Re: The Dead at Destitute Mountain
Posted: Wed May 17, 2017 10:30 am
True said nothing for the next few hours. She only guided her horse on a slow walk, sometimes zigzagging a bit to stay behind Lucas, who was nervous at first of having the animal so close to his back. This horse, however didn’t seem to openly dislike him like the last one, so it wasn’t long before he was trying his best to ignore his unwanted companions. Sometimes when the horse and its rider fell far enough behind so that he could no longer hear its hooves on the unpaved road, he let himself hope that he would turn his head and find that she’d gone home. But each time he looked, True was still there in the saddle sitting slump-shouldered and staring blankly down at the road.
This is not part of the plan, he kept thinking. Like dragging a weight behind me. Like being chained at the ankles. He wondered how long it would be before he could get rid of her. He wondered how long it would be before she died in some way. They always seemed to die, he thought; the tagalongs from his first few months on the road, the ones who just latched on without invitation and followed in his wake. There had been that Goth couple with all of the tattoos who’d stood up to the guys in the truck instead of just abandoning camp and slipping away. They’d died. There had been that group of five people who’d insisted that the water in the stream was safe to drink and who wound up too incapacitated by cramps to run when the dead showed up in the night. They died. There had been that hollow-eyed woman who’d sat staring into the campfire as the cold rain extinguished it drop by drop and who died of hypothermia sometime before dawn. Dead, dead, dead.
Lucas wondered if he could slip away at some point, maybe in the early hours of the morning. From way in the back of his head a faint voice reminded him that she’d just lost her family and must be feeling a big emptiness inside. Where was his pity, the voice asked, his sympathy? But a louder, more commanding voice reminded him of one of the cardinal rules of surviving in the post apocalyptic world: Worrying about someone else’s feeling can get you killed.
When she finally drew near enough to speak to him it was in a dry, whispery voice. “Hang a left,” she said.
“What?” he said, looking left at the trail branching away from the road. “I thought we were following the lakeshore.”
“The road’s blocked just around the next bend,” she muttered. “Rockslide.”
“How far does that way take us from the lake?”
“A long way.”
“The whole reason I came this way,” he complained, “was because I thought I could find a boat and float for fifty miles down the lake.”
“You can if you want,” she shrugged, her eyes averted from his, “but you’re really visible out on the lake. The dead in town might see you coming a mile away. Bad guys might see you too.” She looked through the trees where the lake surface was dotted with whitecaps. “Besides, the wind is blowing up the lake. It’s not like there’s gasoline for any of the boat motors. You’d be paddling against the wind.”
The horse clomped slowly past him and to the left up the trail. Lucas was reluctant to depart from his planned route, but the wind was blowing the wrong way up the lake and he couldn’t deny the sense in her words.
“I’m not totally useless outdoors,” she said from just ahead of him. “I may not have liked it much, but I grew up out here. Plus, my friend Brandy and I used to get really baked and watch that wilderness survival guy show on TV.” She smiled sadly at the memory. “Every minute or so, Brandy used to yell SNAKE! at the guy. I laughed so hard I just about peed myself.”
The trail angled away from the lake shore and rose in elevation until leveling out among the hills to the east of the lake. The wind moaned along the tops of the pines as the sky turned a deep, cloudless blue. They plodded along, detouring around fallen trees and washouts. They stopped in the middle of the trail for a midday meal and continued on – all without exchanging any words.
The supplies True’s father had hastily bundled together and secured behind her saddle included five mason jars of summer vegetables and four of what he assumed was fish, dried apples, venison jerky, oatmeal and three small cans of Spam. The long tool that True had carried with her from her home was a well-used logging pickaroon with a thirty-six inch long wooden handle. When they stopped, she gripped it tightly and looked around warily at their surroundings as if expecting the dead to come charging at them from every clump of bushes. Four hours later, Lucas caught a glimpse of the dark clouds piling up on the western horizon and thought it was time to choose a camp site.
“Might be good to stop and spend a little extra time setting up,” he explained. “Make sure we can stay dry if things turn wet.”
“I got a tent,” True said, her voice flat and distant as she patted a small nylon bag secured with the rest of the supplies. As though flipping a switch, her voice returned to the way it had been when she’d first set eyes on him. “It’s really small,” she told him in a sweet, syrupy voice. “We’ll be right up against each other, but we’ll be warm, I bet.” A heartbeat later, the grin she’d forced into place fell away and her flirtatious manner evaporated. “Or we could keep going for another half hour or so. The trail comes out on Purple Butte Road. There’s a ranch house just up a ways. We could always see it through the trees on trail rides. Don’t know who lives there – or if anybody still does – but there’s the house and a row of stables and one of those prefab metal buildings. Might be better than just a tent.”
Lucas thought for a moment. Sleeping in the Brewer’s shed had been a treat and he found he wouldn’t mind spending another night beneath a solid roof. “If there’s no one there,” he said to her. “We need to take a look without being seen. That goes no matter where you are; always watch the place for a little while before going in.”
“I guess that’s one of those things we talked about,” she muttered, “the ones you have to do in order to stay alive.”
The ranch house looked like it dated from the 1970s and it was in need of some upkeep. The posts on the wooden front porch had been braced with two-by-fours. The roof’s worn asphalt shingles were loose in patches and the wood siding looked slightly warped in places. Adding to its dilapidated look, the windows were boarded up with plywood sheets and scrap lumber had been nailed across the outside of the doorframes. Weeds had grown up around the edges of the house, making it look abandoned. Lucas focused his binoculars on the stables and the metal outbuilding.
“What’s it look like?” True asked in a hushed voice, looking nervously over her shoulder to where she’d tied her horse to a tree. “See anything?”
“Nothing moving,” he answered, “alive or dead. But…”
“But what?” she whispered after a moment.
“The ranch house,” he replied slowly, “the doors are boarded up from the outside.”
“And that means?”
“That’s what people do when everyone inside is dead,” he answered, lowering the binoculars and standing up straight. “They just leave them inside.” Because, he added silently, they can’t bring themselves to do what’s right.
