Fate is cruel bitch and I should have known she wouldn’t let me off that easy, or hard, depending on how you looked at it. I closed the truck door and the metallic thunk should have been reassuring as it put a barrier between me, the unfolding nightmare and the child I was leaving to an almost certain death but a second thunk followed by sobs, shattered any hope of solitude and freedom from this hell.
“What’s happening?” Marla breathed the words between cries. “You know something, you just turned away from that, that whatever that was.”
I had a choice – kick them out or let them tag along. Time ticked by 10 times faster than reality and with the passing of every one of those minutes, those seconds, the virus was attacking that man and he would turn before I could make a rational decision. I let them be, ignoring the cries and questions coming from Marla and turned my attention from companions to escape. I put the truck in drive, accelerating enough to easily make it over the small cement parking marker and down the shallow embankment to the forest floor. It wasn’t as savage and unkempt as it sounds as the woods this close to the road were nearly barren but that didn’t last as we went another 15 feet and began to encounter thicker bush. I figured I might be able to make it to another clearing and slowly proceeded across the rough terrain. I could hear the beginnings of panic, the chaotic screams of the people at the rest stop even this far into the woods. I kept moving not looking back but glancing to my right to see Hunter facing the back window and watching the rest stop and horror slowly get smaller and perhaps less real the further away we got. Marla was quiet, her face pale and wet with tears and the only saving grace to this situation was that she was finally silent.
I slogged on for another 15 to 20 feet, making turns to correct for the unruly forest but it became too much to navigate and any further progress quickly halted. I parked the truck not knowing what to do. Marla hadn’t moved or spoken and Hunter remained staring out the back window. How could I let them piggy back on my escape. They were now in the woods, in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know what to do. I guessed that Hunter and his Mother were going to be depending on me to tell them what had happened and what the next course of action would be. I didn’t have those answers. Hunter finally turned away from the window and I could see shock and confusion dancing behind his eyes. Marla just stared out the front window as silent tears streamed down her ashen face.
“My name is Louis Henning.”
It was the only thing I could think to say at that moment. Marla turned to me with no change in her expression but Hunter smiled and held out his hand. I shook it feeling incredibly awkward. Hunter dropped his hand and I took the opportunity to escape the discomfort, getting out of the truck under the guise of scouting our location. The woods were dense in places while being sparse in others. I had no idea what direction the border was or for that matter, from which direction we had just come; the landscape looked the same everywhere I looked – full of trees. For all I knew we were doubling back to the rest stop. I walked a few feet into the tress and looked around. Nothing. I went further and still saw nothing, stopping to take in the silence. And that was all there was, just silence with no signs of human life or wildlife. A branch snapped to my right and I drew my gun aiming in the direction of the noise. Marla froze, her eyes wide and focused on the gun I pointed at her head. It took me a moment to push down the adrenaline and lower the gun. Marla’s eyes went back to normal but I could see questions blossoming there.
“Louis, what’s going on? Why are you pointing a gun at me?”
“Nothing good and I’m sorry. I thought you might be…something else.” I put the gun in the back of my pants to reassure her that I wasn’t going to shoot. “Where’s Hunter, he shouldn’t been alone out here.”
Marla tried to say something but nothing came out of her mouth as I questioned her attentiveness to her child. Brushing past her, I headed back to the truck and she silently followed, looking at me from the corner of her eye with what I took for caution. We reached the truck after a couple of minutes and I was relieved to see Hunter sitting on the ground, drawing with a stick in a pile of dirt surrounded by pinecones and tree needles. There were still no signs of other life, leaving me relieved that the little man hadn’t been in any danger. And that’s when I realized that whether or not I wanted to care about the boy’s well-being, I did. I wondered if I would have felt anything if there weren’t zombies roaming the woods and highways. I didn’t want to be responsible –
“Do you have any more ammo for this 9mm?” Marla had popped the empty clip from one of the guns I had taken from Keenan. The previous traces of shock were slipping away as she concentrated on the weapon.
“Umm….I guess, I mean I think there should be more on the floor in the truck or in one of the bags.” I was surprised to see her having gone from a crying mess to a steady, confident woman with only a trace of fear still in her eyes.
