“You look like shit. Are you sure you want to go to work today?” I asked my best friend as I helped her carry one of her twins into my house from her car.
Both kids had fallen asleep during the short ride from Kim’s house to mine. We carried the three-year-olds to my back bedroom and put them in the twin toddler bed I had for them for when they stayed with me five days a week while Kim worked.
“I feel worse than I look, but I have to go in,” she said, breathing heavy from the exertion. “We’re still paying for their birth. I have to work until those bills are paid off.”
Her tone of voice didn’t suggest she regretted the decision to have her babies, but I could tell by the look of her she wished she didn’t have the bills so that she could miss work.
I didn’t say anything. I loved the twins with all my heart. I was their Godmother. I’d been their babysitter since they were six months old and Kim had to go back to work, but I had cautioned Kim and Wayne about going into that much debt to have a child.
Conceiving in our world wasn’t easy. Most couples had a single child. Some had two. Very few had three, and almost none had twins, triplets, and the like. Carl and I had been lucky. We hadn’t had any issues having Jerimiah, but we were a rarity. We also hadn’t tried for a second. The average couple spent the first five to ten years of their marriage trying to conceive with the help of countless fertility drugs. I hadn’t wanted to put my body through that and had happily accepted my baby boy. That had been one of the many reasons for Carl and I’s divorce some ten years after Jeremiah’s birth, not that Carl had ever remarried or had another child.
Kim and Wayne had married at twenty, and when they turned thirty and hadn’t had a baby, the government stopped assisting them financially. The couple had to start taking out loans to pay for the shots and meds they took for another five years that eventually led to the birth of Eva and Aiden. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the money they’d borrowed was to help them conceive and for the fact that it had actually paid off in the end, the two would have lost everything they owned. Loan companies and banks eagerly handed them money with low monthly payments that did add up after a while and would take them until the twins were grandparents themselves before they ever paid them back.
I’m not saying it was a waste of money. I’m saying that I don’t know if I would have done it. Kim and Wayne worked so much that they didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the babies they so desperately wanted.
“I don’t know,” I said, leading Kim to my kitchen table and handing her a cup of coffee. “I think your students could do without you for a day.”
I placed the back of my hand on her forehead to feel the fever I knew she had.
“I’m sure they’d love the time off, but the end of the semester exams are coming up, and I still have a lot of ground to cover. They’ll just have to suffer through me.”
I could only shake my head at her.
“Do you want breakfast before you go?” I asked.
“No, this coffee is all I need to wake me.”
We sat and drank. I watched Kim’s skin color leak away, and her energy drain.
“Seriously, Kim, you look like you’re going to collapse,” I said after a while.
“I’ll be all right. I simply have to get through today and tomorrow, and then I’ll have the rest of the week off. I’ve already canceled my Thursday and Friday classes so we can take the twins to Liberty for their yearly checkups,” she said, setting her cup down and getting up to head to the door.
“Okay, well, if you’re still sick and need me to watch the kids overnight, let me know. I can come to your house and watch them if you’d rather do that, too.”
“I might have to take you up on that offer.”
She all but stumbled out of the house and to her car. I really should have taken her keys from her. Had she been drunk, I would have. Instead, as soon as she pulled out of my driveway, I called Wayne.
“She didn’t seem that bad when I left the house, but I’ll call the university in a few minutes to check on her. Many people are out sick here today, so there might be a bug going around. I think I heard some news reports about a flu epidemic on my way in this morning. How are the twins?” he asked.
“Good. Still sleeping. The two usually won’t wake for another hour to an hour and a half. I’ll keep an eye on them though, and let one of you know the second one of them starts to look sickly.”
“Thanks. I have another call coming through. I’ll talk to you later.”
“All right. Bye.”
As I hung up, my brain latched onto what he said about people at his firm being out sick.
“I wonder if the news has anything to say about this,” I said to no one, which was typical for me since most days it was just the twins and me in the house. Carl and I shared custody of Jeremiah, so he was only with me every other week.
I flipped on the television, but before I could find a channel with information on a flu or pneumonia outbreak, Aiden started crying.
My day went along as usual: meals, potty breaks, keeping the babies out of things they didn’t need to get into, reading the two of them stories—that sort of thing.
The kids kept me so busy that I hardly realized when four o’clock rolled around, then five.
If she’s lucky, Kim was able to leave campus by three-thirty or so and had the kids by four. She was never any later than five-thirty. Neither was Wayne considering he got off work at five.
I tried their cell phones first but didn’t get an answer. I called Kim’s office and then the English department’s number. No one answered either line. Next, I called their home phone and then Wayne’s office. Still, no one.
By that point, Eva and Aiden were getting fussy. They wanted their parents and their home. They loved me, no doubt, but I wasn’t their mom. They also knew the routine, knew that by that time of day they were supposed to be home.
I called a few more times with no answer before giving up and making the kids supper, hoping that would calm them down and maybe make them sleepy.
The food and the bath that I gave them shortly afterward did eventually put them to sleep.
Finally, around nine that night, Wayne called. He sounded utterly exhausted.
“Is Kim all right?” was the first thing out of my mouth.
“For now. I had to leave work around one to take her to the emergency room. We haven’t been home long. She’s sick. Throwing up, diarrhea, high fever. The hospital gave her I.V. fluids and some meds, but they think it’s a bad stomach bug and that it’ll be over by tomorrow or Thursday. I’m sorry, I couldn’t call you earlier, but for some reason, I couldn’t get service anywhere in the hospital. I even walked outside once, but I couldn’t get a call through. No one seemed to be able to. Tera, do you mind keeping the kids overnight?”
“No, I don’t mind. They’re asleep anyway. I’ll call you first thing. Keep me posted if anything changes through the night.”
“I will. Thank you for everything.”
As soon as I hung up with Wayne, I called Jeremiah. I talked to my son for nearly two hours; the longest he and I have ever spoken on the phone. He told me about how sick everyone was at his school and about how the news says that the school board was canceling classes for the next day. He informed me of what the internet was saying was happening on Liberty Island and the towns around it.
