by Dale Turner
It was the night of the second Halloween after the bombs and the people in the small town were happily celebrating. They had no idea what was waiting for them. The kids had mostly finished up with their pranks and games and were fighting over bedtimes, while at Bailey's tavern, the adults were having a party of their own.
It was a pretty swinging party, by their standards. They weren't wearing costumes, but they were having a good time. Especially compared to the time they'd had the year before. Then, it had been all horror at the bad guys out there waiting to raid them for supplies and space, and people complaining about how they missed their Pop Rocks and Tootsie Rolls that they were certain would be in the store again some day, and there were all these love triangles and angsty fights and speech contests that usually annoyed people more than helped. Luckily, by the second year, people were calmer, if not happier. They knew there wasn't going to be any more Pop Rocks, and there's always a relief in finally knowing. Now, they could drink smuggled booze and heat up the dance floor in some kind of peace.
So it was that the townspeople partied at Bailey's, completely unaware of the strange event happening just a few miles outside of town. In the south woods, in a clearing no one ever visits, a mound of dirt that had been sitting still for almost a year was suddenly moving. As Stanley Richmond was raising his glass in the air in a wild toast at the party, a dirty, rotting, glistening hand was bursting out of the earth in the south woods. The hand felt around on the ground beside it, trying to get a grip, and the earth kept churning. Another hand, trailing a ragged sleeve, followed the first, and then a man's head came out of the dirt too. His face was partly decomposed, but he looked the same amount of terrifying as he had while alive. He grunted and groaned and pulled the rest of his torso and legs out of the ground, shaking the dirt off of them and standing up to stretch in the moonlight. He opened his mouth and shouted a long, wordless shout, turning his face to the sky. The south woods echoed with it. He began trudging through the woods.
At the bar, the partygoers were laughing and cheering as they took turns doing the limbo. They were caught up in their activities so none of them noticed the pair just outside the window.
Allison Hawkins and Scott Nystom were about to be arriving late for the party, but before they opened the door, they got caught up again, doing the same thing that made them late in the first place. Allison broke off the lip lock for a moment to worry, “Shouldn't we go in? People might wonder. My mother's at this party.”
“They'll survive. Since when are you afraid?” asked Scott.
“I'm not,” said Allison, pulling him closer. “Afraid you can't keep up with me, maybe.”
They were interrupted in their next kiss by the loud voice and its wordless shriek. “Aurrggh.” The teens jumped and stared at an approaching figure. He held his arms out in a jerky motion and stumbled towards them.
The bar patrons were finally distracted from their game of impressions by the sound of Allison's scream.
“Turn off the music! What's going on out there?” shouted Eric Green.
“Allison?” asked Darcy Hawkins from one side of the room. “Was that my daughter?”
“I'll go check,” said Bill. But before he could open the door, it was flung open. A crazed looking Scott Nystrom ran into the room, and right behind him lurched the zombie from the woods.
Screams erupted around the room as people saw his hideous, decaying face. “Who – who is that?” Mimi Clark managed to choke out as she hid behind the pool table.
Mary Bailey squinted. “It looks like – is that Mitchell Cafferty?”
More screams as Mitchell stumbled forward, reaching his arms for the townspeople who were backing up. Just as he was about to clasp a hand around Emily Sullivan's wrist, Sean Henthorn leapt forward and hit him on the head with a pool cue.
Bill grabbed the zombie around the arms and wrestled him out the door, shrieking as Mitch sunk his teeth into the deputy's shoulder. “He's crazy!” he shouted, as Major Beck slammed the door after the party crasher.
“Where's Allison?” Darcy was shouting now, running to look out the window.
“She's dead,” moaned Scott from the floor, where Heather Lisinski was trying to help him to his feet. “We were – we were just – that, that thing came out of nowhere and just attacked...he...he bit her and – I tried but I – couldn't...I couldn't...”
“No,” Darcy whispered, shaking her head. “No, my baby's out there, and until I see her -”
Suddenly a figure slammed against the window, a pair of hands slapping the glass with a loud sound. The grotesque face that pressed against the window a few inches from Darcy growled. Darcy leapt back. “Allison?” she asked. “But how?” She began stepping towards the door again.
“Don't open it!” shouted Sean, rushing forward to get in the way.
“And why is it you think I won't?” asked Darcy, getting a dangerous tone in her voice as she stared him down.
“It's not her anymore,” said Sean quickly. “She's a zombie.”
There were snorts and murmurs all through the room. “It's not a goof!” shouted Sean over their protests. “This is how it always begins. First there's one, and then another, and soon we're totally overrun and they're chowing down on all of us before we can reach the exit.”
The door behind him thumped, and Sean leaned against it, keeping it shut.
“Hold on, everyone,” said Gray Anderson, stepping out to the front of the crowd and holding up his hands. “We'll have this situation under control in no time. Jimmy, Bill, if you can just go out there and subdue the, er, suspect, and then Kenchy,” he nodded towards Kenchy Dhuwalia, who was cowering near the broken payphone, “Soon as we get the injured girl to the clinic, I'm sure you'll be able to -”
“Don't you need some kind of plan before you go out there?” asked Stanley. He stepped towards the mayor and Sean. “You know, I'm pretty sure that was Allison Hawkins, but she looks really different. And Mitch...” Stanley looked especially torn as he forced his next words out. “Sean could be onto something.”
“Okay, this is ridiculous,” said Gray. “Bill, will you please – Aaah!”
Gray had turned and seen, at the same time as everyone else, the way Bill bared his teeth before letting out a wordless shout. He lurched toward Gray, who quickly dodged him. Bill jerked his arms around, looking for new prey, but Sean and Stanley grabbed his arms, trying to restrain him without being bit.
“Still think this is under control?” shouted Stanley.
“Keep him – keep him from biting anyone,” muttered Gray as the rest of the people in the room screamed and scrambled to get further away. Some climbed on tables and chairs, and a few dove behind the bar.
“We can't hold him much longer,” said Sean in a strained voice. The three men looked like they were doing an especially ridiculous square dance, with Bill struggling to get away or bite into someone's flesh and Sean and Stanley pulling him back and forth between them.
“Here, throw him out!” shouted Emily. Arming herself with a pool cue, she ran over to the door. Beck and Eric stepped forwards too. Bracing herself, Emily opened the door.
As they tried to throw Bill out the door, other molting zombie arms crowded into the space. “Get them back!” shouted Eric as Stanley and Sean flung their captive at the others. The three of them used a chair to push the zombies, but more seemed to be crowding forwards. Beck pulled out a pistol and fired it out the door. As the bar patrons covered their ears and gasped, the zombie crowd thinned out momentarily. It was long enough for Emily and Eric to slam the door shut.
