The old man had been in his late seventies when he died. His limbs carried him jerkily past the motorcycles and toward the camp where Matt and his friends sat around the fire, frying a rabbit. The rabbit smelled as wonderful to them as they undoubtedly smelled to the old man.
Harley dropped the paperback Elmore Leonard novel he'd been reading and pulled his pistol, taking careful aim for the center of the old man's head. Matt could see yellow and black teeth champing together through one ragged rip in the left cheek. The old man's coat had seen better days, the wool covered with dried and crusted gore from previous kills. It swung around his legs like a weighted curtain as he staggered toward them.
Dawson tossed another stick on the fire, seemingly oblivious to the unfolding drama. The pistol barked in Harley's hand. A neat, bloodless hole appeared above the old man's eyes as his brains exploded from his skull through the back in a grisly gray fan. The corpse dropped to the ground, a marionette with cut strings.
"Shit," Harley muttered. "I think I got some brain on my bike."
"Doesn't take `em long to zero in," Matt said. The sudden urge to check the zombie for identification flitted over him, but he squashed it. They're not people anymore, he reminded himself. It was a mantra he repeated each time he saw one destroyed, as automatic and reassuring as crossing himself had been in his youth.
Harley yawned. "We haven't seen very many of them today. I guess the National Guard got it right in this area."
"Yeah, but they can't get 'em all," Dawson said. Grease dripped from the rabbit and bubbled in the skillet, making a delicious crackling sound that recalled images of waking early and hearing mother at the stove.
Supplies were increasingly harder to come by. They had spent four hours the previous day looking for food in a row of abandoned houses called Chatham Village. Nothing. People took off or were relocated and took the food with them. That, or they were killed for it. The breakdown of society created a nasty crime problem. Murder victims got up and walked the earth on stilted limbs before saliva could dry in the mouth. The next schmucks along could get a nasty surprise if they let their guard down for a minute.
"Daws, this friend of yours," Matt started. "I hope he's as good as you say." Flames danced in his dark eyes.
Dawson sighed, his resigned expression part of the ritual dance of motivation. "I'm telling you, the guy was prepared. That survivalist training doesn't go away. He's been telling me for years that society would fall and he was ready to ride it out." He laughed. "I don't guess he expected this spin, but the principle is the same."
"And if he's dead?"
Dawson stared at the fire. Embers flew up and disappeared into the cool September morning. "I don't know," he said finally. "But the place is still there, I'm betting. He's got solar panels and those little windmill generators cranking out energy and pumping water from his own well." He carved the rabbit apart as he spoke and used the knife to force pieces into the largest section of a blue plastic plate. He passed the plate to Harley, who looked at the steaming rabbit as if he expected it to hop away.
"That was a good shot, Harl," Dawson said. "Your aim is improving."
"Yeah," Harley agreed. He cradled the plate in the fork of his crossed legs but made no move to eat.
Dawson divided the rest and handed Matt his share. "Go ahead and eat. I'll take care of our friend, first."
Matt ate heartily. Over the sounds of his own chewing, he could hear Dawson dragging the corpse further into the woods. Harley stared at his plate for a few more minutes before the smell weakened him and made him eat.
The road twisted and curved like a hyperactive snake, disappearing around bends of steep hillside. The road system in West Virginia set Matt on edge. He was a Kansas man. The hills surrounding him on each side made him feel uneasily like a rat in a Skinner maze. Dawson rode point, hunched forward.
Matt envied his knowledge of the area and ease on the curves. Harley glided into the neat circle of the side mirror. The boy had less experience on bikes than Matt did and rode closer than Matt would normally have liked. The boy's red hair spilled out of his helmet and flapped behind him like a pennant.
He looked ahead. Dawson zipped along yellow double-painted lines. The road straightened, sided by a few ragged houses that needed paint. Matt could see no zombies. They tended to cluster around houses. Their vestigial memories and instinctual awareness of their surroundings still equated houses with warmth, comfort, and food of the warmblooded variety. The trio had been on the road for three hours since breaking camp and had seen only one zombie-a ragged child missing an arm, his Power Rangers shirt shredded by an old shotgun blast that had missed his head and vaporized the right shoulder.
