Thursday, July 31, 2014

Part 24


I left my pack behind the store register area.  I didn't leave my bat or break in tools however.

Jace glanced at me and said, "You won't need those."

I shook my head.  "Don't tell me what I'll need and what I won't."

"Fine.  Just don't scare or hurt the kids with that stuff."  I rolled my eyes, borrowed a baseball cap from the rack of tourist junk near some t-shirts with the village's name on them, and then followed him into the dark and very wet night.  I had a feeling that scaring Sammy and her brother wasn't going to be the problem; hurting them either.  I was pretty sure I needed to be more worried about being on that end of the stick.

As soon as we got off the porch the rain started running down the back of my neck making me shiver.  I turned my coat collar up but that didn't help much because it kept rolling back down.  Eventually I got used to the sudden temperature drop as I did my best to keep up with Jace who seemed to fail to comprehend that his legs were about a foot longer than mine and therfore could cover a lot more ground in a single step.

I finally wound up chucking a wet branch at him and he turned around sharply.  "Slow down or I'm turning back," I sniped at him.

Turns out he really hadn't thought about it and surprised me by saying, "Sorry."  Then he looked at me for what seemed like the first time.  "Are you sure you're fifteen?  You're awfully short."

Ready to chuck another branch at him I spit out, "Height challenged.  And none of your business."

He bent over and said, "Short.  And ... and not a problem.  I was just asking."

I blinked.  "Oh.  Well, I was ... was born early.  The docs said it stunted my growth."

"Didn't stunt your mouth any," Jace said, standing back up.

"You aren't the first one to make that observation Sherlock.  So how much further do I have to jog?"

He turned and looked back down the street in the direction he'd been leading us.  "Not too much farther.  But the house sits back a ways.  They won't hear us coming through this rain but just in case I'll take us around the back way.  If you'll stand by the back door I'll try and flush them through the front."

Thirty minutes later we were standing in the bushes beside a little bungalow house.  It had one story and a detached garage that was almost bigger than it was.  The place was even smaller than my house had been so I was guessing it was only a one or two bedroom place.  Jace leaned over and whispered in my ear, "Go ahead and go up on the porch.  I'm going to work my way around the front.  When they run out just stop them ... don't hurt them."  The warning was well taken and we did as planned.

But when I got up on the porch I could sense that no one was home.  But something about the detached garage was giving me the heebies.  Sherry taught me to listen to my instincts in the city.  I left the porch and inched my way over to the other structure.  It had shutters on the outside covering the windows but they were loose.  Everytime they flapped in the wind I noticed a little bit of light showing.  I grabbed one of the shutters and opened it but left the other ones to keep up the banging so whoever was inside wouldn't notice.

I used my finger and cleaned off small square in one of the glass panes and froze when what I saw started making sense.  Ha!  Making sense, that's a good one.

Sammy was fussing quietly at John-John who was holding his hand, in obvious pain.  "How many times have I told you not to do that?  Now look at what you did!"

"Gotta owie Sammy.  Baby bit me."

"Duh.  Shut up.  I gotta figure this out.  You can stay here with Momma and Baby.  I'll have to tell Jace something but maybe now we won't have to hide anymore 'cause he'll have to understand."

I was backing away from the building when something big came up behind me.  Before I could scream or fight there was a hand over my mouth and I was locked tight by a strong arm.  I was still gonna fight but then I heard "shhhhh" in my ear.

I was still considering fighting when I felt Jace go rigid in shock.  If he hadn't been holding onto me I'm pretty sure his knees would have give out.  As it was I had to elbow him because he was cutting my air off.  He stumbled back a couple of feet then fetched up against a tree.  The look on his face was pure horror.  I knew then that I'd really seen what I had thought I had seen.

Jace started shaking but then stiffened when Sammy gave a gasp of pain.  "Why did you do that you stupid, stupid Baby?!"

We both looked back into the window and Sammy was hoping around holding her calf which even in the dark we could tell was bloody.  Something skittered out of the dark and she kicked out at it sending it into a pile of blankets in the corner where something ... someone ... was tied.

"Momma, I told you last time you had to make Baby behave.  Now he is in sooooo much trouble."

I felt my dinner wanting to exit at both ends.  Jace's shaking had stopped and he brushed past me with real purpose.  Fool me followed him.  There was just something so wrong about what was happening that it had to be stopped.

Jace yanked open the wooden garage door and started shooting as soon as it was out of his way.  The chained up skeletal puss brain was dead in two shots, one brain and the other blew her chest open.  Jace then started shooting at something that had run into the other corner that I couldn't bring myself to look at.  I turned just in time to see Sammy's face change.  She must have gotten a pretty good dose in her bite because she went to the dark side just about as fast as I've ever seen anyone turn.

Her trajectory made it easy and one swing was all it took to crack her skull.  She was way too new to heal fast enough to survive.  I kept John-John at bay until Jace secured him with some bike chains that had been hanging from the wall beside a couple of old bikes.

The little boy had indeed been bitten and Jace looked like he wan't to collapse in on himself.  I didn't blame him, I was going there myself.  Then John-John piped in his little sing song voice, "You are in soooo much trouble.  Wait until Daddy comes home.  He's gonna whup you good."

"He's not coming home," I choked out.

"Oh yes he is.  Sammy says so.  People said Mommy wasn't coming home but she did.  We took care of her ... and Baby too when he came.  We fed them and everything.  You're just mean.  Daddy is going to whup you too."

Jace was starting to rock and I didn't know what to do.  The change was starting to show in John-John's face ... it kept twitching and stuff like it does when the infection moves from the blood to the brain.  I was raising my bat to put the poor kid out of his misery when a hole appeared in his forehead and he slumped dead in his chains.

I turned to look at Jace who was there on his knees with the rifle still aimed.  Then his hands must have gone numb and I caught it before it hit the ground.  Looking into his eyes I realized no one was home in Jace-land.  I guess I stood there fifteen minutes waiting for something.  I don't know what but if there had been other puss brains in the area I would have been chomped and not cared a single bit.

Then I slung the rifle over one shoulder and slung Jace's arm over the other shoulder.  I stood up and had to drag Jace up with me.  Slowly he started putting one foot in front of the other and was aware enough that he kept me from making a wrong turn trying to get back to the store.  We got in and he just sort of puddled in front of the stove.  I was shivering and went looking for towels or something to dry off with.  Found what I needed in a closet under the stairs.  I came back carrying a load and Jace was feeding wood into the stove.

He looked at me but neither one of us could stay a word.  He took the towel I handed him but it was like he forgot how to use it.  I told myself that if Lee found himself in the same situation that I prayed someone would help him so I just did what had to be done.  I got Jace out of his wet clothes and wrapped in a bed spread.  Then I brought a pillow out of the same closet and made a place for him to lay his head.  He looked at me just once and then let me push him over.

I don't know how long he laid there with his eyes open but it was for a long time.  I went and changed in another room but was shivering really hard before I could get back in front of the heat from the stove.  I made sure all the doors were locked and then just sat until I took out this notebook and stated to write.  And now it is all out on paper but I'm not feeling any better about it.  I don't think I ever will.

I'm going to lay down too now that Jace's eyes have closed.  I ... I checked to make sure that he hadn't been bitten when I took off his wet clothes.  I don't think he noticed.  I don't think he even cared.  I tried not to notice more than I had to.  It isn't like it was with Cochran who wanted to show off what he had.  Jace was just a lump and it is wrong to go all googly eyed over someone when they aren't trying to make you that way.  I wouldn't want anyone doing that to me.

I don't know what to do.  But I'm going to have to figure it out.  In the morning.  After I get some sleep.  After the nightmares come and go.  I just hope these don't have sound and color like some of the other ones do.  I don't ever want to hear her scream or his little boy voice saying such crazy things ever, ever again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Part 23



Sammy was still staring morosely into her empty bowl and said for the umpteenth time, "You cook good."

I felt like grinding my teeth.  She acted like it was something to cry about.  John-John and Jace however were acting like Christmas had come early.  I looked at Sammy and said, "It's no big deal.  I'll ... I'll show you if you want."  Trying to find common ground I added, "You don't have to but it'd be better than giving those two any more ammunition.  I swear, they are such guys."

She looked at them and then all but spit at me.  "I don't want you for a friend."

I snorted and rolled my eyes.  "Tell me something that isn't obvious.  I just have this thing about guys acting all ... guy-ish.  Even when they are little guys.  Girls can't help we are born girls.  Guys don't need to rub it in while we are still learning how to be girls.  They sure as heck don't like it when we laugh at them for being stupid guys."

"You're weird."