“That wasn't just Mitch and Allison,” breathed Sean.
Seeing that they were under attack from forces greater than anticipated, the people in the bar hastily began to barricade the doors with the tables, chairs, and any other things they could find. “There's file cabinets in the office!” shouted Mary.
“Shouldn't we do the windows?” asked Skylar Stevens.
“I'll go upstairs and see if I can get a better view of the situation,” announced Eric.
Darcy sat at one of the remaining bar stools, her face tear-streaked but stony. Margaret Taylor sat beside her, whispering something quietly.
“They're everywhere!” came Eric's voice a little while later. The flurry of activity stopped and everyone was silent, though many eyes brimmed with tears. He shook his head and pinched his brow the way he did when he had to deliver bad news. “I don't know who they all are or where they're coming from, but there are tons of them. Maybe thirty, forty of them on Main Street, the part I could see.”
Chaos descended on the room. Everyone spouted their panicked ideas at once. Beck pulled Gray aside, and soon several of the rangers had gathered around. “We need a plan and we need one now.”
“We don't even know what we're dealing with,” Gray said.
“We should be getting all the weapons we can find!” said Stanley.
Eric was looking around frantically. “What about the people out there? Mom's at home, and we don't know how many others could be stuck.”
“We can figure out what to do about the rest of the town after we get these people to safety,” said Emily.
“Guys,” said Jimmy, motioning at the crowd. People were beginning to argue with each other and their voices were getting louder.
A few minutes later, after a hurried discussion with a few more of the usual leaders, Gray called everyone to attention. “We need to go somewhere we can all be safe while we sort this out. Somewhere bigger, less surrounded, easier to defend. We're going to need supplies too.”
“One group is going to go to the med centre,” said Eric. “We'll be picking up the medical supplies and all the ammo we stored there last time the government was doing checks.”
“And the other group,” continued Gray. “Is going to the warehouse in the east side. Dale and Skylar have a big stockpile of food and other goods there. Both groups,” he continued, “Will be meeting at the high school. From there we'll set up a camp and come up with a plan for finding other survivors. Questions?”
“Who goes where?” asked Lisa Whalley.
“The rangers are going with me to the clinic,” said Gray. “And anyone else up for a fight. We're figuring there might be a lot of them near there since it's where we've had so many...casualties die in the past.” He cleared his throat. “Beck's taking the other group to the warehouse. The rationing and planning team is going with them. You'll take some of the weapons we can muster up because you could run into trouble too.”
Friends glanced at each other through this speech. Lovers tried not to let their eyes meet. Dale and Skylar smiled briefly at each other and were serious as they looked at the crowd.
“What if there's a cure for this?” someone shouted. Darcy's eyes were questioning. Kenchy cleared his throat. “I'll try to figure something out when we get to our destination. Til then, avoid them at all costs. Don't shoot if you can help it, but do not allow them to bite you.”
“Okay, let's move out!” shouted Gray. “Remember, if you encounter any of them along the way, any that look like your friends or neighbours, know that it isn't them anymore.”
Dale and Skylar stood to the side, waiting for their group to come together. They knew, from the discussion that'd happened before the whole room had been told, that Heather, Mary, and Mimi were coming with them. Mary and Mimi exchanged quick, teary goodbyes with Eric and Stanley, and Margaret also said goodbye to Jimmy before coming to stand beside Darcy. Major Beck gave her a small, grim smile. Sean waved a quick goodbye to his smuggler friends before joining the rangers and to Dale's relief, Lisa Whalley went with the rangers too, loudly explaining that she'd rather be with the people who knew what they were doing in a fight.
Dale's group had a few guns from the collection the resistance had left in the basement. They passed them around and Beck whispered a few orders. Everyone in the room took a collective breath as they waited for the group leaders to open the doors. “Now!” shouted Eric, as on one side of the room, Gray opened the front door for his group. Beck's group quickly filed out of the back door and into the night.
Gunshots echoed from the other side of the building, but nothing seemed to be waiting for them on their side as they began picking their way through the dark. This did nothing to relieve the tension for most of them though, and Dale could see Mimi, Mary, and Margaret glancing over their shoulders in the direction the other group had gone. Darcy, however, stared straight ahead, her jaw set.
The walk through the dark was long, made longer by how afraid everyone was with each corner and alley they passed. They walked mostly in silence, stopping now and then as the people at the front of the group scouted ahead for danger. Dale and Skylar brought up the rear as they were two of the best shots in the group. They didn't speak to each other much. They were used to being out in the field, getting through tense times and putting off their own personal worries until later. Dale noticed that in the middle of the group, Darcy and Margaret were having a hasty, whispered conversation.
They ran into just two single zombies on the way to the warehouse. Once, a male zombie jumped out from behind a fence before the group crossed the street. “Don't shoot,” cautioned Beck, but Gary Walcott panicked and took out the undead figure. Everyone stood, frozen for a few minutes, staring around, waiting for more to come. When none did, Beck gave the signal to keep walking. Jenny Pritchett and Kenchy turned over the body. “Fred,” muttered Dale as they walked past the fallen zombie.
The second came at them from the side. Unable to keep quiet, Mimi screamed. Dale shot without hesitating this time. A few people gave him dark looks. “If we've gotta do it, we should do it quickly,” he shrugged. No one looked closer at this one, though Skylar noticed her permed hair.
They were mostly silent at the warehouse as they sorted and packed the supplies into the trucks. It was the opposite of the screaming and crying that had happened back at the bar. It was like they were waiting for something, and they all knew somehow that they must stay quiet. Like it would slow things down til the next incident. Or maybe it would make things happen sooner, put an end to waiting for the painful inevitable.
They finished loading and piled into the trucks. Dale sat beside Skylar, who drove the truck at the front of the caravan. Their cargo was mostly people riding in the back. The trucks behind them brought food and ammunition and a few other essentials. They drove quickly and again, silently towards the school, taking the least traveled roads to the town's north end. They didn't run into any other citizens, though perhaps the undead were hiding off the road, watching them. When they got to the school, everyone was cautious. The people with guns kept to the front of the group while the ones armed with bats and pool cues followed. The school was untouched though, and soon they secured the east wing. Everyone unpacked the supplies as quickly as possible, storing them in the locker rooms as they planned to set up camp in the gym. A few people with guns stood guard the whole time. Soon, the last load of canned goods was on its way indoors. Dale and Skylar still scanned the area and held their guns at the ready. Heather was quickly checking the trucks for signs of damage, and Mary, Mimi, and Margaret were keeping her company, though the way they kept glancing into the night suggested they were waiting to see something else outside. “Come on, guys!” called Skylar.