“There’s a mess of bullets here Louis.” She commented as she sifted through the jumble of boxes and loose ammo.
“I know. I’ve been on the move, running from the Shamblers, and didn’t have time to really think about keeping things in order.”
I didn’t think about what I was saying until Hunter looked up and asked me what a Shambler was and Marla walked to me with a quizzical look on her face and a handful of bullets.
“That woman on the highway is that what she was, a Shambler? What the hell is happening?”
Marla finished loading the clip and slid it back in place as she asked about the Shambler. I watched as she made sure the safety was on then tuck the gun in the back of her pants just as I had earlier. I walked back to the truck and started to gather the loose ammo and move it and the boxes from the plastic shopping bag to the duffel with the weapons. Marla called Hunter over and they helped with the gathering of bullets, putting their stock in Holly’s backpack. I only briefly wondered if it was a good idea for the boy to be handling live ammo but I was getting the sense that there was more to this little family than first impressions let on. I knew she was waiting for some kind of answer and I was obligated to give one. I said what I could without using the word zombie, concerned about how Hunter may react to the proclamation that nightmares do come true. It’s a virus of some sort causing brain inflammation, psychosis, rage; all the things that I had seen and what I supposed, minus the cannibalism and how it seemed to be spreading through bites and bodily fluids. It was what I was beginning to believe as fact since I didn’t accept it was alien as Keenan had suggested and I guessed that the word alien would cause greater disturbance and misbelief than the word Shambler and the zombie implication.
“How long has this been spreading, where is it spreading, where did it start, how many people are infected, are you, are we?” It was the barrage of questions that I had been expecting.
“I’ve been involved in it for about 2, maybe 3 days now. I don’t even know what day it is anymore. So much insane shit has happened.” I looked at Hunter and apologized for swearing but it didn’t really seem to register with him. “I don’t have any real answers about how long it has been spreading or how many are infected but we’re not infected. We would be like that woman if we were. It seems to act quickly once you’re exposed.” I kept talking with hopes of avoiding how the virus was transmitted. “We should pack up this gear and get moving. Unfortunately, I have no idea where we are or how close to the highway and rest stop we are.”
“Where do you want to be? Do you want to go back there?”
“Absolutely not. I want to get away from the highway. I wanted to head to the border, maybe get into Canada and see if it’s safe there.”
“Canada. You think you aren’t going to be stopped. This virus is serious isn’t it?” Marla wasn’t asking questions, she was rolling around everything that she had seen and I had said, in her head, trying to make sense of it. “Well, you’re lucky we came with you.”
She didn’t explain what she meant by that, just grabbed Holly’s pack, put the last of the bullets from the floor in it, strapped it on, and then went to the truck bed to see if there was anything useful to retrieve. Hunter stood by the truck not saying anything, just patiently waiting and digging into the ground with his stick. I watched her prepare, not entirely sure what was happening or was about to happen. I was dumbstruck by this woman whom I had written off as a flaky single mother looking for a man to take care of her and her son. I was beginning to think she was going to be the one taking care of me. Marla tossed the duffel, then the other pack at me and gave a silent command to gear up.
“If you want to get away from the highway, from where that woman, that Shambler attacked that man, then we go east.”
“How do you know where to go?”
“I’ve lived in a small town about 40 miles from here, in the opposite direction of the border, for almost all of my life. I’ve spent plenty of time hunting and camping in these woods. I know where I’m going and where you can find shelter and maybe get to the border.”
“I can find shelter? Are you planning to go back to your town?”
“I don’t know what I’m planning. I don’t know what to think about the things you said or what we saw back there. But if we can get to this shack I used to party in, we can take the night and figure some things out.” She paused for a moment and waited for me to put on the pack. “Right, ready to go for a hike Hunter?”
The boy nodded and took his Mother’s hand. I gave the truck one last look, grabbed the keys and locked the doors. I guess I hoped I would need the keys and that I would be able to use the truck again when the world went back to normal. All these months later and I still carry the keys in my pocket even though I know I won’t see it again, won’t be able to go back to a normal life, probably won’t even see next week but at that moment, I hadn’t completely written off the world for dead. A few hours later and I knew that small ray of hope was gone forever.
© 2014, Denise Pasutti