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Excerpt for Gone: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse


GONE






By

Shawn Chesser


SMASHWORDS EDITION






***



Surviving the Zombie

Apocalypse


GONE


Copyright 2018

Shawn Chesser

Smashwords Edition





Smashwords Edition, License


This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please go and buy your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons, events, or places are purely coincidental; any references to actual places, people, or brands are fictitious. All rights reserved.


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Shawn Chesser on Twitter

ShawnChesser.Com



***


Acknowledgements


For Maureen, Raven, and Caden ... I couldn’t have done this without your support. Thanks to our military, LE and first responders for your service. To the people in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world who have been in touch, thanks for reading! Lieutenant Colonel Michael Offe, thanks for your service as well as your friendship. Larry Eckels, thank you for helping me with some of the military technical stuff. Any missing facts or errors are solely my fault. Bud Ableman: Your help with four legged critters is appreciated. Beta readers, you rock, and you know who you are. Thanks George Romero for introducing me to zombies. To my friends and fellows at S@N and Monday Steps On Steele, thanks as well. Lastly, thanks to Bill W. and Dr. Bob … you helped make this possible. I am going to sign up for another 24.

Special thanks to John O’Brien, Mark Tufo, Joe McKinney, Craig DiLouie, Armand Rosamilia, Heath Stallcup, Saul Tanpepper, Eric A. Shelman, and David P. Forsyth. I truly appreciate your continued friendship and always invaluable advice. Thanks to Jason Swarr and Straight 8 Custom Photography for another awesome cover. Once again, extra special thanks to Monique Happy for her work editing “GONE.” Mo, as always, you came through like a champ! Working with you over the years has been nothing but a pleasure. I truly appreciate having a confidante I can trust. If I have accidentally left anyone out ... I am truly sorry.


***


Edited by Monique Happy Editorial Services

www.moniquehappy.com




Prologue


Cade Grayson was staring straight out over the wide, gore-streaked hood at the remnants of the lopsided ambush he, Duncan, Jamie, and Lev had sprung on an unsuspecting band of cannibals. Caught sticking their noses where they didn’t belong, the marauders, based north near Bear Lake, had been dealt a massive blow from the encounter and subsequent military action levied against them. The two-lane stretch of State Route 39 Cade was inspecting through his Steiner binoculars fell away from the Ford F-650’s rounded front end at a shallow angle and continued for roughly a hundred yards before transitioning into a long, flat straightaway before finally ending at a sharp left-hand turn nearly two-thirds of a mile away. In the gutter on the left where the shoulder was wide and guardrail nonexistent, a full-size SUV rested on its roof. Having burned until all that remained was bare, soot-blackened metal and rims minus their tires, the bullet-riddled shell looked more like an insect in repose than the massive Ford Excursion it once was. Behind the destroyed Ford and trapped in the ditch was a pair of SUVs. Once shiny black Chevy Suburbans, both were now soot-coated, their sheet metal skin cratered from absorbing massive amounts of gunfire. Both sat on flattened tires and were listing hard to their passenger sides. With all of their windows blown out and just the skeletal tube and wire remains of what once were leather-clad seats showing in the openings, the vehicles conjured in Cade’s head images of the Arizona and Nevada foundering on Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row.

After spending a few seconds glassing the kill zone, he paused and framed the vehicles furthest from him with the Steiners. One was Charlie Jenkins’ Jackson Police Department Tahoe. Its front end was mangled considerably and most of the windows were cratered by bullet strikes. The second vehicle was a black van with a body-length red stripe and roof-mounted spoiler. Though it had also suffered considerable damage from the guns of Cade and the Eden crew, it was still clear it was tricked out to resemble the ride from the A-Team television show. Out back, the shot-up double doors were open wide, exposing the bodies stacked inside like cordwood.

Satisfied nothing living was present, Cade grunted, then turned his attention to the bottom of the hill where five zombies ambled down the center of the two-lane. They were arranged nearly shoulder to shoulder with a pair of adult Zs on the left and three preschool-aged boys of equal stature taking up the eastbound lane. Ground-hugging mist swirled as an assortment of ratty shoes and road-worn bare feet struck the rain-slickened blacktop. The wet slaps of the latter meeting the road could be heard clearly over the ticking of the Ford F-650’s rapidly cooling engine.

“Looks like they turned rather recently,” Raven said. She had hitched herself up to the front edge of the seat and was balanced there. One small hand was wrapped around the A-pillar grab-bar. The other hand had ahold of the collapsed stock on her M4, her nimble fingers slowly opening and closing on it. Nestled between her knees, its short barrel planted on the floor by her boots, the stubby carbine was a hand-me-down from her late mother. An item that represented more than just protection from the new monster-filled world. A world slowly collapsing in on her. Tightening like a metaphorical noose that with each passing day was gradually purging from her memory the last vestiges of a happy childhood. She had adopted the inanimate object as a sort of talisman. A physical thing linking her to her mom. And though she wouldn’t tell her dad even if asked, it represented an unspoken promise from the grave. The promise of her survival, if only she took proper care of it, kept it cleaned and oiled, and most importantly, at all times, locked and loaded.

A gust buffeted the slab-sided pickup. The stench of decaying flesh wormed its way in through the open windows, easily overpowering the sweet smell of Hoppes #9 gun oil emanating from the weapons scattered about the cab.

Cade watched the steam wafting from the mug perched on the dash and wished he could instead smell the aroma of the weak coffee.

Leaning closer to the windshield and squinting, Raven said, “I think they’re a family.”

Cade looked sidelong at his twelve-year-old. Her jaw was set, the muscles there well-defined from months of apocalypse-induced stress. Add a high ponytail and a ball cap and fast forward two decades, she’d be Brook’s doppelganger.

Though Cade was in agreement with her hypothesis, he said, “What brought you to that conclusion?”

