The wood crackled and shifted in the brick fireplace. Lexx leaned forward and placed another log into the slowly dying fire. It quickly caught flame and the fire grew. Before reclining back into his spot against the couch, he pulled a small sliver from the fire and held the burning tip to his newly found cigar. He puffed patiently, allowing the tobacco to light. A sweet smelling smoke filled the room, but no one seemed to mind. The man grinned his boyish-grin and sat back into his spot next to Tori on the carpet.
Josh lay adjacent to them in the love seat; his feet pointed towards the warmth of the fireplace. His eyes were shut, most likely resting, not sleeping. Every now and again, his toes would wiggle, almost to acknowledge he was still awake.
Jeremy found himself in the well-broken-in recliner. With his feet popped up, (also in the direction of the fire), he was doing his best to fight off the sleep which tried to overtake him, even though he needed it.
They all needed it.
Everyone was exhausted. It could be seen on each one of their faces. The events of the past few days had been physically wearing, and just as emotionally tiresome. After leaving Savannah and the trials that they faced there, the road to Josh’s family did not seem any easier. Three times already they have had to find an alternate route due to road blocks. Once, they actually found themselves on I-16 which should have been clogged with fleeing traffic, but due to a massive pile-up, was mostly empty past Effingham County.
And then there were the dead. Their numbers weren’t swollen like in the city, but the small groups that banded together out in the country could be just as frustrating. They did seem to group together. Josh was convinced that the undead didn’t “communicate” in a normal sense, but when one moaned, the others heard it and moved in that direction. He was afraid of them grouping in large numbers, like at the grocery store and the day he rescued the others.
But despite all this, despite that they were probably still a day’s journey from his family, everyone was in good spirits. The house they were currently in was a God-send. It was tucked out of the way, away from the roads and neighboring homes. And best of all, it was left almost entirely intact. Whoever lived here, left everything and split. There was the possibility that they never came home, but no one ever brought that up.
“This is a good-ass cigar,” Lexx said, breaking the peaceful silence.
“Ass-cigar? That sounds-”
“Haha, you are so funny,” Lexx interrupted, not amused by Jeremy’s clever word play.
Jeremy’s smile faded.
“Ben would have liked that joke.”
The room was silent again, but not so much in a restful way, but a painful one.
“I would have liked to have met him,” Josh said, eyes still closed. “From the way y’all have talked about him, he seemed like a great guy.”
“He was,” Tori said.
Jeremy tried not to think about Ben, to which he immediately felt somewhat guilty for trying to do. He did want to remember him, but it was still hard. The two men had formed a friendship against the backdrop of the end of the world. Jeremy was just glad that the Lumberjack got what he deserved for killing Ben.
It was ironic that, it was Ben who continued to vouch for LJ, and in the end, was killed by the monster the man turned into. Jeremy was not sure why LJ turned the way he did, and when they asked Josh about it, he did not have any zombie knowledge to enlighten them with.
“So, Josh,” Lexx started. “I still haven’t heard how you ended up being in the right place at the right time. I didn’t have the pleasure of riding in the cab of the truck.”
Josh’s eyes opened, staring up at the ceiling.
“Yes, I would like to know as well,” Tori added.
“I was almost asleep,” he said.
“C’mon man. Tell us and then we’ll turn in,” Lexx insisted.
Josh sat up in his seat and spun his feet around to the ground. He rubbed his face a few times, scratching at the stubble on his chin.
“Okay, but me and Jeremy get the kid’s room.”
“Deal,” Tori answered before even consulting Lexx.
“Yeah, that’s fine, I guess. Not like we’ll be sleeping much anyway,” he said, playfully elbowing Tori in her ribs. She pushed him away, but couldn’t hide the small smile on her face.
“Jeez guys, you’re gonna have to give it a rest. We’d be there already if you two weren’t always sneaking off,” Jeremy said.
“I can’t help that she finds me irresistible.”
“Oh yeah, that’s it,” Tori interjected.
Josh cleared his throat.
“So, I’m going to start telling my story now. I’m sleepy, so let’s get this over with.”
Everyone settled down. Tori and Lexx moved from the floor to the couch; Jeremy brought the seat up, but left the footrest out for optimal foot warming from the fire. Lexx reached over, grabbed the blanket sitting on the arm of the couch and then to proceeded to cover himself and Tori. She snuggled into his side.
“Please begin,” Lexx said to Josh, with his hand held out.
“Work sent me down to Brunswick late in the afternoon last Thursday. We were finishing a job down there, a high school, and had to get a whole bunch of our ladders and tools out of the building. It was this whole last minute “fiasco” (he uses “air-quotes”), and the stuff had to be out of the school by that night. So, I got the pleasure of driving south and picking everything up.
