The blond girl interrupted his thoughts, handing him with a plate of food, “Here you go, Captain.”
He accepted the dish, his mouth watering as the aroma hit his nose. “Have my men eaten?”
“Yes, Captain,” she nodded. “I made sure of it.”
The plate was heaped high with steak, eggs, and buttered bread. He dug in with alacrity. One thing he had learned in the army―eat when you can, sleep when you can because tomorrow you might not get the chance.
He ate fast, sopping up the last of the juices with his bread and swallowing the bitter coffee in one gulp. It settled in his stomach, a pleasant warmth radiating throughout him. The satisfaction of a good meal.
He handed the cup and plate to the girl and asked, “What's your name?”
“Well, Linda. That was some good food. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, Captain. It's the least I could do.”
“Please, could you gather up supplies?” he asked. “The helicopter should be here in about fifteen minutes and I don't know what the quarantine camps look like. Extra supplies might be welcome.”
“Sure thing, Captain.”
He left her to the task and stepped outside, glancing at his watch. He watched as Mike let off a flare, the light bright against the inky backdrop of the sky.
Who could have thought it would come to this?
He'd seen and done so much in his lifetime, he'd thought there was nothing left that could shock him. How wrong that assumption had been. The world was burning, and it was their own dead that struck the match. He felt far older than his forty-nine years at that moment.
He took out the diary once more and leafed through the pages. In the back, he found a photograph of the happy family. The husband seemed ordinary enough—the decent sort, sporting a suit and tie.
Breytenbach recognized Samantha's mother with ease. She was pretty, with blond hair and blue-gray eyes, unclouded by the suffering he'd witnessed.
She smiled at the camera with genuine warmth. In her arms, she held Samantha and clinging to her legs with a shy smile, was little Michael.
From a distance, he heard the helicopter approach as it spotted the flare, and he put the diary away to oversee the evacuation. Fifteen minutes later, everybody was loaded and on their way. The last to leave, he jumped in and settled back in his seat, staring down at the now ruined city.
Like ants, the dead swarmed through the streets, illuminated by the coming of dawn. Fires had broken out and he could spot the overrun police and military barricades. As they left the once thriving 'City of Gold', the name of the woman who had entrusted the safety of her daughter to him lingered in his mind: Lilian.
Logan woke up with a start. He blinked at the bland surroundings, confusion clouding his mind. “Where in hell’s name?”
A snore pulled his attention to the figures of Max and Thembiso and the events of the previous day came rushing back.
He had slept in the riot police quarters in Riebeeckstad. On a couch to be exact, and judging from his stiff, sore muscles, a very uncomfortable couch.
He sat up, massaging the crick in his neck as he straightened his spine. An early riser by nature, he got up to fetch his luggage from the Land Rover. Luckily, the bathrooms had showers. After a wash and a shave, he felt like a new man.
Memories of the day before lay like a dead weight on his mind but he pushed it aside for the moment. He had never been one to dwell on emotional angst, preferring instead to pretend everything was fine. Not the best way to cope, perhaps, but the only way he knew how.
He stumbled across a bleary-eyed Max in the hallway. “I'm making coffee. Want some?” he asked.
“Sure. I could use a cup,” Max replied.
Logan prepared a pot of the brew strong enough to take the paint off a wall before waking up Thembiso.
“Time to get up, kid. We've got a lot to do today.” He handed the boy his cup and chuckled when Thembiso’s nose scrunched up as he took a sip.
Evidently, they didn't serve real coffee where he was from.
Max sauntered in a few minutes later, running his hands through his damp hair before taking a seat.
Logan sat down opposite him and asked, “So what's the plan?”
“Fort up and survive.” Max gave Logan a long look. “I understand if you want to leave. I'd be glad of the help if you stayed, though.”
Logan was silent for a beat, then replied, “I'll stay. For now.”
“Thanks.” Max blew out a breath and leaned forward. “I thought we could start by searching the houses in the vicinity. If there're any problems we need to know about, we should find out now. And we need supplies.”
“It's a start,” Logan said, stretching out his long legs.
Whilst sipping his coffee, Max filled Thembiso in on the current situation. It was an ugly picture he painted, but Logan didn’t object. He figured the boy should know what the score was.
“We're in this for the long haul. There's no telling when things will get back to normal, if ever,” Max said at the end.
“I understand,” Thembiso said.
“Are you okay? Do you need to talk? You know...about your family?” Max trailed off.
Thembiso shook his head, blinking back sudden tears. “No. I'm fine.”
“Are you sure?” Max asked, reaching out a hand. “Don't you...”
“Leave the boy alone. If he wants to talk, he'll talk,” Logan interrupted, his tone brusque. In his opinion, nothing sucked more than people trying to get you to talk about your feelings. “Let's get going. We've got work to do.”
Max shrugged. “Sure, just trying to help.”
