Posts Tagged ‘Della’

Della slid over and pulled Jimmy from where he rested on an unconscious Sandy. Sandy’s clothes were covered in blood but it didn’t take long to realize it was from a wounded Jimmy. Blood ran in rivulets from his neck. Della ignored Sandy and pressed a rag to Jimmy’s neck.  He moaned softly.

Still pressing her right hand against the wound, she jerked the door open with her left. She slid out, pulling Jimmy after her as she stepped from the vehicle.

“I got this.” Zack slid out the open driver’s door and reached for Jimmy.

Della stepped aside as Zack grabbed Jimmy under his arms. He gently eased him from the truck seat. Della stumbled along still pressing the rag against his neck as Zack made his way across the road. They made their way to a huge oak tree and laid him against the trunk.

Steve climbed from the front passenger seat and jerked the second door open. With Della and Zack focused on Jimmy, he concentrated at Sandy. She lay slumped across the back seat unmoving. Blood covered her left shoulder, neck, and the back of her head.

After a quick examination, he realized she had no wound to account for all the blood. He laid two fingers on her neck. The beating beneath the fingertips was strong and steady. He leaned her back against the seat and saw the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The middle of her forehead had a golf ball size knot that was growing darker as he watched.

Steve left Sandy stretched out on the seat and hurried around the truck as quickly as the blades allowed him after grabbing the backpack with first aid supplies.

When he got to the trio under the tree he stumbled to a halt. It was bad. Della’s hand was pressed to Jimmy’s neck while the blood oozed through the rag and spilled between her fingers.

Steve fell to his knees and pulled at the zipper of the bag. He pulled a package from the bag and tore it open. He pulled Della’s hand away and quickly pressed the compression dressing to the wound then pressed her hand back in place. When she looked back at him tears streamed down her cheeks.

Jimmy moaned and his eyes fluttered open. “Hurts….” He whimpered.

Steve forced a smile. “Easy kid.”

Steve turned to Zack. “Get a couple bottles of water, man.”

Zack lumbered toward the truck, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

“Is it as bad as I think?” Della whispered.

Steve nodded. “It nicked the carotid. There’s nothing we can do.”

Zack reappeared with bottles of water in hand. “Sandy’s waking up.”

Steve took the bottles. “Keep an eye on her. We got this.”

Bandages soaked through nearly as fast as they changed them at the side of Jimmy’s neck. Steve pulled two more compression bandages from the bag, opened the packaging and exchanged the soaked one for two clean ones.

Jimmy sighed. “Am I dying?”

Steve nodded then whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Well, fuck.” Jimmy whispered as his eyes closed. A moment later, his eyes opened with a look of terror. He grabbed at Steve’s hand. “I don’t want to turn into a monster.”

“You won’t,” Steve answered.

Zack walked back to the old oak tree. Along with Della and Steve, he watched Jimmy’s eyes lose focus and his face relaxed. Zack cleared his throat twice then gave up as tears spilled from his eyes. He cried quietly. Della sobbed as she brushed hair from Jimmy’s face.

“I’m sorry, sweetie.” She whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

Jimmy’s chest rose and fell more slowly as the color faded from his face. It rose one last time then his whole body relaxed and the tension in his face disappeared.

Steve reached to Della’s hands and pulled them from the blood-soaked bandages. She leaned back and watched as he used the bottles of water to wash the blood from her hands. When he was done, she took the dampened towel and wiped blood from Jimmy’s face, her dark skin accentuating the paleness of his skin.

Della whispered. “I feel like I’ve lost a child.”

Steve swallowed hard. “So do I.”

Zack stood behind them with tears glistening on his round cheeks. “We’ve been friends since sixth grade. When we were kids, his mom told me she knew he’d be safe with me.” Zack snuffled. “I let her down.”

“No, you didn’t, Zack. You did everything you could to keep him safe. We all would have died at the center if it hadn’t been for you.” Della said.

Steve nodded. “There will be paybacks…I promise, if we come across the rest of that bunch, they’re dead.”

A distant moan interrupted and Della jumped to her feet. “Oh God, I forgot about Sandy.”

Steve looked up and Zack pulled him to standing and let him get balanced on the blades.

“Is she going to be alright? She has a really big goose egg on her forehead.” Zack picked up the backpack and pulled the zipper closed.

Steve added. “She was unconscious so she could have a concussion. It’s hard to tell. We need to keep her awake for a while when she comes around.”

By the time Steve got to the truck, Della had Sandy sitting up. Digging around behind the back seat, she found a roll of paper towels. She poured water on the paper and began wiping at the blood covering Sandy’s neck and side of her face. Steve reached behind the back seat and retrieved a faded t-shirt that had seen better days, but looked clean. Della pulled Sandy’s blood soaked shirt off, finished cleaning her as much as she could then pulled the clean shirt over her head.

“My head.” Sandy whimpered. She reached up to feel the knot above her left eye. “I think I feel sick.”

Della leaned her out of the truck and the remnants of a meal of energy bar and water spilled into the grass.

“Look y’all!” Zack called out suddenly.

Steve looked back down the road to where Zack pointed at a distant plume of dust.

Steve called out. “Come on Zack. We have to go!”

“We can’t leave Jimmy!” Zack protested. “I can’t leave him.”

Steve grabbed a blanket from behind the seat and hurried to Zack. Together, they wrapped Jimmy into a cocoon of army green wool. Zack leaned down and pulled his friend into his arms and hurried to the back of the truck. He laid the body gently in the bed of the truck and raced around the back of the truck to the driver’s side. He got behind the wheel while Steve climbed in the passenger door. Della buckled Sandy and herself into the back seat.

“Go! I see them coming!” Della called out.

Zack turned the key and the motor roared to life. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and they sped down the road with no real destination in mind. Zack made random turns until Steve finally pointed to a cross road at the base of the steep hill they had just crested.

“Slow down,” Steve ordered. “It will take them a few minutes to get here and I got an idea.”

They could see multiple vehicles ahead had been abandoned on either side of the road. One of the vehicles was a Department of Public Safety vehicle.

“What are we doing?” Zack asked.

Steve’s mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. “Paybacks. Stop by the DPS unit.”

“Okay. Then what?”

Steve used the drive time it took to get to the DPS vehicle to outline his plan. With tire iron in hand, he climbed out of the truck and walked to the black and white vehicle. He quickly realized the officer sat slumped into the steering wheel. A head shot had taken the officer out shattering both driver and passenger windows. It looked like a vehicle had pulled up and either the driver or passenger pointed a gun and fired.

Steve looked into the front seat and saw the officer’s service belt and revolver were gone. The service shotgun was no longer in the rack under the dash. At seeing that, Steve still couldn’t imagine anyone taking the time to remove the spike strip from the trunk so he reached inside the door and popped the trunk. He strode back of the unit and smiled when he saw the trunk had not been disturbed.

The officer’s trunk was a study in organization. It included two plastic totes with file folders for forms and papers, a tool box, several items to use for road side assistance in a canvas bag. In addition to the two spike strips and a large plastic gun case.

Steve leaned over and flipped the clasps and grinned. Inside was nestled a scoped rifle and several boxes of ammunition for the rifle. He left the rifle and other supplies for the time being and pulled both spike strips from the trunk. Tucking the tire iron in his waistband, he tossed several items from the trunk into the canvas bag and picked up both spike strips and headed up the hill where Della and Zack were finishing moving cars as he had directed.

Two vehicles were pulled to the center of the road with their front bumpers meeting in the middle of the road. Zack grabbed one of the spike strips from Steve then lumbered after him as he made his way around the blockade.

As Steve lurched past Della, he called out. “Head down the hill and open some of the car doors. Make sure it’s safe first. If no one’s inside, then toss the contents around. Make a big show. We want the guys in the truck as distracted as possible so they don’t see the spike strips.”

Della took off toward the cluster of vehicles after checking on Sandy.

Steve rolled the first spike strip across the road and could clearly see the zigzag pattern of spikes. He motioned for Zack to roll out the second strip. He looked across the road and realized the truck driver would have to be blind or extremely distracted to not notice the dark strip of spikes lying across the asphalt.

“Will they see the strips?” Zack asked.

“That’s the reason for tossing things around.” Steve answered. He pointed at one of the vehicles and continued. “There’s a propane tank in that blue pickup. Get it would you? I’ve got bungees from the unit. We’re anchoring it between the bumpers and if they hit the strip full speed, there’s a good chance they’ll slam into the cars and hopefully the tank will go boom.” Steve grinned.

Zack brought back the tank and helped mount it between the two vehicles. When they were done, they got back in the truck and headed down the hill.

They studied Della’s handiwork as they headed down the hill and saw what looked like a woman standing at an open car door. As they got closer, Zack’s eyes got big and Steve snorted.

“I’ll be damned.” Steve snorted.

A life-sized plastic doll had been taped to a car door with duct tape. The plastic arm extended up as if waving. Della had pulled a glittering sequined shirt over the doll’s upper body and now the dime-sized sequins on the shirt sparkled in the sun and light breeze.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” Zack noted.

