The raised voices in the hall were almost deafening to Jesse’s ears. He and Mitch sat at the back of the room and shared a MRE cracker spreading peanut butter on it from the little squeeze package. Between them was a cup of kool-aid that might have been orange and lemon. They ate and listened as the last of the town’s residence’s shouted at each other about the latest fence breach. They had lost three people plugging the hole and were nearly out of ammo. Neither Jesse nor Mitch had offered to resupply them since the people had taken a considerable portion of their stash anyway and never given it back. To say that they were feeling less than amiable towards the survivors was being polite. Jesse was fond of pointing out when ever any one asked for a hand out that they had already gotten all they were going to get from him and he would not be in the situation with them if their over-zealous officer, Lorain, had not illegally detained them.
She was currently standing near the desk that they had setup as their stage, scowling at the others around her and looking scared under all her bluster. Jesse had to grudgingly hand it to her, Lorain was always in the thick of the fighting. He didn’t like the overbearing bitch, but even now that she had run out of ammo, she was protecting those that remained with a hefty length of pipe sporting an elbow at the business end to give it weight enough to crush a skull. Since her boyfriend had died, she had taken on a sallow appearance and seemed to be a little more unsure of her chances of survival, yet she fought on and Jesse had to respect that. On the desk stood Rich, the defacto leader, holding up his arms and trying to bring some kind of order to the meeting. He was being less than successful in his attempts and finally someone blasted an airhorn which while bringing silence to the room, managed to raise a chorus of moans and groans from outside.
The sounds made the people huddle together and several cried out with involuntary gasps.
“Now let’s get some order here,” he voiced into the silence.
“Yeah,” mouthed someone. “Like a little order in here is going to save us all.”
Rich shook his head at the scattered and nervous laugher. “I know that we’re all concerned about our situation--.”
“—That’s putting it mildly,” barked someone else.
“Please,” asked Rich, “let me talk.”
“So far, that’s all you’ve done,” said another. All eyes turned to the man as he spoke. He noticed that he had their attention and drew himself up. He was a tall man, thin from the forced rations and his red hair had grown into an unruly mop. He reminded Jesse of Hannah’s dead lover, Freddy Jones, perhaps what Freddy would have looked like if he had survived a few more years. The man cleared his throat and spoke before Rich could regain control. “You’ve talked and rationed our food, the water and the fuel like we’re going to make it more than another couple of days. What else is there to say? We’re going to die here and we might as well eat a good last meal and go out with a fight. This fence was not meant to stand up to those things our there, it’s failing and all we’re doing is starving and dieing little by little. Is it going to come down to a couple of us left in a closet starving while the zombies claw at the door?”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Rich saw he was losing control again and tried to speak. “There’s children here and you’re scaring them--.”
The man raised his voice over Rich’s. “Scaring them? We’re all scared by the reality of what’s going on, Rich. We’re damn near frightened to death.”
He looked out at the crowd of people he knew and had grown up with, supposed Jesse. Jesse glanced at Mitch who was calmly munching on the last of his cracker, as unperturbed as if he were at the Lodge watching a movie play out on the big screen there.
“I don’t want to go down that way,” he said. “I’m tired of this. I’ve starved enough these last few days and I plan on going down with a fight-fighting to get out of here or dying trying.”
“What are you going to do,” asked Rich sarcastically. “Walk out there and try to beat a hole through them?”
The man laughed a laugh without humor, one rife with scorn. “No. But I have a plan, one that doesn’t include starving to death in here.”
Before he could catch himself, Rich blurted out the phrase that as soon as it left his mouth, he knew had doomed himself as the leader of the survivors. “And what would that be?”
All eyes turned to the man who took a deep breath and pointed at the walls around them, indicating everything that lay beyond. “I’ve been working here for this county for fifteen years. I know this shop and what we have in it and I also have been keeping track of the fuel we have and what we have left. I say that we use the vehicles we have that are in the best shape, armor them, load them with what we have left as far as food and guns and ammo, and using the bulldozer as a battering ram, we break out, we run those fuckers out there down, once we have a hole punched through, we scatter to the winds and find places to rebuild our lives, such as they are.”
He looked out at the people who stood with rapt attention, nodding at his plan, believing that it would work because they had nothing else to trust, all hope seemed to be marshaled slowly and steadily behind this one idea of breaking out and bursting free. They all began to nod with him as he outlined his plan.
