SEQUEL TO Part 12
Life is all about choices. Every choice you make, every decision, alters the direction of life. It changes which road you follow. If a person makes one decision, it takes him one way. If he makes a different decision, it takes him a different way. Growing up, that was one of the things Pop drilled into our heads.
If you make the wrong decisions in life, it will lead you down a dark and difficult path.
There were times when we boys thought Pop was blowing smoke, just talking to hear himself talk. We never said as much–we just thought it. The thing is, he was right.
I sat at the edge of the highway at the top of the hill overlooking the small town we had left. Humphrey safely strapped into her car seat, the windows cracked enough to let the cool air in, and the doors locked. I could see the smoke coming from the old church. I thought about the Chosen ones that died there minutes earlier; the old man with the hair in his ears and missing two fingers, thanks to one of their own rising up from the dead and biting them off. His eyes held that haunted look in them that so many people have when close to death. There was fear there–real fear. Not that contrived fear that our minds conjure up when we think things are worse than they really are.
I had a boss not too long before things went to Hell–a guy named Ken, who said ‘they’re killing me’ a lot. He took over for my old boss, who had a run in with colon cancer and called it quits before his surgery. I was apprehensive about things. He was making changes–too many of them as far as all the workers were concerned.
”Hank, what are you afraid of?” he asked me one day, out of the blue.
At first I said nothing. Then I responded as honestly as I knew how. “Losing my job.”
“You’re not going to lose your job. None of you are. I’m not here to kick you out. I’m here to make you better.”
“I hear what you’re saying, but that really doesn’t change the uneasiness everyone is feeling right now.”
He nodded, pursed his lips, and then smiled. “Do you know what that is?”
“That’s fear: False Evidence Appearing Real.”
I repeated the words back to him. “How do you figure?”
“Simple. You think you’re going to lose your job. Has anyone told you that was going to happen?”
“Then why would you think it?”
“I don’t know–it’s just the way things feel right now.”
“Your perception is that you and your co-workers are going to lose your jobs. It’s not true. I’d be a fool to get rid of you guys–I don’t know anything about the system here. I’d be cutting my own throat if I got rid of any of you. Your perception is false evidence appearing real.”
I never forgot that conversation. I wonder what happened to him, if he made it out of the city, or if they really did kill him.
I shook my head. Everyone I knew and loved were gone, family, friends, acquaintances. It was just me and a stuffed bear named Humphrey.
As I sat there, the van’s engine idling and the fresh memory of that old man’s eyes pleading with me, saying what his brain wanted, but what his mouth couldn’t vocalize.
Kill me, please.
He knew what he would become if he died. He knew the dead were in and around the church, and that it was only a matter of time before they caught up to him. He slumped against the church wall when I shot him, his bloodied hand dropping into his lap, his mouth popping open. His head hit brick and bounced forward before settling on one shoulder.
All of that could have been avoided. If I had stayed away from that church. If I had just made my way out of the town instead of playing ‘in search of,’ then the zombies wouldn’t have followed me to the dinner table. Maybe they would still be alive. Maybe not. The young man died while I was there and those people seemed oblivious to the truth. Surely some of them would have died, if not all of them, all while Reverend William White prayed his prayers and refused to believe that deliverance was in the shape of a door that led to the back of the church.
Still, my decision brought the zombies to their front step. My decisions cost White and at least two of his congregation their lives. My decision ended old Hairy Ears’ days on this earth.
Decisions. I thought of all of those as I sat in that van watching the smoke rise higher into the sky.
Then I thought of other choices I had made. One stood out among them all: telling Jeanette to take Bobby and go to the cabin, go to safety. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we would have been safer if we had just stayed put. We could have boarded up the house, fortified it enough to wait it out. There were windows on all four sides of the upstairs. It would have been easy enough for me to pick them off as they neared our home. We had a basement straight out of the eighteen hundreds, with a door in the floor that I don’t think any zombie would have been able to lift, even if they tried.
We would have been safe.
I knew that. In hindsight, I knew it when everything was going down, but the natural reaction was to flee, find higher ground and wait it out, as if we were caught in a flood. It was a decision born of panic. It was the wrong decision.
And my family died because of it.
I wonder how many others made that same decision, to flee instead of stay put. Too man, I guess.
I put the van in gear, pulled all the way onto the highway.
‘Where are we going?’ Humphrey asked.
“Yeah. We should have never left there.”
It was a long drive, one that was spent in reflection, like so many other times. Every once in a while I saw some of the dead shambling along, mostly one or two at a time, but there was an occasion where there were four in an old wheat field off 385. I stopped each time. The single ones I took out with a bat. The group of four was three bullets, then the bat–no use wasting ammo on a one on one situation.
I could have kept on, not stopped, let the dead continue on, but I didn’t. I chose to stop, to end their existence. No need for them to catch sight or sound of the van and then turn to follow. I had made that mistake earlier. It wasn’t happening again. If I saw a zombie and I could safely take it down, I did so.