“So,” she said, watching him give up their concealed position, “what are we going to do?”
“We’re going in,” was his reply, “carefully.” They walked back to where they’d left the horse and their belongings. “People who board up a house from the outside don’t want their dead brothers and sisters and moms and dads to get out. They do it before they leave.”
“So that’s a whole house full of dead people?” True said, eying the house as they walked toward it, unnerved by the idea.
“All boarded up,” Lucas confirmed. “But it probably means the rest of the place is abandoned. The other two buildings – the horse stables and the garage – they look okay. And tonight,” he added, looking up at the incoming clouds, “looks like it might be a rainy one.”
True walked behind Lucas, leading her horse with one hand and holding the pickaroon in the other. Lucas checked that his revolver was ready to draw at a second’s notice, but walked with only his makeshift spear in his hand. From behind, True couldn’t help but comment on the plastic wrapped 9mm carbine strapped on the side of his pack.
“Why don’t you have that gun out and ready?” she asked in a whisper. “Seems only sensible.”
“It’s Lux’s,” was his only reply.
“Right,” she replied, “your dead girlfriend’s.”
“She’s not dead,” he said, certain – but not sure how – that he’d know if she was.
“I think she’d want you to use it,” True suggested in a tightly wound voice as they left their last spot of cover and came within clear view of the house, “or maybe loan it to, you know, someone like me in situations like this.”
Probably on the first one, Lucas said to himself in answer to True’s suggestions. Definitely not on the second one.
They halted five yards from the front porch and stood looking at the boarded up house. The horse began to act nervous, snorting loudly and tossing its head gently, as if urging them back. “Sassy,” True said to it, “behave.” But it was plain that True was as anxious as her horse. “So…” she said faintly, “…so we’re…we’re just going to spend the night just…just yards away from…”
“It’s boarded up,” Lucas said in a voice approaching normal volume. True’s horse chose the moment to let out a loud, high-pitched neigh and within a few seconds they both heard a distinct thump against the front door of the house. All three of them took a step back from the porch. “We’ll be okay,” he assured her, returning to a whisper. “We’ll just keep the noise down.”
“It’s weird,” she said, pickaroon held tightly against her chest, “to think that there’s a bunch of them in there.” Despite her fear, she took a fascinated half step toward the front porch and her horse tossed its head and neighed again.
“Don’t!” came a shout from behind them. “Stay away from the house!”
Cursing himself for not checking out the other structures first, Lucas wheeled around to face the metal outbuilding and the row of wooden stables. Searching for the source of the shout, he dropped his spear and drew his revolver.
“What the fuck!?” True said, choking on the words as her horse pawed at the ground and shifted to the side. She brought the pickaroon up so quickly that she knocked herself in the chin with the wooden handle. “What – the – fuck!?” she repeated, her pronunciation thick, like she’d bitten her tongue. More thumps came from the house at their backs, making them feel boxed in and threatened from both sides.
Before Lucas could order True into the saddle and back to the road, the source of the warning stepped into full view around the corner of the row of stables. Lucas’ first impression was that he looked like someone who had been alone for quite some time. His face was surrounded by a tangled mass of butterscotch colored hair and an unkempt ginger beard. He wore several layers of rumpled, dirty looking clothes. From the way he moved and the sound of his voice, Lucas figured the stranger was somewhere around True’s age. He stood there, his hands empty and at his sides and repeated his shout.
“Stay away from the house!” The young man’s gaze drifted to the revolver Lucas had halfway raised in his direction and his eye grew large. “Oh, shit,” he said, showing his empty hands, “you don’t need the gun. I just…I just didn’t want you to…” He shook his head sadly and dropped his hands. “The house is full of…” More dull impacts came from inside the ranch house; shoulders slumping against walls, forearms slapping limply at doors, fingers scraping against plywood covered windows. The disheveled young man gestured to them, beckoning them in his direction, away from the house.
“Do we…” True asked fearfully, her eyes wide. “What do we do?”
“You get on your horse and get ready to run,” he told her without taking his eyes off the young man. “If there turns out to be anyone else here other than that guy, you get out of here.” He flexed his fingers on the grips of his revolver and stepped toward the stranger. “You’re going to have to get down on the ground,” he called to him as he approached.
“Yeah,” the young man replied, his frightened eyes glued to the sight of Lucas’ revolver, “uh…yeah.” He slowly lowered himself to his knees. “Uh, do we…do we have to do this? I mean, I…I’m…no threat to anyone.”
“Relax,” Lucas said to him, “we’re not bad guys. We just want to stay alive.”
“Uh, y-yeah,” the young man stammered, “me too.”
“And you’re going to,” Lucas said, his eyes searching the doorways and edges of the two buildings, “as long as there aren’t any surprises waiting for us here.”
“No,” the cringing man said with a shake of his shaggy head, “there are no surprises. None at all. Well, if you don’t count the house. And I warned you about the house, right?” Dull thumping sounds still came from the boarded up structure, drawing the young man’s eyes away from Lucas’ gun. “I…I shouldn’t have shouted, but I…I didn’t want you to…” He swallowed nervously as he looked at the house. “It’s the noise. It gets them all…all worked up.”
“Yeah,” Lucas agreed absently as he opened the side door to the metal outbuilding and ducked his head around the doorframe to glance inside, “they do get all worked up. How many are in there?” But the young man’s attention had been drawn away from Lucas’ revolver and toward True.
“You’re…” he said slowly, squinting at her through the hair fallen across his eyes, “…you’re True Brewer.”
“Uh…yeah,” she replied from the saddle, trying to calm her horse and eyeing him uncertainly. “Do I know you?”
“I was in your class.”
“In my class,” True repeated, obviously still at a loss. “In high school?”
“Yeah, in high school,” the guy confirmed, scratching at a series of sores on his neck, “and elementary school.”
“Oh…oh yeah,” she said, trying to connect his face with a name. “Yeah, you’re…um…” Despite her best efforts, it was clear she had no recollection of him.