Chin now resting on the flat of the M4’s buttstock, Raven replied, “The boys are triplets. They’re all the same height. They have the same oval faces. Their hair is the same color and looks like they all had it cut in the same style.”

Pleased to see his girl relying on powers of observation, he nodded. Then, after reflecting on the way their brindle Australian Shepherd, Max, had come to be a member of the Grayson family—having adopted Brook and Raven after showing up outside the wire at Schriever with a similar-looking band of walking corpses—he said, “I think you’re on to something. But I’m pretty sure they don’t remember each other.”

She nodded this time. “And they don’t have feelings anymore. All they want to do is hunt and eat what they catch. I know all that, Dad.”

“What else do you make of them?”

“Well,” she said, squinting again, “I’d guess they died during the same attack and then reanimated together. Probably been hunting in a pack ever since.”

Smiling inwardly, Cade said, “The woman and man are about the same age. What do you think? Mid-thirties … like me?”

Raven regarded her dad. Let her eyes roam his newly clean-shaven face. “Naw,” she said. “Those two are in their forties. Even on the newly dead, wrinkles take a while to stretch tight.”

“Parenting triplets did that to them. Would have aged me prematurely if there were two more just like you.” He smiled and shook his head at the glare he received. “Kidding, sweetie. Those two are mid-thirties … tops,” he insisted. “Want to bet on it?” He held out his hand. “I’ll do your dish duty for a whole week if I’m wrong.”

Raven pursed her lips. After a moment of contemplation spent staring at her dad’s hand, she said, “What do I have to do if I lose the bet?”

“Twenty-five pushups and seventy-five sit-ups a day for a week.”

She looked at the dead things, now about fifty yards off the Ford’s bumper and just beginning the long uphill slog.

Shrugging, Cade gripped the steering wheel two-handed, regarded the dead and began humming the Jeopardy theme song.

After a long ten-count, Raven let go of the grab bar and offered her hand.

Making her wait, Cade made a show of looking at his nails. There was reddish-brown dirt caked under them. Along with sore arms, a tight back, and a number of blisters on his palms, the clay-rich grime was a byproduct of digging the newest graves in which three of their own now rested for all of eternity.

“Well?” she said. “They’ll be at our doors before long.”

Cade gave her hand a firm shake. “Deal,” he said. “Blades only.”

Bone-handled Arkansas Toothpick already clear of its sheath, she said, “Let’s do this. I’ll take the kids.”

Gerber dagger in hand and shouldering open his door, Cade said, “Don’t you forget they’re fresh turns—”

Interrupting, she called back, “And the smaller they are, the faster they move.”

That’s my girl, he thought, closing his door with a firm shove.


Chapter 1


Duncan came to crunched up in a fetal ball and facing a wall clad with faux-wood paneling. Above his head was a dinner-table-sized window. Slivers of light probed the bottom of the mauve curtain, painting the queen bed from head to foot with vertical stripes. If there was a prison for the man, this was it. A cold bed wedged into an even colder Winnebago. One that still smelled of bleach and death, the former waging a losing battle over the latter. He rolled over and felt his brain seemingly come into contact with every sharp-edged bone inside his cranium. It was as if the organ currently waging a war against him was untethered. Floating free in a sea of spinal fluid shored with razor blades.

Rimed by crystalline gunk, his eyes were slow to open fully. So he grabbed blindly at the water bottle perched on the narrow shelf behind his head. It was light in his hand. Not a sound when he shook it. The bottle next to it was empty, too. At least I hydrated before passing out, crossed his mind as he tossed the bottle to the floor. Either he’d finally learned his lesson after nearly sixty years on this unforgiving rock, or the empties were days old. Judging by the world class case of cottonmouth, he put his money on the latter.

Rubbing the crust from his eyes, he spotted the squared-off form of a vessel all too familiar to him. It was upside down due to the viewing angle, but still unmistakable. Jack Black. Old Number Seven out of Lynchburg, Tennessee. For a split second he wondered what had become of the distillery there. Was it still standing? Did the warehouses get looted as the country went through its initial death throes?

A knock on the door. No urgency. Just two soft raps.

“Keep your pants on,” Duncan called as he hinged up and swung his legs off the bed. A bad move on both accounts. The initial action resulted in a barrage of laser-like tracers clouding his vision. The weight of his dangling boot-clad feet continuing their pendulum swing to the left made his upper body yaw in the opposite direction. Grasping the shelf the Jack Daniels rested on steadied him in a sitting position that afforded him a clear view down the center of the recreation vehicle. He saw the far tree line where the concealed entrance to the subterranean Eden compound lay. His dead baby brother, Logan, had done a superior job of laying the place out and stocking it for the Y2K collapse that never came. The camouflaged blind shielding the dirt ramp leading down to the entry door was expertly positioned so that it remained in shadow even with the changing light of day. And judging by the pewter smudge above the towering firs, he pegged the hour somewhere between breakfast and lunch. Going with nine, he stood and discovered he’d passed out fully clothed in woodland-patterned camouflage pants, red flannel shirt, and wearing the stocking cap Daymon had lifted from the ski shop at Powder Mountain before he and Oliver tore up the slopes above Eden, Utah—twenty some-odd miles west of the compound. Having contributed to the aching in his lower back, the trusty Colt Model 1911 pistol was still in the leather holster riding high on his right hip.

The simple act of his left hand brushing against the liquor bottle’s smooth surface started within Duncan a craving he’d been battling off and on for more than three decades. As if on autopilot, his hand moved up the bottle and his fingers encircled the stubby neck. With a practiced motion, he brought the bottle to his lips, the plastic cap already spinning off thanks to a single flick of his thumb. He gulped the whiskey, thick bubbles forming in the neck.

Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he ambled toward the door, empty bottle still in hand. “Whatcha want?” he called.

Nothing.

“Glenda … that you?”

Only silence.

