“What is this place?” I tried to divert the conversation from what I had done and to buy time to think of a way out.
“We are considering it a refugee camp.” Martens didn’t sound pleased, saying the words as if they left a bad taste in his mouth.
“It’s good that it’s here. It’s shelter until these people can return to their lives.” I knew that would get a reaction and hopefully answer a question I was avoiding asking – how bad had civilization fallen.
“This thing is spreading faster and wider than we can contain it. It could be weeks, months before the spread is stopped and then, well it will be months of rebuilding and recovery.” Martens’ tiredness was clear and what he said weighed heavily upon him. “But we hope this place will be temporary and we will be able to move to a more permanent shelter in the days ahead.”
Martens got up and motioned for us to head to the door effectively ending any further discussion at this point. I was relieved there would be no more questions and to know a bit more about what was happening. It sounded like everywhere was screwed and Martens had appeared distracted enough to not question why I left my fellow soldiers to die. He surely wouldn’t forget about it but I hoped delaying further discussion would give us the opportunity we needed to get away. And soon. We had locked up the RV but I didn’t doubt that Martens would want to retrieve the supplies left behind. Losing my freedom would be the end of me. Losing the RV and the supplies before I could escape would be just as bad. Escape. There was nothing to indicate that we were being held captive however, I felt like this man wasn’t going to let me go of my own free will while there were still questions about my survival.
As we headed, out Martens ordered one of the soldiers standing guard to take us to our friends. His parting words were that we would talk again in the morning and go over the details of the fire in the camp. The clock was ticking. I could feel Parker was anxious to say something as we walked but he kept quiet knowing the soldier was listening and would likely report back to Martens anything suspicious. As we headed to the tent, my eyes darted over the camp taking in as much of it as I could and looking for a way out. By the time we reached the our destination I had some ideas of possible routes out.
Tent 16. Our new home contained 8 cots and a table with a wash basin and camp stove surrounded by 4 chairs. It was depressing. It did however have four walls, a roof and the flap leading inside that could be closed and tied shut. It would work to hopefully give us the privacy needed to discuss our next steps.
The whole group was in the tent including Heidi easing some of the worry that had flitted through my anxious mind. She slept on one of the cots and had changed from her bloody and dirty clothes into teal scrubs. A blanket covered her lower body and I could see bright white bandages over her neck and upper chest. Her hair was wet. The thought of a shower was nearly enough to make me reconsider leaving. Almost but not quite. Marla cradled Hunter as he dozed while Cal and Marco both slept in cots side by side. Marco had become attached to Cal and Heidi and I figured that was a good thing considering what he had been through. Peace had descended upon my friends, leaving them calm enough to relax, to sleep, to feel safe. Parker went to the wash basin and splashed water on his face. He smiled and I understood how a simple thing like clean water on a dirty face had become a luxury. I sat in one of the chairs ignoring the hard plastic and looked over everyone feeling a pang of sadness knowing that I would be leaving them very soon.
I couldn’t expect or ask them to come with me. Not even Parker. The choice had been mine to run away and turn my back on the army and it was my choice to leave now. Maybe I was leaving to avoid punishment, maybe it was to avoid being pulled back into the military or perhaps it was the thought of being trapped in this cramped camp where it was possible that anyone could become infected or come in infected and attack and kill everyone. But I couldn’t leave quite yet. Martens wouldn’t be calling for me until morning and I had to use this short amount of time to ease some stress and rejuvenate.
Marla woke me up about an hour later, apologized but said she wanted to talk while everyone was distracted doing other things. I could see a sliver of light through the tent door and was glad it wasn’t dark yet. I told Marla it was fine and headed to the table away from the others to talk. I was actually relieved she had woken me as sleeping any longer would only eat up more time that I needed to prepare to leave. I also needed to think about how to discuss the next steps with the others.
“Louis, when are you leaving?”
“I’m not sure. Martens said he wants to see me again tomorrow morning.” I wiped a hand over my tired face. “I want to walk the grounds before it gets any darker and then I plan to head out right at dawn.”
Marla nodded, her face drawn in concern. She looked at me and said what I knew was coming. She didn’t think she and Hunter could go, not so soon after getting here and maybe not at all. It was Hunter that she had to think of now that they had found somewhere offering safety.
“If it wasn’t for Hunter….I don’t know. I just can’t keep running. I’m sorry.” Tears traced down her cheeks.
“You don’t need to apologize. I understand. All I want is for you both to be safe. I couldn’t take it if anything happened to you guys.”
Marla hugged me. I tensed then relaxed and hugged her back. This was going to be harder than I anticipated. I had really started to care about her and Hunter. We had helped each other, saved one another and the attachment between us had grown without me even realizing it. All the more reason for me to leave and to leave alone. I pulled away and started to get ready to head outside and scout out the camp. Hunter and Marco were sitting together playing with a deck of cards while Cal checked out Heidi’s wounds. Parker asked if we were going to walk the camp. I wanted to tell him to stay but I knew he wouldn’t listen and simply nodded.
