And here we were. Again. Waiting for the sun to rise so we could begin our final trek toward something we hoped would be salvation. Our days had become filled with roadblocks perpetuated by fear, exhaustion and not knowing what was happening in the world outside of our little group. I didn’t know how today would end and I didn’t care about myself. As long as these people I had taken care of either found safety with others or died quickly and permanently, I could die in peace or go my own way without worry. I couldn’t handle killing any of them if they turned but if I had to do it, it would be the end of my humanity; especially if it was Heidi.
Heidi. All night all I could do was worry about her and wait to hear the screams from the kids as she succumbed to the zombie virus and attacked us. We still didn’t know if she was tainted by it but when she came out of the backroom in the morning she was just as pale as the night before and it didn’t look like she had slept at all. Marla on her heels had the same tiredness stamped all over her. As I looked at the others, I knew I looked just as exhausted without having to check in the mirror.
Cal pulled down the towels from the front windows (our makeshift blackout curtains) and what I saw was actually quite beautiful: a calm bright morning. The sun was up, the sky was clear and beyond the shimmer of stalled chrome, I saw the vibrant green of the forest and the jewel blue of the morning sky. Most striking though – no zombies in sight. Parker and I ventured out to check around and make sure the quiet was not a feint and to check the road leading back up the hill to see if it was still clear. We walked in silence sticking together and watching each other’s backs while scanning the area. There was nothing to see. I stopped at the back of the RV and took a moment to breathe in the clean morning air. Parker joined me and I was relieved to see calm in his eyes and the shadow of fear that had been present since he had joined us was gone.
“Are you ready for this Parker?” It wasn’t that I didn’t think he couldn’t handle it, it was the fact that what we were about to do was going to be challenging for all of us, myself included.
“Am I ready? Not really but I’ll do my best.” He smiled nervous but confident. “I don’t know if I can be as effective as you or the others but I’ll try and I’ll do whatever I can to help and to protect everyone.”
“You’ll be fine. Whatever happens, we’re in this together and we will face what awaits us as a team.”
I hugged Parker having trouble believing my own words. He thanked me for believing in him, then pulled away looking up the hill. I watched his face waiting to see if he would relent to his fear but I only saw determined resolution. I was proud to watch him stand up and face the fear that he was doing everything in his power to mask. We headed back inside to let everyone know the area was clear and that were good to get moving.
Hunter and Marco grabbed a couple of pillows and headed into the bathroom locking the door. I felt a rush of anticipation as the lock clicked and I thought here we go. Cal and Heidi had the blinds up and the windows open as they positioned themselves on their respective beds. Parker collapsed the small dining table and loaded his gun, ensuring the spare bullets were easily within reach. Marla sat in the driver’s seat and secured a gun in the side pocket of the door ready to pull it if necessary. I took a moment and looked at her reflection in the windshield able to see marks of anxiety in her face. Marla was our best hope for getting out of here and getting to safety and she knew it. She had to lead us now using the motorhome and her driving ability to keep moving no matter what.
Everyone was ready but there was one more thing to do. I went to Parker and drew him into a hug. Years of separation and regret for how I had dismissed him rolled over me but here we were, reunited and closer than before because of our circumstances. There was a chance this would be the end of our very short reunion and that’s where the pang of sadness stabbed me the most. Until he showed up on that dark night I had barely been holding on to my sanity and humanity. I was trying to use the others as an anchor to keep it together but the tenuous grip had been loosening. But Parker was here now and I had to survive for him and he had to survive to keep me whole. Maybe one day we could be as we had been in the past but right now we had to get through this hell and we had to do it together. I let him go and went to the passenger seat and got my personal arsenal ready to go.
The motorhome was slowly chugging along and struggling to get up the hill when the first zombie appeared. The one thing we hadn’t prepared for or considered was that there may be some difficulty getting back up. The RV had been parked right at the base of it and Marla had just turned around to start our ascent. We couldn’t get any real speed or momentum and it was becoming a real danger. Not even a quarter of the way I finally told her to turn back and get the speed up. She didn’t say anything and acted quickly. The delay would surely cause more noise and garner more attention from the zombies but we had to do something to get moving. Marla moved the RV with grace and ease like she was driving a Mini not a full-sized travelling home. The motorhome built enough speed going back down that when she turned, slowing only slightly, she was able to keep the momentum going to get us up the hill.
As predicated the zombies were fully aware of us now and they crawled, walked and even ran from the surrounding areas. Marla gripped the wheel keeping her eyes forward with blind resolve. She never wavered, not even the first time she had to plow through of group of 4 monsters in the middle of the road trying to find the source of the noise. The impact was hard but the speed was enough not to slow our progress. As we rolled over the bodies the vehicle rocked hard from side to side and I pictured the kids slamming into their pillows frightened but out of harm’s way.
A blast from the backroom snapped me into action as shots rang out from Cal and Heidi followed by the closer bangs from Parker. I turned my attention to the front and knew I had to get my shit together or Marla wouldn’t be able to keep going forward at the pace she had set once we began encountering an increased concentration of the zombies. I powered down the window leaned out and went double-handed, firing aimlessly at first then forgoing the action movie attempt at two guns. Using my dominant hand, I focused the shots to make a quick, final kill and end the suffering of the creatures instead of adding to their tormented existence and useless pursuit.
