Picking Up Strays

Posted: July 13, 2015 in Book 1 TERROR IN TEXAS
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Matt pushed another cart in line then stopped to look at the collection of supplies waiting by the door. He made a mental inventory of the types of supplies and worried he was forgetting something. He’d never cared for kids and worried they would miss something important.

While Jenkins and Ramirez stood guard, Jasper Kovak loaded canned goods in the pickup. Clothing, linens, and bedding had been stuffed into the back seat and trunk of the Toyota Camry Joan claimed as hers. The older woman walked up to him with two shopping bags of bottled spices. She dropped the bags into a basket.

When Matt looked at her, Joan answered. “For cooking.” With a shrug, she kept talking. “I don’t think we can get much more in my Camry. Carl will be riding with Jasper and Lisa can ride with me. Carl wanted to go home, but I told him his folks were out of town. I know if they were still alive they would have come for him.”

“Probably.” Matt agreed. “Same for the girl.”

Joan watched Kovak shift cases of food across the bed of the pickup. “That last day, we came in early. I manage the coffee shop, so I needed to get things started for the day. I listened to the little TV in the kitchen. I told Kovak it was getting really bad out there and tried to get him to lock the doors. He wouldn’t have it. All he could think about was covering the registers.”

“Lot of people didn’t believe what was going on,” Matt answered.

“All those folks that worked in the store are dead because he let someone in that had been bitten.” Joan lamented.

“Mr. Kovak let an injured man in the store and took the man to the break room. He told the assistant manager, Mark Douglas, to get someone to stay with him and wait for EMS. Mark was always cornering the girls in the break room trying to get them to go out with him, all the young pretty ones. Obviously, the bastard thought he was God’s gift.” Joan added sarcastically then continued. “Mr. Kovak went back to his office to call 911 and didn’t come back down. I think he was up there calling corporate to ask them what to do.” She winked. “Poor Mr. Kovak couldn’t fart without their permission.” Joan chuckled then grew solemn.

“The girls came in one by one and went to the break room to get aprons and put purses in the lockers, but never came out back out to the registers. Douglas stomped around the registers cussing and fussing about it until he finally headed back to chew’em out.

My guess is, the man changed then attacked the girls, one after the other as they came in. I was walking to the back room to get supplies just as Douglas got to the break room, all puffed up and ready to give ‘em hell. He slammed the door open and all those girls, covered in blood and open wounds pounced on him. It was terrible. I stood there staring as the door swung closed, him still yelling and cussing. I ran.”

Joan took a deep breath before she continued. “Carl was moving a pallet when I came through the back doors and I just grabbed his arm. We ran for the front of the store. I told him to get Lisa and the other girls and go to the office while I went for Doris in the coffee shop. He could only get Lisa to go with him. By then two of the checkers had been attacked.

When I got to the coffee shop, Doris had been attacked and was just getting to her feet. When she came at me, I picked up a skillet and slammed it over her head. I ran upstairs to warn Kovak and by then those people you took out were in the store. We were trapped. All we could do was watch them come and go. I don’t know when that big woman came in, but she was really scary.”

“You’re right on that one. She was pretty terrifying.” Matt answered as he walked away.

It took another ten minutes to finish loading the rest of the supplies. Every vehicle filled leaving only enough room for a driver and one passenger. They had gathered a lot more supplies than Matt imagined they could, even with the two extra vehicles. The last ten minutes had been tense with the infected in the area noticing the activities around the store.

Ramirez and Joan stood to the side speaking softly while Kovak and Jake stacked the last of the can goods in the bed of the truck. With all the activity and movement around the store, the infected began to notice. One by one, they turned and stumbled toward the store.

Matt called out. “Time to go. Keep it close and tight.” He looked at the two civilians. “Stay behind the Humvee. The white truck will be at the back.”

In less than a minute, everyone was loaded up and moving out. Matt tried to watch the vehicles in the side mirror as they made their way through the streets. He worried the Camry was too small to really protect the occupants if they got overrun with a horde of infected but could think of no better way to protect them. Heading back to the campgrounds was nerve wracking with the number of vehicles. As a result, he constantly watched for infected and tried to anticipate the time it would take them to reach the convoy.

Matt studied the road ahead as they passed an abandoned construction site. He glanced at the side mirror again just in time to see Jenkins and Ramirez in the white truck peel off and disappear into the barricaded site. He slammed on the breaks and the pickup and Camry were forced to stop as well. He turned to pick up the radio, but Jake pulled it from his hand laughing.

“Just wait. Give it two minutes.”

Matt scowled. “What the fuck is going on? We can’t afford to be sitting out here like this. You realize that Camry is little more than a tin can. It’s going to be dark soon.”

The white truck reappeared. Right behind it, a large food truck turned the corner to fall in line. The drivers waved and gave a thumbs-up.

Matt cursed. “A fucking taco truck?”

Jake grinned. “It makes sense. When I was riding with Jenkins, we discussed cooking for so many people. Joan mentioned a few suggestions when I mentioned the kitchen in the office would be hard pressed to provide three dozen meals, three times a day. Ramirez is thinking long term.”

