Friday, January 30, 2015
IN THE FLESH: DOWN THE ROAD (By James Darko)
Genre: Horror (Zombies)
Note to readers: This story was contributed to the series by fellow writer, James Darko. All credit goes to James for his work on this fantastic entry to the series.
IN THE FLESH: DOWN THE ROAD
By James Darko
Friday, September 13th, 2013.
The end of the world.
Everyone has their own little phrase for it. But we’re all in agreement about one thing. It’s the day the dead rose from the ashes. It’s the day a lethal virus was unleashed upon mankind and the world changed forever.
It took less than twenty-four hours for the virus to spread across the globe. People were dying and coming back to life an hour later. Corpses were clawing their way up from the dirt and bodies were disappearing from every morgue across the country.
Zombies. That’s what they called them in the movies. Except this was no movie. Rusty Aberdeen stared out his window in awe that day, watching the carnage unfold.
The zombies tore his mailman to shreds. They got three of his neighbors who tried foolishly to make a break for their cars. He saw a young man stumbling down the block, clutching at his stomach, his intestines scraping along the sidewalk. He didn’t make it past Rusty’s house before the zombies finished the job.
Kids were bitten, then they turned and started biting their parents or siblings. Other children were lost in the fray. The more people that turned, the more the violence escalated. Neighbors attacked neighbors. Parents attacked kids. Kids mauled or maimed their parents. It was utter chaos.
The army tried to intervene, but the battle was short-lived. Bombs were out of the question. We couldn’t nuke ourselves. And the growing numbers were too much for the military to fight. Soon, the dead outnumbered the living.
The zombies had inherited the Earth. And now, it was all just a matter of survival.
FIVE YEARS LATER
“We can’t live like this anymore!” Patricia Nash exclaimed.
But her cries fell on the deaf ears of her husband, Gerald, who was busy polishing the shotgun cradled in his lap. He’d been polishing the Mossberg for three consecutive hours. Patricia hated when her husband zoned out like this, went into his own little world. It’s like he was back in the nuthouse all over again.
That blank expression, that vacant stare, the constant silence. That’s what he was like when he was on the medication. Those pills messed his head up something awful. But nothing had screwed him up more than Rusty Aberdeen.
The years had not been kind to the Nash’s. They had lost the rest of their extended family, they had abandoned the majority of their earthly possessions, and they had lost more friends than they could count. But no loss stung Gerald more than the loss of Rusty.
As the days passed, Gerald’s behavior grew more disconcerting. He became more detached, starting isolating himself and giving Patricia the silent treatment. He started spending more time in the burn ward too. That’s where Gerald went when he wanted to be alone. And one day, when Patricia was walking past the ward, she could’ve sworn she heard Gerald talking to himself. Except he was talking like there was someone else in the ward with him. Patricia was starting to consider her options. She was starting to wonder if she and Kelly would be safer without Gerald than with him.
Patricia was a fairly attractive, but pensive-looking woman in her mid-thirties, with shoulder-length sandy brown hair that her daughter helped trim every few months.
Kelly would help cut Patricia’s hair and Patricia would return the favor. It wasn’t salon quality, but it was as good as it gets when you’re living in a post-apocalyptic world. When they came across a bottle of polish or gloss, they’d paint each other’s nails. Even with the absence of malls, restaurants, beauty salons, and spas, Patricia and Kelly still found ways to bond.
Gerald, on the other hand, had let himself go. His unkempt hair overextended his shoulders and it had been nearly a year since he shaved. His beard was starting to reach epic proportions.
Gerald was a gritty but handsome fellow in his day. It was those qualities that appealed to Patricia back in high school when they first met. But now, when she looked at him, she hardly recognized the man she agreed to marry.
It had been five years since the initial outbreak. Five long, cold, miserable years. Five years of running and hiding and scavenging. Five years on the road, traveling from state to state, searching for sanctuary.
They found a place to hang their hats in Burkittsville. Maryland was the last place they had expected to settle down. But they had already traveled west, south, and been up and down the east coast. And the journey had left them exhausted and in need of rest. The hospital seemed like a fairly safe haven from their storms.
It was more than a place of refuge to their daughter, Kelly. It was home. They had walls and doors and a roof over their heads. But what Kelly didn’t realize is they were running low on food, supplies.
In a month or two, there’d be nothing left. Gerald Nash was aware of this fact. But he hadn’t decided his next move.
He had already combed the area for supplies. If he was going to find anything, he’d have to try the next town over.
