barn had not been painted in years and only a hint of the original barn red remained. It looked to be an abandoned structure. The double door at the entrance had been patched from time to time and not with any great amount of care.

After an easy jog to the structure, Steve pushed open the door and disappeared inside. He turned on the flash light and swept it over the inside of the structure. Shafts of the afternoon light filtered through gaping holes of damaged and broken boards. It was far from an air tight structure and that was a good thing as warm as the weather had gotten. Most of the slats of wood in the two cupolas were missing. He ended the perusal with a quick examination of the ground at the doorway.

A single set of tire prints entered the aged barn. No footprints of the driver closing the door were evident so it had been a while since human activity. Steve took the time to walk the interior and decided no one had been back in quite a while with the dust and dirt on the hood of a truck parked in the structure. The barn was being used to store hay but looked as if it were not a recent cutting.

A few minutes later, he reappeared from the barn with a relieved smile on his face. He pushed the second door open and headed for the van.

When he got to the van, he struggled back into the driver seat and closed the door. He fired up the engine and made a K-turn and backed into the barn next to the old pickup truck with a camper on the back.

Once inside, Zack slammed the button to open the side door and ramp. He caught up with Steve at the doors and stepped outside to pull one of the doors closed while Jimmy did the same with the other. Steve picked up an eight-foot board and hauled it to the door. With both boys help, they slid the length down on to the open topped wooden door handles to secure the ends in similar wood projections on the door frame. When they finished, the doors were secure.

Della saw the camper and tentatively approached the back door. She turned the knob to find the door unlocked. She took a breath then knocked on the window of the door. When she heard nothing, she knocked a little harder. With only silence in answer, she cautiously turned the door handle. She accepted the light from Steve while he raised a weapon. She pointed the beam inside the dark interior of the camper. She gasped, delighted at the contents.

Martha and Sandy came back from looking around the stalls and the hay mount overhead.

Martha complained. “This place stinks. I’m hungry and want to go home.”

“Me too.” Sandy echoed.

Della called out softly. “Get over here, girls and help me. We’ll get food together that much quicker.”

The girls walked to the camper and Della began handing supplies out of the camper. She pulled out a camp stove, camp chairs, two camping lanterns and a stack of bedding.

Steve, Zack, and Jimmy stumbled through the gloom to where the girls were busy sorting through supplies. Della stuck her head out of the camper and pointed at the lamps. “Can you use this stove and lamp?”

“As long as we’re careful. There’s plenty of ventilation.” Steve grabbed the Coleman and gave it a shake then asked. “Is there any fuel in there?”

After a minute or two, she leaned back out of the camper with a bottle in her hand. “Is this it? There’re three more bottles under the sink. Do you need the light a minute?”

“Yes, to both,” Steve answered.

He had Jimmy hold the flashlight while he poured liquid fuel into lamp reservoir. When it was full, he lit the mantle and adjusted the light to a dim glow.

Jimmy took the light back to Della and then wandered off into the gloom.

Zack carried a case of water from the van then went back to retrieve a case of the canned food. With that done, he set up two camp chair and a couple stools.

Jimmy brushed loose hay from the circle with a ratty barn broom he found leaning against the wall. When he was done he wandered off to check out the barn himself.

Seeing there was not enough seating for the group, Zack disappeared into the back of the barn and came back with two square bales of hay. He made three more trips and they ended with bales in a semi-circle around the dim light. He returned to stand by Steve.

“Can’t it be any lighter in here?” Martha whined.

Steve answered with a sigh. “No. We don’t want anyone or anything to know we’re here.” He began going through the supplies, setting out half a dozen spoons and an aluminum pot.

Jimmy reappeared. “That might not be so easy. I saw a house across the field in back. There’re lots of lights over there.” Jimmy announced when he stepped out of the shadows. “Maybe we should go check it out.”

“No!” Answered both Della and Steve.

Steve turned down the lamp to a dim glow. “We need to stack up bales of hay on that back wall. You girls can help.” The tone in his voice brooked no argument.

Fifteen minutes later, bales were stacked against the back wall of the barn over head-high. Zack and Steve walked outside and around to the back of the barn to examine their work.

“Well?” Zack asked.

“It’ll do, but we’ll keep the lights turned down.”

They walked back inside the barn to hear an ongoing conversation.

“I don’t understand why we don’t go over there. It’s people.” Martha commented.

“Because, we don’t know who they are,” Della answered.

“But they probably have running water and we could get cleaned up,” Sandy added. “Even if it’s a bucket of water it’s better than nothing. I feel gross.”

Della sighed. “We do what Steve says. End of discussion.”

Steve leaned over the camp stove and lit one of the two burners while Della dumped containers of canned pasta into an aluminum pot.

“Isn’t this a fire hazard?” Della asked.

Steve turned to her and answered. “Not if we’re careful since we cleaned the floor.”

“Oh. Makes sense.”

Steve looked toward Sandy. “As for why we can’t go over to that house, we can’t be sure everyone will be friendly and not take advantage of the chaos. The government won’t be able to control this situation. Most of the soldiers on the bases are dead and those in charge will pull back any personnel they have to create a buffer zone. We’ll end up being on our own. When resources get scarce, survivors will be in danger from thieves and bandits as well as the infected dead.”

“Look what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. People shot each other, stole food, killed and raped.” Della added. “Society breaks down and people once controlled by the fear of law enforcement will be free to do whatever they want. It won’t be easy for any of us.”

Martha began to cry. “But my family? Brad?”

“All you can do is hope that they survive. In time, people will come together and when they do, maybe you can find them again.” Della advised. “Right now all we can do is survive.”

Della began spooning content to each of the individual containers and passing them out to the waiting hands. When she got to Martha she refused the offering.

The air was heavy and still in the massive structure. The smell of animals that had once been bedded there still lingered, amid the aroma of dry hay. Steve settled on a bale of hay and wiped beads of moisture from his face.

“I sure am hot,” Zack commented around a mouthful of warmed pasta. “Too bad this barn doesn’t have windows.”

“Maybe we can do something about it.” Steve glanced up to the hay mount above the double wooden door they had come through. “There’s an access door up there that one of you boys might be able to open. It might allow a draft with the vents on the other side of the hay loft. That’ll be the best we can hope for.”

With bellies full, the kids Wandered off to find their own comfort while Della and Steve settled next to each other on bales of hay to talk. “So you picked up my legs?” Steve asked.

“The blades were new. Figured you might need your old ones. They’re in the bag. You want me to get them?” Della answered. “You need to give your legs a break.”

“I know.” Steve pulled his leg up and eased the blade’s prosthetic cuff from the stump on his right leg. With a sigh, he pulled the silicone sock from the stump and began massaging the reddened flesh.

Della leaned forward. “Is it getting sore?”

Steve raised his hand. “A little. It’s alright. I’m just tired.”

“You have to be extra careful to avoid pressure points. We can’t afford to have you unable to walk.”

“Believe me, I know.” Steve grinned. “I can’t afford to be a cripple. If something happens to one of the blades, well….”

“No worries on that account. Remember I made them and I can fix them.” Della smiled.