I left our shop- Can I just say something real quick? I think it’s crazy how the warehouse that y’all met in and spent your first night together, is the same place I work. I mean, what are those odds? That you would stay there and then later, when all hope seems lost, who shows up? Just a guy driving a truck from the same exact place! Anyways, just thought I’d say that.
So, I left the shop sometime around two, I think? Yeah, it was around two, because I remember thinking about how Brunswick is an hour away, and that meant two hours of travel time and however long it would take to load everything on the truck. And it was so hot that day. So freaking hot.
I get down to the job site around three. Everything was still normal then. A couple of the guys met me outside the school and informed me that they were still hunting down ladders within the building. Tools have a great way of disappearing on construction sites, but I digress.
It takes us an hour to track down the last five remaining ladders. The school was massive, this two-story deal, with a huge courtyard in the middle of it. Everything there was state of the art. Real top-notch kind of place. Kids would have been lucky to have gone there if they ever got the chance. But now they won’t. At least for now.
As we finished loading the last few ladders onto my truck, Johnny, one of our guys, was telling me how a few of the other workers around the school had been acting strange all day. Word was that some kind of stomach bug was going around.
Great, I thought. That’s all I need is to get sick and bring it home to my wife.
I was fixing to crank up the truck and leave, when we heard the first of the screams. They came from the front side of the building. The three of us ran towards the commotion; I left the keys dangling in the ignition. I quickly passed both of them. Both were chain-smokers and both were having trouble catching their breath. What they were about to see, would not help.
I got there first and knew instantly what was going on. When I saw the four bodies hunched over the kicking and screaming man, I knew exactly what I was looking at. There was no question in my mind.
But, even though I knew what was happening, my body wouldn’t react. I remember standing there, frozen to the ground; my brain racing to process this new information. I screamed within my skull, yelling at myself to move, to act somehow.
Johnny and Larry finally arrived next to me. Johnny was keeled over, trying to catch his breath. I seemed to snap out of my daze when they showed up. Larry’s jaw hung open. He went to move forward, to try and help the attacked man, but I held him back. There was nothing we could do for him now. I’ll spare you the details, because I’m sure you’re aware of the gore these monsters are capable of inflicting. Even if we did get him away from the feeding, there was no way the three of us blue-collar boys would know how to put everything back in him, in the right places.
The four zombies were a mixed bag of characters. One construction worker, complete with reflective vest and hardhat. One college kid from the neighboring local university across the street. A guy in business suit and one soccer mom. Of the four, she looked the most fresh, but I would still have classified them as the ‘slower’ ones.
She noticed us first. Forgetting about the meal in front of her, she slowly stood up, meat hanging from her mouth, and began shambling in our direction. I think my co-workers were still confused at the time as to what was really going on. Larry moved forward again, and for the second time, I held him back.
‘We have to help her,’ Larry said.
‘Help her? She just fuckin’ ate that guy,’ Johnny hissed.
The other zombies were beginning to notice us as well.
‘There’s nothing we can do for her now, Larry,’ I said. ‘We have to go. It’s not safe to stay here.’
He looked at me like I was insane. His shoulder jerked out of my hand as he made his way towards the dead woman. Her arms reached out to him, welcoming his approach. I motioned to Johnny for us to leave. He hesitated a moment, but nodded, and we turned to run.
We heard Larry’s screams as we got back to the truck.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ Johnny said as we both climbed into the cab of the truck.
I looked around. More corpses were wandering onto the jobsite. How there were that many, so quick, I don’t understand. It was almost like a switch was flipped and they came off an assembly line.
I remember trying to calm Johnny down and trying my best to explain what was going on. I could tell he did not want to believe me at first, but the rotting evidence walking around outside was enough to get him to listen to me.
We made the plan to go to his house first. He lived right outside of Brunswick, so it wasn’t far. I knew I had to get to my family back in Savannah, but between my brother-in-law and father-in-law, I knew they would get out of the city safely. My plan was to get Johnny set at his place and then go north from there. At the time, I didn’t know it would take me several days to get back home.
I spent that first night at Johnny’s place, helping him set up some defenses. His plan was to hunker down and ride this thing out. And for him that was a great plan. He had mountains of those military meal-ready-to-eat’s, guns galore, and a great location. His home was situated deep within the woods and far enough away from the general population. In the whole time I’ve known Johnny, I never would have known he was a doomsday prepper.
I left early that next morning. He offered for me to take some MRE’s for the road, so I took several. Those things are definitely designed for essential nutrition, not taste! (He chuckles to himself.) The military’s take on mashed potatoes was indeed questionable. I thanked him and wished him luck before I drove off.
