The Rapture and the Hive – Part I – Chapter 7Dec 22nd, 2010 | By Guy Lancaster | Category: Series, The Rapture and the Hive | 637 views
It is raining softly, as I suppose it must, even in this world long past its apocalyptic prime. The morning is cold, and we’re standing under the Highway 67 overpass, at the northern edge of the town of Bald Knob, near where we had camped for the night, having taken 64 from Augusta to the point where Bald Knob was slowly coming into focus on the horizon, then circling around it to the north, while Austin periodically looked at the town through his binoculars, searching for anything amiss. “Amiss,” in this instance, means anything that might try to torture, kill, or eat us.
“Bald Knob. That any relation to the Bald Knobbers that operated in Missouri?” Austin asks, his binoculars to his eyes once again.
“You’ve asked me that before,” I say. “The answer’s no. Town gets its name from stone outcropping that used to be the most visible landmark before they quarried it all.”
“Bald Knobbers in Missouri, they met at the top of a hill,” Austin says. “So they could keep lookout. I wish we had some kinda hill here, so I could look down into that town.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“Accident of geography ain’t your fault,” he says, still scanning the town. “But you’re sure if there’s a place for guns and ammo to be had, it’s this one?”
“Probably any of the larger towns around here would do you. The area’s something of a draw for hunters—used to be. You’ve got three or four wildlife management areas just south of here, plus that Cache National Wildlife Refuge off to the east that we passed through earlier. It’s a pretty safe bet that, if you find all the ammo shops have been looted, chances are you’ll find some houses stocked with bullets.”
“Ain’t nothing a safe bet in this world, doc,” Austin says, finally putting down his binoculars. He turns around to address the rest of the crew.
“We’ve gone around this town and given it a pretty thorough looksee,” he begins. “I don’t think any of us have seen any zombies there. Don’t mean there ain’t none—hell, they could be holed up in one of those churches somewhere. Who really knows? But the point is that we’re running low on lots of stuff, most particularly ammunition, and this might be the best spot we get for a while. Anyone see any problems I’m missing?”
A low murmur of no goes through the group, though Cully breaks in and says, “Any chance of there being a liquor store in this here town?”
“Dry county,” I say.
“Goddammit,” he mutters.
“You didn’t have dry counties in Kentucky?” Wayne asks.
“Hell, lived in one,” says Cully. “Spencer County. I was kinda hoping the rest of the world was a little more civilized.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“There maybe a country club there? Them rich folks usually get a liquor license for themselves.”
“Don’t know,” I tell him. “I’ve never actually lived here. Just passed through.”
“Damn,” he says.
“So I take it that the only problem is the lack of intoxicating spirits,” Austin interrupts, “which just ain’t that big a problem in my way of thinking. Now, like I said, it looks pretty deserted on both sides of this highway here, but that don’t mean that road leading into town ain’t crawling with zombies just past that turn. I’m thinking one team of three would probably be safest.”
“Just three people?” says Wayne. “When we were in Blytheville—”
“I know what we did in Blytheville,” says Austin, “but I’m just thinking we might want to play it safe.”
“Bullshit,” says Deborah. Everyone turns to look at her.
“Excuse me?” says Austin.
“I said ‘bullshit.’” Deborah steps forward a few paces. “You’re not thinking about playing it safe. You’re thinking about having to leave at least two men back here with the womenfolk to protect them, ‘cause after what happened, you’re not leading us into danger, and you’re not leaving us alone by ourselves. Is that right?”
The rain dances its pitter-patter as the wordless moment stretches itself out, until finally Austin look straight into her eyes and says, “That’s exactly right.”
“How far would you take it?” she asks. “Would you lock us up in a cage to keep us safe now? Is that how it works?”
“That ain’t funny,” he says, his voice like a NO TRESPASSING sign warning of dire consequences to follow.
“You’re right,” she says. “It’s a hard old world we’ve got to deal with here. Isn’t nothing safe anymore, like you said. That’s why you’re staying here, and I’m going into town.”