“We take what we have left, we divide it up between the vehicles so that we all have an equal chance, just as good as any other, no more no less, and we out fit the best of what we have and drive the hell out of here.”
“Like a fucking Hollywood movie?” demanded Rich. “Listen people, there’s a better way--.”
“Hell there is, Rich,” blurted out a woman. “I say we do this. I say we get the hell out of here or die trying.”
“Get the hell out,” repeated another. “Or die trying.”
The chant was picked up by others. Rich tried to shout above them but he failed. He stood on the desk and looked out over the people with a sad expression and Jesse saw him catch the red-heads attention. Under the excitement of the plan, Jesse saw Rich mouth the words to man “you’ve domed us all”. The man shrugged and held out his hands as if to say, “we were doomed anyway”. Rich nodded and slowly held out his arms for silence. He held his crucified pose until people began to notice him, their talking fading away but their eyes bright with the fanatical belief that they could not fail because they now had a plan.
When he was sure that he had everyone’s attention, Rich spoke. “If this is what we want, we need to vote, just so if there is anyone who does not want to do this, they have a chance to say so and why. We’re still a democracy here, you voted for me, and we need to make sure this is done right, at least as long as I’m in charge.” He looked at the survivors and breathed heavily. “All in favor of this plan, raise your hands.”
The room seemed suddenly filled with up raised arms, combined with the expressions on the peoples faces, looking for all the world like a evangelistic tent revival. The image made Jesse shudder and gave him a creeped out feeling that he found hard to shake. Rich nodded.
A couple hands went up, and then down as the owners looked around and saw no support. Rich shook his head. “You can disagree, that’s what this whole process is about. What are your concerns?”
One of the people looked embarrassed. “I just think that it’s dangerous as hell and not well thought out is all—it’s not a plan, just an idea. Where the hell will we go? How much fuel have we got and how far can we get?”
There were grumbles of dissent which Rich waved down. “Jim has raised valid points. All answers I also think we need.”
“Like what happens if we’re still being followed by that horde and we run out of gas with no place to fort up?” said another of the nay votes.
“It’s not perfect,” shouted a woman. “But it is something! It beats waiting around here to die of starvation or worse. It’s fighting, which is more than we’re doing here.”
“We can make those plans, answer those questions,” assured the red-head. He caught the eyes of his converts. “But first, we pick our vehicles and make them safe enough to with stand those things out there. Once we have that, we can talk about who goes where and what to do after. It’s a plan. Better than what we are doing here and now. No one is making you go, but those of us who want to should be able to get out while we can, while we still have the strength to do it.”
Agreement was voiced over the nest questions that were raised. Rich shouted for calm but the others gravitated toward the red-head who shook hands and beamed at the others praise. The red-head saw Rich and pointed to him. Everyone turned their attention to Rich.
“If this is what you want, than this is what we will do. We need to decide who is going to pick the vehicles and how to divide up the supplies. We need to vote on the people to do this-“
Mitch turned to Jesse. “Why didn’t you think of that plan?”
Jesse laughed. “’Cause I don’t really wanna die.”
“Me either.” Mitch drained the drink. “What are we going to do?”
“Help where we can, watch the rest.”
“You think that it’s pretty stupid, what they’re planning?”
Jesse could only nod.
“Me too.” They watched as the votes were cast. Mitch looked back over at Jesse. “What are we going to do?”
“I actually have a plan now,” said Jesse.
“It’s about time.”
“Yes,” laughed the other man. “It is.”
“What plan would that be?” asked a female voice that made Jesse cringe. He and Mitch looked over to see Lorain standing a few feet away, eyeing them suspiciously.
“A plan of our own,” supplied Jesse, not wanting to give the woman even the slightest hint of what he was thinking.
Lorain nodded and stepped closer to them, glancing over at the other survivors. “What if I told you I was in.”
“You were in?” asked Mitch.
“In what?” asked Jesse.
“In with you two,” Lorain told them.
“Forgive me if I find this to be more than a little suspect,” Jesse remarked. “We haven’t exactly gotten off on the most friendly of circumstances.”
Lorain gave a harsh barking laugh. “Than we know where we stand with each other.”
“Amazing how that seems such a positive statement,” Mitch murmured.
“Okay,” shrugged Jesse. “Point taken, we know where we stand. The next question is why?”