Heather walked up to her friends, and shared a quick smile with them. But as she glanced over her own shoulder, she gasped. “On my God!” The others turned to look. Two small figures were standing at the edge of the parking lot. “Julie, is that you?” she called out. “Lucas?”
The tiny figures started walking forward. Dale sighed as he recognized their jerky walk.
Heather started to run towards the children. “Heather, wait!” shouted Dale, running forwards to grab onto her arm. Skylar was there a second later.
“We can't just leave them!” shouted Heather.
“You have to! It's not them anymore!” shouted Skylar.
Heather was near tears and still struggling to get free. “Let go! What are you going to do, huh? They're just kids.”
Dale and Skylar let go, and Mary and Margaret came to stand on either side of Heather. Mary put her arm around her friend, and Margaret stared off at the children, who were coming closer. With tears in her eyes, Margaret said evenly, “We should go inside.”
“What?” asked Heather, glancing between them.
“There's nothing we can do for them right now,” said Margaret. “But you don't need to see them.”
Heather looked like she would protest further, but as she glanced at the advancing children, she recoiled. Their faces were gaunt and their skin crumbling. Their eyes were vacant and hollow. “Heather,” said Mary in a pleading voice. She was in tears herself. With a torn look on her face still, Heather gave a nod. Mimi opened the door and the friends went inside, leaving Skylar and Dale and their guns with the zombies. Dale glanced at Skylar. “Remember the dumpster where the jocks used to smoke?”
Skylar nodded, and turned to the kids who were now only a few feet away.
Some of the survivors were laying down mats on the gym floor when Skylar and Dale went inside ten minutes later. It didn't look as though most people were going to sleep any time soon however. Darcy, Margaret, and Beck were having a hushed conversation a little ways away from the crowd. Kenchy was checking for injuries. Mary was helping set up the sleeping quarters and Mimi was counting water bottles. Heather sat on the wooden bleachers, lost in thought as she tried to make a list of those alive and those spotted as zombies.
She looked somewhat accusingly at Dale as they came inside. “Did you take care of it?” she asked quietly.
“We kept them alive,” said Skylar. Noticing how people nearby were looking and listening, Dale spoke up. “We just trapped two zombie kids in the dumpster cage behind the football field. It'll hold them, but if anything else shows up, we won't be able to be so humanitarian.”
Even Darcy and Beck had stopped talking now and were looking over at him. Dale looked at Kenchy. “I know you said we should wait and see if there's a cure, but what do you think the chances are of us finding out anything from here?”
Kenchy glanced around at the worried faces. “Remote,” he said. “I don't know what this is. I've never seen anything like it.”
The room was suddenly noisy as for the first time since the bar, everyone was talking at once, suggesting theories ranging from radiation after effects to biological warfare. Dale stepped up on the first step of the bleachers and continued talking. “Then until we get some answers, we can't take chances. Anything comes here to hurt us, we have to protect us. It's sad, but it's the way it is. Us or them.”
He looked over at Beck, who seemed annoyed that someone was trying to take over his job as speech maker. It was too bad, but he didn't know this town like they did. It wasn't his neighbours turning into zombies. The major strode over to Dale, trying to look like he was okay with sharing. “I agree with Dale. We need to be vigilant. But we need to take care of our resources too. Don't waste anything, including your ammo. We need to sit tight until the other supplies get here.”
“When'll that be?” asked someone in the crowd. “They're taking their sweet time.”
Beck's look was grim. The overbearing silence in the room contained so many worries about family and friends of unknown whereabouts. “They'll be here. Until then, I suggest we settle in for the wait.”
The room settled somewhat, though the tense atmosphere was unmistakeable. People sat on their mats and a few dozed, but most were waiting. The dark and the silence went on and on, but no one could do anything else but wait.
Then, sometime in the middle of the night, a shout from the guards posted outside the west doors broke the spell of tense quiet. “Got two, coming inside now!” called Gary Walcott.
Lanterns were lit as two survivors were led into the gym. Their clothes were covered in dirt and ash, and their faces looked haunted. Jimmy managed a small smile, but Stanley's face was grim.
Mimi ran to Stanley and flung herself into his arms. He pulled her close and kissed her gently, but his expression was still somber. Margaret laughed and cried as she hugged Jimmy, who looked at her and then down at the ground before he could look at the others who were gathering. Dale and Skylar, as well as Darcy, Beck, Mary, and Heather, circled around them. After a moment of silence, Darcy asked, “Where are the others?”
Stanley let go of Mimi for a moment, and his expression still wild, he looked back and forth between his friends. His eyes settled on Mary. He stepped slightly closer to her, and though he spoke to everyone, he was still looking at her. “They're gone. I'm sorry.”
Around the room, several people sobbed. Mary's eyes filled with tears but she stayed silent as the others asked the next questions. Heather put her arm around her friend. “What happened?”
“We got ambushed,” said Stanley in a shaky voice. “Seemed like they were coming from everywhere. We tried to fight them but there were so many. Some of them were people we knew.”
“We hid in an old ambulance. Just barely got away ourselves. We could hear sounds. Horrible sounds,” said Jimmy. He looked as though he was trying to keep from crying.
“After a while, we went back, tried to find other survivors,” continued Stanley. “But we couldn't find anyone. Well, except a few who were turned. Had to shoot Donny Wilkens to keep him from biting me.” He looked down. “We figured we'd come find you and maybe some of the others would do the same.”
He and Jimmy shared, for a moment, a hopeful look. Dale shook his head. Jimmy gave a slow, sad nod.
Beck handed each man a water bottle. “How many would you say?” he asked. “How many do you think there were?”
“Something like fifty, maybe sixty,” said Jimmy. Stanley nodded.
“Heather's making a list,” said Beck. Heather's face was white as a ghost. She looked as though her list was the last thing on her mind. Looking as though it pained him greatly, Jimmy began rattling off names.
The entire gym was listening now, and each name seemed to echo and bounce violently against the walls as everyone else was silent. Dale stepped away slightly, taking in their surroundings again. He made a quick inventory of the food and supplies, and their numbers. He wished they'd split the good fighters evenly between the groups. He turned back. Jimmy was just finishing and there was silence.
“So you didn't...didn't ever see him?” whispered Mary. “You didn't see Eric later, when they were...changed?”
Stanley shook his head. “But Mary, I don't think he...no.” He stepped forward and awkwardly reached out his arms. “I'm sorry.”
“We don't know yet who's still alive,” said Jimmy. “There could be lots of other survivors out there. People could start trickling in. And when we're ready, we can go scouting. Do some rescue missions.”
Dale shook his head. “Doesn't matter who else is out there. There are more than fifty of them waiting to destroy us.”
