Authors: T.W. Piperbrook
Tim smiled nervously. "Yep. Let's get this over with."
Dan gazed at the roadside from behind the wheel of the SUV. Grassy fields covered the landscape in all directions, making the faded road seem like it'd been paved by mistake. Over the past few days, Dan had gotten familiar with roads surrounding the Sanders' farm, but the lack of development never failed to surprise him. As small as St. Matthews was, it was more densely populated than this.
The landscape in Oklahoma was sparse and beautiful.
He glanced at his companion. Tim turned his pistol in his hand, as if he were holding a weapon for the first time. Dan wondered if the man had lied about using one.
"Are you sure you're okay with using the gun?"
"Have you killed many of them?" Dan inquired. "The creatures?"
The man grimaced. "At least a dozen. It never sits right with me, though. Every time I do it, I wonder if there might be a cure for this thing, and if I might be killing someone who could be saved."
Dan thought back to his time in St. Matthews. He'd felt the same way. He could still recall the first encounters he'd had with the creatures—with Julie in his dining room, with the things in his living room and garage. The infected had invaded his home. His
. They'd taken over everything, and nothing had been the same since.
"I used to feel that way, too," Dan admitted. "You know what I started telling myself, when I wonder if I'm doing the right thing?"
Tim shook his head.
"I tell myself that we all have to survive, and when this ends, we'll have to accept what we've done and move on."
"I sure hope so," Tim said.
Dan glanced back out the window.
Outside, he recognized several of the houses they'd already searched. Like the Sanders' farm, most of the properties were set back from the road and sat at the end of long driveways. As he passed each one, he envisioned the layout of the rooms, the items they'd taken, and the bodies they'd encountered. He hoped the houses they were traveling to now would be empty. A vacant home was a symbol of hope. Where there were no bodies, there was a chance the residents were still safe and alive. That gave Dan faith that he and his companions would one day find sanctuary of their own.
Meredith's directions were accurate, and soon Dan spotted several houses in the distance. He pulled into the driveway of the first one, approaching at a crawl. The house was light blue, with black shutters and a wide porch. The front door was open. Several porch chairs sat empty, as if the occupants had gone inside for a beverage refill and would be out momentarily.
He doubted that was the case.
Next to the house was a two-car detached garage. The doors were open. A single battered car occupied one of the parking spaces. The other spot was taken by a tractor and tools. Dan parked the SUV and stared at the open front door, then rolled down the window a crack. He listened. The property was silent. He looked out over the lawn. It was well maintained. Though he couldn't quite see mow marks, he could envision them in the grass.
Tim waited for instructions.
"Let's check the house first," Dan said. "Make sure we don't have company. We don't want any surprises."
Leaving the key in the ignition, he opened the door and started up the driveway, cutting across the grass. He motioned for his companion to follow. Through the front door, he spotted an empty living room and a kitchen. He crept closer. The layout was similar to the Sanders'. Everything appeared in order.
Seeing nothing suspicious, Dan walked up the steps and stepped across the threshold, aiming his gun. He was immediately greeted by the smell of death. He coughed and lifted his collar above his nose. Behind him, Tim gagged.
Farther in the living room, two bodies were sprawled on the floor, their entrails unraveled. The creatures had gotten to them. Flies buzzed and circled, and Dan shooed them away.
He stepped past the gruesome scene and into the kitchen. Other than the insects, the house was silent and still, as if the place had been vacant for a long time. Dan noticed a few kitchen drawers were hanging open. The place had already been stripped. It looked like they hadn't been the first people to come across the place.
After checking the house, they headed for the garage.
"I'm sure they'll have a gas can, with that tractor in there," Dan said. "Hopefully no one took it already."
The garage smelled of damp wood and grass clippings. The sedan was ransacked, the tires flattened. Dan lowered his gun and searched near the tractor. Tim walked around the sedan, exploring the other side.
Dan noted some gardening tools, bags of mulch, and watering cans. Past them, hidden behind flowerpots, was a gas can. Dan felt a surge of relief. He read the label on a dirty piece of masking tape that had been adhered to the side. "Straight gas. We're in luck."
He hefted the gas can in the air. At the same time, something flashed in his peripheral vision. When he looked up, Tim was pointing the pistol at him.
Before Dan could react, Tim fired.
Dan dropped to the ground, but he was too late to avoid a bullet. The gas can clattered to the cement. He waited for the pain of being shot, but it never came.
Instead, he heard a groan a few feet behind him, then the
of a body hitting the garage floor. When he spun, Dan saw a creature flailing on the ground, blood spitting from its neck. The thing was tall and thin, sporting a baseball cap and a ragged beard. Its shirt was covered in gore.
He hadn't even heard it enter.
The creature gave one final heave and grew still.
"Holy shit." Dan looked at Tim incredulously. "You saved my ass."
"I didn't mean to scare you."
"I thought you weren't a good shot?"
Tim smiled and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead.
"I guess I got lucky."
Thankfully, the gas can was full, and after loading the can into the SUV, Dan and Tim drove toward the next house. Adrenaline still coursed through Dan's body. If it weren't for the watchful eyes of his companion, he would've been wounded, maybe even killed. Perhaps the man was more experienced than he let on.
"I appreciate what you did for me back there, Tim," Dan said.
"No problem. It's the least I can do, considering what you folks have done for me." Tim smiled. "You saved my life."
"Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"
"My dad used to take me to the ranges when I was a kid. He always said I had a knack for it, but I didn't believe him."
"Well, lucky for me, your dad was right."
There was no fuel at the second property, but at the third, they found another gallon of gas. Satisfied with the take, Dan and Tim returned to the SUV, heading back in the direction of the Sanders'. Late afternoon was approaching, and the sun had lowered slightly in the sky. The diminishing light was a reminder for Dan to keep moving. Nightfall was hours away, but one could never count on safe travels.
What they'd just encountered was proof of that. Thank God Tim had been there to help him.
Tim stared out the window, taking in the rolling fields and hills. Dan wondered what was going through the man's mind. For the past week, Dan's life had been filled with silent prayer—thanking God for each day he and the others survived. Maybe Tim was having similar thoughts.
After a few moments, Tim broke the silence. "Meredith mentioned you folks might be heading out east."
"That's the plan. Once the infected get weaker, we're going to head for safety."
"It'll be strange when the infected are gone." Tim paused, staring wistfully at the road. "So many people dead…so many lives lost…"
"I hear you. But it'll be safer, at least."
"Yep," Tim said. "No question about that."
With Dan and Tim out of sight, John's fears fermented. The girls sat across from him, engaged in a card game, but he was much too restless to sit and play. After watching them a while, John got up and paced the house. He explored each room, checking and re-checking the cabinets and drawers, as if he might've missed something in the days prior. Ernie followed him, panting happily, his paws clicking the hardwood.
John felt bad going through the Sanders' belongings. Even though he knew they were deceased, it didn't seem right. He'd met the Sanders several times while dating Meredith, and they'd seemed like nice people. It was hard to imagine them transformed into snarling, rabid beasts. He was glad he hadn't had to witness that.
After perusing the kitchen and the bedrooms, John wandered back into the living room. "I'm going to head outside and get some air," he told the girls.
"Okay," Meredith said.
"Will you be all right?"
"We'll be fine."
John removed the barricade and stepped out into the yard. Meredith secured the house behind him. The fresh air was a blessing after being indoors. For the past week, John had felt cooped up and contained. John preferred the smell of the grass and the natural gust of the wind to the stale air of a house.
He looked out over the Sanders' sprawling property. In front of him was the small garden they'd been tending. Several semi-ripe tomatoes hung on the vine, sharing space with cucumbers, squash, and carrots. At the end of the driveway was the barn, which they'd locked to avoid the prying hands of the creatures. The property stretched as far as the eye could see, transforming from well-kept grass to untended fields and brush.
There were no other properties in sight.
He was startled by the sound of an engine.
Dan and Tim
John headed for the driveway. He stared past Meredith's pickup, expecting to find the graffiti-covered SUV rolling toward him. But there was nothing there.
He listened as the noise increased, but saw nothing in the driveway or the road. His brow furrowed. It took him a minute to realize the noise wasn't coming from the driveway, but from the sky. He looked up.
A chopper was flying in the distance. John lifted his hand to his head, using his palm as a visor. The helicopter was a mile or so from the property.
His heart filled with hope, then fear. Was it help?
"John? Do you hear that?"
When he glanced behind him, Meredith was running out into the yard.
She sprinted in the direction of the chopper, waving her hands, but the helicopter was too far away to see them. They screamed into the sky until their voices were hoarse, but in less than a minute, the chopper was out of sight. The pilot stayed his course.
"Dammit!" John yelled.
He held his side, fighting for breath. Meredith did the same. While regaining his breath, John studied the sky, hoping the aircraft would return, but there was no sign of it.
"This is good news," John said, after a minute. "This means someone's out there. This means we're not alone."
"Did you see the markings? It looked like the military," Meredith said, her face flushed.
"Where do you think it was headed?"
"It looked like it was flying toward Abbotsville."
Abbotsville, the town adjacent to Settler's Creek, had a population twice the size of the one they were in. Or at least, it had before the infection.
The pair fell silent, then turned toward the house. Quinn was standing in the doorway.
"Did they see us, Aunt Meredith?" the little girl asked.
"I don't think so, sweetie," Meredith replied. "But it looks like they're headed for the next town over."
Quinn's face lit up with hope. "Do you think they'll come back?"
"I'm not sure," Meredith admitted. "But if we can get to Abbotsville in time, maybe we can…"
"…Get the heck out of here," Quinn finished. She smiled.
The little girl's hope was contagious. John couldn't help the feeling that maybe somehow, things were going to turn around. The group stood in a huddle for several seconds, processing what they'd seen and heard. As dangerous as leaving would be, the helicopter was the most promising thing they'd seen in days.
"We have to tell Dan as soon as he gets back," Meredith said. They were almost at the house when John heard another engine. This time it was a car. He caught a glimpse of the SUV coming up the driveway.
"That's them," John said.
John, Quinn, and Meredith walked down to meet them. The sight of the SUV made John grin. Between the metal sheets on the side and the graffiti, the vehicle looked like a ridiculous movie prop, a car fit for the screen rather than the road.
When Dan and Tim pulled up and parked, Dan exited the driver's side, and Quinn jogged over to greet him.
"Did you see it, Daddy? Did you see the helicopter? We're going to get out of here!"
Dan embraced his daughter, but John could tell he was confused. John confirmed Quinn's story.