Bloodied soldiers stumbled through a haze of smoke, their bodies mutilated and their faces shrouded in terror as they tried to escape the dead, exploding grenades and bullets whizzing through the air without aim. I crouched among the chaos knowing that I was back at the base camp as the virus spread and tore apart my comrades. I was dreaming, I knew it but my struggles to wake up failed and I stayed locked in the mayhem. Three quick gunshots sounded and as the dream bullets hit my chest they jerked me from unconsciousness. Gasping in shock and confusion, I frantically clawed at my torso searching for wounds that would not be there. My mind cleared of dead soldiers and grenade smoke as the realization that the bullets were being fired outside of our makeshift shelter sunk in.
The sun had set and the lantern was off leaving the shack in a dim haze but I could still see Marla and Hunter huddled beside me, the outline of a gun in her hand. I was going to ask what was happening but she silenced me and I heard voices shouting nearby. I grabbed my gun and listened. A couple more shots sounded followed by an anguished scream and growling that went on for a couple of minutes before it stopped. If this were any other time or scenario I would be worried about wolves or cougars but it wasn’t and I could surmise what had made the beastly noises. We remained silent with our guns pointed at the entrance for several breathless minutes, straining to hear something, anything. I wanted to open the door, just a little, to see what had happened despite having a pretty good idea of the events that had unfolded so close.
I resisted the urge to open the door but not to look outside. The wooden walls were worn away in places and the boards covering the windows were haphazardly nailed on leaving small gaps. I moved to get up, halting as I felt Marla’s fingernails dig into my arm to stop me. I could vaguely see traces of fear in her face and the whites of her eyes seemed glaringly bright in the dimness of the room. I gently pulled her hand away, squeezing it reassuringly before turning away and carefully getting to my feet. I didn’t know if there were any squeaky floorboards or if any little sound I made would carry outside to the ears of the dead but I took my time anyway. Small shafts of light peaked through the aged boards here and there but none of the openings on the walls or windows were big enough for me to see anything but the silhouettes of trees and darkness. I finally gave up and sat back down. The boards on the windows could be pried off however that would be noisy and it wasn’t really worth the risk of alerting people or other creatures to our presence. I sat back down and kept my gun in my hand, waiting and listening.
We sat unmoving for what felt like an hour listening to the silence. All traces of fatigue were replaced with an anxious alertness and I could sense that Marla’s attentiveness was also propelled by not wanting to be caught off guard. We sat for a while longer and heard no more commotion or signs that whoever and whatever had been outside was still there. While we remained vigilant, Hunter fell asleep and I started to relax a little listening to his calm, even breathing fill the silence of the night.
“He seems to be able to sleep no matter what is happening around him.” Marla spoke softly as she stroked the boy’s hair. “Even when his Father…just anytime, it seems he can sleep.”
“I normally wouldn’t pry but what about his father, why isn’t here?” Maybe it was the direness of the situation that made me bold enough to ask such an invasive question or perhaps I was just tired and scared and needed to be distracted by the sound of her voice.
“I. He. Hunter’s father was in army. I think that’s why he gravitated to you.”
“Did he pass recently?”
“Pass, die? No, no, he’s not dead. He was serving overseas when a bomb detonated near his squad. I don’t really have any details but he was lucky he wasn’t seriously physically injured. Emotionally and mentally though, he just wasn’t the same when he came back. PTSD I guess. He left us about a year ago. He wasn’t discharged and asked to station somewhere else so they put him on a special project somewhere in New Mexico. We haven’t seen or talked to him since but he emails Hunter at least once a month. He sent him one yesterday morning.” Marla patted her pockets looking for her phone. “I must have left my phone in the car. I was skimming through the message when Hunter followed you into the restroom.”
Marla stopped talking and seemed to be trying to remember something or maybe she was just thinking about her estranged husband. I started thinking too, thinking that this was the second time in 24 hours that I had heard New Mexico and military together. Keenan’s conversation came back to me and I wondered how much of a coincidence it was that Keenan and Marla’s husband were both in the Army, both stationed in New Mexico somewhat recently and both, in one way or another, from the same county in Washington State.