But Gerald’s batteries needed some serious recharging. He just didn’t have it in him anymore. The years, the road, the traveling, the zombies. All of it had worn him down, dissolved his spirit. The Earth had opened up and swallowed his hope. All that remained now was doubt. Doubt and fear.
The fear of not being able to provide for his family. The fear of not being able to protect Patricia and Kelly. At this rate, Gerald was starting to think they’d all be better off dead.
As Gerald continued polishing his shotgun and Patricia whined away, Kelly Nash sat in the adjacent waiting room, staring out the murky windows. She liked the waiting room because the windows overlooked the street and she could look outside and see the hell this world had become. And that’s when she truly felt grateful for all that she had.
Inside: Warmth, safety, security.
Outside: The zombies roamed the streets freely, feeding on the brains of the living.
Sometimes they’d travel alone in search of food. Other times they’d travel in packs. Scavengers. Predators. Disease mongers. Carnivorous demons.
And among these flesh eaters, Kelly saw not one, but two human faces. Their faces and bodies were caked in blood and rancid flesh. The flesh of zombies. But Kelly could still distinguish them from the zombies. They might’ve looked and walked and even smelled like zombies, but they didn’t have that glazed over look in their eyes.
“Mom! Dad! Come quick!”
But only Patricia responded to her daughter’s calls. Gerald didn’t bother moving an inch.
“What is it?” Patricia asked, joining Kelly in the waiting room.
“Look,” Kelly said, pointing out the window. The strangers were walking towards the hospital, approaching the front doors. The zombies shuffled through the streets around them, seemingly unaware of their presence. “We have to help them.”
“We don’t know them,” Patricia said. “We don’t know what they’re capable of. We can’t let them in.”
“But they’re people, mom,” Kelly said. “They deserve a chance too. And dad is here. He’ll protect us.” Deep down, Patricia doubted that last statement.
They heard the strangers pounding on the doors from the lobby. Patricia reached into her waistband and removed the 9mm pistol that Gerald had given her. She sighed as she handed it to Kelly.
“You know the drill,” Patricia said. “You cover me. Keep your back to the wall at all times and if you see them carrying weapons, you see them make any sudden moves, you shoot them. Don’t even give them a chance to react.”
“Got it, mommy,” Kelly nodded, accepting the pistol.
They walked to the lobby and Kelly pressed her back to the wall and held the pistol in both hands while her mom removed the metal bar wedged between the door handles. The doors screeched as they were thrust open.
The woman stepped in first, then the man. “That’s as far as you go,” Patricia told them, pinching her nose with two fingers like a clothespin. She didn’t know how these strangers could stomach their own stench. “Drop your bags and raise your hands in the air.”
The man and woman did as they were told and Patricia gingerly patted them down, careful not to stain her sleeves with blood. Most of the blood smeared on their clothes had dried anyway and formed a thick red crust that stuck to their clothes like superglue.
She found a Glock 19 tucked into the man’s waistband and a Snub .38 stashed in the woman’s bag. If it wasn’t for all that blood and dirt smeared all over their faces, Patricia could’ve seen how young they really were. She could’ve seen just how scared they were too.
“We mean you no harm,” the young man assured her. “We’re just weary travelers like yourselves. Please don’t make us go back out there. Our backs our killing us. Our feet are sore. We can’t spend another night out on the road. We won’t survive another night. Please. Look in your hearts.”
“What happened to you?” Patricia asked. “Why are you covered in blood and God knows what else?”
“The zombies, they don’t attack their own kind,” the young woman spoke up. “If you look like one of them, move like one of them, smell like one of them, they leave you alone.”
“But you smell like death,” Patricia balked.
“That’s sort of the idea,” the young woman replied.
“I think I’d rather take my chances being spotted,” Kelly said, the pistol still in her tiny hands. “Pee-yew,” she added, waving her hand in front of her nose.
“Can we stay just the night?” the young woman asked. “Please. We’ll do anything you say.”
“I should discuss this with my husband,” Patricia said. “But he’s been rather distracted lately. Oh, what the heck. I guess you could spend the night and we’ll go from there.”
“Excellent,” the young man said, breathing a sigh of relief. It was like a thousand pounds had just melted from his shoulders. “We can’t thank you enough.”
“But if you’re going to stay, do me one favor,” Patricia said.
“Name it,” the young man said.
“Get yourselves cleaned up, pronto. I have some old clothes that should fit you both if you need them.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” he said. “We have fresh clothes in our bags.”
“Why are you being so nice to us?” the young woman asked as Patricia rounded up their weapons and took the pistol back from Kelly.
“I don’t know,” Patricia shrugged. “I guess I’d want someone else to do the same for me and my family. By the way, I’m holding onto your weapons. Just for the time being. I’m not taking any chances.”
