The Ugly Beginning - 01 (9 page)

BOOK: The Ugly Beginning - 01
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“...myself in the women’s restroom and hoped they would go away.”
“Pete and Mrs. Jenkins?”
“Weren’t you listening?” She placed her hands on her hips the way girls seem to do naturally as a sign of absolute indignation.
“Sorry, I was trying to make just a little sense of what the hell is going on.”
“I said, a few of those things wandered past, out on the road. I didn’t want them to see me so I hid—”
“In the bathroom. Got it. And how long ago was that?” I asked.
“Like two hours ago.” The exasperation let me know that she must’ve already said that before as well.

Thalia poked her head out of the bathroom door. Her relief was visible, and not just from using the bathroom, like maybe she thought the quasi-stranger who had yanked her out of her world might just drop her in this new one and take off.

“Your daughter?” The teenage girl hiked a thumb at Thalia.

“Nope. Neighbor.” Thalia rushed over and clung to my side, hiding her head behind my back. Hmm. Shy? I so don’t know anything about kids.

“Parents?”

I shook my head and made a face that I hoped made it clear that this was not an open topic.

“What’s your name, sweetie?” The girl knelt, and her voice did that magic thing a female does when talking to babies, children, or boyfriends they have total control over.

I felt Thalia move a bit. Her grip on my legs loosened, and she faced this total stranger.
“Thalia.”
“That’s a pretty name. My name is Teresa.”

“I have a tee…” she paused, and I could tell she was translating her thoughts to English, “...aunt. Her name is Teresa. She lives in Olympia. That’s the capital of Washington.”

Her face beamed as words came tumbling out. Just like that, and this total stranger knew more about my neighbor and the child I had rescued a few hours ago than I did. The two talked, and I moved away to see what I could load up and what would keep for a few days as opposed to what would need to be eaten right away.

I got about four steps when Thalia shrieked and ran after me. She latched onto my leg, again babbling incoherently. Something about “
no sulga,
” or at least that’s what I thought I was hearing.

“Are you crazy?” now the teenager, Teresa, was yelling at me.

I looked around, certain that we would get mobbed by a million zombies that would instantly materialize. A series of thumps and what sounded like fingernails on wood started in from the other end of a line of reefer doors. A hint of that smell found my nostrils, turning my stomach instantly. Thalia caught a whiff, too, because she grabbed tighter if that was possible, and wailed.

“Easy, Thalia.” I pried at her hands and knelt like I’d seen Teresa do. I tilted her little face up to me. Her long, black hair was an absolute mess, her dark brown eyes were all bloodshot. Tears ran down cheeks that had turned as red as her runny nose. “I won’t
ever
go without you. I promise.”

Her sobs let up some, and I decided to risk giving a hug. I felt her tiny hands clutch my shoulders, and to this day I can’t tell who took more comfort in that little hug. Up to that moment, I don’t think I knew how fucking terrified I was. I took a deep breath and stood up very slowly. Thalia clung with her arms around my neck.

“Okay, here’s the plan. Food. Lots. As much as we can manage. Fill the back of the truck. Next priority, the medicine aisle. First aid stuff...antibiotics...everything.”

“And you plan on putting this on a credit card?” Theresa sounded defensive and uncertain.

I guess it is tough for some people to accept serious change. I mean think about the daily routine we all sank into when life was normal. In one night, the snow globe that is our life was shaken violently, and it’s like those little flakes never quite want to settle.

I stared into her eyes and saw that struggle. If she did what I was suggesting, it would be like surrender. She would be forced to accept whatever horrific scene she had witnessed last night. Her boyfriend would be dead. So would Mrs. Jenkins—whoever that was. I saw tears try to well up, but, to her credit, Teresa was not ready to cry yet.

“Let’s go,” Teresa whispered.

I nodded, and the two of us got busy. Thalia tried to help, but the best we could manage was for her not to get underfoot. She sat on the counter by the register and ate her Popsicle while the two of us ran around in controlled chaos. It took us almost the better part of an hour.