Jimmy climbed to the loft and opened the access door above the double door. He came back down and they could see the remnants of a rope dangling from the roof. As they sat in the dim light of a single lamp, the barn fell quiet. Jimmy and Zack settled down to rest. The group huddled around the lamp each lost in their own thoughts when a distant shriek shattered the silence.

“Was that a scream?” Della whispered.

The group tensed and waited. Steve turned the lamp off.

“What the hell? Zack began, but Della shushed him.

When they heard nothing more, Steve commented. “We need to keep an eye on that bunch across the field.”

“There’re some slatted windows at the corner. I can climb the bales in the hay loft and keep watch from there.” Jimmy volunteered.

Steve nodded. “Take turns. If you see any lights head this way, let me know immediately.”

Jimmy and Sandy climbed into the hayloft and made their way to the back wall facing the distant lights. They broke two slats from a vent to watch the house and outbuilding in the distance. Zack stretched out on a bed of hay. Martha disappeared into the shadows where they could hear her sniffle from time to time.

“It’s okay, baby girl. I got you.” Matt comforted.

He carried Amy from the bathroom to the Humvee and eased her through the open door to the back seat. When she eased her grip on his collar, he pulled her hands from his neck.

Matt whispered. “I am so sorry, sweetie. I will never let that happen again.”

Jake and Larry mirrored the concern etched on Matt’s face.

Jake huffed. “Man, what the fuck happened?”

Matt answered. “I fucked up. There was an infected woman in the room behind the bathroom. She almost got the kid.”

“Shit!” hissed Larry. “Is she okay?”

“She didn’t get bit, but okay, I don’t know.” Matt studied the two men in front of him.

Larry turned to Matt with his face creased in a deep frown. “You have to get your head out of your ass. You’re hung over and not paying attention. It almost got that little girl killed.”

Jake interrupted. “We can’t take things for granted anymore. It’s going to get someone hurt.”

“I know. I screwed up in the Sand Box, but I won’t be doing the same thing here.” Matt dumped three white pills from the bottle of Tylenol into his palm and dry swallowed them.

Both men nodded. “You got a plan.”

“We get the kids to a safe place as quickly as possible,” Matt answered. “Larry, you drive. Jake and I clear the gate. We keep it tight and quiet.”

Larry chuckled. “It’s about time you stepped up.”

Matt nodded at Jake. “Let’s do this as quiet as we can.”

Jake pulled his machete from its scabbard. “I agree. No point in drawing attention.”

Through Larry’s open door, Matt looked into the back seat and smiled. “It’s going to be alright, Amy. We’re going to take care of you and find your mom.”

Amy gave a tentative smile while Claire cooed and grabbed at her bare feet. Matt straightened up and tapped the window frame. “Button it up.”

Matt and Jake made their way around the back row of storage units and jogged toward the entrance. The red sports car rested where it had crashed into the post. The gate leaned against the side of the vehicle. The impact knocked the wheels from the track and only hung by a length of bicycle chain running from the edge of the gate to the power box.

Jake whispered. “The truck can roll right over the gate, but we have to move the car.”

“Just what I was thinking.” Matt responded.

Matt looked back over his shoulder to see the Humvee had moved to the edge of the building and Larry cut the engine. He could watch them and roll in if things went south, but the sound of an idling engine wouldn’t draw attention.

“We can lay the gate on the pavement and crack a few skulls then put the car in neutral to push it off the post. Once it’s clear, we can run it into the ditch.” Jake whispered.

“I count five. You take the two on the right and I’ll take the two at the back and that poor bastard in the ditch.”

When Jake shrugged, Matt pointed his machete tip toward a shambling figure on the opposite side of the road in a shallow ditch.

The shredded-faced, creature seemed confused by the steep slope of the incline and unable to make its way up to the road. Blackish gore covered his shorts and a sports shirt. A sandal, with a tire tread sole, dangling from one ankle. The infected started up the incline, stumbled then landed face-down on the asphalt. He embedded more gravel into his raw face as he wallowed on the rough road’s edge until he got to his feet again. A few steps later it happened all over again.

“When he hits the ground next time, I’ll take him out. I don’t want him stumbling out of the ditch when I have my back turned.” Matt whispered. “Let’s get the gate down then clear the rest of ‘em.”

Matt remained behind the brick support post at the side of the gate while Jake duck-walked behind the sports car to the opposite side of the gate. When he got to the brick support, he nodded at Matt and together they reached up and tilted the gate upright and off the rail. They slowly eased the wrought iron over and to the ground with only the gentle clatter of the chain.

An infected woman wearing a pink housedress covered in blood turned from the remains in the car. She stuck her nose up in the air, sniffed twice then went back to gnawing on the arm clutched to her face. A large man in gray overalls and a plaid shirt nudged the woman aside and reached into the driver’s midsection. He raised a chunk of liver to his mouth and tore a piece from the bloodied organ. He chewed as dark red blood ran from the corners of his mouth.

Matt walked up to the pair and kicked out at pink dress’ right knee. She fell to the ground in a heap. He turned and swung the machete at the second monster, splitting the top of the man’s skull. The woman rolled to her side and Matt raised his leg and slammed his booted foot into her head. The skull shattered and gray gunk exploded from the inside.

Matt turned to see Jake finishing off the second of two infected golfers. Both had had substantial damage to their legs so they were barely mobile. One had been clutching a nine-iron in his gloved hand and now it lay on the ground next to him.

The infected man in the ditch turned at the commotion and began fumbling to his feet again. Matt took three quick steps to the prone figure and jammed his knife into the top of the man’s skull. He hurried back to the sports car and tried to ignore the gore that had once been the woman driver.

Matt jammed the shifter into neutral and manhandled the steering wheel to the left while pushing back against the doorframe. With the gentle slap of Jake’s palms against the front fender of the car, the vehicle moved.

They pushed the vehicle around a bright yellow parking barrier and into the grass filled ditch. The engine of the Humvee roared to life in the distance as the car crashed into the ditch leaving only the bumper, back axle and truck visible.

Matt turned and waved and the vehicle moved forward.

“That was a crime against a good looking car.” Jake brushed his hand together with a grunt.

“You really wanted to ride around with what’s left of the last driver still inside?” Matt asked as he turned to walk toward the Humvee.

A distant moan drew both men up short. Matt turned back to the road. He heard the crunch of gravel under foot but could only see the dim shadows of morning light.

Jake followed his gaze and pointed as half a dozen figures emerged from the gloom stumbling toward them. Matt held up his hand to stop the Humvee. Jake and Matt jogged into the road and studied the dead as they approached.

They would have to take them out or go over them once they got in the vehicle.

“This sucks,” Jake commented.

Matt held up his machete for Larry to see then pointed at the approaching dead. He took several steps away from Jake. “I’ll take the three on the left then if you need help with the others.”

Jake snorted. “Like I need your help with anything.”

He grinned as he stepped forward and took a round-house swing with a machete at a thin, stumbling man with half his face frayed. The top quarter of the man’s head caved and the body slumped to the ground. Jake stepped over the body and a second swing took out a lumbering overweight woman with arms covered in dozens of bites. With the impact of the machete, the gurgling moan from her torn and ragged throat silenced. She fell to the ground in a quivering heap.

