They piled their weapons and the remainder of Shannon’s clothes into Shannon’s restored Chevy Nova. Shannon was ordered to drive, which was fine by her; it was her car. The march of the undead had dwindled to almost a sporadic single or due. When they pulled out the parking lot those nearest lurched hurriedly toward them.
Shannon, feeling cockier than the situation called for, aimed for one and missed. Instead it latched onto the rearview mirror and hung on until Deidre rolled down the window and shot it in the head.
“Don’t be such a wildcat,” ordered Deidre, replacing the spent round from the shotgun.
“And maybe you shouldn’t waste ammo or fire so close to the interior,” retorted Shannon.
“Touché.” Deidre searched the glove box. She was rewarded with a handful of McDonald’s napkins, which she used to wipe down the shotgun’s muzzle.
The first ten miles afterwards were uneventful. They only encountered two deadheads, and those two had somehow taken down a coyote and were feasting on it. They were in the middle of the road, and paid no attention to their approach. Without a word Shannon accelerated, hitting the one closest to their path. She suppressed a laugh as the zombie bounced from bumper to hood to roof. As she watched it roll across the blacktop she thought they were lucky that it hadn’t hit the windshield.
“We need to eat,” said Deidre, breaking the hours long silence. “And we need to plan our next move.”
“Wow. Food and planning. You’re just now coming around to that train of thought?” asked Shannon caustically. She was hungry; tired of the silence and well past being tolerant of the silent treatment she had been getting for several hours.
“Shut up, smart ass. That’s been on my mind since we left the diner. We need to get out of Arizona. I’m thinking we should head north.”
The Nova, with its dark green paint, was an easy target from the air, but on the ground it looked like a one of the few desert plants from a distance. They stopped three miles from the road and ate cold sandwiches and drank warm water as the temperature rose. Shannon and Kelsey kept watch on the car’s roof as Deidre tried to teach Rance correct pistol operation. Even though Shannon ate and stared into the distant horizon, the memory of Greene’s face in the mirror haunted her. She tried brushing it off to stress once more before the sound of a far off helicopter captured her full attention.
Kelsey saw Shannon’s head go up and she followed Shannon’s gaze. Her eyes focused on nothing aside from clear sky. “What is it?” asked Kelsey around her chewing a piece of bacon sandwich.
“I thought I heard a jet.”
”Civilian or military?” asked Deidre, urging Rance into the car. She pulled a pair of binoculars from her duffle bag and stood on one of the car’s doorframes.
“I don’t know,” answered Shannon. “I’m not even sure it was a jet. It sounded far off enough to be dubious to even my ears.”
“I don’t hear anything,” said Kelsey. She clicked the safety off on her M4. She looked around, hoping that Shannon was wrong. Still she heard and saw nothing. “Maybe it left or it could’ve been the wind or something like that.”
“Just because you can’t see it or hear it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” answered Deidre. “Military snipers and scouts are trained to not be seen or heard. Civilians spend a month or two a year gearing up to hunt animals and they can be just as good. You’d better get back down. You’re enough of a target just sitting there.”
Shannon said nothing during their exchange. She hadn’t heard the wind or been mistaken in what she’d heard.
“Do you hear that?” asked Shannon, looking from one to the other.
An angry roar came and went with the light breeze that was blowing. Only Shannon looked into the direction from where the sound emanated.
“There,” announced Shannon, helping to give them a focal point to the east. A splotch appeared on the horizon, but then it became separate dark, fast moving dots. The dots became F/A18 Hornet fighters that zoomed overhead before turning to the northeast.
“Their racks are filled with bombs not missiles. Guess it’s not a dogfight,” Deidre commented, her finger following them as they zoomed by.
The fighters flew several hundred feet from the ground, as if they were trying to avoid radar. One of them peeled off from the others and did a fly over on Shannon and the others. The pilot waggled its wings, signaling that it had seen them. The fighter flew to rejoin the others, taking the vengeful howls of their engines with him. Inside the car and unheard by the others Rance was screaming himself hoarse at the noise. He cupped his ears. The sound was too much for him.
