I followed the rutted road, trusting the worn path to lead us far from the bodies. Holly sat in silence clearly still in shock from killing the man and surely because of what she had reluctantly been pulled into. She wasn’t alone with those feelings. I don’t know how I managed to still be coherent and thinking clearly. I was just a man after all, and not immune to the shock of killing but I had managed to keep my shit together – so far. As I continued forward it became obvious that there was only one way to go and it took us directly to the highway after a short time.
The moment of relief quickly dissipated at the sight of cars crowding the roadway. There were 4 lanes of highway – 2 southbound, 2 northbound – and a deep ditch running between them with U-turn medians every 20 miles connecting the two sides. We had no choice but to wait to turn on to the southbound lanes that went in the direction of the smoke and the base camp. I managed to nudge onto the black top as a string of vehicles were allowed to move and made it to the lane closet to the ditch. Traffic stopped again as a line of vehicles surged down the northbound lanes, taking their turn.
I focused on the U-turn median, 10 feet away, wanting to get there, get turned around and drive as far from the camp as possible. The anxiousness to escape increased as I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a cop on a motorcycle going to each of the stopped vehicles speaking with the occupants. Holly turned to see what had gotten my attention and hissed a curse as she saw the cop heading in our direction. When we left the cabin we didn’t bother to think about how our gear was placed in the truck cab; our weapons and bullets were plainly visible.
Holly flicked on the shotgun safety and carefully dropped it behind the seat then moved a blanket from the top of the seat down the crevice to further conceal the weapon. She moved quickly, tossing me a flannel jacket from her pack to cover up my bloody arms, dirty shirt and more importantly, my gun. I was only hoping that the cop wouldn’t recognize my fatigues as army issue and merely take us for campers. The boxes of bullets Holly had grabbed littered the floor under her feet, some of the ammo having fallen out and she quickly moved the bags to cover them and push the boxes under the seat as best she could.
Our panic may have seemed unwarranted, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that we were just coming or going camping, but we had just left 2 bodies bleeding on a cabin floor not far from our current position. We were guilty and we were acting like it even if no one else knew what had happened. I started to sweat as the cop finished with the car behind us and pulled up to my window.
“Good afternoon folks. How are you today?”
“We’re fine sir. What’s going on up there?” I locked eyes with the cop doing my best to not appear shifty or nervous.
“Seems that a fire broke out in the woods. Fire crews are working on it but you might be delayed for a spell. You folks from these parts or just passing through?”
“We’re just passing through. Did some early spring camping at Silver Lake.” I answered before Holly, not certain whether or not she would have a sudden crisis of conscience and confess what happened at the cabin.
He looked in the cab and saw the backpacks, then took a peek at the truck bed clearly not seeing any camping gear. The question was just beginning to form on his lips when screams erupted from the road up ahead. We all turned toward the sound, the cop forgot about us and jumped on his bike and started toward the ruckus. Cars started to honk their horns, some trying to back up, others moving to the ditch and clogging the area around the median to try to get across to the northbound lanes that were nearly empty. The cop had his lights on and tried to move forward but was cut-off by one of the cars trying to turn toward the ditch. He lost control due to the sudden turn and rolled over into the ditch out of sight. The highway quickly became a scene of bedlam as I watched a car go down the embankment exactly where the cop had gone. I feared for him; there was no way he would be walking away from that if he hadn’t gotten out of the way and it was not likely that he did.
Vehicles all along the highway were trying to move; the one beside us turned into the passenger’s side door, causing Holly to shriek as metal grinded on metal. The driver laid on the horn more concerned with my lack of action than with what was going on up head. I didn’t see anything other than cars, some fire trucks and smoke billowing from the forest. I didn’t move the truck, not at first, as I tried to pinpoint what had caused the sudden panic.