Matt lopped off the head of a teen, stepped back then stabbed his machete into the eye socket of another. The monster stumbled over the gate and landed face down at his feet. Matt slammed the machete down and split the crown of its head. He looked up just in time to see a pair of bloodied hands inches from his shoulder.

Matt spun around and jammed his elbow into the middle of the face, shattering nose and bones around the eye socket. When the infected stumbled back, Matt swung the blade into the middle of its forehead. Matt turned just in time to see Jake kicking the knee from under the last infected. When the blonde-haired woman slumped to the ground, Jake slammed the knife into the side of her head.

Both men stood together panting as they stared at the mayhem they had visited on the miserable beings that had once been living, breathing people. They had been people with lives, loved ones and futures. Now they would all stay where they had fallen.

Matt looked at the last of them. The woman had been pretty before the gray complexion and blackened lips. Her neck and bare chest hung in shreds exposing a single silicone implant. The other side of her chest was nothing more than a gaping wound.

“And I thought the Iraq sucked,” Jake commented as he wiped the black sludge from his blade on the woman’s skirt.

“Let’s go,” Matt answered as swiped his blade against the back of another monster.

Larry drove up in the Humvee and threw damp rags at them. They climbed in the vehicle after wiping blood and gore from their clothes with a wet rag Larry had tossed at each of them. He guided the vehicle through the quiet morning streets avoiding the roaming infected as much as possible until they left the suburbs and found a farm-to-market road.

They drove for an hour before it looked safe enough to stop and change the baby, fix a bottle and eat some breakfast. Matt dug in the stash behind the seat and opened plastic trays of pasta to pass around.

Larry accepted a tray of pasta then scrunched up his face toward the back seat making Amy giggle. “I’d rather have cereal for breakfast. You couldn’t have picked some Coco-Puffs?”

Matt held out his hand. “No milk. If you don’t like it, hand it back. I’ll eat it.” He laughed.

Larry pulled the tray back into the front seat. “You’re mean.” He made a thumbs-up sign at Amy and she mimicked it laughing.

Jake and Matt chuckled at Larry’s antics. After they finished eating, Amy changed Claire and they tossed the diaper into the grass. She looked embarrassed then whispered. I have to go to the bathroom.

Matt sighed. “We’re going to have to do things a little different now. We don’t have a bathroom handy. Have you ever been camping, Amy?”

She moved her head from right to left. “No.”

Matt took a deep breath. “We had to learn in the Army. Now we’re going to show you how it’s done.” He looked toward the front seat. “Larry will show you while Jake and I keep watch.”

Larry snorted then opened his door and climbed out of the vehicle. He opened Amy’s door and helped her out of the Humvee. He held out his hand and she took it in hers. She followed him around the front of the vehicle.

It was all Matt could do not to burst out laughing when Larry demonstrated squatting and waving at his butt with a wad of toilet paper. After a quick look around he pointed to a nearby bush and deliberately turned his back. Amy disappeared out of sight. A few minutes later she reappeared with a grin on her face. She and Larry walked back to the Humvee.

“All set?” Matt asked.

Amy answered with a thumbs-up.

They drove while the rising sun climbing toward the apex of midday. They made terrible time. They had to turn around and take side roads when they neared major roads. The roads were all congested with traffic and any place with traffic was overrun with infected. Matt figured they had traveled less than fifty miles when they stopped again to eat a mid-day meal. After another bathroom break, they got back in the Humvee to head northwest again.

After a few minutes of driving, they reached the top of a hill and Larry stopped the vehicle. They sat on the asphalt strip of highway staring at a graveyard of cars along both sides of the road. At the side of the road near the base of the hill was a roadside rest park that stretched back from the road at least a three hundred yards to the edge of an open field. Scattered across the parking lot were bodies; bodies of the dead and the undead alike.

The three men studied the open fields around a rest park trying to make sense of the scene when Jake pointed at the center of the chaos where several buses had been parked.

“This must have been an organized evacuation by the military. They probably picked up a few infected among the survivors before they realized what was going on.” Matt commented. “Only explanation I can imagine.”

“It would explain what we’re seeing.” Larry sighed. “There’s military tents and a vehicle or two.”

The trio debated about traveling through the confusion of vehicles. They saw the vehicles had been pulled off the road and parked in a neat row at the edge of the park. The remains of a temporary camp had been strewn around the center of the park. Several civilian vehicles were sitting with doors open at the back of the park while three military vehicles sat amid the disorder at the road edge.

“We don’t have a choice.” Matt finally whispered.

Larry slipped the vehicle in gear and let it begin to move forward while they watched the chaos in front of them.

Movement could be seen among the scattering of vehicles. A few walking bodies took notice and began to move toward them, then more and more they began the halting march toward the Humvee. The moaning rose above the sound of the Humvee’s engine.

“Look! A Stryker on its side.” Jake interrupted. “Infected are bunched around it.”

“Do you think anyone is in there?” Larry asked as he stepped on the break.

Matt studied the vehicle tipped on its side at the side of the road. “If there is, they’re trapped with all the infected stumbling around.”

Larry reached for the radio on the dash. He pressed the transmit button twice.

“Hello! Hello! Is someone out there?” A voice called out from the speaker. Several voices could be heard then a male voice responded again. “Transmit again please.”

“Don’t we ever get a break?” Larry turned toward the back seat.

Matt leaned forward and reached for the mic. After clearing his throat, he spoke. “Who am I speaking to?”

“PFC 1st Class, Mark Jenkins, sir. There’s seven of us in here.”

A second voice broke in. “We’re trapped in the Stryker. You gotta get us outta here!”

“Okay, Jenkins,” Matt answered. “Tell your boy to calm down. We’ll do something.”

“How many men with you? How soon can you get us out of here, sir?”

“First, don’t call me sir. Matt is fine. To answer your question, there’re only three of us and a couple kids we rescued.”

“Two kids?” The female voice gasped. “You only got two kids out of the bus? Oh, God.” The voice lamented.

“Kids out of the bus? What are you talking about? We had the kids with us. We haven’t gotten any kids out of a bus.”

“You have to help us get to the bus next to the bathrooms. When things went to shit last night we put a bunch of kids in the bus. I came back to get a driver, but Major Bishop ordered us to evacuate. When we refused to leave them, he rammed the Stryker out of his way.” Jenkins answered. “We got trapped in here with all the infected. The prick took off and we haven’t been able to get back to the bus.”

Matt mulled over what he was hearing as he saw dozens of the undead begin shambling in their direction. He pointed to the bus and Jake brought binoculars to his face. He studied the bus surrounded by at least a couple dozen of the undead.

“We are so fucked,” Jake commented. “They’re in there. It looks like a taco truck at a construction site. There’s at least a couple dozen infected standing around or pounding on the side of that bus.”

Matt sighed. “Okay, Jenkins. Give us a minute.” He looked to Jake in the front. “We can’t take a chance going in there with guns blazing?”

Larry shrugged. “The Humvee is big enough to carry half a dozen men on the roof and running boards, if we can get to them without getting overrun.  It would be a rough ride to the bus but then what? There’s the infected around the bus too.” His voice trailed off.

Matt pressed the button on the mike. “Jenkins, do you think you can open the back door?”