He stares at her, disbelief writ large across his face, and then starts to laugh. “Okay—listen, I’ve got much more experience—”
“Oh, what kind of experience?” she asks. The question stifles his last laugh, and he does not answer. “I don’t imagine any one of us is more experienced in dealing with zombies than the other. Besides, you yourself taught me how to shoot this here gun,” and she pats her holster, “so time for the student to stand on her own, right sensei?”
“This isn’t a joke,” he says.
“No, it’s not. You’ve got experience—good. The rest of them will need that experience if we don’t make it back. But I’m going on this. I’m not going to sit back and be a little doll you’ve got to protect from the big, bad world outside. Nothing’s changed, okay? Not that way. You and Gil, you get to take a break. He said he doesn’t know this town anyway, so what’s it matter?”
Austin does not answer.
Deborah looks around. “Cully? Murray? You guys up for going with me?”
Cully snorts and spits on the ground. “Damn dry counties. We find a county club or something, we’re gonna take a look, ain’t we?”
“Sure enough. Murray?”
Murray nods and stands up from where he was sitting on the concrete embankment by the road.
Deborah turns to Austin. “There, I’ve got me the Kentucky Bandit and a cop going with me. You feel any better?”
“No,” he says. “This still ain’t a good idea.”
“Tough,” she says. Deborah and the two guys get together their gear while Austin stands by, looking not so much helpless as he is like a father watching his son practice driving on his own for the first time. He glances at everything they’re taking with them, ready to make some comment about the insufficiency of knives or too much other stuff in their packs, but apparently he can find nothing to complain about.
When they’re ready, he goes up to them and, like a general giving his troops the plan of attack, says, “Three hours. That should be time enough to run through town, kick down a few doors if need be. Cully, you still got that watch?”
“It still running?”
Cully looks at it to check. “Yep. Still tickin’ away.”
“Three hours,” Austin says again to Deborah. “You need to explore some more—fine, but come back and check in first. That way we know you’re still breathing and don’t try to do something stupid. You run into more trouble than you can handle, you try and lead it back this way. With this overpass above us, we’ve got the high ground, might can pick off what’s following you. We don’t have no way to signal to each other—and with this rain, we might not hear any shooting—so you guys play it safe. Don’t leave us worrying about you—got it?”
“Three hours,” says Deborah. “Hopefully with some ammo and a bottle of whiskey. Let’s go.”
The three of them move off toward the heart of town, covered in their rain slickers. Austin taps me on the shoulder and points upward when I turn around. We climb up into the rain, onto the overpass, and watch them. They pass a gas station and maybe something that was once a restaurant. When they are far enough away, Austin pulls out his binoculars and follows them, scanning the area in front of them for any movement, for anything that might have been attracted by the prospect of fresh people walking into view. He apparently sees nothing, for he stays silent, concentrating on the task at hand. And then at last, they are even out of his sight, having rounded the bend into Bald Knob proper. Austin puts down his binoculars in a few minutes and looks at his watch.
Just under three hours to go.
We walk back down to the others. We all share a silence glance. There is nothing we can do now. Nothing at all.
“Does anyone have a deck of cards?” asks Wayne.
“You’ve asked that before,” says Gwen.
Wayne looks in the direction they went. “Of all the things I didn’t think I’d need, a deck of cards was at the top.”
“We could play three hours of rock, paper, scissors,” I venture.
“No thanks,” he says.
Austin has his towel stretched out on the ground and is taking apart and oiling his gun.
“Is it wise to be doing that when we could be attacked at any moment?” Selia asks somewhat teasingly.
“I waited ‘til we were safe, would never get done,” he says.
“You’re probably the only guy who grabbed his bottle of Hoppes when the zombies started coming,” she says.
He looks up at her as he pushes the rod with the oil-soaked swatch down the barrel. “I better not be,” he says. “I am, and won’t no one’s gun but mine be working within the year.”
“I’m just saying,” she says, “it’s a gesture of optimism.”
“Not optimism,” he says. “Just 7P. That’s all. It stands for—”
“Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance,” we all say in unison.
He looks around at the rest of us. “So I’ve said that before?” he says.