As soon as we stepped outside I felt better about my chances of leaving without detection before Martens summoned me. The camp was hectic with so many people aimlessly wandering. It was just as it had been when we entered: people scared and unsure what to do or where to go. The soldiers didn’t seem interested in the civilians nor did they seem to be focused on anything in particular, not even the makeshift entryways. The poor bastards were just as lost as the rest of us. That would work to my advantage. We headed to the main entrance that was on the opposite side from where we had entered and appeared to be more than just a gap between the barriers. There was a 3 foot length of chain link fence fastened to two semi cabs. I couldn’t see how this was good protection on its own but with a dozen guards – 6 on either side – it made it more secure. We went to the entrance we had come through and it was as it had been a few hours earlier. I could see through the gap and saw only 2 guards there now. I told Parker we would come back after dark and check the area once more but this looked like the best way out. Adding to the seemingly ease of exiting was the fact that I could see the RV from this entrance making the escape even quicker.
As we walked back to our tent one thing struck me as odd. There was a heavy presence of soldiers with high-powered weapons offering protection which was good but I couldn’t figure out why the zombies weren’t swarming the shelter. It certainly wasn’t quiet inside the camp. All I could think was that the creatures didn’t want to tread on their own dead that had been killed to save us. That seemed strange however, it also seemed like that was the one thing that may be a deterrent as I remembered the corpses littering the ground around the barricades. All of those bodies might pose an issue getting back to the RV but if I had to walk over them and feel the blood and flesh under my feet, I would. The other potential challenge was that there was no way to tell if leaving would garner the attention of the soldiers and if it did, what would they do, if anything. We returned to the tent with my plan in place. Now all I had to do was tell the others and see where the chips fell.
I gathered everyone together making sure the tent flap was closed and that we were sitting in the middle of room away from any possible openings, then I laid it out. At dawn, as soon the sky became even slightly bright, I (we Parker corrected me) would head to the opening we had entered and make haste to the RV . What if there soldiers were there and they tried to stop us? At no point were we made to feel like prisoners or told we couldn’t leave when we wanted. If resistance was encountered I could only hope that there were one or two guards that could be subdued. Hell, they might not even care. It was a chance I would have to take. Now came the hard part.
“My intention is to go alone.” I held up my hand to stop Parker before he could say anything. “I can’t stop anyone from coming if that is what they want but I won’t ask any of you to come. I’ve made my choice and don’t expect anyone else to follow out of obligation.”
Parker spoke up first to say he would be going with me. There was no question for him. Marla was next to declare that her and Hunter would be staying and Marco spoke up to say he wanted to stay with Hunter. I was relieved that both of the kids would be staying. Even if I wasn’t convinced that the camp was 100% safe, it was better for them here and admittedly better for Parker and me. Cal looked at me. He said he knew this had been my plan, he just didn’t think it would so soon after we arrived.
“I know. I did want to stick around for a couple of days at least. Clean up and rest but Martens…I think he has plans for me that don’t include just being a refugee. I think it would be better for everyone if I leave sooner than later.” I bowed my head for a moment. “I don’t want to leave any of you but I don’t want to put you in any danger or in the bad graces of this Colonel. We’ll figure out a way to connect though, right?”
“Of course Louis. We will exchange our contact info.” Marla chuckled a little as she proposed this. “It’s like we’re simply planning to get together for a reunion not like we are going to be separated by an apocalypse overrun with the undead.”
She was right and we did it, even Cal and Heidi who hadn’t declared their intentions yet. We sat in silence for a few minutes as everything that had been said began to sink in. There was something between Heidi and Cal that had been there before we met and it seemed like their decision was up for debate. Cal finally spoke up and said he was staying, he didn’t want to leave Marco. The boy’s face lit up, pleased that his new friends, Hunter and Cal, weren’t leaving him. Heidi looked at Cal, her face was pained with the pressure to decide. I hated this. I didn’t want anyone to have to turn away from one another. I almost said as much but before I could Heidi took Cal’s hand and said she would stay too. Her brush with the zombie the day before had put a new fear into her and she wasn’t ready to face the monsters that closely again.
It was done. Parker would come with me and the others would do what was best for them and the kids. Just as I had wanted. I would have been grateful if even one of them was coming with us safety in numbers – but I was happy that they would be sticking together and watching out for one another in this uncertain new environment. All that was left to do now was spend the rest of the night together one last time and for Parker and I take a moonlight walk and make sure our escape plan would not fail.
We gathered around the table, the adults taking the chairs except for Cal who sat with the kids on one of the cots. Marla, Parker and I had gone to the mess tent and grabbed food, simple canned stuff like we had in the RV and headed back, wanting our last meal together to be just the 7 of us. No one noticed or cared. We actually spent some time simply talking about nothing in particular and for once since we had come together, not about how to survive. After dinner and couple of hours of good conversation, Parker and I headed out into the rapidly darkening night.
The camp had settled with only a few civilians still wandering but most of the soldiers had retreated to the buses or tents near Martens’ trailer. The exception was by the main entrance where 6 soldiers remained on guard. We went in the opposite direction and saw the two soldiers at the gap entrance had moved inside the enclosure. Neither of them looked particularly interested in what was happening outside and gave us a quick look before going back to smoking and staring at the blooming stars. Parker and I headed back to the tent.
This was going to work.
© 2016, Denise Pasutti