Jenkins answered. “Yes, Sir. The ass end of the Stryker is tilted up, but I’m pretty sure we can prop it open and get out that way. I take it you guys have an idea.”

Matt added. “Take as much ammo and weapons as you can carry but remember, you’ll have to ride on the roof. We’ll still have to take out stranglers around the bus. Are your men up to it?”

“We’re good for it. If you can get us there, we’ll take care of the rest.” After a moment Jenkins added. “Oh, if you can make a big boom and light a couple fires on the other end of the park before you come for us, it might help. They get real interested when there’s noise and something burning.”

“Good to know, soldier,” Matt answered. “Oh, be sure to take a radio and charger with you when you head out. Be ready. We won’t be coming back after we pick you up.”

Matt outlined the plan and with a few adjustments they were ready to go. With a nod, Larry eased the Humvee around a Passat clipping off one of the open doors with the front bumper. He cut the wheel and headed across an open grassy knoll next to the park at a pace slow enough to ensure the infected stayed interested.

“I guess we’ve got as many of them following us as we can attract. Head out into the open field before you head back.” Matt ordered as he pulled a black-labeled bottle from behind the seat. “When we draw them out as far as we can, we’ll take off back to the two cars on the far side of the park.”

Matt clicked the mic. “We’ll be back in a few minutes. Be ready to exit the vehicle.”

The radio crackled. “How will we know when?”

“Trust me, you’ll know.” Matt laughed.

They lumbered over the open field trying to avoid the deepest of the ruts. The infected stumbled after the Humvee. It was a stumbling parade of the dead.  Larry keep just far enough ahead to keep the infected interested. When they got a quarter mile from the buses, they turned and drove back to the camp as fast as they could. The girls bounced and jostled but in the vehicle raced well ahead of the horde. Larry jerked to a stop between the two parked cars specified by Matt.

“Sure hope this draws the rest of them away from the bus,” Jake commented as he jerked open the door with a rag and grenade in hand.

“Waste of JD, for damned sure.” Matt groused as he stepped to the ground and poured the amber liquid over a t-shirt then passed the bottle to Jake. He soaked his own cloth then passed the bottle back to Larry.

Matt went to the left and Jake to the right. They each carried a hand grenade, an alcohol soaked cloth and a strip of duct tape across their sleeve. They stuffed the rags into the gas tank and taped the grenade to the opening. With a nod from Matt, they each pulled the pins and ran like hell toward the Humvee.

They hit the seats at the same time Larry stomped on the accelerator. The big tires of the Humvee threw chunks of sod and grass as it raced toward the front of the camp. They were nearly fifty feet from the cars when the first grenade went off and flames blossomed from the ruins. The second detonation filling the air with even more debris and a second whoosh of fire mushrooming from the explosion.

Larry ignored the small missiles hitting the hood as he drove back across the parking lot to the Stryker. Larry leaned over and pressed the mic button. “Now dickheads!”

The back door of the Stryker dropped open and soldiers spilled out of the vehicle. Larry skidded to a stop next to the vehicle. Four soldiers jumped to the roof of the Humvee while the last two jumped to running boards on either side of the vehicle.

“Go!” Yelled the soldier outside Larry’s window.

Matt rolled down the window and prepared to pick off any infected that got too close. Jake rolled his window down and aimed a gun out the window.

The Humvee roared through the grassy roadside divider and hit the asphalt of the parking lot with a leap of the front wheels. The vehicle landed with a bone jarring crash then raced across the parking lot. The soldiers on the sides of the vehicle aimed and fired AKs at approaching infected while clinging to the rail at the top of the vehicle.

When the Humvee got twenty feet from the bus, Larry slammed on the breaks and skidded to a stop. The soldiers jumped to the ground and took up positions to begin taking out the infected still hanging around. Jake and Matt jerked open the door and stood on the running boards covering the soldiers back. Jenkins and his team quickly disposed of the remaining infected blocking the bus door and formed a perimeter around the door.

Jenkins kicked two open luggage doors closed, rushed to the bus door then slammed his flat hand against the glass. “Come on kid…let’s go!”

A teen boy of about fifteen had started pulling suitcases from the steps and passed them to a couple more teens behind him and stowed them in empty seats. The youth jerked open the bus door and slid back between two seats.

Jenkins stormed into the bus and quickly cleared the way for the rest of the soldiers to enter. When the last soldier entered, the door was slammed closed.

Matt and Jake jumped back into Humvee slamming the doors as the infected from the fire noticed the activity at the bus and began wandering back.

Larry depressed the mic button and instructed. “Fire it up and let’s get out of here, Jenkins!”

Matt looked back at the bus just in time to see a bloom of black smoke billow from the tailpipe.

A blink of lights and the bus pulled out.

Steve looked in the rearview mirror at the faces staring back at him. Four overgrown kids expected him to have all the answers and he was sure he didn’t have any at the moment. Stopping to discuss options had brought no clarity. He wondered if Andy got to her car, but knew he’d probably never know. Finally, he cranked the van and shoved the gearshift into drive.

“We’re getting out of town,” Steve stated to no one in particular. “I have a buddy who lives about two hundred and thirty miles from here. We’ll hang out there until this crazy shit is over.”

Della gave Steve a questioning look, but he just shrugged. Finally, he added. “You know him.”

Della looked startled. “Not Randy Matherson! You do know he’s crazy.”

Steve had no answer so he remained silent as he put the van in gear. Finally, he announced. “We have to get gas pretty soon. When we stop, we can get something to eat.”

Steve eased the vehicle onto the street and around unmoving vehicles and past feeding dead. They were forced to creep along at a snail’s pace.  At such a slow pace, they drew plenty of attention.  When the monsters noticed their terrified faces though the glass windows, Steve called out to Jimmy.

“Use your roll of duct tape and the newspaper in back to cover the window. Leave a few holes to watch through. We’re drawing a lot of attention with those things being able to see us. They look at us like a moving buffet.”

Jimmy retrieved the paper and with Zack’s help covered the windows with several layers of newsprint, leaving small flaps to look outside. The interior of the van grew dark and claustrophobic, but no one complained about not being seen or seeing the monsters outside.

Della taped a sheet of paper to the sun visor and let it hang in front of her face. “You think this will help?”

“I guess we’ll see,” Steve answered and the van crept through the clutter of disabled vehicles and monsters devouring those too slow to escape. They had covered his door window and hung paper with spy holes from his visor as well.

It took several hours to make it to the edge of a suburban neighborhood where he turned the van off on yet another side street. They made their way through a neighborhood that had a much more rural look to it.  The curbs had disappeared and lots were bigger. They were seeing only a few infected milling around a white house in the distance. At the end of the street Steve turned the van onto a narrow farm-to-market road.

With no more infected in sight, both Steve and Della tucked the paper above the visor and he accelerated. Houses grew fewer and farther between. Using the side mirror, Steve watched as the infected fell further and further behind.

As they neared a tee in the road, he sped up even more and raced around the corner. He drove another mile, made another turn and headed back toward the highway. All the while, the two boys watched through the back window to see if any infected still followed.

Steve noticed Della’s furtive looks toward his legs from time to time as they drove. Finally, he asked. “What?”