Wayne smiles and says, “Only about as often as my old drill sergeant.”
“And my Marine Corps father,” I add.
Austin grunts and returns to his work.
“Anyone here the joke about the guy who walks into a bar and sits next to this guy, who pulls a tiny piano out of his—”
We wait. Two hours to go.
The time passes so slowly, the rain itself, a drizzle now, part of some elaborate water torture, softening to the point where it kills all our conversation and we unconsciously station ourselves to listen for what might be happening in the town, and then occasionally beating down in a heavier stream to kill those hopes—alternating, playing with us, and each time we take the quiet bait. Each time, we’re lured by the slacking noise and take the time to listen, hoping that the screams and sounds of gunfire we don’t hear are indications of it all going well, praying that a quiet world is not a lifeless one. It seems we relax only when the rain is heaviest, when the signal is broken. Then we can talk if we think we have any words to share. Often, we don’t, as if the silence among us is some snowfield we hesitate to put our footprints upon. I’m sure each one of us wishes that we were with the others in Bald Knob, just to be saved the tediousness of waiting, waiting, waiting.
And at some point, Austin looks at his watch and says, “Three hours are up.”
That wakes us all up. We turn and look down the road, expecting to see them rounding the bend, making their way back to us. But the road is empty.
“Aww, give them a few minutes,” says Wayne. “She’s probably having to keep Cully from checking every house for a secret cache of booze.”
Ten minutes, and the road is still empty.
Twenty minutes, and the road is still empty.
At thirty minutes, we allow ourselves to be genuinely worried. Thirty minutes is too long. It’s a whole half an hour. Too long for it to be simple tardiness, simple losing track of time, simple human error. Thirty minutes is a deliberate absence.
“What do we do?” asks Miriam. Her voice has the beginnings of a tremble in it.
Austin stares down the road, as if willing an answer from its emptiness. “We wait,” he finally says. “Just a little bit longer.”
And he’s right—that’s all we can do. But the minutes go by slowly as we silently ponder every reason they might be late. They might indeed be surrounded by zombies and fighting for their lives at this moment. They might be trapped in a house that collapsed in on them. They might have been captured by some unsavory folks of the kind we’ve already met. They might already be dead for any of these reasons.
The list of possibilities keeps expanding as their absence grows longer. They are gone an hour past schedule, and hour and a half, two hours. There really are just a handful of reasons why they might be absent, but we kick them around in our head until the permutations border upon the infinite—the house that collapses in on them in red, is brick, is two-story; the people who capture them are religious fanatics who hold the zombie to be a sacred being, are the last remnants of the town, are a group of sultry female survivors who want Cully and Murray for procreative purposes; the zombies who attack them number just a few, a few dozen, a few hundred. And so on and so forth , as if to show that infinity is not just something that exists on the universal level but can be bound up in a handful of possibilities, all given to us by this stretch of road leading into Bald Knob. Who could ever have guessed the chatter of mathematics that can come streaming down an empty road?
“We’ve got to do something. They could be trapped,” says Selia. “Trapped in a house somewhere, surrounded by zombies.”
“There ain’t any use speculating,” Austin replies. “Zombies, people—whatever got them, if even that’s the case, managed to get the drop on a former cop, a backwoods Kentuckian what liked shooting stuff as a hobby, and a gal who’s actually pretty good with a gun. For my own skin, I ain’t worried about the zombies. But if it’s people who nabbed them—well, there’s no telling what people might do. You get a vicious paranoid who’s sure there must be more to your crew than just these three, and who’s got the sort of disposition makes him likely to try and extract that information, and you can see right now we ain’t safe here.”
“That’s just hypothesis,” Selia insists.
“Hypothesis likely to keep us breathing,” says Austin.
“You mean we’re leaving them?” she asks. Her eyes are wide with disbelief.
Austin does not answer. He steps far out from under the cover of the overpass and looks around him, occasionally putting his binoculars to his eyes. Finally, he points to a spot down the road and says, “Right there—we’ll regroup there. We’ll have the cover of the treeline but also a clear line of site to this spot, so we’ll we able to see if they return. Let’s load up.”