Logan fixed Thembiso with a hard look. “You stay here. Lie low, keep quiet and keep busy. You can sort out the store room next to the kitchen for a start. Get it ready for the supplies we bring in.”
“What? Why? Can't I come with you? I can help!”
Logan had to give it to the little guy. He was barely sixteen, as skinny as a rake and had just lost his entire family to a zombie plague, but he had guts.
“No, you'd only be a liability,” Logan replied, mouth set in a stern line.
Thembiso stared at the floor, dejection written on his face.
“Maybe next time, when you’ve learned how to use a gun.”
The boy's face brightened at that. “You'll teach me?”
“Uh, sure. If you want.” Logan shrugged, feeling strangely warm inside.
Logan walked away, slinging his rifle over his shoulder. He stepped out the back and took a moment to appreciate the day. It was a beautiful summer morning with clear skies and a crisp, refreshing breeze. For a moment, he missed being in the bush, alone and independent, surrounded by nature.
“Soon,” he muttered before slipping behind the wheel. Despite what he'd said to Max, he wasn't planning on staying. Just long enough to help the two settle in.
As he gripped the familiar wheel of the Landie, his melancholic thoughts vanished. He was ready to go and eager to put the tragedies of yesterday behind him. Action was what he knew best.
After Max got into the seat next to him, he reversed and drove to the gate. There was still no sign of any zombies as Max unlocked the gate and Logan wondered how long their luck would hold.
They approached the first house with caution. It was situated across the street and to the right of their new home. A single row of houses stretched down with another row behind that, all of it surrounded by open veldt. To the left, about two hundred meters up the road, the small town of Riebeeckstad began, with them right at the edge.
He parked in front of the house. Garbage bags lay uncollected on the sidewalk while a gentle breeze stirred the tops of the daisy bushes lining the pre-con. No signs of life could be seen.
Where are the zombies?
“Well, time to find out if the neighborhood is really as deserted as it looks,” Logan said.
They got out of the Land Rover and walked to the front door. Logan held his ax at the ready while Max carried a hammer he borrowed from Logan's toolbox. Neither wanted to attract infected with the sound of gunshots.
The grass was neatly trimmed and beige curtains covered the windows. It was the type of bland, generic house Logan hated.
The front door stood wide open, leading to a stuffy, pompous looking living room. Porcelain figurines stared at them from shelves on the wall while a clock ticked away the time in age-old fashion.
Max took the lead as they searched the house, room by room. Nothing had been disturbed. It was empty. Either the owners had run at the first sign of trouble, taking nothing with them or...
Or they never came home.
After making sure the house was secure, they split up to search for supplies. Logan spotted the fridge and his stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn't had breakfast yet.
He opened the door and his mouth watered. “Jackpot.”
Logan unpacked margarine, cheese, ham, pickles, and mustard then scouted for the bread bin, making himself a huge sandwich.
“That's better,” he mumbled through a huge mouthful.
“I see you've got the food supplies well in hand,” Max said when he walked into the kitchen with a first aid kit under his arm. He shook his head. “Just leave some for the rest of us.”
“Yeah, yeah. Relax.” Washing down his breakfast with a glass of orange juice, Logan scrounged around for plastic bags and packed up the rest of the food.
They stripped the house of anything useful, taking care not to let their guard drop or make a noise. With the Land Rover loaded, they dropped the stuff off with Thembiso then went on to the second house.
“We should get furniture,” Max mused.
Max shrugged. “You know, make it homey.”
Logan looked at Max with raised eyebrows. “
“Hey, we'll be staying there for a while. Might as well be comfortable.”
“If you say so.”
“A few beds would be nice. There aren't any at our base and those couches are damn shitty to sleep on,” Max added
Logan thought about it for a moment. “True. We could load it on the roof rack. We should get fridges too, to store the meat and stuff in.”
“It's all about the food for you, isn't it?” Max laughed.
“Funny, but I'd like to see how long you keep cracking jokes on an empty stomach.” Logan shook his head. “I've spent many a hungry night in the bush. You won't believe some of the stuff I've eaten.”
“I can imagine,” Max shuddered. “But seriously, how long do you think the power will last?”
“Around a week. Two if we're lucky. We should get generators and fuel. Keep the fridges going.”
“Mmm. This is gonna be more problematic than I thought.” Max frowned, fiddling with the radio, bringing forth nothing but static.
“Electricity, water, guns and ammunition, food, medicine. All the more reason to get moving,” Logan said.
The second house didn't look as peaceful as the first. The front door stood open and blood spatters marred the walls.
“Looks like trouble,” Logan said.
Max took the lead and together they searched the rooms, finding nothing. Back in the hallway, he turned to Logan. “Looks clear...”
A female zombie burst out of a door behind Max, bowling him over. As small as she was, Max went down with her on top of him, snapping at his face like a rabid dog.