A minute later, faint distant explosions could be heard. They were too far off to see any fire or smoke, but Shannon felt the ground rumble underneath her.
“Did you see that?” screamed Kelsey, referring to the jets. “They’re still in the fight,” she screamed, feeling hopefulness vindicated by the sight of military jets.
“They’re Marines,” said Deidre. “Heading into the fight to empty everything they have before hitting a FARP for another run, I bet. Chances are that FARP isn’t too far off from here. The battle is farther east than the one I saw the other night. I thought we were moving away from it, but it’s going to catch up with us. We’re boned if it does. We need to leave. Now.”
“Why,” asked Shannon. She couldn’t contain the hope Kelsey certainly felt. “That FARP thing is good, right? If we find it, we can find out where everything stands. We just follow the jets to wherever that might be. It seems like a good idea to me.”
Deidre became irritated. Not at being questioned but at the time it took to explain. She’d rather be on the move. “First off, no it’s not a good thing. Not for us anyway. A FARP is an anagram for Forward Arming and Refueling Point. It’s for combat ops, not for refugees. Secondly, if they take us in, they’re going to take our guns and ask questions. A lot of them. Worst case scenario is there are some opportunists with an eye for the ladies. Personally, I don’t think the world’s that far gone yet. Humor my paranoia for a change. We need to lay low off everyone’s radar and see where everything goes from here.”
“You’re right. You are paranoid.” Shannon spoke with certainty that Deidre wanted to move for reasons other than safety.
Shannon could see the anger lingering behind Deidre’s eyes. Her scent was changing for the worst as well. She could tell that Deidre was fighting against the angry, profanity riddled diatribe fighting to free itself from Deidre’s mouth. It was Rance’s presence was stopping her.
“Godd-,” started Deidre. “Yes, I am paranoid. Think woman! The dead are walking around and eating the living. Some of your buddies have joined them and that’s double trouble far as I’m concerned. And where there’s large groups of people making large amounts of noise there’s less chances to live. Greene’s not the only one who’s watched a few horror movies. I won’t get eaten, and I won’t allow any of you to get eaten! Damn Shannon! I’d expect you to know fucking better! Sorry about the language, Rance.”
Shannon didn’t know how to respond. There was more than truth in Deidre’s argument. A refugee camp, if any were still in could potentially be a guaranteed meal, or made into one. Shannon shuddered under the hot desert air at the former. “Then what are your orders, Captain?” She sketched a salute in an attempt to be funny.
“I was a Navy lieutenant, not a Marine captain.” Deidre smiled briefly. “Honestly…” Deidre bit her lip, searching for words. “My gut tells me to back off and go around, but on the other hand I want to check out what’s going on. Whatever’s going on up there could conceivably give us a leg up on the situation. It’s dangerous, sure, but we’ll know what’s what. I could be wrong, but it may mean that humanity’s winning. It’s in the general direction anyway.”
“You do know that it’s heading back toward Tucson? But hey, whatever you decide, we’ll do.” Kelsey peered into the backseat. Rance lay on the floorboard clutching his favorite teddy bear.
“Uh-uh. You’re not putting this off on me. We’re taking a vote. Mob rule is better than no rule. Those in favor of checking out the action, raise your hand.” Deidre raised her hand.
Shannon raised her hand more out of curiosity than any in any hope of safety. Kelsey raised hers also. The decision had been made.
“Fine. Get in. We’re going to see what’s going on.” Deidre tossed the binoculars into the passenger seat. “Hoo-yah, going to town.”
She climbed into the driver’s seat, and turned to the others before starting the engine. “There’s a small town in between here and there. It’s an ink spot on the map and kind of out of the way. I think we should detour through there and see if we can get shelter for the night. We need to let things cool down at that battle space first.” She looked to Shannon.
“Sounds good to me. If whatever those Marines were shooting at isn’t taken care of, then the boogeymen will have moved off after a while. Sounds prudent to me.”