Forgoing lifting the curtain over the single window in the door, he threw the lock and took hold of the knob. “Daymon? You back to claim your casa? If you are, you better sit down. I have really bad news to relay to you.” With a vision of Heidi in his head—the medicated, smiling visage, not the sullen post-Jackson Hole version of the blonde—he opened the door slowly.

At once Sasha said, “You’re drunk.” Full head of red hair adopting the tilt of her head, she stood there by the short stack of stairs, hands on hips and directing an accusatory glare up at him.

Duncan leaned against the jamb and surreptitiously reached over and placed the bottle on the counter. Fingers drumming the door frame over his head, he said, “I’m not drunk yet, missy.”

“You’re still tanked from last night’s activities. You were so loud in here, I thought Zombie Brook had come back again and was tearing up the place.”

She’s only fourteen, Duncan reminded himself. “I was cleaning my guns,” he said through clenched teeth.

“With dynamite?”

He let it go. Changed the subject, saying, “Where are the others?”

“Captain America and Raven took off in Black Beauty. Said they were going to bury Heidi and the Thagons up on the hill. After that, they’re checking the tree roadblock before heading back toward Woodruff.”

“They have radios and a phone?”

She nodded, her posture a little more relaxed.

“Tran?”

“He’s probably watching us right now from the security pod. Seth is out tending to the solar panels. Said on the way back he was going to decant some water from our collection and check fuel levels on the generators.” Expecting more questions, Sasha made a beckoning motion with both hands.

Duncan said, “Jamie and Lev … they head north yet?”

Sasha looked at the big black diver watch on her wrist. “They set out in the Raptor at the butt crack of dawn.”

He shot her a watch your language look that seemed to go unnoticed.

“How about the other half of the infamous ‘Kids’ gang?”

Making air quotes, she said, “My brother and Taryn are out exploring. If you know what I mean.”

Ignoring the implication, Duncan coughed into his shoulder.

She said, “They took radios with fresh batteries.”

Smart kids, thought Duncan. Last thing he wanted to do was mount another rescue mission. Seemed to be happening all too often in this new environment. He didn’t bother to ask if they were armed. It was the new gold standard. Alone, or in numbers, nobody went outside the wire without a blade and a gun.

Sasha sensed Duncan was saving the obvious questions for last. So she took the initiative, saying, “Still no word from Daymon. And, yes, Glenda is still pissed about last night.”

Duncan hung his head and inspected the knuckles on his right hand. They were swollen and crisscrossed with lacerations. Without making eye contact, he said, “Where is she now?”

Sasha leaned close and inspected Duncan’s hand. “Shouldn’t be punching holes in walls. You could have broken some bones, you know.”

Still staring groundward, he said, “Where is Glenda?”

“Don’t know,” Sasha replied. “She changed Raven and Jamie’s dressings while breakfast was cooking.”

Duncan stood straight and sighed. “Suppose I should go and find her.”

Sasha made a face. “Glenda’s gone.”

He grimaced. One hand went to his head. Started worrying the wisps of gray hair there. “You said you didn’t know where she was.”

“I don’t.”

“Spit out the details. What do you know?”

“She had a pack and rifle when I saw her last.”

“Which direction did she go?”

Sasha pointed over her right shoulder. “She said ‘goodbye’ to us and stalked right up the feeder road.”

“Didn’t she say where she was headed?”

“Nope.”

Throwing his hands up, he said, “And nobody thought to ask her?”

“She didn’t appear too receptive to an inquisition.”

“Shit,” he drawled. “Looks like I’ve got some packing to do.”

Incredulous, she said, “Now you’re leaving because she’s mad?”

He looked at Sasha like she was crazy. Then he remembered she was just a teen and still saw some things in black and white. Apparently detecting nuance was not her strong suit.

“That’s not like you to cut and run.”

“X gets a square, little lady. I’m not scooting with my tail tucked. I’m fixing to mount a search and rescue mission.”

“For Daymon?”

He shook his head. “That’s what Cade’s doing, I reckon.”

She looked a question up at him.

“It’s Glenda who needs saving,” he said. Absurdly enough, From herself, is what he was thinking.


Chapter 2


State Route 39


The black F-650 filled up most of the two-lane, its headlights cutting a swath through the fog tendrils rising up from the shadowed dip in the road.

The moment Cade had stepped outside the hulking truck and shut the door behind him, Raven’s family of Zs had picked up their pace and struck out on two divergent courses. Both adults and one of the triplets angled for him at once, the female quickly taking the lead. As if some snippet of memory demanded it, the males fell in lockstep on her heels.

The other two undead tots were locked onto Raven.

Barely a yard of blacktop separated the trio of fresh turns as they tackled the incline left of the centerline. There was a bit more separation between the kids as they neared the transition a few feet right of the centerline. It looked to Cade as if the laggard of the group was operating on a bad wheel—something he had been dealing with off and on for months since injuring his ankle in the helo crash in Draper, South Dakota.

Just making the transition behind the adults was one of the triplets. Barely a yard tall and partially obscured behind the male Z’s filthy ski parka, the undead tot was near to overtaking what more and more looked to have once been his parental unit.

A quick flick of the eyes allowed Cade to pick up Raven. Pressed in tight against the Ford’s right front fender, all that was visible of her from his angle was the pointed tip of her slender six-inch blade and the bobbing red tassel atop her black stocking cap. Inching up onto his tiptoes allowed Cade to see her magazine-clad arms. As if sensing she was being watched, she turned her head and they made eye contact. If the girl was scared, it wasn’t showing. He did, however, detect the grim determination projected by her clenched jaw and tightly coiled upper body. Three-plus months of this new reality, coupled with the irreversible losses heaped upon her slender shoulders over the last few days, had her inching dangerously close to being one of those walking time bombs so prevalent in the news before the collapse. Only his girl wasn’t on the verge of committing an atrocity against unarmed helpless members of society; she was undergoing a sort of metamorphosis brought about by the crucible she was put through on a daily basis. Though Cade had no crystal ball, his gut told him Raven was going to give more than she got for a long time to come. Hell, wasn’t that why they were out here together in the first place? To further hone her survival skills so that when he was gone she could roll on. Maybe even live long enough to find someone with whom to settle down and raise kids of her own. His eyes misted over as the reality struck him that he would likely not be around to witness any of this, should it happen. A lump formed swiftly in his throat as he was struck by the thought that Brook would definitely never know any of it.