Everyone was looking at him again. He steeled himself. “This isn't safe. Here. We need to move out. Get out of town. Out of the whole area, if this thing is spreading. Leave while we still can.”
A few people protested. Beck broke in. “Dale's right. We aren't equipped to deal with this here. We have limited resources, we've lost most of our strongest fighters, and most importantly, we have no way of getting information and getting a view of the big picture.” He glanced over at Darcy. “Darcy and I have been talking. She thinks she knows a way to contact her husband, and he and Jake Green may be able to help us. They have contacts, and I have some old contacts who will be sympathetic too. Our best chance is if we can get somewhere we can reach them. We can send help back for anyone left behind.”
“What if it's too late for them then?” asked Heather.
“It might be too late for them now,” said Dale. “But at least someone with more resources has a chance of helping them. We need to help ourselves.”
“We'll take one of the buses, and as many supplies as we can carry,” said Beck. “We'll head north, see if we can hit the army base there.”
“That's ASA,” protested Mimi, whose face was streaked with tears. “Why would they help us?”
“Something like this spreading could destroy even their hold on the country,” said Beck. “It would be in their best interest to stop it.” He looked at Dale. “Can you get us there on one of your trading routes?”
Dale glanced at Skylar, and back at Beck. He nodded. He turned to the group. “Okay, we'll have to pack up as quickly as we can. Kenchy and Mimi, organize the med supplies. Only what we'll absolutely need. Stanley and Jimmy, you're on weapons. Mary and Heather, get the food rationed -”
“I want to stay,” said Mary.
Dale turned and stared at her. “What?”
Mary had been standing between Mimi and Heather, but she stepped forward now. “We were going to try to survive here. I think it's just as safe as going out there. Maybe more. It's our home. We've done it before.”
A ripple went through the crowd. Beck looked wary.
Dale gritted his teeth. “You're not going to find him. And if you do, you know he won't be Eric. He'll eat you alive.”
Mary didn't blink. “I know. I still want to stay.”
Dale stared at her. He knew he should understand. He'd played that tape of his mother's voice over and over before he'd understood. But how many things had they both been through since? “Fine. Go be Mrs. Zombie if you want. Anyone else want to be crazy?” He looked around and avoided her gaze.
“I will,” said Stanley. “I mean, I'll stay. It's not crazy.” He turned and looked at Mimi, a question in his eyes. Her eyes had widened at first, but now she looked determined as she gave a nod. She stepped forward and stood beside Mary again. “We'll stay,” she said.
Dale sighed. “There's being a good friend and there's being stupid, getting yourself killed.”
“I'd rather get myself killed here with my friends than out there in the dark,” said Mimi.
“And we might not get killed. Mary's right. We have home court advantage here,” said Stanley. He stepped up and kissed Mimi's forehead.
“Anyone else want to play with those awesome odds?” asked Dale, his heart sinking as Heather stepped forward too.
“Heather, we'll get help for the kids when we get some outside communication,” said Margaret in a more reasonable tone than Dale could muster.
“Robert...and Jake,” began Darcy carefully, looking around as all eyes fell on her. “They might be our best bet. We can't do this alone.”
Heather glanced at Mary, Mimi, and Stanley. “I can't leave my friends,” she said. Before Dale could say anything else, she continued, “Emily's my friend. Eric's my friend.” She grasped Mary's hand for a moment and kept talking. “Bill.” Jimmy looked down. “Jordan Engles, Lana Phelps, Mrs. McVeigh.” She paused to take a breath. “Gail Green, who has already lost most of her family.” Mary and Stanley nodded in agreement. “We don't know if those people are out there. Maybe they're as lost and scared as we are. I want to be here so they can find us, if we don't find them first.”
There was a silence in which Mimi sniffled loudly. Dale glanced at their group's other ringleaders, his eyebrows raised. “I may have lost my daughter tonight,” said Darcy. “And I don't know if my son's okay. I want to go get him so badly. But I think now that getting help is the best thing I can do for him.”
Margaret nodded. “I agree with Darcy. We don't know if our kids are okay, and it's killing me, but I can't imagine what'll happen to them if we end up like Bill. We'll make sure we get back to them in one piece.”
Jimmy looked extremely uncomfortable as he looked back and forth between his friends. “I go where Margaret goes. And I think she's right. We're in way over our heads.” He looked pleadingly from Heather, to Mary, to Stanley. “You sure you won't come with us, man?”
Stanley's look was softer as he shook his head. “Sorry, can't.” His look hardened as he turned back to Dale.
“Think about it, Stanley,” said Dale. “How can you do this?”
“Jake would've,” said Stanley. “So would Eric. And so would...” he glanced at Mimi, who gave him a faint smile. “Lots of other people. You have to get ready. Don't waste your time trying to convince me.”
Dale nodded at the others. Beck, Margaret, Jimmy, and Darcy began to make plans and recruit the others in the gym to help with the packing. A number of people wanted to stay behind with Mary, Stanley, Mimi, and Heather and soon the groups were haggling over supplies.
Dale rolled his eyes and started to walk towards the change room where the ammo was stored. He wanted to oversee when they started dividing it. It was one thing to give up his hard earned supplies for a group in need during a zombie crisis, but another to have to give up half your stash to a bunch of people dumb enough to make themselves sitting ducks.
“Can you believe them?” asked Dale as Skylar walked alongside him. “We could be screwed now. We're losing one of our best fighters, one of our only mechanics, two of the people with actual contacts outside of town -”
“I think they're right,” said Skylar.
Dale turned to stare at her.
“This is where we grew up. We know all the tricks and hiding places. We even recognize our zombies,” she said. “I don't know how that's going to help, but maybe it could. You know, there goes Mr. Meyers, he probably still has bad knees as a zombie.”
“You're not serious are you?” he asked.
“I am,” she said. “Not that any of you thought to ask me.”
“I'm sorry, I just -” he was struggling to find words. “I didn't think you'd pick the insane door number two. How can you want to put your chance of surviving onto the losing side like this?”
“The losing side? What's that, the not-yet-zombies?” she asked with a laugh.
He shook his head. “Them, I can understand. They don't get it yet. But you, you're smarter than that.”
“We're not so different,” she said with a shrug. “Mary's right about home being just as good a chance as out there. And what Heather said, about our friends in town. I have other friends too you know.”
“You can't save them,” he said. “That's what the others want to do. You know that right? They're already gone. Anyone who doesn't realize that is an idiot.” He wrung his hands, wanting to somehow show her. “See, if those people in there encounter some of these friends they're so attached to, and if those friends are not by some miracle still okay, there's two ways it's going to go down. They'll either be eaten, killed, and turned into zombies themselves, or they'll have to shoot to kill. Creatures with their friends' faces. Either way they'll turn into monsters.”