Giving Jesse a sour look, Lorain’s face clouded as she searched for the words she wanted. “You might not have guessed it, but I’m not the most well liked person around here,” she told them with her voice dripping with disdain for those around her. “No matter what I do. I took an oath and I uphold it, no matter what they think or say. I’m not stupid enough to think that Ron’s plan will work or keep anyone alive past those gates, so I don’t see where my going blindly with them is going to do anyone any good. You and him have been roaming out there for a while, you obviously have what it takes to survive and live beyond any gated community. If anyone has a chance, it seems that you two do, and I want that chance.”
Jesse pondered her reasoning and at the moment, could not find any fault with it. He looked at Mitch who shrugged, his expression telling Jesse that another warm body might come in handy, no matter who it was or their reasoning. Looking at Lorain, Jesse made a decision he hoped he would not regret. “You want to help us, you can be our inside man, as it were.”
“Inside how,” suspiciously quiried Lorain.
“You are our ticket to some of our supplies that were taken from us; you tell them that you are ridin’ with us in our vehicle, which is arguably the best set up of this bunch around here. You can get us gas, you can get us our stuff back.”
“So you’re using me?”
“That’s part of the plan.”
“What is the plan exactly?” demanded Lorain.
“There is a saying I like,” said Jesse. “Three can keep a secret it two are dead. The less you know, the better off we all are.”
“You think that I can’t keep a secret,” she stated.
“Honey, around here there’s only one person I trust, and I’m not even tellin’ him what I’m thinkin’, not yet.”
“I’m hurt, deeply wounded and bleeding inside,” fake-whined Mitch.
Jesse laughed. “I wasn’t even talkin’ about you. I don’t trust you either.”
“Well, that makes me feel so much better. At least I know where I stand,” mock-huffed Mitch.
“You two are freaks,” decided Lorain. “but I’m in.”
They watched her walk away. Mitch leaned over to Jesse. “So what is the plan?”
“Let’s see if she can get us what we need and then I’ll tell you what I’m thinkin’,” said Jesse. “I don’t want you bailin’ on me.”
“It’s gonna get us killed isn’t it?”
Jesse smiled. “Only if it doesn’t work.”
Jesse and Mitch stood in the parking lot of the Lodge and looked over the vehicles that it contained; everything from tractor rigs to a little Honda Civic. They debated about taking a diesel Hummer, and then an armored car, but both of them made such rotten mileage that they abandoned those thoughts before they were even developed. Jesse kept coming back to the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser. He and Hannah and Chelsea had found it in a garage back when they had first gotten together, just a few weeks after the plague had hit and they had left the apartment complex where they had been fortified, but running out of food. The battered vehicle got okay mileage, was reliable, as well as being set up for long haul trips with a roof rack and box. It had brush bars front and rear, two spare tires and two ten gallon gas cans affixed to the outside racks While a couple of the windows were broken out and had been replaced with Plexiglas sheets, it was pretty much intact. The bright yellow paint was an eye catcher and some might consider that to be a negative, but Jesse felt that the obviousness of the choice was kind of like a camouflage in and of it’s self. Who would think that a pair of guys in a yellow SUV would be anything other than survivors and not something else? If they took a Hummer or something similar, it seemed to Jesse that they might be viewed with at the least suspicion, or even open hostility if thought to represent a military or political entity. Mitch listened to Jesse’s reasoning with the blank face of a poker player.
“So you think that we could just, drive around unmolested?”
“No exactly, but with less hassle than if we were driving a multi-million dollar HUMVEE,” explained Jesse.
“HUMVEE”s do not cost a million dollars,” pointed out Mitch. “But I think I see your point. A Hummer with a 240 on the top and armored doors and windows might prove to be too much of a temptation to some people, where’s a beat up Toyota screams, ‘we got nothing worth stealing’.”
“Pretty much,” nodded Jesse.
“But we will have shit to steal,” reminded Mitch.
“Right, but from a distance, we’d look like the Beverly Hillbillies.”
“Who also had something to steal,” noted Mitch.
Jesse gave the other man a black look. “Are you tryin’ to piss me off?”
“I’m playing Devil’s Advocate, pointing out the flaws in your plan.”
“Just because the Beverly Hillbillies had something to steal, doesn’t mean that all hillbillies have something to steal,” snapped Jesse. “This is real life, not TV; if we give the appearance of having nothing, than people will leave us alone.”
“In the old world where everyone had something, I’d have agreed with you,” said Mitch. “But this is a world where no one has shit any more and a running vehicle is well worth stealing. Taking all of that into account, why the fuck not have a vehicle that will stand up to some abuse and come out the other side?”
