The bitter wind cut through their clothing and sent the snow swirling across the parking lot. The Marathon station was dark and the shelving empty. Cole stood beside Owen as he stared at the building, wondering what the other man was thinking as he looked at the concrete structure. The man absently petted the big Shepherd, George, as he silently stared at the building. Behind them the crew of the tractor trailer was busily working to drop the hoses down into the tanks so they could fill up the barrels, tanks of the vehicles and the numerous containers they had assembled for transporting the fuel. There were also several people from the Lodge with them; they had negotiated with Emma to come along this far and get more fuel in their own barrels and tanks for the Lodges generator and the vehicles they had. They had brought the bus, loaded with barrels, and several of the better running vehicles. The only stipulation was they had to wait until Emma’s crew was finished.
The small town of Perrysville lay to their east, and so far, nothing was coming from that direction. Owen had told them that the last time he was in town there were just a few of the undead in the town. Regardless, Emma had posted pickets in the three directions they had not as of yet been to give them early warning in case the hordes of zombies suddenly appeared. Cole turned as the sound of the generator cit through the cold air. The sound made all of the people look, and tense up. The small generator was being used to operate the pumps so they could get the fuel up without having to try and siphon it through the vent plugs. Owen gave a small laugh as he adjusted his MAC on it’s sling, causing the dog to perk up its ears.
“If that don’t bring ‘em, nothin’ will.”
“How many of these buildings did you go into?” asked Cole.
Owen looked around at the dark houses and the small businesses. “Most of them close to the tracks. I used the tracks to get from Coulter and back. Since I never had too many people to help out, I always hit places that didn’t take much in the way of manpower.”
“What about the school?” asked Cole. “Isn’t it right down the road?”
“Yep,” agreed Owen, squatting to play with some gravel on the asphalt, bringing the dog next to him to investigate what had drawn the man’s attention on the ground. On discovering the gravel the animal snorted and sat.
“There’ll be stuff in the kitchen, right?”
“That’s where foods usually kept,” said Owen.
“What aren’t you saying?” pried Cole.
Owen sighed and stood up. “Listen, I just think that a building that big is askin’ for trouble. I started to go in there once, but I got out real quick. There were a bunch’a ‘em in there and I just didn’t want to risk my life for a few cans of food. I was doin’ enough at the time.”
Cole nodded that he heard Owen. “Okay, but we’ve got people this time, and the advantage of the guns with silencers. I think we can do this without much problem.”
“I say save ya’lls strength for Loudonville,” advised Owen.
“Maybe, but you’ve got your home all ready,” decided Cole. He looked at where the refugees that were with him were standing, trying to look like they were on guard, but mostly looking lost. Emma and her crew knew what they were about and they had the task well in hand. Looking back at Owen, Cole nodded at the refugees. “They need something to bring them together, give then a little confidence in what they are doing. I think that the school might just give them that boost they need.”
“Hey, they’re ya’lls people,” shrugged Owen. “I’m just a gunner.”
Rather than continue the conversation with Owen, Cole moved over to where Emma stood with Kyle, directing the placement of the barrels and the next in line to be filled. She looked up as Cole approached, he expression composed and happy. When Cole stopped, she grinned and slapped the top of the barrel they were standing by. “Good haul, we’ve got diesel and enough gas to fill and sell. They must have gotten a shipment right before everything went to shit.”
“That’s good,” encouraged Cole. “Listen, Emma, I want to hit the school.”
She stopped and stared at him for a second. “We need to fuel up first.”
“I thought we could do that while you gas up,” said Cole.
“I don’t need you stirring shit up while I trying to full these tanks,” returned Emma. “This is a job that requires time and my people can’t do it if they are trying to fight off the undead while we pump.”
Cole waved a hand at the town. “Emma, there’s been nothing moving but us for the last half hour. You’ve got all the pumps going, and it shouldn’t take long to get what you need.”
“Cole, have you ever tried to gas up a Hummer or a tractor rig? They take forever. Plus we’ve got the barrels to fill as well. There’s two diesel pumps, they won’t get done what we need in any amount of time.”