"Not weird ... I'm ... I'm eccentric ... unique."  To me the word weird was reserved for stuff that was really weird and shouldn't be used for anything else.  I wasn't about to explain why to her though.

"And bizarre.  Really, really bizarre."

I'm surprised she didn't use the word crazy but I guess she might have been as sensative to crazy as I was to weird.

I shrugged since my point had been made.  "Fine.  Whatever.  So do you want to know how to make this or not?"

"Or not.  John-John and I have things to do."

Jace growled, "You aren't going out in this weather Sammy so forget whatever scheme you've got going."

Sammy looked mutinous.  "You don't boss me Jace."

"Yeah.  I do.  And I'll lock both of you up if I catch you trying to go out in the middle of the night again.  You know I will."

Sammy's look turned cautious but rather than rebell more she grabbed John-John by the arm and practically dragged him up stairs ignoring his wails and complaints all the way.  The sound stopped at soon as I heard a door slam.

I shook my head and muttered to myself, "This is no going to end well."

"Wish I could deny it," Jace muttered back like I'd been talking to him.

He surprised me by helping to clean up.  "Relax.  Usually I am the one doing the cooking and cleaning.  Sammy nearly poisoned me the few times she tried to cook ... and one of them ... literally you know?  I think she was trying to make it so I'd let her do ... the stuff she wants.  I was in a cloud for a while until she went a little overboard with whatever she was using and I puked for 48 hours and it pretty much cleared my system.  That was right after ... Uncle Simon ..."

"Died?"

He looked at me and then leaned over to make sure that Sammy was still upstairs with her brother.  "He didn't leave to go look for other people.  He left because he got infected.  I don't know how it happened because all of the infecteds around here have been euthanized.  I figured out what was wrong when I caught up with him.  He'd left a note and it didn't make much sense.  He'd been acting strange and I had already started to worry about him.  He said it was just a little scratch but that he could feel infection crawling around his head and that he was leaving so that he couldn't hurt us.  He asked me to look after Sammy and John-John.  That I had to watch them really carefully and to not let them wander any place anymore like they had been, that it wasn't good for them."

I nodded realizing what must have happened.  "The smaller the dose of infection you get, the longer the change takes.  I've seen it take days but that is a really awful way to go.  Sometimes you don't even realize someone is infected until it is too late."  I stopped for a moment to weigh my words then asked, "Have you seen any puss brains lately?"

"No.  I took ... I ...," he stopped like it hurt to tell me.  It didn't take an Einstein to know why.  "I fixed Uncle Simon.  Before that I saw a few when I went hunting but none here in the village.  Uncle Simon had this hypothesis that the infecteds can sense if there are people around and that they avoid places that don't have people in them."

I shook my head not really agreeing.  "Not so much from what I've seen.  The puss brains go where they can get stuff to eat.  Maybe there is nothing around here worth eating ... or not enough to draw their attention.  But they'll eat almost anything that used to be living.  I've seen them eat leather off an office chair."

He made a face then nodded.  "Maybe Uncle Simon didn't know everything he thought he did.  I saw Infecteds eat some weird stuff in Springfield before I left.  As for this place, every little bit of food that is left from the village is in this store.  We went through all the houses and stuff after Uncle Simon ... left ... and brought everything back here and organized it.  There might be enough to make it through to spring if I can get some hunting done.  I just haven't been able to because ... well, you see how they are," he said referring to Sammy and her brother.

"Yeah," I admitted carefully.

"If you'll stay I'll be able to hunt and bring in more meat and it will make the food we have go a lot farther."

Thinking it over cautiously since it had been one of my concerns about going to Singing Waters on my own I asked, "You know how to do that?  Hunt and then do what you gotta do to make it stay good to eat?"

He nodded.  "Yeah.  My parents are ... were ... divorced.  My dad was Uncle Simon's brother and kinda ... well ... most folks would have thought him strange.  He wasn't ... he just liked to live life on his own terms.  But he still had to have money to do it so he was a college professor.  History.  He was big into re-enacting and demonstrations of pioneering skills and stuff like that.  His student's loved him according to what I heard from people.  He'd teach the fall and spring semesters and then we'd come here during the summer and Dad would ... would do the things he'd like to do without having to worry about hauling me around with him."

"Your mom?"

"Not in the picture.  Not really, not for a while anyway.  When I was little I had the mandatory holidays with her like Thanksgiving and every other Christmas but she remarried this guy that couldn't stand my guts because I reminded him of my dad for some reason.  I don't even look like him ... I look like Mom.  And they started a new family plus the guy had a couple of sons from his first marriage that he had custody of that I was constantly fighting with.  Anyway, right before I turned sixteen we all just agreed to stop playing games and totally went our separate ways.  Lots less stress for everyone involved."

He sounded like that had all happened a long time ago so I asked him, "How old are you?"

"Nineteen."

Surprised at his answer I squeeked, "Seriously?!"

He snorted.  "Seriously."

I muttered, "You're older than Lee."

"Who's Lee?"

"A friend.  His dad was the sheriff and my dad was a deputy."  We got off track sharing mutual stories from our pasts then I asked, "If you had this place to come to why didn't you leave Springfield sooner?"

"My dad and some other people had taken a stand at the community college.  It was a sweet set up.  Or at least I thought so at the time.  There was a working radio and people who were growing gardens ... it was a real viable operation.  Then someone got stupid and brought in some spoiled food that our cooks didn't catch.  Three quarters of our group went down and security got lax and ..."

"And that's all it takes."

He nodded sadly.  "Yeah.  Food poisoning got Dad before an infected could."

"It was a drunk that took my dad.  That first morning of Z-Day.  Only I didn't know that until the sheriff told me.  I still don't know what happened to Mom but ... but there are some things you just don't think about if you can help it."

"Yeah," Jace agreed softly.

We sat there quietly and I tried to not nod off though with the nice fire in the wood stove and a full stomach it was a losing battle.  Jace said, "I better go check on them."  Them being Sammy and John-John.

I was rubbing my eyes, trying to wake up, when I heard a door crash.  "Dammit!  Dammit dammit dammit!!"

I jumped up and was looking around for the threat when Jace came tearing into the room.  "Those two little sh ... dammit!  They are out in this crap!"

Fully awake again I asked, "You mean they've run away?  In this weather?"

A rattle of thunder was my answer until Jace said, "Not run away.  They just take off a couple of times a week and wander around for a couple of hours but they always come back.  They haven't been able to get away for about two weeks now because I've practically kept them tied to me.  They keep trying to go back over to their old house ... Sammy's old house I mean before she came to live here at the store with Uncle Simon.  I don't know what the deal is.  I told her next time I caught them anywhere near the place I would burn it down.  She was scared enough that she ... or at least I didn't think she was ...  Dammit!  I really will burn it down this time!"

I was at a loss as to what to do but then Jace said, "I ... dammit."

"You've already said that."

"Yeah.  I know.  Look, I need some help.  It is going to take everything I have to deal with Sammy and not hurt her until she calms down.  I need some help with John-John."

My automatic response was, "No way."

He turned to me and grabbed me by the shoulders and I didn't want to see how desparate he was but I didn't have a choice.  "You're dad was a cop right?  You understand that sometimes you gotta do things you might not want to so that everyone can be safe.  Sammy and John-John ... they aren't ... aren't responsible enough to take care of themselves, to make good choices.  I can't just ... can't just walk away.  But I can't do it alone anymore."

He was on the edge of cracking.  Unfortunately I made the mistake of looking at his side of things before I could stop myself and then folded.  I wish I hadn't.  I really, really wish I hadn't.  I swear I am such a girl.  I've really got to get over that.

"Take your hands off of me," I told him.  "You do that and I'll help.  You try and make me and Sammy isn't the only one who is going to fight."

He turned loose of me like I was a hot skillet.  The relief on his face made me sick to my stomach.  I knew that I'd need to get away fast after I was done helping him.  The whole situation was too messed up for me to deal with.  If I had only known.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Part 22



"Don't call me a liar Jace."

"I'm not.  I'm just asking."

I didn't see the difference but let it go since Lee could sometimes be that kind of guy stupid too.  "Yeah, everything I've told you up to this point has been the truth."

"But there are things you've left out."

I shrugged.  "Of course.  Just like you left out how you know that your uncle is really dead."

He looked at me sharply then looked quickly towards the door at the back of the store.  "Yeah.  But don't you dare say anything to Sammy.  Uncle Simon was Sammy's step dad."

"John-John's too?"

"No, a his, hers, and theirs."

It took me a sec to understand he meant a blended family.  "OK.  So you understand that I've got my business that you don't need or want to know about.  You respect mine, I'll respect yours."

"Fine.  But ... look ... you really can't say jack to Sammy about it or ... or ..."

