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  Table of contents Issue Eighteen A GROWING FAMILY

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DANIEL BROWN
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T

he makeshift caravan bivouacked about seventy miles out of town, just off the I-71 at an abandoned rest stop. The RV’s, SUV’s, station wagons, sedans, and a lone Chevrolet muscle car made a circle in the center of the park, a kitsch imitation of something out of the old West. The families huddled around the fire, half-heartedly roasting hot dogs, marshmallows, and past-due hamburger over a weak fire. Their faces were ashen.



There were soccer moms whose neat, organized world of school and activity schedules, weekend sleepovers, and secret affairs with the French teacher had suddenly and irrevocably been ripped away from them. There were fat, balding accountants whose world of security, moderate prosperity, and banality had suddenly been whisked away by a living nightmare. There were listless children and teens, whose quiet world of iPad apps, Netflix, and junk food had disappeared as swiftly and violently as various friends and family members, robbed by the same force that now cowed their elders into silence.



The Dead.



The Plague had started quietly enough – a rash of ambulances here, a quarantined tenement there, a rash of “mad cow disease” and “avian flu.” But then the utilities had gone out, the police, national guard, and then regular military had deployed. The highways had been clogged with the mass exodus and mad flight of the damned until martial law closed all major roads.



That was when civil war broke out, terrified citizens doing battle with the equally terrified but far better armed soldiers and police while both fell prey to the Dead.



Tom’s group had been lucky. A community leader, he had at various times served as a local councilman, volunteer fire service coordinator, vice principal, boy scout troop leader, and (most recently) neighborhood association president. It was he who had organized rationing at the beginning of what was now being called the Great Crisis; it was he who had planned the evacuation along old forest service roads and little-known trails that the dying mobs on the highways knew nothing about. And it was he who had led the survivors, his chosen flock, back onto the highway far north of all military blockades until they were safe from the Plague that ravaged their city.



But now, sipping his warm beer, he was faced with the reality that his chosen flock was fraying at the edges. He wrapped an arm protectively around his daughter as he listened to the angry, frightened arguments around him. At eleven, Sam was old enough to understand the danger of the situation, and he could feel the tenseness in her shoulders.



“Where did this come from?”



“Why don’t I have signal on my cell phone? I thought they were just jamming everyone in town so the army could control us!”



“I heard it was at that CDC lab in town. Secret experiments with Spanish flu. My cousin knew a janitor there and he said they’d kill anyone who knew what they were doing.”



“Where’s Donny? Has anyone seen Donny?”



“I guess they did kill whoever knew – and a couple hundred thousand other people for good measure.”



A woman sobbed.



“Where are we even going? What if it’s not just happening here?”



“How the hell do I know? No cell phones, no internet, just the same goddamn message on the radio!”



A baby cried.



This is an emergency broadcast bulletin. A quarantine is in effect. Citizens are to remain indoors. Civilian telecommunications are temporarily disabled. A boil water advisory is in effect. Remain calm.



“Remain calm.”



Remain calm?



“Turn off that radio.”



This was chaos.



And Tom thrived on chaos.



He kissed Sam on the cheek and rose, beer still in his hand.



“Alright, listen up.”



The arguing continued. Tom dropped the beer, placed his little fingers to his lips and gave his best assistant coach Time Out whistle. Everybody turned toward him.



“We need gas and supplies if we’re gonna make it to Cincy. There’s a town a few miles up the road. I need a few guys to go with me. The rest stay and protect the camp. And I need everyone to keep quiet – no telling how far this thing has spread, or where those things are.”



Tom’s words were quiet, but his hand rested lightly on the grip of his Glock. A fat account executive took a gulp of warm beer and swore under his breath. Everybody still knew who was boss, even if they didn’t like it. Because for now, at least, the boss was keeping them alive.



“Now let’s get a move on.”



Tom knelt next to Sam.



“Sam, I’m going to come back and get you out of here – you and everybody. But remember our talk?”



Sam’s eyes were serious. She nodded.



“Anything that can go wrong,” he prompted.



“Probably will,” she whispered. He forced a laugh and patted her on the shoulder.



“That’s my girl.”



But it was hard to fight the lump in his throat as he glanced at his old taser tucked into her tight fashion jeans.



endmark





The little town was littered with trash and corpses. The Neighborhood Association expedition was apparently not the first to have found detours around barricades – it looked like a few dozen people had tried to fuel up or hole up in the little town.



“It’s spreading,” Tom muttered. A couple of the men knelt to examine the tattered bodies.



The fear entered them then, the fear and the horror. The corpses weren’t just dead (everyone knew that the Plague victims went mad and attacked just about anything that moved.) No, these bodies had been mangled. It was like someone had started eating them.



But where was the someone?



