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AMERICA the DEAD: EPISODE EIGHT

AMERICA the DEAD: BOOK ONE

Based on the series by W. G. Sweet

Episode 8

PUBLISHED BY

independAntwriters Publishing

AMERICA the DEAD: BOOK ONE

Copyright © 2019 by independAntwriters All Rights Reserved

Writers: W.W. Watson, Geo Dell, W.G. Sweet, G.D. Smitty

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AMERICA the DEAD: EPISODE EIGHT


Joel And Haley

Mannsville New York

They were pined down in the remains of a pole barn, in a field just a few miles outside of Watertown off route 11 south. The rains had been so hard, and so frequent, that the fields and roads were completely flooded. They had been forced to stop after twice driving into water far too deep for the trucks.

The field they were in was higher ground that most of the others. They shared one wall and the partial metal roof of the collapsed pole barn with a few wild cows they eyed them suspiciously.

Their corner was reasonably dry, but several days of rain and boredom had blighted their spirits and they worked hard to keep off each others nerves.

“I learned to sew as a girl,” Pearl said now. She held Haley’s hand and guided the needle as she repaired the hem of her jacket.

She had caught it on the ragged edge of one wall as she had run over into another part of the pole barn that had no ceiling. In her haste to get out of the rain she had caught the edge of the jacket and ripped out the seam. The seam also formed the bottom of the pocket on that side. Without it she had found herself slipping items into that pocket that then fell to the ground, or the concrete floor of the pole barn, or down between the seats in the truck. She focused and tried to keep her line straight. It wasn’t so hard once you got the needle threaded.

“Just like that, good girl,” Pearl encouraged.

Haley smiled. “So,” she raised her eyes from the seam, “Where were you back there?.”

The smile that had been on Pearl’s face fled. “I was held… Held by mad men…” She seemed to consider a moment. “A mad man, perhaps. The rest were not quite so rabid.” She rubbed at her eyes and then raised them from the floor where they had sunk of their own volition.

“One of his own men let me go… I suspect, of course, that he let me go to make a way for himself to escape…” She shook her head. “He was not a virtuous man. No, he let me go and if I made it he knew that his chances would be likewise as good or better. Why, he could even say he was out looking for me if he got caught, could he not? Right.” She looked back down and then out at the falling rain.

“Sorry,” Haley said. “I didn’t mean to make you relive it. It doesn’t matter.” She looked back down at the hem, nearly half done, and took up another stitch.

“It’s all right. It’s not so bad. The bad part is this,” she raised her hand to indicate the world. “Who knew all of this was… Gone… Who knew?”

“I suspect your mad man must have,” Haley said quietly.

Pearl nodded. “I suspect, no, I know he had something to do with this. Played some part in all of it. His man, Pierce, near as well told me as much.”

“You mean, something to do with the whole world being messed up?” Haley asked surprised.

“I believe so… There is a base there, you know.”

“I knew that. My boyfriend worked there until he was transferred overseas,” Haley agreed.

“No,” Pearl said quietly. “Another… One far below the city itself.

Haley raised her eyebrows. “Below the city?”

“Sounds crazy, I know. But believe me it is there. That is where they held me. My mad man, Weston, Major Weston is all I know him by, commands it with an iron fist. It is sealed, or it was until I broke out… Supplies to last a very long time. I suppose he could grow to be an old man, if he isn’t already, and die there hiding from… Well, whatever it is that he is hiding from there… Or waiting out.” She met Haley’s eyes and they were dark, contemplative, sad.

Haley stayed quiet, she had questions she wanted to ask, but she held them back. She had the feeling if she pried that Pearl would close up again as she had been the first few days she had traveled with them. “Are you… Are you okay from it? … I mean did they hurt you? I know it’s not my business. I know I shouldn’t pry. Forgive me.”

“More than once. I really had no hope of making it out of there alive. I knew, you see. I knew it was there. Sort of like that old joke where the man says, ‘Yes, I can tell you, but then I would have to kill you.’ Only, it was no joke.” She focused on her hands were they clutched one another and battled in her lap. She raised her eyes and tears threatened at the corners. “It’s alright. I’m alright, or I will be alright. I just… I just need some time before I talk about it. Just…”

“Hey,” Scott said. “Is this a private party or can anyone come?” He and Joel had been across the road checking a small shopping complex that was mostly collapsed. They both had boxes in their arms.

“Yeah. We’ve been toiling away in the rain, but we bought you some good stuff.” He smiled, a lopsided grin that lit up his face. His hair was plastered to his head, and his skin was overly white from the cool air and the constant rain.

Pearl smiled widely, sat up straight and tried to peer into Scott’s box. “So what have you brought us then?” She asked. Her eyes were red, but no more so than Scott’s own eyes from the rain and wet.

“Wow, she turned on that English accent hardcore. I think she wants what you have in that box, Scott,” Joel laughed.

Haley took a deep breath to clear her own head. Joel leaned close. “Okay?” He asked. His eyes were still smiling but had a hint of worry in them. Haley was pretty sure he had realized how he felt about her and was having a hard time dealing with the emotions that had come with it. She would have liked nothing more than to lean forward and kiss him hello. See how that smoothed out the worry lines embedded in his forehead. But, they weren’t at that place yet. She offered him a huge smile instead. “I’m fine, I really am okay, just bored.  How’s that leg? Don’t over do it,” She cautioned.