If he was being honest with himself, the reason they were dismounted and about to confront the Zs instead of just driving around them and continuing east was a direct result of his wife’s passing. It pained him to admit that finding Daymon alive was a very distant second on his give-a-shit radar. His plan, going forward, was to expose Raven to as much controlled adversity outside the wire in as short a time as humanly possible.

After surreptitiously pinching the tears from his eyes, Cade said, “Always choose where you want to engage your enemy.” He raised the black dagger to eye level and pointed to the guardrails lining both sides of the road. “If possible, learn the lay of the land before any engagement. What are you going to do here?”

“When I make contact,” she said, “I’ll use the truck and guardrail to my benefit. I’ll let the boys come down the chute toward me. Stick and move so long as my back … uh, my six is clear.”

Cade glanced behind them. Saw only open road and white-painted guardrails and verdant forest stretching away to the west.

“Do one of them and backpedal,” he instructed. “And don’t forget about having an escape plan.” Or three, he thought.

On the opposite side of the Ford, Raven cast a glance at the trio of identical-looking zombies. Their unblinking sharks’ eyes were locked with hers. Head tilted back slightly and with teeth bared, the boy in the lead was close to cresting the hill a dozen yards from the truck’s right front fender. Coinciding with the Z’s guttural moans increasing in volume, the Z’s lolling head came level with the flat and he somehow found a higher gear.

Cade’s eyes never left the female Z as he said, “Be loose. Fluid, like water. And stay on the balls of your feet, keeping most of your weight forward. Just don’t get ahead of your skis.”

No stranger to the slopes, the last part of her dad’s instruction painted the picture. So she bent her knees, rolled her shoulders forward, and bounced up and down a couple of times. Tightening her grip on the Toothpick’s bone handle, she took up station beside the Ford’s right front tire. It came nearly to her shoulder. She could feel heat radiating off the engine tucked somewhere up inside the darkened wheel well.

Suddenly the clouds shifted and bars of light painted the landscape all around in a soft tone of gold that made Raven think of a Hallmark card. But this was nothing of the sort. This was hell on earth in lipstick and a wig and the pale-faced kids lurching toward her wanted to bite her neck and wallow in her blood as they stripped the flesh from her bones.

Now to her fore, maybe five or six yards distant, it looked as if the little monsters would barely come up to her sternum. The one in the lead was missing most of his fingers. The thumb on his outthrust left hand had been severed with a blade, or, more likely, chewed off by a feeding Z. The gray winter coat the kid wore was now a short-sleeved item, tatters of fabric flicking to and fro as he tackled the last few feet of hill.

The undead kid behind the leader was dragging one bare foot. The narrow bones running from the toes to the base of his gnawed-on ankle were showing. Like ivory keys on a pianola, they pistoned up and down with each labored step. On the opposite foot was a yellow rubber boot. The sole up front was worn completely through, the heel but a rounded nub of rubber that went scritch-thunk with each footfall. Now and again the zombie kid’s matching gray coat would part and allow Raven fleeting glimpses at the torn dermis and hamburger-like flesh ringing a hollowed-out chest cavity totally devoid of anything resembling an internal organ.

“I have a plan,” she finally said.

Cade leaned forward and peered past the headlights. Breathing in the sharp tang of spoiling flesh coating the bumper and grill, he said, “Hit me.”

“If things go sideways …” She paused to think, but kept her gaze locked on the first little rotter. “What do you call that guy? The one who’s always messing things up for you?”

“Murphy,” Cade said, his eyes never leaving undead Mommy who, with less than a dozen feet to cover before reaching the truck, was beginning to look closer to thirty in age than forty. “What about him?”

“If he screws it up for me, I’ll drop and roll under the truck,” answered Raven. “And when I pop up on your side, I’ll just wait for the little dudes to crawl after me. When I see the whites of their eyes, I’ll set their souls free.”

Remembering a similar situation in which he was nearly trapped inside a hardware store east of Schriever, Cade nodded to show his approval. The snarls and moans and stink coming from the approaching dead made the memory of that near-fatal foraging mission snap into sharp focus. In his mind’s eye he saw the pack of dead things that had been hunting him that day worming their way underneath the F-650. He heard the tearing of fabric and chatter of teeth as the flesh-hungry first turns crushing against each other dragged themselves forward, the sharp items protruding from the truck’s undercarriage ripping clothes and flesh with equal impunity.

Quick shooting, a bit of blade work, and a hell of a lot of luck had gotten him out of that mess.

The scratching sound of shoes on blacktop sharpened his focus. The woman Z was now two, maybe three arm’s lengths away and staring the meat off his bones when the radio on the dash came to life. Over the clicking of teeth, Cade heard Tran’s voice, but couldn’t make out the words.

Ignoring the call, he grabbed a fistful of the creature’s coat and locked his elbow. With the Gerber held in a reverse grip, black pommel facing him, he stabbed down, head-high, the blade at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. His aim perfect, the dagger buried inches-deep into the Z’s right temple. There was a soft squelch and Mommy Z went limp for the final time. When Cade let go of the jacket, the trip to the ground was instantaneous. Reduced to nothing but dead weight, the corpse rolled once, then came to rest, elbows and knees jutting every which way, directly in the path of the others.

Tran’s unintelligible voice was still coming from the radio when the male zombie reached the Ford’s front bumper, where a streamer of fabric trailing behind the tattered and torn parka somehow got snagged on the battered angular bumper, arresting all forward movement as if the proverbial hook had been administered from stage left.