Matt's concentration returned to the road in time to see Dawson melt into the road and disappear. There was no warning--the road simply swallowed him. Matt stomped the brake and whipped the cycle hard, his left boot grabbing asphalt as the rear tire described a black rubber parabola. Harley's tires screeched as he shot past, his reaction time slower.
Matt unbuckled the helmet and ripped it off. It thunked on the asphalt and started to roll. He didn't see it--he was already on the ground and running forward, his boots clapping smartly against the asphalt. The road ahead looked all wrong, but he didn't catch why at first.
Dawson's screams rang from the newly-uncovered hole in the asphalt. The road's surface rippled, and Matt realized that it was canvas. The pit's wide end fanned out in a scoop that had collected the cycle easily. The ground sloped gently and then dropped to a depth of four feet. Dirt crumbled from the surrounding walls and landed on Dawson.
"What happened, man?" Harley dropped to the edge of the hole and looked inside.
Dawson's cycle looked like a Picasso painting. The front wheel had impacted against the far wall of the pit, crunching back on itself and twisting out of shape. Dawson himself lay curled, clutching his right leg below the knee. It was bent at an unnatural angle. A grotesque lump strained from the shin of his jeans. Dawson shuddered and cried out. "Oh Christ, man... ohGodohGod...it fuckin' HURTS..."
"C'mon, kid," Matt said. "We've gotta get him outta there."
Harley shook his head. "I don't think we should move him."
"We've got to. He's goin' into shock." The sharp odor of gasoline stung his nostrils. "I think the tank ruptured."
That decided the boy. "I'll try to lift him up." He staggerwalked along the sloping edge and dropped in beside Dawson.
"Ah Jesus, man," Dawson whimpered. "Somebody broke my fuckin' leg!"
Matt felt drained. His heart continued to triphammer like a metalworker on speed. This was some bad shit. He had no medical training, and he doubted the kid did either, beyond a high school safety course. If his injuries couldn't be fixed with a splint and some aspirin, Dawson was going to die. He doubted they were going to find any doctors soon enough to make a difference.
Harley struggled to pull Dawson's hands away from the leg. Every touch elicited a new cry of pain. Sweat beaded on Dawson's forehead.
Matt's survival instinct, honed to an almost reptile quickness by the past months, continued to tick off problems. This was an elaborate trap. There was danger here, but the danger for Daws was more immediate. Matt unbuckled his belt and started to pull it free from the denim loops. It would make a decent tourniquet, but so far he could see no blood on Dawson's jeans.
He heard the cha-chink of the pump shotgun before he could see the man wielding it. Matt froze, his eyes scanning the road and the single house in view. His mind raced, searching for cover. Before he decided to jump into the ditch, a hard, masculine voice yelled "Freeze!" from behind him. Matt slowly raised his hands and turned, letting the belt dangle from the last loop like a crushed serpent.
The man stood on the other side of the bikes, only twenty feet away, the shotgun pointed square at Matt's chest. "Don't move," he commanded.
Matt glanced into the hole. Harley's eyes were completely focused on the shotgun. He ignored Dawson's moans. Dawson wasn't noticing much of anything.
The man holding the shotgun looked as wiry and sunburned as a slice of jerky. His wide-brimmed straw hat cast shadows that made deep gullies of the wrinkles on his face. His hands were steady on the gun. The man didn't need a gun to look hard.
"I hope you won't get too eager with that shotgun, friend," Matt said.
"The name's Jesse," the old man said. "You mind telling me what you're doing here?"
"We're headed for Colorado, to find a friend. We decided to look for some food, but the pickings are pretty slim." The old man said nothing. That impenetrable stare bred a touch of impatience in Matt that he reigned in before he shot off his mouth or did something equally stupid.