He smiled widely. “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s good.”

“Good? You nearly got that leg shot off. I’ll take a look at it later on. Now, what gives? What’s in the boxes?”

“Yes,  what is in the boxes?” Pearl added.

Scott tipped his box forward and Joel followed suit. Jugs of sports drinks, candy bars, and several cans of canned meat.

“Get out,” Haley said as she grabbed a candy bar and a can of the meat. “I love this stuff!”

“The candy?” Pearl asked? She had pulled out a candy bar for herself.

“The meat,” she laughed. “I know we all say we hate it, but fry this stuff up and it’s golden.” She looked at the candy bar. “This too, although it will give me about seven hundred pimples probably.” They both laughed.

“Why is it so unfair?” Pearl asked. “A few ounces of sweetness and days of paying for it?”

“Proof that God was a man. A woman would have taken care of that!” They both laughed again and Haley saw a real smile surface and settle onto Pearl’s mouth.

“Hey,” Scott said. He held up a box of pancake mix and a jar of peanut butter.

Beside him Joel lifted another box of pancake mix and a jar of grape jelly. “We got both,” He said reverently.

“Oh my God,” Haley said. Her eyes rolled comically. “Okay, Pearl, we best get the frying pan and get dinner going. The mighty hunters have returned with provisions.” She looked down at the cows that were watching them. Mistrustful of the sudden outburst and the laughter. “Hmm, do you think one of you could get us some milk? That one cow is nursing and if she is nursing that means she can give us a little.”

“I tried to get close the other day and she was none too interested,” Joel said. He looked over at the cow and she shifted her weight and stared him down as though she had understood what Haley had asked him.

“See that?” Scott asked. “She knows. That is no dumb cow, right there. No dumb cow at all. She’ll kick your ass right back to Watertown.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Joel agreed. “Well, you get a rope and I’ll get a pail and let’s see if we can convince her.”

“Well… Be careful, of course,” Pearl said.

“Yeah… It was a suggestion, but don’t end up getting hurt,” Haley added as they walked away. She turned to Pearl.

“I am sorry… I hope you can be okay.”

“I will be,” Pearl said. She turned back to Scott and Joel. “Those two will surely get themselves kicked about.”

“Think so?” Haley asked. “I hope that they would be smart enough to call it off if it looks dangerous.” She broke off as Joel and Scott walked over to a sack of grain that had probably been in the barn for a while, Haley judged, by all the dust that rose when they picked it up. The two of them carried it over to the cows who still watched them carefully and stopped about twenty feet away.

“Here cow,” Scott called. He ripped open the top and spilled some grain onto a reasonably clean space of concrete.

Haley sniggered and Pearl raised one hand to her mouth to stifle her own giggles. “God,” Haley said.

Scott looked over and made a face.

“Come on cows… Come on girls,” Joel encouraged. He picked up a handful of the grain and walked slowly to the cows with it. One cow lifted her head and then wagged it up and down. Joel stopped. “What’s that mean?” He asked.

“Um, I think it means, hey, bring that shit a little closer, Man,” Scott said.

The cow tossed her head and then trotted the few feet to Joel. She looked at him warily, extended her neck far longer than Joel had thought was possible, and then lipped the grain from his hand. Two other cows, too curious to stay still, trotted over, and a second later they were licking Joel’s hands with their rough tongues. A second after that they hurried past him as though he didn’t exist and began to eat from the pile on the floor. Joel looked up at Scott amazed. “Get the pail and the rope, Man,” Joel told him.

Scott came over with the pail and the rope. “Well, which one you want to do?” Joel asked him.

“Um, I’ll hold the rope… Yeah, I’ll hold the rope,” Scott decided.

Haley watched as Scott slipped the rope over the cow’s head and Joel carefully reached under her and grasped her udder. The cow did nothing: Intent on eating the grain. Joel’s head popped back up a second later. “Uh, how do you get the milk to come out?”

Pearl laughed, jumped to her feet and dusted off her jeans. “Let’s go show them,” she told Haley.

Haley laughed. “How about you show them, because I don’t have a clue… Doesn’t it just come right out?”

Pearl laughed. “Nearly.” She reached Joel, slipped by him and fastened one hand around a teet and pulled down as she squeezed lightly. “Not hard. Slow and easy.” The milk made a load noise as it squirted into the plastic bucket. A few seconds later Haley and Pearl had retreated to start dinner while Joel and Scott took turns milking the cow.

Joel, Haley, Pearl and Scott

Joel sat across the fire and listened as Dale Johnson talked. They had met up with his party earlier in the day. Six total, they had been heavily armed, and the meeting had been tense, a standoff in the shattered doorway of a grocery store on the outskirts of Syracuse. Pearl had broken the tension by lowering her rifle and offering her hand. Sink or swim, she had said later, and they had all managed a laugh about it. She had a way with words, or at least a humor in her words.

Dale, Bonny, Sammy, Ariel, Liv and max. Max and Liv looked like characters straight out of  an end of the world sci-fi novel. Leather pants, ribbed sleeveless t-shirts, crossed holsters slung low, hair cut short on the sides, spiked on top, and they had a way of looking through the person they were talking to, as if they really didn’t matter at all. Max rolled a never ending supply of wooden toothpicks from one corner of his mouth to the other. They were both restless, watching the sky, the roads in and out of the parking lot they had camped out in.