“Which is why we should go ahead and hit the school,” said Cole. “We’re still waiting on the other team to tell us they are at the ranger station, right? Okay, while we wait and you pump, I’m going to take my people and get into that school. I’m not asking, Emma.”
Cole saw the flash of anger across Emma’s face and then watched as she struggled to get it under control. She worked her jaw for a second before sighing. “This really needs to wait.”
“I don’t think that we’re accomplishing anything by waiting around for you to get done. If anything it’s making my people worse. I need to give them something to do--.”
“I can find something.”
“Something other than busy work,” clarified Cole. “Why are you giving me such a hard time about this?”
Emma looked around that the people that were standing nearby and then pulled Cole of to one side. “Listen, I told Hannah, I wouldn’t let you do something stupid.”
Cole felt the anger rise again. “So you’re telling me that you are now my keeper?”
“I said that I’d get you back safe--.”
“I’ll get back safe, Emma, I’m a big boy now,” Cole told her petulantly. Emma shook her head and decided to give up the battle.
“Fine. Take Owen with you.”
“Just Owen?” snapped Cole sarcastically.
“You shouldn’t need any more than Owen,” returned Emma. “You’ve got enough people otherwise.” She paused as Cole struggled to find something to say. “And that dog, take the fucking dog too.”
Staring at her for a long second, Cole decided that the comment did not deserve an answer and simple turned away to walk toward the eight people who had volunteered to accompany him on the quest to gain admittance into the Lodge. Billy was with them, and looked up at him when he approached.
“Hey, I’ve been going over their new toys,” said Billy, indicating the mix-match of weapons they held. Most were cast-offs that Emma’s crew had traded in for the better firearms from the armory at the base. Some of them were rigged up with the suppressors that the Lodge made, others were not. “Kind of helping them through the basics. What’s up?”
“We’re going on a shake down raid,” said Cole. He saw the faces of the people fall. He supposed until this point the idea of the raid had not really been a reality to them. In an effort to bolster their confidence, Cole gave a small laugh. “We’re going to go into the school and hit the cafeteria kitchen. It’s not like we’ll be fighting the whole town by ourselves. Besides, how difficult can a room full of third graders be to handle?”
He got the laugh he had been looking for and laughed with them. The joke helped to relieve some of the tension he saw in them. Motioning them closer, Cole outlined his plan. “Now I’ve never been to the school before, so we’re going to be doing some scouting first. We’ll take the van and I’m going to bet we can find it by driving around the outside of the building and identifying the place by the loading doors. The guys with the silencers will be going in first. Bob and Carl, you’ll be prying open the door for us, once that’s done and we clear the inside, you come in and get the next doors. Out only goal is to hold the cafeteria; we’re not here to clear the school. Let’s get what we can as far as flour, boxed and canned foods and get out. Okay, any questions?”
“What if we get enough stuff from the school?” asked one of the people in a nervous tone.
“We won’t” assured Cole, heading off the thoughts that they could stop with this small raid. “We’ve got to get enough for to supplement the Lodge food for the next few months. The school will get us all through a week, maybe two.”
The gathered looked uncomfortable again. Cole tried to find the words that would get them back on track and in the right mindset when Owen came limping up with the Shepherd in tow. He was dragging a bag on the ground behind him. The refugees stared as he let the bag come to a rest in front of them. He and Cole nodded to each other as Owen undid the top of the bag. Inside it was various sized flashlights. “If ya’ll’re goin’ in there, you’ll need these. It’s dark an big in the cafeteria.”
“You’ve been in there?” demanded one of the people. “What is it like?”
Owen shrugged. “I have been, once. It’s dark an’ big, like I said. There’s a lot of dead kids in there,” warned Owen. “Ya’ll better be ready to be uncomfortable.”
They all cast glances at each other, the looks becoming more and more uncomfortable and scared. Cole stepped up and grabbed a flashlight. He nodded to the rest of the instruments as he tested the one he picked up. “You got any duct tape? We can attach these to our guns with that.”
Someone came up with a roll and Cole strapped the thing to his carbine. “Everybody get one for yourself.” As they reluctantly began to emulate Cole, he pulled Owens aside. “What the fuck is your deal?”