"She'll go crazy?"

He sighed.  "I think she's already crazy.  Her mom could be bat shit ..."

"Hey!"

He made a face but then said, "Her mom could be crazy too.  Bipolar, but she was fine so long as she stayed on her meds, and that's the way that Sammy is starting to act."

"Her little brother too?"

"No, John-John is ADHD.  Basically he just does things off the wall to see what happens when he does.  And he hardly sleeps and won't stay still.  He's just a handful but basically harmless."

"Yeah right.  Whatever you say."

"Don't," he said warningly.

"Look, they're your family.  That's cool.  But that little kid ... he just poked my skinned up knee like he was digging for gold or something, like he wanted to see what I would do because he knew it would hurt me.  That's really, really bent.  And Sammy?  I am not even going to tell you how much she seemed to enjoy looking to see if I had any bite marks."

I shuddered in remembrance of the icky feeling she'd given me and Jace looked troubled.  "They haven't been around other people for a while.  They've just forgotten how to act.  Kinda gone feral maybe."

I shrugged but wanted to say keep telling yourself that.  Given the people that I had had to deal with in the city I knew crazy when I saw it and it was written in day glo spray paint all over Sammy and John-John even then.

Out of left field he asked me, "What's your plans?"

I looked at Jace and giving him the face that the question deserved.  "And why should I tell you?"

"Like you said, being alone isn't any good.  You gotta sleep sometime."

"I'm doing alright."

"I could have shot you."

"And sometimes people die.  It was my choice to sit on that bench.  Sometimes even little choices like that get you dead ... or infected ... and having people around doesn't stop it."

He quickly came back with what I thought was a random question.  "Why did you jump like that when you saw John-John for the first time?"

"Have you ever seen little puss brains?"

He sighed.  "Not many ... but ... but a few."

"Yeah, so wanna pick another question?" I asked him since if he'd seen other little puss brains the answer was obvious.

He sighed again and I was getting kind of tired of hearing it.  "OK, how about this one.  Why don't you stay here?  At least for a while?"

"Are you as crazy as they are?!  You don't know me.  I don't know you.  And Sammy ... geez ... I don't have a death wish you know."

"I'll take care of Sammy.  I'll tell her it is because there will be someone else to help take care of John-John."

I shook my head.  "No.  Uh uh.  I've done my fair share of babysitting but ..."

"I didn't say it would be the real reason."

I looked at him suspiciously.  He scowled.  "And not because of that either.  If I wanted it Sammy has been all but tying me down trying to force me for the last month."

Then I saw him shudder and realized something.  There might be more guys out there that didn't like weirdness than I'd been thinking there might be.  "You don't want me to stay for Sammy," I said carefully.  "Or John-John.  You want ... want ... I don't know ... like a ... a ... buffer.  Between Sammy and you."

Slowly he admitted, "Something like that."  Looking at the door one more time he added quietly, "If there were more people she might ... might stop."

I felt sorry for him all of a sudden.  "Once people go weird they usually keep going that direction.  At least that is what I saw in the city."

"Maybe.  Maybe not.  I just can't take this anymore.  And the weather is about to change."

"How do you know?"

"Uncle Simon's barometer.  He didn't trust the weathermen," he grinned sadly.  "He had his own homemade weather station and was pretty good at it.  He taught me to use it when I would come here to spend the summer with my grandparents.  They owned this place before Uncle Simon took over."

"You can't make me stay."

He looked like he wanted to deny it but then he shoulders slumped and he finally put the rifle all the way down.  "No.  I can't.  But ... I'm asking you to stay ... for a ... just a day or two ... something ... I feel like ... I feel like they are driving me ..."

At that moment there was a deep rumble of thunder and I ran up to the front of the store and looked out the window.  "What they heck?!  Where did those clouds come from?!"

And when it picked that moment to start raining huge dry weather drops Jace said, "I told you a change in the weather was coming."

Part 21


The girl Sammy told the guy, "She's clean."  Her tone though said she wasn't happy about it.

"Geez, you really want this guy to have someone to put out of their misery don't you?"  I wasn't feeling too charitable towards Sammy.  She'd gotten pretty personal space invasive checking to make sure I wasn't infected.  It was like she enjoyed trying to humiliate me which was really creepy since she was a girl and close to my age.

The guy sighed.  "I don't need another snarky girl so knock it off."

I looked at him and then at the gun and then back at him.  I wanted to say something but he had the gun so I kept my mouth shut.  "I don't need your water.  I'm outta here.  Just tell me if I'm going to run into anyone else's turf going north."

The guy - I still didn't know his name - shook his head.  "It really is getting too dark to travel.  You can stay with us."

Sammy shrieked, "Oh no she can't!"

The guy was snake fast and grabbed her and shook her pretty hard one handed.  "Will ... you ... knock ... it ... off.  We need information.  She comes from the city."

Sammy spit, "You came from the city and said no one else would be coming from that direction."

I asked carefully, "You were ... you escaped from the city?  Six months ago?  How?  The ... the bridges ..."

"Not St. Louis, I came out of Springfield."

Slowly I said, "I came through there.  Springfield is still pretty infested.  Where did all the people go?  They left a lot of good stuff behind."

The guy relaxed but he still had the gun so I didn't relax.  He didn't seem to notice ... or maybe it was that he didn't seem to care.  "A lot of them just got infected."

Risking it I said, "Uh uh, something is off.  The city had a lot of puss brains too but there was still people and the food got scarce fast which made people do crazy stuff like risk the bridges even though they got shot trying to cross.  Springfield still had food but no people."

He looked at me and then glanced at Sammy who was starting to look interested.  "Let's go grab something to eat," he said.

Uh huh.  There was a story and he didn't want Sammy to know what it was.  I wasn't too sure I wanted to be part of whatever their damage was but the guy didn't give me any choice; he shooed me along with the rifle.

We went around back of the store and then into it.  The guy said, "This was my uncle's place.  He went off about three months ago.  He said he was going to get help.  We haven't heard from him since."

I shrugged.  "I haven't seen anyone running loose or claiming to have kids they were trying to get back to if that's what you were wondering."

He shook his head morosely.  "He's dead."

Sammy hissed, "You don't know that."

I looked at the guy and he knew alright.  And I think he knew it literally as in he knew something the girl did not.  As my English teacher would have said, "The plot thickened."

I looked at Sammy and said, "I'll give him 99.9% of being right.  Lone people don't last long."

She sneered.  "Jace did.  You say you did."

So the guy's name was Jace.  "I don't know Jace's story but you heard part of mine.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, give or take a few days, I was with a group of people.  And even hitting the town where I grew up there was a whole thriving community of people.  I'm not alone by choice - well except for the ..."

Jace asked suspiciously, "For the what?"

I sighed.  "Long story.  Bottom line is the people that are kinda in charge of that town either didn't - or didn't want to which amounts to the same thing - believe me about coming from the city.  They don't want to believe the puss brains are going to figure out a way out of there and run amok like they did in the beginning.  They were looking to shut me up and I didn't want the few friends I had there to get hurt because of it.  So traveling alone is a choice I made ... it just wasn't my first choice.  Get it?"

Jace nodded slowly.  "Yeah.  OK.  I'll buy that.  You look like the kind of girl that would do something that stupid."

"Hey!" I said while Sammy and her little brother snickered at my expense.

Jace said, "You're a girl.  You're a little girl ..."

"I'm fifteen."  I may be "little" but that didn't mean I was young.  I really wish people would understand the difference.

The guy shrugged.  "You're what Uncle Simon called tea cup sized.  Puny and little.  It might have worked to draw all the guys before ..."

"OK.  Ew.  You can stop that right there.  Even if I had been inclined to do the gross, my dad was a cop and would have blistered my backside and that after he had decapitated anyone dumb enough to risk doing it with me."

"You're dad was a cop?  What happened to him?" Jace asked.

"What do you think happened?  Now who is being stupid?"

Sammy was on me with her claws and the only thing that saved me was Jace was just a little faster than her.  He all but threw her against the wall.  "What is your problem?!" he yelled.

"She insulted you."

He shook his head.  "Will you stop acting like a psycho off your meds?!  Go take John-John upstairs and get him down for a nap or something.  He's starting to act weird again."

Sammy looked like she was about to bawl and I was getting even more creepy vibes.  After she went up the stairs I looked at Jace.  "This better not be about ... about ..."

"Relax.  It's all over you that some guy has been at you."

"That is none of your freaking business."

"No it's not so don't waste my time trying to use it to make me feel sorry for you.  I've got enough on my plate taking care of those two.  All I'm saying is that that's not what I'm after.  Come into the front of the store so I can shut the door or Sammy will be nosey."