“Scott Daly,” he said. “We didn’t really know each other.”
“No, well, it was…you know, there were a lot of us…I guess.”
The young man grimaced. “Fifty-eight kids in our class.”
“Yeah,” True replied, admitting defeat, “sorry. I don’t remember.”
“No problem,” Scott told her. “We had different friends.”
“Yeah, I guess. And…you probably looked a little different, you know, back then.”
"I remember," he said with a somewhat shy, green-toothed grin, "you got yourself suspended for showing up drunk at the homecoming dance."
"Yeah," True responded, "those were the days."
The young man nodded slowly. “Anyway, you’re…still alive.”
“Yep,” she replied, guiding her horse over to where he knelt. “You too, huh?”
“Who’s in the house?” Lucas asked abruptly, in part just to put an end to their awkward exchange.
“My family,” Scott Daly replied in a flat tone. “My mom, my dad, my brothers, my sister – ”
“Shit,” True whispered, dismounting. The guy took a deep breath and continued.
“ – my grandma, my aunt and uncle, my two cousins – ”
“All dead?” True asked, but Scott wasn’t done.
“ – plus my aunt and uncle’s neighbors, Mrs. And Mr. Leitz.”
“That’s…what, twelve?” Lucas said.
“All dead?” True said again.
“All dead,” Scott confirmed, scratching at his head with cracked and dirty fingernails. “You know, kind of.”
“How long have they been in there?” Lucas asked.
“Almost nine months,” Scott said in a strange manner as his gaze drifted to the ground in front of him. It seemed as though he was realizing the things he was saying for the first time. “I’ve…I’ve been living in the stable for nine months. They’ve been in there for nine months. Huh,” he mumbled, shaking his head, “nine months.” He looked at them. “I guess it hasn’t been so bad. The stables got a little hot over the summer.” He ran a hand down the front of his soiled clothes. “I guess I wish I was able to get more things out of the house before boarding it up. But I just didn’t think they’d…they’d still be walking around nine freakin’ months later. I usually avoid going near the house. Making noise just gets them all…agitated.”
“What happened?” asked True.
“Oh, Grandma died,” Scott told her. “Probably her heart, I guess. She’d been taking medication, but it ran out a month before. She bit Mrs. Leitz.” His eyes rolled upward as he recalled events. “Mr. Leitz didn’t like my dad telling him they had to either leave or shoot his wife in the head. Mr. Leitz and my dad wound up shooting at each other. Mr. Leitz died that night. We put him in the back bedroom with his wife. My dad died a day later. We put him in the other bedroom with Grandma. During the fight, one of their bullets went through the wall and hit Kyle, my little brother. He died two days after. This time it was my mom who couldn’t, you know, do what had to be done. Kyle bit her on the very tip of her finger.” He looked up at Lucas. “Just the very tip of it, but it was enough.” He sighed and dropped his gaze. “It just all seemed to happen so quick. Like one-two-three. Like dominoes falling one after the other. And then there was…all the pounding on the doors and the walls. The one bedroom door gave way and then the other one and…you can probably figure it out from there.”
“So you just left them in there,” Lucas asked, “for nine months?”
“I know,” Scott said miserably. “I know what I should’ve done, what I was supposed to do…” He ran his hand through his matted hair, dislodging bits of straw. “I know I should…” One of the corpses inside the house croaked the air out of its lungs at the sound of their voices and the young man continued in a voice verging on a whisper. “When…when it was just me, when I was the only one left, I just, you know, locked the door behind me. They aren’t too good at opening doors, even unlocked ones. We’d covered the windows before…before everyone started dying, when the news said people were being attacked in their homes. So they were all, you know, contained. I just needed some time to…to wrap my head around everything that had happened. That was nine months ago. After about a week I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to do anything about them and…and I just boarded up the front and back door. I thought they were going to claw their way through the walls, you know, from all the hammering.”
The three of them were silent for a moment before Lucas spoke. “Well…whatever,” he said. “We’re not here to do anything but spend the night. If you’re set up in the stables – ”
“Oh,” Scott said with a sudden enthusiasm, “oh yeah. No problem. No problem at all. I’ve been staying in the last stable down, but – ”
“If the garage is available…” Lucas interrupted, gesturing at the metal building.
“Oh yeah,” Scott replied in an almost bubbly manner. “Hell yeah. No problem. No problem at all.” He rose from his knees. “Do you guys have food? ‘Cause I still have some of the stuff Mr. and Mrs. Leitz had packed in their car. I mean, I was catching a lot of squirrels with my dad’s cage traps, but no matter how you cook it, squirrel isn’t nearly as good as store-bought stuff.”
“We have food,” True said, reaching toward the supplies on the back of her horse, but Lucas was quick to cut in.
“We’d be up for any food you might have,” he said quickly, giving her a glance that told her that their supplies should be saved. “You know,” he added, unsure how long it had been since the young man had washed himself, let alone his hands, “canned food.”
“Oh,” Scott replied excitedly, his voice rising in volume, “yeah. I mean, there’s still some canned chili and, let’s see, some refried beans and some peas and carrots and, oh, there’s some beef stew that I’ve been saving for the cooler months. I guess that’s now, huh?” A pair of arms beat listlessly against the front door of the ranch house. “Shit,” he continued in a whisper. “I cook on the far side of the property, away from the house. Just follow me. Hey, you can pick any stall for your horse. We only had two boarders before everything blew up and they came and took their horses. There are still plenty of grooming supplies in there, though.” The young man crossed his arms in front of himself as he walked and hugged his chest, as if trying to keep himself from exploding. “Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone to talk to. Haven’t seen anyone new since Mr. and Mrs. Leitz showed up, except for that SUV that drove up the road, but that was nine months ago and it didn’t stop or anything.”
True took some time to untack her horse. She fed it and let it drink from a large galvanized tub overflowing with rainwater before turning it out into the fenced in paddock behind the stables. “You can’t leave her saddled and everything,” True told Lucas when he voiced his concerns over how long it would take to put the horse’s riding gear on again. “It’s mean. Plus, she’d be good for nothing in the morning.”