I couldn’t tell where we were but I did notice Marla turned left at one point and put us back on the road that we had ventured from the day before. I left Marla to navigate on her own and concentrated on continuing to help clear the path, switching out my guns and reloading quicker than I thought possible. The rattle and bang of gunfire reverberated inside the cabin as ceaselessly as the never-ending lines zombies. I didn’t know how much longer we could fight them off or how far we were from the sanctuary or if it even was such a thing now. Finally a clear path came into view as we rounded a corner and seconds later Marla stomped on the brakes stopping us before a mob of about zombies gathered in front of the clearing.
It happened quickly and I couldn’t be certain what exactly it was that happened. One minute the RV was stalled before the horde and the mournful wail of the dead was washing over us as they moved forward like one huge wave of decaying flesh. And then there was nothing but the solid thud of heavy machine gun fire deafening all my senses. I ducked back inside and followed Marla to the main room where Cal and Heidi had joined Parker and the boys. I listened to rap of gunfire fearing that a stray bullet would pass through the motorhome and someone would get hit. Marla sheltered Hunter and Cal had his arms around Heidi and Marco while Parker crouched beside them head down. A couple of bullets did punch through the metal walls of the RV but luckily none of them were near us. The rapid shots went on and then all at once stopped. My ears rang as they adjusted to the sudden quiet. Even the thrum of the dead was just as gone as the gunfire.
Looking around, I saw that we were alright for the most part but Heidi’s pallor had gotten worse. I decided to gamble and try to look out the window hoping that my silhouette wouldn’t trigger a fresh round of shots. Parker grabbed my arm knowing the risk and not wanting me to take it. I nodded that it would be okay and gently removed his hand. Part of me knew what I would see before even looking. I expected the remains of zombies in various states of mutilation from the onslaught of bullets and I also expected to see the source of the spent ammo – soldiers. As I slowly stood and peered over the bottom of the window, I found I was right on both counts. Fortunately the soldiers were busy killing any zombies still moving and not looking at the RV and didn’t see me.
Marla asked me what was going on, her voice barely over a whisper. I moved as close as possible to the group and told them, not surprised that they weren’t relieved to know who our saviours were. Before the crisis had started a military presence would have been a good thing; now after our experiences and the tale I had shared about my camp and the village, trust and protection were no longer words to associate with the army. As much as we dreaded them, they had likely just saved our asses and if we wanted to find this place that promised safety and security we would need to get over the reluctance to trust the army. The problem now however, was how to let them know that we weren’t a threat.
I told everyone to holster their weapons and when the knock came to put their hands up to show that they were empty. The knock came and Marla shouted come in. Three soldiers entered, rifles raised and sweeping over each of us as they gaged who we were and if we should be put down or not. They relaxed after a minute but didn’t fully lower their weapons. The soldiers wore black combat fatigues reminding me more of swat than army. More unnerving were the simple gas masks/respirators they wore. It made it difficult to see their reactions and impressions of us, specifically how they saw me. Under the bulky jacket and layer of dirt my own fatigue pants could be seen but it didn’t appear they were interested me at this point. One of the men stepped forward closing in on Heidi, clearly honing in on her sickly appearance.
“Oh thank god you’re here.” Marla kept her hands up as she intentionally drew the attention of the soldier from Heidi to herself.
“We’re here to help ma’am.” The soldier didn’t turn back to Heidi and instead focused on Marla and Hunter.
I was wary but looking at Marla I could see genuine relief in her face. She had been strong the whole time since we had met on the roadside. Even in confusion, fear and desperation to keep her child safe, she had been strong and unshakable. I couldn’t give her the relief or help to ease the unending fear she surely felt but here with the presence of the soldiers she might be able to find some hope in that she could stop fighting, stop running and be protected instead of having to be protector all the time. I wouldn’t stand in the way of that safety even though everything in me said to leave now, don’t go with them, don’t get trapped behind their walls. But I didn’t. I stayed with my friends.
The soldiers let us keep our weapons not seeing any threat I suppose and besides, if there were more zombies coming our way the more guns the better. Aside from weapons, we took our personal belongings, leaving behind the extra guns, ammo and other supplies including food and water. Marla wordlessly handed me the RV keys after locking the doors. She knew that if I didn’t stay (she probably knew I had no intent on staying) that I would need the vehicle to continue wherever it was I thought I could go. Leaving the food and weapons would also serve my journey alone and prevent the dangerous task of searching out more supplies.
Walking from the RV to wherever the soldiers were leading us was a messed up experience. The blood, gore and body parts covering the ground made each step a horrific guessing game of what slippery bits would be under foot next. I tried not to notice the unavoidable squelch and kept my eyes on the back of the head of the soldier in the lead. The careful trek through the remains of so many humans finally came to an end and there it was: Sanctuary.
© 2016, Denise Pasutti