Taking advantage of his good fortune, Cade lunged forward and delivered a well-aimed kick to the arrested Z’s sternum. Ribs crunched and the sole of his Danner soaked up the shock. With its coat still hung up on the bumper, the force of the kick spun the Z clockwise away from Cade, sending its head rocketing on a one-way trip to the truck’s grille.

With the solid thunk from skull impacting steel echoing across 39, Cade turned his attention to the final threat. As he was getting into a combat crouch to meet the undead kid at his level, a gloved hand shot out from the right and latched onto the gray coat.

Raven?

Newton’s Law in full effect, the undead kid was yanked off his bare feet and, without announcing her presence, Raven emerged and stood over him. She planted a boot on each flailing arm, pinning the kid to the road. Then, brandishing the Arkansas Toothpick two-handed, its blade aimed groundward and just inches from the squirming triplet’s face, she flashed Cade a look that screamed I got this.

Incredulous, he shot, “You’re finished with your two already?”

Slowly driving the blade into the Z’s darting eye, she said, “Finished the dad for you, too. His head hitting the grille didn’t do him in.”

Different but familiar voices joined the conversation on the radio with Tran. The exchange was brief, then the voices trailed off and the radio in the truck went silent.

Cade cleaned the Gerber with the kid’s coat and sheathed it. Looking Raven in the face, he said, “Thanks for getting your old man’s six. I must confess, though. I was half expecting to see you pop up behind me with the little demons in hot pursuit.”

“But I didn’t,” she said, her tone relaying a level of confidence commensurate with the deeds committed.

He said, “You dispatched them, Bird. That means you get to dispose of them.”

Raven cleaned her blade on the undead boy’s jacket sleeve and returned it to the leather sheath on her hip. “No way I’m going to be able to budge the dad,” she said, glancing at him.

Cade looked at the corpse lying face up and perpendicular to the Ford’s bumper. “I’ll take care of him for you.”

After scanning all points of the compass—a move that did not go unnoticed by Cade—Raven looped around front of the Ford.

Cade started with the mom, rifling through her pockets and finding only a small leather-bound notebook, a thick stack of trading cards still sealed inside colorful foil wrappers, and a multifunction pocket knife with the words Grand Teton National Park seared into its wood handle. After removing the Patagonia coat from the corpse, he searched the kid, finding in his pockets only Pokémon cards and colorful wrappers from small Halloween-sized Snickers and Three Musketeers bars. The cards were dog-eared. The one on the top was scuffed, the foil leaf rubbing off in places. The card on the bottom of the inch-thick stack was dotted with tiny bloody fingerprints, the papillary ridges on some clearly defined. That the cards were kept together with a thick rubber band spoke of their importance to the boy.

He rolled the tiny corpse out of the way then dragged the dad closer to the guardrail. In the pockets of the bloodstained parka he found some cereal bars as well as dozens of unopened packs of cards adorned with a cute yellow dragon-like looking creature. In the front pocket of the corpse’s damp Levi’s was a bi-fold wallet. It contained no cash. But it did have some of the proof necessary to settle the friendly father/daughter wager.

Cade put the booty in a pile then proceeded to manhandle the adult corpses off the road. It was clear to him the family wasn’t starving for food prior to whatever befell them. The woman, whom he figured to be at least six feet from toes to nose, weighed just south of what would be considered obese by the medical profession. He guessed her to be two, maybe two-twenty-five. Then there was the fact that she was fully clothed and dead. Cold corpses always seemed to weigh more than the living.

Though fairly thin at the wrists and around the waist, the man was tall and rangy. Taller than the woman by an inch or two. All arms and legs with a long neck and massive head that lolled around as Cade dragged him across the fog line to the narrow shoulder.

It took some doing, but after a minute spent nudging the corpses with the toe of his boot, the couple was through the narrow gap and sprawled atop each other at the bottom of the roadside ditch.

The boy weighed less than a big bag of dog food. Which was near the top of the foraging list for the day. Cade grabbed an arm and leg, lifted the body over the top of the guardrail, and flung it atop the other corpses.

By the time Cade had finished his morbid task, the low-hanging sun was again shrouded behind fast-moving clouds and a sheen of sweat was forming on his brow.

Her disembodied voice nearly drowned out by the rising wind, Raven said, “Too bad we don’t have the time to bury them.”

Cade turned to see her standing equidistant to him and the Ford. She had retrieved her M4 from the truck and was holding it at a low-ready, her muzzle discipline exemplary.

Speaking loud to be heard over a strong gust, he said, “We only bury our own.”

“Every one of these we put down deserves better.”

Rubbing his lower back, Cade said, “I know they do. But there’s waaay too many of them.” He paused and turned toward the ditch. Saw that the boy had settled face down in a puddle of water, hair matted to the back of his head. Mom was laying spread-eagle beside him, head rolled at an unnatural angle, mouth open and already the attraction of a single black fly. To add insult to injury, Dad had ended up face down with his gaping mouth precipitously near to the female Z’s crotch. Cade grimaced at their unfortunate final repose, then added, “And far too few of us.”

“We can say a prayer for them,” Raven said.

“That we can.” Cade surveyed their surroundings. Seeing nothing moving save for the tall grass beyond the ditch, he closed his eyes and bowed his head. “You doing it? Or do you want me to?”

“All yours,” Raven responded.

Cade cleared his throat. “God our Father,” he began in a soft voice. “Your power brings us to birth, Your providence guides our lives, and by Your command we return to dust. Lord, those who die still live in Your presence, their lives change but do not end. I pray in hope for my family, relatives and friends, and for all the dead known to you alone. In company with Christ, Who died and now lives, may they rejoice in Your kingdom, where all our tears are wiped away. Unite us together again in one family, to sing Your praise forever and ever. Amen.”

“Amen,” said Raven.

When Cade opened his eyes, he saw his daughter looking up at him.

“The bet,” she said. “I think I won.”