I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. None of the news channels I’d come across had said a word about people killing each other. They’d talked about a mass sickness, and I’d assumed it was the same sickness Kim had.
When I finally hung up with him, I did a bit of research on my own.
“Holy shit,” I said. Again, to no one. I could do nothing but stare at the images on my computer screen.
Surely, that wasn’t going to happen to Kim. I couldn’t believe that it would happen to anyone period let alone my best friend.
I barely slept that night. The twins were up a few times, but not for long. They weren’t happy about finding themselves still at my house, but they seemed satisfied that they weren’t in unfamiliar surroundings and went back to sleep quickly enough.
The images I saw on the internet coming out of Liberty Island and the surrounding cities had been what kept me awake most of the night. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing them. The logical side of my brain kept telling me that it was all a hoax.
Who was playing the joke and why? I couldn’t figure that part out. No way could what I saw be real. Creatures like that only existed in fiction. They’d fascinated the people of the old world. I’d never understood it. Maybe it was because I was living in the aftermath of a post-apocalyptic world. I’d seen destruction and sickness. I’d heard stories of how people had tried to take advantage of those they saw as weaker than themselves. I’d heard about the murders, the starvation, the rapes, the abuse, the horror that had surfaced. I knew too well what kind of monsters we humans were without laws and structure. I didn’t look forward to suffering in that kind of world.
I was born after the country had started to rebuild, and people had come to their senses again. My family hadn’t forgotten what their ancestors had been through. My family had passed the stories down from generation to generation. I’m sure some people altered or exaggerated the stories over time, but not by much. The stories were horrible enough on their own. They didn’t need anyone making them worse.
As soon as my alarm went off the next morning, I started calling Kim and Wayne. Not once did they answer. The calls went straight to voice mail. That wasn’t like either of them…not when I had their kids.
The twins felt my fear and anxiety when I woke them and began readying them for the day. They were fussy and hard to deal with. They didn’t want to change out of their p.j.s. They didn’t want breakfast. They didn’t want to get into my car even after I told them we were going to find mommy and daddy.
By the time I pulled out of my driveway, I was beyond haggard. No, I wasn’t annoyed with the kids. Well, okay, I was, but it wasn’t as if their mood was their fault. They were feeding off my emotions. My best friend, my sister, was sick. She’d been at the hospital the day before, and now, I couldn’t get on the phone. I had her kids, and she hadn’t called me once since dropping them off at my house yesterday to check on them. That wasn’t right.
Something was wrong. Very wrong. I had to know what it was. I probably shouldn’t have brought the kids with me to find out what that something was, but I didn’t know what else to do with them. Both Kim and Wayne’s family lived about an hour away. I wasn’t wasting time taking the babies to their grandparents until I knew what was going on.
The short drive from my house to Kim’s was unnaturally quiet. No one was on the road. I could hear more cars off in the distance, but I didn’t pass anyone. I didn’t see anyone stepping out to get the morning paper or loading their kids in the car to carry them to school.
Kim’s house looked empty when I pulled into the driveway. I waited in my car for a full minute to see if anyone would come out to greet me, but no one did. I spent another minute trying to decide if I should leave the kids in the car or take them with me. They’d recognized the house when we pulled up, but during my wait for someone to come out, they’d grown bored and fallen asleep. Hoping they stayed that way, I slipped from the car and approached the house.
I used my cell to call Kim’s number, not wanting to knock on the front door. I could hear her phone ringing from inside the house, but no one picked it up. I tapped lightly on the door and called Wayne and Kim’s name. No one answered. I knocked louder. Still nothing.
I refused to bang on the door, so I tried the knob, hoping the door was unlocked. That was my only stroke of luck. I glanced back at the still sleeping babies before entering.
The front door opened into the living room, which was a mess.
“Wayne. Kim,” I called in a tone a bit higher than a whisper.
I was used to no one answering me by then.
I went from the living room to the kitchen, calling for my friends. I heard nothing until I started up the stairs to the bedrooms. A toilet flushing broke the silence.
Someone was home. Why weren’t the two answering me, though?
I bounded up the steps and to the hall bathroom. The door was partially open. Kim was kneeling in front of the toilet. Her cheek lay on the seat. She looked awful.
I started to go to her, but Wayne came out of their bedroom, holding a shirt.
“Tera? What are you doing here?” he asked. He looked and sounded as if he hadn’t slept in days. He also looked as if he had a touch of the bug that Kim had. He had on sweats and a t-shirt that was sticking to him.
“I came to check on you guys. I’ve been calling you all morning.”
“Morning? It’s morning already?”
“Where are the twins?”
“In the car. I’ll take them back home with me until you two start feeling better,” I said.
“I want my babies,” Kim called from the bathroom.
I turned to see that she’d gotten up from the toilet and was trying to make her way toward us.
“You guys are sick,” I said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. If they catch this too, you won’t be able to care for them and yourselves.”
“I feel okay,” Wayne said. “I’ll take care of them. Go ahead and bring them inside. Kim’s almost past the twenty-four-hour mark with her bug anyway. She’ll be feeling better any time now.”
“I don’t mind keeping them a little bit longer,” I said, taking a few steps toward the stairs. “Just until we know you won’t make them sick.”
“They’re my babies,” Kim said, stumbling out of the bathroom. “Not yours. Mine.”
“I know that.”
“Then give them to me.”
“Kim,” was all I could say. She wasn’t behaving like herself. My closest friend would never jeopardize her kids’ health, which was why they stayed with me and not at the daycare the university provided. She sends them to stay with her parents any time one of them even thinks they were getting the sniffles. I looked to Wayne for help, but he’d disappeared into the bathroom, and I could hear retching sounds coming from the open door.
“I. Want. My. Babies,” Kim said, coming closer, not at all phased by her husband’s vomiting.
“You’re okay with them catching this virus? Both of you are obviously running a fever.”
