I never liked taking medicine. Waiting out a cold or sweating out a fever seemed natural to me. Drugs didn’t. They were dangerous things, addictive things. That never stopped Jeanette from being on me to take my meds when I really needed to. It was just one of the many things she was good about.
As I lay dying in some kid’s bed in some other family’s house, I heard her talking to me, telling me, “Take your meds, Walker.”
I sat up each time, even as the weight of the sickness pushed hard on my chest and the snot grew thicker in my nasal cavities, and even as I spat up chunky bits of yellow crap and the fever sent me to alternating hot flashes and cold spells. I took the meds. There always seemed to be water nearby and I didn’t seem to fumble with the caps to the pill bottles. It was like she was there with me in that house and trying to keep me alive.
My breath rattled in my chest and whistled from my mouth. The pain in my head kept me from moving too much. My eyes constantly watered and I don’t ever recall getting up to go to the bathroom.
“Take your medicine, Walker.”
I opened my eyes and there she stood, a picture of beauty, an air about her that glowed, even in the darkness of the room. She held the pills out to me, the water bottle in the other hand. She smiled and leaned down, gave me a kiss with her angelic lips.
“You can’t die, Walker,” she said.
“Nothing I can do about it,” I said–I think.
Her hands were warm on my face, soft and smooth and I relished the way they felt. “You have to live, Sweetheart,” she said. “Bobby needs you. He can’t lose us both.”
Those words woke me with a start, but not before she started to change. My eyes snapped open and I stared at the ceiling above me. The room was gray, not dark. The sun casts it’s rays through opened blinds. I turned my head to one side. The pill bottles sat on the end table, the water bottles nearly empty. Humphrey sat on the pillow next to me, her eyes glassy, but somehow holding life in them.
The guns were not on the end table and the one I had been holding was not on the bed. They all sat on the dresser across the room.
“Humphrey,” I said, my voice scratchy and sounding nothing like it normally did.
She didn’t respond, but I think I saw her pink sewn on mouth stretch into a wider smile.
“I’m still alive,” I said. “I didn’t die. I didn’t become-”
And the words of… my dream? Was that what it was? A dream? They came back to me. Jeanette holding my face in her hands, her soft, warm hands and telling me ‘Bobby needs you. He can’t lose us both.’
I sat up. Muscles and bones creaked and popped and my entire body felt incredibly weak. How long had I been out of it? I didn’t know, but the dream came back. Something was wrong with it. She spoke those words and then… then she changed. The beautiful blond hair became brittle; her skin went from white to gray and her face–always beautiful–changed. Her lips cracked, her eyes faded to milky white orbs that sunk back into her skull and there was blood on her face and she had…
I stood, fell down before I could gain my legs. A fear so sudden I wanted to bolt from that house and run to Greenville if I had to, came over me. Strong and painful and real.
“No,” I said over and over as I stood, then paced the floor slowly, letting my legs adjust to moving again. With my body weak I wouldn’t be able to leave that day. I knew that, but I didn’t care. I had to get out of there.
At the window, I looked down at the yard, the street beyond it. The beating of my heart stopped momentarily. What had been a couple dozen zombies a few days earlier was now a swarm of them. They shuffled about aimlessly, but it was clear to me that they knew I was there.
“We’re trapped,” I said.
After watching them for several minutes, I turned back to Humphrey. My boots lay on the floor, my socks tucked into them. The guns lay on the dresser with nowhere near enough ammo to get me out of there in one piece.
“We’re going to have to make a break for it, Humphrey.”
She said nothing.
I sat down on the bed, slipped the socks and boots on, then grabbed one of the guns from the dresser–a nine millimeter with a full clip. I moved the dresser from in front of the door as quietly as possible, but it still sounded too loud in my ears as it scraped across the floor.
With the gun out in front of me, I opened the door. Nothing awaited me. Down the hall I walked slowly until I reached the bathroom. I relieved my bladder and turned to leave. The bathtub was clean and there was a bar of soap on a small dish in the corner of it.
There was a small closet next to the entrance. I opened it. Two shelves of neatly folded towels sat there. Above them was a shelf that held washcloths. I took a towel and washcloth and looked at the bathtub. Surely there would be little water, if any still left in the pipes, but it was worth a try.
I turned one knob. There was a hollow clunk from deep in one of the pipes. A dribble of brownish water fell from the faucet just before it seemed to spit, cough and clear its proverbial throat. Then a stream of wonderfully clear water spilled from it. It was cool, but I didn’t care–it had been so long since I had a bath, since I smelled like something other than a sweating mass of flesh. I was quick about getting my clothes off and then, just for peace of mind, I locked the bathroom door.