“But what if they need help?” says Selia.
“Listen,” says Austin, coming back under the overpass, “if they’ve run into people or zombie trouble that’s more than a match for them, chances are it’s more than a match for us. We’re just six people right now, and we got to think like six people. We send another two or three in there, and they don’t come back, it ain’t lookin’ very good for them that’s left neither.”
“But they could be hurt!” Miriam almost shouts. “They could be trapped somewhere!
When he next speaks, Austin lets his voice dip into the darker tones of command. “They could already be dead, too. But we ain’t banking on that possibility. We’re hanging around. We’re keeping a lookout for them. That’s literally all we can do within reason. Now pack up.”
So we pack up. We walk down the interstate about a quarter of a mile, to where the earth rises up in a gentle hill, to where the highway begins a long and languorous kiss with the very edge of the foothills as they rises from the land behind us for the very first time. Austin has everyone keep an eye out for any sort of movement, just in case we’re already being watched by one of the possibilities lurking in Bald Knob, but no one sees anything. The rain has let up, but when we cross the treeline, there is still the drip-drip of leftover rain as the trees slowly shed their day’s bath. Austin gives Gwen his binoculars and has her watch while the rest of us clear away a spot amid all the brush and weeds. Finally, we are set up.
We watch in shifts of one hour each, keeping an eye on the overpass there and occasionally scanning the area with binoculars. Come lunchtime, we open up the cans that are among are last non-perishable food items and eat whatever is in them cold, with a spoon and few words among us. Of course, it remains unspoken that unless Deborah and Cully and Murray come back, this repast may be the last of its kind, and the game that is now so free to wander across streets and highways may remain untouched unless we find more ammunition. We don’t talk much.
The day lengthens and slouches toward afternoon. Still, no one has seen hide nor hair of the missing three, though there have been a few false alarms as deer have danced into view a ways off. No people—not ours or any others. The chill of autumn weighs heavily upon us. The hours pass, and the only sound is the breeze whistling through the trees. We are a crew of despair.
Evening is full on us. We have pitched two tents for staying here the night. No one asks about dinner. I am taking my turn watch the road when I hear Selia, back there with the others, say, “You guys—none of you ever wondered why it was safe with us, did you? I mean, why we never worried about getting pregnant or anything.”
I can hear some embarrassed shifting of body weight in this nest of dead leaves, but I don’t turn my eyes from the road. Wayne is the only one here who ever made use of their favors. I imagine he is looking down into the ground as everyone turns their eyes to him.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I mean, here we are, practically at the world’s end, and it’s the sort of life now you don’t want to bring a baby into. Maybe it’s even deadly to try to have a kid, what with there not being any doctors. But at the same time, the human race has got to survive. Needs to be repopulated—Adam and Eve all over again. So which way do you go with that? Having a baby alone might kill you, but it might save humanity. I just think it’s funny. I mean, all of you probably automatically assumed it was taken care of, the whole kids thing. Probably assumed we wouldn’t be crazy enough to try and get pregnant in this here world. Probably assumed we had a plan not to. But you never asked. I think that’s interesting.”
I am listening to Selia. I am listening so hard that the road sometimes seems to slip out of focus, though I never turn my eyes away from it. I hear a movement among the wet leaves, and in my mind, I see Miriam sitting down close to Selia and holding her hand.
“We can’t have kids—that’s how we met,” she continues. “You see, we all had the same doctor back in Cincinnati. A women’s doctor. Long story short is that he was convicted of doing unnecessary surgery on women. Maybe you’ve been bleeding, and you go to see him, and he tells you that you’ve got an ectopic pregnancy that needs to come out immediately, so he puts you under and removes that bit of fallopian tube, but there was nothing there. He did that to many women—removed bits and pieces of them—before he got caught. For most of the girls, the damage was done. They’d never be able to have kids. That was us.”