A small group of people ran through the cars in our direction, a couple of them getting clipped by the moving vehicles while more people jumped out of their immobile cars. I watched a couple run past, terror on their faces, and then I saw what had caused the panic. Coming down the highway were a dozen Shamblers. They were recognizable by their appearance; bloody faces, missing limbs and savage snarls. They were horrifying but it got worse as more came to into view. The Shamblers were burnt, some still actually smoking and having clearly come from where the fire was burning. Their skin was charred black and as they moved forward, impossibly quick for people with visibly mortal wounds, I could see some kind of liquid oozing from the cracked charred skin.
Holly hit my arm and I realized she had been yelling at me to move, go through the ditch, anything to get away. I now understood the urgency of the car beside us, which was now abandoned, and put the truck in gear, cutting the wheel toward the ditch as Holly scrambled to retrieve the shotgun. Several other cars had tried and failed to get across to the other side. I was hoping that Holly’s truck would fair better but as soon as the front end reached the bottom, I knew we wouldn’t make it up the other side, the ditch was just too narrow.
I hadn’t gone far enough to get fully stuck and decided to try to drive along the ditch until I could get to a point where the ditch and highway were almost even or until another vehicle blocked the way. We managed to get a good distance before encountering a stalled jeep but damn the Shamblers were fast. There were at least 3 that hadn’t been attracted to fleeing motorists or honking horns and they were falling into the ditch after us. Holly had the door open and was getting ready to make a run for it but I told her I wanted to try to make it up. There was still an incline but running on foot didn’t seem like a good option. All of those zombies that had caught or run down people would be infecting those civilians with the virus, creating more and more Shamblers. There may have only been 3 on our tail however I knew that more would be more springing up.
“And if we don’t make it, we’ll be sitting ducks Louis.”
“We’ll make it.”
My strategy was to get a bit of a running start at it, meaning I had to back up toward the Shamblers to get some speed. Holly cursed me and went all Annie Oakley, opening the back window to shoot the approaching beasts if they got too close. I gunned the engine and we slowly started to speed up. One of the zombies reached the tailgate and the shotgun exploded beside my ear. I flinched and cranked the wheel in the opposite direction I wanted to go then righted the steering and told Holly to sit down and buckle up.
I put the gas pedal to the floor and turned right going at a dangerous speed for what I was attempting. The front end hit the embankment and I thought we were done as the truck slowed but fortunately didn’t stop and kept slowly moving up. We hit asphalt and nearly took out a family of 3. The man yelled at us to stop, to help them get away and I did stop, for a minute, until I got a look at his wife and saw that she cradled a bloody bundle. A small arm hung down held to a tiny body by nothing more than a chunk of flesh. The rest of the arm was missing, bit off.
What could I do? Tell them to leave their injured or dead child on side of the road? The Shamblers that had been behind us were slowly starting to scramble up the embankment. I waited too long to make the decision to leave them behind. The man had the tailgate down and was in the bed of the truck reaching for the bloodied child. I put the truck in park and got out, drawing my pistol. Holly slid into the driver’s seat, put the truck back into drive, foot solidly on the brake and waited.
“I’m sorry but you can’t come with us.”
“You can’t leave us here. We need to get our daughter to the hospital!”
The man yelled at me not noticing or caring about the gun pointed at his chest. His wife crumbled to her knees, her blood soaked body shaking and convulsing as she wept. I could hear her quietly mumbling between sobs, she’s dead. The time was done for being patient. The woman wasn’t going to move, the man wasn’t going to move but the child was starting to and the Shamblers were almost to the top of the embankment.
“Get out now!” I shouted with my mouth and gun.
He didn’t move, just looked from me to his wife. I cursed and got back in the truck and told Holly to go. She hesitated as the dilemma clearly crossed her mind. If she went he would fall out, if she didn’t we would all be screwed. She took her foot off the brake but didn’t step on the gas, letting the truck coast. The man fell forward and I thought for sure he would leave his wife. A zombie moved toward her, it’s burnt flesh smoking and the man jumped out of the truck screaming as he tackled the monster who had started clawing at his wife’s hair. The screams of the couple and howls and growls of the Shamblers followed us as we sped down the highway. Holly looked into the rear view mirror, then slapped it aside. She stifled a cry, slamming her hands on the steering wheel. I kept my eyes forward and didn’t notice the pain creeping up my arm from gripping the gun handle so tight; safety was still on.