The water gave me chills, but felt good. The soap was Irish Spring and I took in its heady aroma. I would love to say I took a long bath, that I leaned back and let the water fill the tub, that I closed my eyes and just enjoyed the moment. But I can’t say that. No, I was quick about washing, rinsing off the suds and then getting out of the tub. I didn’t imagine the water would last long and I was right–just as I went to shut it off, the steady stream lessoned until it was nothing more than just drops dripping into the tub.
Being clean was one thing–if the dead managed to get me at least their meal wouldn’t taste so bad–but what I wanted was to get out of that bathroom, check the rest of the house out and make sure we were okay.
I toweled off and got dressed, including putting the shoulder harness back in place. It was a shame to throw dirty, bloodstained clothes back on after getting clean, but with the limited options, I dressed in what I had. Leaving the bathroom, I held the gun out in front of me, ready to take the head off of anyone, dead or alive, that could have been there. Down the hall I stopped at the top of the steps. The door was closed, the couch still sat in front of it. The chairs and coffee table still lay cluttered at the bottom of the stairs.
Back up the hall and in the bedroom, I gathered what little gear I had left. There were still some pain meds and antibiotics. I took an Amoxicillan and followed it with two painkillers. My shoulder still hurt, but nothing like before. The swelling had gone down, but still, I knew it had been hurt every time I moved.
I put as much in the pack as I could, then went to the baseball bat rack on the wall. There were a few good wooden Louisville Sluggers, but I opted for a thirty-eight ounce aluminum bat, the barrel nothing more than a lean straight pipe. I could swing a bat, I thought, better than I could swing old Ox.
Before leaving the room, I placed Humphrey in the pack, this time shoving her a little further down and tucking her arms into the bag before zipping up.
“Why so tight?” she asked
“I don’t want you to fall out–I’m probably going to have to run and I’m going to need my hands to shoot or…” I nodded to the bat on the bed. “Or play ball.”
“That’s the plan.”
“I like it here.”
I took a hard look at Humphrey. In another time I might have liked it there as well. It was spacious, the yard was huge. I bet it even had a basement or an attached garage…
I hadn’t thought of that before.
If there was a garage, there might be a car and if there was a car, I might have a better chance of getting out.
The backpack went over my shoulders. I winced a little when I first slid it on, but the brace alleviated most of the pain. There was no using Ox today and maybe not for a while. I still had never fired her, but was certain if I had to right then I would probably end up dying from getting knocked off balance by the recoil. I made sure the safety was on and slipped Pop’s shotgun through the straps of the backpack. For the first time I thought I needed a rifle tote for Ox. Maybe one day I would find one.
With one pistol in hand, the other tucked into my waistband and the bat in the other hand, I went back to the staircase and made my way down. I tried to be quiet as I moved one of the chairs and the coffee table, but I had placed them so precariously on the steps that moving one item caused the others to topple. The chair made a loud ~CLACK~ when it hit the hardwood floor.
I eased on down the steps further and walked through the house, nerves on edge, eyes and mouth dry. If any of the zombies heard the chair fall they would converge on the noise and sticking around much longer wouldn’t be an option. There were no other doors in the one direction. That left the kitchen area.
Back passed the front door I stopped. Something thumped outside. Another thump followed. Then another and another.
They had heard the chair fall and they knew where I was. I moved a little faster, trying to stay as quiet as I could. In the kitchen I heard the moans of those just beyond the backdoor. It didn’t look to be as sturdy as the front, but the windows were covered and there were several two by fours nailed at the entrance so nothing could get in.
A second door sat off the kitchen just as I walked in. It could have been a pantry and if so, at least I would have a little food if I made it out of there. I opened it slowly, recalling what happened to Lee when he died. A careless moment where he hurried instead of took his time…
The door opened with a creak that may as well have been a little girl screaming. It wasn’t a pantry, but stairs that led down into the garage. I took a step down, then another, listening as I did so and wishing I had one of my lights from the truck. I heard only the beating of my heart heavy in my ears.
Another step down and my eyes began to adjust. Three more steps and the garage became less black and more like gray. Objects took shape. To my right was a workbench and several tool boxes. Other tools hung on pegboards: shovels, rakes, hoes, hammers, saws. To my left were what looked like boxes and cans and other stuff–a storage area, I guessed. But what sat in front of me were the most beautiful things I had ever seen up to that point. Two vehicles, an SUV and a Van.
I didn’t go for the cars right away. There were tools to be taken and if I could load them in one of the vehicles, I would. I hurried over to the workbench, rummaged around, letting my hands feel for objects that I could use. Near one of the toolboxes I struck gold. My fingers came across the almost square object, found the handle and near that handle was a button. My thumb did what it does naturally and pressed the little button.