She takes a deep breath. “Do you know what it’s like? I mean, I never even thought about kids that much. My momma put me on the pill the day I had my first period, said I had to be careful of all the men out there and that I shouldn’t take it as permission to go whoring but better, if I was gonna be a whore, to be one without a baby on my hip. If you knew my momma, you knew where she was coming from. But the thing is, I didn’t grow up with that Prince Charming fantasy and all those questions of ‘Oh, Selia, when are you going to get yourself married and give me some grandbabies?’ So I didn’t think about it a whole lot one way or the other. Never imagined myself with husband and kids.
“But when I learned what that doctor had done to me…. It was like… like someone closed a door on my future. ‘Here you are, Selia, the perfect modern woman! You can be anything you want to be—oh, except a mother.’ Maybe I would never have had kids, but it was my choice—not his.
“We all sort of met before the trial, while filling out depositions and all that for the prosecution. I was really a mess by then. I kept having these dreams of men coming by and pulling things out of my body, and it took me a while to realize that they were taking away my babies—again and again pulling out this bloody fetus that was still moving, still wanting to be a part of me. And I—I started drinking a bit at night to try and make it through the dreams. But it was bad. Anyhow, like I say, we met at the prosecutor’s office, all of us broken women. There were about a dozen or so participating in the trial. Most of us wouldn’t have to testify, though our bodies would—x-rays to show what was missing, records of surgery, etc. Anyhow, it’s still all a bit fuzzy for me. I’m not quite sure when or how we three started getting together in this sort of impromptu support group, but we did. I think it might have been Deborah’s idea. She was always the warrior among us. She used to go on and on about getting the bastard. But anyhow, once a week, we started getting together at each other’s house. It came to be the highlight of my week.
“We were at Deborah’s house the night that Cincinnati fell. We’d all heard the news about what was happening other places, but it seemed so remote. But that night, it seemed like the rest of the world caught up with us with a vengeance. At the beginning of the evening, it was just another city, quiet though a little tense. Once it hit ten o’clock, though, it was like someone opened the floodgates of madness. Suddenly, we could hear screams outside and the squeal of cars and gunshots, like a riot had broken out. We looked out the windows and saw people streaming everywhere, screaming, running from each other, attacking each other. Deborah had us turn out all the lights and move whatever furniture we could next to all the open doors. A house across the street was burning. When we turned on the radio, trying to find out what was going on, it was all this confused garble about the city being attacked by dead people. I mean, they weren’t even radio announcers anymore, not with the cool, professional voice kind. It’s like these guys on the radio suddenly went crazy themselves. You don’t know how unnerving it was to hear that.
“So we barricaded ourselves in for the night, and after awhile, things got quieter. The radio went dead soon. The TV, too. We tried to tell ourselves that we didn’t know what exactly was going on, even though we’d heard about other cities falling apart like this. And hell—Cincinnati has its own history of race riots and such. It’s funny when you’re trying to comfort yourself by telling yourself that what’s going on is probably the result of another stupid cop shooting some unarmed black kid. We occasionally peered out the window, and it seemed in the darkness that the people who were running all over the place earlier were now just shuffling along. Of course, you know what they were, and we knew in the morning. We could see them, all dead but still walking the streets. If we live through this as a race, that’s the question that kids will ask us: ‘Where were you when you saw your first zombie?’ It’ll be like the Kennedy assassination or landing on the moon.
“You can imagine the three of us locked away in her house like that, scared, wondering what to do. The phone didn’t work anymore, either. There was no one we could call to save us. So we just did what everyone else has done—pack up what you can and make a run for it. It’s the only time I’ve felt lucky to be out in the suburbs, because Deborah’s house had a covered garage that we could sneak into. Of course, the minute I opened the garage door, here come all the zombies, but she just whipped that car out the moment I got in and started plowing through them. It’s not like the movies. I mean, hitting a person is like hitting a deer or something. You don’t just run over them, or they don’t just bounce off the grill of the gar. There’s a thud each time, and the car shakes. She just kept the car going, even when we had to turn around and backtrack because wrecks and pile-ups were blocking our way, and somehow, we actually got out of the city, completely out of it. Out into the country, out into the rolling hills of southern Ohio.