They’d gone through a couple of houses, but there was no sign of anyone alive, or otherwise. As they made their way to the center of town, communicating in whispers and gestures, Jones had spooked a cat and fired wildly as the poor creature raced out of the shadow of a building. The shotgun blast echoed as his former neighbors glowered at him.



“Oops,” he muttered, red-faced.



Then everyone heard the voices.



“Did you hear that,” Jones whispered.



Ignoring him, Tom led the way past the last of the houses. There was a small, half-wood and half-tin building. The hand-painted sign read “Bo’s Gas.” The little building had been barricaded with makeshift barriers, furniture, and a couple of burned out cars. Carcasses littered the ground, and a vulture screamed at them. It rose into the air but did not fly away.



Instead, it circled.



The doors of the tiny service station had been broken down. Blood, ash and bullet holes riddled the entire entrance. Hands shaking, Tom raised his Glock and covered the dark entrance.



“If there’s survivors, they’re in there.”



“And food,” Jones muttered.



Ricky snorted. A retiree with a golfer’s tan, he sported his favorite toy, an AR-15 that nobody thought was ridiculous now.



“I think the survivors became food.”



“Well, we’re low on ammo, food, and water, so let’s check it out. Not going back empty handed.”



Tom clicked on a flashlight and tried to sight it along his gun barrel, like the cops in all the movies on TV. He almost wished he had spent his past life in one of the old-fashioned manly trades, which he had so disdained. He used to believe in pacifism, gentleness, and violence only as a last resort when negotiations failed. But how could you negotiate with the Dead?



Tom cleared his throat and called.



“Hello?”



He was answered only by a sudden silence.



And then the night was filled with roars and screams as the undead rushed from the building. T-Shirt wearing teens with iPod earbuds still in their bloody ears; a mangled trophy wife with an Armani purse still dangling from the visible bones of her shoulder and Gucci glasses above a jawless mouth; a couple of suited businessmen still clutching the latest smartphones; and a stream of nearly unrecognizable walking corpses that had been caught in the last fire that burned out the building.



Last, but not least, came a tall, skinny man in a blue service uniform. In a patch of bloody cloth, the embroidered Bo held so much bathos that Tom’s overloaded brain could only react in kind. He brayed a manic laugh and emptied his weapon into the crowd.



The Neighborhood Association men, for their part, screamed and began firing blindly. Jones’s first shot exploded the Gucci glasses along with the woman’s head; his second, absurdly, vaporized her $700 purse and shredded a corpse-girl’s Justin Bieber T-shirt. Ricky was the first to go down, emptying his entire magazine into poor, undead Bo’s torso, but to no effect. Tom’s aim wobbled and instead of spending his last round on Bo’s tattered overalls, he reached across under the feasting gas station attendant and fired into Ricky’s cranium, silencing his screams. A shot from Jones decapitated Bo, and the head rolled to Tom’s feet.



The jaw was still chewing.



Tom giggled as he reloaded, some corner of his brain equally disgusted at his own mania and proud of the fact that he was still fighting, blazing away beside Jones as they backed toward Main Street.



An account executive bellowed like a water buffalo as he went down, still firing. His overdeveloped chest and biceps muscles strained uselessly against the undead strength of half a dozen skinny hipster teens, in death as determined to gorge as in life they had resolved to starve themselves. A vice president of a bank whimpered as a soccer mom bit his jugular in a hickey of death. Jones ended both of their misery with a .12 gauge shell, and Tom reluctantly slaughtered the account executive. The feasting ghouls ignored the shot, but a dozen others wheeled toward the two survivors.



Tom turned to Jones as the fat man rammed the butt of his shotgun into the skull of a soda jerk with a satisfying crunch. I didn’t know they still existed, Tom thought as he stared at the twice-dead teenager’s bloody white hat on the ground. Jones gasped for air, bent over at the meaty waist.



“Run?” Tom inquired politely.



The fat man pumped a shell into the chamber and blasted away at the corpse of an undertaker by way of reply, sending the skinny body flying back into the dark doorway of the station. Jones was bleeding from his meaty forearm, where the soda jerk had landed a bite.



“Run.”



endmark





Jones was wheezing as they rounded a bend in the road, with a growing pack of the dead on their heels. Clearly, whatever commuters had been left of the earlier exodus from town had wondered off into the woods until the gunfire and screams had attracted them. Or was it the scent of death?



“You gonna make it?” Tom stared at the greenish outline of Jones’s bite wound in the moonlight. Jones didn’t answer but limped faster.



“You sure are strong for a fat man,” Tom giggled. A middle-aged burger flipper in a McDonald’s uniform snapped his teeth right behind Tom, and he whirled to fire three rounds into the man’s head. “Yeah, I bet you’re used to human meat, aren’t you!” he shouted at the corpse.



Jones didn’t even turn around to look.



endmark





They were camped out on top of the roof of a tiny State rest stop. There were easily forty of the Dead surrounding the tiny building, arms upraised, trampling each other in their eagerness to feed.