The flashlight came to life.
That joy was short-lived. From up the steps I heard the banging on the back door. Sure, there were boards in place, but that gave me no comfort at all. I went back up the seven steps, closed the garage door. There was no lock so the need to hurry became real.
I went back to the workbench, grabbed a screwdriver from one of the toolboxes and a hammer from one of the pegs. If I needed to break into one of the cars and hotwire it I would need tools–at least the screwdriver.
The van looked newer than the SUV and probably got better gas mileage, but the other car looked more rugged, as if it could take running into something–like a walking corpse–and not get damaged too much. I went to the SUV, tried the driver’s side door and the body slumped from the seat.
Startled, I almost shot the guy. There was no need to do that. There was already a bullet in his head. Blood and brains matted against the ceiling and the gun sat on his lap where it fell after the deed was done. I shone the flashlight in the vehicle. My heart sank. There were five of them, all strapped in as if they were heading on a trip.
“Are we going to Disney World, Daddy?”
“Yes, Sweet Pea.”
They were going somewhere, but Disney World wasn’t it. The two older kids lay slumped in their seats. The woman in the passenger’s side was leaning on the door, her window shattered. But it was the other child–the one strapped in the car seat between the older two–that hurt my heart the most. A baby–probably not even six months old…
I closed my eyes. The SUV was a mausoleum, their gravesite. I wouldn’t be taking it. But I took the gun–every bullet mattered.
I shone the flashlight on the steering column, smiled when I saw the keys dangling there. Surely there would be a key to the van on it.
I was right, but before I opened the van’s door, I turned the flashlight on it. There were no dead bodies inside. I unlocked the front door and put the key in the ignition. The engine purred and I smiled.
“Are we going to be safe?” Humphrey asked.
“We’re getting there, Sweetheart,” I said and pulled Ox from its place. I set it between the two bucket seats up front. With Humphrey pulled free, the pack went to the floorboard in the driver’s seat. Humphrey went into the passenger’s seat.
I didn’t know how much time I had–the dead outside continued to beat on the door and I imagined the weight of their bodies forcing the nails in the two by fours to work out of the wall or door jamb. Eventually, they would get inside.
The back hatch of the van came up with ease. I searched the garage, grabbed the shovels off the pegs, a hoe as well. Some of the toolboxes were too big to carry, but others would fit in the back of the van nicely. I picked up what I could and what I couldn’t, I grabbed random tools out of them. I grabbed a plastic container that held a chainsaw in it. Who knows if I would ever need one of those?
Before getting in the van, I went back to the SUV. I hated doing it and still found it hard to believe that someone could kill their entire family, not give them a chance of surviving. I think they would have been okay for a while. At least until some stranger with a teddy bear ended up on their front porch bringing the dead along with him. I couldn’t imagine doing the same to my boy and wife. It was hard enough putting Lee down after he rose again, but to actually kill them to keep them from turning into the dead… I couldn’t fathom it.
I pulled the back latch, freeing the door and looked inside. It was as I hoped. Cases of water, dried foods, blankets were all stashed back there. Several flashlights and boxes with who knew what in them. With no real time to sort it out, I transferred the contents from one vehicle to the next, then closed the SUV’s door back.
From upstairs came a loud ~CRACK~. Not just one, but several. Then came what I thought was the back door slamming against the wall.
“Hurry,” Humphrey said. I could almost see her glass eyes filling with tears.
I closed the back hatch of the van and got in the driver’s seat. For good measure I buckled Humphrey in and did the same for myself. I shifted the vehicle into drive and looked over at the little bear.
“Hang on, kiddo. This could be a little scary.”
Easing off the brake, I let the car roll forward. There was no electricity so we were going to have to go through the garage door, but not like they did in the movies. No, we were going to go through slow, push the garage door out and up if we could.
The front of the van hit the door with a little more force than I wanted it to. The garage door lifted up a little. I bit down hard on my lip, my hands gripping tight to the steering wheel. A little gas and the van lurched forward. The door protested, but still it went up.
Metal scraped on metal and if I could hear it so could they. By the time the front end of the van was free of the door, the dead were swarming, more than I think I had ever seen before. Where did they all come from? Were they wandering from Charleston and Mt. Pleasant? If they were, then were they migrating in search of food? I didn’t find that to be a good thing.
So many bodies crushed against the van, their hands beating on the sides of the vehicle, on the glass, reaching for door handles. Through all the noise I could hear Humphrey whimpering like a sick puppy.
“Close your eyes,” I said. “Close them and keep them that way.”