“But we could-” started Kelsey. Deidre interrupted her before she could finish.
“What? Miss the soldiers or whatever is there? Damn right we could. That’s what you were going to say, right?”
Rance stirred uneasy on the seat. Kelsey absent-mindedly started to brush his hair. “Not necessarily.”
“Uh-huh. Look, if the military is losing over there then we need to steer clear until the literal heat dies off.”
“But we could miss them if they’re winning,” argued Kelsey.
“Trust me; they aren’t,” retorted Deidre.
“Close air support is for when the ground forces are in heavy contact, losing, or both. My guess is both.” Deidre looked to Shannon and gave her a glance that said back me up.
Shannon did. “I think Deidre’s right. Let’s wait overnight and see what happens. There’s three or four hours of daylight left. It won’t kill us to wait. We’ve been on the road most of the day and haven’t seen anyone. That doesn’t mean our lucks gonna remain that good, Kel.”
Kelsey looked to be sulking now. “Okay,” she answered, stroking Rance’s hair even more. “I think it’s wrong, but we’ll see.”
“Settled,” said Deidre, starting the engine.
They returned to the road, eyes keenly kept on the area for any kind of trouble. The signs of battle showed up an hour later beyond a quarter of a mile from a sign saying, Welcome to Woodrow. Tranquility Realized. Population 11,432. The town was certainly living up to its name. Nothing was on the streets. Neither man nor beast could be seen moving about.
Deidre drove through what was the main street slowly. All three women looked into the windows of the businesses lining the streets. The windows gave good views inside and what they saw scared each of them. The peace coupled with empty shops and the odd car sitting in a parking space like normal was unsettling. The sun was setting and the coming dark added more creepiness that each could have done without.
“Where are we,” said Rance, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
“Somewhere we can maybe spend the night,” said Kelsey.
“You smell anything unusual, Shannon,” asked Deidre, circumventing a sheriff’s cruiser that had crashed into a Town and Country station wagon. The station wagon had seen better days before the accident and the driver’s door of the sheriff’s patrol car stood open, showing the blood adorning the interior.
“That’s creepy.” Shannon ignored the question and spoke in low tones as if she were afraid of recalling the people involved. Only one accident in the whole town. If the people left then they did it in an orderly fashion.”
“Or they’re still here and hiding. Do you smell anything unusual?” Deidre asked the question with more force.
“No. I smell things that are in the past. Maybe a day old. If there’s still people here they’re hiding better than werewolf I’ve ever hunted. This place is almost deserted.”
“Almost?” asked Kelsey and Deidre simultaneously.
“Werewolf and dog noses aren’t infallible. If I say that it is totally deserted and we get jumped, then you’ll both be pissed at me. Nope. I’m not giving a definite when I have doubts.”
“You’re no help,” mumbled Deidre.
“You asked,” said Shannon. But she had smelled something, however faint for just a moment. She didn’t know what it was exactly, but it stank of sickness and lycanthropic anger. The sickness had to have been the zeds in the town, but this distinct reek of werewolf was something she’d never encountered before. She was going to keep that to herself until she could catch it again, and she hoped that she wouldn’t.
They drove around the town once more before deciding to stop for the night. The sun was halfway down and being caught in the open under any circumstance was not an option.
“This looks good. What do you think,” asked Deidre, pulling the car into the back parking lot of the Tranquility Sheriff’s Department. “It should be secure enough for the night, and maybe we can scrounge something from inside.”
“Always said I’d end up in jail,” said Shannon, opening the Nova’s door. She stepped out and looked around. Her nose followed her vision and scanned for anything that might pose a problem. “Clear,” she announced. “Nothing within the past day has been here.”
“Outstanding,” answered Deidre. She exited the vehicle and looked around herself. Good field of view for us to see trouble coming, and have time to get out quick if we need to.”
“Also a good line of sight for some enterprising sniper to take a shot at us,” answered Shannon. She opened the door for Kelsey and Rance.