“Fair enough,” the young man said. “You were here first, so you call the shots.”
“That’s right,” Patricia said, grinning. For once in her life, she felt something that she never felt after she married Gerald Nash. She felt like she was in control.
. . .
Clark and Trisha Crosswell made themselves presentable, changing their clothes and cleaning with a shared washcloth and a basin filled halfway with murky water they had bottled themselves from a nearby creek.
Then they went to thank Patricia again for her hospitality and to greet Gerald Nash for the first time.
But Gerald was napping and requested that they not disturb him. Normally it was Kelly she was reminding to leave her father be. She was like a walking “Do Not Disturb” sign.
“We were never properly introduced,” Patricia said. “I’m Patricia Nash. But you can call me Patti. All my friends at the salon used to. And that’s my daughter, Kelly. My husband Gerald will probably be awake soon. He only sleeps a few hours at a time. He’s very vigilant. What are your names again?”
“Sorry, we never got a chance to tell you,” Trisha said. “I’m Trisha Crosswell. This is my husband, Clark.”
“Clark?” Kelly smiled and snickered a little. “Like Clark Kent?”
“Sure,” Clark shrugged and smiled back. “Why not?”
“You’re both so young,” Patricia said. “And already married?”
“We got hitched right after high school,” Trisha said. “Our parents were opposed to the idea at first, but eventually they came around. How long have you been married, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Too long,” Patricia said, forcing a laugh. “But seriously, fourteen years.”
Trisha whistled. “Sheesh. That’s a long time. It’s so nice when you find that right person and finally settle down. Right?”
“Right,” Patricia said. It hurt just to smile, but she faked a quick smirk for her new companions. She didn’t want them to get the wrong idea about Gerald.
“How old are you, kiddo?” Clark asked Kelly.
“And you’re a fan of comics?”
“I love comics!” she proclaimed.
“And you’re a fan of Superman, huh?”
“Uh huh,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. For a second, the conversation had made her forget all of her troubles. She didn’t think twice of the rotting corpses shuffling through the streets.
“Well check this out,” Clark said, rolling up his sleeve to show off the Superman shield tattooed on his forearm.
“Cool,” she said in awe.
“Did you get to see Man of Steel?”
“Sure did. Mom took me the day it came out. That was the last movie I got to see before the zombies came around.”
“In the film, Clark tells Lois the S is not an S, but a kryptonian symbol for hope.”
“For our sakes, let’s hope that’s true,” Trisha chuckled. “Patti, you mentioned something about a salon a few seconds ago. Did you work there?”
“Yes I did,” Patricia said. “I worked at a beauty salon almost half my life. I started out cutting and styling hair, doing dye jobs. They loved me so much, they eventually made me the manager.”
“I figured you must’ve been a stylist,” Trisha said. “Even in the midst of the apocalypse, your hair is lovely.”
“Why thank you,” Patricia said, smiling. And that time, she didn’t have to fake it.
. . .
Gerald awakened alone on that adjustable hospital bed, relieved himself into a nearby bedpan. He had dreamed about Rusty Aberdeen again.
Rusty, with his long, dark hair always tied back in a ponytail. Rusty, with his lame jokes and strange aptitude for music trivia. And those sideburns that he let grow down to his lips.
He’d talk for hours about Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, and go on rants about why the AC/DC Bon Scott era was better than the AC/DC Brian Johnson era.
Even with his long hair and Elvis-like sideburns, Rusty always had this pure, innocent expression. He had one of them baby faces. No matter how old he was, he still looked like he did back in middle school.
Gerald still remembered the look of terror on that innocent, helpless face when the zombies swarmed Rusty. A few seconds later, he didn’t look scared anymore. That’s only because there was nothing left of his face. The zombies had chewed it off, leaving nothing behind but a skull with two empty eye sockets.
Gerald lit a stale cigarette and coughed as he exhaled. He remembered how giddy Rusty was when they busted the lock on that Oldsmobile trunk and found all those cartons stashed inside.
Every pack either said MADE IN CANADA or it had a Canadian tax stamp on the bottom. Someone must’ve purchased them up north for cheap, smuggled them across the border, and never got a chance to distribute them.
Rusty figured their loss was his and Gerald’s gain. But that was four years ago. And Gerald forgot that like most things, cigarettes do eventually expire in their own way. The tobacco goes stale and every drag is harsh and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
All these years of lugging those cartons along with him, rationing them, smoking one or even half a cigarette each day. He’d finally reached his last carton. Gerald didn’t know what he’d do when he ran out.