Already privy to the dad’s age, Cade said, “How do you figure?”

Raven was holding the journal in one hand.

“You were reading that while I was praying for their souls?”

She shook her head. “I picked this up right before you started. I heard something fall out about the time you were at the we return to dust part. Still, I didn’t open my eyes. That would have been very disrespectful to both you and the family.”

Cade looked to the ground. Splayed out like a hand of playing cards near Raven’s boots were a number of rectangular sheets of paper. The one on top was folded over. Visible on the corner was a single tiny footprint, the black ink standing out starkly against the yellowed paper.

Raven knelt down and scooped the papers off the road. They were wet and sticking together. “These are their birth certificates,” she stated. “I saw the mom’s name and year of birth as soon as I opened my eyes.” She put her finger on the top sheet. “It’s right here beneath the footprint. Bad news for you, Dad. Rose Campion was born March 13, 1972. Makes her older than you.” She glanced skyward, mouth moving, no words coming out. Finally she leveled her gaze at her dad. “She was thirty-nine … point five … ish.”

“You win,” Cade said. That woman was too imposing to be a Rose, was what he was thinking.

Raven worked at the corner of the stack of papers with her thumb. “If I can get these apart without them ripping, we might be able to see how old the dad is.”

“Was,” Cade said. “Don’t bother.” He took the wallet from his pocket and handed it to her.

She tucked the birth certificates inside the journal and handed it to her dad. She flipped the wallet open and stared at the driver’s license tucked behind a yellowed plastic window gone cloudy around the edges.

“Bryan McGowan from Cambridge, Massachusetts was forty-three,” she said, casting a smug look Cade’s way.

“Guess I have dish duty for a week,” Cade said. “Sasha’s going to love that.”

Raven giggled. Adjusting the slung rifle, she said, “You won’t have to get your hands all pruney, Dad. Consider it a gentleman’s bet you just lost. I’ll go ahead and keep doing the dishes.”

Cade was conflicted. Though he was happy to see her powers of observation hadn’t failed her, he still wanted her to lose and have to do the daily exercises. She could surely use the additional upper body strength. He said, “You sure about that? You’d get a week-long break from Miss Motor Mouth.”

“I’m positive,” she said. “I went outside the wire and put the people looking for me in danger. I earned the punishment and I aim to serve out my sentence.”

Cade scanned their surroundings. Still clear. Fixing Raven with a stare, he said, “Very noble of you.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Even though I won the bet, I’m going to start doing the exercises tonight.”

Cade looked a question at her.

“I couldn’t budge the dad. I figure the exercise will help me improve my abs and upper body, not to mention my core strength.” She scrutinized the license, thinking how the man with the sideburns, wide forehead, and high cheekbones looked nothing like a Bryan. Joel or Wade, maybe. Bryan? Heck no.

My Bird is channeling her mom, thought Cade.

“Why do you think Mr. McGowan was still carrying a wallet?”

“Hope,” said Cade. “That and the fact that old habits die hard. Especially for us guys.”

“Do you carry your wallet?”

Cade shook his head. “I leave all that behind when I go outside the wire.” Tapping his chest, he added, “I carry a picture of you and Mom in my pocket. Been doing that since day one of this madness.”

“You think hope alone got them this far?”

“It was a good chunk of what kept them alive this long. Especially with three little kids to have to look after.”

“Four,” corrected Raven. “There was a fourth birth certificate stuck to the third. The boys’ names all started with a B. There was Brody, Brandon, Brock, and Bryce.”

“Four or a hundred,” said Cade. “A little hope and resourcefulness go a long way.”

“They kept the kids quiet with the promise of Pokémon cards, didn’t they?”

Cade nodded.

Parroting her dad, Raven said, “Hope and resourcefulness,” and stared at the bodies in the ditch. “Sure didn’t see them far enough.” She looked the road up and down. “Now what?”

“Now we drive down this hill to that van.” He pointed across the hood. “There’s something in back I want to get.”

Now she looked a question at him.

In response, he handed the journal back to her and dragged some cereal bars from a pocket and divvied them up.

With a tilt of her head, Raven said, “What do you want me to do with these?”

“Read the journal. Eat the bars.”


Chapter 3


After speaking with Sasha, Duncan had entered the tree line on the pretense of visiting the outdoor latrines. Muttering about everybody always leaving him behind, he reversed course and picked his way through the trees, careful to steer clear of the pit traps set previously by he and Logan, all the while avoiding the areas covered by cameras watching over the clearing and feeder road.

Still on the pity pot and grousing about recent transgressions against him, most minor and not committed purposefully, nor directly, he arrived at the Eden compound’s hidden entry confident he hadn’t been seen or followed.

He tried the door handle. Incredulous at finding it unlocked, he directed a reluctant thank you at the last person through. Protocol was to have the person manning the monitors in the security station throw the lock behind anyone leaving the compound—most likely Sasha in this instance. The same routine was to be followed for anyone returning to the compound. Cade had instituted this weeks ago. To the best of Duncan’s recollection, lapses had been few and far between, but usually were attributed to the kids who were the lesser experienced among the group. Luckily for him the far between period had just reset.

He lifted the handle and pushed on the steel plate door. Though recently spritzed with WD-40, the years of accumulated dirt and fine metal shavings from months of constant use caused them to emit a soft grating noise as the door swung inward.

Duncan stopped inside the foyer, where he drew a deep breath and closed the door behind him. Hanging on hooks to his left were a dozen coats in different styles and sizes, a chest rig bristling with spare thirty-round magazines, and binoculars. A half-dozen pair of muddy cold-weather boots were lined up toes to the wall below the coats. On the right, propped up in the corner, was a pair of AR-style carbines. The short barrel model equipped with an EOTech 3x scope and stubby suppressor belonged to Tran. The other was a nearly new extra they’d found when looting the prepper compound at the nearby hilltop quarry.

