Authors: T.W. Piperbrook
She rolled the window down a crack, desperate.
"John!" she screamed. "Where are you?"
"We need to leave!"
One of the creatures hissed from behind the SUV, only ten feet away. She heard a bang from her right and saw the face of an infected pressed against the passenger-side glass.
The infected person's teeth were yellowed and caked with blood, its eyes black and hollow. It opened its mouth wide, shrieking. She couldn't wait any longer. She had to move.
She'd just started to accelerate when a gunshot rang out. The infected dropped from sight, and a voice sprung from outside the SUV. Someone tugged on the passenger-side door handle, and John's face appeared at the glass, as if he'd been there all along.
"Open up, Meredith!" he shouted.
She reached over and manually unlocked his door. He swung it open, his breath ragged, his face red. "Open the back, too!" he yelled.
She spun in her seat and followed his gaze, surprised to find another man waiting at the window.
The car, which had been silent just moments before, was now filled with the gasps and commotion of men. John began to navigate, directing Meredith as she pulled away from the scene. The newcomer huffed nervously.
"Over there! Look out!" John yelled.
Meredith took the turns with unsteady hands.
The newly emerged infected were everywhere, swarming the street. Between the shouts, the noise of the car, and the gunshots, the SUV had drawn out the remaining creatures in the area. Several bodies glanced off the hood of the car, and Meredith swerved left and right as if she were a grand prix driver in an obstacle course.
Before long, she'd maneuvered out of the area, and she cut down several streets, heading for the road that would take them home.
Her heart pumped furiously; sweat clung to her brow.
"That was some good driving," the man in the backseat said.
Meredith took in the passenger for the first time.
"Thanks," she replied. "Are you all right, mister?"
"I'll manage," the man said.
The man glanced at his lap, then back up at her in the mirror. His hair was dark and disheveled, his eyes brown and piercing.
"If I'm hurt, I certainly don't feel it," he added with a smile.
Her body surged with relief. Somehow they'd gotten out of the situation intact. Not only her and John, but this man, as well.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Tim. Tim Keller."
"I'm Meredith, and this is John."
"John and I introduced ourselves in the factory building," he said. "I owe you my life. If you hadn't come, I'd have been stuck up there forever."
"Are you from Settler's Creek?" Meredith asked. She didn't recognize him.
"No," Tim replied. "I'm from Texas. I hit the road shortly after all this shit happened. I've been trapped in that factory building for days. When I heard screaming, I went up to the roof to see what was going on, but by the time I got there…that poor girl was already getting ripped apart."
The man wiped his eyes.
"There was nothing you could've done," Meredith said. "Nothing any of us could've done."
"If I'd gone to the street instead of the roof…"
"Don't blame yourself. There's no way you could've been prepared for this. No way
of us could. You wouldn't have been able to fight all of them."
The words brought tears to Meredith's eyes. The guilt the man was feeling was the same thing she'd struggled with since Julie's death. Although she was grateful to have been reunited with Dan and Quinn, the loss of her only sister gnawed at her soul, tearing away a piece at a time. Her life had become an endless game of
and she didn't know if she'd ever rid herself of the blame.
"Are you folks alone?" Tim asked.
"No," Meredith replied. She paused, sizing the man up. Although she was hesitant to trust
, he seemed nice enough. "We're staying with my brother-in-law and my niece at a house outside town."
"At least you all ended up together."
"They came from Arizona," Meredith clarified. "My sister lived there, too, but she was infected. She didn't survive."
Tim nodded gravely.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I lost my entire family in this thing. I think we'll all have lost someone before this is done."
Dan was still at the back window when he heard a car coming up the driveway.
Meredith and John.
Relief overtook him, and he wiped his brow. A few minutes prior, he'd heard Quinn stirring.
"Quinn? You awake?"
He heard her muffled response from the bedroom as he walked to the living room. He peered out between the boards. The SUV was parked in the driveway. He squinted as he tried to identify the forms through the windshield.
To his surprise, Meredith and John weren't the only occupants.
A man he didn't recognize was in the backseat. Was it one of Meredith's friends from town? He watched as the three of them departed the vehicle. From what he could tell, the occupants were uninjured.
Dan looked away from the window to find his daughter padding into the living room. She rubbed her eyes. Her hair was tangled and she looked more rested than before, although to his worried ear, she still sounded slightly out of breath.
"Is Aunt Meredith back?"
"Yes, honey. She made it. And she looks fine. I'm going to go outside and meet them. Why don't you stay here?"
The little girl nodded. He made his way to the rear door, removed the barricade, and opened it. He stepped outside.
The three SUV occupants came around the corner—Meredith, then John, then the stranger. Meredith and John were still carrying the weapons they'd left with, but the new man was unarmed.
"We made it," Meredith said, the relief on her face apparent.
"And we got what we needed. At least, I think we did." John reached into his pocket, pulling out several inhalers and refill canisters. He handed them to Dan.