Lucas hovered at a spot where he could both keep an eye on True and keep track of Scott Daly’s activities. Beneath the smoke blackened ceiling of a small wooden gazebo, the young man built a small cooking fire in the rusty remains of an old charcoal grill. When True and Lucas joined him, they were both silently thankful that the smoke from the fire helped mask the strong body odor coming from their host.
“Beef stew,” Scott said, gesturing for them to take seats at the benches built along the gazebo’s railing. “I wish we had some buttermilk biscuits to go with it. Man, I sure miss…well, lots of things. Buttermilk biscuits are the least of it. What about pizza? Or tacos? Or…a million other things?” He glanced at Lucas with almost a manic look. “What about you? What do you miss?” But Lucas had played this game too many times before and didn’t feel like torturing himself. He replied only with a shrug.
“I could use a drink,” True muttered.
“Like…alcohol?” Scott asked.
“Not like it,” she said, humoring him with a false grin, “specifically it.”
Scott shook his head. “It’s in the house,” he told her regretfully, scratching again at the red sores on his neck. “In the cabinet under the kitchen counter.”
True’s head turned like the needle on a compass to point at the distant ranch house, prompting Lucas to mutter, “Don’t even think about it,” from the corner of his mouth.
When the beef stew was gone and the fire inside the rusted charcoal grill had settled into an orange flicker over pink embers, Lucas felt sleep coming on like a charging bull. But Scott was still excited about having company after being alone for so long.
“So,” he said, leaning forward and putting his hands together almost like he was praying, “what’s going on out there? The TV and the internet weren’t much help for news there at the end. The electricity cut off a week or so before things really went to hell. There’s the generator on the back porch, but it was only enough to run the refrigerator. After I left the house, I only had the car radios, but the batteries in both cars are dead now. They could only pick up the local stations, anyway, and they only repeated the emergency alert system bullshit about how help was on the way and how everything was going to be fine.” He squeezed his hands together until his knuckles went white. “So I could really use some news.”
“Don’t ask me,” True said. “Since my last trip into town, I’ve been at home a few miles up the lake. I’ve been as cut off from everything as you.” She joined Scott in looking at Lucas. Lucas looked at them in turn and chose his words carefully.
“You said you haven’t seen anyone up here in a long time?”
“Except for that one SUV going up the road,” Scott replied, “the one that didn’t stop.”
“How about dead people?” He nodded in the direction of the house. “Except for those.”
“None,” answered Scott.
“Good,” Lucas told him. “That’s as good as it can get. No news is good news. No strangers coming in to kill you for your last can of beef stew; that’s a good thing. No neighbors up the road to die and come pounding on your door. You’re living the life that a million survivors – if there are that many – wish they were living.”
“But,” said the young man, “what about the rest of the world?” A lost look began to creep over his face. “What about, you know, everybody else?”
“What about them?” Lucas replied blankly.
“How many are left? Is it this bad everywhere? Is anyone doing anything to fix things and get them back up and running. I mean, at one time we had a pretty decent-sized military. What are they doing? What about the guys in the government bunkers?” He held his hands palms up in front of him, as if begging for a handout.
“The military is out there,” Lucas said, “somewhere. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re waiting for the dead to wear out and fall down. This isn’t exactly the kind of fight they prepared for. Maybe we’ll see them later when they figure the time is right, if we live that long. As far as the government goes, there are bits and pieces left; an Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response here, a Coordinator for the Office of Health Affairs there. They’ve got their little hidey holes. I’m really only concerned with the ones who took Lux.”
Scott gave True a perplexed look. “Lux is Lucas’ dead girlfriend,” she explained.
“Not dead,” Lucas protested. “But I mean it when I say that this – ” he gestured at the property around them “ – is a pretty good setup. Forget about the rest of the world. Take care of things here and appreciate your isolation.”
“Take care of things,” Scott repeated. “You mean like…”
“You’re going to have to deal with them,” Lucas said, indicating the house in the distance and its undead occupants.
Scott Daly took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I guess, but how?”
Lucas only shrugged. “Somehow.” The simple comment drew silence down around them. Lucas knew Scott was trying to avoid the hard truth before him. True, he figured, was seeing the parallels between what had happened in her home and what was happening now.
“How many have you killed,” Scott asked after a time, “or whatever you call it when you shoot a dead person?”
“A couple,” Lucas answered, not bothering with an actual estimate. “It’s better to just avoid them if you can.”
“Yeah,” said Scott, with an involuntary glance in the direction of the ranch house, “but what if you can’t?”
“If it’s only one or two of them,” Lucas told him, “it’s best to do it quietly, like with a spear or some kind of bludgeon. If there are more than a few and you’re at risk, shoot if you have to. But then you have to move because the noise might draw in more.”
“What about if there are twelve of them?”
“In a boarded up house,” True added in a flat voice.
“What if you don’t have a gun? What if all the guns are still in there with them?”
Lucas looked at the dirty young man on the other side of the campfire who wanted him to solve all of his problems. “Take down some of the paddock fencing,” he advised. “Put it up like a cattle chute at the back door. Then see if you can let out one or two of them at a time. Hopefully, the fence will give you time to do what you have to do.”
Scott was silent for a moment. “What if you’re not sure you can do what you have to do?”
“Do it anyway,” True said suddenly, her words sharp and brusque. Her voice softened a bit as she added, “Because if you don’t...” She shook her head and left the rest unspoken.
Lucas watched her stare into the flames and knew she was seeing her younger sister. If you don’t, he added silently, finishing the thought for her, it’ll only get worse. “It’s getting late,” he said. “One of us walked a long way today.”
“Not my fault somebody forgot to bring a horse,” True said, releasing herself from the visions in her head.