“I have no deal,” sighed Owen. “None. I’m cold, I really think that you’re getting these people into more than they should be. Look at them Cole, they ain’t like you, ain’t like me, hell, they ain’t even like Chelsea and she’s like ten. I don’t know what happened to ‘em out there at that farm, but they’re beat up, Cole. Somebody kicked the shit outta ‘em and didn’t let ‘em up. Goin’ into that school ain’t gonna change that. It might even kill a couple of ‘em.”
“So you’re saying lay back and let Emma do it all,” demanded Cole.
“I’m sayin’ don’t get in over your head, Cole,” warned Owen. “I’m sayin’ geve these folks a chance to breath before ya start leadin’ ‘em into a situation where they might lose it.”
Sighing out a breath of cold air, Cole looked at the eight people who were waiting on them to join them. He could see that they were tired, scared and even unsure of what they were going to do once they got to the school. He also knew that there was no real choice in the matter; it was either do this now, or just pack up and go to the Lodge to get kicked out. To Cole, they had to prove their worth now. He told Owen this. “You can stay here if you want, but they have to do this. They have to do it now.”
Owen grinned at him for the first time. “Okay, I’ll go with ya’ll. Emma’d just bitch if I didn’t, besides it give me somethin’ to do other than wait on all this gas and shit to get pumped.” He nodded to where the Lodge people were gassing up their own barrels and containers. “I’m gonna get Jesse, though, he’ll wanna come along.”
Cole smiled back. “He would be pissed if we let him miss it.”
Owen trotted off with George following and Cole went to the refugees. “This it it, folks,” he announced. “You show everyone what you’ve got right here. Remember, we don’t have to clear the whole damn school, just the cafeteria. That’s all we have to hold. Who wants to be a shooter, who wants to start the loading?”
Jack laughed at the question. “You’re giving us a choice? I thought yhou’d be telling us what we’re doing.”
“I can,” said Cole.”
“Than make me a shooter,” said Jack. Cole did so, adding Billy and himself to that list, assigning the others as needed. He pointed to Greg. “You’re the driver and look out. If anything happens outside, you have to be the one to warn us. If we’re all clear, let’s get in the van and ready to go.”
As they were getting in, Owen came back with Jesse. He stopped Cole. “Jesse want’s to just take one of the Lodge trucks with us so that we can load it and save the space in the van. That work?”
Nodding, Cole told him to hurry it up, which got him a playful smack on the shoulder from Jesse. “I’ll meet you at the school.”
Cole climbed into the passenger’s seat while Owen slide the van door shut after George jumped in. Greg let the van roll out of the lot and toward the school. A crackling noise got Cole’s attention and he turned to see Owen talking on a handheld, telling Emma they were moving out. Her reply was short, but at least it was not terse and angry as he expected it to be. As they moved the short few blocks to the school, Cole let his gaze wander over the small town.
There had been a few small house fires, but nothing that had engulfed the entire town. Here and there packs of dogs moved between the dark structures, foraging for food and in one case chasing what looked to be a cat. Cars and trucks had been abandoned in the streets or stopped on the side of the road with doors hanging open. In places, Cole could see the mummified remains of people lying in yards or in the road. He wondered just what those bodies were going to become when the heat of spring came back around and how it was going to affect the living; would there be another plague to worry about in addition to the walking dead? What was going to happen when the flesh began to rot on those mobile creatures, how long would it take for them to become nothing but staggering mummies, yet still intent on seeking the flesh of the living? Cole imagined that one of the many things that they were going to have to do before the full heat of the summer came was to get those dead and undead trapped near the Lodge properly buried or at least burned before they attracted the unsavory legions of rats, flies and other vermin which could easily spread disease to the living.
As the van bumped onto the drive that lead up to the school, Cole turned his attention to the overly large brick building before them. The structure had been built as a small school at first and then as the need dictated, wings were added on until it was a sprawling tribute to the inefficiency of the educational administrations ability to spend money on everything other than education. Playgrounds, a ball field, bleachers and even a large digital score board dominated the area around the school, which itself loomed like a beached whale on the landscape. The windows were still intact, and Cole could see the teachers lot was filled with cars, most of them seemed to have run into each other in their haste to escape. Two buses were locked together and two more had been stopped behind those. Cole absently wondered if any of them still ran. The two that were not crashed together seemed to still be in good shape. If they could get one of those running, they could get more items on board and back to the Lodge.