"Colorado, huh?" A small tightening of the lips served as the only suggestion of thought. He started to lower the gun, then said, "I wouldn't get any ideas about rushing me. I have some friends watching us."
"Don't worry about me," Matt said. "Look, do you know any doctors? Are there any in this area? My friend here needs one." Dawson moaned again, as if on cue.
The old man lowered the shotgun. "We can fix up your friend's leg."
The motel room was as neat and soulless as any of the hundreds Matt had spent road-time in before the zombie plague. It offered heat, shelter, breathing room, and the promise that it would forget him as soon as he left. The continuity created a not unpleasant kind of deja vu in him. Two beds jutted out from one wall, separated by a small table with a lonely telephone that had been dead silent when Matt had tried it. The TV had been removed before their arrival, the gray metal support strut sticking out of the wall like a rib from a forgotten beast.
Harley had claimed the bed closest to the bathroom, taken a moment to skin off his jacket and sweaty crew-necked t-shirt, and fallen almost instantly asleep. Sleep eluded Matt, despite the heaviness of his limbs. His mind skated over events, replaying them, processing and integrating his impressions.
The old man, Jesse, had pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and called for an ambulance for Daws, who had started to resemble a frantic devil from a Bosch painting. He had remained silent until the medics arrived and cut away the denim. The leg was horribly swollen and looked ready to burst, but Matt was relieved that there were no bones poking out through ripped flesh.
As the medics did their work, four other men--the friends Jesse had mentioned, apparently--appeared from the treeline like magic. Like Jesse, they carried guns and earnest expressions. Only one of them looked younger than forty, but the cruel turn survival had taken with the boy's face added years as he stepped forward to take Matt's guns. Matt recognized that shell-shocked expression on his own face when he looked in the mirror. It was so common you almost didn't notice it anymore.
Matt and Harley had been directed to the house. The porch boards creaked under their combined weight and paint flaked around the door frame. They spent an anxious hour in the living room, not quite daring to sit in upholstered chairs heavy with moisture from broken windows. The men refused to answer any questions or attempts at conversation.
At the end of that hour Matt and Harley had been loaded into the back of a Ford pickup so red it looked fresh from the show room. Their motorcycles and packs dwindled behind them and disappeared as the Ford skirted the edge of the pit and shot around the curve. Matt felt a pang as he realized that his journal, containing his impressions and musings of the past month, still rested snugly in the right saddlebag. He'd picked it up on a whim from the school supply section of a looted drug store. Paper wasn't in high demand these days. It was a cheap spiral notebook, but it had become a part of him.
Jesse drove the truck, with the younger man riding shotgun. The three other men stayed behind, presumably to reset the trap.
"I'm scared shitless," Harley had said. His nervous fingers zipped and unzipped his jacket. The white t-shirt underneath blinked in and out of view like a surrendering flag.
"They haven't killed us," Matt pointed out. "That's a good sign in my book."
"They haven't killed us yet."
Fifteen minutes on the road, and Matt counted two more pits like the one that had captured Dawson. Five minutes after that they encountered a yellow payloader and a work crew of about fifteen men, scooping out the center of the road. Large chunks of asphalt lay in an untidy pile like Scrabble tiles.
Their truck stopped and idled. Jesse's tan fingers tapped absently on the driver door. His friend constantly checked the captives through the back glass. The way he cradled his gun gave Matt the sickening certainty that the boy would be happy to see them run, that a little target practice would start the day off right.
"What are they defending themselves against?" Matt wondered aloud.
"No, I don't think so." The men worked quickly, shovels and wheelbarrows coordinating with an ease born of practice. "They've had plenty of time to set up defenses, if they've been here from the start of the plague."
Conversation ended at the point as the Ford moved through a break in the workers. The truck rattled over a rough patch of road, the wheels lurching through pot-holes in a drunken parody of forward motion. As Matt's teeth rattled like castanets in his head, he wondered if the road was intentionally so lousy.