“Yeah,” Scott said, tearing himself loose from his own ghosts and hurriedly rising from where he sat, “right. Uh, the…the garage is yours. It has kind of a gasoline smell from all the fuel my dad has stored, but just let it air out for a few minutes. I’ll…you know where I’ll be. If you need anything, you know, just let me know.” He seemed reluctant to part with his newfound company, as if he feared they would disappear if he did. “Hey,” he added after walking a few steps toward the stables, “how ‘bout pancakes for breakfast?”
“Maple syrup?” True asked half-heartedly.
“There’s still nearly half a bottle,” Scott replied happily, scratching again at his neck as he walked away.
The garage was chilly but dry with a floor that was partially paved. The air inside the metal structure did smell of gasoline, enough so that Lucas was concerned about the flame inside the kerosene lantern Scott had given them to light their way.
“Open the big door a crack,” True advised, wrinkling her nose at the smell. “I’d rather be cold than die from the fumes.”
After eyeing the two cars parked there – a Toyota Tacoma with two flat tires and a smashed passenger side window and a light blue Subaru Forester with the vanity license plate LEITZ3 – Lucas dug his flashlight from his pack and went immediately to the red plastic five gallon cans lining the base of the wall. Beside them was a cardboard box containing empty bottles of fuel stabilizer.
“You think he needs both cars?” Lucas asked as he checked the cans, finding three of them full and one partially full.
“I think he needs a dermatologist,” True joked before replying. “He said the batteries were dead,” she reminded him.
The metal shelves along the wall held a variety of tools and equipment including, Lucas noted, a rust-specked battery charger. “He also mentioned a generator.”
“Okay, so where is Sassy going to ride? In the front or the back seat?”
Lucas narrowly avoided telling her that when he pictured driving away in the Subaru, he pictured himself driving away alone. At the back of his mind he’d been hoping that True would stay on with Scott; two sole survivors of two wiped out families. “Your horse can stay here,” he said absently.
“I’m not leaving her with a stranger,” she protested.
The words stayed in his head for a moment; True unwilling to leave her horse with a stranger, but him perfectly willing to leave her with one. Maybe they’re right about you? suggested the little voice in the back of his head.
They unrolled their sleeping bags on opposite sides of the small lantern, as though it was a warm campfire. True laid her pickaroon on the ground beside her and Lucas made sure both his revolver and his makeshift spear were within easy reach.
“He really wanted you to offer to help,” she said as they sat cross-legged atop their sleeping bags, “for you to do it for him, to shoot them. But you’re not going to, are you?” When it was clear Lucas wasn’t going to reply, she thought for a moment. “We could get up on top of the stables and shoot them as they came at us.”
Lucas didn't bother meeting her eyes. “You’re welcome to do that with your ammunition. I don’t have enough to spare.”
“You helped us,” she said slowly. “That was just this morning.”
“And I almost got bit because of it.” He heaved a sigh and continued in a cooler tone that he hoped was reassuring. “I think the guy gets it now. He’s been hiding from it for nine months, but I think you and me showing up here has snapped him out of it. I think he gets it now.”
The silence between them lasted nearly a minute before True spoke again. “I only have three condoms,” she told him out of the blue, “but I think it’s important we use them. Getting knocked up in times like these would be a bad idea, right?”
“Wha – ” was all Lucas managed to utter, taken by surprise at the sudden turn in the conversation.
“I know,” she said, staring at him in the lantern light, “I might come on a little strong. But, like, who has time to waste now on manners and proper behavior? You’re a guy and I’m a girl. What do you say we just go with that? Anyway, who the fuck is left to gossip about it?” Lucas realized his mouth was hanging open, but he couldn’t find any words to fill it. “Come on,” she continued, “we could die tomorrow. If we do, let’s do it sore and with a smile on our face.” Still trying to find the words to respond, Lucas opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water. “Okay, there’s more to it than just that,” she went on, letting her eyes play over him in the dim yellow light. “I like you. Not just your looks, but how protective you are. Besides, what other guy nowadays would take on a…a burden like me? You could’ve shot me and took my stuff.”
“No, I couldn’t,” he mumbled, finally finding the power of speech.
“You could’ve raped me, shot me and took my stuff.”
“Or you could’ve just left me behind.” This time, Lucas remained silent. “But you didn’t.” She sighed and gave him a smile that would’ve melted most men. “Come on. Let’s have some fun.”
Lucas had to uncross his legs to find a more comfortable pose. The temptation was extremely, burningly palpable. He felt ninety-nine percent of his brain presenting him with reasons why it would be okay: It’s the end of the world, Tomorrow you could die, You’re young, healthy humans who are supposed to act like this, Do it, get it over with, Lux would never know… It was the last thought that gave a spark of strength to the one percent of his brain that was not screaming at him to crawl toward True Brewer on his hands and knees.
He thought back to the summer he graduated high school and Cindy Young. There had been a party with a bonfire where another girl named Nell had assured him that “Cindy will never know.” Nell kept her word and Cindy never found out, but their relationship caught a disease the night he cheated on her and within a month, it was dead.
Lux would never know, he thought, but he would. And things would never be the same.
True saw it in his face. “Shit,” she said to him, the strength of her smile faltering, “you really think she’s still alive and that you’re going to find her in…” she spread her arms “…in all of this?”
Lucas still didn’t trust his mouth, but managed to mutter, “It’s the one thing.”
“The one thing?” True repeated incredulously.
“It’s…” he tried again “…it’s all there is.” True only looked at him for a moment and he noticed that she was breathing heavily, as if frustrated – or, he thought, on the verge of tears.
“Okay, even if she is still alive, how...how the hell are you going to find her?”
“I have a GPS thing,” he explained. “It was pointing the way, but…”
“But the batteries are dead,” she finished for him. “I went through your things, remember?”
“Your dad,” Lucas said, twisting and letting himself fall backwards on to his sleeping bag – though, despite his exhaustion, he had a feeling sleep was going to be hard to come by – “he was going to give me some batteries. I guess in all the…the turmoil, he forgot.”
She was silent for a minute during which her breathing slowed. The next thing he heard was her rummaging through her pack. A small, flat square spun through the air over the lantern and landed heavily on his stomach, making him flinch. Looking down at the object, he saw it was a pack of double A batteries.