The others were more laid back. Followers, but they followed Dale rather than the other two, and that made Joel wonder at the strangeness of that. Two type A personalities that no one was following, and Dale, a take it as it comes sort of guy, that everyone including the type A’s were following.

“This place is over in Kentucky, maybe Tennessee. We overheard others talking about the place a few times now, guiding others in. It’s small now, but it’ll grow. It will have to grow, I mean, they have got a set up there they say… Plans, you know.”

Scott cleared his throat. “But you haven’t talked to them at all, right?”

“Well, no. But we have talked to people that have talked to them,” Bonny said. Dale nodded.

“They have a place that has existed for as long as this country has existed. They just had someone who knew how to get to it.” Max this time.

Joel nodded. “But it’s still a maybe… I can’t go on a maybe… We’re headed to the city… A large group there we’ve talked to. Probably south from there.”

“How do you know that is real? I mean, couldn’t that be as much of a pipe dream as what we’re following?” Dale asked.

Haley nodded. “Well, you’re welcome to stay here tonight, but in the morning we’re heading down along the thruway and following that into Manhattan… You’re welcome to come with us… Strength in numbers, “ she smiled.

“Can’t do it,” Dale said. He turned to Pearl. “You’re welcome… Plenty of room.”

Pearl had been quiet, listening to the conversation go back and forth. She was not interested in New York. Her personal belief was that Manhattan would be nothing but death and destruction on a larger scale. The people that Joel and Scott had talked to had pretty much confirmed that. And there was sickness there, something strange, something new. She got the idea they were heading there because there was a group of survivors there, nothing more. And she didn’t feel they would stay there long, Joel had talked about heading south as soon as they got they chance, Manhattan was not going to be his final destination. She sighed.” I don’t know.” She looked at Haley. They had become close over the last few days, but she would go wherever Joel went. Joel might not realize that yet, but he would. As far as herself, she just wanted to be out of the fight. She wanted somewhere to start over. Someplace safe.

“You have to do what you have to do for you,” Haley said. “Who knows, maybe we’ll all end up in the same place. I mean, if it turns out to really be a large gathering place, we probably will all be there eventually.”

Dale rose from the fire. “Actually we can make a few miles before full dark,” He frowned. “I don’t want you to think we’re refusing your hospitality, but I want to get there. It sounds good, not too good to be true, but really good. They’ll need people to run it… Set things up. I guess I’d want to see that, have a hand in it,” he sighed. “It would be so nice to put this behind us. Turn a corner, start over,” he shrugged.

“I get you,” Joel said. He rose from the fire and took the hand Dale offered. Scott and Haley both offered hands. Pearl said nothing at first, but then turned to Haley and hugged her fiercely. She offered her hand to Joel and Scott, both of whom hugged her instead.

A few minutes later Dale and his small group, plus one, pulled out of the parking lot back onto the feeder road. Joel and the others sat quietly by the fire for a few moments until the sound of the motors died away.

“I wouldn’t have thought that,” Scott said at last.

“Surprised me,” Haley agreed. “But, she went through something back there in Watertown. She didn’t talk about it, but whatever it was haunted her.”

“We’re going to stop hooking up with people. We can’t afford it. We’ll be down to nothing at all soon,” Joel joked.

Haley and Scott both laughed, but it was a short lived laugh, silence settled back in.

“Hope it is real,” Haley said at last.”

Scott nodded.

“Who knows,” Joel said after a brief pause. “Maybe we will all end up there: If it’s there: If it’s all they say it is… Maybe.”

The silence held for a short while. Haley cleared her throat.

“Talked to Billy today. About forty people there now,” she said.

“Yeah?” Scott asked.

“Yeah. They have a nice little place there, but they’re thinking about heading south soon.”

“South is the place, I think,” Joel agreed.

The conversation went back and forth as they talked about the camp outside of Manhattan and leaving the outskirts of Syracuse in the morning to start for the east coast.

The Camp: Billy and Beth

Mid June

Billy sat sipping coffee by the fire talking with Joel Morrison, when a truck dropped down off the road and into the far end of the field. Conversation died away as the two of them watched the truck coast to a stop. A few more trucks left the field, passing the truck where it sat. Billy rose to his feet with Joel, poured the dregs of his coffee into the fire and looked down toward the truck.

“I’m on my way,” Joel told him. Behind him Beth and Haley were talking in low tones. A few feet away Scott was talking to Mac and Iris. Joel offered his hand and Billy took it.

“Wish you were staying,” Billy told him. Joel, Haley and Scott had made up their minds to head south to whatever might be left of Alabama. There were three others going with them.

“Wish us luck instead,” Haley said with a laugh as she walked up.

“I think there is land out there,” Beth said. “Who knows how far though.”

“We will,” Scott said. He laughed and Billy walked with them to their truck. The truck behind them held more gear and the other three that had decided to go with them, some newcomers from the city that Billy had not gotten to know well. He waved once at the truck in back and then leaned in the window as Joel closed the door.

“Just stay in touch,” Billy said. “As long as you can.”

“Will do,” Joel said.

Billy and Beth watched them drive away before Billy turned his attention back to the truck  at the end of the field.

Joel and Haley

West of Manhattan

September 3rd

“Nobody,” Scott remarked as he clicked off the CB and stepped down from the truck.

“It may be the weather,” Alice said as she took his hand.

“May be,” Scott agreed with a smile. He bent forward and kissed her softly.