A makeshift checkpoint swam out of nowhere, and a prim blonde in her thirties, who might have been a librarian before, waved them through without asking about the two strangers in the back. Jesse waved to her as he drove by. Houses began to pop up in groups. Almost every one had a neat garden--potatoes, beans, and a few stunted corn plants were all he could make out. A green sign told them that they were entering the town of Silver Creek, but offered no assurances that they would be leaving. Small groups of men and women walked along from building to building, talking and laughing easily. A few minutes later the truck barreled into the parking lot of the Sandman Motor Lodge--Free Cable and HBO!--and settled near the office.
Jesse had directed them into their new room--Number Twelve. Matt had finally rounded on the man and demanded answers. Where was Dawson? Why were they being detained? Jesse had grunted something about a hospital and set the boy on the door, rifle in hand, to keep an eye on them.
The waiting was the worst. At least in the dentist's offices there had been light music playing from tastefully hidden speakers. There were magazines to read and matronly receptionists to interact with. This room lacked everything.
There wasn't even a Gideon Bible, though Matt hadn't held one in years. The light buzz of Harley's snoring did little to alleviate the weight of silence. Even the room's large window, flanked by two upholstered chairs, offered little in the way of a stimulating view. A few chestnut trees lined the perimeter of the parking lot, their branches drooping with a solemnity he could feel in his marrow. Jesse's Ford had been the last vehicle parked there.
His thoughts turned back to the dentist's office, and he began to count all the Lost Things in his head. He had just reached #117--quarter-pounder cheeseburgers from McDonald's--when the door opened. Jesse stood there between two clean gentlemen who could have been bank tellers. Their eyes penetrated like blue drill bits. Teller #1 smiled at Matt. "We'd like to ask you some questions," he said.
"Come in," Matt said broadly, taking an instant dislike to the two. Every movement was efficient, controlled, and reeked of Type-A personality. They seemed the embodiment of every asshole who had ever turned him down for a loan or pink-slipped him for not kissing ass. "I don't have any coffee to offer you, I'm afraid."
"Quite all right, under the circumstances," Teller #2 said, stepping through the door. Jesse waited for the duo to clear the door before shutting it and joining the guard outside.
How's my friend?" Matt asked. The tellers moved to the chairs by the window and sat, leaning forward to give the full effect of their eyes.
"Dr. Lawrence tells me he's going to be off that leg for awhile. He also has a few broken ribs, plenty of bruises, and one bitch of a headache," Teller #1 said.
Harley's breathing changed from a snore to a harsh whuff as he emerged from sleep. His green eyes blearily took in the visitors. "Whuzzut?"
"These men are here to talk to us," Matt explained. "They tell me Daws is going to be okay."
"Good." Harley stretched, vertebrae popping. He snagged his shirt from "the floor and slipped it on.
"Let's start with names," Teller #1 said. "According to your friend's description, I'd say you're Matt Cosgrove--"
"Right in one."
"--And you're Harley Foster," Teller #2 completed. The boy blinked at him, but said nothing.
"Right," Matt said. "I want to know why you've got us locked up. I've been patient, because you're the guys with the guns, but my patience is starting to wear mighty thin."
"We have you locked up because we don't trust you. We have a running problem, and we'd like to find out if you are a part of it." Their gloating smirks died, replaced by earnest concern.
"What problem would that be?" Matt asked.
Teller #2 fielded that one. "Why, the Right Reverend Pascal Forniss," he said. His face bunched into a tight and efficient ball of disgust. "You know the Reverend?"
"I haven't got the slightest idea--" Matt started to say, but Harley jumped in. His adam's apple bobbed up and down like an eight-year-old on a trampoline.
"Forniss! He had a Sunday morning prayer show. My grandma used to watch him all the time."
The tellers focused on Harley as if just noticing him.
"The guy was an absolute flake," Harley continued. "His running theme was the end of the world and demon possessions, all the gory stuff."
Matt tried to pull the file on Forniss, but his memories held nothing. As a rule, he avoided religious programs the way fitness freaks avoided cheesecake.