Jumping forward, Logan lodged the ax into her temple before she could bite. She slumped to the side, eyes glazing over. An old lady, dressed in a flowery dress and cardigan, with court shoes and permed hair, she looked like just she got home from church.
Serenity graced her elderly face and Logan gently pulled her to the side, closing her eyes. She reminded him of his grandmother. He tore his gaze away, staring at the wall instead.
Max got to his feet—face pale, lips compressed. Thick, black blood covered the front of his jacket. He went to the bathroom to clean himself.
“How did we miss her? We checked everywhere,” Max said.
Logan shrugged. “Not well enough it seems.” He turned away. “I'll check again.”
That house set the tone for the rest of the day. Having learned from their mistake, they checked every corner of the houses they visited, never assuming it was safe.
It was hard, dangerous work and unpleasant too. Each zombie they dispatched used to be a person—seeing them in their homes brought that to the forefront of their minds.
The worst were the children.
Logan ran his fingers over a row of plush toys sitting on a shelf. Their button eyes stared at him, cold and empty. The flowery bedding beside him emitted a faint baby powder smell and from a framed picture, a pretty young girl smiled at him.
He averted his eyes from the pair of red shoes that peeked out from underneath a blanket on the floor.
Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.
His eyes kept flicking to the small form. From underneath the cloth, a growing pool of black blood spread, reaching tentacles of death towards him.
He fled, slamming the door behind him and leaned back against the smooth wood.
Max emerged from the room next to his, face white, a bag of teenage boy clothes in his left hand. “Thembiso could use these.”
“One more for the day then we call it quits?”
“Best idea I've heard so far.”
They loaded up and moved on to the next and hopefully also the last house. It was a beautiful old place that spoke of loving care. The lush gardens beckoned to the weary Logan, promising rest and reprieve amidst the green foliage. A pang of longing for the wild hit him and had to be repressed with an effort.
Logan fixed his eyes on the goal and approached the side door to the garage, pushing it open. It creaked and an answering raspy growl alerted him to infected.
From the gloom, a middle-aged man wearing nothing but shorts appeared. He lifted a hand and shuffled closer, dragging a useless left leg behind him. Logan split his skull, then pulled aside the body, gagging as he caught sight of the mangled leg.
“Some zombie really got hold of you.”
On a happier note, Logan discovered an Amarok, almost brand new, parked inside. “Now this will come in handy.”
“Let's look for the keys,” Max said.
Inside the house, an eeriness dwelt. A half-eaten, dried-out sandwich stood on the counter next to a cold cup of coffee. The Disney channel played on the TV and a box of cookies lay discarded on the carpet, crawling with ants.
Logan's heart sank. More children. There were no signs of a struggle, no blood, but he knew better than to take that as a good sign. They searched room after room.
Finally, they reached the main bedroom. It was closed and Logan wondered what waited on the other side. The hair on the back of his neck rose in anticipation.
“Ladies first,” Max whispered.
Logan rolled his eyes, but the joke soothed his nerves as he cracked open the door. Stale air wafted out. He waited. If there were infected in there, they'd attack. Nothing happened. He eased the door open a little more. It was dark inside. The curtains must have been drawn.
“Hello?” Surely that would lure the suckers out.
Seconds ticked by as he waited.
He glanced back at Max.
Max nodded and lifted his hammer. “Go on.”
Logan pushed the door in. It swung open without a sound. He looked around the room, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
A shadowy figure flitted across the room to the bed, barely visible in the gloom.
“There's something there,” he whispered to Max.
“Don't know. It's not attacking.”
“Maybe it's a person. A living one.”
Logan paused as that possibility sunk in. Could it be?
“Hello. Anyone in here? We mean no harm,” he called.
A hesitant face popped up by the bed. It was a woman.
“Who are you?” she asked, blond hair flopping over her eyes.
“I'm Logan. This is Max. We're survivors, looking for supplies. We're not here to hurt you.”
“Well, I sure hope not or I'd have to shoot you.” She showed him a pistol as proof.
Logan blinked, taken aback. “Uh, well I can assure you we won't.”
She studied him. “All right. I believe you. For now.” She rose to her feet. “Come children. Greet our guests.”
Two faces appeared next to her, a boy of about fifteen and a girl of ten or so. “Hello,” they chorused.
“I'm Elise. This is Peter and Anne. Have you seen my husband? In the garage?” she asked.
Logan remembered the infected man he had killed earlier and stuttered, not knowing what to say.
Elise eyed him. “I locked him in there for our safety. Is he...gone now?”
“Yes, ma'am. He's gone,” Max said, stepping forward.
For a moment, her shoulders slumped, grief written all over her face. Then she saw her kids staring up at her and straightened, blinking away tears. “Are you here to rescue us?” she asked Max. “You're with the army, aren't you?”