“You do that so well,” Alice told him. She had that secret little smile on her face, the one that turned up the corner of her lips. The one that had made him say yes when she had asked to join them.

They had met her and the small party she had been traveling with the day after they had left Billy’s camp and started on their way. Scott thought back on it now. That had been more than two months before. They had spent those two months just trying to get out of the city, past all the stalled traffic that went on forever, and into a place where they could actually have trucks, drive, make time. That day they had still been driving, or trying to. They had come around a curve on a barely held together state route that paralleled the thruway and there they had been: A truck parked in the middle of the road. Joel had locked the brakes up, the curve had not given much warning. Alice had been standing at the front of the truck and she had never even flinched.

Joel had stopped a good fifteen feet away. When he and Scott had stepped from the truck she had hit Scott with the smile. He had fallen right then. No arguments.

“Could’a killed us,” Toby Black had said. He was the leader of the six party group. “Shouldn’t ought to drive so goddamn fast.”

Joel was speechless, it was Scott that had fired back.

“That may be,” Scott had allowed,” But maybe you should give a little thought to parking in the middle of the road too.”

“On a goddamn curve,” Haley added, barely cracking a smile.

“Yeah, well,” Toby said. He seemed to consider a few moments, tugged at his graying beard, and must have decided to say nothing. He had just nodded, dusted one hand against his jeans and extended it to Scott. “Toby,” He had glanced from Scott to Joel to Haley, nodding as he did. “This is Andy,” he had nodded at a skinny man who stood a few feet away. “Galloway over there, Flint at the back of the truck, Lucy siting inside there, and Alice right here.” He had tried to slip one arm over Alice’s shoulders, but she had smiled and shrugged it off.

“And who are you,” she had asked Scott. Behind him Haley had chuckled.

“Scott,” he had said.

She had taken his hand and held on, her eyes on his own.

“Listen, you can stay to dinner with us if you like. Fresh venison, killed a deer a few hours back.” Toby had pointed at a fire where what looked like both haunches of a small deer had been spitted: Fat dripping and sizzling.

“Yeah,” Haley had agreed. “We’d be glad to.”

“Yeah,” Joel had added. His stomach had been growling so loudly he had been sure that everyone could hear it. He had reached in, shut down the truck, and then shifted his rifle to his opposite shoulder as he shook hands with the others including Alice who had finally let go of Scott’s hand.

A little work had secured some late corn from an overgrown nearby field, that and the venison had made an excellent dinner.

“So where you folks going to,” Toby had asked.

“Alabama,” Joel had answered around a mouthful of corn. “Dammit this is good.”

Toby had laughed.

“There are, I think, more deer than there are people. Could have had a cow, in fact, but it would have been a waste of meat,” Alice had said.

They had traded small talk as they ate, sharing road information. Toby was bound for Manhattan, even after he had talked to them. Joel had shaken his head. The man was stubborn, there was no changing his mind. Joel had offered them to join with them and continue on to Alabama.

“Maybe,” Toby had agreed. “I might come back and look you up, but I got to know for myself.” They had been getting ready to leave a few minutes later, having refused politely the offer of spending the night, when Alice had asked if they would accept only her since the others didn’t want to go.

“Yeah,” Scott had said, nearly immediately. Toby had not seemed surprised although more than a little let down. He had, had a hard time hiding his frown. Scott smiled now thinking about it.

“What,” Alice asked.

“Thinking about how I like the way your mouth turns up at the corner the way it does,” Scott said. He reached forward and pulled her to him, at the same time walking back to the fire and Haley and Joel. Alice laughed.

“Dead,” Scott repeated to Joel and Haley.

“Kind of weird,” Haley said. “I mean, it’s been chatter, chatter, chatter the last few days and now it’s dead. Doesn’t make sense.”

“Is strange,” Alice agreed. “But we’re also further away from the city. Maybe all that chatter was the city… Or most of it.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Joel agreed. “We need to find a map and see what is near. Maybe the largest cities close by were destroyed.”

“I imagine they were: When we came this way it was the same. The few times we got close to a city it was bad. Destruction, the smell was horrible, and the sick ones too,” Alice said.

“Sick?” Joel asked.

“You haven’t seen them yet?” Alice asked.

“I don’t think we saw as much of the really bad stuff I have heard on the radio…” Haley paused for a second. “Back there, Manhattan, when we were with Billy, we heard some bad stuff out of the city. I mean like horror movie stuff. People looking dead but still walking around… Going without food for days, but not dying; attacking other people,” She shrugged. “Had to kill them, the ones that told us said so: Had to kill them because they were just gone. Come right at you and try to kill you if you didn’t… Some kind of bad sickness,” Haley finished.

“Zombies,” Alice said with a small nervous laugh.” She held her hands up when Joel and Scott shook their heads almost in unison. “I know, I know. They are not zombies, living dead, whatever, but I’m telling you I’ve seen them and they are bad shit. Bad shit. They may as well be zombies. No real thoughts seem to be going on in there.” She tapped her head with one finger. “They will attack you. They will try to kill you, eat you” She shrugged. “Not zombies, some sort of disease, but it is some very bad shit.”

“Like… Like plague of some sort,” Haley said.