I hunched my shoulders to resettle the pack that I still wore and allowed him to mush me along to where he wanted to go.  "Did you really live in St. Louis for a whole year?"

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Part 20


When I was little we learned a song in Sunday School.  It started out "Oh be careful little ears what you hear" and went on and on about stuff.  The verse that is stuck in my mind right now is about being careful what you see.  Once you see something you can never wash it out of your mind no matter how much bleach you use.  I have enough of that rolling around my brain cells, I didn't need more.

After the rain stopped I skated for two days and then one of the wheels broke on the inlines and I took a dive onto the blacktop.  Even though I was wearing pads and a helmet I got pretty wrecked up.  When I could make myself get up and start walking again I knew I wouldn't get much further so got off the highway and turned into a little town where we used to stop to get gas and old-fashioned thick cut baloney sandwiches.  We'd also get ice cream if it was hot and my favorite that I never found anyplace else was lemon drop flavored milkshake.  For some reason I just had to see the place again.

Walking into town I noticed right off huge signs that directed people to an "evacuation point."  It might explain how come I haven't been seeing people, not even salvagers.  I've seen some triage type set ups off the highway but nothing that looks like people - uninfected people - have been in the area any time recently.

I limped my way to the store and sat down on the bench outside.  It seemed somehow sacrilegious to just bust a window to get in but it is probably what I would have done if I hadn't looked up and seen the little boy.  Talk about a freak out.  I was doing a total spazz.

What you have to understand is that puss brains are not zombies.  I know I've said it but most people don't really understand the difference.  Zombies are the reanimated dead.  Puss brains are not dead.  They're people infected by a totally gross virus that speeds up their metabolism, makes them angry, and as a consequence of both, makes them very, very hungry all the time.  Doc used to talk about how the metabolization rate on a puss brain was off the chart.  I always wondered how Doc knew all of the stuff he did but sometimes I looked in his eyes and realized that I might not really want to know after all.  The guy had a hole ripped in his soul that was letting his humanity leak out.

So yeah, get bit by a puss brain and you're going to turn into a puss brain ... you're infected.  They don't bite to infect, they bite ‘cause they're freakin' hungry and can't seem to help themselves.  I've seen a puss brain eat another puss brain but it isn't pretty.  And for some reason puss brains will gang up on another of their kind that starts feeding like that.  They'll tear them apart but not eat them.  Doc said it was one of those mysteries that had yet to be tested to find out why.  Puss brains had a real thing against cannibalism though it makes no sense since they ate uninfected people every chance they got.

To make the explanation of why I spazzed out even longer it's that when a puss brain gets hungry they are a sloppy eater and not real careful with their "food."  A lot of people who are chomped by a puss brain don't survive to turn into a puss brain unless the infection kicks in and starts healing them up fast enough.  If you have more than one puss brain chomping on you the damage is likely to be so bad you don't survive.  Or, if you are small or young or something along those lines.  The damage is just too bad.  And that's why you hardly ever see kid type puss brains.  Teenagers yes but kids and baby puss brains no ... hardly ever.  And when you do they are usually really, really bad.  I don't know why, they just are.

So seeing that little boy was truly spazz-worthy.  The problem was the little boy wasn't alone.  In my panic I rolled off the bench just in time to avoid getting shot though that isn't why I hit the ground.  "AAAAaaack!  Jerk!  Your aim is off!  Hit the puss brain kid!  Not me!!"  I didn't know who I was screaming at, it just sort of came out.  All I know is that puss brains don't use guns.

I was busy scrambling, trying to get my stuff together, keep an eye on the kid, and avoid the nearsighted shooter.  I was almost to the corner of the building when the kid stuck a finger in his mouth.  I took two steps then stopped and looked back.  Puss brains don't suck their thumbs.  I've seen them gnaw a finger off but never suck their thumb.  I was trying to decide what to do when I turned around to find someone ready to shove the barrel of a rifle up my left nostril.  It was so close I had to be cross-eyed looking at the end of it.

Then I looked up and there was a guy who looked about Lee's age and behind him were another girl, her about my age or maybe a little younger, it was hard to tell.  "Don't move."

"Nooooo kidding," I muttered.

I wobbled and then squinched my eyes shut ready to get shot.

"What's wrong with you?"

"Huh?"

"Have you been bit?"

"No.  Why?"

"What daya mean why?  You're covered in blood."

"I'm not covered in it," I told him looking down at myself briefly.  "I blew a tire on my skates and took a header.  I'm just a little scraped up that's all."

"Yeah right," the girl snapped.  "Don't listen to her."

"Shuttup Sammy.  She's the first person we've seen since Uncle Simon left and ..."

"Don't tell me to shut up!"

I sighed.  "Look I don't wanna get shot but I either sit down or fall down.  Not to mention I gotta sneeze and when I do I'm gonna get boogers all in your rifle barrel."

I heard snickering behind me.  I looked over just in time to see a little finger poke one of the places I'd shredded my jeans.  "You gotta boo boo."

"Ouch!"  And then finished falling down.  "Brilliant DeeDee," I muttered angrily.  "Good way to look like a complete idiot."

The girl Sammy added, "You got that right."

I sighed.  "Well, it wouldn't be the first time."  I turned my eyes up to the guy with the gun and he didn't look amused or anything else.  In fact his eyes were getting a little scary so I started talking fast in his direction.  "I'm no puss brain.  I'm really serious about wrecking on my skates.  You can even see here," I said pointing to the skate.  "One of the wheels cracked and broke.  I've got replacements.  I just needed to get someplace off the road so I could clean up and do it.  My folks and I used to come here for lemon drop milkshakes on our summer vacations.  That's all.  If it is your place I'll leave.  Just tell me if I'm going to violate someone else's turf or whatever.  I'm kinda tired and banged my head."

I'm on the ground where I'd fallen and looking up when suddenly the little kid with no boundaries body slams me and knocks the wind out of me in a great big woof.  When I can breathe again I'm trying to move out from under the little crazy body.

"Geez, what is this kid’s problem?  Do I look like a trampoline?!"  I scrambled up and backwards when the little boy looked all set to repeat himself.

The guy with the gun sighed and said, "Knock it off John-John."  When the kid gave him a smirk and acted like he was going to do it anyway the guy reached out real quick, grabbed the boy's arm, and then kinda tossed him in the direction of the girl Sammy.  "I told you to knock it off."  He looked at the girl and said, "Get your brother under control or I'll lock him in the bedroom again."

Sammy grabbed the little boy and held him to her even though it was pretty obvious he didn't want to be held.  I got a look from her that said it was all my fault but I didn't pay too much attention to it because the guy was back to pointing the gun at me again.

"Where are you from?"

"Like where was I born or where did I come from just now?"

The guy said irritably, "Keep playing stupid and see how that works for you."

"I'm not playing.  I mean I'm not stupid.  I just mean there are two pieces to the answer and I'm not sure which one your want."

"Try both Einstein."

This guy was for real.  He wasn't naturally bad but something about him told me he was ready to be bad if he had to.  He was like a guard dog.  I gave him the name of the town I'd been born but tried to give him a short explanation about the past year.

"Stop.  Are you saying you come from St. Louis?"

"Sorta kinda.  I told you ..."

"Yeah.  Say I believe you but you're saying that you've been in the city for months and just now escaped."

"Uh ..."  I said looking at him and trying to find the trap.  "Yeah."

"Are you infected?"

"No.  And ... look if I have to Sammy can look me over for bites but I'm not letting you anywhere near me."

The guy looked at me hard but something in his eyes had also changed.  It was something about saying I was from the city.  "You let Sammy look and if you're clean ... if you're clean I ... if you're clean you can fill your water bottle before going on your way."

I thought that was fair all things considered.  I had stepped into their turf uninvited after all.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Part 19



Escaping had to be the most boring thing I'd done up to that point.  It shouldn't have been but I was grateful that it was.  The warehouse district was on the north end of town which was the direction I wanted to go anyway.  I knew where I was headed.  We'd gone there every summer for as long as I could remember.  The name was the same two words I had left the Sheriff as a clue.

Singing Waters.

I had written it in pencil on the dark part of his desk blotter.  He would either see it or he wouldn't.  If he did he would have some general idea of where I meant to go.  But by the time he notices I hope I am a good ways down the road to where I'm going so he won't be tempted to try and stop me.

I've been on the road three days now with no sign of anyone following me.  The only reason I've stopped long enough to write all of this down in my notebook is because of the rain.  The rain and the puss brains.  They are in the next big town, almost a city really just not a big city, north of where I came from.  Bet their precious committee wasn't telling folks that the wall may have been keeping them temporarily safe to the south but that there looked to be a small horde forming behind them.  When I realized that I almost turned around and went back to warn the Sheriff but then stopped.