My world had suddenly became a game of ‘what if?’ What if I didn’t stop? Could those zombies find another survivor and kill them? What if there were kids involved? Though I would have never known, in the back of my mind I would have been wondering, ‘what if?’ There was no time for what if. What if could get you killed. What if could get other people killed.
I saw the sign for Sipping Creek, South Carolina, POPULATION: 700+ AND GROWING.
My mind fixed on the sign, whispered in my ear, Time to change that number.
I pulled over, searched the van for my pack. Pistols and bullets were emptied onto the seat. A couple of knives and bottles of water followed. At the bottom of the pack I struck gold: a can of white spray paint. I thought I had lost all of them when I crashed my truck. With the spray can in one hand and a pistol in the other, I got out the truck and walked over to the blue steel sign with its reflective white lettering. An X went over the 700+. Then I drew a number 1 beside it.
“That’s more like it.”
I got in the van, tossed the can into the back, then put the guns, bullets, knives and water back in my pack. I passed through that great invisible border that separates one town from another and continued on. The small neighborhoods took shape, most of them the way the living left them when they fled that proverbial flood. And the graves where I buried so many friends and strangers alike… I hadn’t realized how many there were. My heart sank as I passed street after street where large mounds of dirt held multiple bodies beneath them.
I slowed as I approached the street my family had lived on in better times. My stomach was all nerves, and my palms sweaty. I wasn’t so sure I was ready to face the reality of living in that house without my family. A left turn followed and I crept along the road. It was quiet, almost peaceful. The doors still held the white spray painted X’s on them. I backed into my yard, pulled the van right up to the porch steps and turned it off.
‘Where are we?’ Humphrey asked.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Humphrey had once lived with another family. Sure, I remembered where I had gotten her, but the thought that she wasn’t home never cross my mind. She had a girl who probably loved her at one time. She lived in a different house, a different home. For a moment I thought to crank the truck up and make my way back to that house. I remembered it well enough, a U shaped cul-de-sac, the picture of the little girl and her parents, Humphrey held in her arms. There had been no fences around the yards in that area. I shook my head–a little harder to fortify, I thought.
“No, not your home, Humphrey. Mine–or at least what used to be mine.”
Humphrey didn’t move, didn’t make a small grunting sound when I picked her up and slipped her into the pack, zipping it up around her. She didn’t say anything when I put the pack on my shoulders. The pain in the one arm stretched down into my shoulder blade, making me aware it was still injured, even though it was back in place. I reached into the console, grabbed a couple of pain pills and popped them in my mouth, chewing them instead of swallowing them whole. They left behind a nasty chalky residue in my teeth and on my tongue.
“Come on,” I said and grabbed a pistol.
The front door greeted me with thousands of memories. My knees grew weak and I almost fell to the ground at the base of the porch.
‘Walker, are you okay?’
“Yes,” I lied.
To lie is to make a decision not to tell the truth. It was often a bad decision, a habit I seemed to have gotten good at. Not lying, but bad choices. I would make a few more of those in the coming weeks and months of trying to survive in the dead world, not the least of which was turning the knob to open the door and finding it locked.
Then I remembered. I had locked the door the last time I left, just before placing the big white X on it. I thought I would never return, but there I stood on the same familiar porch in that same familiar town. A knot formed in my stomach. Reaching in my pocket, I pulled out a set of keys. They weren’t mine. No, they had never belonged to me, not even then–they belonged to a family who killed themselves about a hundred miles from Sipping Creek. My keys were still in the ignition of my overturned truck. I was in too much of a hurry to grab them when I wrecked, and then again when I went back to retrieve my guns and some supplies with the dead closing in on me.
“This isn’t a good idea,” I said.
‘Then we should leave,’ Humphrey whispered.
I had a chance to turn around, to get out of there. I had a chance to make a decision to escape the demons that were inside that house. What did I do? Yeah, I went down the steps, rounded the side yard and went into the back yard and right to my shop. I tried not to pay attention to the toys on the ground or the parts to the old car I had been working on or the playhouse I had built when Bobby was still barely crawling.
The door was closed, but not locked. I pushed the door open, not taking for granted the shop would be empty. The sun flushed part of the darkness inside away. Dust mites danced in its rays and there were cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, the worktables and shelves. It looked like the spiders had taken up residency. I pushed away some of the webs and stepped inside. Humphrey let out an unhappy squelch.
“You okay back there?”
‘I hate spiders.’
“Yeah, me too.”
“Yeah.” Another lie. “They’re good at hiding and you run into their webs and do that weird ‘oh crap, I just ran into a spider web’ dance.”
A coffee can sat on the third shelf of a tin unit near the door. I grabbed it. It wasn’t as dusty as I thought it would be and the top came off easy enough. The key sat in the bottom of it. I looked at it for a long while, turned it over in my fingers.