“Yeah… Yeah, but they keep moving. I mean they should be dead, right? Their necks are swollen, faces black and blue, skin all messed up, running sores, this mass of black lines, like infection, running all through them, under their skin; but they don’t die. It’s like they are rotting on the bone, but they keep moving somehow. I don’t get it, but I have seen it a dozen times. Crazy too, not rational, I mean they are attacking and trying to eat other living people, how is that rational? Head shot, yeah, maybe you could kill them some other way too, but you don’t want to be screwing around, because maybe they’ll bite you. I have seen what happens to those who get bitten, they get sick pretty fast… A day or two tops. And in just a few hours they got those little black lines running off under their skin. Like I said, bad shit.”

“Jesus,” Joel said. “Billy told us about some that were camped near them. They didn’t even know it. They live like animals, nests in the woods, darkness, got one of their women, never found her, never found them, but the smell in the clearing was bad… Like death. And a few from the city told other stories. Central Park is over run with them. Thousands of sick and dying, only they aren’t dying for some reason, like… I don’t know, like they can somehow stay alive when they shouldn’t be able to stay alive.” He shivered involuntarily. “Little spooky… I can see why some are calling them zombies.”

Alice nodded. “Difference is these are real. I think zombies are a made up thing, these are something goddamn close to that, but they’re real. And there are some who seem sane, or… Calculating. I know that sounds even crazier, it’s like they evolve into something else… Some higher form of insanity that is so far gone they’re almost, well, sane again.”

Silence held for a few moments, Scott broke it.

“But a shot to the head does it, huh?”

“Yeah. Works every time. I mean, it sort of makes sense. Whatever the hell it is keeping them alive it requires them to have a brain so they can at least function on that… Well, on that animal level, I guess. No brain, no functioning at all.” Alice nodded once she finished and the silence held again for quite some time. This time Haley broke it.

“Well,” She squared her shoulders, “I guess if they look suspicious it has got to be a shoot first ask questions later sort of deal then, right?”

“Yeah,” Joel agreed.

“Yeah,” both Scott and Alice chimed in.

Haley leaned forward and threw a few heavy chunks of wood onto the fire. Night was not far away and the shadows were closing in fast.

“There were stories about that shit the planes sprayed on us,” Scott said after a long pause.

“Like?” Haley asked.

“Billy said he heard about it more than once. Almost all of us have stories about planes spraying stuff on us. I saw it back in Watertown, I… I think it was the next day… March 2nd, maybe March 3rd. We were up there in the Southern Tier… Raining all goddamn day, remember? Planes flying overhead. I remember seeing them. Blue shit… You guys?”

“I don’t remember the blue shit… Seems I remember the planes, but I thought, I don’t know, military transport planes. I really didn’t think about it until we got back to Watertown and there were no troops there at all. I expected them to be,” Joel said.

“I remember planes,” Alice said. I was in Schenectady… Planes, I remember thinking the Army had arrived, but they just flew over real slow, cargo doors open, that was weird, I half expected paratroopers to jump out… No blue stuff though, not that I remember… Why? What was it about?”

“I remember the blue shit,” Haley added, as Alice finished. “What was it about. What did Billy say?”

“Some government shit designed to strengthen us,” He held his hands up as everyone spoke at once. “I didn’t say I believed it. Hell, Billy said every time he tried to nail someone down about what they heard and who they heard it from, they would get all sketchy. Oh, it was a soldier I met on the road, told me he knew because the planes flew out of the base he was assigned to. But no name of the base. No facts about it, just like a… You know what it reminded me of? Like an urban legend. They get going the same way. Always sketchy details, low on facts.”

“Yeah, well, that’s one hell of an urban legend,” Haley said.

“Yeah, but the thing is there is always, they say, some seed of truth there,” Scott said thoughtfully.

“Maybe is,” Joel agreed.

“All I know is those things are real. We’ll have to be careful,” Alice said. The silence fell and held this time.

“Well,” Joel said at last. “Sleep beckons.” He looked over at the tents they had been using. “Maybe tomorrow, take some time, pick up bigger trucks… Maybe taking a chance sleeping outside isn’t smart.”

“I was going to mention that,” Alice said. “They might not bother us… Seem to hate fire, bright light. But if they did,” she shook her head. “I don’t want to go that way.”

“Me either,” Haley agreed.

Joel sighed. “Why don’t you two girls sleep… Scott, you too. I’ll take four hours and then wake you for the next four.”

“Done deal,” Scott agreed. They all rose from the fire, Haley stretched up and kissed Joel.

“Be okay?” She asked.

“Perfect.” he kissed her again. “Listen… Why don’t you and Alice sleep in the truck, you know, just to be safe.”

“I second that,” Scott agreed. “I’ll take the tent. You guys can do most of the driving tomorrow, let us nap a little to catch up.”

“After we get better trucks we can sleep in,” Alice added.

“After,” Joel agreed. Haley stretched up on her tip toes and kissed him once more. She left without another word.

“Sure you want first?” Scott asked.

“I’m good,” Joel agreed. He watched Scott walk away and then turned toward the black landscape and the trees that surrounded them, wishing he had not parked so close to the woods.

Joel and Haley

Pennsylvania: I 81

September 18th

The sign read, Tremont 3, Pottersville 15.

“Hard to tell which way it used to point,” Haley said.

They had found the sign protruding from the vegetation at the side of the road. The metal rails that once held it had been snapped off, pulled apart, the sign was twisted, the lettering barely legible.

“I think we can take for granted we are near those places though,” Scott said. He glanced at Alice who was bent over the hood of their truck examining a map of Pennsylvania. She raised her head and looked around.

