Watching the flurry of early morning activity all over the makeshift sanctuary it was sometimes easy to overlook the fact we were over two years into what the group of survivors I belonged was calling "The Death" and I had just begun to let myself feel the first hint that the worst might be over. The clear blue sky, free of any signs of smoke, and the birds singing in nearby trees, instead of the moans of the undead, added to the almost normalcy of the morning. It didn't take much to see a reminder of what we had all survived, three sides of our protective haven was lined with a 14-foot fence topped with razor wire with a deep drainage ditch just outside running almost its entire length. Lying in that ditch were the burnt bones of two separate and massive waves of zombies that had tried to break through our perimeter.
In those early and very desperate months, the only thing that had saved us was flooding the ditch with gasoline from the on-site tanks and setting it a fire. Even with the flames burning the gray skin of the ghouls black many attempted to either climb or push down the fence. Small teams of armed survivors would rush to that section and shoot any zombie trying such a thing, sending them back down into the burning ditch with a hole in their heads.
The main building, making up the fourth side of our perimeter, despite having huge plate glass windows to show off the latest in luxury imports was safe due to the paranoia of the dealership owner. Worried over possible future social unrest and damage to his inventory he had installed thick Plexiglas windows that were damn near bombproof. We only welded sheet metal over most of the windows so we did not have to see the soulless stares coming from those that had once been friends and family.
As the months rolled on the small group that had found itself in the dealership for whatever reason when things went bad was joined by other survivors, many of them bringing supplies, weapons, and other pieces of vital equipment. One piece being the old army truck, complete with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the cargo bed along thousands of rounds of ammo, which we put to immediate use to find the one thing we were always short on, food.
While the usual members of my foraging team loaded up for our excursion outside the protection of our compound I inspected the metal grating welded the length of the cargo bed on both sides of the truck. On past trips beyond the fence, roving bands of zombies had found very inconvenient, for us, hand holds on the truck almost overwhelming the riders. The metal grates were welded to foot long struts that extended out from the main truck body allowing the team riding in the cargo section time to deal with any ambitious ghoul.
Similar grating and outright armor plating protected the driver and assistant driver in the cab. My favorite addition was the cattle catcher on the front of the truck that the dealership body shop staff manufactured allowing us to plow into hundreds of ghouls without slowing down. Our additions were not perfect but since it was completed no one else on the foraging teams had been infect by a zombie scratch or bite while traveling.
"Hey Sergeant Ryan," Jacob Thompson called down from the cargo bed, "any chance we can stop by the old porno shop across town? Ben here is lonely since he poked a hole in his blowup girlfriend." Ben Fisher rolled his eyes at the outburst from my team's obnoxious and youngest member while the other eight people just ignored the kid.
As I threw my rucksack on board I glared the kid into silence, I didn't like leading a team but since we had only a few real soldiers in our group I had been forced back into a quasi-military service to head up one more squad. Our senior military survivor, an army captain named David Perry who with his soldiers, arrived with the deuce we were using after their own compound was overrun, upon hearing that I was a retired National Guard sergeant had quickly pressed me back into service.
Over the steady roar of the engine, I inspected my team's weapons making sure they were loaded and ready. "Listen up people," I yelled, "The last team out made it as far as Lake Mitchell Elementary School down highway six and it that didn't look in too bad a shape. In fact, the place showed strong signs of fortification leaving Sergeant Roberts and his team to believe it still might have some supplies inside. The only reason they didn't go in themselves was because the truck was already loaded and they were low on fuel. Our mission is to get to the school, scout out the buildings and retrieve any supplies."
"Any ghouls sighted Sarge?" Ben Fisher asked.
"No, in fact the entire area looked quite, except for ghoul remains littering the ground. But each and every one of you knows how that goes." I said looking at them all; it was then that I noticed the smile on the face of the blonde woman, named Trisha Kelly, clutching an assault weapon. I raised one eyebrow to her, forcing her to smother it and return to some sort of discipline.
"All right if you people can stop asking questions, let's get on the road." I said waving the driver to get back in the truck and head us toward the main gate. The truck rumbled close to our one access point out and I marveled at the greatly reinforced entrance with the watchtowers we had built on both sides. In the early months, this had been our weakest point where the strength of the fence was at best ineffectual and the ditch was interrupted.