Jones looked bad. The man’s whole body was ashen, and his face had taken on the green-grey tint of his right arm. He had dropped his shotgun a mile back. Two miles still lay between the men and the campsite, and Tom’s fevered brain could only race with worry for his daughter. Was there another herd of corpses attacking the camp? He had to get to her and get her to the highway. At least that was clear of the Dead… For now.



“Jones, I think we can make it. We just need to make a run for it into the tree line. We can double back after we lose them so we don’t lead them to camp. Start up the cars, go up a few more exits, find a safe gas station. Jones?”



The fat man was silent.



“Oh God. Shit. Shit!”



Tom trembled and poked the fat man.



“Jones?”



And then a terrible certainty came over Tom. He knew exactly how to lose the herd and get back to camp. He began to heave and push at the fat corpse. Jones was terribly heavy, and it took several minutes just to get him to the lower edge of the building’s roof. The hands of the Dead brushed the fat corpse eagerly. Tom braced himself for one last heave. All’s fair...



Jones opened his eyes.



“Jones! You’re alive! You—“



With a hiss, Jones gripped Tom’s arm and bit into the flesh -- and bit deeply. Tom screamed in pain as the blood gushed out, and with a superhuman burst of strength, he gripped the fat man’s head and twisted. Hard.



With a satisfying celery snap, Jones went limp and tumbled into the crowd below, flattening three of the Dead with his fall. The rest howled, arms still raised in a parody of triumph and lurched to the center of the feeding ring, grasping and snapping their jaws.



Goal! Tom giggled.



The bleeding man turned and limped to the other side of the building, not even pausing as he tumbled to the grass below. The Dead were completely oblivious, busy enjoying Jones’s copious cholesterol addiction. Tom hobbled into the night, whimpering his daughter’s name.



endmark





Sam. So sweet. The girl was intelligent, far more than he. Two semesters of community college and then the work world – he hadn’t really accomplished all that much, had he? But she – she would go far. State U, maybe even ivy league. All her teachers said so.



Was the sweat from a fever? Or was this what they called shock?



So pretty. Sam was a good girl. Already trouble. Had to scare the boys away all the time. She was good. A good girl.



He was so happy not to be alone anymore. His new friends limped alongside, men and women from town, just like him. He was walking next to a man in an expensive suit. Torn, but high quality. The man seemed to be missing an arm, but who cared? Don’t discriminate against handicaps, right?



Sam was so beautiful. Sweet girl.



The arm hurts.



endmark





“Sam! Sweetie, we’ve got to run. I found survivors, but there are more of those things behind us, so we need to move.” He tried to frame the words, but his mouth seemed unable to manage them. He hated the stupid rasping of his voice, the guttural sounds. He tried to clear his throat. Why was she running? He had to save her.



He loped after her. His friend in the business suit decided to help him – such a great guy. Together they ran after the girl through the burning camp. Those damned Dead had already been here – big battle, it looked like.



“Sam! That’s right. Run to the RV. Start it up, sweetheart. I’ll be there soon. I think I hurt my leg.”



The sounds just wouldn’t come. Why was she looking at him like that? Climbing to the roof of the RV.



Sweetie, come down. No need to bother with talking – she could hear his thoughts, of course she could. Tom felt so warm now. His eyes drooped. His new friend was trying to climb the RV. So helpful. Get her down for me. I’m so tired. Let’s get her down and introduce her to everyone. There are so many of us – no one will hurt us. We’re too strong.



Come on down Sam. Stop screaming.



She had a shovel. Tom tried to cry out, to stop her, but she rammed the blade into the head of Tom’s friend. The man fell without a sound, dead forever. Tom growled angrily and lurched toward her. No daughter of his behaved like that. Shame on her. But her voice was so sad, so pleading, as she backed away from him.



Such a good girl. So pretty. Come on down – wait, let me climb the ladder so we can talk. It’s hard – I’ve only got one arm.



Then she pulled the taser, and he bellowed.



Put it down, Sam. Put it down.



And then he was trembling, falling. He hit the ground. Something snapped in his back and in his neck. It was very warm.



Come down, Sam. He moaned, unable to move anything but his right arm and leg. It was getting so dark as he wormed forward.



Come down Sam. Let’s talk.



He felt the tears as his sight faded. He reached out toward the gathering darkness, pleading.



Come back, Sam.



He could hear the trapdoor of the RV slam, the faint click of the lock.



Daddy loves you.



   
   

 

endmark



Daniel Brown is a recent college grad and currently teaches. When not drinking himself to death and bewailing his terrible vocational fate, he enjoys reading, avoiding physical exercise, and a profound fear of heights. His work has previously appeared in Hello Horror and The HorrorZine and his first novella Starshadow is available on Amazon Kindle.



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