When we did go into towns Moira tended to look for what she called “last moments.” She checked in houses to see how people died, whether they got torn to shreds or committed suicide. Zoe told Nate to tell me to talk to her about it.
However, before I got the chance, Jim, one afternoon, cruising us down a stretch of highway in the middle of Illinois, said, “Moira? You know how when a pet dies it sucks all kindsa ways. Like even thinking about the good times makes you remember the fact they’re dead. Well, that’s kinda the reason no one has like a thousand pets. But it’s also kinda why no one gets teary about their neighbors’ pets, yaknowhuamsayin’?”
“Yeah,” Moira said.
That night, Jim pulled me aside while the others started a small campfire. He said to me, “Keep an eye on your girlfriend.”
I almost told him she wasn’t my girlfriend. Instead I just said, “Sure.”
Over the next few days, Moira stopped collecting “last moments.” Instead, she collected other survivors. It was almost like she’d spent so long around death life took on an affecting tangibility. She walked through a town and just seemed to know when a house had one or two, sometimes three people hiding inside. I guess little details caught her eye. She tried to explain it to me once. I mean, the way one house has more dead zombies out front is a sure sign, but Moira knew to check places because of how flowers looked cared for, or the cleanliness of windows -- blood splatter like a half erased streak, cleared from the glass but not the siding.
Moira found the siblings first. We never got their names. Two kids huddled in a basement half starved, and covered in blood. Neither of them appeared older than twelve. Both got real twitchy whenever we tried to get close. Zoe eventually managed to get them out. She’s always been good with kids, probably because she’s always wanted them. Then came Dwight Bauer and his wife Sarah, two people looking more for company than rescue. Shortly thereafter we found Tina Dutke in Huntley, Illinois. She stayed with us three days before disappearing one night. Although, she left a really kind note explaining that she couldn’t pass up such a golden opportunity to “Mad Max” her way across the country. Last but not least, Matty Jackson and
her grandmother Ruth. Moira and Zoe spent half a day trying to explain to fifteen year old Matty that Ruth couldn‘t come with due to the fact she was a zombie. Matty’d kept her locked in the cellar, feeding her by throwing down body parts she collected from the street. See, Matty believed a cure would eventually be discovered, so she needed to keep Ruth alive till then. Jim ended all discussion by shooting Ruth in head. Matty pointed a revolver at him. Jim responded by saying, “If you could, you’d’ve done it yourself.” She collapsed on the floor. Jim carried her back to the van. She treats him like some kind of mercy killing teddy bear, but it was still two days before she stopped crying.
Not everyone Moira found stuck with us. Still, we soon turned into a caravan. Two cars and a van, each loaded with people and supplies. We looted anything we could from everywhere we went. Eventually we each had a gun, though that didn’t make any of us feel much safer. Guns run out of bullets after all.
One afternoon Nate told me, “Jim was saying to me how too much wandering isn‘t good for the head. He said something like, ‘Aimlessness can make a person feel pointless, yaknowwhaumsayin’?”
“Sounds like Jim,” I said
Nate added, “I think he wants to stop somewhere for a while.”
“He go any place in mind?”
The mall looked like Dresden. And I don’t mean the fantastic city that rose from the ashes like some modernistic phoenix of concrete and steel implying humanity’s ability to return from ruin. I mean Dresden after the bombing. Then someone exploded a piñata full of blood and viscera all over the wreckage.
Nate said, “Looks deserted. But that doesn‘t mean it‘s safe, yaknowwhaumsayin’?”
Jim grunted his acknowledgement hmmm.
I said, “We can be sure by not going in there.”
Jim shook his head as he grunted his disagreement mmm.
Face in palm, I said, “I am not going into a fucking mall during the zombie apocalypse.”
“Why not?” Moira asked.