After a couple of yards, a hall branched off to the left. There was no sound coming from that direction. To Duncan’s fore was the heavy curtain separating the foyer from their security station, basically just a plywood desk holding a monitor and ham radio. Above the desk were plywood shelves piled high with radios, satellite phones, and charging cables.

Hearing only the wheels of the rolling chair grinding against the plywood floor beyond the curtain, Duncan slipped around the corner. He heel and toed it down the hall, stopping when he reached the door to his former quarters.

Unlocked. Not surprising, considering Glenda was out and about.

He entered and found the chain on the hanging light by feel.

The flare of light from the 60-watt bulb instantly renewed the banging in his head. Squinting, he raised a hand against the light and swept his gaze the length of the cold Conex container.

Two sets of bunkbeds—formerly pushed together to make one queen-sized bed—were now pulled apart, the bedding taut and tucked in at all the right places. Atop the army surplus woolen blanket was a thick blue book, its spine creased, the corners of the cover bent and rounded from use. Leaning against the book was a single white envelope. It was sealed and bulging. Written in a familiar flowing hand was his full name: Duncan Wayne Winters.

At first glance he knew exactly what it was.

“Might as well put Dear John on the damn thing,” he spat. This wasn’t his first breakup letter. He’d collected two of them during his stint flying Hueys in Vietnam. Nearly a dozen of the breakup letters had landed on his proverbial lap in the years since. Call this thirteen, he thought as he snatched it off the bed, ignoring the A.A. book altogether.

To read or not to read? was the million dollar question banging around his head.

“Time’s a wastin’, you old coot.” He collected the book. As he did so, he noticed his old combat shotgun hanging by its sling from the bed support. After staring at it for a beat, he decided to leave it.

He listened at the door. Heard what sounded like potato chips crunching. In his mind’s eye he saw Tran sitting before the monitor, an open bag of Lays potato chips on the desk. That vision was fleeting. Seth, maybe. He loved junk food. More than likely it was Tran munching one of the misshapen carrots harvested from his garden.

Walking slow and deliberate, Duncan retraced his path down the hall and through the foyer. Standing before the door to outside, he snatched up Tran’s M4, a pair of spare magazines, and slung the Bushnells over his head. “Munch away, Bugs,” he whispered, the sound from him opening the door barely audible over the noises coming from beyond the curtain.

***

Duncan had already navigated around the clearing and was standing alone by the second set of fencing when Tran’s muted voice emanated from the radio in his pocket.

“This is Tran. Duncan, can you hear me?”

Duncan ignored the call. He was shimmying between the taut wires when Tran came back on.

“Cade? Can you hear me, Cade?”

There was no answer. Only a few seconds of silence.

Standing on the other side of the fence in the trees where he was well clear of the cameras watching the inner gate, Duncan listened to Tran report that the quarters he shared with Glenda had been cleaned out of most of their belongings. After a short silence, voice full of worry, Tran added, “I think maybe Glenda and Duncan went outside the wire without telling anyone.”

“X gets a square,” Duncan drawled. “Just not together.” He studied the ground by his boots. The pine needles scattered about were mostly dry. He looked behind him and noted damp spots mottled with mud left there by his passage. Then he crouched and scrutinized the game trail snaking away in the direction of the hidden exit fronting the distant State Route. Though the light wasn’t optimal, he could still see similar traces of mud and disturbed needles on the ground he had yet to tread on.

Miss Gladson came this way on foot.

A closer look revealed a partial print with a pattern he recognized.

Hi-Tec hikers.

The depression was shallow, which Duncan took to mean she was traveling light.

“Where are you going, Glenda Gladson? Visiting your boy’s grave up on the hill? Or are you going home? All the way to Huntsville?”

If he were wagering on one of the two, his money would be on the latter. Still, he needed to rule out the former.

Sticking to the path paralleling the feeder road, he ducked low to avoid the cameras, then popped back out to the gravel road once he was beyond their range.

The M4 banged against his backside as he trooped toward the camouflaged gate. A couple of hundred feet from the gate he reacquired Glenda’s trail. The gravel was dry in places where she had crossed. He followed the subtle scuff marks to the gate and paused beside a run of knee-high grass growing next to the gate. As was his custom any time he approached from the blind side of the gate—which he secretly considered a rotter magnet—he raised his nose to the air and drew in a deep breath.

Nothing.

No sickly-sweet pong of carrion hit his nose.

No lingering odor of gun smoke from a recently discharged weapon was evident.

Confident he was all alone, he edged around to the west, one-eyeing it past the screen once he reached the spot the gate ended and a chest-high barbed wire fence began. Looking across the two-lane, he focused on a spot a couple of hundred feet uphill. The grass covering the half-knoll had grown very tall and, presumably, was as heavy with dew as the grass bordering the feeder road. There was a trail bisecting it horizontally from west to east. Just as he suspected: Glenda had walked to a spot where a lone person crossing the road would blend in nicely with the fencing and foliage cluttering the background. For someone watching the camera feeds in the security center of the compound to pick up the movement, they’d practically have to be looking at the correlating pane on the flat panel and be keyed in on the exact spot in the road. And that was acting on the assumption the watcher was expecting the crosser. Which he had no reason to believe. Glenda had made a quick and quiet escape. Furthermore, he figured her run-in with Sasha was calculated. Eventually, he gathered, someone would start asking questions and pry the facts out of the fourteen-year-old whom he didn’t include among the sharpest tools in the shed. A little too much bluster on her part. In his experience, the ones who barked the loudest had less to add to the conversation.

The route Glenda had taken to the graves on the hill presented as a barely distinguishable line a shade darker than the rest of the vast green expanse. It arced up slightly from right to left, finally stopping a few yards past the old overwatch post where Phillip had been bitten and turned prior to Duncan granting him second death.

In his mind’s eye, Duncan saw a couple of wildflowers arranged on the unmarked patch of sod containing Oliver Gladson’s last earthly remains. Everything, that is, save for the lower portion of his leg that Adrian and her brainwashed followers had amputated.