He slowed the truck and Della climbed in next to Sandy. She glanced over her shoulder and commented. “I’ll never stop being amazed at the stupidity of people. What kind of person takes a blow up sex doll with them when they’re running for their lives?”

Steve smirked. “It works for us.”

Della leaned over Sandy to check on her. She was slumped against the window and dozing.

“She shouldn’t be sleeping.” Della commented as she attempted to rouse Sandy. Della dampened a rag and wiped at Sandy’s face.

Zack stopped the truck at the side of police car and Steve stepped out to retrieve the rifle and filled the canvas bag with additional salvageable goods from the trunk. When he was back in the truck, he pointed to a side road at the base of the hill.

Zack drove down the hill and made the turn. When he had gotten far enough from the intersection to be hidden from the highway by a stand of trees, Steve told him to stop again.

“Stay here and keep an eye out. If you hear that truck make it around the road block or you see anyone else besides me heading through those trees, take off and don’t come back.”

He scratched around and retrieved a plastic bag from the floor then dropped two bottles of water and a couple energy bars inside. He picked up the plastic gun case and opened the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m making sure these people don’t go after anyone else.”

Steve grabbed the strap of the rifle and slid from the passenger seat of the pickup. He pulled the rifle strap over his shoulder. “Don’t stick around if you see anyone else besides me heading this way.”

Zack nodded. “Got it, man.”

Della reached out. “You should let me go with you.”

“No.” Steve stepped away. “I have to do this. You have to take care of the kids.”

Steve looked back without smiling. Attempting a terminator impersonation, he answered. “I’ll be back.”

Della forced a smile while Zack shook his head and laughed.

“That was really bad, man,” Zack commented.

Steve gave them a careless wave then turned and walked toward the wooded grove overlooking the trap. He maneuvered carefully through the brush and briars until he found a spot he had spotted earlier. It was a gentle rise crested with a cluster of boulders. He laid the rifle on the biggest rock and eased onto a smaller rock behind it. He dropped the plastic bag next to his leg. He opened a bottle of water and drank most of the bottle.

He was tired. The stump of his right knee hurt like hell. He wanted to pull the thermoplastic cup and silicone sleeve from the tender flesh, but he didn’t dare. If his little trap failed to stop the men chasing them, he had to be able to move quickly.

The sound of an engine in the distance interrupted his silent musing. Steve rose and looked toward the hill in the distance. The big truck with the roll bar and lights crested the hill.

The vehicle had been jacked up to allow room for the massive oversized wheels with thick tread, mud tires. The engine screamed as the truck vaulted over a distant hill with the tires leaving the road for a heartbeat.

Steve raised the scoped rifle to his eye and watched as the vehicle landed hard and the sound of its approach grew louder. He waited for the truck to climb the last hill before the trap. The truck raced to the top, caught air then landed with a bone-jarring thud, the engine screaming in protest. The driver struggled to control the vehicle but didn’t let up on the gas.

Steve aimed at the driver then moved the barrel to lead his target. He took a breath then let the air out and squeezed the trigger. The explosion of the shot was all but obliterated by the roar of the truck engine when the driver slumped forward.

Steve watched through the scope as the passenger jumped into action reaching the stirring wheel struggling to get control of the truck. The front tires hit the spike strips. Tires exploded. The vehicle swerved to the left and the tires lost any semblance of traction.

The vehicle tipped and began to roll. The two men in the bed clinging to the massive roll bar sailed over the side of the truck then disappeared under the crush of metal as the massive machine made the first rotation.

The second rotation took the truck into the two cars with the propane tank. The resulting explosion was deafening. A billowing mushroom of flames rose up from the twisted metal. One by one the gas tanks of each vehicle succumb to the heat and exploded. Within seconds, the entire trio of vehicles burst into flames. Debris fell from the sky all around the crash site.

Steve pushed himself onto his blades. He picked up the bag and rifle. He turned to walk back to the truck where Della and Zack waited. He grimaced with each step. By the time he got within site of the truck, he was using the rifle to support his weight.

Zack jumped from the truck and raced to Steve’s side. He grabbed the bag and pulled the rifle from his hand. He slid his shoulder under Steve’s arm and took the weight off his right leg. They stumbled back to the vehicle. Della opened the passenger door and Zack eased Steve inside.

“How bad is it?” Della asked.

Steve grimaced as he eased the cuff from the stump. “Bad enough.”

Della pulled the blood filled silicone sock from the stump. The skin across the stumps was raw and angry red. Pressure sores had formed and opened. Blood seeped from the open eruptions.

“Oh my God.” She whispered.

“I guess it’s a little worse than I thought.” Steve rubbed at the skin above the stump.

Della pulled at the second prosthetic. When it was also removed she found the skin was red and angry, but not yet blistered or broken. “Well, at least it’s not as bad as the right leg.”

“We have to get out of here,” Steve advised.

“After I clean and bandage your leg,” Della replied as she pulled the canvas bag from the back seat. “And you will be not using the blades for a while.

“Is he going to be okay?” Sandy asked.

Della nodded. “He’ll be fine.”

She finished dressing the wound then allowed Steve to turn around in the truck seat. She poured water into the silicone sock and rinsed the blood from it. She wiped both out with alcohol wipes from the first aid kit. When she was finished she picked up the blades and handed them to Sandy to store on the floor in the back seat. She closed up the bag and passed it back as well.

“Zack, get behind the wheel. We need to find a place to hide out for a few days.” Steve ordered.

Della climbed in the back seat and slammed the door. “I second that.” She passed Steve two white pills from the medical kit.

Zack turned the extended-cab pickup around and got back on the main road. He saw a sign advertised Utopia as only twenty miles ahead. “We’re heading to Utopia? It’s pretty far off the beaten path.”

Steve downed a couple Tylenol. “Let’s see what it looks like.”


“They won’t stop looking for us,” Jimmy whispered. “They killed those people in the store when the old man couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them which direction we went. They said you shot someone at the barn.”

“Damn.” Steve responded as he steered the vehicle through a dry creek crossing. “I don’t suppose pleading it was an accident would help.”

Zack smirked. “They don’t look like the understanding type.”

Steve slowed the van and turned off the motor. He opened his window and leaned his head outside. After a moment, he leaned back in the seat.

“Did you hear that?” Steve asked.

Della whispered. “I think I hear a motor in the distance. I can’t say for sure.”

Steve cranked the engine and slammed the van back in gear. He accelerated too quickly and the van jerked forward slamming the riders back in their seats. By the time they righted themselves from the sideways momentum, they were racing down the road again.

Della grabbed at her seat belt with trembling hands. She snapped it into place then glanced over her shoulder to the trio in the back seats. They bounced and jerked from side to side as they grasped at whatever they could find to hold on to.

“Steve! You’re going to kill us if you go off the road driving this fast.”

“Buckle up! If they catch us, we’ll be in a lot worse shape.” He answered. “I heard a truck motor.”

The gravel road disappeared and the van traveled a path overgrown with more patches of weeds with each passing fence post. Steve reduced the speed as the path grew rougher with deep washes in the hard-packed dirt hidden by the vegetation.

When the path opened up, Steve accelerated and they were racing down the road at over forty miles an hour. Brush and overhanging limbs slapped against the sides of the van. They hurled along for nearly a quarter mile when they raced around a curve in the road and a massive barrier of green appeared. Vegetation covered the middle of the road. Steve braked, but it wasn’t quick enough.

The front of the van was air-born for a fraction of a second then hit a solid wall on the distant side of a massive wash in the road. The van landed with a shuddering crash that could be felt through the undercarriage and threw belted occupants toward the front seat.

The steering wheel jerked from Steve’s hands while the back end bounced and tossed the occupants again. The grill hit the opposite rim of the crater and came down so hard the axle collapsed with the front end settling on bent wheels and flattened tires.

Steve jerked the accelerator lever back and slammed the van in park. He turned off the motor and slammed both hands against the steering wheel. The van grew quiet and the only sound was heavy breathing and whimpers from the back seat.

“Everyone okay?” Steve asked.

Zack looked around the back of the van then answered. “We’re fine back here.” He began righting crates of food and supplies. “Is the van drivable? I heard something that didn’t sound good.”

“No. We’re walking until we get another vehicle. Get what we can carry together. Throw out the crap in that canvas bag and that backpack, put food and water in them.”

Della asked. “We’re walking?”

“No choice. The van’s toast.” Steve answered.

“Then let’s get out of here, people.” Della sighed.

Zack grabbed the duffle and began stuffing food into the bag.

Steve opened the glove box and retrieved two boxes of ammo and a spare magazine from inside. He pulled a jacket from the back of his seat and dropped the ammo in the pockets and zipped them closed. He tied the arms around his waist.

“Where are we going?” Jimmy asked as he slid the backpack on his shoulder.