The Tellers managed to look impressed. "The "Right Reverend," as he calls himself, has amassed quite an army of followers these days--"
"--and we want to know if you two are a part of it--"
"--because it really is a popular religion these days."
The door spared Matt from giving them his views on religion. It opened again, this time revealing a woman about Matt's age, late twenties or early thirties. A clean white blouse descended neatly into tight denim jeans that accented every exotic curve. Her hair spilled in raven waves to her shoulders. Matt glanced at the Tellers. Dark clouds of anger built up on their faces.
"Dammit, Jenny, you can't just come in here when we're interrogating prisoners."
"They're not spying us out for Forniss, boys," she said. "You know he tattoos his followers." She turned her attention on Matt. "Hold up your hands". Matt obliged, showing her both palms and returning her smile.
"Nothing," she said. "And if you check, I doubt you'll find any on their feet or stomach."
"Fine," Teller #1 said. "Never mind that they could have skipped that to make them better spies."
"Ha," Jenny said. "Forniss is very specific about that."
The twins stood, smoothed the creases out of their pants, and stalked out of the room. #2 bumped Jesse and earned a sour look of contempt for his troubles.
Jenny watched them go. "I'm sorry about that. Danny and Donny mean well, but they take themselves a little too seriously. I'm Jenny Miller. My dad is the mayor of Silver Creek, and you look hungry. Would you like something to eat?"
"I'd love it," Matt said.
"It's a propane job," Jenny explained to them. She sat opposite Matt and Harley in one of the booths of The Purple Cow diner. "Bill makes the meals, and then I help deliver them to the work crews. I hope you like it."
Matt nodded. Saliva glands worked double-duty at the sight of the plate Bill set in front of him. The bemused air about the cook suggested that it was good to see someone who didn't take the food for granted. A hamburger, still steaming from the grill, sat triumphantly on one side of the plate. Lettuce and tomato peeked out of the sides of the bun. Onion rings, looking as fresh and crisp and the world's morning, rested beside them.
"It looks great," Harley told Bill. "Thanks."
"No problem," Bill said. His salt-and-pepper moustache danced above his lips. "You want coffee? It's evil de-caf today, but not too bad."
"Yes, please." Bill filled three cups and set them down.
Matt and Harley relished the food. The past month on the road had lowered their standards for normal meal-time fare. The onions rings were clearly Harley's favorite--he took small bites and munched them slowly, savoring the flavors and textures. Onion rings had, until today, been one of the Lost Things. Jenny watched them eat, taking pleasure in their enjoyment.
When they'd finished, leaving only a few scattered crumbs and empty cups for Bill to wash, Matt finally asked the question that was nagging at him. "Jenny, where are the soldiers? This isn't a relocation camp."
"No, it isn't," she agreed. "Oh, they came in and tried to move us, but we convinced them to let us stay. This is the heart of West Virginia, Matt. Most of the people here have been mad at the government for years."
"What did you do?" Harley asked.
"We fought them, and buried some of them at the edge of town with our own." The memory stole the light from her eyes, and Matt understood. He had spent a hard two weeks in the camps, surrounded by people lacking food and hope.
"So, we fought off Big Brother and started wiping out the zombies in our border. We've spent the past month running chain-link fences around the town. You probably came in through one of our checkpoints."
"Yeah, the woman looked like a librarian."
Jenny laughed. "That's perfect! Gretchen Lowry used to teach history at the high school! Anyway, the checkpoints are important, not just because of the zombies, but because of God's Army."
"What?" Matt asked.
"Forniss," Harley answered.
"Oh, yes." Jenny's dark eyes flashed. "The Right Reverend himself. When the zombie plague started, before the government lost control of the situation, Forniss began to slip a little. He started proclaiming that the zombies were the dead in Christ, and that this was the Resurrection."
"I remember that," Harley said. "He called them 'God's army,' and said that they'd been sent to destroy the sinners."