“Your prosthetics? They’re new. I’m good, but you shouldn’t be wearing them for this long.” Della answered. “You know it took a while to get accustomed to your first pair.”

Steve raised his hand. “I’m just sitting here and have been since we got in the van.”

Della sighed. “You have to be careful.”

Steve only shrugged as an answer. “I don’t see I have much choice right now.” Della shrugged and fell silent.

After another three miles, they saw a sign advertising a convenience store ahead. Steve was watching the road and didn’t realize what he was seeing until they had passed it.

“Did you catch that?” Steve asked. After a chorus of negative answers, he ordered they tear the paper from the windows and help him watch.

The terrain opened up and Steve used the hand control to accelerate. Everyone grew excited at the thought of getting out of the van. It had been hours since they had used the peed alongside the road. The two girls had complained and fussed until Della pulled them into the bushed with a stern. The speedometer crept up to sixty miles per hour. Jimmy clung to the back of Steve’s seat looking over his shoulder.

“There!” He called from behind Steve. “We just passed it. To the right on that last road, maybe a quarter mile down, on the right. I saw the Shell sign.”

Steve stopped the van and put the vehicle in reverse. He pressed the gas lever and used the rearview camera to ease back to the intersection. He turned the wheel onto the blacktop facing the afternoon sun.

It was hard to see with the glare, but the road looked empty ahead. Steve put the van in drive and released the break. He accelerated and the van began moving toward the oasis of fast food and gasoline. When they got fifty feet from the driveway they saw two cars and a truck. Two of the vehicles appeared to be customers while the third, an old Camry was parked in the shade of an awning at the side of the building.

The BMW had stopped at the end of the pump island and both doors stood open. The inside of the vehicle was covered in dark brown gunk and red splatters and smears streaked the windows. The late-model Ford truck sat next to the pump closest to the building with no one in sight. It was eerily quiet. No patrons or employees could be seen moving about. The lights could be seen on inside the store.

“I don’t like the looks of it.” Steve glanced down at the gas gauge, he sighed. “But we don’t have a choice. We have to stop.” He reached for his wallet to retrieve a credit card.

He slowly approached the pumps closest to the road. No one appeared from the front of the store or the vehicles. When the van was stopped he turned to the back seat. “I’m going to get gas then we can check out the store.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Sandy commented.

“Me too.” Chimed in Martha and Della.

“Okay, but we do this smart. First, we get gas then check out the store. Stay in the van until then.” Steve ordered. “All of you keep an eye out and let me know if you see anything move.”

Della nodded. “Got it.”

Steve eased open his door, then teetered his way to the gas pump. He slid the card in the reader hoping the pump was turned on and would accept payment. He punched in the appropriate zip code on the keypad and selected the grade of fuel then stuck the nozzle into the gas tank. He set the release control open then stepped back to the van door.”

“Any movement?” He asked Della.

“Nothing. Isn’t that kinda strange? A little weird with the car doors open.” Della answered.

The only noise was the steady clicking of the gas pump as it measured out gasoline. “When the tank is full, I’m going to take a look,” Steve announced.

“No. You can’t. If anything happens to you, we’re all screwed. I can’t drive your van and neither can anyone else.” Della retorted.

“Yes, you can. The gas and break peddles are still functional.” Steve argued. Just ignore the hand controls.

“Okay. That may be, but we need you. I don’t know where Randy lives.” Della paused then continued. “When you’ve got gas, maybe we can drive closer to the door and take a look.”

Steve answered. “No. I don’t want to limit our maneuverability. I’ll pull the van away from the pumps then you and I can walk back and check out the store. If it’s safe, we use the head and get eats.”

The pump clicked off and Steve hobbled back to hang up the nozzle. He closed the gas tank cover then started the van engine. He made a right turn after the pump island and stopped about twenty feet from the glass door.

When the vehicle stopped, Della told the kids. “Stay here.”

“Jimmy get behind the wheel, if something happens, drive away. Just use the floor controls.” Steve ordered over his shoulder as he opened the door and began to ease out with a steel rod in hand.

Della opened the passenger door and walked around to meet Steve at the back of the van carrying her own stainless steel rod with the ceramic knee joint on the end. They approached the storefront glancing from side to side as they walked.

“You’re getting better on the blades,” Della whispered.

“Don’t have a choice. I didn’t pick up my walking legs.”

“I did. They’re in the bag I’ve been lugging around.” Della answered.

Steve paused and looked toward Della with a grin. “We’re running for our lives and you stop to pick up legs? I thought it was food and water in the bag.”

Della shrugged and nodded toward the glass door. “There is some of that. I just threw in those too.” She looked toward the convenience store. “How do we do this?”

“You pull open the door then stand back while I check it out. If anything happens, get to the van and get the kids outta here.”

Della nodded then placed her hand on the door handle. She looked into the gloom of the store. “Even with the lights are on I can’t see anything.” She whispered.

Steve stepped inside using the doorframe to steady himself. He looked from side to side then deeper into the recesses of the store. A thick coppery smell hung heavy in the air. Amid the smell of blood was the odor of voided bowels mingled with the stale beer. A quick glance toward the register and counter provided no hint of the clerk’s whereabouts.

“I’ll clear the store then you can signal the kids,” Steve called over his shoulder.

He took another couple steps into the store and saw the reason for the heavy scent of alcohol in the air. At the end of the counter-top, a six-pack of beer bottles lay shattered on the floor. Steve raised his weapon when he looked behind the counter and saw a man slumped at the end of the cigarette display. He clutched a petite girl in his arms. The back of her head was damp with blood. Next to him, lay a handgun.

The man looked up when he heard Steve behind him. “Fucking bitch killed my Sadie. The woman in the BMW was sick and attacked my girl. I shot her, but when I was pulling the body off Sadie the man came from the back of the store and bit me.” He moaned.

Steve hadn’t heard Della come into the store and walk up behind him. He jumped when she spoke.

“We have to help him.”

“Stay back, Della.” Steve watched the man as he took a deep halting breath. He looked around for the other people the man mentioned.

“I threw their bodies out the back door. I have to get Sadie home before she turns.” He sighed deeply. “I’m bit. I’m not going to last long.”

Della stepped around Steve and pulled a bottle of water from a display. She grabbed a handful of paper towels and poured the water on it. She wiped at his face and offered him a drink. He smiled back at her sadly and shook his head.

He struggled to his feet. “I can’t stay.” He grabbed the young woman under the arms and pulled her to his chest. With a grunt of pain, he pulled her into his arms. Della stepped forward, but he waved her off. “I got this.”

When the young woman’s arms fell away Della saw a small engagement ring on her left hand. “I’m sorry.” She whispered.

The man looked up. “I’m taking her home. Take what you want, the world has gone to shit anyway and I don’t give a damn.”

Without saying anything more, he shuffled out of the store and to the open door of the red truck. He eased Sadie inside then slipped in beside her. He slammed the door and fired up the engine. He spun out flinging gravel across the parking lot and pulled out on the blacktop. With black smoke billowing from the muffler, he sped down the road and disappeared over a small hill.

Steve and Della had followed the man outside. Della waved at the kids. The van door slowly opened and the ramp unfolded and lowered. The four kids spilled from the van and hurried toward the store.