Duncan leaned against the weathered fencepost marking the corner of the Eden property and loitered there for a few minutes, watching and listening.

***

Though the two-way radio’s volume was turned to the lowest setting without being totally muted, Duncan had been able to pick up most of what was being said over the open channel.

He grimaced when he heard the Kids report back that they were still roaming the outskirts of the property and had yet to see any signs of Daymon.

Though the signal had been weak, he’d gleaned that Lev wasn’t too concerned about he and Glenda leaving the wire. He smiled when his friend shot back at Tran, reminding the likable fellow of their collective ages and that he figured a couple of fifty-somethings would be just fine on their own. Then his mood turned dark when Lev reported that so far he and Jamie had found no trace of the dreadlocked firefighter north of Woodruff.

Duncan did the math in his head and concluded the radio in his pocket would be at the outside edge of its maximum range before he reached Huntsville. He guessed he would get to the burned-out Shell station east of Huntsville, and then find he was on his own. Which was fine by him. It was how he came into the world. And more and more it was becoming evident to him it was how he was destined to leave it.

As Duncan neared the stretch of SR-39 where deciduous firs and mature oaks crowded it from both sides, creating a creepy flora tunnel, he unshouldered the M4 and thumbed the selector to Fire.


Chapter 4


Cade fired up the F-650 and turned on the defroster. He took his mug of tepid coffee from the dash and drank it down in one long gulp.

“Made quick work of that,” Raven said. She stowed her rifle muzzle down in the well near her feet and fastened her seatbelt.

“Speaking of work,” Cade said. “How’d you do the kids?” He tossed the mug into the back seat and directed a thoughtful look toward his daughter. “Let me rephrase that. How did it go down on your side of the truck?”

“That’s better,” she said. “I did it just like you said to. Light on the balls of my feet. I let the first one get ahold of my arm and draw it toward his mouth. All it took after that was a little poke to the eye.” Pretending to brandish a knife, she extended one arm horizontally over the dash and curled the other over her head and held it there. Holding the mock fencing pose, she added, “Number two was a bit different. He went for the blade and got it in the neck before I could get him straightened around for the killing blow.” Now Raven was shooting her dad a thoughtful look. “I can’t believe you let me out of your sight.”

“Neither can I,” Cade admitted. “Then again, you held your own against the adult Z that attacked Dregan’s oldest.”

“With a gun,” she reminded.

“The Dregan fella’s own gun, no less. Made me proud how you handled yourself when I wasn’t around. So did Mom. She diffused that situation with the elder Dregan perfectly.” He paused for a beat. “When you keep your calm, the rest falls into place.”

Entering uncharted territory with her dad made Raven squirm a bit in her seat. Changing the subject, she said, “We’re burning gas. Shouldn’t we be going?”

Cade shifted his attention to the ribbon of road reeling out in front of them. In the span of a few minutes the emerging sun and steady breeze out of the east had scoured the morning fog from the shallow depression.

“Astute observation,” he said matter-of-factly. Dropping the transmission into gear, he eased up on the brakes and let gravity pull the truck forward.

“Seatbelt,” she said.

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He said, “Why bother? We’re stopping by the van, remember?”

Raven made a show of tightening her belt.

Sighing, Cade clicked his seatbelt home. Feeling the truck pitch forward and pick up speed, he grabbed the radio off the dash. It had been silent for a few minutes now. “You were closer to the open window than me. Did you hear what Tran wanted?”

“He was wondering if you knew where Duncan was. He called your name a few times, then tried the others again.” She went on, recounting the entire conversation to him.

“Going by everyone’s reporting, I have a feeling Daymon continued eastbound on Center Street last night.”

Raven didn’t have anything to add. She wasn’t there when Daymon showed up out of the blue. So she kept quiet and focused her attention on the dense woods to her right.

The F-650 reached the transition from hill to flat with a decent head of steam. Cade steered what Raven had taken to calling “Black Beauty” around the destroyed SUVs, avoiding a debris field consisting of pebbled automotive glass, spent bullet casings, and the burned corpse of one of the attackers. Legs bent at the knee and arms reaching skyward, the charred husk barely resembled a human. The skull was hairless, the eye sockets shadow-filled. The intense heat had cooked off most of the fat and flesh, leaving a shrunken carcass with sharp-edged bones pressing against what little of its blackened, leather-like dermis remained.

Raven had loosened her shoulder belt and was balanced on the edge of the seat again. Rising up for a better look, she said, “You did this?”

“Yep,” Cade said unapologetically. “With a little help from my friends.” He drove them the length of the straightaway, keeping the passenger tires tracking along the right fog line. A dozen feet from the black van, he slowed and parked broadside to the open rear doors. On the driver’s side was a pair of corpses. Both were obese by anyone’s standards. Only one had turned before death. Its belly was ripped open and maggot-filled, the fly larva causing the taut gray skin to undulate subtly.

The bodies stacked halfway to the ceiling obscured most of the detail from a distance. Up close, however, it was clear the van’s once vibrant shag carpet was soiled with dried blood and God only knew what other bodily fluids that had leaked from the corpses. A sheet of metal perforated with holes—some machined and perfectly round, dozens more jagged and created by bullets—separated the cargo area from the front seats. It was splashed with blood long ago dried to black. Like the apparatus on a set of monkey bars, chain, cable, and steel cuffs attached to the van’s roof cut up the gloom.

Crinkling her nose, Raven said, “What’s all that for?”

“Did Taryn or Wilson mention the booby traps the cannibals were leaving in some of the places they looted?”

A gust blew down the road at them, whipping the grass atop the berm to their left into a wild frenzy. Shell casings propelled by the sudden blast skittered along the blacktop.

Raven swallowed hard.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” he said. “They were transporting Zs in this.” He motioned to the left side of the van. “That one almost got me.”

Parroting Duncan, she said, “Almost only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes.”


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