We passed through without incident; each of us was lost in thought as we surveyed the devastated town we once called home. Looking at the empty and destroyed fast food restaurants, strip malls, and convenience stores I was amazed at the shallow and meaningless life we had all built for ourselves figuring that if civilization ever recovered our descendants would laugh at the trap we had set for ourselves. After leaving the ruins behind conversations started up amongst the team and as long as they watched their fields of fire looking for roaming ghouls I let them continue.
The good feeling amongst my troops was palpable with the growing realization that the zombies were not only declining in numbers but were finally showing signs of visible decomposition. The virus that had infected, then killed, and finally reanimated its victims also did something to zombie tissues that resisted normal decay. Adding to the renewed optimism were occasional radio broadcasts from North Carolina speaking of some sort national government on the western side of the Rocky Mountains and a reorganized army moving eastern clearing out whole states of zombie infestation.
I was generally immune from the optimism running through my rag tag group and among the other survivors back at the compound. Far too much had gone wrong with sheer luck being the main reason we were not prowling the landscape looking for living flesh to consume. Even before The Death, my life was out of control with my marriage in trouble and my relationship with my kids strained. I took my family for granted caught up in the insane pursuit of more money and material things. It was small consolation to know I was just a single lemming running off the cliff with the rest all over the world. After everything fell apart so quickly, Trisha Kelly stopped me from spinning out of control.
In the times before The Death, she and I were acquaintances; we knew each other through school functions and other social events that occurred in Banner but in no way were our families close. At best, I figure I talked with her husband once or twice when our kids played on the same basketball team. When the plague sweep through and civilization fell apart we both found ourselves at the dealership with the others. During the panic, we both made separate attempts to find our families but the growing danger and chaos pushed us back to our refuge. Everyone knew of other safe havens like our own so Trisha still had hope that her family might still be alive somewhere. I eventually accepted that mine were lost leaving me largely empty inside.
As time passed, Trisha and I became lovers each of us filling some need absent in the other. I knew being both her team leader and lover was a serious conflict of interest but with the dead walking the earth all sort of other rules were long since suspended as well.
"Sean," I yelled at the driver through a cheap civilian walky-talky, "take us through the student drop-off loop then around back. But be ready to punch it back to the main road, we have plenty of food right now and I will not sacrifice anyone just so we can get fat again."
As Sean turned off the road and into school property, I scanned the area with binoculars while my team had their weapons pointed out looking for movement as well. Driving in we all ignored the now inert zombies littering the ground, sure signs that whoever had taken refuge in the school had not gone down without a fight.
A short time later with the truck idling next the cafeteria loading dock and its collapsed doors my team, except for the driver and his assistant now operating the .50 caliber, we prowled the dark and empty corridors of the school. Before disembarking, we had wrapped several layers of plastic trash bags around our feet, legs and arms in an attempt to avoid any possible contamination we might encounter. Enough of it seemed too existed where small firefights had occurred, leaving trails of gore on the walls and floor.
I was just about going to call the mission a bust when we entered a large storage room at the center of the school. In it was hundreds of cartons of army MRE's and a small arsenal of National Guard weapons and ammunition. I was feeling slightly uneasy with the situation since the day was quickly passing but the ammunition alone was reason to bust ass and get it back to our compound. Looking at my group, I rummaged through my mind for a decent plan to keep us safe and get the supplies loaded. "Ben, grab three people and scout out the rest of the school, shoot first if something moves and ask questions later. The rest of us will load up the stuff, everyone stay in radio contact on fifteen minute intervals."
The rest of the school turned out empty but I left Ben and his two guys watching different parts of the far side of the property. Radio contact was important to me but in the rush to get the supplies loaded, I missed one person calling us back as he should. Once I realized who it was a deep chill went down my spine.
"Jacob, this is Ryan answer up dammit." I said looking at the walky-talky as if it could answer on its own. Sometimes you know something has gone very wrong and this was one of those occasions. "Team this is Ryan, drop everything and get back to the truck, Sean if I'm not on board in ten minutes haul ass back to the compound."