Maybe I am a bad person but when you try and tell people the truth and they refuse to believe you then at some point you have to just kind of shake it off and move on.  I was dead to them for a year.  Maybe some of them shed a tear for me or maybe they were too busy or something.  I'll have to let them go the same way.  Maybe I'll get someplace safe enough for long enough that I can cry but for now I've decided to give it up.  Kinda turning into a major waste of time.

This town is trashed almost as bad as the big city was.  Weirdly it hasn't been salvaged as far as I can tell.  There are quite a few puss brains but not so many that a decently organized group shouldn't have been able to work around them or put them out of their misery.  A grocery store that I passed by had not been completely cleaned out and it was too big a temptation not to peek.  Store was full of mice and things that eat mice but that's the only reason there wasn't more left on the shelves.

I watched the store for quite a while and realized that the puss brains considered it finger food central.  They'd go in looking hungry and come out with a handful of mice like appetizers and whatever else they could sweep off the shelves.  Yuck.  I've seen them do worse but there was something about watching a still wiggling tail hanging out of the mouth of one of the puss brains that just turned my stomach and I lost my appetite.  That didn't stop me from going in and taking cans off the shelves to add to my collection of food.  I couldn't take a lot but I did mark the place on a map I've started in case I get so desperate I need to come back this far looking for food.  I don't want to start acting like a puss brain and get so hungry I'll eat leather furniture and cotton undies.

There aren't that many stores around Singing Waters.  There are a few but they're more like tourist stops and camping and fishing supply places.  I know some of them shut down in the winter too.  Singing Waters is a campground set way back off the main highway.  I remember one year we went there for Christmas and there was so much snow on the ground that we had to leave the car at the bottom of the hill and hike up to the registration office because not even the snow chains were enough to stop us sliding.

Now that I am really on my way my one big worry is that someone is going to have beaten me to my chosen hideaway.  I don't know what I'm going to do if someone has taken over the campground.  If it is one person I'll have to see if they are crazy or not ... or one of those weirdos.  If it is a group I'll have to see if they'd let me work for a place to stay.  I won't be a slave but I don't have to be top dog.  I just want a place to stay for the winter or longer.

Part 18



Sticking to the increasingly dark shadows I made my way across town to where the warehouse district was.  That is where Lee had told me they stored all of the personal items of the people whose homes they had taken over.  He told me things had been stored by street and house number in crates hastily cobbled together from scraps at the lumberyard.

Lee had admitted that there was surprisingly little left after things like furniture, clothing, dishes, and that sort of stuff was redistributed to the homeless refugees who had crowded the town.  All I was really hoping for was that our family pictures didn't get thrown away.

I crawled into the warehouse and sighed.  I was definitely not going to find anything that night, it was too dark inside the warehouse.  The only good thing that I noted was that the place was dirty and had an abandoned feel to it that meant no one really guarded the place on a regular basis.  Hopefully that wouldn't change in the next day or two and I'd been able to find what I was looking for.

Just to be on the safe side I climbed up to the second level of the warehouse and from there to the top of the shelving on that floor.  I was in the back, darkest corner.  I heard a little rustling but it wound up being from all the accumulated dust and dirt resettling after I had stirred it up rather than mice or rats or bats.  I was tired so after a few sips of water and a bite of one of those awful calorie bars I created a little nest and went to sleep.

I woke the next day when a sun beam poked me in the eye.  Before I moved I took silent stock in my surroundings.  The warehouse still felt empty.  I didn't hear anything except for the wind as it blew against the metal roof of the warehouse.  It was cold and I shivered hard enough to disturb the dust around me and I had to hold my nose for nearly half a minute to control the sneeze that wanted to escape.

I had meant to wake up at dawn but obviously hadn't.  I climbed down from the shelf I had been on then carefully looked out the window on that floor.  Nothing.  The entire area looked abandoned.  I quickly got down to the business that I had come for.

Looking around I noticed signs with words and numbers on them.  I realized they corresponded to street names and house numbers.  Going downstairs I looked around but couldn't find my street name.  In frustration I went upstairs to have another bite of the calorie bar and then could have just kicked myself when I realized I'd been sleeping one shelving row over from where I needed to be.

Locating the approximate place the crate containing my family's personal belongings was one thing.  Locating the crate itself was totally different.  It took me three hours of hard searching to find the crate and then another hour to unearth from the stack it was buried in.  Actually I didn't unearth it so much as create a tunnel back to it.

The crate was depressingly small.  It might have made a coffin for me but only if my knees were bent.  I used a screwdriver from my backpack and finally pried the metal staples out so that I could open the crate.  Once I got it open I had to breathe deeply to keep myself from turning into a watering pot again.  Once I started to dig through stuff to try and decide what to bring and what to leave behind I had to fight the urge to stop and look through the photo albums.

When I was little Toddie hadn't turned into a super jerk yet.  One year for Christmas he digitized all the family photos.  I remember helping him and it took days and days and days straight even using one of those portable flip scanners they'd come out with, the ones that scanned at five times the speed of the fastest flatbed scanners on the market at the time.  Mom and Dad had been so surprised and grateful that they had continued the project.  I grabbed the portable hard drives that the pictures and family movies were kept on.  There was another copy in my parents' safety deposit box but who knows where that stuff is now.

Most of the digital photo frames that Mom had used were missing.  There had been dozens of them and she had them playing all the time.  I did manage to find a few hard copy photos in an old wooden box.  The box also held the family Bible that had belonged to Dad's grandmother.  I set that aside as well.  Some stuff in the crate I didn't recognize which leads me to believe that after a while people just threw things where ever they felt like.

There was a box of Mom's costume jewelry but most of her expensive stuff was missing.  Dad's gun and knife collections were missing.  Mine and Toddie's baby books were in there.  I didn't know whether to take them or not so set them aside.  I found a lot of our old school awards and in the scheme of things they didn't matter so I ignored them.  I found a box that was tightly taped up and knew they were the very special Christmas ornaments and the manger scene that Mom never let anyone handle but her.  I put it on the keep pile.  Then I found some stuff they'd obviously taken from my room.  I hardly had any connection to any of it, it was like that girl was a completely foreign person from the me I am now.  Then I saw it and nearly shrieked in glee.

I pulled out my oldest, rattiest purse that was a million years old and inside it were three glass cases.  My eye prescription hadn't changed since I was a little girl. Doctor said it was odd but not unheard of.  I opened the snap on one of the cases and slid one of my second pairs on.  I could see without having to look around a bunch of scratches.

Beyond what I had taken out there wasn't much that I could justify trying to carry.  It was like my life had been deconstructed and I was left with barely a connection to what it had once been.  I decided to take the baby books.  It was stupid but it had Mom and Dad's handwriting in it and Toddie's had our grandparents and a few other family members that I hadn't grown up knowing.  I took the costume jewelry too just because I had a little room.  Maybe I would regret it, maybe not; either way it didn't belong to whoever stole the other stuff.

I was exhausted again.  Whatever had been in that knock out drug the Committee goons had used on me hadn't worn off completely so I decided to grab a couple of hours of sleep and then hit the road.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Part 17



First I knew I needed to get to the Sheriff's office to see if I could get my backpack.  It wasn't easy but it should have been a lot harder than it was.  The school had an amazing number of entrances and exits and not all of them were being watched.  Oh sure, they had boarded them over but come on ... after a year in the city salvaging to survive there weren't too many places that I couldn't break into thanks to the ... er ... enlightening education I received from some of our less law abiding members.

Dad would have had a fit at what all I had learned.  I'm learning to accept that.  I spent a year being ashamed of what I had to do, wondering what my parents would think of me.  I thought I would be able to put all of that behind me.  I was obviously living on a different plane of reality.  So, I've decided to stop worrying about it.  There isn't anyone left that is responsible for me or who I might embarrass, that means I have to be responsible for myself and after all that I've been through I've given up being embarrassed for myself.

I used one of the basement windows on the original section of the school to get into the area of the basement where the ancient and defunct boiler was located before the new heating system was installed.  I knew that the pot heads used to use the area to toke up during school from listening to Dad talk to some of the other deputies at departmental BBQs and stuff like that.  It is amazing what you will learn by keeping your mouth shut, your ears open, and your eyes innocently directed away from the voices you are listening to.

I also knew from listening to the janitors complaining about the occasional rat problem the school had that if you crawled behind the old boiler and up the old air blower vent pipes that you could get all the way to the third floor of the school in the empty spaces left behind when the duct work was dismantled.  There was a fourth and fifth floor but those had been closed off years ago and were used for storage when the two new wings had been built onto the high school.