Interstate 95 was out of the question. From the exit ramp, I could see it was completely clogged with cars and chaos. I knew I would be taking back roads, but which ones I was unsure. Normally, I would carry a map of Georgia with me. Despite my driving all over the state for my company, they seemed to think that directions scribbled down on a yellow piece of paper were far more superior to a GPS system. I got lost one time too many, so I finally broke down and bought a good old-fashioned folding map. Never got lost again.
Highway 17 would have been my next best choice of getting home as quickly as possible. And it would have been, if I didn’t keep running into roadblocks of all freaking kinds. Car wrecks were the worst. Some I was able to get by, thanks to the new brush-guard my company bought for the truck. Others on the other hand required some extensive backtracking and huge losses of time. I eventually had to stop for the night. I didn’t want to risk anything in the dark. Being out in the country, the only light I had was the moon, the stars, and the headlights of the truck.
Long story short, I found an old, abandoned barn to sleep in. I didn’t want to sleep in the truck, running the chance of getting surrounded and trapped. My cell phone didn’t have any reception, and I don’t think it was because I was in the middle of nowhere. I had the sneaky suspicion that no cell phones had reception. Anywhere.
The next morning, I woke up and made my way down to the truck. I was stopped when I saw one lone zombie wandering between the truck and myself. It was a little boy, maybe ten years old. He wore a Buzz Lightyear t-shirt and stained matching pajama pants. His skin was their trademark pale, his eyes sunken and dark. Small bits of blood gathered around his lips.
I wished Johnny would have offered me one of his guns, a pistol at least, but the only thing I had for a weapon was the steel pipe I kept on the truck. It was about a foot and a half long, with a ninety-degree elbow on the end. I kept it on the truck, just in case I ever got into any trouble and needed some physical reinforcement.
The boy saw me and began to shamble in my direction. Zombie children are not really something you see a lot of in zombie video games or movies. And I understand why now.
They’re hard to look at.
His gait was uneven as he hobbled over to me, his little jaw clamping open and shut. He held up his arms, fingers curled, reaching for me. I knew what I had to do; I just didn’t want to.
I swung the pipe, the steel elbow connecting with the boy’s temple. His skull quickly shattered and his body fell limp onto the ground in front of me, thick, red blood oozing from the gaping wound in his head. I stood there in silence for a moment, not sure what to do with myself. The boy was in between the ages of my niece and nephew. My desire to get home grew exponentially.
I would pull into the Savannah area later that night. My wife’s sister and her family lived outside of Savannah in Port Wentworth. It took some time avoiding the city, but I finally made it to their house around ten. The place was a mess when I got there. A pile of bodies in the living room, the front door broken in, everything missing from the cabinets, and a trail of blood leading away from the pantry to outside. At first, I was really worried, but quickly relaxed a little. All the food was missing. It took me a minute to realize that meant they were alive. Scavengers wouldn’t have taken everything. Pots, pans, and all the other cooking utensils were gone too. No, my family made it out alive.
I was still concerned with all the blood though. Obviously, the bodies in the living room were zombies who had broken in the front door. As I pulled them back outside, I took note of the bullet holes in each one’s forehead. No doubt, my brother-in-law’s doing. The last one I went to pull out didn’t have a bullet wound in the head, no, its face was smashed in completely.
I spent some time securing the front and back doors as best as I could, before I walked around and inspected the house. Like I said, the kitchen was empty. I guess they didn’t think I’d want a snack. Luckily, I still had one MRE left. After finishing that off, I went to check the rest of the house. The master bedroom was a mess, but to be honest, that was somewhat normal. I walked into the adjoining bathroom.”
Josh pauses for a second before continuing his story.
“There was a note written to me on the mirror. It was written by my wife informing me that they were gone to the cabin. The cabin is an old farmhouse that we restored out past Statesboro. It’s our little vacation spot. I had feeling they would be there, but knew I should check Savannah first before heading out west, just in case they didn’t make it out. But seeing her handwriting on the mirror was just further evidence that they had escaped.
She also left me the combination to the gun safe as well. I was relieved that although they didn’t leave me anything to eat, they had at least thought to leave me a weapon. Upon opening the safe, I found out that wasn’t entirely the case.
Sitting inside the safe was a single six-shot, snub-nosed revolver. And one bullet. One. A note written on a post-it, in my brother-in-law’s handwriting, read, ‘just in case.’
Just in case? It took me a second to understand what it meant. It was a way out. Not that I would use it now, but if I ever got trapped and the only way out was to become a walking corpse, this would give me an alternative. It made me smile, because they knew that I would make it to them alive. They knew there was no way I would let it come to that. And they were right.
I slept like a baby that night.