“He didn’t forget,” True said as she lay down on her side facing away from him.
Lucas stared at the pack of unopened batteries for a full five seconds before rolling off of his sleeping bag and fumbling in his backpack for the GPS direction finder. Thirty seconds later, the device’s small screen came to life. A minute after that, the arrow appeared, pointing the way toward the last coordinates entered by the former owner, a security guard for the team that kidnapped Lux. It was the direction of the guard’s home base, something to help him find his way home if separated from the team. And it was the direction Lucas was going to go in order to find her. He stared at the screen for five minutes, every so often turning the device this way or that way, watching the arrow point true no matter which way it was turned. Lucas switched off the direction finder and put it away in his pack. Lying back, he reached out and adjusted the lantern wick to its lowest setting.
“You,” True said sullenly, still facing away from him, “are going to feel so stupid when you think back on this night.”
His mind racing, his muscles tensed, his blood still supercharged from True’s seductive talk, he knew it was going to be a long time before he was going to get to sleep. But it was okay, he told himself. He knew a few things for certain. He knew he didn’t need a good night’s sleep that night. He knew that in the morning, he would suggest to True that they stay at the Daly property another day before leaving. He would check out the generator mentioned by Scott. He would get it running and recharge the battery on the Subaru. Then, in a little more than twenty-four hours, he knew he would drive away in the car - by himself - leaving True Brewer behind.
Heartless! the tiny voice at the back of brain called out. But it was drowned out by the commanding voice, the one that preached the wisdom of the apocalypse: Worrying about someone else’s feelings, it proclaimed with a rock solid certainty, can get you killed.
The end of the world had made Lucas familiar with the sound of a person waking from a nightmare. True Brewer’s sharp breaths and whimpering cries were just reaching a crescendo, making him wonder sleepily if her dreams had just now become saturated with horror or if nightmares had already become a familiar thing to her. He had his answer as she woke with a start and, instead of merely going back to sleep, sat up in her sleeping bag. In the flickering orange light of the lantern, he saw her hug her knees and begin to rock back and forth. Cries of anguish squeezed from her constricted throat and he struggled to make out what she was saying.
“All of my family is dead. All of my family is dead.” The words were a barely audible whisper. “They’re all dead. They’re all dead.”
He’d only been asleep for a few hours and wanted nothing more than to slip back into unconsciousness where his own nightmares waited for him, but he knew if he was going to get any more rest he was going to have to offer her some words of comfort. “True,” he began. He reached out to turn up the small kerosene lantern, but found that the low flame inside had gone out. Still half asleep, it took a moment for him to pose the question to himself: If the lantern was out, where was the flickering orange light coming from? And why was the air so strong with the smell of smoke? And the crackling sounds, what was making them? He lifted his head from his sleeping bag. They’d opened the main garage door a crack to clear the air of gasoline fumes. Lucas saw the light coming from the one inch gap around the big door. “What is that?” he asked, still groggy but with rising alarm. “Is that a fire?”
Kicking at his sleeping bag, he slipped into his boots and grabbed his spear and revolver. Leaving True behind, he went to the garage’s side door and opened it a few inches. The yard outside was awash in a pulsing orange glow. Something huge breathed and popped and wheezed in rhythm with the light. Stepping out into the shadow cast by the garage, he peered around the corner.
The ranch house was ablaze. The front and the back porches were already totally consumed. Flames clung to the sides of the house in meandering patterns, licking up the siding and the plywood covering the windows. The serpentine patterns had been made by whatever Scott Daly had splashed around the outside of the house – gasoline or kerosene. The young man stood with his back to Lucas, a black figure in front of the rapidly growing inferno, two large empty cans of whatever fuel he had used at his feet.
“What – the – fuck?” True said as she came up behind Lucas. The sound of her voice made Scott Daly turn his head.
“I figured I needed to do something,” the young man said over his shoulder. “You said I needed to do something. You were right.” In front of him, the front porch fell in on itself, sending up a short-lived fireball. “I couldn’t…I…just couldn’t see them again. I mean, after nine months. They’d be all…you know.”
“Setting the place on fire is never a good idea,” Lucas muttered, uncertain that Scott could hear him over the fire’s growing roar. The flames had found their way into the eaves. From there, Lucas knew, they would work their way up the inside of the roof which would eventually collapse.
“I don’t know,” True said to him. “I mean, aside from the fact that the house and everything in it a total loss, why not? They’re dead already. Why not go all Viking funeral?”
“It can go bad,” he said.
“Bad how?” she asked.
“It depends,” Lucas replied, shielding his face from the heat. “The roof or – ” A sudden thought occurred. “Shit, the generator!” Giving the inferno a wide berth, he circled around to the back of the ranch house, followed at a distance by True. Scott had said that the generator had been on the back porch. He found it sitting a short distance out in the yard, its vinyl cover half melted and smoldering. Tearing away the cover with the tip of his spear, Lucas tilted the generator and wheeled it away just as the sagging back porch roof slumped to the ground, breathing out a billowing cloud of orange sparks.
“At least it’s not cold anymore,” True said, catching up to him. She looked excited by the spectacle of the burning house. Using her outstretched hand to shield her face from the blistering heat, she fell in beside him as he wheeled the generator toward the garage. “Too bad about the damn liquor cabinet, though. A bottle of something and a big ol’ fire; I always loved those kinds of parties.”
“I thought this would be the best way,” Scott said in a loud voice as he came near, as if eager to explain himself. “The stuff in the house,” he added, “I can do without it. It’s just stuff, right?” He turned to face the flames. “They were dead. I know that. This way, at least their remains will be taken care of.” He looked at what Lucas was doing and said, in a slightly confused manner, “Oh, you…you have the generator.”
