“Get on your knees Henning.”
Langley stepped over the body of Simmons and stood a couple of feet in front of me, gun leveled at my chest. I heard quiet mumblings coming from Marla as she told Hunter not to look when the boy asked about his uncle. I wasn’t sure what she wanted to protect him from more – the sight of Langley or the blood, brain and shattered skull of Simmons. Taking a good look at Langley, I guessed that it was him she was more disgusted by. He looked like shit covered in dirt and dried blood; blood that I didn’t think was his judging by the lack of any serious visible wounds that would cause so much splatter. The gun shook as his hand seemed to spasm with the effort of holding it up. I looked into his eyes and saw fear, exhaustion and anger in their bloodshot depths. He was making me very nervous but I still didn’t kneel, having no intention of being bullied by this man. We stood silently watching each other, neither of us moving except for the increasing shakiness of Langley’s hand.
“George, please put the gun down. Louis is helping us.” There was pleading in Marla’s voice underlined with a note of anger.
“Helping you? Like he helped me by almost running me over and leaving me in the forest with those fucking creatures everywhere.”
Langley made it sound like I was a monster and I didn’t know how Marla would react to the way he described our parting. I had told her that I left him there, it just sounded worse coming from his raspy, angry voice. It didn’t seem to matter what or how he said it, Marla asked him again with more force to put the gun down and her command was reinforced by the gentle voice of Hunter asking his Mother what was wrong. Langley glanced away from me and looked toward them, then flicked his softening gaze back on me.
“We can’t just stand here Langley. That shot is going to bring any Shamblers in the area right to us.” I tried to convince him with the ‘we need to work together thing’ and it, surprisingly, worked.
“Fine. Marla start heading to the old hunting shack.”
“We just came from there, we need move away from here. Continue hea-” she tried to explain it to him.
“Goddamn it Marla just go!” As Langley yelled at his sister, we started hearing movement in the bush from the direction he had come from. “Henning, turn around and follow her, hands up and remember I have a gun pointed at the centre of your back.”
I turned and started slowly walking back the way we had come, arms up as directed. Marla moved cautiously ahead of us, trying to calm Hunter who had started to show signs of panic at the situation. She tried to explain that Uncle George was just tired and didn’t know Louis, that’s why he was being scary and we had to go back to the shack, so George could rest and she could explain why they were with Louis.
Marla froze a few feet in front of us and pulled Hunter so his face was against her body. Her eyes were wide and she pointed silently to the spot beside the shack where I had seen the remains of Simmons’ comrades. Three Shamblers surrounded the remains, two of them milling around the area, while the third knelt picking at the bloody mess of flesh and bone. Langley looked at the monsters and I could hear the gun shaking next to my ear as he moved to pull the trigger but didn’t, realizing that doing so would only draw the attention of the creatures in front of us and anymore in the area. Instead, he pushed the gun muzzle against the back of my head and used the hard metal to guide me in the opposite direction, away from the zombies and the shack with Marla and Hunter now walking beside us.
We moved carefully through the brush crunching down on the dry foliage, every step seeming to thunder through the woods as we attempted to be as quiet as possible. The creatures didn’t notice us as we made our escape into heavier bushes. Langley kept the gun at the back of my head the entire time we were walking until we were clear of the shack and fully concealed among the trees.
“That’s far enough Henning.” Langley pulled the gun away and grabbed my shoulder to turn me facing him. “You’re going to go left and we’re going right.”
“This is stupid. We should stay together to get away from the woods and get somewhere safe.” I tried to be rational even though I knew Langley wouldn’t listen to reason.
“How about I shoot you in the knee so the noise brings those bastards right to you as you lie on the ground screaming in pain.”
Hunter started crying, his sobs getting louder as he and Marla moved closer to me. I turned toward them, making my movements slow and raising my arms higher to keep Langley from overreacting. Hunter lurched from his mother and I felt the weight of the child as he threw his arms around me. I didn’t know what to do. The boy’s actions were so unexpected and confused us all. I didn’t need to say anything else to Langley as he lowered his gun, looked at his nephew and burst out in tears too.
The moment should have been touching with the crying child clinging to me as his unstable uncle was pointing a gun at my chest, then having the distraught lawman break down and fall to the ground in tears. My heart didn’t melt even as Marla gently pushed my arms down. I didn’t return the boy’s embrace but stayed dispassionate and broke the moment of great emotion. Perhaps it was a dick move, maybe I should have just let Hunter be and let Langley cry and get out all the fear and frustration but this wasn’t the time and definitely not the place for it. I was the wrong man to be looking to for sympathy.
“Let’s get moving before we’re found.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath from Marla, then her hands were on Hunter’s shoulders pulling his arms from around my waist and whispering that I would be fine as she moved him away from us. Langley stayed on the ground, his face wet with tears but his sobbing had ceased. I had a moment of empathy for him and all he had been through. I recalled the feeling of wanting to break down that first night in the tree, then again when Holly was killed. I wanted to give up and relent to death or living death, freedom from this hell when the attack happened at the rest stop where I met Marla. And that was the difference between us – I never broke. The moment of pity passed and was replaced by the thought of how pathetic Langley appeared showing his weakness. I had no reason to be intimated by this man who was letting fear get the better of him.
“Get up Langley. Holster your weapon and wipe your face, then take up the rear. Keep an eye and ear out for any noise other than us. Move it soldier.”
I wanted to play on his military side but I had a feeling that Langley was even further from being a good soldier than me. He wiped his face and dripping nose with the filthy sleeve of his formerly white shirt, stood up, not holstering his gun and mumbled fuck you before going to stand by Marla. Guess I would be the taking up the back of the line. Langley tried to pat Hunter on the shoulder but he pulled away from his uncle’s touch. His face fell for a moment, then it hardened and he turned and starting walking north without a word and not waiting for us.
“Louis, walk with Hunter, I’ll watch our backs.” Marla placed the kid’s hand in mine and turned away drawing her gun.
I tried to tell her I could do it but she stopped me and said she needed to walk alone and think about she was going to do now that George had shown up. I could feel her confusion and mistrust for her brother and wondered why she felt that way about him but still seemed to have trust in me which was obvious when she gave me her son’s hand to hold as we walked through the woods. I stayed silent and gave her the room she needed, turning to follow Langley with Hunter in tow.
It only took us a couple of minutes to catch up with Langley and he appeared to have gotten his shit together as he walked carefully, moving his arms, gun held firmly, slowly back and forth over the trees and bushes. I had let Hunter put his hand in one of the side pockets on the lower part of my pants while I moved in a similar motion to Langley, sweeping the area. I was reassured that the kid was safely by my side and keeping pace with us, feeling the boy’s hand near my knee. Here we were walking again, still attempting to make it out of the forest in one piece and alive. It felt like we had been doing this for several days not just the past 24 hours.
Forty five minutes later, it seemed like such a short time to traverse a forest, the sky brightened as the woods thinned and opened on a field of overgrown knee-high grass. Langley stopped us before we could emerge from the cover of the trees, his hand held up in a stop signal as he looked intently forward then turned and put his finger on his lips; another signal to be quiet. We stepped a couple of feet forward standing in a single line beside Langley and took in what had stopped his progress.
My heart sank as I looked across the grass at smoke rising in the distance and at the things that had once been people shambling on the opposite side of a chain link fence, barbed wire running across the top, aiding in blocking our way forward and dashing my plans to be rid of this forest, this country and diminishing my last bit of hope that this plague was behind me. I thought we had been running from it, getting further away from it but it was already too late; the Shamblers and the virus surrounded us at every turn.
© 2014, Denise Pasutti