“That overpass up there is route 209… Goes into Tremont, Pottersville further on. Small places. Guys, we’ve been following route 81 for miles now. We don’t have to find it we’re on it.”

They had been looking for route 81 to follow it across Pennsylvania, through Washington and then into Virginia. From there they intended to pick up whatever routes they could find that would take them toward the coast. They had been following I 81 for the last several hours without knowing it was I 81. There were no signs. The traffic was bumper to bumper in places, non existent in others. Most of the congestion was around the interchanges, and they had only come onto I 81 from an interchange. They had found no more since then until they had come up on this one.

“A compass that was worth a damn would be nice,” Scott said. He shoved the small compass he held back into his pocket.

Joel nodded. “Sun rises in the south west: If we keep that in sight that should keep us generally on the right track.”

Haley nodded this time. “So, stay on it?”

“I think so,” Joel agreed. “But maybe a quick look around… Stock up, wouldn’t hurt us before we start really laying down the miles.”

“Go up to 209,” Alice said, motioning up at the overpass, and go left… That will take us to Tremont… Small town or city, I can’t tell, it looks small.”

“Left, that would be,” Scott pulled the compass from his pocket once more and watched the dial dip and quiver. He sighed and then threw the small compass up into the sun. “Should have done that long ago,” He said. “East, I guess. That would be east. What used to be east.”

“Still is east,” Haley said. “Compass doesn’t know where true north is anymore, so it hardly matters. For now it’s east.”

Scott nodded. “Don’t know why it matters to me anyway,” he admitted.

“Because it keeps things normal,” Alice said quietly.

“Maybe,” Scott admitted.

“The doctor’s office is closed,” Haley said and laughed. “We’re all fucked up. No doubt about it. Let’s get some supplies and get on the road.” Silence held for a split second and then Scott laughed. Alice joined in and Joel chuckled right along with them.

“Let’s go,” Scott agreed. A few seconds later he was gunning the motor slipping through the high grass, fighting his way up to the overpass.

Tremont PA.

The streets seemed deserted, the buildings dusty and empty. Most of the main street was gone, what buildings remained perched on the edge of a yawning chasm. They approached carefully and looked down to see a small stream flowing across the floor of the cut some forty feet below: Emerging from a dark smudge on one side and flowing under a huge rock overhang on the other. Moss grew on some rocks near the stream. It had an air of permanence. The imagery below looked like something out of a wilderness camping guide.

“Looks like one of those forever wild things… Hike the Appalachian trail or something,” Alice said. She let her eyes wander upward where the buildings perched on the edge of the abyss, as though waiting to plunge down into the small, peaceful stream far below. “And then you have this,” she raised her arms to encompass the buildings where they sat. “Surreal.”

Scott nodded his head. He stood from his crouch and looked around at the buildings. “Deserted, I guess.” He had no sooner spoken the words than gunfire erupted and shattered the quiet afternoon air. He dove for the ground, remembered where he was, but too late. He hit the slope to the bottom of the gully and rolled toward the bottom. Halfway down his head struck a small rock outcropping and he stopped wondering about the gunfire and where it had come form.

Alice lunged for the gully, but Joel grabbed her just as quickly and pulled her toward one of the buildings Haley had run for. Already she had made the doorway and stood beckoning to them. Joel pushed Alice forward toward the building and then leapt the short distance to the cover of the corner of the building. The leap was too much for his still healing leg and he collapsed in agony just within the shadow of the building.

“Joel!” Haley from the shadowy interior of the building, Alice crouched next to her.

Behind him he heard running footsteps approaching, he motioned for Haley to go before he pushed himself over onto his back to face who ever this was. The pain flared bright in his leg as he used it to turn himself over, and he almost passed out. He got his gun up and pushed himself up on one elbow ready to fire. A second later a figure ran around the edge of the building and into his line of fire. He hesitated only the briefest of seconds, but it was long enough for the young girl to bring up her own weapon and fire. Joel’s pistol roared as he felt a stinging sensation on his neck, and he watched the young girl twist backwards and slam off the brick buildings inside corner as his bullet found her. As quickly as the noise had begun the afternoon turned deadly quiet. No bird calls, the vague gurgle of the stream as it flowed far below in the gully, nothing else. Joel put one hand to the side of his neck and bought it away bloodied. “Great,” he muttered to himself. He turned slowly, used one hand to get his good leg under him and stood from the sidewalk he had fallen on. Haley spoke from behind him and he nearly jumped before he could calm his staggering heartbeat down and respond.

“Baby… Baby, come on,” Haley whispered again.

“I told you to go,” Joel said tightly as he limped toward the darkened doorway of the building.

“And I didn’t,” Haley said every bit as tightly.

Joel made the doorway and looked around at the darkened interior. “Where did Alice go?”

“Ran back toward the pit when you went down. I… I couldn’t stop her, Joel,” Haley told him.

“Of course not… Wouldn’t have stopped me if it was you down there either.” He sighed.

“Jesus, you’re bleeding bad, Joel, really bad,” Haley told him. She pulled her t-shirt over her head, wadded it up and pressed it against the side of her neck.

“Feel funny,” he said, “Sleepy… Hey, no bra, that’s…” The lights dimmed down suddenly; winked out completely, and he spiraled down into darkness.