“Long term?” Matt groused. “We’re supposed to be getting the girls to their family. We can’t drag three dozen people to some place that we know nothing about.”

Jake shrugged. “No. We can’t. I figure God gave us a job to do. It just got a little bigger than we originally thought it would be.”

They got to the turnoff for the campground and Matt almost drove past it. The signs on the side of the road had been removed. The grass had been pulled back up to hide the evidence of removing it. A gate at the side of the entrance had brush woven through the lower wire and one of the soldiers stood at the entrance ready to close it once they drove through.

“Looks like Larry has been busy.” Matt guided the Humvee onto the narrow roadway.

Jake answered. “We sure don’t want Bishop and his men to find us.”

Larry stood at the deer fence gate staring at the caravan of vehicles driving through the opened barrier. He pointed to a couple soldiers to close the gate then jumped on the running board next to Matt’s open window. “You brought company I see.”

Matt shrugged. “Couldn’t leave ‘em. They were trapped in the discount store we raided.”

“We could use a few more hands on deck,” Larry advised.

“Don’t know how much help they’ll be. We got a store manager and three of his employees. Not much need for a stocker or cashier as I see it.”

Larry jumped to the ground when the Humvee pulled up in front of manager’s office. We need to have a talk when you get the vehicles settled. We’ve done some exploring and found some real good stuff.”

Matt nodded. “For now, park the vehicles next to the bus. Put the food truck at the side of the rec-center. The pickup can park up here to offload. We can use the bus for food storage until we get something better figured out.”

“On it.” Larry jogged off with a wave of his hand. Two of Jenkin’s men came running.

Matt turned to look out over the campground. “We have to find some campers or something. We can’t all sleep in the rec center indefinitely. People will start getting on each other’s nerves.”

“Campers would work. Sanitation and water hookups are available already.” Jake commented. We can take a four man crew and bring back two or three at a time.”

“Food is not going to last long at the rate we’re dragging in strays,” Matt mumbled. “Someone else needs to manage this shit. Not me.”

Matt stomped into the manager’s office to see Amanda holding Claire and giving her a bottle.

“Well, hello.” She said with a smile. “I thought I’d give Amy a break. She’s a good caretaker for her sister, but she needs time to play with the others and be a kid.”

“No one has time to be a kid, anymore.” Matt answered. “The world has gone to shit.”

“They’re still children. For now they’re safe so they need to be kids.” She protested.

Matt turned away and reached into the refrigerator. He pulled a cold bottle of water from the shelf.

“Did you bring baby formula?” Amanda asked.

“That and about a thousand pounds of shit. Even shampoo and laundry soap.”

Amanda asked “What abou….”

Matt interrupted. “Look, I don’t know what all we brought in. Someone is going to have to sort out all that stuff.”

Thirty minutes later, a couple of camp lanterns lit three picnic tables pushed together for the meeting. All the adults sat around with bottles of water or soda in hand.

Matt stood at the head of the table and looked at the expectant faces staring at him. “Thanks for coming folks. We got a lot of things to think about, but I’m not sure I’m the one best suited for this. I’m a soldier, not a manager…uh…uh.

Sargent, maybe I can help.” Amanda interrupted. Matt stepped back and Amanda continued. “I think what Matt is trying to say, is that we need to organize. I spoke with several of you and I think I have a pretty good picture of our resources.” She looked up from a list in her hands then at Matt and smiled while she placed a hand on her swollen belly. “The military needs to do what they do best. The rest of us need to step up and take the burden of everyday activities from their shoulders.”

Matt took a deep breath and sighed as he crossed his arms and leaned back against a tree trunk.

Amanda continued. “Mr. Novak has already started sorting and distributing the clothing for the children. He’s also begun an inventory of supplies on hand. If there are no objections, I would like to suggest he be placed in charge of inventory and distribution.”

Everyone nodded and Amanda continued. “As most of you know now, Joan and Lisa have food service experience so meals are covered. Some of the older teens have been helping with the younger children as needed and will continue doing so.” Amanda held out her hand. “Larry, will you report what you’ve found during your exploration of the property?”

Larry stood up and grinned. “The property extends nearly half a mile further than we originally thought. There’re a pond and barn with half a dozen horses still in the paddock. The barn is full of hay and includes a stocked tack room. There’s even a shed with half dozen canoes and fishing tackle. Oh, I even found four paddle boats for the kids. There are a few life jackets as well.”

“Thank you.” Amanda continued. “Since the Sargent and the rest of the military with us have already proven their ability to protect us and procure supplies, we will rely on them to continue to keep us safe. The rest of us will do as much as we can to take care of ourselves and not be a burden with everyday affairs. In addition, we women will provide laundry service.”

Lawson jumped to her feet and protested. “Hell no.”

Matt interrupted. “We do our own laundry. No discussion.” He looked at members of his and Jenkins’ groups. “We’re big boys and girls.” He glanced toward Lawson then continued. “We take care of ourselves. We’ll be helping around camp where needed when not on guard duty or out scavenging. We all have to work together to survive.”