Matt could understand the appeal of the idea. A divine retribution to scour the world of bad people in the most efficient way possible, consumption.
"When the camps were overthrown or invaded, people began to look to him for the answers. They wanted a leader, the President was dead, and Forniss's religious mania made him a spellbinding one. He started tattooing them, and sending them out in units to gather up all the food they could get. They're highly organized."
Steamed curled up from her cup. "They slaughtered most of the soldiers in New England. I wouldn't go beyond Vermont for all the tea in China," she added.
Matt chewed on that a bit. "I hope your defenses are enough. They did a good job of catching Dawson." Matt suddenly felt guilty for the good food and the way she made him laugh. He'd almost forgotten Daws.
"I'm really sorry about that," Jenny offered. "We never expected anyone else. But we've got some very good doctors here in Silver Creek. It's only meant to keep Forniss from destroying the town and the bit of light we've managed to carve."
"He'd do that?"
"He has done it. We've got a few refugees here in Silver Creek. He means business. There are about five hundred of us here, but I'm not sure we can hold Forniss off."
"So what do you think?" Dawson asked him later. Jenny had been happy to escort them to the hospital to see him. The walls were blank white, but not as industrial as they would have been if the florescent overhead had worked. Jenny had explained that the basement generators were only used during emergencies. Sunlight through the window cast orange reflections from the plastic flowers on the dresser. This room had a television. It stared at the room like a defunct eye.
Harley perched on the other bed, while Matt took one of the wooden chairs. Jenny had offered to meet them later.
"It's a good place," Harley said. There was a reluctant thoughtfulness in his voice that Matt picked up right away.
"And what about Colorado?" Dawson demanded.
"I don't know anybody there!" Dawson exploded. "Jesus, aren't you tired of the road? I've been thankful for your company, Daws. I know I'd be dead if you hadn't found me when you did, but I'm thinking it's time to stop."
Dawson glowered. "I'm not going anywhere for awhile, not on a cycle, and I sure as hell can't fight. But I don't think we should just give up, after all we've gone through."
Matt thought about it. It was tempting. A chance to rest, among good people, and not keep one eye over your shoulder to find the next zombie. To eat garden-fresh food instead of what could be scavenged from the houses and stores outside the Control Zones. It was a chance to rebuild something of his former life.
Did I ever believe we'd get to Colorado? he asked himself, and this time he seriously considered that the answer was no and had always been no. The quest had been the focus of his energies and thoughts, but the facts were cold: it was something to do. It kept him from thinking about the mind-numbing anarchy of life in this new world. Colorado was maybe. Silver Creek was here-and-now, as concrete-solid as the walls that made up this building, and Matt felt an aching need to be a part of it.
He spoke slowly, carefully. "I want to try, if they'll have us." He found he could not meet Dawson's eyes.
"Dawson came out of the hospital yesterday, and I think he's ready to leave." The wheels of the cassette recorder turned slowly, preserving Matt's words and storing them on the magnetic strip. "I hope he'll spend the winter here, but I can't stop him."
The recorder ran from a small solar panel taken from an abandoned Radio Shack an hour from Silver Creek. Matt had grabbed it and stuffed his bag with blank tapes during an equipment run the previous week. Donny had clucked his tongue in annoyance at that, but Matt didn't care. His new audio journal had awakened an artistic streak in him. Observations, biographical details, and plans invariably made their way onto the tapes when the day's work was done.
"Harley is happier than I've ever seen him. He's made friends here. I doubt he'd leave Silver Creek except at gunpoint."
He fell silent for a moment. Notepads and pencils covered the table between the beds of Number Twelve of the Sandman Motor Lodge. "He may have to, though. There's still Forniss to think about, and there are rumors that the Florida Control Zone has fallen. We're sure to get visitors, although Forniss and the coming winter may keep them from coming north... so much uncertainty, but maybe we can work it out."
He looked out the window. The sun felt good on his face. Jenny waved to him from the road. He smiled and waved back.
He smiled a lot these days.
- THE END -