“Billy—“ started Cole.
“I already know what you want to say,” said his friend. “We need to check.”
“Batteries are dead,” supplied Owen. “I tried once.”
“We can jump them,” said Billy.
“Diesel,” said Owen. “Won’t be that easy.”
“Never is,” sighed Billy. “But if we could.”
“You know where the batteries are in those things?” asked Cole.
“Depends on the make,” Billy told him as they reached the front of the building. “You want to try?”
Billy pointed to one of the men. “Bob, you used to drive a bus right?”
“Tour bus,” said the man. “But yeah. A bus is a bus.”
“Come on,” said Billy, as Owen opened the door while the van rolled to a stop.
“Jumper cables?” asked Owen.
“It was a nice thought,” admitted Owen with a grin as he directed Greg to drive around to the other side of the school. They watched the buses disappear as they drove around the corner of the school. It had been a good idea.
The school cafeteria was nearly at the back of the school, and the loading door sat about five feet up. There was a small concrete pad with a set of stairs leading up to the double doors. The van came to a stop and Cole ordered them all back out in to the weather. Once out in the cold, the reality of what they were doing hit them again. Cole could see their faces fall with the drop in temperature. He decided to not give them time to think about what was going on. Quickly, Cole barked out orders for those with the suppressor to take the lead. He pointed to the two men who had the pry bars, motioning them up the steps and to the doors. Stacking up his people. Cole gave a deep sigh and nodded to them to open the doors. The pry bars were set and the men lunged against the levers, the noise of the doors groaning under the stress was loud in the cold air, and the others waiting winced as the barriers suddenly popped open, revealing the dark interior.
Taking the lead, Cole plunged into the room, clicking the flash light he had affixed to his carbine on, lighting a small path in the big room. The doors opened into the cafeteria itself, and the large room was in a sinister gloom which was barely cut by the bright light. Be felt someone come in behind him and cut to the right as he entered to make room for the next person. He saw Owen enter and begin to move along the wall to the left. Movement caught his eye, and Cole swung the light toward the shape.
The small child caught him off guard. He had known there were undead in the school, he had even warned the others that there were children in the school, but the sight of the small shape, hissing and groaning as it lunged at him, made him pause. The kid could not have been more than eight, but the dead eyes were from another time and place. Dried blood had turned the once blue shirt into a dark raiment that hung off the bones and flowed behind it like a cape from a bad horror movie. It growled at Cole, the clawed hands reaching for him and teeth, large and broken, snapped as it sought its prey. Cole barely had time to bring his M4 up. The beast hit the rifle, knocking it aside and grabbing for Cole.
The sound of the brass chiming off the wall and the bolt working came from behind him, the payload that had been released stopped the kid even as it tried to gnaw on the end of the handguard of the rifle. Blood, thick and old, spurted from the hole in its head. The zombie-child staggered, tried to remain upright and then fell at Coles feet. He turned to see Jack grimacing over the makeshift suppressor on his own pistol.
“Fuckin’ kid,” breathed Jack, his eyes wide and scared. “Fuckin’ kid. What’s the world comin’ to?”
Cole found jack’s cursing humorous and chuckled at the other man, bringing a smile to the other mans face as well. “I told you there would be kids.”
“Yeah, but you lied about the damage they could do,” returned Jack.
Before Cole could answer, there was more movement and just as suddenly, the room was boiling with the undead. Cole found him self firing the M4 as fast as he could, there were what seemed to be hundreds of the kids, crawling, staggering and even some running at them. They fired, their backs against the wall, calling out for magazine changes, for their friends to be careful and they fired at each new, repulsive face that appeared in their lights. Cole shot a kid in the head, fired as another took its place his rounds going high and wide as the thing seemed to dodge and then lunge at him. with the bolt of the carbine locked back, Cole swung the M4 at the thing, knocking it back as it tried to eat him, teeth snapping at the air in front of his face. Jack shot it, and another beast jumped on Jacks back, its mouth tearing at the man’s exposed neck. Jack screamed and tried to dislodge the thing from his back. Cole let the M4 fall and freed his Star, the pistol bucking and clearing the kid off Jack’s back. Jack fell to his knees, his blood dark on his hands as he tried to stem the flow of his life fluid.