Looking back, it was a more valid question than I gave it credit. In other words, I regret ranting about following General Six Pack any farther into the stream of vomit spewing from Hell’s own mouth. My consternation didn’t have so much to do with the mall as with the kind of people we’d been encountering. Sure, we came across survivors like the Bauers and Matty Jackson, ordinary people just trying to keep on keeping on, but lately, it seemed like the maelstrom of madness sweeping the earth had given a vast majority of the population permission to go batshit crazy. Besides the predictable band of motorcycle riding assholes thinking it was their time to macho-rape the landscape, we’d come across bizarre zombie worshipping cults and a particular group of oddly friendly cannibals that will give me nightmares till the day I die screaming from said nightmares… they wore blood and shit as clown makeup. So all in all, I was beginning to feel that we should ditch the rest of humanity and avoid anything remotely resembling communes just to be safe.
When I finished Jim calmly said, “We can’t live in fear, yaknowhaumsayin’?”
“Fuck it,” Moira said, “I do.” With that, she headed straight into the mall.
Everyone followed her inside even me.
Most of the stores looked to have been refit into livable alcoves. Anything people needed to make homes had been taken from the various stores. The apartment-stores tended towards the center of the mall. The whole set up made sense. The security gates could be closed at night, so if anything went wrong people might still be safe. Putting the homes in the center of the complex meant there were at least four exits in all the cardinal directions. It seemed like some kind of post-modern cave dwelling to be honest. The sad thing is it might have kept them safe indefinitely if zeds remained the only problem.
We’d driven through large populations laid to waste by drifting zombie herds. However, something about this carnage didn’t feel right. It looked like a whirlwind of butcher knives tore through this place. Then there were the security grates: ripped open like cardboard. The final evidence came at the south entrance. A bearded man wearing an eye patch lay on the floor with a giant wolf buried up to its eyes in his stomach. He appeared to have slammed a knife into the wolf’s brain as its snout rummaged through his guts. The man even appeared to be grinning.
“Werewolves,” Jim said. I couldn’t see why he jumped from freakishly large wolf to werewolf until Moira pointed out the beast’s opposable thumbs. So werewolf it was.
Jim supposed the pack had been trying to get in for months then swept through one lucky night. He said they must have torn the whole place down as part of some feral victory celebration. I didn’t see any reason to argue with him, other than to be contrary. However, his next observation I felt required questioning.
“We’ll be safe here tonight,” Jim said.
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Moira swore, suspecting I just wanted to doubt Jim.
Jim said, “The pack’s already been here. We lay low there’s no real reason for them to come back. Plus, tonight’s not a full moon.”
Imagine our surprise when that very same night, despite there being no full moon, three werewolves came sniffing around the mall. The three acted more like pups than hunters. We managed to hide in a sporting goods store while they played with each. It almost seemed tempting to try petting them until the trio started a round of tug-o-war with a corpse. After tearing the carcass to pieces, they ran off. Either they never caught our scent, or if they did none of them cared.
The next morning Jim told us to collect silver. He said we needed it to make silver bullets. I tried to point out the bearded man’s knife didn’t have an ounce of silver on it. Jim sadly shook his head as if I just couldn’t understand 2+2. Moira said I should shut up, and from then on out, I let them do as Jim told. If nothing else, it gave us something to do. After about a day of searching, the town and the mall, we scrounged up enough silver to coat one knife… the bearded man’s bowie knife. Matty said Jim should have it. The others agreed. While he thanked them, I went to the east entrance of the mall. My stomach refused to endure his acceptance speech.
Out in the dark I caught sight of shapes moving, creeping through the wreck of cars in the parking lot. Too big to be human, too quick to be zombies, I took aim with my rifle. The first clean shot I got I fired. The pack scattered as the one I hit went down. Shot through the skull in the moonlight.
Jim came running followed closely by the others.
I said, “So much for silver.”
Pointing at me with the knife Jim said, “Do you know what you done?”
“Proved my point?”
“No.” He sheathed the blade, “You gave ’em a reason to chase us.”
And god fucking dammit, Jim was right.
The group stopped talking to me after that. At one point, Dwight Bauer suggested they leave me behind. Nate agreed with him. Zoe said they should all vote. Jim said, “We ain’t leaving anyone behind, yaknowhuamsayin’?” That ended the discussion.
I tried apologizing to Moira a few days later. She said, “Don’t. Just… don’t. If you really knew what’s best for everyone, you’d just be going along with things like I am.”