Ignoring him, Lucas pulled the generator into the garage and then closed the big roll down door all the way, making sure to latch it on the inside. In the sudden darkness, he heard a creaking, cracking, huffing sound coming from the inferno outside. He rounded the corner of the garage just in time to see an explosion of fire coming from the vicinity of the ranch house’s front door. The charred plywood that had been covering the front windows popped free in a shower of sparks and glass. The remains of the front porch seemed to part like a glowing red curtain and burning objects from within the house spewed outward to roll and bounce along the ground leaving trails of smoke. He saw both Scott Daly and True Brewer recoil from the explosion, but they recovered in an instant and even moved closer to the conflagration, as if to see how close they could get and not catch fire themselves.
Scott stood with a sense of solemnity, watching his loved ones’ funeral pyre. True raised her arms and jumped up and down in celebration, as though at some outdoor festival. Neither of them noticed when two of the charred black objects that had been blown free of the house began to move. Nor did they notice when a third and fourth object, these ones still aflame, slithered from one of the now uncovered broken windows.
Lucas knew it took a lot to cremate a human being. With layers of skin and fat to burn through, sometimes the muscles underneath were protected long enough to give one last final surprise to their would-be cremators. Sometimes the roof of a house would cave in first, trapping the corpses and allowing the flames time to do their work. But then sometimes the walls gave way first or the heat inside blew out the doors and windows. He’d heard it said more than once since the world had ended that the only thing worse than a reanimated corpse coming at you was a flaming reanimated corpse coming at you.
“True!” Lucas called, his voice drowned out by the hissing and roaring of the flames. “Hey!”
The corpses were blackened, their naked flesh crackled. They were hairless and their faces – noses, ears, lips – had been burned away, but that didn’t stop them from rising. One of them got to its feet and turned round and round, arms extended, hands groping the empty air as though blind. The other one could see well enough, however. Hunched and gnarled, it dragged itself toward the two.
“True!” Lucas yelled again, taking off at a run toward the two. She noticed him first and gave him a glowing smile, but it lasted only a second before her gaze came to rest on the corpse. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open as the blackened and smoldering arm reached for her. It grabbed at her shoulder and might have caught her and drawn her to its mouth except for the fact that its fingers had curled inward with the searing heat of the fire. She twisted away from the charred thing and ran to meet Lucas.
“Holy fuck!” she said, her voice nearing tears. “Holy fuck! Holy fuck!”
“Yeah,” he replied, raising his spear. “Get in the garage and lock the door.”
Scott Daly hadn’t moved. His mouth hung open as he stared at the reanimated corpse lurching in his direction. Finally his mind unlocked and, stumbling over smoking debris, he backed away. But behind him was the other dead body, the one turning in blind circles and clutching at the empty air around it.
Lucas reached the first corpse and as it turned on him, he stabbed his spear at its charred face. It took five hard stabs, each one dislodging large flakes of blackened flesh, before the tip of his spear found the eye socket and he was able to force it to the ground. Once it was on its back, he put his full weight on it until the spear tip found the thing’s brain stem and its flailing arms stopped moving. Looking up, he saw Scott toddle in a stunned half circle to face the second corpse. Horrified, his knees buckled and he went to the ground before the smoking reanimated remains. Lucas had to remind himself that the young man had known the body when it was alive. Given his reaction, he must have recognized it despite its burns. As he drew back the spear, he had a fleeting notion to tell the young man to look away, but he wound up saying nothing. He kicked the sightless corpse to the ground with the sole of his boot and plunged the spear into its head. The thing, barely recognizable as the body of a petite woman, twitched and was still. Scott stared at it from his knees, his mouth open in a silent scream.
“Holy shit,” True said breathlessly as she came up behind him, “that was…really fucked up!” He turned and gave her a stern look. “What?” she said defiantly. “I’m not locking myself in somewhere where I can’t see what the hell’s going on.”
“There were two more,” he told her. “I saw them come out the side window. They were on fire, so I don’t know if – ” The high-pitched neighing of True’s horse interrupted him and both of their heads turned toward the stables.
“Sassy!” she gasped and took off running.
“True!” he shouted. “Wait!” As he started after her, he spared Scott a parting glance. The disheveled young man had curled in on himself and was mouthing something Lucas couldn’t hear. Behind him, another corpse was just coming around the corner of the fully engulfed house. The reanimated body’s right arm was still burning, dripping gobs of burning flesh behind it, but it walked in their direction like it could still see. “Get up,” he told Scott. “There’s another one coming up behind you.”
Lucas reached the stables only seconds behind True, but she had already taken up a pitchfork that had been leaning against the side of the structure and was jabbing ineffectually at the back of one of the corpses reaching in through the open top half of the Dutch door. “Get – the fuck – away – from her!” she said as she jabbed. Her horse made panicked sounds from inside the stall as it thrashed and kicked at the walls. True’s weak efforts with the pitchfork had only one effect; the still smoldering dead body turned, followed a second later by the other. They had blackened skull-like faces. Their teeth and their eyes stood out horrifically in the fierce light from the burning house.
“Shoot them!” True yelped as she dodged the dead man’s outstretched hand. “Please!”
Lucas figured it might be time to waste some ammunition. His strength was ebbing and he couldn’t afford to make a mistake with his spear, not with two of them in front and one somewhere behind. He led the first corpse to a position where True would not be in his line of fire and squeezed the trigger on his revolver. The .357 magnum’s blast was a sharp hammer blow to his head. The nearby blaze hid the muzzle flash, but he distinctly saw the silhouetted corpse’s skull split in two in the fraction of a second before it dropped. The next bullet took away the back of the second corpse’s head and it fell like a bag of bones. But the mayhem wasn’t over.
“Sassy!” True cried as the panicked horse burst from its stall. The bottom half of the stable’s Dutch door flew open, knocking True aside. Lucas only barely managed to get out of the way as the animal charged past with pounding hooves. In a moment, all that could be seen was its tail end as it galloped off into the night.
“Why’d you let it out!?” Lucas asked, indignant at almost being trampled.
“I didn’t, asshole,” she replied angrily, holding her arm where the stall door had struck it. “She kicked the fucking latches off the door.” She faced the direction where they had last seen the animal. “Sassy! Sassy!” True continued to call after her horse, but after a minute her cries were replaced by sobs.