Tremont PA

Full dark

“I wanted… I wanted you to know it… I wanted you to know… Know it,” Joel said. His words were garbled and barely intelligible. His eyes snapped open in the darkness, his breath caught in his throat, and he began to sit up. Haley placed a hand against his chest, leaned close and whispered into his ear.

“Lay still, Babe. Lay still… Be quiet… Something is out there… Someone… Quiet.” Her hand kept firm and steady pressure against his chest and he sank back down to the floor. It seemed he was barley holding onto consciousness, his eyes kept rolling up into his head.

“Goddammit,” Haley exploded. A second later her machine pistol began to chatter. Joel sank back down into unconsciousness.

The Gully

Scott’s eyes flew open in the darkness. Something… Something had awakened him… He had been asleep and something… Close by a woman screamed and the sound of a semi automatic weapon firing fast came to him. The scream tore off abruptly, reduced to a series of gagging, pleading sounds, and then nothing. He tried to move and nearly grayed out from the pain that flared in his left arm. Something, he thought, was broken or badly injured. He tried again and this time it responded better. Dislocated, he told himself, as he grimaced to bite back the cry that wanted to slip past his clenched jaw. He whimpered slightly from reaction and the expenditure of energy, and grasped his left wrist firmly with his right hand. A second later he was pulling and twisting slightly. A sharp pull, a sharper twist. Once, twice and he was on the edge of passing out. He drew several deep breaths and tried a third time and the shoulder slipped back into place. He fell back against the moist earth and closed his eyes, intending only to gather his strength for a moment, but his eyes betrayed him and he spiraled away down into the dark.

The Vacant building

Haley made her feet and duck walked forward to where the two figures had crumpled to the ground. The one, a woman, half her lower jaw missing, one leg hanging by a thread and blood pumping out of her at an alarming rate, was snarling softly and crawling toward the road where a second woman lay breathing hard. She reached her and rose on one elbow before lowering her face and beginning to bite with what was left of her shattered jaw. The woman laying in the street began to scream, Haley switched to single shot, stood and walked up behind them and shot them both. The one on top still whimpered and snarled, almost sounding as though she were pleading, before Haley shot her one more time and she collapsed: Silent at last. Haley faded back into the shadows, listening, but the night was silent.

She returned to Joel who had slipped back down into a deep sleep once more. She had given him morphine, a small shot. They carried it. She had debated doing it, but he needed it. He had opened up a large section of his neck and the bleeding was heavy. She had to stitch it and she couldn’t have him waking up halfway through that. She had looked with dismay at the dirt grimed into her hands and under her fingernails. Infection was a real possibility in this world. She had drenched the whole area with a full bottle of peroxide, something else they carried, stitched the wound with dental floss, and then sprayed it down with a once popular spray antibiotic. She had managed to force three penicillin pills into him and got him to swallow them down, out of it as he was. There was nothing else to do, but wait it out. He had lost a great deal of blood, but she had not been able to get him to swallow again, the water just poured out the sides of his mouth when she gave it to him.

She took his head into her lap now and held him. Watching the black and silent night, her machine pistol across her lower legs. Safety off and ready.

Tremont

September 20th

Her eyes blinked rapidly, she drew a deep gasping breath and then came fully awake. Alice stared around the ravine at the gray light that was beginning to paint color back into the world. Rock, sand and water. Moss on some rocks. She puzzled the information over and over again in her head. Rocks and water… Rocks, water, moss, sand, rocks… Moss, water… The realization of where she was come to her as she remembered the events of the day before. She rose to her scraped and blood crusted elbows and then to a sitting position. Her back felt sprung, maybe it would hurt more later, but for now she could deal with it. Her heartbeat seemed a little odd. Too slow, something, but it wasn’t skipping beats or anything so she dismissed that too. She sat, shaky, and let her mind come more fully back to herself before she raised her head and took in her surroundings more fully.

Hypothermia, her mind said, and she was cold, very cold, there was no heat in the ground down here. That could explain the heart beat seeming to be too slow, hypothermia did that. Her mind seemed determined to keep up a dialogue with her as she studied first one side and then the other side of the ravine.

Her eyes slipped over a dirty bundle of rags where they lay half in half out of the water and continued on before she realized they were no bundle of rags, got to her feet and stumbled the thirty feet or so to where Scott lay, half in, half out of the water.

Her fingers, stiff though they were, felt at his neck for a pulse. He moved as she jabbed her stiff fingers into his neck.

“Jesus… Jesus, Alice… That hurts. That hurts,” Scott said. His words started out mumbled but grew a little stronger as he spoke. “So damn cold,” Scott finished. His lips were blue tinged and he was cold to the touch.

“I know, baby, I know. I have to get you out of this water. Going to move you,” she told him as she made her own feet, fought the dizziness that threatened to down her, and bent once more, wrapping her arms around his upper chest and dragged him backwards. Scott called out a second later and then lapsed back into unconsciousness once more. Alice struggled to pull him back farther away from the water and then let him go, sinking to the ground herself and breathing hard. A few minutes later she had caught her own breath and was checking herself over for injuries. Obviously, she told herself, they had both tumbled down the ravine. Him first, her as she tried to follow.

One side of her face was a ruin of scrapes and crusted blood. Her mouth was numb on that side, but that had been the side against the ground so that was no real surprise. She flexed her jaw experimentally and it seemed to work fine. One knee ached, but did not seem to be swollen. Her tailbone hurt, no way to check it now, but she assumed it was most likely black and blue. Right ankle hurt a little: Could have been the way she slept on it too. No way to know, but it was also not swollen: She was bruised, a little battered, but no big deal. She needed warmth and she would be fine. She turned her attention to Scott.