Cole fired at the seemingly endless flow of zombies, desperately trying to keep the area around the downed man clear.
And then came Owen, his MAC 10 suddenly pointing at everything, the suppressor spitting out round after round into the massed children that tried to dislodge the living beings foot hold from the door. George the dog followed, snapping and growling at the beasts, knocking them down when they seemed to approach Owen without his knowledge. Owen would then spin and put a single bullet into the fallen things head before moving again, the dog matching his movements. Cole watched as Owen began to move, stiffly at first, the effects of his wounds slowing him for only a moment, and then it was like a dance.
Owen stepped forward in to a gap he had created by shooting two of the little beasts; he shot another, then side stepped as a thing lunged at him from the side. The MAC was suddenly at the things head and it was down barely a whisper as the .45 slug tore through the monsters brain and out its back. Owen shuffled again and fired, the subgun dropping three at once it seemed, all the while Owen moved and shot, clearing a path in front of him. then to the side. His movements seemed to have no rhyme until Cole looked past the man and saw what he was headed for.
Shouting at the others, Cole directed those that could to help Owen. “He’s trying to shut the doors, the doors, keep them from getting behind him.”
The undead children were coming from the main part of the school into the cafeteria, drawn by the noise the scent of warm blood and the possibility of a meal.
Jack was on his feet again, his own pistol taking the close in shots. He pulled Cole to the door side of his body where the others were still standing and shooting.
“I’ll keep ‘em off us, you fuckin’ make sure he gets there,” growled Jack through his pain. Cole swept his M4 off the floor and recharged the weapon. He began to take aimed shots as best he could with the aid of the flashlight.
Owen was halfway across the floor.
He had jumped onto a table, followed by George, using the height to move across the room and stay out of the clutching hands of the children as they reached for the warrior who was defying them. The MAC suddenly stopped, and Cole saw Owen simply drop the weapon to the end of its sling, his hands sweeping his holstered Glocks free with barely a missed beat. The report of the weapons thundered in the cavernous room, drawing more attention to the man, but he still moved across the table tops, leaping from one to the next, the wave of zombies following, some trying to climb up onto the table tops to pull the foe down. George snapped and bite at them slowing them in their efforts to drag his partner from the slick table tops. A few made it to the tables, and those were dispatched by Cole and the rest in their effort to help Owen in his mission to reach the doors leading into the school. The pistols were empty and they too were holstered and yet another was freed by Owen. Cole watched as the injured man cleared a space on the floor in front of the last table with several fast, seemingly unaimed shots and then George was jumping to the ground, knocking several to the floor as Owen followed, reloading the MAC as he dropped.
The short stairs were mounted by the two and the doors slammed shut. Owen turned, and began to work his way back across the room with the Shepherd trailing. They continued to shoot and just as quickly as it started, it was over.
Owen was standing in front of Cole, breathing evenly as he reloaded all of his weapons. He watched as Jack fell to the floor on his face.
“You’re gonna have to do somethin’ about that,” mentioned Owen, nodding to Jack as Cole just stared at the other man.
Glancing down, Cole saw that Jack was starting to breath heavily and knelt by the other man. “Jack, what do you want me to do?”
“Fuck, I want you to finish the job you started,” said Jack. “Prop me up against those doors, with my pistol, I’ll do the rest.”
Nodding, Cole grabbed Jack and with Owen’s help, dragged him through the bloody cafeteria to the doors. On the other side of the door the remaining Zombies hammered at the barrier with small fists, trying to beat it down so they could reach the warmth just inches away. Jack thanked them and urged them to hurry.
Cole turned to find the others staring at the three men. Cole read the shock and defeat on their faces and decided that he needed to keep them from caving under the pressure of their loss.
“You heard the man, get fucking moving now,” snapped Cole. “Don’t make this for nothing.”
As he watched them start for the kitchen, Cole wondered if they had what it would take to see them through the rest of the day.