“Because I like that old TLC and I want to drive it,” Jesse retorted finally after digesting Mitch’s argument, which in and of itself was persuasive.
“Than why didn’t you just say that?”
“Because I thought you’d protest.”
“I would have,” grinned Mitch. “I still might. But at least you’re not coating the reason under a pile of bullshit.”
They walked to the TLC to give it a once over. Mitch surveyed it with a critical eye, taking in the tires, the rims, the battered body covered with dents, scrapes, bullet holes which had been plugged with various kinds of colored sealant, epoxy, and even caulk so that the exterior looked like a three year old had been at it alternately with magic markers and a hammer. Somehow the lights were all intact, so that the row of KC roof lighting and the two driving lights on the brush bars glinted in the sunlight. Jesse saw Mitch suppress a shudder.
“You know this is the dumb son-of-a-bitch that left me stranded in a tree that one time. It was fucking cold up in that tree--.”
“If I remember correctly, it was not exactly the Toyota’s fault, you idiots forgot to lock out the front wheels,” remembered Jesse, trying to draw the man out of the sudden black memory he had been drawn into. “That is what you get for hanging out with a stoner.”
“Hank is a stoner,” agree Mitch. “And it was fucking icy that day and those were a fuck-load of zombies. At least you came back for me.”
“I don’t remember that it was my choice,” Jesse told Mitch honestly. “I figured you for dead, I think. Cole was the one who had to check.”
Mitch laughed suddenly his dark mood vanishing and slapped the hood of the vehicle. “The story as I heard it; you came back for this piece of shit and were surprised to find me alive.” He shook his head. “I guess that means this hunk of crap is kind of a good luck charm for me, as long as you keep coming back for it, I’ll keep surviving.”
“That’s a good way to look at it.”
“If I look at it any other way, I’ll get depressed again.” Mitch pointed at the windows, suddenly interested in the process of making the vehicle road-safe for them. “We need to put some kind of grate over the windows though, ones that we can see out of but will keep things from getting in, and if something is thrown at us will bounce it away. The draw back is that we’ll be trapped inside should something bad happen like a rollover and the doors are jammed shut. We either need a quick release or we need to leave one of the windows open.”
“How about the rear?” asked Jesse. “We can leave the rear uncovered. I’ll bet that most of the threats are gonna be at the sides and front any way.”
“Unless we’re running away,” pointed out Mitch.
“Well, even so, the forward motion of the car will keep most of the shit from hitting us.”
“How about we put a big layer of Plexiglas over the existing window?” asked Mitch. “It would protect the rear, things would bounce off of it and keep things from breaking the window and such, but if we use short pop rivets or some kind of break aways, we could still kick it out if we need to.”
“Worth a look.”
“What about fuel?”
“It’s got dual tanks,” remembered Jesse. “As you can see it’s been lifted slightly and it has a skid plate under it. Those tires will be a bitch to replace out on the road. I don’t know that they are compatible with much else as far as the rims.”
“If we have to, we can make things work with washers and spacers,” decided Mitch. “There are ways around everything. Remember the “universal rims” that they used to have for muscle cars?”
“I do,” admitted Jesse.
“We could rig something like those if we had to, as long as the holes were close--.”
They continued to discuss what they would do to the vehicle to make it two month road worthy. Finally Jesse, who was by now sitting in the drivers seat, looked at Mitch and sighed.
“We’re going to have to do a shake down run.”
“We’ll need supplies, and the best place to get those, as far as I know, is at the Base.”
Mitch frowned. “Another run to the base. Wonderful. I wonder if Emma’s buddy Nick had managed to get the big doors shut before the swarm of undead could get into the building.”
“There’s only one way we’ll find out. That’s go there.” Jesse peered at the Lodge. “I wonder if I can convince them to send a group as well, maybe we can clean it out once and for all of everything we can use. That way we’ll have back up in case something goes wrong, and we’ll be able to stock up without taking from the Lodge’s supplies.”
“We can only ask,” stated Mitch.
“And ask we shall,” confirmed Jesse, levering himself out of the Toyota. They walked back to the Lodge, still sketching out the modifications they were going to make to the TLC and wondering what they would have to trade to get the work done. Thing were finally coming together for the trip and Jesse was feeling the excitement building at the chance to do something else, see new territory and possibly catch up with Heart of the Moon.