“Those first few days were miserable. We’d brought some water with us, but not that much. It’s terrible when you don’t even know how to find water, when the best you can do is drive around hoping to cross some stream or river and then go down and drink a whole lot because you haven’t brought a big enough container with you to take some back. And the food runs out so quickly. We were city girls, you know. A city is like a really big place where people take care of each other. Like an anthill—each one contributes in its own way and does something so that others don’t have to, so they can concentrate on the one thing they do well. Take an ant out of its hill, and it has no real meaning anymore. It’s just one. Maybe it can build its home, but it can’t catch its dinner. And that was us.
“That’s how we ended up following one of those streams. Because we ran out of gas and had no place else to go, and that’s all we knew to do. Try and follow the stream because maybe there would be a house or something on it. And we found a house. After a night in the woods, we found a little cabin. Knocked on the door and waited, just in case, and then went right in. It was just a cozy place. Fireplace, bed, table. I mean, someone clearly lived here, but they were gone. There was some bread on the table, and we couldn’t help ourselves—we just ate it all up. I think we slept some, but when night came, we were waiting for whoever it was to come back, and he never did.
“That night, it was warm, but still, we all three got under the sheets of the bed. It was a tight squeeze. But it just felt good to have each other there to touch. It was the only home we had. And then slowly, it started to happen, our hands in motion like we’re trying to keep each other warm, and then we were kissing each other, and then….
“I mean, I’d never been like that before. I think we all had ex-boyfriends back in Cincinnati. Mine ditched me after he learned what happened with the doctor because it was his dream to be a daddy one day, and that dream meant more than me. But there was something in us that was just grateful to be alive, grateful for the touch, that feeling when someone touches you and you come and feel super-alive, not just plodding along in a half daze through your day. That was us. It wasn’t that strange. I didn’t want it to stop.
“I think that’s where we got the idea. After a few days, it was pretty clear that we couldn’t stay at the cabin. I mean, we’d gathered some unripe nuts and other stuff, but there was no way we could suddenly turn into huntresses, and there was no fish in the stream. Miriam said that if we were going to leave, we needed to have some kind of plan of surviving out there, especially since we were a group of women. I said that we could use that. Deborah said she wasn’t ending up any sort of whore no matter what it took to get a bite to eat. I said I didn’t mean whore—not that way—but that it seemed to me that what had happened to us happened for a reason in the big scheme of things, since we couldn’t have kids and wouldn’t have that to worry about. A whore isn’t really accepted as a part of society, so she’s always easy to scrape off when things get tough—you don’t really think of her as human. I meant something like those ancient priestesses, someone respected, that we would have to make ourselves respected and learn how to survive, because if you approach someone with just utter desperation, then they’ve already got control of you. But if you make terms, then you’ve got power, too….
“So we talked about it. Deborah was still skeptical of the whole notion, but she said she might could do it if we ran into the right sort of folks.
“As it turns out, those folks were you guys.”
I can hear Selia sniffling, but I still don’t turn my gaze to her. Dusk is coming on, and I won’t have much more time in which I can actually see down to where the overpass lay.
“It’s funny,” I hear her say, trying to chase away her tears. “You know, sex is about the world surviving. It’s about people being brought into the world and fertility and this year’s crops being good. All that stuff. And that’s what that doctor took. But what he took let us survive. I know, Austin—it’s not like you’ve ever had your way with us, and maybe you would have taken us in without the offer being made. I don’t know how to explain, but it was important. Not like a quid pro quo. But….”
She stops and maybe wipes her eyes. “I miss my Debbie,” she says.
With that, night falls on us.
* * *
At first light, Austin and Wayne walk down to the overpass. We don’t expect anything to come of it and aren’t all that surprised when they seem to turn back around and head up the hill again in a matter of minutes. Austin shakes his head when he nears the camp and catches my eye.
We put away the tents in silence and, with one last look at Bald Knob in the distance, turn and start walking the other way down the interstate. Our steps ring out like the slow peel of church bells on the cold pavement.Help Support T21 with your Dollar Donation Today
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