She wouldn’t be talking to me this way if she weren’t.
“You’re both throwing up,” I added. “Whatever you have appears to be highly contagious. I don’t think you’re thinking clearly.”
“I’m thinking just fine,” she snarled. “Bring my kids to me.”
“Bring them inside, Tera. We’ll take care of them,” he said from the bathroom.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Wayne, have you seen the news reports from Liberty Island? Do you know…”
“I have a good idea of what’s going on there, yes,” he said, coming out of the bathroom while wiping his mouth with the clean shirt I’d assumed he’d been taking to Kim.
“Go get my kids,” he said.
I headed down the stairs. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I left the house and went to the car. I was standing at the back, driver’s side door, trying to decide if I should drive away with the twins or not when I heard a shotgun cock behind me.
I didn’t turn around.
Wayne went to the other side of the car and got Aiden out of the car seat. I tried protesting. I tried pleading. I tried asking if I could stay to help care for the babies until they were better, but my best friend, who held a gun to my head, was having none of it. I don’t know if the virus made people crazy before killing them and turning them into zombies or if the fever she’d ran burned so hot that it fried her brain, but she’d snapped. She wanted her kids, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
Except try to call the police and department of human resources once I pulled out of her driveway. I didn’t get anyone at either location.
All through my short drive home, I cursed myself for letting Kim and Wayne take the kids. I don’t know what I could’ve done to stop them. The twins were theirs, after all. Yeah, Kim was acting a bit crazy, but an outsider would’ve seen a mother protecting her children from a potential kidnapper. The authorities would’ve probably seen the situation the same way had I been able to contact them.
I felt that I should’ve been able to do something, though.
“Son-of-a…” I screamed and slammed on my brakes. I was so caught up in my thoughts over Kim and trying to call someone who could check on the kids that I wasn’t paying attention to the road.
There’s a reason they tell you not to be on your phone while driving, Tera, I mentally chided myself.
“Fuck,” I said, trying to catch my breath.
The route from my house to Kim’s was short. Three minutes…tops. We lived on opposite ends of the same neighborhood, so I didn’t have to pull onto any major roads. I’d driven it so many times, that I could do it in my sleep. That wasn’t a good thing. When something becomes too habitual, autopilot kicks in, you stop paying attention, and accidents happen.
Accidents like nearly squishing the six-year-old that had run out in front of your car.
I threw my phone into the passenger seat, put my hand to my chest as if that would slow my heart, and tried to steady my breathing.
The kid merely stared at me. He didn’t scream. He didn’t cry. He didn’t move.
My left hand instinctively went to the door handle when I thought I was under enough control to walk while my right reached to turn off my car, but my brain screamed for them both to stop. Something wasn’t right with the situation.
Something wasn’t right with the kid.
I forced my attention entirely on the child and nothing else. That’s when I noticed his eyes were milky, red juice stained his mouth and the front of his shirt, and he held something in his hands that wasn’t a toy.
The two of us continued to stare at each other. Both trying to figure out what the other was. After a long moment, the boy cocked his head to the side as if listening for something. I inched my window down to see if I could hear what he had. The morning was silent, at first, and then a scream broke the quiet. I quickly rolled up my window and looked back at the boy. He looked at me for a brief second before taking off in the direction the scream had come from, dragging an adult male leg behind him.
I nearly threw up in my lap.
That hadn’t been red juice on his mouth. I knew it hadn’t been but hadn’t wanted to believe.
The stories from Liberty were true.
“My God,” I screamed.
My thoughts turned to my son as I calmed. Jeremiah was out in the world somewhere with people turning into those creatures. Sure, he was with his father, who loved him as much as I did and who would do anything to keep him safe, but I needed to be with him as well. I needed to know he was alive.
Carl lived twenty minutes away in Bridgeton, so Jeremiah could continue to go to the same school he always had, and he could see either of us whenever he wanted, or we could get to him quickly enough if an emergency arose.
I hadn’t spoken to my son since the night before, but all through the short drive to his father’s house, I alternated between calling his cell phone and his dad’s. Only on rare occasions did the call go through, but when it did, it merely rang.
Jeremiah had sounded fine during our conversation. He said his dad was doing well also. Neither was sick or even hinted at getting sick. He did say that Bridgeton was talking about quarantine, but Jeremiah wasn’t sure what that would entail, and his dad didn’t think things would get that bad, so I hadn’t panicked and demanded he come home.
Many of the state’s elite lived in Bridgeton, so in a disaster, the town was one of the first to receive aid, military help, or be evacuated. Therefore, the area did go on lockdown often for no real reason, though.
“Surely, the military wouldn’t keep me away from my son,” I said, as I came upon the exit to Bridgeton.
Who was I kidding? Of course, they would. If the officials had quarantined the city, no one would be getting in or out.
When I turned off the exit, I didn’t run into a roadblock. I drove slowly across the town border, waiting to see lights flashing in a signal for me to stop, but I saw nothing.
I looked at the clock on my dashboard. My time at Kim’s hadn’t taken long, though it felt like a lifetime ago, so it was only midday. Someone should’ve been on the road inside the city, but Bridgeton was as quiet as Littleton was. Everywhere seemed to be too quiet. I thought apocalypses were supposed to be loud: full of gunshots, screaming, sirens, and that sort of thing.
Our towns were small, and that might explain the quiet, but still, I should have seen police patrolling, ambulances carrying bodies, something. I’m sure if I looked harder in windows and storefronts, I would’ve seen the horror that lay beyond the stillness, but I focused on getting to my son.
I knew the second I pulled onto Carl’s street that my ex-husband and son weren’t home. Carl’s vehicle wasn’t in the driveway. I swore loudly. I highly doubted that Carl had taken Jeremiah to school and then gone to work. I remembered Jeremiah specifically telling me that school was out today and probably tomorrow due to the bug.
“Carl could’ve gone into work though,” I told myself.