I mashed the gas harder, rolling over the ones in front of us. The van jostled from side to side as the bodies broke and crumbled beneath the tires. The driver’s side mirror came off and the antenna snapped free as the dead continued to grope for anything they could get hold of.
Again, I gave it some gas, this time smashing into several zombies. They either bounced off the front of the van or disappeared beneath it. Sweat formed on my brown and my knuckles must have been white. My muscles were tense and the cacophony of sounds that came from outside the van was loud, even with the windows all the way up.
Another rev of the engine and I turned the van toward the road. I hadn’t realized in both of my journeys to that house that the driveway wound around to the back and that if I were going to reach the road I would have to plow through the hoard before me.
There were souls in the dead, people jailed in the husks that were once their bodies. I hated hitting them, running them over–if I didn’t kill them then they would suffer the pain of broken bones and smashed insides, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to get out of there and there was no chance I could do so if I took the time to try and keep from running any of them over.
Body after body fell away as I pressed the gas harder, picking up speed and making my way up the dirt road toward the black top that would lead me out of there. We hit the street faster than I intended and almost tipped over in the process.
What took only half a minute by van took an eternity by foot. Sometimes we forget things, like distances and traveling times and how walking and running was far different than speeding along in a car. I raced up the road leaving most of the dead behind me.
I hit the interstate entrance ramp and slowed before coming to a complete stop near my old pick up. I had little time. Surely all the zombies weren’t at that house. Some of them lingered and I had passed a few of them on the way.
“What are you doing?” Humphrey yelled–yes, she yelled at me.
“Guns and gas. I’ll be right back.”
In another time and another place, ‘I’ll be right back’ usually meant just that. But, in this dead world, that same statement might be the last thing you hear of someone. Sure, we think we can make it to and from somewhere, but things aren’t the same as they used to be. I hopped out of the van and ran the short distance to my truck. The guns were still there. So was the water and the gas tanks–thankfully I had capped those. I grabbed as many of the weapons as I could, ran back and slung open the side door. The gas came next. A couple of cans were lost causes, but I managed to secure six of them before the dead started down the hill.
“Come on,” Humphrey yelled.
I pulled out my pistol, took aim and split the center of the first zombie’s head. It collapsed and the one behind it tripped over the body and fell as well. The water came next. By then there were a handful of zombies stumbling down the hill and one coming from up the road. I took aim at an older woman with the matted gray hair. She dropped to the ground.
I could hear the panic in Humphrey’s voice. I could feel it in my chest. The food remained and I had none in the van. I hurried to grab busted cartons from off the ground and ran back to the van. I don’t care if I dented the cans or damaged the inside of the vehicle. I tossed what food I could grab in and slid the door closed.
Rounding the van, I stopped. There were three of the dead near the driver’s door. I put a bullet in the first one’s head, took aim and pulled the trigger only to hear ~CLICK~. It wasn’t my pistol. It was the one belonging to the man whose house I just came from.
There was no time to reach for the other pistol. I swung the gun down as hard as I could on the forehead of the zombie closes to me. Its skull gave a resounding pop and he crumpled.
It was the other one… the other one that almost got me. He was a thin, frail looking person with drooping eyes, his mouth full of yellowed teeth and his bottom lip completely missing. His hands managed to reach my shirt and his fingers tried to grip the cloth, to pull me toward him.
Fear–true, unadulterated fear–is like a jolt of electricity. There have been times since all this began that I have felt that fear, but on this day, at that moment, I had felt nothing like it. I saw my death in front of me. The world slowed again, like the movies. It grayed and the sounds of the dead moaning and my heartbeat and Humphrey’s–yes, even when life was so precariously close to ending horribly, I heard a stuffed child’s toy’s voice–screams became muffled remnants. The adrenaline and drive to survive kicked in. I pushed him with both hands–it was all I could think to do. The gun came out from my waistband and I put a bullet in his head.
The world came back in real speed, the colors no longer bled out. I turned, pulled the trigger twice, taking down the two women closest to me. Around the vehicle I went, squeezing off one more shot before getting in. I slammed the door, locked it and shifted into drive. Dirt and pebbles from the side of the road shot up from the right back tire and the vehicle swerved.
It was a few miles down the road when I stopped again, not bothering to pull off the road. Something had been humming in my brain since rushing to get back into the van, a sound that seemed to follow us as we fled Sommerville.
As I sat in the middle of I-26 heading away from Charleston it dawned on me. The sound was someone crying. I looked at Humphrey, who just looked ahead, her eyes staring at the dashboard.
She wasn’t crying. Not that I could hear.
No, it wasn’t the stuffed teddy bear weeping at all. It was me…