Steve turned to Della. “Get all the food and water you can. Look for anything that is usable. I’m moving the van closer to the door then looking for some gas cans.” With that, he stepped out into the late afternoon sun.

A few minutes later, he parked the van in front of the door with the ramp extended. Almost immediately, Zack and Jimmy carried cases of bottled water into the van.

Della and the girls each carried a variety of packaged foodstuff in plastic milk crates. The boys continued to load water behind the back seat while the girls stacked the food crates behind the front seats.

Steve walked through the store looking for any usable items then headed into the storage room at the back where he found two five-gallon fuel cans. He carried them outside and filled them with gas. He called Zack over and together they balanced the cans on the back bumper and used two pilfered bungee cords to secure them. They finished anchoring the can, headed back into the store when Steve straightened and stopped. He cocked his head and listened. After another shot rang out and he knew it was gunfire.

He called into the store. “Time to go people! I just heard gunfire! Della, get everyone in the van, I’m checking the car.”

Steve ran to the BMW and searched the front of the car, opening the glove box, console and reaching under the driver’s seat. He pulled a nine millimeter from under the seat, checked the load then shoved it into his waistband. He pushed the trunk release then hurried to the back of the car and rummaged through the trunk. He found two boxes of shells, a tire iron, a blanket, some glow sticks and a first aid kit.

“Yuppies. Well, they were prepared for everything but the undead, I guess.” He commented with a crooked smile.

He was heading back to the van with the last of his poached supplies when movement at the back of the van caught his eye. His concern ratcheted up several notches as he set his armful of supplies in the floorboard of the van and picked up the crowbar. He headed around the back of the van just as Della appeared in the doorway of the store.

“Look out!” Della yelled.

Startled, he turned back to face a woman covered in blood and gore. A narrow strip of scalp hung from the side of her head and rivulets of blood streamed down her shirt.

The monster stumbled toward Martha leaning in the open van door. She turned at Della warning and jumped back just as Steve grabbed the infected woman’s shoulder and spun the monster toward the cinderblock wall. He stumbled back against the van, slamming the tire iron against the van.

“Get in the van now!” He shouted at the open door.

Steve struggled to get his balance standing still on the blades. He pushed off the van and raised the tire iron. Martha and Sandy stumbled back from the door just as the infected woman raised and turned to attack Steve. He swung the tire iron. It slammed into the side of the bloody head. The woman collapsed on the ramp.

The girls stood inside the stored screaming at sight of the bloody body sprawled across the ramp. Steve grabbed a leg and drug the body a few feet away from the door. “Let’s get moving!”

Della turned Martha from the body and pushed her into the van. “Shush…now, you’re alright, Martha.” The rest of the kids appeared and rushed into the van.

Martha wailed. “We’re going to die.”

Zack pulled Martha toward the back seat. “Stop this shit, Martha. We’re all afraid so get over it.” He pushed her down onto the seat and looked at her with a hardness that hadn’t been there before. “Now get a grip.”

Martha grew silent and slid the back of her hand under her nose while tears streamed down her cheeks. She pointed at the body slumped against the storefront. “Is someone going to bury that thing?”

Zack stepped out of the van and answered.  “No! Get off your ass and help us.”

He and Jimmy picked up the remaining crates of food and loaded them into the van. Sandy and Martha got up and moved the scavenged supplies behind the back seat.

“Anyone need a final bathroom break?” Steve asked. Everyone shook their head. “Well, I have to go.” He stepped around the corner of the building while Zack and Jimmy got back in the van. When Steve reappeared, a sudden boom in the distance stopped him in his tracks.

“In the van everybody!” Steve called out.

“Look.” Sandy shrieked as she pointed to billowing smoke above the treetops.

“Now! Let’s move.” Steve ordered as he raced around the van to the driver’s door.

Della jumped in the passenger seat while Zack slammed his palm against the red button above the side door. The ramp eased up and the door slid closed.

“Should we try to help?” Della whispered. “People might be there.”

Steve steered the van out of the parking lot and toward the billowing cloud of black smoke just beyond a stand of trees. The van raced down the road, with the speedometer reaching nearly seventy miles an hour when they cleared the trees.

A red pickup sat in front of a two-story farmhouse fully engulfed in flames.

Steve reduced speed until he finally drew to a stop. “I guess we know where the guy took his daughter. That must have been him when I heard the shot earlier.”

“Better than turning,” Zack commented.

“We have to find a place to stop for the night,” Della whispered as she moved her right hand in the sign of the cross.

Harry downshifted and the big rig slowed as it rumbled over the narrow speed strips on the side of the blacktop. He steered the rig toward the shade of an underpass.

“It’s time to find a place to stop,” Harry announced. “My ass is gettin’ flat.

Liz protested. “No! We have to catch them.”

Harry answered. “We‘ve only caught a glimpse of the vehicle once, since the alley and nothing after driving past the empty car seat box besides, we can’t be sure it was even them. It’ll be dark soon and we might drive right past ‘em. We can’t just keep driving.”

“But….” Liz protested.

“I agree. We can’t follow a trail we can’t see, Liz”. John argued.

Liz looked back the way they had come. The two-lane road had been pretty clear of traffic since a police roadblock almost five miles behind them. They had eased through the congestion leading up to it using the heavy duty grill on the front of the rig to push cars into the ditch. As they passed, Liz’s eyes were drawn to the empty vehicles. The horror inside each left Liz feeling depressed and hopeless.

Harry pulled the rig into the shadow of the underpass with a hiss of airbrakes. The cab sat in the shade of the overpass when he turned off the engine and slammed his hands against the steering wheel.

“Let’s stretch our legs a little, get something to eat then get some shut eye,” Harry announced. “Keep your guns handy.” He opened the door, leaned out and looked around before jumping to the ground.

John exited the passenger door leaving Liz to climb down on her own. She jumped to the ground then walked around the cab to stand next to Harry. The sun rested at the top of the tree-line to the west painting the sky shades of amber, crimson, and violet. It was a beautiful sight. Standing there in the fading light they were enveloped in a bubble of peace and quiet. No traffic noises, only crickets and night creatures for company.

After John burned the first microwaved meal, he turned over the cooking to Liz. He settled on the bottom step of the truck waiting while she nuked packages of the trucker’s food in the onboard microwave. Harry climbed the side of the embankment to the overpass and studied lights in the distance. After several minutes, he climbed back down to lean against the big rig.

“Nothin’ movin’ out there.” He commented to no one in particular.

“Do you think they’re still ahead of us?” Liz asked as she passed a hot plastic tray of food down using a folded paper towel as a hot pad.

Harry accepted the tray. “Hard to say. They got the kids. I would think they would have to stop. I worry we’ve already gotten ahead of them. It may be hard to keep moving with the baby.”

John accepted his meal. “Liz, knowing they’re with Rangers, you have to know they are being protected. They got a better chance than most kids right now.”

Liz settled in the driver’s seat facing the open door to study the two men leaning on the medium. “I have to believe we’ll find them.” Liz took a bite of the pasta and forced herself to swallow. “After all those years Brian was in combat. I can’t believe he comes home to this nightmare.”

Harry reached up and patted her knee. “Eat up. We’ll do our damnedest to find those girls. Meanwhile, you gotta eat or you’ll blow away.”