I didn’t believe he would have left our son home alone with what was going on, but it was possible. For all his faults as a husband, Carl was a great dad, so I couldn’t see it happening, but at that moment, I prayed for it to be so.
I pulled into the drive, half-expecting Jeremiah to come running out the front door. Of course, he didn’t.
I exited slowly and approached the front door wishing I had a weapon. I didn’t think I could kill my son, but I knew I could anyone who might be hurting him. Getting a gun or some sort of weapon was next on my list.
I didn’t knock. I went immediately for the doorknob. It didn’t turn. I didn’t have a key to Carl’s house. I should’ve asked for one, but until that moment, I’d never needed it.
I listened at the door for a few seconds, and when I didn’t hear movement, I turned and went around to the side door via the open carport. That door was unlocked.
Once I was inside the house, I wanted to scream my son’s name, but I refrained. I hadn’t seen a single soul since turning onto the highway, and I wasn’t going to take the chance of bringing a horde of those creatures down on me when I hoped I was mere seconds from finding my child.
A quick sweep of the house told me it was empty. A missing duffle bag and some favorite items of clothing from Jeremiah’s room suggested that they’d left. Carl and I divorced nearly five years ago, so I didn’t know him well enough anymore to know if anything was missing from his room, but I was sure it was.
I flipped on their television to see if the news anchor could give me a clue as to where the two might have gone, but all I got was static. My phone couldn’t get reception to make calls or connect to the internet. It was as if I was standing in a dead zone. We had more of those areas than we liked in our new world, but rarely inside the city limits.
The lack of a signal explained why Jeremiah hadn’t called to tell me they were leaving.
No dirty dishes in the sink suggested that they might have left in the night. That scared me. The knife rack on the counter housed several sharp knives, and I grabbed one. I didn’t think Carl owned a gun, and if he did, I wouldn’t know where he kept it, so the knife would have to do for protection for the time being.
I searched through the house one last time in case I missed something in my first hasty go round, and I had. On Jeremiah’s desk was a note to me, telling me that the police had shown up at their door and ordered them to evacuate to the nearest school. I snatched the letter with the address and directions to the school on it and rushed out of the house.
I didn’t pay attention to my surroundings as I ran to my car. I got lucky that nothing jumped out at me, but I had to be more cautious in the future.
The school was five minutes away. My heart exploded with joy at the sight of the cars parked in the lots surrounding the building. The elation died quickly when I realized that I didn’t see a soul moving around inside or outside of it. If the police or military were guarding it, then there should have been patrols and armored personnel stopping me from pulling into the first available space and rushing to the main double doors.
The only thing that greeted me was the smell of death when I pushed opened the glass door. It hit me like a physical blow, knocking me back a few steps and causing me to dry heave.
Horror rushed over me when I could breathe again. There were dead bodies inside the school. By the looks of the cars in the lot, most of the town was at the school. From the smell seeping through the crack in the door, there were dead bodies in there.
Jeremiah couldn’t be one of them. He just couldn’t be.
I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my nose and mouth only tight enough to block the smell.
I entered the building. All of the rooms except the gym and cafeteria were empty. They’d been full of people recently, but no one alive remained.
Bodies lined nearly every inch of available space in the gym and cafeteria. From the condition most of them were in, I could tell that a horrific battle had gone down at the school. The majority of the bodies were mutilated to the point that with many, I wasn’t sure if they were male or female or if they had ever been human. I couldn’t say for a fact that my Jeremiah wasn’t one of them, but after searching each body twice, I felt comfortable in believing he and Carl weren’t one of the dead.
In the principal’s office, I found notes on the evacuation. The school was supposed to hold most of the town for two days before the military was to take the residents to a base called Fort Hamner about two hours south of Bridgeton. Despite their careful screening, though, the sick had made it into the school. They had to quickly turn around and load the healthy onto the school buses and send them to the base.
I grabbed all the paperwork I could, not thinking about the next person that might come along looking for family and would need to know where to look next. Jeremiah was the only thing my brain could focus on at that moment.
A gas station about a block and a half from the school was open, and the owner was surprisingly not price gouging. The man was standing at the door behind a sign that read: Credit Card Only. Lobby Closed. I understood the meaning. He’d left the pumps on, and if you had a card and the reader worked, you could get gas, but that was as far as he was going to help anyone. The arsenal of weapons I could see through the glass were deterrents to looters or anyone in the mood to argue.
My luck held, and the reader worked. I filled my tank and the two-gallon container I had in the back of my vehicle for my lawnmower. Once I’d finished, I pulled around to the front door again and got out. The owner stiffened and showed me his gun. I nodded to let him know I saw it. I then held up a wad of cash that I’d already pulled from my wallet and pointed at one of his guns.
He shook his head without bothering to look at where I was pointing.
I spread out the bills so that he could see that I wasn’t holding a bunch of ones, but he still shook his head. I mouthed “okay” before returning to my car. My knife would have to do. I couldn’t begrudge the man. For all I knew, he had a family tucked somewhere in the back of the store he was protecting.
I need to find more weapons soon though, I thought, as I passed two of the turned stumbling into the parking lot of the gas station.
I’d made it no more than a few seconds down the road when I heard two gunshots from the direction of the gas station. At that moment, I, oddly enough, remembered that I needed a map. There was no way I was turning around and asking the man for one. With no other shots fired, I was sure he’d made them count, but I wasn’t taking the chance that the creatures had overrun his store. There would be other gas stations.
About twenty minutes into my drive, I pulled into another station. I was close to entering the next state. I wanted to see if they had an updated map of the area. The station was empty, but it looked like a war zone. I’d passed stalled cars, stumbling zombies, a firefight or two, but nothing that looked like what might have gone down at that station.
All the glass was missing from the storefront. Blood and about six bodies littered the ground. I thought about going to a different one, but my logic stated that whatever happened there was probably over. If I continued, I might end up in the middle of a fight.
I parked between the building and a reeking dumpster. I pulled my knife and pocketed my cash. My purse, I tucked under the seat. I didn’t lock the door when I got out. I wanted to get back into it quickly if I needed to.