I kept to myself for the next few weeks. Jim managed to shake the pack by taking us on a zigzag route -- pinball mapping from east to west. Besides zigzagging, Jim’s main plan involved driving nonstop. The silent siblings turned out to be the best drivers. I suppose it gave them more of a distraction than any of us ever could. Matty Jackson tended to drive too fast, leaving the others behind, so she never got to run point. Sarah Bauer could sure drive the long haul. She once went five hours without needing a break. We drove all day and all night, stopping only for gas and brief bathroom breaks. Jim told everyone to piss and shit in bags which we buried before moving on, anything to reduce our trail. It seemed to work for the most part.
When we hit swamp country, probably somewhere in Louisiana, Jim decided we should set up a camp. Everyone needed a solid night’s sleep. Nate offered to take the first watch. After weeks sleeping in the confines of our caravan, everybody passed right out. I didn’t hear the warning until Matty Jackson kicked me in the ribs. She clapped a hand over my mouth before a yelp of pain escaped.
Glaring at me she said, “We need every gun.”
During his watch Nate saw dark figures moving through the swamps. Every so often he heard the slosh of something moving through water then the whole night went deathly still. He called to Jim who told him to rouse everyone. The moon provided a bit of light, but not enough to be sure what was circling us. Zombies? Werewolves? Moira, pragmatic as ever, turned on one of the car’s headlights.
The beams immediately shone on one of the wolves. Its ears fell back as its lips curled to reveal a snarling mouth full of railroad spikes. Other wolves paced into the light from the car. Some slogged through the marsh on their hind legs, while others slunk along on all fours. Few lingered in the headlight beams.
“What are they waiting for?” Zoe whispered.
“No idea,” Jim said.
The wolves kept their distance. Occasionally one would lunge forward, stop short, then bark ferociously before darting back to the pack. All night long they snarled and howled from the darkness. They half circled us but never once tried to rush our position. Shortly before dawn, the wolves disappeared.
Jim suggested they preferred to attack at night; that perhaps they reverted to human form during the day. The others agreed. I wasn’t so sure. There almost seemed to be an invisible line they couldn’t cross. Or maybe they just didn’t want to. Something about their behavior -- the wolves acted afraid. And I doubted it was us that scared them.
That said, my concerns remained my own. No one wanted to listen to me anyhow.
As soon we could, we packed up camp then got back on the road. We stuck to Jim’s plan of constant driving until we got out of swamp country. No one slept well the whole time. People kept having bizarre nightmares about a pale figure dressed in a ragged suit. Like some macabre maître d’ he beckoned towards a writhing nebulous form -- twisting shadows and hints of dark purple light. The closer the dreamer came to the thing the more its voice ran like razorblades through one’s skull. The sound of a thousand voices speaking at once, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.” Thank god for the discomforts of sleeping in cars. Some bump in the road, or petty shouting match sparked by fatigue jerked a person out of their fitful slumber. The week we slipped through Louisiana I doubt anyone got more than a few hours of sleep. And none of us realized we’d all been having the same dream until we left the state. It came out by accident when one of the silent siblings blurted out, “We enter the circle at night and are consumed by fire.” Somehow we all knew that was what had been ringing in our heads throughout the dream. None of us dared to consider what reaching that nebulous terror might have meant.
Jim said, “Well, upside, I suspect the pack won’t’ve followed us.”
“I hear what you’re sayin’,” I said. It was the first thing I’d said to anyone in almost a month.
Jim nodded, a tight smile on his face, and slowly thereafter, I fell back into everyone’s good graces.
A week later, after our escape from what can only be described as a family of inbred half zombie torture happy cannibals, Dwight Bauer shot his wife in her sleep then killed himself. While we buried them Jim remarked to Moira,“Staying alive doesn’t mean staying alive, yaknowhuamsayin’?” That night they shared a tent together… and pretty much every night since. It was no big deal really. She and I never actually dated. I mean, I wanted to, but the opportunity to make a move never felt sure enough.
I had a fresh reason to hate Jim.
COMING SOON! The conclusion...