When we were done, the store was by no means empty. We had taken a lion’s share of the most beneficial items. Teresa even came up with one of the better ideas. The bait cooler was fairly small; about two feet wide, three feet deep, and four feet long. We emptied it and pulled the plug. There was only a slight fishy smell. We managed to haul it to the truck and slide it all the way forward. We then loaded it with milk, meats, eggs, and finally, bags of ice. Hey, we both figured it would last a couple of days.

A final top off of the gas tank, and we were ready to go. A couple of times, we heard cars pass on the freeway, even heard a few gunshots. However, no new zombies wandered up to harass us. As we left the store for the last time with Thalia in tow, she looked longingly at the ice cream cooler.

What the hell. “Go ahead.” I let her scamper back for one more. She opened the glass sliding-door, standing on her tiptoes deciding what she wanted. For just that moment...the world was normal.

 

***

 

“Portland is no better of a choice than Seattle,” I explained to Teresa. The regular radio was on low with the message loop droning. Thalia sat in the middle up on her knees so she could look out at the long, empty road ahead.

“So we cut through, and head over to Highway 26.” Teresa was tracing her finger along the map. “The coast seems a good bet. There are plenty of empty places along the way. If we hit the Pacific, I know a couple of places that have beach houses. They are rented out by the owners. But there is nothing in either direction for more than ten miles.”

“You’re still thinking short-term,” I scolded. “These things—”

“Zombies?” Teresa raised an eyebrow.

“Sure, or whatever the hell you want to call them, they don’t stop moving. I’m guessing if they get locked onto food... us...they just wait. Probably congregate and draw more and more until wherever we are, we’re totally trapped.”

“You’re not much for the power of positive thinking, are ya?” Teresa said sarcastically.
“Just trying to avoid that one big mistake that turns out killing us all.”
“Maybe the coastal mountain range? Summer is coming, so we have a few months to prepare for winter,” Teresa offered.

The idea didn’t suck. I figured one more stop for gas just before we hit the mountains would set us up nicely. Teresa found some small towns along the way. I seem to remember a couple of gas stations that sprung up out of nowhere.

As Vancouver, and eventually Portland grew nearer, the apprehension rose. We had no idea what to expect. Then, the first signs began to show. We rounded a big bend that put a river on our right. I recalled an old nuclear plant that used to be somewhere nearby, but had been imploded a few years back. Up ahead, trying to blend into the low-lying, dark, grayish clouds was a pillar of smoke rising to meet the sky.

Fires.

Big ones.

The edges of suburbia began to unfold from the horizon as we drove. More cars began to appear, all moving in the opposite direction. Many flashed their headlights in warning. Whatever was up the road, it was unpleasant.

Flashing blue lights came into view as I crested a small ridge that now glided down into what were the outskirts of the city. Police cars could be a blessing or curse. The wait was short in finding out which this was.

A group of four navy-blue squad cars were set up to block southbound traffic. What I didn’t see were officers. Getting around would be no problem since the north and south lanes were split by a grassy median. I eased into the left lane and slowed.

“Oh, my God,” Teresa breathed.

I looked over to see her staring directly out to the right. We had cleaned the window on the passenger side before pulling out of Jenkins Gas and Go. Up a slope was a chainlink fence that was in place to keep people from just wandering down to the interstate. All along the fence were tens...hundreds…of those things. As if the sight triggered something in my brain, the hint of that rotted death-smell toyed with my nose.

I guessed we were still a mile from the roadblock, no sign of the drivers of those police cars. The crowd on the fence began to fill out. What was one, two, or a handful became a pack, which, as my eyes followed the fences, not only on this side, but across the way, became hordes. A mile or so past the seemingly abandoned roadblock was an overpass...as well as on- and off-ramps.

Slowing down to almost a crawl, we crept into the grass median. The truck tilted at an angle that made seeing anything but sky on our right side nearly impossible. I kept the speed low so we wouldn’t lose any of the goods stacked in the back of the truck. The smell grew in intensity, and looking ahead, I could see that we were splitting a sea of the undead like Moses. What was clear as far as my eyes could see was that both sides of the interstate were teeming with those poor creatures.