I scanned the area for a turned or a human, but I appeared to be alone. Glass crunched under my feet. A few times, I nearly slipped in puddles of blood.
I stepped through the window frame and into the store the first chance I got. I didn’t call out to anyone, but I was sure no one was there. On a spinning cart hung a reusable, cloth bag. I snatched it and began filling it with snacks, drinks, and maps of states and towns I thought I might travel through.
I didn’t have a plan for what I needed to do after I found or didn’t find Jeremiah and Carl, so I hadn’t stopped by my house to get clothes or supplies for a possible road trip.
When no one stopped me from carrying the stuff to my car, I returned to the store and filled another bag, then returned twice more, each time filling a bag and grabbing cases of water. I slipped some cash under the register, but I had a feeling that money wouldn’t mean anything for a long time.
Safely back in my car, I pulled out one of the maps and the notes from the school. The base wasn’t far; another two hour’s drive, but I wasn’t familiar with the area. I knew I’d have to cross two bridges to get there, and the land between the two was wide-open country. I prayed that meant little to no zombies or traffic.
An explosion shook the abnormal mid-afternoon quiet, reminding me that I’d been lucky up until then and that if I wanted to remain so, I should get back on the road.
I crossed the first bridge some forty-five minutes later. I’d taken a few detours due to pile-ups and all-out brawls between live people and the undead, of which I’d refused to get in the middle. The bridge hadn’t been easy to cross. Cars lined it on both the north and southbound lanes, but none of them had drivers. I nudged a few out of my way, slipped between some, and drove along the median in places to get across.
A few of the vehicles were there because another one had hit them or they’d hit the guardrail, but others were just sitting there. I assumed their occupants had gotten out to assist the wrecks or to maybe help one of their passengers, but either way, the sight of them sitting there creeped me out.
For a short distance, after I crossed the bridge, the highway on the other side looked the same, but eventually, the road all but emptied. Every so often I’d come across another live being, but the person didn’t stay on the highway long.
Once, I was sure I watched a driver turn. I didn’t pull over to check. That probably made me a bad human being, but my son needed a live mother, not a dead one. I was following behind the S.U.V. about three car lengths for ten minutes. I watched the person swerve a few times, but for the most part, he/she stayed in his/her lane and drove normally. I could see him/her wipe his/her head often, and sometimes the person would slump in the seat as if he/she had fallen asleep, but then he/she would jerk upright.
Out of nowhere, I watched the person’s head fall onto his/her shoulder, and the vehicle started to slow down. Almost a second later, the body began jerking, and the S.U.V. spun off the road. I floored my car, getting as far away from him/her as I could.
I did my best to ignore the pillars of smoke I saw in the distance, the screams and gunshots I heard, and the figures that moved in my peripheral vision as I drove. I tried not to think about the sickness or what my son was going through at any given moment. I wondered why I wasn’t sick. I’d hugged Kim yesterday morning when she’d dropped off the kids. I think she even kissed them each on the forehead before she left, and neither of them had shown any signs of getting sick.
I shook my head to stop thinking about them.
My limited research hadn’t said what the sickness was or exactly how a person contracted it. There was a great deal of speculation but nothing definitive. No one knew how the virus was even possible, either. Yeah, people died of the flu, pneumonia, and the like, but they didn’t come back, or if they did, it was to who they were not something out of a nightmare.
I tried distracting myself from my thoughts, but everything brought me back to that line of thinking. Wondering what my parents were doing made me worried that they were sick and had turned. The same applied to anyone I’d ever known. The only thing productive I did was wonder where I could take my son that he would be safe from the virus.
We knew plenty of people with underground bunkers. We actually had one, but we’d only used it as a storm shelter for the last ten years, so it wouldn’t work as a sustainable place to wait out the apocalypse. Plus, I figured our chances of making it home anytime soon were slim. Once the zombie apocalypse got fully underway, it would probably be months before travel would be safe.
Or possible, I thought, as I came to a stop at the entrance to where a bridge used to be.
“Fuck,” I said, getting out of my car without bothering to make sure the area was clear of zombies. I did grab my knife, though.
I approached the edge and looked down at the bridge’s remains floating on top of the water below. I couldn’t even begin to figure out what had happened. Okay, I could take a few guesses, but I was tired, and the missing bridge was going to cost me nearly a day’s travel because I was going to have to find a place to sleep for the night.
The nearest bridge was a few hours south, and I had to backtrack nearly an hour to get on the road I needed to get to it.
“Fuck,” I screamed again in frustration and let loose the tears that had been threatening to fall most of the day.
A moan answered my scream.
I rushed back to my car, threw the thing into reverse, hit something I hope wasn’t human, turned around, and headed away from my son.
An hour or so before I got to the next bridge, I stopped at a third gas station. That one looked worse than the last. The electricity was still working, though. I was able to pull up to the station at the end of the lot, as it was the one I could access the easiest. I prayed the pumps were on.
I knew that wouldn’t last much longer. Neither would the power.
I started to pull away once I’d finished topping off my tank, but the part of my brain that had been paying the most attention to my surroundings as I drove told me that I needed to search the area for more weapons. I’d been lucky, but barely. I’d skirted more than one car accident, traumatized victim looking for help, who I’d felt sorry for ignoring, and a zombie that had seen me, not the car I was in and tried to eat my face through the glass while I’d stupidly stopped at a stop sign or red-light.
Bathroom breaks had been even worse. I’d chosen to pee behind trees rather than take my chances with any of the facilities I’d passed. One time I barely got my pants up before a zombie slipped in my puddle trying to get to me. I’d been glad that I’d put on a pad at my first stop because even though I had gotten toilet paper, rarely had I had a chance to use it. If worse came to worst, I could pee in the pad, change it in the car, and throw it out the window.
I couldn’t believe I was contemplating such a thing, but I didn’t want a zombie to catch me with my pants around my ankles.
As night fell, more people and creatures joined me on the road. I needed something other than a knife for protection.