The road ahead of us was scattered with cars but the further away we went from the cabin and the base camp, the less signs we saw of death and madness and it wasn’t long before we stopped seeing any other vehicles. A roadblock appeared 30 miles down the way on the opposite of the highway but there were no cop cars, cop bikes or anyone at the blockade; all traffic had seemed to cease completely. The growing emptiness of the highway became eerie and unnerving; the silence between us didn’t help to ease those feelings.
“Holly, where are you going?” I asked after realizing that the direction we were heading was going to take us to the valley and the decimated village.
“Away from that madness Louis.”
“The village is at the bottom of that valley.” She didn’t acknowledge me, keeping her eyes firmly on the road. “Holly? Holly?”
“What?!” Holly slammed on the brakes and screamed at me. “Where else are we going to go? The highway goes through the valley and the only other roads are logging routes. We have to go through the village.”
I shut up, nodded and she continued. The feeling of doom started creeping over me the closer we got to the village. It wasn’t just approaching the remnants of what had happened, I was becoming more aware and alarmed due to the fact that we had seen a lack of other vehicles and people as we continued to travel the lonely highway. About 10 miles out from the village, a horrid smell began to waft through the vents. I didn’t know what it was at first until I started to really think about it. Burnt flesh, hair and clothes. I started to cough as we got closer, gagging as the smell got stronger and the memories flooded back.
“What is that?”
Holly asked as we slowly rolled down the portion of the highway that cut through the village. I had hoped we would just continue but we hit the intersection where the highway connected with Main Street and she looked down the road. Holly jerked the truck to a stop when the grotesque pile of burnt bodies came into view, her eyes fixed firmly on the horror show. She cut the engine and got out, a gag escaping her as the smell of burnt flesh overwhelmed the air. She just stood there seeing but not seeing. I closed my eyes for a moment then got out and stood with her; I knew her questions were coming and I owed her some sort of answers.
“What is that Louis, what happened here?”
She walked forward stopping when her foot came down on a shoe, a small green shoe that had belonged to a child. Holly looked at me then to the pile, then at me. I only looked at the shoe that had belonged to the boy, the beautiful boy with yellow hair like an angel.
“Louis, what did you and your people do?”
“What we had to do, what we were ordered to do.” My voice was a faint, harsh rasp of guilt and emotional pain.
“Those are bodies. My god.” Holly turned from me, stumbled on the shoe and vomited.
I wanted to do the same thing but a numbness had come over me, had probably been with me since this whole nightmare started and that was what was keeping me sane. The fire had obviously gone out in the night but tendrils of smoke still drifted up into the grey sky. Holly spat, then leaned over, picked up the shoe and threw it at my feet. I didn’t say anything and went back to the truck to wait for her. She remained on the street and I didn’t know if she was going stay, if she would be able to trust me now knowing what had happened in the village. She finally returned but didn’t start the engine.
“Will you kill me if you think I’m infected?”
I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a request.
“We can’t stay here.” I dodged her words.
“Answer me Louis; will you blow my head off?”
“Holly we need to leave here. Let’s find a town with people, live people, and I will answer all of your questions.”
It wasn’t a proper response to what she had said but it was all I planned to give her and Holly left it at that. She pulled away from Main Street and followed the highway out of the village. The day had slipped away and dusk was on the horizon. The next town was a good 45 minutes away and I could tell the silence and tension was going to remain between us.
“Yes.” It was all I said and I could see her hands lighten their grip on the steering wheel, her shoulders slump as she relaxed.
Holly flicked on the headlights as we cruised closer to the town and I prayed that it had been untouched by the dead and undead.
© 2013, Denise Pasutti