Skylar looked unimpressed. “Why are you so sure nothing will survive?”
Dale looked sadly at her. “I know how it is to want to stop it. To think you can wish it away, when someone dies. But you can't. The only sane thing to do is to move on, and get as far the hell away from here as we can.”
For the first time that night, her eyes were teary. “I can't,” she said. “I'm sorry.” She took a breath. “This'll be easier if I go work on a different committee.” She turned and walked back into the gym. When she was gone, he turned and smashed his hand into a locker. A metal clang echoed through the locker room.
Everyone was solemn as the two groups said their goodbyes a short while later. Friends hugged, a few messages for the outside world or loved ones left behind were exchanged, and then Dale's group was filing out of the room, preparing to board their bus. Before he left, Skylar stepped up and threw her arms around his neck. “I can't say goodbye and be mad at you,” she whispered in his ear. He nodded, holding her for as long as he could. “I'm not mad either,” he whispered. They kissed one more time, and he let go, walking away and not letting himself look back. Moving on, getting far away.
The mood was different as they boarded the bus than it had been when they'd first gone out in the night. They were fewer in number and they knew more of the dangers waiting for them, but they also had accepted the truth, which made things somewhat easier.
Jimmy was driving the bus, with Dale riding near the front. Beck and Darcy were guarding the rear of the bus with rifles. A few others were stationed guarding the middle of the bus. “Stop for living survivors, but nothing else,” Beck cautioned as Jimmy started the engine. “We'll drive north and try to hit the communication station at my old camp. The people cleared out but some of the equipment they left behind might still work.”
The bus rattled along the roads in the eerie quiet night. They passed no signs of life, though Dale kept his eyes peeled. After a while the people in the bus began to talk quietly amongst themselves. Following the events of the night so far, the trip seemed like a surreal kind of dream.
At a fork in the road, Jimmy suddenly gasped. “What is it?” asked Dale.
“Bill,” he said.
The figure standing in the road directly in front of them did look much like the former deputy. Dale turned to Jimmy. “You have to keep going.”
“But -” protested Jimmy. He was already slowing down.
“We said only stop for the living!” shouted Dale. “You know he's -”
“I can't!” shouted Jimmy. He started to turn the wheel. From the back of the bus, Beck was shouting something. Dale tried to grab the steering wheel, but Jimmy pulled back. Suddenly their bus was veering off the road. Dale tried to turn them back, but in seconds they hit the side of a tree with a loud crash. The bus was stopped and steam was coming out of the hood.
“Great!” grumbled Dale. “Now we're stuck, and who knows what's waiting out there.”
“Sorry, I...” mumbled Jimmy.
“Never mind,” said Darcy, coming to the front of the bus. “Someone has to fix the damage. Volunteers?”
“I...could try,” suggested Dirk Hensley, raising his hand. “I'm not as good as...but I helped my cousin at the shop sometimes.”
“Do it,” said Beck. “Take a few guards. Everyone else sit tight.”
Dale stood, holding his gun and motioning. A few other people, including Dirk, Darcy, and Jimmy followed.
Dirk set to work assessing the damage with trembling hands. Everyone else stood scanning the area uneasily.
“Can you fix it?” asked Jimmy.
“Give me a minute,” said Dirk.
“Shh,” motioned Darcy. Everyone was silent. She was looking off to the distance to the right of the bus. Someone tried to speak but she glared. Everyone looked in the same direction she was looking. And then the sound became apparent. It was footsteps. Darcy aimed her gun and the others followed her. The footsteps got closer.
“Jody?” asked Jimmy. “From the bank?”
Jody from the bank lurched forwards, reaching for her prey. Jimmy fired at her but missed and she jumped to the side.
“Don't waste ammo!” shouted Darcy. “You need a clean shot.”
The guard detail scattered as they tried to aim at the zombie without hitting each other. “Where'd she go?” shouted Art Robson.
“There!” shouted Darcy, elbowing Art out of the way and taking aim. She pulled the trigger, and without so much as a yelp, the zombie woman fell to the ground a few feet from them. “Make sure she's dead,” said Dale.
The group of guards gathered around and looked down. Jimmy cautiously rolled the zombie body over with his foot. The dangling arms had gone rigid and the eyes were vacant. “She's dead,” he said.
A terrible shout interrupted them. They all turned to look. Dirk had climbed up to get a better look at the engine, and he was now dangling from the bus's frame. He continued to scream as Bill continued to chomp on his outstretched leg.
Jimmy swore and led them in running towards the pair. He tackled zombie Bill and jumped up before he could be bitten too. Bill got up and lunged toward Art and then Darcy. A loud bang echoed and Bill fell to the ground. He continued to move in the grass, but his leg had taken the hit. Jimmy stood, smoke rising from his gun and tears in his eyes.
“Is he bitten?” Kenchy had come running out of the bus and was looking at Dirk, who had been helped down from the bus and was lying on the ground. A ragged bite mark was glistening on his leg.
“I'm bit! Oh my God, I'm bit!” Dirk shouted. “You have to help me. Please! Please, help!”
Everything was happening quickly. Darcy was backing up and holding her gun out in a defensive pose, while Jimmy was still holding his gun limply in his arms. Kenchy was frantically pulling things out of his medical kit. “Must be something,” he was muttering. “Freeze the area, slow it down, or administer a big hit of -”
“Everyone should get back!” Dale shouted. “Back on the bus.”
“I am trying to figure out how to help him, if you would just let me think!” Kenchy snapped.
“There's nothing you can do,” Darcy was saying in a gentler tone, patting Kenchy's shoulder while keeping her distance from Dirk, who was grasping the doctor's arms while still begging for his help.
“We said we only help the living,” said Dale.
“Well, this man is alive!” shouted Kenchy. “The disease hasn't spread yet, and there's got to be a way – yes!” he shouted. There was a strange and frightening new look in his eyes. “It'll just have to be removed.” He frantically began searching in his kit. “No other way. He'll have to lose the leg.”
“What?” Dirk squeaked. He was getting weaker, but the fear in his eyes sparked.
“I am sorry,” said Kenchy, ripping Dirk's pant leg and rolling it up. He pulled out the tool he'd been searching for. The moonlight gleamed off of the scalpel's blade.
“Don't do this, man,” Jimmy said quickly, reaching to intervene as everyone around them protested at once. Dirk's protests were getting feebler.
“I haven't been able to save any of them yet,” muttered Kenchy, wrenching his arm away from Art. “But this time I have the chance.”