Most of the bodies at the station were of people like myself who’d stopped in to get gas before escaping whatever town that was. Some were the creatures who’d eaten them. One had turned into a zombie after another had made its lower half its supper. The thing had started crawling toward someone. Possibly me, but had gotten itself caught up in a hose. I brained it with my knife.
Inside one of the cars, I found a handgun. No wonder its owner was lying dead outside the driver’s door with his brain missing.
I found a rifle inside the store under the front counter. Again, not at all helpful to the clerk who was hanging over said counter. Her head was also cracked open, and most of her brains were missing. Thank God for small favors. Apparently, the dead couldn’t come back if they didn’t have a brain.
Neither weapon had many bullets, but they would do me for the time being…I hoped.
Upon exiting the station with two bags full of stuff, which I didn’t pay for that time, I literally bumped into a teenage zombie. His left leg had been barely holding him up, so when we collided, it buckled, and he hit the ground. That bit of luck saved my life.
I stumbled backward a bit, hitting the edge of the doorframe. Shock kept me from screaming, but it didn’t stop me from kicking out when he grabbed my foot.
Chiding myself for doing exactly what I’d only minutes earlier scolded the man and cashier for doing—not having their weapon ready—I dropped the bags and grabbed the knife from the top of one.
The boy and I scuffled a bit, but I eventually managed to shove the knife through his temple. Since his shirt was fairly clean, I ripped a strip from it and used it to wipe his blood off the blade.
Keeping the knife at the ready, I grabbed the two bags and ran back to my car. I hadn’t seen any more zombies, but I wasn’t taking the chance that more weren’t coming.
I didn’t stop again until a good way after I’d crossed the bridge. My adrenalin rush had worn off, and I was too tired to keep driving. The problem was I didn’t know where to safely park to sleep for the night. My brain told me to sleep in the car, but I couldn’t. I knew I probably should, but I’d been in the damned thing most of the day, and I needed to stretch my legs. I needed a bed.
When a sign for a hotel came up, I took that exit. The name of the establishment wasn’t one I was familiar with; therefore, it wasn’t a big chain. It, a gas station, and a small diner were all that were on the exit. None of the buildings were lit up.
A glance up and down the street showed me that the streetlights were out as well, and thankfully, the area was devoid of people. I cut my lights to blend into the night.
I drove around the hotel, looking for signs of life, and saw nothing. The doors to the lobby were open, so I stepped inside. No one greeted me. I waited with my knife and handgun at the ready for a full two minutes, and when still no one came, I stepped behind the desk, thankful they still had old fashion keys and not key cards.
I snatched up a set belonging to the last room at the back of the hotel. I didn’t leave any money. I didn’t think anyone cared. Chances were that everyone who’d lived near there was at one of the quarantine zones.
As fast as I could, I unloaded the car and barricaded myself in the room. More than anything, I wanted to fall onto the lumpy mattress and crash, but I made myself clean up, eat a full meal, and take stock of the situation and my supplies before letting myself go to sleep. I needed a plan for the next day and an idea of what items I didn’t have or was running low on.
Food and water would always be a need. Clothes were next. At the last station, I’d grabbed a blanket, a few t-shirts and some sweats, each with the local football team’s emblem on them, but that had been about all the place had.
Ammunition was a priority, but I didn’t know enough about the guns I had, or guns period for that matter, to know where to start, and the thought of going to a gun shop right then scared the crap out of me. Chances were everyone, and their brother would be there, and the place would be sold out despite the waiting list and restrictions.
More weapons might sound like overkill, but I thought I would feel safer if I had a wider variety of weapons at my disposal. The knife had done me well, but it was starting to dull, and I’d had a bit of time pulling it from the boy’s head. Also, I wanted something that I didn’t have to wait for the creatures to be so close to me to use.
Wet wipes, more pads, maybe even adult diapers. Bathing was going to be an issue, as was going to the bathroom, especially while I was on the move.
I continued with my list until I fell asleep with my pen in my hand.
Naturally, I overslept the following morning. Stress and fear had worn my body down until it shut off on its own. Every part of me wanted to rush out of the room, but I knew I had to be cautious. I didn’t live in a world where I could make too much noise and where I could take the chance that someone hadn’t tampered with my car. Also, where there wasn’t the possibility of a horde bearing down on me.
As quietly as I could, I freshened up, made sure I was ready for the day’s drive, packed my bags, and watched out the double windows for a good five minutes trying to see if anyone was moving around outside.
Just like the night before, I saw no one. I’d pulled the car almost to the door. I didn’t have to go far to pop open the hatch and begin reloading it.
A dog barked somewhere in the distance. Every once in a while, I thought I heard other movements, but no one came at me while I moved from the car to the room. I left the keys on the dresser and the door unlocked. Maybe someone else could use the room.
I passed two zombies heading toward the hotel as I exited the parking lot and started back to the highway. I don’t know if I was their target, but I was glad I’d left when I did.
Apparently, I was not the only person on the move. Traffic was heavier that morning when I pulled onto the highway than it had been the day before. I had a feeling that those who hadn’t evacuated yesterday were now doing so.
The extra traffic that day slowed my pace to the base. Every few minutes, there was a new wreck. Too many people died while driving. Either they were too sick to be on the road and died, or someone in their car turned and killed them. Some had managed to pull over before dying. In half of those cases, though, the dumbass got out of the car to do so, letting their zombieself run into traffic and cause more chaos.
I did my best to keep at least three car’s length of space all around me so that I could swerve out of the way when needed. That wasn’t always possible, but since I kept my speed to slightly above a crawl, most people sped past me. That didn’t mean my car made it to the base in one piece. It had more than a few bumps and scratches from bushes I’d driven through, mailboxes I’d sideswiped, and cars I’d pushed my way past.
When I finally made it to the guard station at the base, I had to wait for what felt like an eternity to speak to someone.