He’d survived without beer or liquor since the second year when the whiskey ran dry and there wasn’t a can or bottle of beer left to be found.
He walked from the room to the hall, which was bare except for the row of gurneys lined up against the wall.
He turned left down the first corridor and found his wife. “Morning, Patti,” he said casually. “Sorry about last night. I was off in my own little world again. I’ll start paying more attention, I promise.” Patricia had heard that promise before. “You know it’s the strangest thing…when I was dozing off last night, I could’ve sworn I heard voices. Not just yours and Kelly’s, but other people’s voices. I must’ve been dreaming.”
“You weren’t dreaming, Gerald,” she said. “You were just in another one of those weird trances. A couple showed up here last night. Clark and Trisha Crosswell.”
“And you let them in?!”
“They had nowhere else to go. Besides, I searched them thoroughly and took their guns for the time being. I’m not an idiot. You taught me how to handle myself. And we’re in the east wing, they’re crashing in the west wing. What’s the harm? Let them stay a couple of days. We could use some company.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be getting attached to strangers. Not after what happened with Rusty.”
“Rusty died three years ago,” Patricia said. “I know you were close, but I wish you could find a way to move past it. And these kids aren’t Rusty. They’re young. They look like college kids. Rusty was older, stronger. He had experience on his side. And look how he fared.”
“Alright,” Gerald said, almost yelling the word. “But don’t you ever, ever let a stranger in here again without me knowing.”
“You would’ve known if you’d been paying attention. Kelly was screaming our names and you didn’t even budge. What if she was being attacked?” She had that pensive look on her face again. Her mind always raced around Gerald, his actions leaving her deep in thought, questioning her decisions in life.
“But she wasn’t,” Gerald said in his defense.
“But what if she was?” Patricia asked again. “I want you to think about that the next time you start daydreaming.”
“I think about Kelly every day,” he said vehemently. “I think about you, too. I think about our past. About our future. And I want you to think about the fact that I’ve kept us alive these past five years. I’ve gunned down every threat that stood on our way! I taught you and Kelly how to use a gun, how to hunt, how to defend yourselves! I’m the only thing that’s kept you alive! Remember that!”
Patricia took a step back, her upper lip quivering. She feared Gerald when he regressed back to his primitive ways. He’d get all worked up and start yelling, screaming, punching holes in the walls, flipping tables or throwing chairs.
It was this savage behavior, these brutish, reckless, carefree ways that once attracted Patricia to Gerald in the first place. That and his looks. But they weren’t in high school anymore.
Gerald wasn’t ripping through the teachers’ parking lot on his Harley, wearing his black leather jacket, smoking a cigarette. But he didn’t come off as cool when he acted tough at this age now. He came off as a bully. An unapproachable animal.
“One more thing,” Gerald said as she started to walk away. “I want to meet this couple today. See what they’re all about.”
. . .
Kelly Nash had taken quite a shine to Clark since seeing his Superman tattoo. Trisha could never have kids of her own. She was declared biologically infertile by her doctors at the age of eighteen. Clark was aware of this fact, but he chose to marry her anyway.
It was true that Clark wanted children. But he also couldn’t imagine life without Trisha by his side. So if that meant adopting or never being a father, he was fine with it. And now he couldn’t even imagine trying to bring a child into this world.
“So where are we exactly?” Clark asked Patricia later that day. “I know we’re in Maryland, but whereabouts?”
“Burkittsville,” Patricia told him.
“Oh, man,” Clark said in awe. “That’s so cool. They filmed the Blair Witch here.”
“What’s the Blair Witch?” Kelly asked.
“Ah, I guess Blair Witch Project was a little before your time. It was a horror movie filmed in the style of a documentary. You probably would’ve loved it, kiddo.”
Gerald stomped through the hall, the soles of his boots hammering the tiled floor. He peeked into the waiting room, where Patricia was seated with Kelly and their guests. “You must be Clark. And you must be Trisha. Pleased to meet you. I’m Gerald Nash. I see you’ve already met my wife and daughter.”
“Yes we have. And it’s great to finally meet you.” Clark extended his hand and Gerald shook it. “We can’t thank you enough for letting us stay here.”
“Actually, that was my wife’s call,” Gerald said, stroking his thick beard. “I was unaware at the time. But, you’re here so we might as well make the best of it.”
“Well, if there’s anything we can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask,” Clark said.
“Yes, we’d be happy to help in any way,” Trisha said. “And your wife is such a lovely woman. Your daughter is a sweet young girl, too. You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Nash.”