“Stop!” shouted Darcy and Jimmy at once as Art spouted sentences about anaesthetic and contamination.
Kenchy raised his hand with the scalpel. Dirk's hand shot up and grabbed it, pulling Kenchy's wrist into his mouth and biting down hard. “No!” shouted Jimmy, and he and Darcy wrestled the new zombie away from the doctor. Kenchy stared down for a moment at his own arm as if he'd never seen it before. The mangled bite marks dripped.
Dirk had lost all of his speech and he groaned and growled as he tried to get up. Darcy delivered a blow to his head with the butt of her gun and he fell to the ground. “Back on the bus, now!” she shouted. Margaret opened the doors and the guards ran up the steps. Kenchy had gotten to his feet slower than the rest of them, and as he was about to board the bus, the doors swung shut in his face. He pounded on the door.
Everyone exchanged uncomfortable glances before Beck spoke. “We can't let you in, Kenchy. I'm sorry.”
“You can't leave me out here,” protested Kenchy, looking over at the snoring Dirk and Bill, who was now crawling towards him, swinging his arms along the grass.
“You'll...be okay,” said Beck, and everyone sent him looks at this obvious mislead. “I mean, they aren't going to hurt you.”
“What?” called Kenchy, his voice breaking.
Everyone else had turned away now, and Beck turned his back too, letting out a sigh. “How long was it?” he asked Darcy.
“Less than ten minutes,” she said.
No one on the bus could bear to say anything, but standing in silence as they heard Kenchy's pleas for mercy on the other side, and their gradual change to less and less coherent sounds, was torture.
When all they could hear on the other side was the familiar inhuman growl, they bowed their heads.
“I should've killed him,” said Jimmy in a shaky voice.
Darcy looked carefully at him. “No one was expecting you to do that,” she said quietly.
Jimmy shook his head, swiping at his face. “Bill. I should've killed him right away. I owed it to him.”
Margaret had come to stand beside him, and she wrapped his arm in both of hers.
“I shouldn't have let him go on like that,” continued Jimmy. “I didn't want him to be d-dead. But now I wish he could just be dead. Just be in peace. Instead of that.” He motioned towards the window. “It would've been kinder.”
Everyone was silent as Jimmy's words sunk in. Then, from the back of the bus, Chloe Walcott yelped.
“There are more of them!” shouted Maya Quinn, who was sitting near Chloe on the opposite side of the bus from where Kenchy was prowling.
Everyone ran to the windows on that side. Stepping out of the darkness in that familiar, hair-raising jerky motion, was a group of undead.
“How many?” shouted Jimmy.
“Ten – eleven,” counted Beck.
“More on this side!” called Art and several people ran across to the other side.
Dale watched silently. He could see one of his former employees, his former gym teacher, and an older boy who'd picked on him in the trailer park, before the town let it burn down. Others on the bus were shouting out the names of those they recognized. It was getting harder to recognize them, as they were starting to look more rotten, their clothes more covered in blood, their eyes and movements more feral. Chloe Walcott burst into tears and at least two people were muttering prayers.
“Everyone calm down,” said Beck. “We're going to stay on the bus, and they can't get us from here.”
A loud thud from the front of the bus startled everyone and made several people scream. Zombie Kenchy had thrown himself at the doors. The metal and glass separating them from the monsters outside groaned under the impact but didn't break.
“What you said before,” said Dale, glancing at Jimmy. Taking a deep breath, Jimmy picked up his rifle and went to crouch in front of the driver's seat.
“They're still coming!” shouted Margaret. The reports from either side of the bus were frantic. Jimmy's grip tightened.
Dale had momentarily found himself watching a small, hunched over zombie in a worn out, dragging sweater that was walking in a zig-zag pattern. Snapping out of the trance, he ran to the middle of the bus. “If they break down the door, I don't know if you'll be able to hold them off by shooting one at a time. And it'd be ridiculous to try to shoot them from in here.” He looked around at them. “I think we all know our choices. We have to get the bus started again, or we have to find a way to kill them all with the weapons we've got.”
“How're we going to fix the bus?” shouted Gary Walcott. “You saw what happened to Dirk.”
“There has to be someone here who's worked on a tractor,” said Dale. He looked at Beck. “Or a tank. Then all we'll need is a good, strong defence strategy.”
A few minutes later, a group of them stood, crowded in the front of the bus, taking deep breaths. “Remember everyone,” said Beck, looking at the survivors stationed towards the middle and back of the bus. “This is our fortress. We protect it first. No matter what's going on out there, nothing gets in.”
“You sure about this?” Jimmy asked Dale. Dale shrugged. “Not really.” He glanced back at Beck.
Beck counted down and shouted “Go!”
Chloe Walcott pulled the lever and the door slid open. Dale rushed forward, knocking the Kenchy zombie out of the doorway and to the ground. He leapt onto the grass, dodging between the outstretched zombie arms, hearing footsteps behind him as his teammates followed. Running nearly blindly, he turned and shot at the first zombie he could hit clearly. Dirk was hit in the head and went down for good. “Spread out!” he shouted to his colleagues. “We have to draw them out!”
He was aware of his teammates entering the fray on either side. He could hear Darcy shout and deliver a blow to some zombie's head. Art was swinging a field hockey stick on his other side, managing to knock down a flailing set of arms and legs while shouting insults. Joanne Iker was shouting loudly from somewhere farther away, and it seemed she was using words too, so she hadn't been zombified yet. It was unnerving to hear the others yelling, but essential. They each moved further out, bit by bit, pulling their deadly zombie-to-human combat into a wider circle around the bus.
Dale swung his own field hockey stick at the advancing zombie, whose jacket he recognized before he knew the bald head and beady eyes. “You!” he shouted, knowing no one would turn and probably no one would take note that he was now fighting Gray Anderson, the once mayor. He knocked Gray backwards, and the zombie-mayor stumbled but managed to keep his balance. He looked past Gray and saw the second team, the guards, advancing. Jimmy and Margaret and two others swung their weapons protectively, forming an inner circle around the front of the bus as Chloe and Gary continued to guard the door.
Gray lunged and Dale found himself falling under the weight of the zombie, but he wriggled and rolled away from the mayor, glancing through the darkness and the flurry. He could see Beck and Kent Foster, behind their guards, tinkering with the engine. He smiled for a moment before the hands gripping him roughly by the shoulders forced him to look up.