For nearly an hour, I watched military personnel turn away person after person or shoot them and push their car into a nearby field without even removing the bodies. In the soldiers’ defense, most of the people were sick and turning, and others had pulled their weapons on them like idiots.
By the time I made it to the front of the line, all the man had said when I had rolled down my window was, “Go back to your home. We don’t have any more room.”
“I don’t want inside,” I said, shocking him.
“Then what do you want?” he asked, giving me his full attention.
“My son and his father are from Bridgeton. They should have arrived here yesterday with a bus full of other people. I want to get them and take them with me,” I said, handing him the papers I’d found at the school and the photo I had of Jeremiah and Carl.
The man didn’t take the items.
“The buses did arrive yesterday, but we were already full,” he said instead.
“Where would they go next?” I asked.
“Possibly into the Alabama Territories. I’ve heard there are a few quarantine zones down there taking in people. Fort Collins is full, and so is New Norfolk. The only place they could go was south unless they find something else. That’s why we’re sending everyone away.”
“I see. Thank you.”
The man merely nodded. Before I could drive away, a soldier shot the driver and passenger in the car behind me. I sat frozen, looking into my rearview mirror as the soldier slid the driver over and maneuvered the car out of line.
“You should go, ma’am. It’s too dangerous out here,” the soldier at my window said, causing me to jump.
“Yes. Okay,” I said, putting my car in drive and pulling away.
Ten minutes from the base, I pulled over to throw up.
An hour or so later, I saw a school bus overturned in the middle of the highway. Big, black letters on the side of it read: Bridgeton City Schools. I nearly rammed into the back of it; I swerved off the road so quickly to get to it. Traffic had thinned some, but my movements had startled a few people, and they’d blown their horns at me to let me know it.
I sat in my car for a long time looking at the back doors to the bus. The crash had busted out the windows, and two zombie teenage girls were impaled on the frame. What parts of their bodies they could flail they did in an attempt to get out of the bus and to anyone.
I didn’t know what I would do if my son were on that bus. It was obvious to anyone driving by that everyone on it was dead. I had to know, though. The not knowing was driving me insane.
With both firearms strapped to me and my knife in my hand, I got out of the car. I wasted a few of the bullets from the handgun shooting at the girls, but eventually, I killed them. I climbed the back of the bus and dragged their bodies from the window. I splattered myself in stuff I’d rather not think about in the process. I had not thought that through.
To my surprise, there weren’t that many people inside the bus and most were really dead, not zombie-dead. I’d expected it to be brimming with passengers.
After a few jerks, pushes, and kicks, the back doors came open, and I maneuvered myself inside. A zombie I thought was pinned down rushed me when I did, and I used up the rest of the bullets shooting him. The other three I killed with the knife. That hadn’t been easy.
None of the bodies were Jeremiah or Carl as far as I could tell. Some were beyond recognition, but I told myself I would know my son when I saw him. I had to believe he was alive. I had to.
Only feeling slightly guilty, I ransacked the bus for supplies. What I needed most was a change of clothes.
In the old world, I would have never stood on the side of the road with cars passing by and stripped, but I did it that day without thinking about what I was doing.
Not a single person stopped to catcall or chide me or to give me a ticket. I left my dirty clothes where they dropped—littering the furthest thing from my mind.
What I needed next was a gun. I searched every inch of the bus for one, and the only weapon I found was a pocketknife. I took it, of course, but I really needed another gun.
The thought didn’t occur to me until I was back on the road, but I was surprised no one had stopped to scavenge the bus or steal my things. I guess the world wasn’t that bad off yet or everyone else on the road had better prepared for a road trip than I did. All I’d planned to do was go to my ex-husband’s house, not drive down the east coast.
Gas was a bit harder to find when I needed it next, and when I did find a pump that wasn’t empty, I had to push the car in front of it out of the way. Thankfully, the car’s owner had died elsewhere.
Pumping the gas seemed to take forever. I jumped at every noise, every passing car, and every bird chirp. I just knew that at any second someone desperate was going to come out of the shadows and take my car or kill me or worse—a horde of those creatures would come running around a corner and take me down before I could get the nozzle out of the tank.
What felt like weeks later, I was back in my car and heading south.
I’d never been to the Alabama Territories. A part of me expected to enter an entirely different world when I crossed the bridge based on the stories I’d heard about the territories my entire life. The way people talked about the place, I half expected to leave earth and enter a new planet where a war was constantly waging when I crossed the bridge, but the area didn’t look any different from the rest of the world.
The base, Fort Williams, was almost right on the other side of the bridge. The soldiers there were a bit nicer, but they didn’t have miles of traffic backed up trying to get onto the base either. The woman at the guard station listened to my story before telling me that they had taken in some refugees in school buses. She said they couldn’t let me stay, but that they would allow me an hour or so to search for my family since I planned to take them with me if they wanted to go.
I could’ve kissed the woman.
A different soldier directed me where to park and escorted me onto the base. The group of people he led me to were not what I expected, and they were all the people that had made it from Bridgeton. I nearly fell to my knees, crying.
I didn’t know any of the people before me, and none of them knew Carl.
An older woman, named Sandra, told me that some of their people died along the way from the sickness. Others left during stops for gas and food. She told me about the overturned bus, which I already knew.
I showed her the picture of Jeremiah and Carl, but she didn’t recognize them. No one in the group did.
In the end, I got a list of all the stops the group could remember making, where they’d left buses they no longer needed, and where they could remember people saying they were going. That last bit did me no good because it was mostly to relatives’ homes. No one mentioned any other quarantine zones or military bases, though one or two had said something about Shore Haven on Liberty Island being built for this exact scenario. I didn’t think my ex would try to travel that far in our current world with our son.
“I’m sorry,” the female soldier said when I left the base, echoing Sandra’s words when I’d left her.
I couldn’t respond.
Numbly, I left the base, crossed the bridge, and headed north again. I headed home. If my son was alive, maybe he and his father had gotten off the bus and gone looking for me as I had them.