“You said there was nothing to worry about,” said Kelsey stepping out with Rance in her arms.
“Yeah, but someone could come along and surprise us.”
“Now who’s paranoid?” said Deidre, joking.
“Just being practical.”
“Shannon, you hit the door first, if there’s anyone in there, you’ll catch them first. Kelsey will be in the middle and I’ll be rear guard.”
Shannon cocked her head in disbelief. “Are you kidding? The place is empty. No one’s here or been here in a day or so. Really?”
“For the love of God,” spat Kelsey moving up the handicapped ramp of the back entrance.
“Wait,” hissed Deidre. “The door could be booby trapped.”
Shannon rolled her eyes. “Get a grip, Dee.” She followed Kelsey up the ramp.
“Door’s locked,” said Kelsey, trying the handle.
Shannon moved Kelsey aside and looked through the reinforced glass. “I can break through the glass and maybe get to the lock, but it’ll leave our back door open.”
Deidre took a breath. “I’m not getting it in the back door.” She chuckled.
Shannon stared intensely at Deidre while Kelsey gave her a quizzical look.
“You told me to get a grip. I was trying to be funny.”
“That’s…not funny,” said Kelsey hesitantly.
“Be right back,” said Shannon, handing Deidre her M4.
“And you’re going where?” inquired Deidre.
“To see if I can find another way in. Give me five minutes.”
“Wait,” said Deidre, but Shannon had vaulted over the railing and taken off at a run around the right side of the building.
After ten minutes Deidre was about to call a retreat to the car and leave Shannon on her own. Just as she opened her mouth to give the order, Shannon appeared at the back door in werewolf form.
Locks clicked, and the door swung open.
Deidre ushered Kelsey in first and Shannon quietly shut and relocked the door after Deidre entered.
“There’s a kitchen down the hall. First left and then two doors down. Take Rance there,” advised Shannon.
Kelsey looked to Deidre, and Deidre nodded her approval.
Kelsey cautiously side stepped Shannon, never once taking her eyes off Shannon’s towering form.
“Give me a moment,” said Shannon lowly. “Could you… you know, turn around. This is gonna be disturbing to hear, and much worse to witness.”
Deidre hesitantly turned away and the sound of wet canvas ripping and flesh groaning in wet high-pitch squeals filled the hall. It made Deidre’s flesh crawl, and the roots of her teeth ache while she resisted the urge to both look and scream at the sounds.
“I’m good,” said Shannon, breath ragged after a moment of silence.
“That was anything but good,” said Deidre turning to face Shannon. “And your clothes are fucked up. Again.”
“Occupational hazard. Listen. This place wasn’t all that empty. I found three deaders stumbling around-”
“You said this place was good to go,” hissed Deidre angrily.
“There’s a hint of death everywhere, and the air-conditioning is still on so it hid the scent a bit. It was nothing I could deal with.” Shannon subconsciously took a step forward. “Keep your damn voice down. You’re not whispering as much as you think. This place was used as a rescue center before the townsfolk moved off. Those that remained got infected somehow and turned on the cops inside. The second floor is lousy with bodies. They tried to fight off the zombies, but failed. We can’t let Kelsey and Rance get to the-”
A scream came from above them.
“Right on cue,” said Shannon with more spite than she wanted.
They ran up the stairs and Deidre was stunned to see the failed barricade mid-way down the main hall. One side had been moved to allow entry, and that was when Deidre saw that the barricade had been solid on only one side. Dark crimson pulp was everywhere. Deidre didn’t stop for a moment to wonder where the bodies had gone.
“Sonuvabitch,” murmured Deidre, entering the only set of double doors on the floor. The room was worse than the barricade. Bodies were almost everywhere, and pressed against the wall next to the doors was Kelsey. The room had been used as a place to house everyone that had come to the Sheriff’s office. When the bitten or infected had turned, they’d attacked those inside. The infection had spread quickly and no one had been safe.