Steve answered. “Back the way we came. We don’t know where this road comes out on the other end. I’m hoping they left at least one of the vehicles at the store we can take. For now, we have a long walk. With a little luck, they split up and we will only have the occupants of one vehicle to deal with at a time.”

Della waited for Steve to exit the van. She picked up two filled plastic bags and stepped to the ground. “What happens when we meet those rednecks? You know it’s going to go bad for all of us.” She whispered.

“We hide,” Steve answered. “We hear a vehicle, we hide. Until then, we move as fast as we can. I figure we traveled at least five miles from the gas station.”

Steve called Jimmy and Zack to his side. “Head down the road past the van and go into the woods about a hundred yards down the road. Drop some trash and stomp around then head back this way as quick as you can. Try to make it look like we all went that way and don’t step in bare dirt coming back. You have five minutes to catch up.”

Both young men nodded then took off.

Della and Sandy began walking back the way they had come. Steve soon passed them and set an easy pace until the boys caught up. They managed two miles in less than twenty minutes. By the third mile, all were struggling to keep up the pace Steve set.

Sandy gasped. “I can’t go on like this.”

“Five minutes rest.” Steve relented. “Drink plenty of water while you can.”

Everyone pulled plastic water bottles from bags and gulped the contents. When Jimmy went to toss his bottle in the grass Steve stopped him. “We may need the bottle later. Put them back in the bags. We don’t want to leave a trail for the rednecks to follow.”

Sandy Wandered away to pee. She found a bush and squatted behind it. She grumbled as she swatted at bugs flying around her. “Fucking mosquitoes.”

She pulled up her pants and straightened her clothes. When she headed back toward the others she paused to cock her head. She turned back toward the distant sound for a moment then raced back to the gathering.

“I hear a truck!”

Steve glanced toward the road. “Move it, people! Let’s go!”

He set a grueling pace for about two minutes then stopped at the edge of the road near a cluster of bushes under a rock outcropping. He stepped into the shadows then waved the others toward it.

“Hurry.” He ordered as he broke a branch from the back of a scrub and dusted at their footprints in the dirt at the edge of the road. “Break off some branches from the back and pass them up to me.”

Della hustled the trio under the outcropping, guiding them deeper into the shadows of the overhang. The roar of the heavy-duty truck engine grew louder and closer.

Zack and Jimmy snapped two thumb-sized branches with fans of leaves. They passed the foliage back to Della and she passed them to Steve. He backed into the gloom brushing at the dust and dirt. He planted the branch in the dirt at the opening and backed from the branch and squatted on one knee.

Steve pulled his handgun and pointed it toward the road and sound of the big engine. Everyone receded deeper into the shadows as the sound grew louder.

“Quiet, everyone!” Steve whispered.

The roar of the truck filled the afternoon silence. The vehicle raced toward them filling the air with the angry growl of a motor being pushed hard. The truck rolled down the road at an alarming speed. Everyone cringed at the sight.

The flat-black, heavy-duty pickup with jacked-up body and massive tires sporting wide treads sported a heavy duty brush guard and six-inch roll bar. Four mounted lights rose above the cab. Two men clung to the roll bar, holding rifles on their hips as they shouted at the man driving the truck. The roar of the engine and shouts grew more distinct. Steve melted back into the shadows as the vehicle raced by. They waited for a full minute before Steve pushed the brush aside. He stepped to the road and motioned the others to follow.

“Now! We have to get to the intersection before they come back. Hopefully, it will take them a while to figure out the trail is bogus.”

Steve took off jogging again with everyone following. No one protested the pace. Another twenty minutes they made it to the placed Zack and Jimmy had slipped down the hill to the gas station.  After a moment of hesitation, Steve raced over the side.  The rest followed. Everyone was gasping for breath and dripping wet with perspiration when they stumbled into the parking lot.

The truck and car seen earlier still sat in the lot undisturbed. Three bodies lay at the front of the truck. Zack ran to the extended cab truck.

“Door open, but keys are not here!” He called out.

Jimmy tried the door handle on the Oldsmobile eighty-eight. The door wouldn’t open. “Nothing here!”

Della went to the younger of the two men pressed her fingertips against the front right pocket of the man’s jeans. She looked up and shook her head then moved to the left pocket and again felt nothing. In frustration, she worked her fingers into each of the pockets and spilled the contents to the ground. She turned the man to his side to check his back pockets and saw the key ring clip anchored to his belt loop over his right back pocket. She unclipped the keys and raced toward the red truck.

“In everyone!” Steve yelled then turned to Della. “Can you drive it?”

Della reached for the back door as an answer.

Zack laughed. “I got this! I always wanted a big-ass truck like this.”

They threw the bags in the back and Steve got in front while Sandy and Jimmy followed Della into the back seat.

Zack settled in the driver’s seat and Della passed him the keys. He stuck the key in the ignition and turned it. He laughed nervously. “Really, I’ve always wanted one of these.”

The first shot took out the side mirror on the driver side and shattered the glass and plastic.

Screams filled the cab as Steve pulled the gas nozzle from the red truck, locked it open and raced to the cab and jumped in.  He yelled. “Drive!”

Zack thumped the truck in reverse and stomped the gas. He slammed on the breaks as another shot rang out. The back glass shattered with an explosion of glass. Jimmy, Sandy and Della were thrown to the right with bone-jarring crash.

“Stay down!” Steve ordered.

He struggled to his knees in the passenger seat and leaned out the window. He clung to the doorframe and pointed the handgun back at the huge black truck racing toward them. He fired three quick shots and the truck swerved.

Zack slammed the truck into drive and pressed his foot to the floor. The truck swerved around the fueling island and fishtailed onto the gravel and broken asphalt.

More shots pinged off the top of the cab. Steve leaned out the window with the next swerve of the truck. Della grabbed his belt as he overbalanced and nearly fell out the window.

Once righted, Steve leaned back out of the window to take another shot. Della clung to his belt while Jimmy and Sandy remained slumped across the back seat.

Zack righted the vehicle and slammed his foot down on the gas. The truck’s Hemi kicked in and the vehicle raced toward the blacktop. The pursuers came around the corner of the building and raced at them.

Steve took a final shot at the asphalt next to the fueling island just as the black truck raced by. The black truck exploded. The fire billowed out like a living creature to engulf the men in the bed of the truck. Screams from both men could be heard as they were enveloped in the flames.

The driver and passenger screamed as the flames roared surrounded the cab engulfing the passengers and into the open windows of the cab. Steve knew the fire would sear the skin from their faces and hair from their heads. The vehicle hit the second pump and the truck, pump-island and station went up in a mushroom of flames and billowing black smoke. The truck rolled from the funeral pyre with the charred remains still clinging to the structure behind the cab.

Zack clutched the steering wheel and eased off on the gas as he witnessed the devastation in the rearview mirror. He forced breath from his lungs and glanced toward Steve as he settled back into his seat. Della released Steve’s belt and tried to ease back on the seat, but Jimmy and Sandy still lay behind her.

“Okay, you two. You can sit up now.” Della ordered.

When neither one moved, Della looked down and gasped. “Oh God! Stop the truck. The kids are hurt!”

Zack slammed on the breaks. Steve opened the door and someone moaned softly.

“Why were they shooting at us?” Sandy demanded.

“Cause they’re assholes,” Jimmy answered. “Now shut up. You almost got us killed.”

“You heard that scream last night.” Zack added. “My guess is, they killed that woman and are afraid we saw something.”

Della turned back to the back seats. “Please. Just be quiet. We’re not out of this yet.”

Steve navigated the back road driving as fast as he could on the narrow-asphalt highway. All the while, he watched the mirrors for signs of pursuers. His heart hammered with the knowledge one gun could not protect them from three or four well-armed men bent of their destruction. He steered the van through a devastated community turned to the charred rubble of a strip center before he pulled the vehicle behind the remains of a large metal building.

“I think we’re safe now.” Steve turned off the motor. The only sound was the ticking of the cooling engine. He rolled down the window and the smell of charred wood wafted on a gentle breeze.

Jimmy reached behind the seat to scratch through supplies. He handed everyone a drink and a power bar.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t take a lot out of the van,” Jimmy commented.

“We would have lost a lot more than a few pieces of bedding, that’s for sure.” Della agreed.

“We lost a lot. We lost Martha.” Sandy said. “How can you act like nothing happened?”

Steve turned around. “I know what happened to Martha was upsetting, Sandy, but you almost got us killed.”

Sandy protested. “We just left her hanging in that barn.”

“We had no choice.” Della responded. “I’m afraid we’ll see a lot of terrible things just trying to survive. We live in a dangerous world now.”

Sandy retorted. “You mean you don’t care if one of us dies?”

Steve sighed. “No one is saying that. If we didn’t care, we would have left you outside the closet door back at the center. I’m sorry Martha’s gone, but we can’t change what’s been done. She made that choice. All we can do is try to survive.”

“Maybe there are FEMA shelters out there. We should try to find one.” Jimmy interjected.