I stopped at the places the group named hoping to find clues as to where my son and ex-husband were but found nothing. Or, well, no signs of them. I saw zombies, dead bodies, blood, body parts, destruction, but not my family.
By the time I made it back to Bridgeton, I was feeling hopeless. The school was more trashed than it was before. Someone or someones had broken out windows, set fire to certain areas where most of the bodies were, and raided the food stores. We were only a few days into the new apocalypse. People shouldn’t be starving, but I guess those who had sense were probably stockpiling.
Both Carl’s and my house had been broken into, as had most of the homes in our neighborhoods. Oddly enough, our cabinets were full, but a safe Carl had in his closet was open and whatever had been inside was gone along with other valuables, as was all of my jewelry.
I loaded my car down with our food and necessities. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I didn’t want to fight anyone for those items if and when they became scarce.
Kim and Wayne’s house was next stop. I knew they were sick. They’d probably turned already or were about to, but the twins hadn’t shown any signs getting sick. I was leery about caring for two small children in our new world. I also wasn’t sure how I was going to pry them away from their sick parents, but I knew I couldn’t leave them. I shouldn’t have left them to begin with.
I prayed as I drove. I prayed that I got to my friends in time. I couldn’t let Kim turn into one of those creatures, and if she did turn, I couldn’t let her kill her babies. I couldn’t.
Slowly, I inched the gas pedal further down, knowing in the back of my head that my detour to find my son had probably made me too late to stop the inevitable. I drove faster at that thought, ignoring the gunshot I heard and the woman who ran out of her front door followed by her husband. I don’t know if a third person was chasing them or if the husband was the monster. I didn’t stop to find out.
By the time I’d made it to Kim’s, I’d run so many scenarios through my head that I barely threw my car into park before I was out of it and running towards the front door, screaming her name, Wayne’s name, and the names of the babies. I didn’t stop to knock on the door. I barged in only to come up short at the sight of Wayne sitting on the sofa with a shotgun in his lap and pointed at his head. He looked much worse than he had a few days ago.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I demanded, stepping toward him to yank the gun from him.
“What does it look like?” he answered, not looking at me.
“Where are they?” I asked, knowing that I was too late if he was ready to kill himself.
He gave me a blank look before nodding toward the stairs.
“Are they alive?” I asked, praying my assumption was wrong.
He shook his head. “She ate them,” he said.
I threw up.
When I finished, I asked, “Did you kill her?”
He shook his head again.
“You can’t let her live and keep killing.”
“I locked her in with the babies.”
“That’s not enough.”
“Give me the gun.”
“One of us has to. If Kim ate her babies like you said, she’s not human anymore. She’s a zombie. I’ve been out there. I’ve seen them. The only way to stop them is to kill them. We can’t allow her the chance to escape and kill others. Give me the gun.”
He shook his head for the third time.
I thought about taking it from him, but figured I might accidentally shoot myself if I tried.
I rushed to the kitchen and grabbed the longest knife I could find, having left mine in the car in my hurry to get to my friend. In the old world movies, you had to destroy the brain, and that had worked for me so far. I didn’t know if I was going to get close enough to her to shove the thing through her temple, but I had to try.
I prayed Carl and Jeremiah were safe wherever they were, and that my son would forgive me for not finding him. What I was about to do was dangerous. I didn’t know if I had it in me to kill someone I loved so dearly, and I might die in the process. But I had to try. Kim shouldn’t have to live as one of those creatures. Hopefully, Jeremiah would forgive me.
Wayne didn’t say anything as he watched me walk up the stairs. I didn’t know which room the three of them would be in, but I decided to check the nursery first. I got lucky. Or, well, unlucky, to be more accurate.
My best friend of over twenty years sat cross-legged on the floor, eating her little girl. Aiden lay across her feet. Most of his neck was missing.
I threw up again.
Kim didn’t look up from her meal. Eva was barely more than bone.
Once my stomach was, for the time being, empty, I stood and wiped tears from my eyes. The smell of my urine filled the air. Apparently, that time, when I’d vomited, I’d peed myself.
Kim seemed intrigued by the smells, but not inclined to give up her current feast.
Her eyes tracked me as I skirted the room with the intent of coming up behind her.
I tackled her, just as she decided that I would be more filling than her small children would be. The way we fell, her arms became pinned under her and Eva blocked her mouth, so I was able to somewhat easily hold her down and jab the blade through the soft spot of her temple.
My best friend died instantly.
I dropped on top of her and cried. I don’t know how long I held her, but it was long enough for Wayne to come up the steps, watch us for a while, then go downstairs, and shoot himself.
When I finally let her go, I pulled one of the kid’s blankets from their bed and covered Kim’s face. Too much of Eva was missing for her to turn. I wrapped her in another sheet and tucked her in her mother’s arms. Aiden, I couldn’t be sure. Most of his neck was missing, yes, but that was all Kim had done to him. My stomach rolled and emptied itself once more as I worked up the nerve to put the knife through him as well. I had to do it, though. Wayne was gone. I couldn’t bear the thought of that sweet baby boy killing someone or a stranger coming in and killing him.
I lay him with his mom and sister and shut the door behind me once I was done. I cleaned the knife in the bathroom sink and changed into some of Kim’s clothes before going downstairs. No part of me ever wanted to see the weapon again, so I put it back in the kitchen.
Wayne had made his one shot count. He would not come back as one of those creatures. Right now, all we knew was that people got sick, died, then turned, but it seemed, like me, he wasn’t taking any chances. We’d seen too many old world movies and television shows to think we knew the rules.
I took his gun and left the house. I couldn’t go back for their food or anything else I might need. I could never go back to that house again.
I went to my car, which was miraculously still there, unmolested. I sat behind the wheel and stared at the house.
I don’t know how long I sat there. My mind was blank. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I could go looking for more family, but did I want to if what I found was more of what lay behind Kim’s door or nothing at all?
All I knew I was that I couldn’t sit in my friend’s driveway the rest of my life. I backed up and headed anywhere and nowhere.