Allison was pulling him to his feet. He twisted, keeping out of range of her teeth as she leaned in for the kill. He reached for his gun but then swung his hockey stick instead. Their talk earlier echoed through his mind as his heart raced. Allison was barely recognizable as who she'd once been. The coolest girl in the border guard, he thought. But he still couldn't quite bring himself to shoot to kill. Instead, he kicked, tossing her off balance. He looked over at Darcy, who hadn't noticed. She was too busy wrestling a zombie with long, wavy blond hair. She threw the zombie backwards, and suddenly there was a clear line between Dale and his former teacher. Dale sighed. He aimed his gun, ready to take out Miss Sullivan, but his eye caught a movement closer. Jerry from the hardware store was lurching towards him. Making sure he wouldn't hit one of his own, Dale fired twice.
Screams were coming from Art and Joanne's direction, but Dale was busy fighting on his side and trying to draw the zombies out further. He backed up, feeling his feet leaving pavement and touching grass. Gray and Allison were both coming towards him now. Moaning behind him caught his attention and he whipped around.
Eric Green, his beard encrusted in zombie ooze, was right behind him. Dale smacked him hard in the face with the end of his hockey stick. Without turning to look, he slammed his weapon in the other direction and hit Gray in the side. The zombies lurched and stumbled and sometimes tried to grab at their injured bodies with flailing hands, but they never screamed. As a zombified and one-eyed Sean Henthorn emerged from the darkness, Dale slammed his head against the nearby tree. They bled too, Dale observed. But they only ever groaned in the same hollow tones.
It was hard to take any of the zombies out for good fighting this way, because they were all only using guns when they had safe shots. Dale was already outnumbered and the zombies kept coming. He ducked between Allison and Sean and went closer to the bus to look. Beck and Kent were still working. The guards were swinging weapons, wildly fighting off the attackers, but it seemed they'd already lost at least one of their own.
Dale found himself pushed from behind. The full weight of a body and clumsy but strong arms grabbing him pressed him down. He tried to pull himself up but he could see others coming towards him. Then the weight was suddenly lifted. He turned and saw Darcy pulling Allison off of him. Pushing her once-daughter down, she smashed Gray in the head before he could bite Dale. “Thanks,” was all Dale could get out, before turning to kick Sean as hard as he could.
Allison had gotten up again and was lunging at her mother. Dale glanced from her to the others, fighting and falling and doing their best. “Phase three!” he shouted.
Beck and Kent were clearly still working and hadn't heard him. Everyone else was too caught up in the fight to respond. Dale aimed a quick punch at a child zombie he refused to look closely at, and pulled out his lighter as he balanced his hockey stick. The end that had been soaked in chemicals earlier quickly caught fire. He swung the fiery torch at the zombies encircling him. They backed away, almost cautious, though they still had jerky movements and vacant stares.
Nearby, a zombie looking an awful lot like a J and R rep Dale had once argued with had grabbed Darcy's arm. He hastily held his torch to the zombie's back. The zombie's torn up jacket caught fire and the zombie jerked backwards, letting go of Darcy.
The flames spread and totally encircled the zombie, who moved desperately back and forth but couldn't stop the fire from consuming her. As the fiery zombie fell to the ground, a change seemed to rattle through the air. The zombies' faces showed no expression, but Dale sensed, somehow, that they had at last awakened something like fear in their enemies. He held his torch to Darcy's which lit as quickly as his had, and they passed on their fire to the other fighters. Soon, the survivors were swinging their fiery torches at the zombies, who stumbled into each other as they tried to get away. A few more were lit on fire and fell. Others stepped away from the fight. Jimmy and Margaret waved their guns, taking out some of the fleeing zombies as they got out of the proximity of the survivors. Beck slammed the hood into place. “Let's try this!” he shouted, barely heard over the roar of the fight.
When Chloe started the engine though, everyone turned to look. As if in slow motion, she backed the bus up a foot or two. “Retreat! Back on the bus!” shouted Beck, motioning to the bus and hoisting his own weapon to fend off some of the remaining zombies.
Dale had been advancing towards Gray and Eric with his torch. They were shrinking back, and his arm shook. He'd been determined, after Jimmy's speech earlier, not to leave any of the ones he knew alive. Well, still up and about, moving around, in this condition that wasn't quite living, but it was harder to light them on fire than it had been to imagine shooting them in mercy.
Someone yelped nearby. Art had fallen as he'd scrambled for the bus. Dale reached and pulled him to his feet. He looked back. Gray was gone and Eric was retreating around the side of the bus, the same way the other zombies were fleeing. Dale followed. Darcy was ahead of him. “Eric, Gray, Sean, they're getting away,” he muttered. He didn't mention Allison, but he was sure it was her purple hoodie he could see on one of the zombies stumbling away.
“I'll get them,” said Darcy. “You get everyone on the bus.” There was a fierce look in her eye. Dale nodded in understanding. He turned and ran towards the bus, tackling another zombie out of the way so Jimmy and Margaret could climb the steps. They were cheering in the bus and zombies on the ground outside still burned like bonfires. Dale stood in the doorway, waiting for Darcy. She came back around the side of the bus, fire in her eyes and business in her expression. They both climbed the steps and someone slammed the door after them. Chloe drove them down the road and they drove over a few zombies, it seemed, as the bus bumped a few times. Someone had been sick in a corner and they all agreed to be checked over by Lucy and Maya, the only clinic employees on board, in case anyone had sustained a bite. They'd left behind a few of their own, and left many of the zombies dead, but there was still a small triumphant feeling in the bus as they left behind the scene of carnage.
People began to breathe easier as they drove along the country road and the minutes passed. After ten minutes were up, there were sighs of relief, and then silence as the waiting started again.
Dale glanced a few times at Darcy. She was riding in a seat of her own, near the front, away from Margaret and Jimmy, who seemed to have decided to give her space. There was something dangerous in her face, and something resigned. Dale knew neither of them could speak of it, but he felt a weird understanding with her suddenly, more than he felt with anyone else in the bus.
They met no other zombies on the road to the old army camp, though an eerie fog began to roll in. It covered the ground and made everything seem more dangerous, but at the same time, after the fire and the up close and personal contact they'd made with the zombies, the fog left them feeling numb.
When they reached the deserted camp, they were careful to make sure there were no creatures already there to surprise them. It was ghostly quiet. Most of the tents were gone, but a temporary building still stood. The survivors secured their supplies and went inside.
Beck was hopeful at first when he found some old radio equipment, but Dale couldn't help but be skeptical. He didn't want to be right, but he suspected even the major wasn't as hopeful as he was pretending to be. Everyone gathered around when the radio was ready, and faces fell around the room as, no matter what Beck tried, the line remained static.
“Don't worry everyone,” said Beck. “If we can't do it from here, we'll keep going until we can make contact. And we can try a few more things, see if something else will get it to work.”
“You're not going to reach anyone with that thing,” said Darcy, walking back outside.