“Get in the garage, would you?” he said to her as he reloaded the two empty chambers of his revolver. “Stay at the door. Wait there for me. There’s still one more that I know of.” With True positioned just inside the side door of the garage, Lucas returned to the front of the house, but saw no sign of either Scott Daly or the fifth corpse. The burning house gave a tired moan and exhaled hot gasses and sparks as a large part of it fell inward. Revolver in one hand, spear in the other, Lucas made a complete circle of the inferno before returning to the garage where True met him at the door.
“Is he dead?” she asked in a monotone.
“No idea,” was his reply as he locked the side door behind him. The lantern had been relit, but the inside of the garage still looked almost pitch black compared to the blaze outside. “I walked all around but I didn’t see him – or the last zero.”
“And Sassy’s gone,” she said, making it a statement, not a question.
“Don’t horses come back?”
“Back home,” she said. “The way she was going, she’ll just head back home. She’s been this way on enough trail rides. She knows the way.” She tried to laugh, but the sound got caught in her throat. “Yeah, she’ll go home. And my dad will see her and…he’ll think…”
“She’s going home without a saddle,” Lucas pointed out. “Your dad will just think she got loose or something.” But True just shook her head.
“The dead ones;” she asked in a shaky voice, “are we okay in here?”
“We KT’d four,” Lucas told her, sitting down on his own sleeping bag. “I only saw that one still walking around. It probably took off after Scott, wherever he went. I think the fire got the rest.”
He nodded and as he did so the first few drops of rain, long expected and overdue, began pinging on the metal roof. “We’ll be okay in here. When it gets light out, we’ll check around. But we’re okay.”
Quiet filled the distance between them, interrupted only by the sighing and crackle of the fire and the beat of raindrops. Eventually, True heaved a sigh of her own and spoke. “So when you said it could go bad if you set a house full of dead people on fire, that – ” she waved her hand in the general direction of the burning house “ – is pretty much what you meant.”
“Pretty much,” was Lucas’ tired reply.
“Good to know,” she said, closing her eyes and hanging her head. “Another one of those things a person needs to know in order to survive.”
Over the next hour, the rain poured down and the smell of smoke gradually began to be replaced by the smell of wet ashes. There was no more talk between them as they listened to the fire and the rain and for the sound of dragging footsteps on the wet ground outside.
Dawn did its best to penetrate the overcast sky and the steady rain, but the world outside the garage remained a dark gray well into midday. Ghostly white clouds rose throughout the morning from the charcoal black mass that had been the house. It didn’t take long for Lucas to determine that, in addition to reducing the remaining dead to mere bones, the fire had left them nothing to salvage from the ruins.
The generator had started with a minimal amount of trouble. He rolled it outside where its exhaust wouldn’t poison the air in the garage and ran a thick orange extension cord to the battery charger which sat perched on the edge of the Subaru’s front end. That left him little to do but find Scott Daly’s provisions, prepare the pancakes the young man had mentioned the night before and hope that the sound of the noisy generator would not draw unwanted attention from the surrounding wilderness.
True had gone looking for her horse at first light in her hooded navy blue rain coat with her pickaroon held across her chest – looking a little, Lucas thought, like the grim reaper. “Hey,” he felt obliged to remind her, “there’s still one zero unaccounted for. And if you see Scott out there, make sure you hear him say something before letting him get close. If not…” Her face blank, True nodded and brought the pickaroon down in a head-smashing motion.
She returned an hour later with no horse in tow and nothing to say. She ate breakfast without a word, packed up her things and then simply sat on her rolled up sleeping bag and stared out through the side door of the garage, watching the rain fall. She sat there until she heard the sound of the Forester’s engine cranking to life. Then she turned her head and, with a face devoid of expression, looked at him where he sat behind the wheel.
Lucas stared back at her through the windshield, pondering the give and take of the apocalypse. He had a working car, he thought: Give. But his plans to make a clean getaway in it had been ruined: Take.
He could still drive away alone, he told himself. He could still leave her behind. He consoled himself with these thoughts as he packed the car with everything he thought he could use, including the generator, the cans of gasoline and the battery charger. He kept on imagining himself driving down the road by himself as he rolled open the big garage door and as he slid into the driver seat. He entertained the notion right up to the moment where he pulled forward and lowered the passenger side window.
“Coming?” he heard himself ask. There would surely be more opportunities to leave her behind, he told himself. Better opportunities, he added, in better places.
When she had thrown her supplies into the back and taken her place in the passenger seat – the pickaroon positioned between her leg and the car door – she cleared her throat. “I…wasn’t sure if…you know…if you were going to – ”
“Where,” Lucas interrupted, “does this road come out?” He drove out of the garage and into the rain. They passed the blackened ruins of the ranch house and slowed as they neared Purple Butte Road. “Doesn’t matter much, I guess. We can’t go back the way we came. That leaves – ” he turned the wheel to the right and pulled out onto the road “ – just this way.”
“It twists and turns,” she said in a hushed voice, “but we’ll eventually hit the highway.”
They hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards before something caught Lucas’ eye. In a small clearing on the left side of the road stood a rain-soaked, disheveled looking figure clad in several layers of soiled clothing. Water dripped from his long, matted hair and his unkempt ginger colored beard. His head turned, tracking them as they drove past.
“Was that Scott?” she asked, turning to look out through the rear windows.
“Looked like him,” Lucas replied.
“Alive or dead?”
“Could be either.”
“Should we go back and check?” she asked, her hand tightening on the pickaroon at her side.
Lucas just kept on driving. He let that be his response. After another hundred yards or so, however, he made a decision. “Reach into the back seat and grab the carbine,” he told her. “Unwrap it.” When she had finished removing the plastic wrapped around the Beretta Cx4 Storm Carbine, he continued. “If by any chance you two should meet, do not tell Lux I let you borrow it.”
True made an amused sound and nodded. “Got it,” she said, inspecting the carbine. “Lux will never know.”