Gerald ignored her comments and looked back at Clark. “So, Clark, you know how to use a gun?”
“Drop the sir. This isn’t the military. But I do need you for a little mission. We’re running low on supplies and if you’re going to stay, you’ll have to pull your own weight. So what do you say? You want to go for a little walk?”
“I do need to stretch my legs,” Clark shrugged. “Sure. Let’s do it. But I’ll need my gun back…if that’s ok with you.”
“Patricia, get his gun.”
Patricia fetched the Glock 19 and handed it back to Clark, who tucked the gun in his waistband and followed Gerald’s lead. As she watched Clark and her husband turn and disappear down the next corridor, she felt a sickening pang in her stomach. Then she turned back to Kelly and Trisha, both oblivious to Gerald’s savage nature
The whole time they were absent, it wasn’t Gerald’s safety she prayed for. It was Clark’s.
. . .
“Do you know the area well?” Clark asked in an overly benevolent fashion. He was trying to be as friendly as possible with Gerald and get on his good side. Clark figured Gerald just needed a little time to warm up to him and Trisha.
“I’m familiar with the surrounding area,” Gerald whispered. “And keep your voice down. Any loud noises will draw out the zombies.”
“Sorry, my bad,” Clark whispered back. Clark looked Gerald up and down. He saw the way he carried himself. The way he cradled the Mossberg in his arms. The way he always walked like he had a mission, a purpose.
“Were you in the army?” Clark asked.
“What makes you think that?”
“The way you walk, the way you carry your gun, the way you constantly move your eyes without turning your head. It’s like you’re trained for this sort of thing.”
“Nobody’s trained for a zombie apocalypse. But to answer your question, yes, I was in the army for several years. Dishonorable discharge.”
“No kidding?” Clark said. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Truth be told, I was bored. And there were only two ways for me to get out of the army. The first was fail a drug test. The second was to pretend I was crazy. I couldn’t score any drugs on base and even if I could, they were never my thing. I always preferred booze. So I decided to fake insanity to get the fuck out of there. Little did I know, the insanity plea would land me a psych ward for two months.”
“You were committed?”
“Standard procedure for anyone who’s discharged for being a loon. Had I known that at the time, I would’ve just smoked some grass and failed a piss test. I spent two months in a hospital I didn’t belong in, being forced to take drugs I didn’t require. They had me on these pills that really fucked me up. I guess if you’re not crazy and you take those psycho meds, they can actually make you wind up going crazy. I remember brushing my teeth like fifty times a day. I think I went through a toothbrush a day when I was there. And blankets…I always had a blanket tied around me like a cape. I thought it was a shield or something, like it was going to protect me from all the other crazies. And I couldn’t tell them I was faking or the jig was up. So I was stuck until they let me out. Patti was waiting for me as soon as they released me. She was so happy to see me. But I was so doped up I hardly recognized her. Yeah, those meds really fucked my head up. I had to take them for another month, just to wean myself off and help with the withdrawals. Not my proudest moment.”
“Wow…” Clark said and trailed off briefly. “That’s insane…I mean, no offense. It’s just not every day you hear a story like that.”
“No offense taken,” Gerald said, but his sharp tone said otherwise.
“So where are we going?” Clark asked. “And why aren’t we checking any of these stores for supplies?”
“Because I’ve already checked them. There’s nothing left to find in Burkittsville. We have to take Route 17 and travel to Rosemont. It’s about a ten minute drive from here, so we got at least thirty minutes of walking ahead of us.”
“Great,” Clark muttered.
The road to Rosemont was a smooth trail. They made it there without incident. This was the longest Gerald could remember going without seeing any zombies. But on the way back, the road got a little rockier.
Their search had yielded a medical emergency supply kit, a bag of dried figs and apricots, two cans of mushroom soup, a jar of peanut butter, a package of beef jerky shreds so loaded with salt and preservatives it hadn’t spoiled yet, a few boxes of granola bars, some bottled water, and a laser pointer. All the other food they came across was rotten or five years past its expiration date.
Gerald didn’t see the need in taking the laser pointer, but Clark grabbed it and gave it to him as they walked back through town. “For Kelly,” Clark told him. “She might enjoy it.”
Gerald accepted the laser pointer and muttered an ungrateful, “Thanks.”
They searched every store and shop they could before it started getting dark and they had to head back. They walked eight blocks, then turned the corner to get back towards Route 17.
Around the corner, a lone zombie shambled through the streets. Five years of rot and decay had turned its flesh a ghoulish charcoal grey. Clark’s instincts took over and he yanked the Glock from his waistband and fired two shots. The first missed, but the second bullet pierced its skull and its body crumpled in the street.