“Wherever we go, we need weapons to get there,” Della commented.

“How are we going to find guns?” Jimmy asked.

“If my phone worked we could google it.” Zack answered. “Now we’re stuck with yellow pages if we can find a phone book. What’s the closest town?”

Steve retrieved a map from his glove box. After looking over the map, he answered. “Hondo.”

“I don’t think it’s much of a town,” Zack answered. “My folks used to drag my sister and me along antiquing on weekends and from what we saw it was mostly tourist shops and stores.” Zack’s voice trailed off and he looked at his feet. “I wonder if my folks are still alive.”

Steve looked over his shoulder at the big black kid. “Wherever they are I’m sure they’re proud of you. None of us would have made it this far without you.”

Zack looked embarrassed. “Thanks.”

“Now that we all understand how much we need each other to stay alive let’s head out. Watch for a gas station, pawn shops or hunting stores.” Steve advised as he put the van in gear. “Gas is getting to the point where we’re going to be walking soon if we don’t find some.”

They rode in silence until Della pointed at a small mom-and-pop gas station at the intersection of a gravel road. Signs advertised post office, stamps, worms and cold beer and hand-tied flies.

Steve slowed the van as he studied the building and surrounding area. With only two vehicles visible, he released the break and moved the van to the fueling island. Light from inside the small storefront glowed through the large windows at the side of the building.

“They have power.” Della declared excitedly. “I think I see someone inside.”

“Good,” Steve warned. “I’ll fill up the tank before we check it out.”

Everyone waited while Steve inserted the pump nozzle into the gas tank. While the gas tank was filling, he leaned into the window and whispered. “I think I hear big heavy duty engines.”

Della whispered. “Should we leave?”

“We’ll come back when they’ve gone,” Steve announced. “If it’s them, there’ll be trouble.”

The rumbling grew louder. They were moving fast and sounded like they were heading down the road straight for them.

Steve pulled the nozzle from the tank, screwed the cap closed and walked back to the driver’s seat. He slid in behind the wheel and cranked the engine. He put the vehicle in gear and accelerated. The vehicle spun out and he steered it around the back of the building to a side road that headed up a tree shrouded hill behind the store. When the asphalt turned to gravel, he eased off the accelerator and quickly slowed the van.

“I have to pee!” Sandy whined. “Why did you do that?”

Della snapped. “He heard vehicles coming. They could be the ones from the farm.”

“Oh. I still have to pee.” She answered then fell silent.

Della raised her hand. “Give me a minute.” She retrieved the map and studied it a moment. “It looks like this road loops back west a little further down and ends up running parallel to the road we were on for about ten miles then turns back to the state road.”

Steve guided the van down the gravel road to the curve and realized it was following a ridge about a quarter mile above the state road. “I’ll stop when we see the store. You can go in the bushes while I go down and see who that was. I want to make sure it’s alright before we head back down the road.”

“Ugh,” Sandy complained. “Pee in the bushes?” Sandy folded her arms across her chest.

Della turned around and scowled.

Steve parked the van under a canopy of trees overlooking the building and parking lot below. He walked to the edge of the road and the sloping terrain between there and the rooftop of the station.

As he studied the slope with the scrub trees, brush and briers Jimmy grabbed his arm. “You can’t do that.”

Steve scowled. “I can.”

Zack stepped forward. “It’s not that. We know you can, but we can’t protect Della and Sandy like you can if something happens. Jimmy and I can go down there and take a look.”

After a moment of hesitation, Steve nodded. “Okay. Don’t take chances. Look and see who it is. That’s all. Surveillance then get your asses back up here and report.”

“Got it,” Zack answered. Jimmy saluted with a smirking grin.

Zack and Jimmy headed down the embankment toward the buildings below amid a landslide of gravel and dirt.

“Be quiet,” Steve ordered as they disappeared behind a large clump of bush.

Steve watched the boys pick their way down the first two hundred foot slope. They clutched at small clumps of bushes and trees working their way down the steep incline. Steve finally lost sight of them.

The two young men stopped where at the bottom of the slope ten minutes later and worked their way through the bushes to the back of the building.

Zack pressed his back against the cinderblock wall and worked his way toward the front of the building with Jimmy close on his heels. When Zack got to the corner he peered between the wall and the edge of a fenced enclosure. Jimmy squatted to get a good look at the scene in the parking lot.

Two trucks with massive, off-road tires sat in the parking lot, one truck candy-apple red and the other gunmetal gray. The boys listened as an angry voice rose above the idling engines of two pickups. An elderly couple, presumably the proprietors of the small store, and a middle-aged man, probably a random survivor, was pushed up against the metal brush guard of one of the trucks.

“Which way did they go?” A bearded man demanded.

I wouldn’t tell you if I knew, Willie Baker.” The old man answered.

“You’ll tell me or I’ll shoot you, old man!” He yelled. “They killed my brother.”

The old man snorted. “What did you two do now?” He jerked his arm free. “I ain’t helping you kill someone else. Knowing you and your brother, you probably did something to provoke ‘em. You need to get yourself home and protect your family from the judgment coming.”

“That’s what we’re doing. “Squatters broke into the barn on Uncle Alvin’s place. They tore up the camper and damned near burned down the barn. When we came after them, they shot Joe.”

The old man laughed. “As much as you and the truth are strangers, I doubt that. Speaking of, how did you suddenly come by these fancy rigs? I know those trucks don’t belong to you, two boys. Who did you steal ‘em from?”

A sudden shot rang out and the old man fell to the ground. A red blossom appeared on the middle of his shirt. He lay still, unmoving. Dead.

The old woman screamed and dove at the man with the gun. “Good for nothing bastard! You will pay for this.”

Another shot rang out. The old woman fell to the ground next to her husband.

The sole survivor raised both hands and began backing away.

Willie Baker shoved his gun under the man’s chin. “I want to know which way those bastards went.” He pointed at two of the men with him. “Look around. See if you can track ‘em.”

Zack grabbed at Jimmy’s arm. “Gotta go.” He whispered. “Now.”

Jimmy stood frozen in surprise and shock until Zack jerked him to his feet and pulled him back into the brush. They were turning away as a third shot rang out.

Zack pushed Jimmy toward the path leading up the slope. The ground shifted while vegetation did little to ensure their footing, but arms and legs pumped a frantic escape.

“They killed him!” Jimmy whispered as he reached for a clump of grass to pull himself up to the next stand of scrub trees.

“Climb. Just climb!” Zack wheezed. “They catch us, we’re dead.”

Both young men grabbed at vines and roots from the stunted shrubs pulling themselves higher and into the heavy brush out of sight. They continued the climb until they reached the top of the ridge.

When they got to the top of the ridge, Sandy and Della grabbed at clothes and arms to pull them over the edge of the roadway.

“What happened?” Della demanded.

“Rednecks!” Zack answered as he turned to pull Jimmy back on the roadway with a jerk of his wrist. “They’re looking for us.”

The foursome bolted for the van and jumped inside.

“We gotta get out of here.” Zack declared. “They killed three people. It’s bad. Really bad.”

Steve cranked the engine and eased the van into gear and accelerated. He turned the wheel onto the narrow gravel road. “I hope this road goes clear through. Otherwise, we are so screwed.”

“Don’t matter. We can’t go back that way.” Zack ordered. “They find us, we’re dead. They killed those people at the store.”

Jimmy drew in a deep breath. “You ever see that Burt Reynolds movie with the banjos? Their first cousins are after us.”

Steve debated about removing his prosthetics, but in the end didn’t trust the safety of the barn enough to make himself that vulnerable. The barn was sweltering despite the sun setting. Della and the girls pulled bedding from the camper to take advantage of a hint of a breeze.

Jimmy and Zack arranged bales of hay at the back of the camper as makeshift beds. Della and the girls cleaned up from their meal then spread bedding on the bales. They sat around the dim glow of the lamp speaking softly.

Martha glanced over her shoulder at Steve and Zack working on the van. “Why do we have to stay here? There’re people over there. They have lights and probably running water and a bathroom.”

Della sighed. “We don’t know who they are.”

“Why does it matter? People are people.” Martha argued.

Della stood up and looked down at Martha. “You need to understand the world is different than it was. There’s no one left from the military base to contain the infection. Not everyone will be out here helping each other. We can’t take a chance.”

Martha eyes filled with unshed tears. “Mathew was on the base.”

“I’m sorry,” Della whispered.

Martha jumped to her feet and ran to the ladder leading up to the hayloft. She scrambled up and when Jimmy started to follow, she turned a screamed. “All of you! Just leave me alone.”

They could all hear her crying in the dark. Finally, Della asked. “Who is Mathew?”

Sandy answered. “Her fiancé. They just got engaged last week.”

Martha refused to come down from the loft despite attempts at talking to her by both Jimmy and Della. Cloaked in the gloom of the barn and with only the sound of Martha’s muffled sobs overhead. Steve and Zack went back to the van and began the task of removing the wheelchair ramp.