Beck looked down at the mess of wires, and back up. “Okay. We'll rest here for a bit and regroup. And then we'll keep heading north. We need guards and we'll sleep in shifts.”
The group started to set up camp for the second time that night. This time it seemed less hopeful, but also calmer. Some people still couldn't bring themselves to sleep, but many fell into exhausted trances. Dale suddenly realized he was also exhausted and let himself drift off.
His dreams were more fiery than usual, but otherwise the same. There was always a moving on in them, eventually. It was a comfort.
He was groggy when he got woken up by the shouts.
“I think they're alive!”
“They look like hell.”
Lots of other people were disoriented but struggling to get up too. He stood and went outside to join the others in looking at the newcomers.
The early morning sun was just beginning to rise. It shone on the tired, dirty, and blood stained faces of the group of people who had just arrived on foot. Most were armed with hockey sticks and baseball bats, though a few carried hunting knives and there were a couple guns. Standing at the front of the group were Stanley, Mary, and Heather.
“Make sure they're not zombies!” shouted Art Robson from the doorway.
“We haven't seen zombies for over an hour,” said Mimi from behind Stanley.
“What are you doing here?” asked Darcy.
“They overran us at the gym,” said Mary in a strange voice. “We retreated through the school.”
“I can't believe how many of them there were,” said Stanley. His voice had also changed. It sounded older. “The battle turned around when we got to the science lab and put together some weapons. Chemistry to the rescue.” He glanced at Heather, who wasn't making eye contact with him.
“What happened?” asked Dale. He noted Skylar, standing in the middle of the group. There were singes on her clothes but she looked very much alive.
“We burned it all down,” said Heather. She looked downwards at the blackened baseball bat she carried. The ends of it were coated in a sticky dark substance. She looked back at them. “We had to leave on foot.”
“We're here to join you,” said Stanley. “If you'll let us.”
Darcy nodded, and glanced back at Beck, Dale, and the Taylors. They nodded too. It wasn't really a question. Humans were humans now, whether or not they'd always taken the same position on zombie survival tactics. “You can set up in the building. We're camped out for now,” said Beck. Some of the weary walkers began to go inside. Their leaders still stood, looking back at Dale and his fellow crew members.
“We couldn't find any other survivors,” said Mimi.
No one spoke. Finally, Darcy said in a quieter voice, “We ran into Eric, Emily, and Gray. And a few others. They weren't...they were gone. I'm sorry.”
Mary met her eyes and nodded slightly, then looked down at the hunting knife she held in her hands. They seemed to be caked in blood.
Heather looked at her own blackened weapon, and back up. “We know. We ran into them too, about an hour ago.”
The others in her group looked at each other silently. Stanley spoke in a hollow sounding voice. “They won't be following us.”
The two groups stood, staring at each other. Bright rays of early morning sunlight lit their torn, blood soaked clothes and sooty, grimy skin. They'd never seen each other so clearly.
Beck turned to go back into the building, and motioned to the others. They began following. Most of Stanley's group were silent as they trudged inside. Dale offered take over the guard duty outside, and Gary Walcott was glad to go inside for a rest.
Not a very long time after, the newly reunited group gathered outside their temporary sanctuary, preparing themselves to begin the long trip ahead. Supplies were packed, weapons raised, and they began discussing safety strategies.
Dale was at the back of the group, and he noticed Jimmy and Margaret, standing apart from the others, talking to Darcy. They exchanged hugs with her, she hoisted her rifle, and she went to take up her position at the front of the group.
“Dale,” said Jimmy, noticing him. He glanced at Margaret, and back at Dale. They didn't seem about to take their place in the group.
“Leaving?” asked Dale.
“Yeah,” said Jimmy, shifting his weight slightly. “We've been thinking, and we just can't keep going further away, wondering if there's a chance our kids are okay and need us.”
Margaret put her hand on his arm. “Darcy's going to try to get us help. We'll look for Sam. If we make it, maybe there'll be hope for us.”
“But what if?” Dale felt suddenly too tired to ask the whole question. Jimmy understood though.
“We're prepared to do what we have to. We'll do whatever it takes,” he said. “It's what matters to us. Whether or not it makes us idiots.” He chuckled slightly.
Dale nodded slowly. Somehow, it made sense now. “No, I don't think so. I mean, I think I get it.” He reached out to shake Jimmy's hand, and then Margaret's. “Good luck.”
They set off, walking in the direction of Jericho.
“So cute. I really hope they don't get eaten.” He turned. Skylar was standing beside him, watching the retreating couple.
He smiled. The group started walking, and the two teenagers started to walk at the back of the crowd. “It was bad, back there?” he asked.
She looked straight ahead. “Everyone had to face their fears.”
He nodded. “Sorry.”
She shook her head. “I'm not sure it matters. Where we are. Stay or go, home or away.”
He glanced sideways. “Then why'd you come?”
She shrugged. “Better than the alternative.” She glanced at him and there was a trace of her former smile.
They looked at each other for a moment and then both stared ahead, keeping vigilant for more signs of danger as their people walked forward.
“You look great!” said Emily as Heather turned to the side. “All firefighters should have cute red raincoats.”
“It was this or a ladybug, and I decided I wanted to be one of society's favourite heroes,” said Heather, tipping her borrowed plastic firefighter hat. “Here, complete your ensemble.” She tossed a white apron at Emily.
Emily put the apron over her head. “How'd you manage to keep it so white?”
“Didn't use it much,” said Heather with a laugh. She began to admire Emily's costume as her friend tied the apron behind her back.
“Wait,” said Emily, pulling on her chef's hat.
“Perfect!” pronounced Heather. “How'd you keep the hat so white?”
“Roger only went to one class and then burnt his hand,” said Emily with a smile. “Ready to go?”
Heather nodded. “Ready. Let's roll.”
As they walked towards Bailey's, waved to parents and children returning home, and talked about the details of their day, Emily found herself thinking back on the stories she'd read. Dale's had perhaps been the most surprising. He'd attached a note about his process. “I wanted to pick randomly who lived and died, since a zombie attack is probably a lot like life that way, so I pulled the names out of a hat. The characters' resemblance to real people becoming zombies should be considered coincidental.” Emily shivered slightly. It was silly, she supposed, to be surprised. She'd been the one to open the Pandora's box of whatever these kids were thinking and feeling. After everything they'd been through, who knew what was lurking around in there.
They turned onto Main Street and waved at a few of their friends in the distance who were also heading to the party. “Looks like half the town's coming out,” said Heather.
“Yeah,” said Emily with a faint smile. She was suddenly thinking back to the last story she'd read, as quickly as she could after finishing Dale's. The last one in the stack had been Skylar's.