“No, you idiot!” Gerald shouted. “The gunshots are just going to attract more of them.”
Right on cue, the areas undead inhabitants spilled out into the road, flooding the streets. Gerald had spent five years studying their patterns and movements. A single zombie was easy to take down without giving up your location to the masses. Most times you could use a knife to take them down quick and quiet. And on some occasions, you could stroll right past them without harm. If they don’t see you or hear you, they don’t even know you’re there.
But dealing with zombies in packs were a different story. When they ganged up and worked as a unit, nothing could stop them. You could fire as many bullets as your gun holds, but they’ll still keep coming. And this ain’t the movies, so you’re guaranteed to miss at least a shot or two. Eventually, when you stop to reload your gun or you get a little too close, the numbers will catch up to you and the zombies will have their fill.
That’s what happened to Rusty Aberdeen. The sight of the pack instantly triggered bad memories for Gerald.
“We can’t take them,” Gerald said. “Not all of them. We’ll die trying.”
“So shouldn’t we be running?” Clark asked.
“They’ll just trail us all the way back to the hospital,” Gerald said. “They’ve got our scent now. We’ll need to slow them down.”
“How do we slow them down?”
Gerald pumped the Mossberg, lowered it, and squeezed the trigger, reducing Clark’s kneecap to splinters.
“Eat hearty,” he said to the zombies, grabbed the bag of supplies, and took off.
He could hear the screams all the way from Route 17. But those screams didn’t last very long.
He felt something pat his shoulder, consoling him. Then he heard the voice. You did the right thing. You did what you had to do to survive. That’s what you’ve always been about. Don’t let it get you down. No regrets.
That voice was Rusty Aberdeen’s.
. . .
When Gerald returned to the hospital sans Clark, he didn’t even get to say a word before Trisha burst into tears. She knew what this meant. And Gerald validated her worst fears when he told Trisha and Patti that Clark didn’t make it. He left out some major details, but made it clear Clark was never to be seen again. No wake, no funeral, no memorial service. Just a memory.
“Where’s Mr. Crosswell?” Kelly asked, rubbing her eyes as Gerald’s voice had stirred her from her nap.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Gerald said, dropping down to one knee to look her in the eye. “Clark didn’t make it. But he wanted you to have this,” he said, removing the laser pointer from his pocket. A tear rolled down Kelly’s cheek as she accepted it.
“What about his gun?” Patricia asked. “The Glock.”
“I had to leave it behind. I couldn’t save him. And I couldn’t go back and get it. Too risky. We were surrounded on all sides. I barely made it out alive myself.”
“And what about supplies? Did you guys find anything?” Patricia felt so guilty asking with Trisha standing mere inches away, but their survival depended on it.
“We found food and water. Not much, but it’s something. And we found a medical supply kit. It’s all in the bag. If you’ll excuse me, it’s been one hell of a day. I need to clear my head. Trisha, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
The truth was Gerald wasn’t sorry. He didn’t feel a thing. Something in his mind had snapped. And he was hearing the voices again. The voices that reminded him of how tired and weak he was. The voices that told him to give it up and throw in the towel.
He wandered down those sterile white corridors, entered the burn ward that was centered in the east wing. It was where he went when he needed to be alone with his thoughts. Patricia never bothered to look for him when he was roaming. And Kelly stayed away from the burn ward at all times.
It brought back unwanted memories of childhood from when a firecracker went off prematurely and burnt her leg. She still had the scars as a reminder.
In the burn ward, he heard a familiar call, and glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Rusty. What brings you down here?”
Just thought I’d drop in and check up on you. See how you’re doing.
“I’ve been better, Rusty.”
I know. I want to thank you for all those times you watched my back and looked out for me. You were my guardian angel since high school.
“No need to thank me,” Gerald said. “That’s what best friends are for.”
Remember us back then? You, me, and Patti; we were inseparable. Best friends. We’d always go on double dates and I’d always be with a different girl, but you’d always be with Patti. Remember when I got kicked out of the movies for throwing my soda at the screen? And Patti told the manager to go fuck himself and then she got kicked out too. She seemed cool back then. But it was all just an act. She was just trying to impress you. Now she’s changed. She’s different.
“I know. I’ve noticed the changes in her. She could use a little attitude adjustment. This past year all she’s done is fault me, doubt me, look down on me. She never gives me any credit. She does talk to me or open up anymore. We haven’t fucked in ages. And even when we do fuck, it’s like she feels nothing. It’s like she’s just going through the motions.”