“Damned thing is just too slow. Besides, using a wheelchair is a death warrant now.” Steve commented.

Zack opened the toolbox and found wrenches. After looking around, he pulled out two pins that anchored the aluminum ramp extension to the lift mechanism. Once the extension section was out of the way, Zack held up his hand. He used a flashlight to look under the van, around the floor by the door and then back under the van again.

Finally, he stood grinning at Steve. “This won’t be bad as I thought. The unit is designed to fit in the van without modifying the vehicle. I think we can remove the rest of the unit by taking off two plates on the undercarriage and then the assembly at the door.”

Steve and Zack worked late into the night disassembling the hydraulic system from the van. It was a tough job with the limited tools available. After a brief discussion, they left the electronic close mechanism on the side door but disconnecting the safety that would cause the door to reopen if obstructed.

“A punch of the button and it’ll close, no matter what,” Steve warned as he glanced toward the hay loft. “I hope she’s alright.”

Zack gave a thumbs-up then glanced toward the loft. “I guess she hadn’t figured it out.”

“It may be a while before any of us know about families if ever.” Steve wiped moisture from his face with a rag and shrugged. “Time to get some rest. We need to get outta here first thing in the morning.” He glanced toward the back of the barn. “I think I heard screams a few minutes ago from the buildings back there.”

Zack shrugged. “I’ll wake Jimmy and he can keep an eye on them.”

Steve nodded and went to lie down on a couple bales of hay. “Tell him to wake us if any lights head this way. Otherwise, stay in the barn.”

The first rays of sunlight turned the darkened interior of the barn into a gray gloom. Della and Steve were the first to wake. When Jimmy heard the conversation near the camper, he came down from the back of the loft to speak to Steve.

Jimmy whispered. “It’s quiet now, but people were screaming and crying over there last night. I told Della and she found binoculars and I saw they have guards posted that don’t look real friendly. Something isn’t right over there.”

Steve nodded. “Then we need to get out of here. Go wake up Martha then get down here. We leave in fifteen minutes.”

Della rousted Sandy and Zack with a gentle nudge. “Get up and pack up as quickly as possible. Be very quiet.”

Suddenly Jimmy scurried down the ladder gasping for breath. “There!” He pointed up to the open door at the apex of the roof. With the fading of night and the glow of dawn dawning, they all could see the silhouette of a body hanging from a rope. The rays of the rising sun glistened off Martha’s copper hair. Her body moved with the slight breeze of morning.

Della yelped then slapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God…oh my God.” She whispered under her breath.

Sandy looked up and screamed. The sound shattered the quiet of dawn with a long piercing shriek. She kept up the screech until Zack slapped his hand over her mouth and pulled her into his arms. There was no way the sound could be mistaken for an animal.

“Shit!” Steve cursed.

“You have to be quiet,” Zack whispered. “Please, Sandy. You have to be quiet.”

“Do you think they heard?” Della whispered.

“We can’t wait to see. Throw what you can in the van.” Steve ordered. “Zack, get Sandy in then help Jimmy, open the door!”

Della balled up bedding and threw it in the back of the van. Steve threw camp supplies on a blanket and gathered up the corners into a knot. He pulled the bundle toward the van while Zack pushed Sandy inside and into a seat. Once Zack had belted her in, he pulled the bundle from Steve and then went back to the camper to pick up the last box of supplies.

Zack shoved the blanket full of supplies inside the van and called out as he lumbered off toward the door. “I got it. Come on Della!”

Della jumped into the passenger seat.

Zack and Jimmy raised the board from the door and Zack tossed it aside. Jimmy pushed against the right door and Zack took on the left. Jimmy’s door pushed open easily enough until it caught on a clump of weeds. Jimmy struggled a moment, then a splinter of wood whizzed past his face. The rifle report echoed as the sound of the van engine roared to life.  Light streamed in the open barn from the back of the structure as a door was opened.

Zack charged against the left side door and slammed it back against the wall. Steve accelerated toward the door as Zack ran across the entrance to help Jimmy. The doo lodged open and they turned toward approaching van.

The front of the vehicle reached the entrance and Steve slowed enough for Zack to dive into the van with Jimmy was close on his heels.

Zack turned to pull Jimmy into the van. With a determined grimace, Jimmy reached out and raised his right foot to leap. Zack grabbed his out-stretched hand just as Jimmy stumbled. His left foot was anchored to the ground, caught on something. He stumbled and yelped and looked back to see a beaten and bludgeoned infected woman clutching his leg.

Zack called out. “I got ya’” Zack wrapped his massive hand around Jimmy’s right wrist and pulled. “I won’t let go.”

Jimmy fell to the ground with Zack still clinging to his wrist. He kicked at the claw-like hand still clinging to his pants while being drug along.

“Stop!” Della screamed. “Oh God!”

The ping of a bullet hitting metal and report of a rifle echoed from the back of the barn. Three men clambered over the pile of hay bales with raised rifles.

Steve slammed on the breaks and stuck his handgun out the side window. He squeezed off three quick shots at the men.

“Get in here now! We gotta to go!” Steve yelled as he slammed on the breaks.

Another shot rang out. The bullet clanged off the back bumper of the van. Steve returned fire again.

Zack jumped from the van with a stainless steel rod clutched in his hand. He slammed the knee joint down on the head of the woman then pulled Jimmy to his feet. Zack pushed Jimmy toward the open door.

“Go, Jimmy!” Zack yelled.

Jimmy jumped into the van. He stepped aside and Zack lunged for the door. He rolled to the side and pulled his feet inside just as Jimmy slammed the red button.

“Go!” Yelled Jimmy.

Steve slammed his hand on the accelerator as he fired three more shots toward the barn. The door slid closed and they lost sight of the barn as they turned the first curve. Steve battled the van to keep it on the narrow path as they raced away from the barn.

Della turned to the trio in the back seat. “Are you three, okay? Are you hurt Jimmy?”

Jimmy laughed nervously. “That was intense. I’m fine, though.” He got to his feet and pushed the bundle of supplies toward the back of the van. He finally settled on an upturned crate.

“Intense. Are you fucking crazy?” Zack asked. “That infected bitch tried to eat you.” He got to his feet and duck walked backed to settle in the seat next to Sandy where she sat whimpering.

Steve sighed. “We have to be a lot more careful from now on.” He sent the van through the weeds and overgrown fencerows.

“Why were they shooting at us?” Della asked.

Steve sighed. “My guess is the dead girl had something to do with it? They were doing some things that they didn’t want anyone else to see.”

“But we didn’t see anything.” Della protested.

“Do you want to go back and tell them that?” Steve asked with a sigh of frustration. “Things are different now. We have to be careful even with people that are not infected.”

The van grew quiet as everyone contemplated Steve’s words. He guided the van onto the blacktop and headed north.

Sandy whispered. “What happens if they follow us?”

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.

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.

Della pointed the flashlight down between the rafters. “This is it,” she said. “We should come out right next to the fire exit door.”

Steve glanced back from the wall. “What’s that way?” He asked as he pointed about ten feet from the concrete wall. Will it get us behind a door?”

Della glanced back where Steve pointed then back at the concrete wall then answered. “I think so. It should be just inside the manager’s office.”

“Let’s go down there. That is if it’s empty.” Steve answered.

Steve pulled out a pair of fingerless gloves and his multi-tool knife. He settled on a rafter and began sawing at the sheetrock. When he got a hole outlined about the size of his fist, he stopped and punched through the sheetrock. He leaned close. After a full minute of moving his head from side to side to get a better view of the room below, he sat back up and began sawing again. After about three minutes, he was dripping sweat and breathing heavy.

Zack tapped him on the shoulder. “Let me get this man.”

“This shit is tough,” Steve remarked.

Steve relinquished the tool and Zack sawed at the sheetrock until he had made an opening large enough for even him to slide through. He carefully pulled the sheetrock up snapping the last six inches with sheer muscle power. He set it aside then leaned into the abyss. He looked one way then the other. Finally he looked up grinning.

“No, surprises.” Zack announced.

Steve scooted closer to the opening, but Della placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let me go first. Zack can lower me until I only have a foot or two to drop. If there’s a problem he can pull me back up.”

Steve opened his mouth to protest then gave a quick nod. “Sure.”

Della sat down at the edge of the opening with Zack straddling the hole above her. She reached up and let Zack wrap his huge hands around her thin wrists. She released her grip on the rafters and slid through the hole to hang above the carpeted flooring below. Slowly, Zack eased her down. When Zack got her as low as he could, Dell looked up and whispered.

“Let me go on three. One, two, three.”

Zack opened his fingers. Della landed with a gentle thud.

Zack grunted his way upright and grinned at Steve. “No problem.”

From below, Della whispered. “Send Jimmy down next. He can help push the desk across the room. It’ll make it easier for the rest of you to get down.”