Liz tried to smile at Harry as the last remnants of light faded into darkness.

“I ain’t too anxious to be down here since its getting dark,” Harry announced.

Liz tossed her plastic try and turned to Harry. “You can take the sleeper. I’ll take the driver’s seat. It leans back enough for me to sleep there.”

John laughed. “I’ll take first watch. We have to leave the windows open, but I sure don’t figure to be out and about. I can do it from the passenger seat.”

Within minutes, Harry was snoring softly inside the sleeper.

Liz punched at the small pillow she had retrieved from the sleeper and curled up against the door and tried to sleep. The glow of the digital clock announced hour after hour until it glowed eleven. She straightened up in the seat, and nudged John. “Go to sleep, my turn at watch.”

John nodded in the dim light of the dash light. “Get Harry up at three.” He leaned into the door and was snoring within minutes.

Liz’s mood grew dark as the hours slipped away. She knew the chances of finding her children were not good, but she had to keep looking as long as it took. She wasn’t planning to wake Harry, but he interrupted her dark thoughts at three and motioned her to trade places with him.

“I know you’re worried about the girls, but try to get some sleep.” Harry whispered.

Liz climbed into the sleeper and was sure she wouldn’t sleep with the stifling heat but when she laid her head down on the pillow with the lingering scent of Aqua Velva, she closed her eyes and drifted off almost immediately. She woke drenched in sweat to the sound of John and Harry talking quietly.

When she leaned out to join the conversation, Harry asked. “Where were you heading when you had to leave your car?”

“My father’s cabin. He lives up close to a state park out west.” Liz answered. “It’s pretty remote.”

“Did your daughter know?”

“Sure. We talked about it. Amy loves going to the cabin and Brian always said it was a safe place to go if the ‘shit hit the fan’. My father is a bit of a ‘prepare-for-the-worst’ type. Brian and I used to laugh about the cabin.” Liz’s breath caught and she looked away with tears threatening to spill from her eyes.

“What?” John asked softly.

“Brian called from the base when I was shopping that afternoon. He told me to go to my dad’s as quick as I could get there. He said there was an attack on the base and not to wait for him. I started to argue, but his voice got really quiet and said I had to leave immediately to protect the girls. He said not to even stop to pack.”

“Did he say what happened?” John asked.

Liz answered quietly. “No. I heard screaming in the background then the line went dead. I picked up Amy from school and headed out of town. We hit traffic and all the cars just stopped.” Liz sighed. “Hundreds of the infected were headed our way.” She sighed. “The rest you know.”

“Yeah. The creepy sons-of-bitches just came like a wave down the street. People were running and anyone they caught they killed. The dead turned and joined the mayhem.” Harry commented.

“Shhh!” Harry hissed. “I hear something.”

Liz could hear a distant pop, then another and another. Gunfire? The sound grew louder and closer together. Definitely gunfire. As she strained to hear, the roar of heavy powerful engines overtook the pop of gunfire. Liz turned but saw nothing with the trailer blocking the back window.

Harry looked toward the side mirror and cursed. “Fuck!”

He turned the key in the ignition and the big engine thundered to life. He jammed the shift into gear and the behemoth began moving forward. Meanwhile the roar of the coming vehicles grew louder, sounding angry and threatening.

“What is it?” John asked.

“A fucking Stryker!” Harry answered as he shifted to second. The truck moved a modicum faster. “We can’t both fit through the underpass. There isn’t room and that dumbass is not slowing down!”

The Stryker was moving at top speed and obviously the driver intended to crash his way through the opening of the underpass despite the fact a slow moving truck was in his way.

Harry looked toward the side mirror again and gasped. The Stryker, constructed from high-hardness steel with a V-shaped front included a .50-cal M2 machine gun, 7.62 mm M240 machine gun, or Mk-19 automatic grenade launcher. The eight-wheeled vehicle raced toward them at a speed that did not bode well for any other vehicle in its way. Even the big rig and trailer would crumple under the weight and speed of the military vehicle.

Liz caught her first glimpse of the Stryker. They would not get out of the way quick enough. The vehicle thundered toward them without slowing.

There was a deafening roar of acceleration when the vehicle hit the trailer. The renting of metal was painful to hear. The Stryker slammed into the back axle of the cab slamming the trailer forward into the back of the cab. The trailer bounced off the trailer mount and tilted to the left. The V-shaped hull of the Stryker ripped through the side of the trailer and then connected with the side of the tractor itself. The driver of the Stryker roared through the opening he had created by destroying the trailer followed by several more military vehicles.

The cab ripped free of the trailer and slammed into the abutment supporting the overpass, spun around and smashed into the side of the concrete. Harry crashed into the stirring wheel, then the doorframe and as if it was not enough, he was hurled back toward the passenger side of the vehicle. He fell in a heap over the center console.

Meanwhile Liz flew from the sleeper. She reached out to stop the plunge toward the front seat, but the vehicle’s sudden change of directions sent her on a nosedive into the wheel-well at John’s feet. She struck her face against his knee before crumpling into the floorboard hitting her head on the dash on her way down.

John slammed against the dash, then back into the side window where he ended up slumped against the door, stunned by the impact.

“Fuck!” John whispered as the truck settled and stopped rocking. He reached down, wrapping his big hands around Liz and pulled her back against his thick chest. She was out cold.

“Harry? Man, you okay?”

“Fucking assholes!” Harry mumbled as he stared at the Stryker through the shattered remains of the windshield. After a moment, he turned the key and the only sound was a distant click under the hood. The massive engine remained silent.

He watched the convoy of military vehicles follow the Stryker around the wreckage of their truck. It included three troop carriers, two Humvees, and two additional Strykers. Not a single driver slowed or braked. They sped away.

Once the roar of the engines disappeared, the quiet was unsettling. John turned Liz face up and brushed the hair from her face. Blood streamed from her nose and her eyes remained closed. She was limp in his arms.

“Is she alive?” Harry asked.

John pulled a rag from behind the seat to wipe the blood from her face. “Out cold but I think she’ll be alright.”

Harry shook his head to clear the fog then carefully helped John straighten Liz’s legs and arms. His fingers slid down each limb and finally stopped at her face. He pulled the rag from John and held it against the cut at the side of her head.

Liz’s eyes fluttered and she gagged. She coughed blood and John turned her head to the side. Blood streamed from her mouth and nose, she wheezed and coughed a spray of blood across the cab.

A moment later, she jerked fully awake elbowing John in the jaw. When he yelped she stopped thrashing and reached up to the rag. Harry pulled his hand away and she pressed it against her nose. Her eyes focused on the John.

“Sorry.” She mumbled as she slid off John’s lap and balanced on the edge of the passenger seat.

“Give it a minute, Lizzy. You were out cold.”

John opened the passenger door and slid outside to stand next to the rig. Harry pushed her back against the seat.

After a few minutes of Harry fussing over her and John pushing at her hair, she pulled away and balanced herself on the seat.

Harry used a bottle of water to dampen a rag and held it out to Liz.

She dabbed the cloth at her face and whispered. “Assholes! They didn’t even slow down, did they?”

“Nope.” Harry answered. “Just kept going like their asses were on fire.”