Dan nodded. "This is perfect. Thanks. I'm going to give Quinn a dose when we get inside. Who's this?"
The man with dark hair gave him a nod. "I'm Tim Keller. Meredith and John saved my life."
"Are you from town?"
"No. I'm from Texas, actually."
"How'd you get to Settler's Creek?"
"I've been on the road for days. I've been trying to get away from everything that was happening out west, but it just seems to get worse and worse the farther I go. My car broke down two days ago, and I've been stuck in town ever since. I ended up in a factory building."
Tim heaved a sigh. By the looks of it, he'd been through as much as the rest of them.
Dan glanced at the empty fields around them, catching a glimpse of the dead bodies. "Okay. Let's get inside. We can talk more in there."
The four of them entered the house.
When they stepped through the door, Quinn caught sight of Meredith and John. She immediately sprung for them.
"I missed you, Aunt Meredith."
"Missed you, too, kiddo," Meredith said, hugging her.
"Don't leave me again."
After securing the door, Dan gave Quinn a dose of the inhaler. Then he offered Tim some food and water, which the man gratefully accepted.
"Thanks. It's been a hard couple of days, as you can imagine."
"I'm sure it has," Dan said.
The group hovered around the new man in a half-circle. It'd been days since they'd encountered another survivor, and Tim's appearance added not only a tinge of hope, but also a welcome reprieve from their isolated existence.
The group waited impatiently for him to finish his water.
"Did you see anyone else in town?" Dan asked, once the man had swallowed.
"Nope. Nobody except the woman we lost."
Dan furrowed his brow. "Woman?"
"There was another survivor in town," Meredith explained. "But we didn't make it to her in time. The creatures got to her. Tim was on top of a factory building when we spotted him."
Dan nodded gravely.
"For a while I thought everyone was dead, and it was just me and those things," Tim said, shaking his head.
"Well, it could be worse." Dan shrugged.
"Sometimes I think we're better off not running into anyone, with all the maniacs that are out there." He eyed the newcomer as he said it, trying to gauge the man's intentions. From what he could tell, Tim was being honest. But he couldn't be too careful.
"I hear you."
"Where did you say you were from again?" Dan quizzed.
"Texas. San Antonio."
"So you must have arrived on I-40," Dan said.
"Yep. It looked like the military had a blockade in place at one time, but when I got there, they were all dead," Tim said, his eyes downcast. "I'm surprised I made it this far."
Dan nodded. He briefed the man on the situation as far as they knew it. He explained the role of the agents, the theory that the virus was contracted through contaminated food and drink, and the suspicion that the survivors were immune. He concluded with his daughter's asthma attack.
"I'm sorry to hear about your troubles, young lady," Tim said, giving Quinn a smile. "But I'm sure glad you got your medicine."
After finishing the food Dan had given him, Tim stifled a yawn. His eyes were glazed and bloodshot.
"Listen," Dan said. "We have beds in the other room, if you'd like to get some rest."
"I'd feel bad sleeping. Can I help you out with something?"
"You just got here, Tim. There'll be plenty of time for that. Get some rest."
"I'll show you to the bedroom," Meredith offered.
Tim thanked the group, and Meredith led him out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Dan watched him walk off.
As far as Dan could tell, Tim was another civilian caught in the madness. Dan was still in awe that the man was alive and that his companions had found him. In a world where everyone seemed to have died, finding another survivor seemed nothing short of a miracle.
"I'll take its legs," Dan said.
Dan grabbed the infected body by the ankles, and John tucked his hands under its armpits. They lifted the body off the ground and carried it across the grass, heading for a makeshift burial ground they'd established a few days earlier.
In the daylight, Dan was able to make out the details of the creature. The infected person had once been a man in his fifties with a button-up work shirt and dusty, blood-drenched jeans. Dan pegged him for a farmer or factory worker from town. Although it was possible Meredith had known him, she hadn't mentioned anything, and Dan hadn't pressed the issue. Dan and John had offered to remove the bodies while she stayed inside.
It was bad enough watching the world disintegrate, but it was worse when the afflicted were people you had known. He'd told her to keep a close eye on Quinn and Tim.
The mid-morning sun streamed down from above. Dan blinked the sweat from his eyes.
"How bad is it in town?" he asked John.
"There are still a lot of them. But they seem slower."
"I'm hoping they'll all end up like these."
Dan glanced down at the dead infected they were carrying, recalling how lethargic it'd been, and John nodded. They shuffled sideways until they'd reached the edge of the property. A patch of dirt marked the grave where they'd buried the infected over the past few days. They'd left a shovel nearby.
Dan started digging.
"I appreciate you going to town like that," he said. "I was worried about Quinn."
"It's the least I can do. She's a good kid."
Dan smiled with pride. "She sure is. What do you think of Tim?"
"He seems nice. He was awfully upset about the survivor we lost in town. Meredith and I caught a glimpse of what happened to the girl. It wasn't pretty. Those things were all over her, man—there wasn't much left when we got there."