She’s a hard woman to satisfy, in more ways than one. This isn’t high school anymore. You don’t impress her. She doesn’t think you’re cool. She loathes you. And a change of heart won’t make her feel any different. You can’t change her opinions of you. No matter how much you change, no matter how hard you try.
“I loved her. I still do. That bitch…she doesn’t know how good she had it. Hell, she wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me. These past five years, I’ve led the way. I’ve kept us alive. And what do I get for it? Nothing. Not even a thank you. That ungrateful bitch.”
Indeed she is. But she’s also tired, in a weakened state. And by the looks of it, so are you.
“I am tired and weak. Every day is a struggle to survive, to keep it together. I don’t know how much longer I can hold on, Rusty. I feel like I’m losing it half the time. And now, with Patti acting all weird on me, doubting me, I don’t know…I don’t think I can keep this up.”
So why not call it a day? You’ve done more than your share. You’ve gone as far as you can go. There’s no cure. No backup plan. The planet is doomed. But you can still save Patricia and Kelly. You can stop them from turning into one of those drooling, mindless freaks. You know what has to be done, Gerry.
“I can’t! That’s my wife! My daughter!”
Trust me, they’re better off. You’re all better off. It’s so peaceful on the other side. You should be here with me. All of you should be here. There’s no fear. No dread. Only serenity.
“I can’t do it…I won’t. I mean, I thought about it in the past. Killing them and then myself. Sparing them this awful life. But I just can’t do it.”
Sure you can. It’ll be easy. That Mossberg will put them down with a single shot. They’ll never know what hit them. It’ll be quick, almost painless.
“I can’t…I’m sorry…I just can’t do it. Patti may be a bitch. But she’s still my wife. And Kelly is an innocent victim in our marital squabble. She doesn’t deserve this.”
Patti, she’s been thinking about leaving you. She thinks you’re unstable. She thinks you’re incompetent. That you can’t protect and defend her and Kelly. Kill that bitch now while you have the chance. Show her what you’re really capable of.
“Is that so?”
It’s true. She’s going to take Kelly and abandon you. Worse, she’ll kill you in your sleep. She might be afraid of you coming after them. If you’re dead, you won’t be a threat to them. Take the bullets out of her gun and kill her when she lets her guard down. Don’t let her win, Gerry.
“You know, you’re right. Heh, you always did know what to say, Rusty.”
Hey, that’s what best friends are for.
“Ok, I’ll do it. I’ll put them out of their misery.”
. . .
Gerald waited for dark. As he entered the west wing, he could Patti and Trisha’s muted conversation from down the hall. Kelly was sleeping in a nearby room. Gerald saw the glow of the flickering candle as he walked down the hall quietly, barely lifting his feet off the ground. He poked his head in the first room, saw the burning candle placed in a holder beside the adjustable bed. Kelly was all curled up, a blanket draped over her thin body.
Gerald walked past the door and poked his head into the next room. Patricia and Trisha sat by candlelight and talked quietly, Patricia still consoling her over the loss of Clark. The hallway was pitch black and candles aside, the room was so shadowy that they never saw Gerald approach.
He racked the Mossberg and Patricia jumped at the sound. Trisha was the first to let her instincts take over. She reached for the Snub .38 that Patricia had given back to her, cocked the hammer, and squeezed the trigger.
But the gun didn’t kick. No bullets propelled from the barrel. All she heard was the click sound a gun makes when it’s empty.
“Something wrong?” Gerald asked, one eyebrow arched. “Could it possibly be that someone removed the bullets from your gun while you were napping earlier?”
He raised the Mossberg, pulled the trigger, and Trisha went flying back into the wall and slumped to the floor, her body leaving two thin streaks of blood down the wall that looked like red pavement markings.
He pumped the shotgun again. Patricia had her 9mm pistol on her, but she didn’t know if Gerald had removed the bullets too. Not taking any chances, she used the next best thing. She clocked him with a bedpan.
Kelly woke after the first shot and stumbled in to see what was going on. She saw her unconscious father sprawled out on the floor and Trisha’s dead body propped against the wall.
“What’s going on?” she asked, shaking. Kelly had seen worse. She had witnessed everything the zombies were capable of. But the sight of Trisha, her chest ripped open from the shotgun blast, the blood splattered across the wall–it scarred her.
“Kelly, listen to me, I need you to go and hide. Whatever you hear, you don’t come out until I tell you to. Got it?”
“Where do I hide?”
“The burn ward.”
“But that’s daddy’s special place.”
“I know. But he won’t look for you there. He knows how you feel about the burn ward. You’ll be safe there until this is over.”