Amanda nodded. “As you wish.” She took a deep breath then continued. “We need a way to prioritize what is being brought into camp. I don’t think a “wish list” is a good way to address supply runs.” When she saw a nod from Matt, she continued. “I would like to suggest a meeting between Mr. Novak, Joan and Matt before each supply run to set priorities.”

Again, her suggestion was met with nods so she smiled as she looked from face to face. “Is there anything else to address right now?” When there was no further discussion, she added. “I guess meeting adjourned.”

Matt and the other soldiers remained. Matt turned to Larry. “Well, I take it you have more to add.

Larry laughed. “As you saw, we took down the signs at the road, camouflaged the gate and closed it after you came through. It won’t stop a truck but maybe keep any infected from wandering up the road. I set up a two three-man shifts rotation, guarding the grounds for now.”

“Maybe it would be better to do three men, three shifts.” Matt commented. “No matter which way we do it, we’re light on personnel.”

Larry nodded. “We need guard stands built inside the campgrounds. I’d like a hidden stand in a tree near the road as an early warning. Or maybe set up video. Shit. I suppose we could do a driveway alarm even.”

Matt held up his hand. “I know. We have a bucket load of issues. For now let’s have three men on at all times; one at the gate, another on the far side of the grounds and one rotating in and out. That leaves two to help the kids and women with the kids.”

After a quick discussion on guard locations, Matt rose and headed toward the manager’s office. He walked into the living room to see Amy sitting on the floor with Claire.

“Mr. Matt, you look tired,” Amy commented as she looked up from changing Claire’s diaper.

Matt shrugged. “Long day. You got everything you need?”

“Yes, sir. Mr. Novak brought formula and diapers this afternoon. He even brought baby food. Claire Bear is all ready for bed.” Amy set Claire down on the floor and she crawled toward Matt. “I told Ms. Amanda, she could have the bed. Mr. Jake brought a bed for Claire. It’s pretty cool. It folds right up. I guess we’ll have to have another one when Ms. Amanda has her baby.”

Claire pulled at Matt’s boot laces. Matt leaned down and pulled her into his lap. “Well, baby girl, you all ready for bed, sweetie?” She reached out and giggled. Matt gave her a peck on the cheek then handed her back to Amy.

“Good night, Mr. Matt.” Amy disappeared up the stairs.

Matt picked up a plastic bag of shaving supplies and headed for the shower at the rec center. He grabbed a brand new pair of underwear, sweats, and t-shirt from a second bag. The new underclothes and socks were his allotment according to Novak.

Once showered and shaved, Matt held up the cargo pants in the shower to wash away the blood and gore from his day.  He finished his shower, then rolled up his clothes in a bundle and stepped back in his combat boots to walk back to the manager’s office. He passed through the rec center where accordion dividers had separated the massive room into three sections.

The boys were bedded down outside the men’s restroom while the girls on the opposite side near the girls’ restroom. The middle section provided plenty of room for adults. Matt shrugged. It wasn’t ideal, but at least they weren’t spending another night on the bus.

Matt walked outside and across the grounds to the manager’s office. He draped his wet clothes over a rope tied between two trees at the back of the house along with others recently washed pants and t-shirts. He walked into the kitchen and began opening cabinets. He turned at the sound of footsteps approaching. Amanda, wearing an oversized t-shirt and sleep shorts was brushing damp hair. “Oh, sorry.” She whispered as she turned to go back to the bedroom.

“No, it’s alright.” Jake and Larry had already turned in and now lay out on the carpet. He stepped out of his boots and sat them under the chair. “I was looking for a drink.” He felt the color warm his face.

“I was going to fix some tea.” She walked to the stove where a kettle sat over a flame. “Sweet Dreams tea, do you want some?”

Matt shrugged. “Why not? Sure.”

Once they were settled at the small kitchenette table, Matt asked. “When’s the baby due?”

Amanda placed her hand on her belly. “Six weeks.” She caressed the swell lovingly.

Matt shifted in his seat and wrapped his hands around the warm cup and looked at the swirl of amber liquid.

Amanda continued speaking without looking away. “It’s a boy. His father was one of those the soldiers killed to get in the bus.” She sighed. “He would be glad. He would never have wanted to hurt anyone like that.”

“I’m sorry,” Matt whispered.

“How did you make it off the base? I heard it was overrun within eight hours of the attack.”

“I wasn’t on base. In fact, I was drunk on my ass. If it wasn’t for Larry and Jake, I wouldn’t have made it.” Matt nodded toward them and chuckled. “They threw me in a dumpster. That’s where we came across Amy and Claire. Their mother led a bunch of infected away while they hid.”

“Oh God. Where is she now?” Amanda asked.

Matt shrugged. “Don’t know. The girls have family near Guadalupe State Park at a place called Pine Canyon. We were headed that way.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know,” Matt answered as he rinsed the cup and turned it upside down in the drain rack. “Good night. Thanks for the tea.”

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