I didn't need to go to the third floor, only the second where the sheriff's office was located. And when I had been in there spinning in his chair I had seen that the old grate was still right where it had always been when the room had been Mrs. Kirkpatrick's AV class.  It was going to be a tight squeeze but I'd climbed in tighter ones.  The problem was going to be getting out but I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Once I finally maneuvered my way through and into the Sheriff's office it took me a while to get the vent cover off.  In frustration I almost punched it off until I realized two of the screws were stripped and could be pushed out.  It meant stripping a third screw and bending one corner of the vent cover to get out but I wasn't worried about that.  It didn't matter whether the Sheriff noticed because I was going to leave him a clue anyway.

I stood up and cracked my back from being in such a tight space for too long.  Then I headed right to the closet and opened it up.  Sure enough the pack was where I left it but much to my disgust so was a couple of terse notes.  One from the Sheriff and one from Sgt. Watson.  No more telling secrets to anyone, not even people I wanted to trust.

Both notes said basically if I ran off they were going to make it so that sitting was going to be a painful exercise for a while.  Well, that didn't exactly scare me because I'd seen real bad guys, lived with them, and there was no doubt that those two men could growl really well but I knew they'd never actually lay a hand on me.  I opened my pack to check things over and found another note.  This one from Sgt. Watson.

Don't know why but I have a feeling you are going to ignore good sense and run anyway regardless of what I have to say about it.  Can't say I blame you but you better not get dead or infected Kid or you aren't going to like what I have to say about it.  And that junk food is not going to carry you far.  More than likely will make you sick as a dog if that is all you are counting on for food.  This isn't much but they're better than what you've got.  Don't know why I even care.  You've been a pain in the backside from the word go.

Brief and to the point.  It choked me up some and I took the note and folded it into the bag that I around my neck; stuck the other two notes in there also.  Sarge had given me some high calorie food bars.  Right on the package it said "tastes like shortbread" which told me they probably tasted like cardboard or worse but beggars couldn't be choosey.

Now for the getting out unseen part.

Instead of going down I went up.  It was easy.  Apparently people here think if you get passed security on the first floor you must be OK.  And after hours no one was on the second or third floor anyway so what was the sense in having a security guard stationed up there.  And if you go all the way to the fourth or fifth floor, well golly gee whillikers, there's absolutely nothing up there.

Strangely enough there really wasn't except for a lot of empty cots.  I realized they must have used the area to house refugees in until they pushed them out into the community.  Briefly I wondered where they had put all the stuff that used to be stored up there but I didn't give it much thought time because it didn't matter.  What I was after was the old fire exit.

And there it was at the end of the hallway on the fifth floor.  The way Mom told me there used to be a really long, enclosed slide that kids were supposed to be able to use in case of fire.  She said her mother, who had also attended the school, had told her about how the boys always looked forward to fire drills because it was as good as getting to go on a ride at the fair when it came through.  The girls hated it because their skirts would fly up.  The girls all went down first while female teachers waited at the bottom to help them.  Then the boys came down next.  They said it was to teach the boys the lesson of "women and children first."  My mom said it was so the boys wouldn't see the girls' underwear.  Guess boys have always been the same.

Only there wasn't a slide there anymore; but there was a sort of escape hatch.  There was a metal ladder bolted to the side of the old brick building.  You wouldn't notice it unless you purposefully went looking for it because when they renovated the school and added the two new wings they built a kind of chase around the ladder because it was "unsightly" but fire codes had still required it.  The chase was quite large, or so it seemed to me.  It was big enough for a large man to go down so it was big enough for me to go down with the backpack on.

I had one bad moment when I came down at the same time that two guards were passing.

"What was that?"

"What was what?"

"I thought I heard something."

"Probably that cat we keep running out of here."

"I don't think so.  It sounded bigger than a cat."

"That cat is pretty damn big.  Stop freaking out already.  @#$%.  You've been listening to stories about that girl haven't you?  There are no Infecteds here.  They are all in the city, they are going to stay in the city until they all starve."

"Are you sure?  I mean ..."

"Shut the @#$% up.  It was just the cat if it was anything at all.  Now move it.  I got a date and I'm not going to be late because we have to file some kind of report."

They started walking back the way they had come but continued to argue.  I didn't want to make people argue, it was a waste of time.  But they need to start thinking.  Maybe the one guy was thinking.  Maybe he'd think enough that he wouldn't get chomped.  That was good enough for me.  Those that refuse to think for whatever reason will wind up getting what they deserve though they won't feel that way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Part 16



I was almost out of the window when I wondered where Lee was.  It was dark so given the time of year it was either very late afternoon or early evening.  It might even be night I thought.  I had no way of knowing exactly how much time I had been knocked out.  Long enough for Lee to have what probably amounted to oral surgery.  I then surmised that that was likely what the Sheriff was doing at the clinic, checking on Lee.

I pulled my leg back in and sighed.  More than likely all I was doing was heading straight into more trouble.  But Lee was a buddy ... you didn't let your buddy get chomped; figuratively or literally.

Staff was almost nonexistent on the second floor where I was.  That told me it was probably "after hours."  And they must have thought I was really zonked out since they didn't have a guard on the door or anything.  I freaked for about two seconds wondering if there were any security cameras so I rushed back up into the ceiling like a good little mousey.  I gave a brief smile remembering that "Mouse" is what Moses had called me the first few days after Sherry and I had joined his group, before he'd bothered to learn my real name.

I looked for wires and cameras and found none.  I guess they thought observation windows were sufficient.  There hadn't even been a window in the door of the room where I was held.  Someone really, really didn't know what they were doing.  I knew the sheriff was smart and the military people had to be smart - or at least some of them - and you would think the Committee people would have been somewhat smart.  But apparently they weren't working together which wasn't smart but turned out to be good for me.  I didn't relax but it made them seem less overwhelming and unbeatable.

I set off to do a serious search and my luck was in, I found Lee in a room in the opposite corner from where I had been locked up.  There were about a dozen beds in there but only about four people occupying them and all but Lee looked like they were hard asleep.  I was about to slide down inside the curtains that enclosed his bed when someone came on the ward, looked around like she wasn't trying to look around, and then headed straight for Lee's area and swooped down on him.

I stiffened thinking she was attacking him and was ready to bash her when suddenly I realized he wasn't exactly objecting to getting manhandled.  "Oh Lee.  Oh Lee," the girl was saying in this retarded breathy voice.

Oh brother.

He sounded all garbled from where I was at which told me he was either pretty goofed up with dental pain killers or his mouth was pretty wrecked ... or both.  But seems the girl wasn't having any trouble understanding him.

"Oh Lee."

< Lee>

"No, I don't know where she is at.  You know Mother doesn't tell me anything."

< Lee>

"Lee, I can't believe you'd ask me to do something like that.  Besides, it isn't safe.  Dr. Reed says that she is really, really bad off.  The answers on all of her tests were so terrible ... frankly now that I know how bad she really is I'm scared to death to think about what she could have done to you at any point you were alone with her."

< Lee making a bunch of racket.>

"Don't take it the wrong way.  Of course I feel bad for the poor girl.  Lord only knows what she had been through.  But Dr. Reed, Mother, and Major Jeffries all agree that there is no way that she could have come from the city.  It just ... well ... "

< Lee making a growling sound.>

"How can you think that?!  Mother works herself to death for the health and safety of this community.  Not that there is a lot of appreciation.  I don't know what the problem is.  Everywhere Mother went she was always afforded a great deal more courtesy than she gets here."

< Lee>

"I'm sure your father is misunderstanding the situation.  Dr. Reed suggested that he is looking for a substitute for your sister.  He called it transference of affection."

I almost transferred my booted foot to her backside.  It didn't sound like Lee was too happy either.

"Honestly Lee.  How can you say such things?  And do you know what I've risked to be with you?  It has taken me forever to talk Mother around."

< Lee>

"I'm sure Mother is giving those men a good talking to.  They obviously went beyond their instructions.  Mother has to be so careful; people can get so devoted and get a little silly in their desire to fufill her wishes."

< Lee>

"What do you mean ... cr ... criminal proceedings?" the girl trilled.  Yes I said trilled.  That's the only word that fits that stupid giggly sound that came out of her mouth.  "Lee, we are under martial law.  Your father might think he has a certain amount of authority but the truth is that it all lies someplace far above him."