Jimmy slid through the hole. His feet hit the carpet with a muffled bump. He hurried to the desk. Together, he and Della slid the desk to rest under the opening. One by one, each of the group dropped to the floor.

The two girls, Martha and Sandy, got through the hole and made it to the office below where they huddled together. Martha whimpered around a handful of tissues resulting in muffled sobs. Every couple minutes, Sandy tried to console her, but it did little to calm her anxiety.

When only Zack and Steve were left looking down in the office below, Steve pointed at the hole. “You next.”

“I can hold you if you have any problems.” Zack answered. “You should go next.”

Steve answered. “I can hold you steady until you get on your feet. We can’t catch you from below.”

“You might be right.” Zack chuckled then moved to the edge of the beam over the hole.

He pulled his legs into the opening and began easing himself through the hole. It was a tight fit between the rafters but he finally squeezed through.

Steve leaned over ready to reach for Zack if needed. Just as Zack eased down and his head disappeared into the room below, his left hand twisted around and slipped. Steve dove for his right hand and grabbed his hand as it slipped from the beam.

Zack teetered on his toes with Steve hanging half out of the hole still clutching his wrist. When Zack was standing on the desk, Steve released his arm and pulled himself back into the gloom. Zack slid off the desk.

“Thanks, man. That’s could have been ugly.” Zack whispered. “Come on down. I’ll catch ya.”

Steve eased through the hole and when his blades touched the desk, Zack grabbed him around the waist and pulled him from the desk. He allowed Steve to balance then released him with a pat on his back.

“You good?” Zack asked with a grin.

“I got it.”

Steve stepped back then made his way to the door. He eased the hall door open and looked toward the exit sign at the tee of the hallway. Walking was getting easier even if the blades were not meant for walking. It was a matter of finding a natural rhythm in his step he decided. He grinned to himself. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he suddenly realized he wasn’t going to be helpless.

“Looks good so far.” He whispered over his shoulder. “Let me look around the corner before anyone comes out. Zack, on my six.”

Zack grinned and gave a sloppy salute as he stepped to the door with Della close on his heels.

Steve stepped through the opening still resting his hand against the wall. He strode with solid sure steps to the end of the hall across from the fire escape door. He rested his hand against the wall and listened for a full minute. He could hear moaning in the distance, but nothing sounded close. He took a deep breath to prepare himself to peek around the corner.

He eased his face to the edge of the wall and slowly leaned forward for a quick glimpse then pulled his body back in a slit second. He paused a moment then repeated the maneuver taking more time to really look at the wandering infected down the hall. They were fifty feet away.

Finally, he turned back to the door and waved Zack and the others forward. Guided by Zack the group made their way to Steve’s side. Steve nodded toward the door.

“The bare tile is a problem. I can’t get any traction with the blades.”

Della stepped forward, but Zack raised his meaty hand to block her. “I got this.”

Steve ordered. “Get through the door and look over the rail. If it’s clear, hold open the door for everyone, otherwise, get back here quick and quiet as you can. Keep an eye open in case the infected at the end of the hall notice you.”

“Got it,” Zack answered as he stepped in front of Steve.

Steve laid his hand on the kid’s shoulder. “Be careful.”

Without a word, Zack tiptoed across the hall to the door. He eased the emergency exit door open then let it slip closed without a sound. A moment later, he reappeared in the opened door motioning the group toward him.

One by one, each of the survivors clutching their makeshift weapons crept to the door. The small landing behind Zack filled. Sandy and Martha refused to move from the landing while Jimmy pressed against Zack’s back to watch the remaining members of the group cross the tile expanse. Andy, clutching a stainless steel rod shuffled across the hall. She pushed through the doorway and tried to push into the already cramped landing.

Della hissed. “Sandy! You and Martha step back.”

Jimmy turned to add. “Make room.”

Della pulled Jimmy back. “You too.”

Steve, the last to cross the hall stepped from the corner of the hallway. He was half way to the door when there was a loud clatter. He looked toward the open door to see Jimmy righting himself.

Jimmy had stepped on Martha’s foot and stumbled. Martha had toppled against Sandy who in turn, stepped off the first step of the stairs and dropped the metal rod she had been holding.  It clattered down several steps leaving Steve the center of attention.

“Jig is up.” Steve hurried through the door, turned around and pushed against the metal barrier.

The door released from the inside and there was no way to keep it closed if the bodies on the other side leaned against the bar in the handle. Steve could see half a dozen blood-covered, infected had turned at the noise and were shambling toward the fire-door.

“Jimmy, get everyone moving down. Be quiet and stay below the window on the main floor. Stop at the bottom and wait for me.” Steve ordered as he pulled Zack toward the door. Zack pushed his toe against the door to hold it.

Martha stood with her hands covering her mouth. A piece of steel rod lay at her feet. “They’re going to get us!” She wailed ignoring Sandy’s efforts to pull her down the steps after the others.

Zack pushed Martha toward Sandy. “Shut up and get going, Martha.” He retrieved the steel rod she had picked up and passed it to Steve. “Can we wedge it under the door against the handrail?”

“Maybe,” Steve answered.

Zack stepped up to the door and jammed the rod under the bottom of the door. The blunt end made it hard to get it wedged in the crack so he jammed it into the corner and angled the opposite end against handrail. He pulled the roll of duct tape from his arm and wound the roll around the end of the rod against the handrail. In careful fluid movements he wound the tape around again and again. When he decided he had enough tape to anchor the rod, he peeled off length of tape to tape the door to the frame.

Steve grabbed Zack’s arm and ordered. “Time to go, man!”

The infected pressed their faces against the glass and began slamming their hands against the door.

“The door’s not going to hold long,” Steve announced.

“You need help getting down?” Zack asked.

“No, just go. It won’t be pretty, but I can manage it.” Steve answered. “Just get going. Get the others out of the way at the bottom.”

Zack raced down the stairs as fast as his bulk would permit. Steve clutched the handrail and leaned over using his weight to propel him downward on the leather-covered palms of his hands. He used his legs to control the speed then stagger around the mid-floor landing. He repeated the process to the bottom landing. All the while, the pounding from above grew louder and more violent.

When Steve landed at the bottom, he righted himself and made his way through the group to the door. He clutched the handle, ready to open it when he heard a crash from above. The door opened with a violent slamming against the wall.

“Fuck!” Steve cursed. “Can’t we get a break here?” He said to no one in particular. Taking a breath, he told the group. “I have a dark blue van big enough for all of us. It’s straight back from the building, half a dozen rows back. Just follow me.”

Andy interrupted. “I’m going home.”

Steve looked at her then shrugged. “It’s dangerous out there.”

Andy answered. “You do what you want, but I’m going to my car and going home.”

He pulled the keys from his pocket ready to push the button on the fob. “Use the side ramp to get inside and move to the back. Zack, bring up the rear. When you get inside, push the red button above the door. Della, ride shotgun.”

Suddenly three of the infected fell to the landing overhead in a heap of tangled arms and legs.

“Time to go!” Steve ordered. “Don’t fight unless you have to. Just run and get to the van. Jimmy, keep up with me, okay? Andy, stay close to us.”

Andy pulled her keys from her purse and slung the strap on the bag across her body. “I’m going home. You worry about them.”

Martha wailed. “I can’t! I’m scared!”

“Then get dead!” Jimmy shouted as Steve flung open the door and everyone bolted out into the afternoon sun. Zack grabbed the screwdriver from Sandy, pushed the door closed and jammed it under the exit door.

“Stay together,” Steve ordered as he moved toward the front of the building.

The first thing the group saw was a body pinned between two cars. It was a young girl about the same age as Sandy and Martha. She struggled against the vice-like grip of the small VW pinning her to an old mud-brownTaurus.

Martha pointed at the infected girl. “That’s Debbie! Oh, my God!”

“No matter now,” Steve answered as he ran from the building door. “Keep moving.”

He and Jimmy made their way to the end of the building with Della and the two girls on their heels. Steve looked around the corner of the building to see dozens of the infected milling around the front door of the building.

“Keep low. Do what I do and be quiet.”

One and two at a time, they crossed the short expanse from the corner of the building to the front of the Taurus. Keeping the Taurus and the VW between them and the infected, they made their way to the back of the front row of parked cars. With just six feet to the next vehicle, Steve again darted across the open space between the back of one car to the front of the next row of vehicles. The rest of the group followed.

Andy stopped, looked at the infected girl then took off toward the back of the parking lot.

“Andy!” Steve whispered.

She ignored him and disappeared around a row of vehicles.

Everyone looked on in horror as the infected girl noticed Andy running away from the group. The diseased girl jerked and swayed as she reached out toward Andy. Then she noticed all of them. Her moans became wails of frustration.

Even though the pinned girl had no way to free herself to get to them she was drawing attention their way. It was a moot point, but Steve swung the steel rod in his hand at the side of her head. It landed with a solid crack and he stumbled against the side of the car. The monster that had been Debbie collapsed to the hood of the VW.

The scattering of shambling infected focused on the group and suddenly they became their only focus.