By the hundreds they pressed themselves and each other into the eight- or ten-foot high chain-link fencing that ran parallel at the top of the steep embankment bordering both sides of this stretch of road. Signs still rotated lazily and glowed in the early morning light, which indicated to me that, so far, power was still on. I wondered briefly how long that would last and decided I would plan for the eventuality.

By now, the stench was amazing. I really did believe it would reach a point of maximum saturation. Yet, it continued to worsen. The girls both began to look a little green, but to their credit, neither got sick.

As we came back up onto the road, I had to weave a few times to avoid the occasional walking corpse. No sense banging up the truck when I didn’t need to. A couple of the zombies were in police uniforms, so I had to figure they were probably part of the roadblock.

It made me think. There had been so much press the last few years about cops being too quick to shoot. I wondered if we had beat them down so much with our politically correct, civil-suit crazed society that they had paused too long…taken too much time to react to the situation. Had they been bitten while issuing the tenth verbal warning?

As we neared the bridge that would cross the Columbia River and take me into Oregon, the embankments grew higher and further away from the interstate. The overpasses were more and more crowded with wandering zombies.

Damn! How did this happen so fast?

Of course the sound of the truck seemed to agitate them and bring them to investigate the source. That would mean, in some perverse way, they could still hear. Kind of creepy.

At some point, we had become the only vehicle on the road. I knew we couldn’t be the only ones left alive. It began to dawn on me. Where the hell was I running to? Did I feel drawn this way? Was this some sort of real-life
Romerofied
version of Stephen King’s
The Stand?

Nope.

So far, no dreams of a hundred-plus-year-old black woman in a cornfield...or pine forest. No faceless guy beckoning me to Vegas. Just a feeling—a desire—to head to the Oregon Coast. When I was a kid, that was the site of some of my best times. Vacations at the beach. That was where I met my first girlfriend...we kissed on the Fourth of July under the fireworks display at Seaside.

Hmmm...
“Hey!” Teresa screamed, snapping her fingers in my face to get my attention.
“Huh?”
“You tryin’ to get us converted?”

I realized that I had drifted to the center of the bridge, effectively straddling two lanes. I eased to the left and claimed the fast lane. Not that there was any difference. Glancing out my side window, I could see the gray ribbon that was the Columbia. A fairly large personal boat chugged down the middle. At least I knew there were other people out and about. Whoever it was, they were standing at the stern waving their arms. Probably trying to warn me away from downtown Portland.

Well, it’s the thought that counts.

We had to consider finding some high-grade camping gear. We needed more guns and ammo without a doubt. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to have some more food that didn’t fall into the “chips and cookies” group. I decided it was time to clue everybody in.

“Jantzen Mall is just ahead. I think it is best to at least check it out. It will be a bit dicey, but things will only get nastier as we get closer to the city.”

“So you think we can just go rip off a mall and...what...the cops will pretend it’s cool?” I could tell Teresa still wasn’t getting the Big Picture.

“We are the least of their worries. Besides, I’m not saying we hole up in one. I’m saying a decent sporting goods store will do, and if we run into the cops, so much the better. Maybe they can direct us to someplace safe.”

“Well, I think we—”

“Shhh!” I cut her off and turned up the radio. The message was changing. Somebody was talking! A live person!

“...
currently described as hostile and displaying violent, cannibalistic characteristics. The CDC has confirmed that this disease is communicable. There is no known prevention other than to avoid contact at all costs.


Local hospitals have ceased accepting victims of attack. You are directed to bring any person bitten but still alive to stations set up by police and National Guard. Currently in the Portland-metro area the following locations are set up as monitoring sites: the Rose Quarter, PGE Park, Roosevelt High School, Beaverton High School, Gresham High School, Tigard High School, Forest Grove High School, and Franklin High School. Be advised that more sites are planned, and that those who must use the Rose Quarter or PGE Park will be directed to a FEMA-run emergency shelter where they will be asked to provide information on the person or persons they delivered. At each high school, that information will be obtained at a designated checkpoint established in the vicinity. There will be signs clearly designating routes to take. Be advised that you should only use the Rose Quarter and PGE Park if you’re in the immediate vicinity.

BOOK: The Ugly Beginning - 01
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