< Lee>

"Oh please don't be like that.  Things are hard enough as it is.  Everything is just all turned upside down at home.  Mother is so upset about your poor friend.  She said that it could have been me wandering lost and helpless and abused.  It is why she ... well, I know it isn't very objective but it's why she is trying to help her as quickly as she is.  But you know how it was for the others Lee.  They just didn't want to let go of their delusions and they eventually ran off.  And we just don't have the resources to hunt them down.  And frankly, though please don't tell your father, I think she is doing it for you too.  She knows how I feel about you, how ... how close we've become.  She knows that girl is like a little sister to you.  But you can't say anything Lee.  Mother, because of her position, can't be seen as showing any kind of favoritism no matter how much it is deserved."

Gag me.

There was some more PDA type stuff though Lee looked like it hurt more than felt good.

"Oh Lee.  I just can't wait for us to announce our relationship so we can meet each other openly.  All of this sneaking around ... and meeting in dark places ... and ... and doing things we shouldn't ... wellllll ..."

There was a sound from out in the hallway and the girl straightened up and away from Lee like she hadn't just been about to jump his bones.  "I have to go."  And poof she snuck back out as quickly as she'd snuck in.

In through the door came a guy dressed in scrubs but carrying a sidearm so my guess is he wasn't the night nurse.  He looked around half-heartedly and then went back out.  Obviously they hadn't discovered I was gone yet but they might sooner rather than later so after checking to make sure the other patients in the rooms couldn't see me I popped off the ceiling tile and climbed down the junk that attached the bed to the wall.

When I got down I looked at Lee and his eyes were huge.  I nearly laughed.  Instead I kept a straight face and told him, "That had to be the most sickening display I've ever seen you in."

He tried to shake his head but I could tell it hurt so I stopped him.  "Look, I don't have much time and I know your mouth and head are making you feel miserable.  So, just answer me a couple of questions.  Who's the sickly sweet thang that just left?"

"Eeeeshellll."

I thought it over then said, "Michelle?  It wouldn't happen to be Michelle Hanson would it?"

He gave me a briefly surprised and then guarded look.  I nodded.  "Yeah.  I'm putting a few things together.  If I were you I'd be real careful she isn't leading you around by your ... er ... manly bits."  Even in the dark I saw him flush dark red.  "Look, that is none of my business.  I know you only ever let me hang around because your mom and dad kinda pushed you to."  He tried to say something and I shook my head.  "No.  Your mouth is too messed up to go into a long drawn out discussion.  Facts are facts.  But here's something to think over.  Major Jeffries admitted in front of your dad and Dr. Po ... er ... Dr. Riccardo that Command stopped communicating at some point in the past ... maybe a while in the past; I'm not sure of the timeline."

His face told me he was horrified by that bit of info and he tried to say something again but I held my finger up to shush him.  "I told you stop.  For one I can't understand you too well and for number two I have got to get out of here before your precious committee members disappear me like all those other so-called deranged people they've tried to help.  Run off my Aunt Fanny's fanny.  If they did run off it was because they were trying to escape.  Which is what I'm going to do."

Lee made more noise.  "Boy, you sure are hard headed.  I just came to make sure you were ok and to say I'm sorry that you got beat up over me ... again.  And ... and to say goodbye.  I'm heading straight out of here.  Like right now.  And to tell you thanks for being my friend.  Just do me a favor ... watch your back ... and your dad's.  People around here are in for a rude awakening pretty soon.  It may not be this winter but I'm betting not too long after the spring thaw things will start changing.  And that is if like you don't have a civil war before then."

I looked at him and then kissed his forehead.  It wasn't like a real first kiss but it was better than nothing.  He grabbed my arm but it wasn't with a lot of strength which added to the idea that he was kinda drugged up.  I pulled his hand off and patted it.  "Relax.  There's only two possibilities here.  I'm telling the truth that I survived the city for a year.  Everyone agrees that that is next to impossible so therefore I've developed some skills I didn't have before all this mess started.  Or two, I'm lying and I didn't spend a year in the city.  But I still had to have spent that year someplace which still means that I've got skills I didn't have before.  Either way I'm not the little kid I was when you asked me to Homecoming.  And all my family is dead or might as well be.  I'm leaving Lee ... this isn't home anymore."

Then I turned and skinnied back up into the ceiling and left.  I hated lying to Lee.  I really did.  But I wasn't sure if I could completely trust him.  Not because he would mean to hurt me but because he wouldn't want to see me get hurt.  He'd either tell his dad or let it slip to his girlfriend.  The sheriff would try and stop me for my own good and I'm sure the girlfriend would go straight to Mommy Dearest.

I was going to leave, just not as quickly as I wanted Lee to think.

Part 15



My head was pounding.  Again.

I heard the sheriff yell from some place close by.  "What happened to the damned Constitution?!"

"She was a danger," I heard a woman say.  It wasn't Dr. Ponytail's voice so I was going to go with the Major or someone like her.

"To whom?!  You?  Your plans?!  What?! And to simply drug her?!  In public?!!  Have we sunk this low?!!  My son, who was her deputized escort, was hit so hard with the butt of a gun by one of your people that he's lost two teeth and required a number of stitches inside his mouth.  That tells me that the girl needs protecting not the other way around.  So tell me again, who was she a danger to exactly."

There was a brief pause and then in a reasonable voice the woman replied, "To herself of course.  It's obvious she is suffering some kind of severe psychosis.  The poor child actually believes she has been in the city this entire time and everyone knows that is impossible.  Isn't that correct Major Jeffries?"

OK, so the woman talking wasn't the Major.  So who was she?  Then I heard Dr. Ponytail say, "I'm going on record that I do not agree with the heavy handed tactics being used.  I'm the girl's physician of record.  The drugs used were not approved by me and the dosage was totally inappropriate.  Even if the girl is suffering from severe mental trauma as Dr. Reed suggests ..."

A man's voice piped up angrily, "Are you questioning my diagnosis?"

"I'm saying that a second opinion is needed on this yes.  If for no other reason than to circumvent any suspicion that this girl is being railroaded to shut her up.  I can tell you that there is already talk ..."

The man flippantly said, "People always talk."

"People yes ... but security personnel, no ... and not just the national guardsmen."

The woman I hadn't identified by name yet asked, "I assume that you've heard this from your sergeant?"

There was a pause.  "Actually Sgt. Watson and I are not currently ... in communication."

I could actually hear the surprise in the silence that followed.  Carefully the woman then said, "Surely you are exaggerating the reaction.  Why make such a fuss over one girl?  We've handled deranged people before without this level of outcry."

Irritably Dr. Ponytail said, "Yeah, about that.  I think you may have overplayed your hand this time.  People - even some of my own staff - are beginning to wonder how many of those people were actually mentally disturbed and how many simply weren't bringing facts from outside the protected zone that agreed with your theories ... yours and the Committee's.  I myself am beginning to question a few things."

Dr. Reed said, "This is ridiculous.  Surely everyone must understand that Dr. Hanson and I ... and the others ... only have the best interest of everyone at heart."

The sheriff jumped back in and said point blank, "Regardless of your intentions, you have exactly two hours from this point to produce Deandra Dawn - undrugged and unharmed - or you will find yourself deposed from your positions by the people of this community.  She will not just disappear like the others did.  She's a fifteen year old girl.  I don't care whether you believe her story or not because it is immaterial at this point.  The fact remains that she is a citizen of the town I serve and as such has my protection.  She's a minor.  Any kind of legal maneuvering that you are thinking of requires at a bare minimum that she has an adult representing her interests during the proceedings.  Her interests, not the interests of your damn Committee."

The woman I now knew was called Dr. Hanson said, "Major Jeffries, the Sheriff is making threats against me ... and the Committee."

Major Jefferies didn't answer for a moment, like she was weighing her words.  "I warned you this could happen.  The Colonel warned you this could happen.  The control and authority we have in this area is only nominal.  When Command stopped communicating ..."

The Sheriff and Dr. Ponytail shouted "What?!!" at the same time.

Drs. Reed and Hanson yelled, "Major!  That is private Committee business!" over the top of them.

The Major was laconic. "Perhaps it was but your ... actions ... have led to a ... let us call it a minor revolt in the civilian staff we've been forced to employ to fill the gaps in communication that were created last year when so many of the Colonel's staff was lost in that riot.  I am sure that the word is spreading across town even as we speak."

"This ... this is totally unacceptable!" Dr. Reed said.  I could hear anger and fear in equal measure in his voice.

"Unacceptable or not, it is the result of your actions ... yours and Dr. Hanson's ... by choosing to act so precipitously and against counsel."

"Bah!" the sheriff spit.  "We're wasting time.  Mark my words, the girl is released unharmed and un-coerced.  You have no other options."

I could almost see him slam his hat on and stomp away.  Obviously he hadn't known I was only a few doors down or he might have just come in and got me.  The rest of them continued talking but they moved away as well and the automatic lights went out in the hallway.