“I always hated that bitch and now she’s killed us.” Sandy lamented.

“Run!” Steve ordered as he pushed himself upright and away from the car. He sprinted toward the van. He slipped into an easy gate that crossed the distance with little effort. The blades were for running. It felt good running.

Steve glanced over his shoulder and realized he was leaving the others behind so he slowed his pace and called over his shoulder. “Come on people. Get in the van!” He pressed the button to open the side door of the van.

Della darted around the back bumper of a Mini Cooper making her way toward the passenger front seat. Jimmy was four or five feet behind her. Zack herded the girls ten feet after Jimmy.

A man in scrubs with half his face in shreds and missing his right eye stumbled between two vehicles right behind Zack. Zack turned with the rod of stainless steel in his hand to face the blood spattered one eyed monster.

He back toward the girls where they stood whimpering. Zack glanced at the monster approaching then back at the girls. “Keep going!” He pushed them toward Jimmy then turned to face the infected.

The group drew more and more attention from the infected. Faces turned, shambling steps brought at least a dozen of the infected toward them.

“Run, damn it!” Zack yelled over his shoulder. As if suddenly released from paralysis, they darted toward Jimmy.

Jimmy neared the van and saw the ramp lowering. Jimmy grabbed Sandy’s arm and literally threw her through the opening. Martha was close behind. Jimmy pushed her toward the back seat then stood at the door with his makeshift weapon in hand waiting.

“Come on, Zack!”

Zack watched an approaching man. The infected was only five seven or eight with a wide body and a thick middle. He was dressed in blood covered scrubs and his bare pate flopped over his right ear. The flesh of his arms hung in bloody strips. His eyes were cloudy and appeared sightless yet he made his way straight at Zack. He raised his head, sniffed the air and kept moving forward.

“I ain’t got time for this shit, man,” Zack commented as he stepped toward the monster.

He raised the rod in a batter’s stance balancing his weight between his feet and waited the split second it took the man to get close enough then he swung.

The rod connected and the man’s head caved in at the side right above his ear. The body collapsed. Zack didn’t wait to see if the man moved again, he turned toward the van and hurried after the others still clutching the bloody rod.

Steve rounded the front of the van and caught himself against the front grill. An infected woman appeared at the back bumper of the vehicle. She sniffed and her steps quickened as she stumbled toward him.

Steve cringed at the terrible injuries the woman had suffered. Her arms and legs were covered in open wounds where the flesh had been torn out leaving ragged holes. Her face might have been pretty once, but it was impossible to tell now that it was flayed to the bone. Her nose had been torn off taking her upper lip and most of the left cheek with it. She raised her arms and moaned.

Della got to the van and opened the passenger door then noticed Steve standing still at the front of the van. “Steve?”

He raised his hand. “Get in the van and slam the door!”

Della caught movement through a back window and got a glimpse of an infected woman approaching Steve. She slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door.

The bloodied woman turned to face the sudden noise.

Steve took a step forward then swung the rod he had used on the girl a few minutes before. The power of the swing and sudden impact of connecting with her head left Steve off balance. He stumbled and caught himself on the side mirror. The infected woman fell to the pavement.

The jab in his side drove his breath from his lungs. Della grabbed the door handle ready to open it when he reappeared in the window. He righted himself and reached the door handle, opened it and climbed inside.

Jimmy stood guard at the side door until Zack got close, then slipped inside the van. Zack stepped through the open doorway and flopped on a middle seat. Jimmy leaned over and slammed his hand against the red button to close the door. They all watched as the ramp slowly rose while more of the infected converged on the slow closing barrier. The ramp was raised head-high and folded when the first fingers reached over the top edge.

Martha’s screams drowned out the moaning of the infected outside the van. Zack jumped to his feet and began beating at the clinging fingers. The ramp snapped into a locking position. Half a dozen fingers fell to the floor of the van behind Della’s seat.

The sliding door rolled forward swiping away reaching hands.

“Gross.” Jimmy laughed nervously.

Steve grinned over his shoulder. “There was a warning label about keeping fingers away from a closing ramp.”

Steve looked over his shoulder at the group settling in his van. The girls had settled on the single bench seat. The two boys settled on the middle seat.

He turned the key. “Buckle up, folks. This might get hairy!”

“And it hasn’t been so far?” Jimmy commented.

Steve fired up the van, put it in gear then released the hand break. Half a dozen infected made their way to the driver side of the van. Seeing Martha sitting next to the window, they began pounding on the glass smearing blood and gore on the glass.

Martha screamed and wailed. “We’ve got to get out of here! They’re going to get me!”

When she reached down to free herself from the seatbelt, Zack grabbed her hands. “We’re going now. Sit still and be quiet.”

Steve pressed the accelerator and the van rolled forward. He turned the wheel to the right and punched the gas. The van roared away from the nightmare of the V.A. Center.

No one spoke for nearly ten minutes then Jimmy asked. “Where are we going?”

“The Army base?” Zack suggested.

Steve sighed. “I don’t think so. If the military were viable, they would be on the street dealing with this shit. I think this is a lot bigger than just here.”

Martha leaned forward in the seat. “I want to go home. Can you take me home?”

They drove around a roadblock of crashed cars. Everyone in the van looked through the open doors and shattered windows to see blood and remnants of bodies.

From the back seat, Sandy whimpered. “Oh my God, people are being torn apart.”

Della responded. “I think you’re right, Sandy. We’re in real trouble here. Where can we go, Steve?”

“I’m not sure.” Steve answered. After a minute, he picked up his cell from the console and passed it to Della. “Don’t bother with 911, try calling family. We need to find a safe place to go. If you don’t have your phone, use mine.”

After a few minutes, they each came back with the same results. They passed the phones around the van as Steve drove toward the west.

Finally, Della stated. “Same as before; everyone is getting busy circuits. What are we going to do, Steve?”

The group of seven sat or squatted on the small area of decking around the attic access door unsure what to do next. Steve dropped the square of plywood back in place. After covering the opening, the sound of the infected decreased but a tell-tale stench still wafted up from below. Della flicked on the larger flashlight she had retrieved from the closet shelf.

Steve looked from one terrified face to the next realizing he knew only one of the new arrivals. The woman was the receptionist from the first floor. Her hair, usually neat and styled in a sculptured bob, clung to her face in damp ringlets. Her face was pale and streaked with makeup after the terror of their escape from the ground floor. Her clothes were twisted and in disarray. She looked ready to cry.

Steve searched his memory for her name. Audrey, Annie, no…Andy. That was it. “Andy, I’m glad to see you.” Andy nodded and he continued. “You know both Della and me but who did you bring along?”

Andy introduced the others. She nodded toward each and whispered a name. “Sandy, Martha, Jimmy, and Zack, they’re students checking out the internship program. I found them in a classroom a few minutes ago when I ran in there to hide. When we heard the crazy people break through the security door, we ran up the stairs and they followed. I thought we could barricade the therapy room door and we’d be safe. I was wrong.”

“You made it. That’s the important thing.” Steve responded.

He studied each of the kids and realized how really young they were. Both girls stared at Steve with eyes wide with terror. Sandy was thin and fine boned with an oval face framed by thick dark hair. She looked as if she were ready to cry. Steve tried to give her a reassuring smile.

Steve nodded a hello to Martha. She was a little taller and bigger than Sandy with curly blonde hair trimmed short to frame her round frightened face. She kept glancing toward the square of plywood between them.

The kid with blood smeared across his face was Jimmy. He was thin and sported a shock of curly, red hair. He used a handful of tissues Della had shoved at him earlier to stanch the flow of blood. Steve could hear him struggle to breath around the wad of tissue pressed to his face.

The fourth member of the group was a thick-bodied, black kid with a hesitant smile. He probably out-weighed Steve by fifty pounds, so he weighed over two hundred-twenty pounds. He was well muscled with a roundness suggesting a kid in a man’s body. Steve imagined him as a linebacker on a high school football team and hoped he would be able to help if things got dicey.

“We have to figure a way out of here. Where is Della?”

Della leaned around one of the kids and answered. “I’m here.”

Steve nodded. “Okay, we’re at the front of the building. We need to use the back stairway.”

“You mean the one at the southwest corner of the building, near the main parking lot?” Della asked.

“The front stairs is crawling with those dead people. They followed us when we ran up here.” Jimmy commented.

“We know that.” Della pointed into the dark. “That’s why we’re heading to the other end of the building. The back stairs should be that way.”

“Okay, we have to get down from here, and that looks like our best option.” Steve answered. “But before we do, we need to get some weapons and I have an idea where to get them. When we get outside, I have a van that has room for all of us.” Steve began. “We just have to get to it.”

Della moved closer. “Can you manage stairs?” She glanced down pointedly.

Steve shrugged. “Since the elevator isn’t an option, I guess I’ll have to manage them.” Steve asked. “Where is the fabricating room from here?”

Della pointed toward the back wall. “That way, but we can’t get to the door.”