Then I was standing at the front door, the key in the hole, the tumbler clicking loudly, the front door open. Those same rays that shone in the shop now shone into my house, making it look older than it was. I stepped inside, closed the door behind me.
Back in the old world, that would have been a great feeling. Coming home after a hard day of work, kicking off the boots just inside the door, letting my feet air out. A cold beer and maybe a football game–yeah, being that it was early September, football season would have just started.
I slid the pack off, set it on the light blue recliner that I used to sit in every night. I used to read Bobby stories there, his little body tucked under my arm. I did a great Grover impression and he loved The Monster at the End of This Book. He would laugh until there were tears in his eyes and he could barely breathe.
Yeah, it was a bad idea returning home.
My heart fell and I stumbled over to the couch. I plopped down and sat back, my hands went between my knees. I don’t know if I cried or if I just sat there staring into the bleakness of nothing, but eventually I snapped out of it and the sun was coming up. Yes, coming up.
I couldn’t have just sat there all night staring into nothing.
“We need to leave,” I said and stood. My legs were tired. Maybe I had slept instead of just sat there letting time pass me by. I took the few steps to the recliner, grabbed the pack and opened the front door.
Outside the air was crisp. There was a slight breeze and the sky was still somewhat gray as the sun continued its upward rise. Before I reached the van, I saw her. She was one of Jeanette’s best friends. Her hair was brown and brittle. Once upon a time she had beautiful hazel eyes the shape of almonds. From the looks of the wounds on her arms, neck and the gaping hole in her shirt, I gathered she had survived the sickness only to succumb to the dead and then become one herself. She stumbled along the road, looking like she was sleep walking. Maybe she was.
I set Humphrey in the van, checked my gun. A full clip.
Slowly, I walked toward her, keeping plenty of distance between us.
“Margie,” I whispered.
She continued to trundle along
I followed behind her. How did I miss her? Was she alive when I went inside her house, but hiding somewhere I didn’t look? Did she think I was a zombie? Was that why she didn’t come out when I was there?
“Margie,” I said a little louder.
How many times had she and her family eaten dinner with us? How many times had Jeanette confided in her about life’s little problems? How many times had we laughed together? She was the maid of honor in our wedding, the godmother to Bobby. She was everything to Jeanette.
She was dead.
“Margie,” I yelled.
She stopped. Her head lifted slightly, as if she were listening for something.
“Margie, it’s Hank.”
She groaned. I imagine she was trying to say my name.
“Margie, turn around.”
And she did so. My stomach flipped and the skin on my arms and neck bubbled with cold chills. I should have just put a bullet in her brain and not said anything, but I didn’t do that. When she turned to me, I saw the torn lip, the caked white eyes, the sallow skin. My breath hitched and I stared hard at her.
“Margie, are you in there?”
Another groan, then a step. She lifted a hand weakly toward me. Her fingernails were long–they hadn’t stopped growing.
“Margie, stop right there.”
She had a daughter, Emily. The child was only two. I hoped her father got her out of here, but honestly, I don’t believe that to be true. Dale would have never left Margie behind, not alive and certainly not like that.
Margie took another step. Her other arm extended out. She was missing her thumb.
Jeanette had known her since third grade. They graduated from high school together. Went to the university over in Columbia. They had been inseparable, even after they both got married.
A growl tore from her throat and she stumbled along a little faster, her arms outstretched, something akin to brown sludge coming from her mouth–the drool of the dead, I reckon.
“Margie…” I shook my head, my breath held tight in my lungs. “I’m sorry.”
The pistol recoiled. The boom somehow silenced in my ears. Margie Winters fell backwards, landed on the ground with a soft thud. Her head hit the black top and reddish/black blood made a crown beneath it.
I stood staring at the body of my wife’s oldest friend for several minutes before making my way back to the shop around back of the house. There was a shovel hanging on its peg on the wall. It had been a while since I had dug any graves, but spent the next couple of hours doing just that. I couldn’t leave her on the street to rot. When I was done, I drove the shovel into soft mound of dirt to mark her grave, just in case… just in case I came back. I didn’t think I would, but I had thought that before and look where I ended up.
“Time to go,” I said as I slid behind the wheel.
‘Where to now?’ There was a hint of frustration in her voice.
“Sixty miles along 378, just before you get to Newberry. It’s pretty country. Not so close to the city. Lake Murray is out that way. We could find one of the houses out there and make it our own if nobody is in it. And we start over.”
‘What about your son?’
It took a while for me to answer, but when I finally did, I realized why I had chosen Saluda. “The Batesburg armory is out there, about twenty minutes or so from the County Line Store. I figure we could check it out first. If Bobby’s there…”
‘And if he isn’t?’
I took a deep breath. ‘Then my search is over.’