I sat up carefully and took stock of my surroundings.  They'd made a huge mistake not tying me up.  I carefully tried the door but it was locked but I wasn't too worried.  If they were dumb enough not to tie me they were dumb enough to miss other avenues of escape.  The window was locked but then again I wasn't too worried about that either.  If worse came to worse I could always break it out.  But that would make noise and I didn't want that except as a last resort.

I looked around some more and then up.  And grinned.  I wouldn't even have to move furniture.  There was a medical cart and a book case against the wall.  Our group had learned a gazillion ways of getting out of places that supposedly we shouldn't have been able to get out of.  They sent me up into the acoustical ceiling a lot of the time because I was the smallest and lightest.  I would then distract the puss brain(s) and those that couldn't go through the ceiling would go through a window or door.  Divide and conquer.

I wasn't dealing with puss brains.  I was dealing with people that acted almost as dumb as puss brains could act on occasion.  I escaped the prison they had fashioned for me with almost no trouble and total silence.  I stayed on the main beams so that I wouldn't make the ceiling move or creak.  Then I went looking for a room with an outside wall that had a window that I could open.  Got it on the first try.  Also "salvaged" some first aid supplies to replace the ones that I had used on Sgt. Watson and a couple of sharp instruments that would be useful if I was unable to get to my backpack in the sheriff's office.

Part 14



It has been a couple of very unpleasant days.  I am right back where I started from ... maybe not geographically but that doesn't seem to matter very much.

Lee and I were cutting through the park and it was a perfect day for being outside.  Somehow that should have told me to watch out.  Things are always best before they suddenly aren't.  I'd spent another night in the clinic but the sheriff had mentioned that he didn't feel that was appropriate and that he wanted me to come live with them.  I was going to use Laura's room.  For some reason Lee and I started bickering.  It was for no good reason but I guess that's the way it usually starts.

"Don't be a dork."

"Will you stop doing that?" he snapped.

"What?"

"Making me feel ... I don't know ... that you're suddenly older than me.  'Cause you're not."

Nonchalantly I told him, "Nope.  I'm not.  But just because you are older doesn't mean you aren't a dork.  Why my mom and yours always thought Laura would want to play with me when she was a year older than you is beyond me."

"I don't know what your mom thought but mine hoped you'd slow Laura down.  She said she was growing up too fast."

I shrugged.  "Opposite on my side.  My mom thought I was going too slow on purpose.  I suppose they thought if they put us in a shaker that we would at least rub off on each other and even it out a little.  Geez.  For smart people our moms could sometimes totally miss the point."

Lee was silent then said, "How can you talk like that?  I mean they ... they died.  Probably really horribly."

I wanted to kick him in the ankle but didn't because he'd promised to take me to the warehouse where all the "personal items" had been stored.  "Look.  It's not that I don't feel bad if I start you know dwelling on the how they died part.  I cried a lot in the beginning.  I cried so much that I could have been puss brain chow a hundred times over if Sherry hadn't been willing to put up with me until I toughened up. But if you think I'm bad then you just don't understand how bad people can get."

He shook his head in denial.

"Seriously Lee.  People are bad and hard.  Our dads knew that.  Our moms probably did too when they let themselves think about it.  But here's the thing, why should I Iet the way Mom died take away from how she lived?  My mom was a pain but she was my pain and was kinda cool in her own way.  We had a garden.  She made cookies and baked our bread so we didn't have to eat the gross spongy stuff from the store.  She was real organized so that we could live in our little house without going crazy so Dad didn't have to worry about money so much and could focus on staying safe.  Mom may not have worked a job like your mom did where she saved people's lives every day, but she was still a good person."

"I didn't say she wasn't," he said defensively.

"I know.  I just meant I don't want to make how she died to where it covers up who she was when she was alive.  That's all.  Mom would be sad if all I remembered of our time together was the last bad thing rather than all the good and normal stuff that came before it.  I mean why do you do good stuff for and with people if it isn't to balance out the bad stuff that is bound to happen?"

He was silent and then grumbled, "You're even stranger than you used to be DeeDee."

I shrugged trying to show he wasn't close to hurting my feelings.  "Probably.  A year on the run from Puss Brains and perverts will do that to you."

We walked another five minutes in silence when he asked out of the blue, "Were you really in the city the whole time?"

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned on him.  "You know you can call me a lot of things but liar isn't one of them.  Go away Lee.  Leave.  Now.  I don't need a babysitter."

'Hey ..."

"No.  Just like with the puss brains and thinking you're all safe and crap here in town, you are listening to the wrong people.  I could tell you things about what it is like to really have to deal with puss brains.  I could teach you things about how to avoid them, outsmart them, avoid being chomped, win in a hand-to-hand fight.  You haven't asked me one single question about that.  Not how did I survive, what did I have to do day in and day out.  No one around here has.  Not even those so-called scientists at the clinic.  That's sad.  That means you think you know everything.  Well you don't."  We were drawing a crowd but I didn't care.  "For instance, you think it is that dinky, stupid wall that keeps the puss brains out.  It's not.  It's that they've still had things to keep them occupied in the city.  Like when I left they were starting to form a horde ... they do that sometimes.  And the horde was attracted to a big fire that had started downtown.  That's how I was able to get away without having to splat too many of them.  That's why there weren't any to take notice of how I got across the bridge on the scaffolding.  But eventually some puss brain is going to get hungry and they aren't going to be able to find anything left in the city and they are going to look across the river and their tummies are going to growl.  That's what drives them the most, hunger."

Acting superior he said, "Obviously.  The scientists told us that a long time ago."

"Yeah, but did they tell you that puss brains still think?  That they plan?  That they can learn?  That they have strategies?  They aren't all just instinct; yes, some of them are but not all of them.  And some of them still feel pain.  That's why you don't look them in the eye when you are putting them out of their misery.  They heal fast too, the longer they've been infected the faster they heal.  Now put all of that together Lee.  Really think about it.  If they feel pain and don't like it then they'll fight being in pain.  When they don't get enough to eat it hurts them.  They'll figure out a way to escape that pain and they'll be able to take risks that uninfected people wouldn't because they don't have to worry so much about being Humpty Dumpty."

"The infecteds' brains don't work like that," he denied.  "They can't.  They're too messed up.  The doctors all say so."

"All the doctors or only the ones saying what you want to hear?"  I shook my head.  "You and the people around here have bought into that stupid zombie mess.  Puss brains are still people.  They still breathe.  Their hearts still beat.  They still think even if it is in a different way than uninfecteds do.  They still need to eat to live.  They still poop and urinate.  They are more than just animal instincts.  Most of them aren't real bright compared to what they were before they were infected but there are a few that are close ... or at least close some of the time and it isn't just by accident.  And those are the leaders that can gather the other puss brains together and get the hordes started.  And when that happens they get like this hive mentality and work together and work smarter for some reason.  It will be a horde with a smart leader that figures a way across the bridges ... not just the bridge I came across but any or all of them.  And when that happens it won't just be here that the puss brains head it will be every place they can spread.  And when that happens there won't be any place to run."

A man from the crowd said, "Then we'll fight them."

I turned to him and said, "It isn't just a matter of being willing, you have to be ready, and you aren't.  And you have to know the best ways to fight them so the fewest people on your side get chomped on.  And I haven't seen that you know how.  That's why I didn't stay in the city by myself.  I wouldn't have been able to survive.  You need numbers to cover your back and you cover theirs."

A sharp female voice snapped, "That will be enough."

I turned and saw the woman - Major Jeffries - that had all but called me a liar straight out.  I told her, "You just don't want me telling people the truth.  You want people to think I'm a liar, that I'm just a kid with a big imagination.  You want people to forget what it was like a year ago because if they think about it they'll know that it could happen again and some of them will panic and you'll lose control.  Well I tell you what, you wanted me to take you back the way I came.  You want me to prove to you that I did just what I said I did.  OK.  I'll do it.  But not just with you military types.  Some regular people have to go with us so they can see too.  And when ... if ... we come back you have to let them tell what they saw ... the truth, not just what you want them to say.  Deal?"

"I do not make deals with children."

I let the "children" remark pass and asked, "Too afraid that I really am telling the truth ... a truth that you don't want anyone else to know?  What are you?  Chicken or something?"

Lee yelped, "DeeDee!"

I turned on him, "Stop ... being ... so ... nice!  It is going to get you dead or worse, infected!  I've seen enough dead and dying people!  I don't want to see anymore!  I sure don't want it to be my friends!"

Two guys with medic uniforms came up behind me and I couldn't move fast enough.  I felt a pinch in my arm.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  But then again, it was like being the lone person in a world of puss brains.  I didn't have anyone to cover my back.