I woke up the next morning ready to get to my family. As I passed my niece and nephew’s bedrooms upstairs, I stopped and remembered the two of them and how much they meant to me and my wife. We loved those kids like our own. CJ was thirteen now and just growing into this awesome guy. He was huge for his age, as tall as me and his father, maybe even taller. The boy was solid too. He had played football since me and his aunt started dating.
But the kid had character too. He was light years ahead of his friends in maturity. He was respectful and a hard worker. While most kids his age were playing video games, he was restoring a Chevrolet Chevelle with his father so he would have a car when he was sixteen. Crazy, right? You know what I was doing at thirteen? Trying to figure out how to catch all the Pokémon!”
Everyone laughed, except for Lexx, who mouthed to Tori, ‘What’s a Pokémon?’
“Hailey,” Josh continued. “Hailey was just as much fun. She was eight going on nine and talked nonstop. She had grown into that age where everything she thought, was also broadcasted to the world. It could grow old real quick, but I would have given anything then to hear her little voice.
As I took one final look at her room, before passing on, I noticed that all her stuffed animals were still sitting on her bed. I guess Chris didn’t let her take any, to save room in the vehicles for important things. I walked into her room and grabbed the green frog I had seen her with numerous times. I smiled and went downstairs.
After retrieving the revolver from the gun safe, I had left it there the night before; I made my way to the back door. The blood leading out from the pantry began to worry me. Why would there have been a bloody something in the pantry? It was empty now, so whatever it was, was long gone. I shook it off and readied myself for what could be waiting for me outside.
I opened the back door and there were three zombies in between me and the truck. Two of them I didn’t recognize, but one I did. It was Susan Powers, whom the kids lovingly called, “Ms. P.” She was missing chunks of flesh from her right arm and neck. She was wearing a half-open bathrobe and pink house slippers. Her eyes were the same dead black just like all the others, any trace of who the woman was before long gone. The three of them smelled me and fumbled their way up the steep driveway.
I clutched the steel pipe tightly as I ran towards them. I swung the pipe connecting with the first one’s forehead, a mist of red spraying me in the face. I pulled the elbow out of its skull and swung again, bringing the pipe across the second one’s face. It too caved in, leaving me and Ms. P.
She wasn’t the least bit concerned with her fallen friends’ demises, but continued her small uncoordinated steps towards me. No remorse, no concern except to feed. I put her down quickly as well.
More dead were coming into the neighborhood, so I made haste to get into the truck and leave. I pulled out of there quick, as the mass of undead inhabitants poured in. I wasn’t sure if they smelled my fresh meat, or maybe it was the sound of the truck, but they were coming from all over.
I came around a curve on my way out and hit the brakes.”
He pauses again, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes.
“I stopped and… and there she was. She was standing there in the middle of the road, almost as if she was blocking me in. It didn’t take long for me to notice who the short, little, blonde haired, once blue eyed girl was who stood out in front of me. Except her eyes were no longer the vivid blue, but black as starless night. Near her ankle were the remains of dried blood. In the hand of her slack left arm a pink teddy bear was still grasped.
It was my niece.
I remember getting out of the still running truck and walking up to her. She let out a small moan as I neared; my hands trembling. I had left the pipe on the seat of the truck. What was I to do? The fact that she was standing there in front of me, dead, well, all the hope I had of finding my family alive vanished. Her one free arm reached out for her uncle and it took everything in me not to reach out and pull her in and whisper that everything was going to be okay.
I pulled the revolver from the back of my pants, and put my niece to rest.
Josh stopped for a moment; his eyes tightly closed. They finally opened and he stood up and smiled.
“I was sitting in the truck after that when your voice came on the radio. You sounded so scared and like you had no way out. I’m not sure why, but I knew I had to help you.”
“And we are so glad you did,” Tori said.
“We should get some sleep,” he added. “We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. No idea how blocked the roads will be.”
The group all agreed and the four of them stood up, stretched, and went upstairs to the bedrooms after Lexx put out the fire in the fireplace. Josh and Jeremy took the children’s bedroom, each getting their own twin-sized mattress, while Lexx and Tori shared the master bedroom’s queen.
As Jeremy lay in the bed, staring up in the ceiling, his mind wandered in thought. He felt sorry for Josh and the loss of his niece. He knew what it was like to lose someone close. His mother had at least lived a full life. An eight-year-old girl on the other hand, that was a hard thing to accept.
He did his best to push the thoughts from his head and it was not long before he drifted off to sleep.
As the four of them slept, the last whiffs of smoke pirouetted up out of the chimney, out into the now cool night’s air. The scent of the burned wood was carried by the wind to and fro, crossing the path of anything that had the sense of smell, drawing it to the quiet house where Jeremy gave in to exhaustion.
So, what did you think?