“There was something kind of strange in the email from what I can remember reading.”
“What?” I had been deep in thought and not really heard what she was saying.
“He said the usual stuff about loving us and missing us but he also said that we should leave as soon as possible and go see my mother in Oregon. He knows I don’t get along with her.”
“Do you think he knows something about what’s happening?”
“You mean with those things, those zombies? No, no of course not. I mean I can’t see him being involved or knowing anything about this kind of stuff. He’s just a soldier, low ranking.” She seemed a bit bewildered by my question but was quick to dismiss the implication that her husband might be involved. “What about you Louis, are you an officer, have you heard of my husband, Lucas Wilkes?”
“I don’t recognize the name but I know people he might have worked or served with Keenan or Langley?” Her deflection away from Lucas’ involvement worked.
“Keenan doesn’t ring any bells but Langley is my maiden name. My brother’s name is George Langley.”
Hearing that name again and hearing Marla say he was her brother left me feeling like I had been punched in the chest. Officer Langley, that prick. I was glad that it was dim in the shack sure that my face showed my shock at hearing Marla’s words. How was it possible that I came across Langley’s sister and how unlikely was it that her husband wasn’t involved with him, Keenan and this outbreak. Marla touched my arm and I realized that she had asked me if George was the same Langley I knew. I said yes and she asked where I had met him and where he was now. I wasn’t sure what to say. The truth wasn’t all bad but I didn’t know where he was now and my telling of events would not paint her brother in a good light.
“I don’t know where he is now. I left him at Sheriff Keenan’s cabin.”
“Sheriff Keenan? Why was George at a Sheriff’s house?”
“He was the deputy in whatever that little town is called about 40 or 50 miles from where we met. Didn’t you know that your brother was a cop?”
“I, I knew he was in that town but I didn’t know he was a deputy.”
“But you must have known he was in the military like your husband?”
Marla gently moved Hunter from her lap, lying his head on a rolled up sweater and went to one of the boarded up windows.
“What’s going on Marla, how could you not know your brother was in the military or a deputy in your county?”
“Lucas. When I married him my family was not happy. They didn’t like him, didn’t think it was a good idea to marry a man in the army. He always had a temper and it didn’t get any better when Hunter was born.”
“He was abusive?”
“Not physically but he could be loud when he was angry and his words were often cruel. George and him fought a couple of times and he stopped talking to me about 4 years ago. My mother only started talking to me again when Lucas left for New Mexico but things are still strained. I certainly didn’t know anything about George being a deputy and I swear he never joined the military.”
I joined her by the window not sure what to say. The secrets were too huge to be secrets and my initial relief at having a companion was beginning to wane as I questioned her honesty and possible involvement in this nightmare. On the other hand, maybe she didn’t know anything and if so, I felt sorry for this woman who didn’t know what was happening in her own family. Doubt rattled my mind about whether she was being truthful about her relationship with Langley and her husband.
I didn’t notice Marla move until her arms were around my neck and I felt her lips brush my cheek. My world shifted once again as the gentle contact of another live human erased all the horror and pain I had gone through in the last couple of days and more importantly, the doubts I was having about Marla. This woman was either using a pleasing subterfuge to distract me or she was just as scared and afraid as me. The surprise of her touch froze me momentarily before I awkwardly wrapped my arms around her, not sure if I should be comforting her or making a move.
Marla pulled away before I could decide what to do and went to Hunter without a word. I didn’t say anything, content to leave the strange silence hanging in the air. I stayed by the boarded up window thinking about and wanting to feel the heat of Marla’s breath and flesh again; living flesh. The moment was surreal. Monsters outside and awkward embraces inside. I didn’t know which I preferred. My experiences with women were limited and this was a situation like no other, regardless of experience. I gave Marla and Hunter their space and sat down leaning against the door closing my eyes so as not to be staring at her and coming off creepy. It wasn’t long until my eyes drooped and sleep overtook me. There were no soldiers, no blood and destruction as my mind rested in total darkness.
© 2014, Denise Pasutti