“Until what’s over?”
Gerald rolled to his side and groaned, starting to come around.
“JUST GO!” Patricia shouted and Kelly took off running.
Patricia checked her pistol. No bullets. Gerald had gotten to her gun as well. She frantically searched her pockets, looking for a spare clip. Gerald rubbed the lump that had started to form on his head and sat up.
Patricia gasped and dropped her unloaded pistol. She saw him eyeing the shotgun and made a move. But Gerald was closer and got his hands around it first. He pumped the gun and fired it at an empty doorway, as Patricia was already halfway down the hall.
She started running towards the east wing, unarmed and unaware of her next move. She couldn’t retreat and leave her own child behind. Then it dawned on her where she was. A hospital. Plenty of sharp objects or surgical tools to defend herself. She just had to remain vigilant and take Gerald when he least expected it.
She darted into the ER, where she had her pick. Bone saws and abdominal retractors and scalpels. But Patricia wasn’t looking for a heavy instrument or anything like a drill or a saw that would make noise and give her position away. So she figured a scalpel would suit her needs just fine.
“PATTI!” Gerald’s voice wailed through the halls. Outside the room, Patricia could hear him approaching fast and took off running again. Her new plan was to lead her husband around in a circle, away from Kelly and back towards the west wing, where she could sneak up on him with the scalpel and surprise him when he least expected it.
But she had a dead end as she turned down the next corridor and saw there was only one way to go: The burn ward.
She turned around and was going to try and head back in the other direction. But it was already too late. She could hear Gerald stomping through the hall, screaming her name. She entered the burn ward and Gerald followed.
As soon as he stepped through the doors, she slashed him with the scalpel, slicing open his forearm. He winced in pain and gritted his teeth, but the Mossberg was still in his hands. He refused to let go.
She slashed again, aiming for the throat. But he stumbled back and the sharp blade caught his chest instead, producing another deep gash that oozed dark blood.
Unable to fire at such a close range, Gerald struck her with the butt of the gun, causing her to fall back. The scalpel fell from her hand and blood trickled down her nostrils. She reached for her weapon, but Gerald stepped forward, pressing one boot down on her hand and causing her to yelp.
“KELLY! COME OUT WHEREVER YOU ARE! WE’RE HAVING A FAMILY MEETING!”
Gerald racked the shotgun and pointed it at Patricia’s head. Kelly, who was hiding under a gurney, her body hidden by the draped sheet, popped out. She screamed to grab her father’s attention. As he glanced over, she flashed the laser pointer in his eyes. It wasn’t strong enough to blind him, but it was disorienting and distracted him just long enough for Patricia to snatch the scalpel and slash Gerald’s tendon. She grabbed the Mossberg the second it hit the floor and told Kelly, “Get out of here. I don’t want you to see this. This isn’t for a child’s eyes.”
Kelly exited the burn ward and started counting silently as she walked. She made it up to thirty-eight before she heard the echo of the shotgun. It took her mother less than a minute to pull the trigger.
They had moved on from the hospital. Nothing remained there but unwanted memories. They walked during the day and slept in a tent at night. On colder nights, they would make a fire and Kelly would entertain her mom with stories she had memorized from her comic books.
Patricia started carrying the Mossberg when Gerald was gone. With no use for the 9mm pistol, she passed it off to Kelly to keep permanently. Gerald had taught them how to shoot and one day, when they came across their first zombie in weeks, Patricia let Kelly put her skills and her pistol to the test.
She raised the gun, held it tight with both hands, aimed steady, and squeezed the trigger with her index finger. The bullet propelled from the barrel and split its head down the middle.
Kelly kneeled beside it. It was the first time in five years she had really seen one up close, actually studied it. The stench hardly fazed her at this point. What fazed her was its charcoaled flesh, its lack of pupils, the exposed tendons and muscle and sinew. What truly frightened her was ending up like this. Some days she really pondered if they would’ve been better off dead.
“How will we live?” Kelly asked her mom that day. “How will we survive?”
“We’ll find a way. We always have, we always will. What did Mr. Croswell say to you about Superman’s shield?”
“He said it was a kryptonian symbol for hope.”
“Right,” Patricia said. “If Superman were here, would he give up hope?”
“Superman isn’t real, mom.”
“Just answer the question.”
“No, I suppose he wouldn’t.”
“Then neither are we. From now on, think of me as Superman’s shield. I’m going to protect and be your symbol of hope. Are you with me?” Patricia smiled. Her first genuine smile in weeks, months.
Kelly smiled back. “I’m with you, mom.”
“Hey, call me Patti. You’re old enough.”