Trisha and a short fellow named Wilson had been with me moving the supplies and I ordered both back and ran off down the middle hallway to the rear area of the school property. I wasn't really surprised to see Trisha behind me but I knew her enough to know it was a waste of time to repeat myself.
Trisha and I ran out the doors at the end of the long hallway with our weapons up against our shoulders and scanning the surroundings. It didn't take long to see that not only did a zombie have Jacob up a pine tree hanging on for dear life but that at least thirty more were slowly stumbling out of the woods. Instinctively both she and I began firing off single shots at the oncoming swarm. Heads exploded causing the zombies to fall and I moved closer to the tree Jacob was stuck in.
"Jacob," I yelled, "drop down now and grab your weapon we have only a few minutes to get back before the truck leaves." I quickly glanced over to the now inert zombie lying a few feet away. It had several puncture marks to the face and after looking over at Jacob's AK-47 with it bayonet extended I knew the little shit had been playing with the ghoul trying to hit its brain.
The funny thing with zombies is that while they are slow they are relentless. My momentary glance at Jacob, the zombie, and his weapon was enough to time to see that the coming swarm now numbered over a hundred. Panic was something I could not afford if I wanted to survive and I steadily picked a target, aimed, and slowly squeezed the trigger. My marksmanship was always good and the last two years had only improved it, just about all my targets fell the first time.
Jacob finally dropped down, retrieved his weapon, and began firing just in time to allow me to insert another full magazine after I fired off my last round. I had thought that Trisha, Jacob, and myself were all somewhat close but at some point I realized I wasn't hearing Trisha's weapon. Jacob and I had backed up to the school doors and I looked up to find Trisha only to see that we were surrounded with Trisha calmly walking toward a male zombie that looked strangely familiar.
"Dammit Trisha," I screamed but given how surreally calm she looked I was amazed I got anything out at all. "What in the hell are you doing?" She turned her head to me and with a look of utter serenity on her face she smiled. "I found Michael, I'm going to join him now, finding him was my whole reason for living these last couple of years."
At the mention of Michael's name it was then I recognized the ghoul standing in front of her, it was her husband, or had been when he was alive. If anything, the ghoul seemed in some fashion, to recognize her in that it was less than a foot away with what I would call a curious expression on its face had it been alive.
As Jacob and I continued to fire, Trisha reached out and embraced the ghoul. With the swarm growing nearer I could only catch short glances at Trisha but at some point the ghoul took a bite out of her neck. Seeing blood run down Trisha's shirt as she continued to embrace the ghoul that had been her husband some circuit breaker in my head tripped and for the next couple of hours I pretty much lost consciousness and ran on pure instinct. I had to be told what happened after that.
Sean had disobeyed my orders and came speeding around the corner of the school in the truck with Ben on the .50 caliber blowing zombies into small chucks. He slammed on brakes close to Jacob and me with the rest of the team opening fire providing cover. Jacob pulled me to the rear of the truck with the others yanking us onboard. Sean floored it and with the cattle catcher in front plowing through the swarm clearing a way for us back to the main road.
Back at the compound, I was found with some sort of flesh on my clothes and was thrown straight into isolation for three days. During my time alone I did a lot of thinking and realized that Trisha had died long ago. She had been deeply committed to her family before The Death and to the hope of finding them after it. As strange as it might seem, I was actually surprised to realize I was as much a crutch to her as I knew she was to me. I realized as well, that the emptiness I felt was because somewhere deep now very early in The Death I had been living like a zombie for years. My only desire was for a second chance at a better life and to find out what happened to my family.
That is exactly what happened barely three months later. The army reached Banner and setup headquarters there for the push into Columbia to sweep zombies out of the state capital. After a recommendation by Captain Perry, I was officially re-inducted into the service as an army First Lieutenant helping to sweep clean the Lake Mitchell area. During one of the sweeps, I found my wife and children alive and well on the other side of the lake with a group that had taken refuge in a hospital.
The reunion was bittersweet since my wife had thought me dead and married another one of the survivors in her group. At least I have my kids and a second chance to do something real with my life, which damn few other survivors can claim and that alone is reason enough to live.