Steve grinned. “We don’t need to. We can go through the ceiling. We have at least a couple strong arms to help make an opening.” He looked to Zack.

“Sure, Man. Just point me in the right direction. I can punch through sheet rock, no problem.”

“I was hoping we could be a little quieter than that.” Steve answered. “Let’s go folks.”

Della stood as did Andy and the teens. Zack leaned over and grabbed Steve under one arm and pulled him upright. He held his arm until Steve was balanced on a rafter and clutching a cross-beam.

“Thanks, Zack. I’m good. Sorry, guys, the blades are new, still getting used to them.” Steve commented as he stepped out and reached for the next rafters for support. “Della, lead out. People, stay on the wood rafters. Don’t step on the sheetrock. You’ll go through.”

Della adjusted the bag on her shoulder and reached out for the flashlight from the utility room. Jimmy handed it to her and she passed the smaller light back to Jimmy.  She pointed the wide cone of light toward a distant wall.

Steve followed with the new arrival close behind. He sighed as he realized he would have his hands full watching out for half a dozen people. Except for Zack, maybe, Steve thought of him as a survivor built like a brick shit-house.

After a couple minutes of everyone stumbling from rafter to rafter, Della stopped. “Here I think. We’re above the fabricating room.”

Steve grabbed a knife from his pocket, eased himself into a sitting position on a rafter and shoved insulation aside. He worried a three inch hole into the sheetrock then sat up and slid his arm across his damp forehead. He looked around and realized everyone else was getting overheated too. They wouldn’t last long in the sweltering heat of the attic.

He nodded at Jimmy. “Sorry I clipped you with the door. How’s your nose?”

Jimmy shrugged. He no longer held the tissues to his face. “It’s good. Little tender, but considering where we are…no problem at all.”

“Glad to hear it. Do you think you can check it out?” Steve pointed at the hole in the sheetrock.


Jimmy stretched out across the rafters and pressed his eye to the opening. After a full minute of moving his head from side to side, he looked up and grinned.

“Nothing moving. Just the work bench and lots of metal, plastic, and tools. No one in the room at all that I can see.”

Della spoke up. “It’s controlled access so it should be fine. No one can get in without a card. The techs leave by noon on Friday. It does have a clear glass door though.”

Andy interrupted. “We can’t go in there. They pounded on the glass downstairs until they broke through in the lobby.” She sniffled. “We haven’t got time for this. I need to get out of here so I can go home to my family.”

“Hush, Andy. We’ll get out of here as soon as we can.” Della hunkered down and studied the inside of the room below. “If we make the opening eight feet back that way, it will be behind the work bench. There’ll be less chance of ME being seen through the glass.” She added.

“Della?” Steve began. “You can’t….”

“Stuff it, Steve. I’m not sending one of the kids, Andy wouldn’t have a clue, and you…well. I won’t even begin to tell you why you can’t do it. Besides if anything happened, who would drive your van?”

Steve shrugged. “Okay, but the first hint of trouble….”

Della sighed. “Let’s get this hole started.”

The team crept down the rafter toward the place Della indicated. “This should be over the work bench but on the back side.”

Steve leaned down and began to saw at the sheetrock with his knife. He quickly grew heated, but kept sawing at the opening despite the perspiration dripping from his face.

Suddenly, a large dark hand covered his and retrieved the red handled multi-tool. “Sir, I got this.” Zack said.

Steve leaned back and wiped his sleeve across his forehead. “You’re a handy kid to have around, Zack.”

Within minutes an opening large enough for Della to slip through provided a panoramic view of the room below. Della stuck her head into the hole and studied the fabricating room.

It’s clear.”

Della sat up and dangled her legs over the edge of the rafter into the hole. Without another word she used her arms to ease herself onto a work bench below. She stood on the bench and peaked over the top edge of the center tool panel at the glass door.

The infected milled around in the hall. They moved in a counter clockwise direction. Each of the monsters seemed to follow the one in front of them creating a swirling mass of bodies. Periodically, one or two of the monsters would stop, cock their heads and appear to be sniffing the air. After a few seconds, they resumed their aimless Wandering.

Della lowered her head and settled her butt on the work bench then eased her feet to the floor. She made a quick survey of the tools and supplies in front of her on the bench. She retrieved two huge screw drivers and hammers and laid them on the bench together.

Next, she examined the supplies on hand. She sighed as she recognized the names on the bins with bits and pieces of prosthetics being fabricated. She grabbed three thirty-inch long stainless steel rods from a side bin. They would never become part of prosthetic limbs now.

All the veterans she had worked with and grown fond of were probably dead or infected. Her heart ached when she thought of them trapped in wheel chairs or hospital beds with no way to escape or protect themselves and their families.

She fought back tears and clinched her jaw. She had a job. She would help Steve get the kids out of this mess. She knew he was a man they could depend on.

Della laid the makeshift weapons on the workbench and pulled a small ladder to the side of the bench. She climbed to the work area. Squatting behind the panel, she looked up to see Zack grinning down at her. She handed up the weapons.

Zack retrieved each piece and passed them to waiting hands. When all seven items were passed around he pointed at a shelf and whispered. “There’s another flashlight on the wall. Can you get it and the roll of duct tape on the counter?”

Della grinned up at the kid and made a circle with her index finger and thumb. She picked up the duct tape and tossed the roll to Zack then slid to the edge of the bench. Still squatting out of sight of the infected, she peeked around the edge of the panel mounted to the middle of the double-sided work bench. For a moment she watched the infected shuffle in a fluid ebb and flow beyond the door.

She studied the movement and decided she would have to time it just right. Most of the infected just followed the monster in front of them, but a few would pause and look through the glass door as they passed. She had to be careful when she reached for the flashlight or one of the more alert monsters would see her. A quick grab at the right time and she would have the extra flashlight. It was worth the risk.

She took a deep breath then leaned toward the wall, her arm reaching for the flashlight. Her foot slid on the slick counter and knee slammed against the bench brushing against a short stainless rod lying on the counter top. The metal rolled across the work bench, under the center panel to the facing work station. Della reached out, lost her balance and tumbled to the floor just as the metal hit the floor in front of the door.

Della landed on the vinyl flooring knocking the air from her lungs. While she lay there gasping to draw breath, she heard a distant voice.

“Get up! Della. Don’t just lay there.” Zack called out. “NOW!”

She glanced toward the door to see faces of the infected pressed against the glass. They looked at her, then slammed hands and arms against the glass door. The infected jockeyed for position at the door, each pounded and pushed against the glass. A cacophony of frustrated moans rose up at seeing prey and being unable to reach it.

“Move your ass, Della.” Steve shouted.

The hammering grew in volume and the first crack raced across the window. Glass began shattering. At first, small pieces rained to the floor.

Della pulled a ragged breath into her lungs as a large piece of glass shattered on the floor. She scrambled to her feet, grabbed the flashlight from the wall and vaulted to the work bench just as the remaining glass shattered and fell to the floor. She raised the Maglite through the opening.

“Get up here now!” Steve yelled.

She reached for the rafters as she stared at the door. Torn and mutilated bodies rushed through the disintegrating barrier. The infected pushed past the remaining shards tearing and ripping flesh in their rush to reach her.

Della pushed up from the table. She kicked up and drew her body into the darkness overhead. She pulled her legs through the opening. Her muscles trembled with strain. When she looked down she saw hands reaching toward her legs still dangling through the hole.

Suddenly, thick hands slid under her arm pits and spirited into the dark gaping maw above. Zack set her on her feet and Della sagged to the rafter at the side of the hole.

After several ragged breaths, she got to her feet. “Oh my God.” She turned on Zack and threw herself at him.

The big black kid’s breath caught in his throat. “I’m sorry. I din’t mean to hurt ya.”

He tried to back away but Della held him for a moment. Finally, she leaned back and planted a kiss on his rounded cheek.

“You’ve saved me twice now. You didn’t hurt me. Thank you, Zack.”

Moans from below grew louder. A foul smell wafted up from the room below. The small group of survivors looked toward the opening and the giddiness quickly faded.

“They smell like an open sewer?” Jimmy complained.

“The news says they’re dead. When a person dies, their bladder and bowel releases.” Della answered. “Stands to reason, they would smell.”

“Ah, shit.” Jimmy responded.

“Yep. That’s what it is.” Zack commented with a grin.

Steve nodded at Della. “Let’s get out of here.”

Della turned from the hole and took a steadying breath before heading across the rafters. The small group followed Della single file across beam after beam to a concrete wall nearly fifty feet away.

“The concrete is the outside fireproof wall of the stairs.” Della announced.

“We’re not getting through the concrete. How are we getting into the stair well?” Andy asked.

Della whispered. “Same as before, through the ceiling. We should be at a side hall at the end of the main hallway in the accounting department. It’s limited access and usually no one is in this area after noon as well. The controlled access door between this area and the public areas should limit entrance. Hopefully, there’s no infected back here.