Bruising on his jawline and temple on the right side of his face and scraped up skin in the same place. What wasn’t scraped up was deeply bruised. Probably where his head collided with something on the way down to the bottom. His shoulder felt larger on one side, but she was able to move his arm with no problem.

“Hey,” softly from above, but she nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Oh my God you scared the shit out of me,” Alice whispered.

Haley only nodded. “He okay too?”

“No,” Alice said softly. “Too cold… Have to get him out of here… Warmed up.”

Haley nodded and then disappeared for a few seconds. “Okay… Listen, I’m going to get the truck. The one you and Scott were driving had a winch. We should be able to get you up with that.”

Alice felt at her pocket for the keys, but as she looked down at her pants the pocket was gone, ripped from the fabric of the cargo pants. “Keys are gone,” she called up. Haley swore lightly under her breath.

“Plan B,” Haley called down after a few minutes. “Our truck is gone, don’t know if that was why they attacked us, but they took the truck. I don’t know how to hot-wire a truck or a car… Joel is out, so I’m going to go look for something that will run, get a rope and come back here and get you out that way. Hang on.” Her face disappeared from the top of the embankment and then was back a few moments later. “Water,” she called down. “Don’t try to catch it.” She took her time, aimed, and then tossed first one and then two more bottles down. They landed with a hard thud not far from where Alice sat with Scott’s head pulled into her lap. “Drink… You don’t want to get dehydrated too,” Haley told her with a tight smile. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She disappeared before Alice could speak.

“Come on, baby, come on,” Alice said as she slapped at the side of Scott’s face. She finally got him to open one eye, pulled his head slightly higher and got him to drink half of one bottle before his head sank once more into her lap.

Afternoon

They were all huddled around the fire Haley had built inside the small sidewalk area under the overhang of the doorway. There was very little room, but there was a building at their backs and a wide view of the downtown area and the edge of the ravine a few hundred feet away.

“We have got to get out of here,” Haley said. The day was slipping away. She had no doubt that whatever it was that had attacked them last night, plague victims, would be back tonight once the sun went down. She had only a dozen bullets for her machine pistol. Joel’s pistol had a loaded magazine, nine, and Scott and Alice had both lost their weapons on their fall into the ravine. Haley had smashed the window on their truck, but all the ammunition had been in their own truck, and that was long gone.

“Bad straights,” Alice said.

“Very,” Haley agreed. She eased her lap out from under Joel’s head, and rose to her feet. She had found an old mini van that she had used to get Alice and Scott out of the ravine. It ran well enough, and had nearly a half tank of gas. It would have to do. She had already transferred what foodstuffs there had been and supplies they could use from the second truck into the mini van, and packed it carefully along the sides of the rear windows. The rear seat had folded down, and there was space to lay both Joel and Scott out in the back. The problem was that neither of them were conscious and they were both big men. Not an easy task. Alice had been banged up too. One side of her face was going to be covered with spectacular scars. Haley had dug the small pebbles out of it, washed the dirt away and disinfected it. There was nothing more she could do. She didn’t know if Alice was up to the work or not.

“Think you’re up to it,” she asked now. She looked up at the sky. “The longer we wait the worse it will be. The day’s getting away from us.”

Alice nodded. “No, but I will have to be. Let’s do it.” She rose to her own feet, steady now, where just a short time earlier she had been shaky. She had warmed up nicely, and she saw that Scott had as well. His breathing had become something closer to normal, even, no rattle in his chest or gasping that she was afraid she would hear. He slept deeply.

Haley had pulled the small van close to the building earlier. She went to it now, opened the rear hatch and returned to where Alice waited. They decided on Joel first. Joel was the heaviest and it might be better to get the heaviest out-of-the-way first.

It took more than twenty minutes before they managed to get Joel securely into the back of the van. They had both collapsed to the pavement breathing hard, not wanting to do anything else, but after only a short break they had forced themselves to their feet once more. The longer they sat, the deeper the weariness had moved into them: Settling into their bodies.

Scott had been no trouble at all. Maybe it had been the first tugging and fighting to get Joel into the van, or maybe he was just that much lighter, but he was easily positioned into the back of the van. They both collapsed to the pavement once more. Breath ragged, lungs aching and burning, sharpness resting just below their rib cages, a feeling Haley had always acquainted with running too fast, too hard. She took her time, slowed her breathing, dragged Alice to her feet and walked back and forth in front of the building until her heartbeat resumed its former slower beat, and the sweat began to dry on her skin. Only then did she slow and rest against the hood with Alice.

“This is so hard,” Haley said. She burst into tears, but fought them back just as quickly.

Alice lowered her head into her own hands and a few sobs slipped past her hands before she got herself under control. “Better go,” she said aloud as she raised her tear streaked face.

Haley nodded, moved around the truck and opened the driver’s door with a rusty screech. A few moments later the broken pavement of downtown Tremont was shrinking in their mirror as they made their way west once more, heading back to I 81 to continue their trip south.



Amazon: Book One: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H5PM49W

Amazon: Book Two: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H5Q9S36

Amazon: Book Three: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H5Q9W0A

Amazon: Book Four: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H5QNOKY

Amazon: Book Five: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07D3D9Z2S




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