She pulled down the sun visor in front of her and peered into the mirror. She dabbed at her damaged nose and the cut on her forehead. The blood flow had stopped on both.  She used the wet rag to clean her face. Harry pulled out a first aid kit from the center console and opened a couple Bandaids.

Liz looked around when she was finished and tried to understand the odd angle of the truck cab. When she looked back at John, she saw he had a goose egg on the side of his head that was quickly growing dark with bruising. Harry was bruised and battered too.

John grimaced as he twisted and his back cracked. “Fuck heads.”

“Let’s figure out what’s the damage for now.” Harry opened the door and slid out of the cab. Before Liz could follow, he looked back toward the trailer and cursed. “We are so fucked!”

Liz eased herself from cab with Harry’s help. John came around the front of the cab. When the trio stood on the asphalt, they could see the damage done to the rig and trailer, too.

“Damn.” John cursed.

Together, the trio walked to the back of the trailer to study the damage. The trailer had jack-knifed off the trailer mount. Two of the tires on the driver’s side were shredded. The back of the cab on the passenger side rested against the concrete wall of the overpass while the trailer tilted at a crazy angle.

Harry sighed. “Should have known it was too good to last.”

“If they scratched my fucking bike.” John hurried toward the trailer door. Harry and Liz stumbled after him.

Harry studied the trailer angle. The front end sat on the ground while the back end was slanted up several feet higher than normal. Liz stopped and stared.

Harry whistled low. “This is going to be a problem. That asshole took out the whole rig.”

Liz looked back down the road in the direction from where the military had come. The road was straight and level for at least a mile where it turned into a stand of trees. Liz ignored Harry and John as they debated the damage and studied the kaleidoscopic of color in the distance. She focused and squinted until she realized what she was seeing. Her breath caught in her throat. She could see a mass of infected stumbling toward them in the distance.

“Guys, we got a bigger problem than a few scratches on custom paint and chrome.”

Harry turned to follow her gaze. “We gotta get moving.”

Liz stood at the back end of the trailer where John had propped open the doors. All their carefully gathered supplies were in a pile at one side of the tilted trailer. The bikes hung suspended in mid-air from the tethers used to secure them at the back of the trailer.

“How are we going to get the bikes over the edge and to the ground?” John asked.

Harry walked back to the back of the cab. He found a heavy box and opened the lid. Inside, he rooted around until he pulled out several tie-downs, a heavy-duty screwdriver and hammer. “We gotta make this quick. Lizzy, grab that canvas bag in the cab to carry food. Fill it with whatever you can find and think we’ll be able to use.”

Liz ran to the truck, climbed in the sleeper and rooted through the previous owner’s cabinets and cubbies. She found the duffle and started pulling out the clothes. When she caught a whiff, she realized it was the driver’s dirty laundry. She dumped the remains of hash-marked, tighty-whities then threw in an army blanket a couple bar towels, first aid kit, firearms and grabbed each of their packs. She climbed out of the cab with a final look and ran to the back of the trailer.

Harry and John rigged a pulley system from the roof of the trailer. They threaded tie-downs through the roof of the trailer then created a sling. Once it supported John’s bike, Harry played out the length of the tie-down while John guided the bike over the back edge of the trailer. When the bike rested on the ground, John untied the sling.

“Get a move on, man. We got company coming fast.” John called out.

Liz tied her and Harry’s packs to the back fender of his tri-wheeled bike. John motioned her toward the trailer and made a step up with his entwined fingers. “Get what you can, but hurry while we get Harry’s bike down.”

Liz flung the near-empty bag into the trailer then reached up to pull herself into the gloom. She scrambled around the last bike and scuttled over pallets to bust open boxes. She threw cans of stew, fruit, beans, and meat into the bag. As an afterthought, she stuffed three rolls of toilet paper in an end pocket. She dumped in a box of tampons and a bottle of antibacterial soap then stuffed some odds and ends in another pocket from a pharmacy tote. She pulled the bag to the opening and pushed it over the edge.

With that done, she used the blanket to ease two cases of water over the edge. She stacked the water cases near John’s bike.

“Gotta hurry, folks.” John warned as he looked over his shoulder toward the approaching horde.

Liz turned to see Harry struggling to get the front wheel of the second bike over the edge of the trailer floor. He was having a hard time hauling the weight of the bike up and over the raised lip of the trailer. Liz pulled herself back into the trailer and added her weight to his. With a sudden jerk, the wheel cleared the edge and jerked free. The bike swung out.

“It’s over! Ease it down. Hurry!” John yelled as he pulled the guide strap away from the trailer and toward the ground. The drop was not exactly controlled, but left the bike in one piece as far as Liz could see.

Harry jumped to the ground and reached up, but Liz waved him away. He grabbed the supply duffle and pulled two bungee cords around the bag on the back of his three-wheel bike. John picked up the cases of water and stacked them on his bike and tied them down. They each picked up packs and stowed them.

The trio struggled to ready the bikes as they kept a wary eye on the pack of predators’ getting closer as the minutes ticked by. The infected were barely fifty feet away by the time both bikes were ready to go. Harry threw his leg over the side of the bike and pulled Liz onto the seat behind him.

“Let’s go!” Harry yelled.

John’s bike roared to life, he kicked it into gear and gave it gas. The bike made a slow turn away and began moving away from the approaching horde.

“Come on, Harry…I’m feeling a little exposed here.” Liz yelled.

Harry pushed the starter and machine coughed and failed to crank. “Fuck me!” Harry cursed.

“We gotta go, Harry!” Liz pulled her gun and pointed it toward the nearest infected ready to fire while she clung to Harry’s back.

Harry reached under the gas tank of the bike and gave a valve a twist as he called over his shoulder with a grin. “Forgot the shut-off.”

He pushed the starter again, and the machine coughed then roared to life. The dead were close enough for Liz to see the clouded eyes. She could hear their moans and the stench grew made her gag. It was hard to believe only a few days ago they had been regular people with normal lives.

She saw a woman in a sundress with a sandal dangling from one ankle limping toward them. Behind her was a teen with pink hair and black eyes and a carpenter still wearing his tool belt. A hammer dangled from a leather loop hitting the carpenter’s leg with each halting step.

Harry yelled. “Hang on Lizzy, this is going to be rough!”

He fired a head shot to take out the carpenter. “Cover me!” He shouted as he jammed his handgun in the chest holster and twisted the throttle.

“Go!” Liz screamed as she pointed her handgun, took aim and fired.

The bullet passed through the teen’s neck then hit a smaller child stumbling along behind her. Liz fired again, but the shot went wild and hit a monster still wearing a dress shirt. A chunk of shirt and flesh tore away but the monster barely noticed the impact. The arm fell to the monster’s side barely clinging to the shoulder by a few tendons and flesh but he kept stumbling toward them.

Harry turned the bike around and headed away from the approaching horde. John fired two shots before he holstered his weapon and roared ahead. Harry gunned the engine and Liz was slammed against the seat back. She holstered the handgun as they sped away from the horde.

When they cleared the horde, Harry settled into cruising speed, Liz leaned into Harry’s back and tears slid down her face. She had shot a child. She had seen the boy’s head explode and his body crumple to the ground.