“This is what I was trying to warn you about” remarked Shannon, moving past Deidre. “It’s a damned slaughterhouse.” She moved to Kelsey and was beginning to reassure her when she realized Rance was missing.
“Downstairs in that kitchen area,” answered Kelsey. “Hiding in a cabinet.”
They moved the sobbing woman downstairs and was approaching the kitchen when a shot rang out.
Kelsey cried out louder and broke away from Shannon and Deidre.
“She left him with a gun?” exclaimed Deidre in disbelief.
The two women rounded a corner and found Kelsey hugging Rance tightly. Rance was crying with Deidre, and several feet away laid a 9mm Glock. Nearby a cooling shell casing caught the light and glinted like an evil eye at the women.
“Is he injured,” asked Deidre, dropping to her knees beside them. She fought Kelsey for Rance and quickly check him. The boy was uninjured.
“I got scared. I…I thought I saw a dead person,” said Rance with a hitching voice.
“It’s okay, baby. I’m here. It’s okay.”
Deidre stepped forward. Ferocious rage radiated from her face. “Kelsey,” she said sharply.
Kelsey ignored her. She began to sing Once Upon a Dream to Rance. The song seemed to slow and then stop his hitching voice. Kelsey continued to sing.
“Goddammit, Kelsey,” said Deidre. She reached for Kelsey, but Shannon grasped her wrist. She locked eyes with Shannon.
Shannon’s grip tightened and she shook her head no. “Hallway, now” said Shannon.
Deidre’s scowl deepened and she went to pull away. Shannon tightened her grip and whispered, “I can break it like a breadstick if I wanted. Don’t make me do it just to get my point across.”
Deidre gave no sign of giving in. Shannon squeezed harder and she could feel the bones groan under the pressure.
“Fine,” relented Deidre.
“What the hell was that,” asked Deidre, rubbing her wrist as they closed the door to the kitchen behind them. “I don’t care if she’s comforting Rance. That was goddamned good and well stupid on her part. Who the fuck gives a gun to a child that doesn’t have a clue how to use it? And just who the fuck do you think you are talking to me like that. Keep in mind you’re no more than our guard dog.”
Shannon brushed her dirty blonde hair back in exasperation. “First off, it’s pretty clear you don’t care right now. Secondly, in her mind she could’ve walked in to find Rance dead because of her carelessness. Trust me, I’m willing to bet she won’t be making that mistake again. And third, I’m no one’s guard dog. Do you understand? You may think you got me on a chain, but the more I see it,” she stepped closer to Deidre. “The way I see it, you need me more than I need you. And that is the goddamned truth.”
Deidre sighed. Shannon could smell Deidre’s anger turning itself down. “All right. You’re not my dog, and I don’t control you. Yeah, we need you more than you need us, but make no mistake on this; me and her aren’t done on this matter.”
“No surprise there.”
Deidre momentarily covered her face. “If he’d sh-”
“He said he saw a dead person. His words. If he had we’d have seen him, her, or it and then dealt with whatever. As it stands, I can’t sense any danger near us.”
“Shit, it was probably his overactive imagination. We’re all tired, and this shit is bananas.”
“B-A-N-A-N-A-S. I’ll take first watch tonight. This building is cleared so we don’t have to be worried about anything already being here. The roof’s got a good vantage point so that’s where I’ll be for the first three hours.”
“Is that how you got in? The roof?”
“Fire escape on the left side of the building. Almost did a complete circle around before I found it. It was hellacious jump up to get it. Around ten feet I figure.”
“Did you pull it up or whatever after you got up?”
“Best your ass I did. Momma Morris didn’t raise a moron.”
Deidre chuckled. “We done here?”
“Almost. Hey, listen. Give Kel her space right now. She literally saw her life flash before her eyes. If you’re needing busy work I found their armory. Not sure if there’s anything left that’s worth a damn, but it’s worth a look. It’s in the basement. Well, more like it is the basement. You can’t miss it.”
“I’ll poke around there in a moment. Right now, I just want to look around. This shit… Well, this is shit.
“Girl, you ain’t never lied.”