[[Dinner turns out to be an even more interesting affair than breakfast, due mainly to the fact that most of the participants are, ahem, tipsy, on cookies special concoction. Peter is grinning like an idiot at the whole thing, his eyes gleaming, and for the first time since I began the interview, I see a truly happy teenager.]]
You know what this reminds me of? The survivors camp at Church Town, South Dakota. They had these festivals where the sole purpose was to celebrate just being alive. It was crazy. They could have zombies massing at the gate an hour before, but once they had beaten them back, they just partied. They had made it through another attack, and no matter how hard their lives were, at least they were alive.
[[You enjoyed them then?]]
Oh yeah, totally, even though I was only there for a short while. The thing is, some of the things that went down, well, they wouldn't be totally acceptable to most of the population.
[[He grins that cheeky grin of his again. I ask the question—In what way?]]
Well, let's just say, if I ever make it back to Church Town, I won't be surprised it Joe is no longer the only father around.
[[We lapse into silence as someone starts a loud and boisterous rendition of some song I don't know. Soon, everyone is singing, and a fight has broken out between some of the more junior members of the squad over the 'best football mascots.' Two of them are from Oregon, and the argument includes 'the duck' versus 'the beaver.' After Peter has eaten his fill, we wander outside before Duck Man and Beaver Boy come to blows. I flick through my notes, and make a few inquires of Peter about the two soldiers.]]
You mean Michael Cho and Adrianna Flynn? Good people. They are instructors at the Officer Training Camp. And no, they won't be joining the advance. No one will say it, but I think they were more disturbed than any of the kids about travelling through the infected countryside. Being left behind must be a big part of it- just abandoned. I'm no physiologist or anything, but we, the kids, we were in boarding school, or we had our family with us. We started out with nothing but each other. Michael and Adrianna were just left behind because someone thought they should be. We could open up to each other. Michael and Adrianna...
[[Peter trails off with a shrug, and gets this brooding look on his face. The change is so dramatic to the smiling, happy teenager I saw twenty minutes ago. He looks older, more mature, and a lot sadder.]]
Anyway, where were we in the tale?
Peter crept back into the hospital, trying to control his breathing. The short sprint across the street, combined with the energy it took him to haul over all their supplies, had left him out of breath. He propped himself against the wall and gasped for what seemed like hours. When he glanced outside, he saw the first of the zombies slouching through the broken window. Bullet holes riddled their bodies, and more than one were missing body parts, and seconds later, someone inside began to scream in pain. Minutes later, the younger of the two brothers was climbing out the fire escape from the floor above. He landed on the roof of a van and set the alarm off. Two zombies, a tall guy with a missing arm, and a teenage girl in a cheerleading outfit, turned and began moving towards him. He jumped to the ground and began to run.
Peter staggered to his feet and began staggering to the stairs to get back to him room, tucking the gun he got at the store into the waistband of his jeans. He groaned in frustration as they began to slip down. He stopped to wrestle with the belt and was about to leave when he heard voices. He ducked into a corner to hide.
"Well, what do you suggest we do? We have six of them in the mortuary right now, and another ten upstairs who will be turning soon," a female voice asked.
"We lock them in their rooms. We can't stay here. They are outside the hospital now," a guy answered.
"What about the kids in room twenty nine?" the female voice shot back.
"Oh, for the love of God. They are healthy. They can take care of themselves. You saw that little punk hauling over the stuff from the hunting store. They aren't thinking about us, so screw them. We gotta move now," the guy answered.
The two people who were talking moved into Peter's field of vision. They both wore white lab coats and both were young. The woman spoke again.
"Steven, if we do this, they'll be stranded. You want to drain the ambulances of gas," the woman said, but Peter could tell the prospect of escape was tempting her. The guy, Steven, seemed to realise that he was winning.
"Don't worry. We'll leave enough for them to reach the next town. That should be far enough to be picked up by the army's rear guard. Anyway, if they keep lugging that old woman and kid around, how long can they survive? And we can't risk them spilling that we abandoned this place. If and when we reach a safe zone, we need to be trusted and not have the authorities believe we will run at the first sign of trouble," he purred.
The woman bit her lip.
"I still don't like this idea," she said.
"Helen, think about it. They were planning to leave and they didn't tell us. They were going to leave us behind before we ever decided to leave them. And you have family to think about. Think about your son. Who is more important- some kid of a teenage mother who won't amount to much, or your baby?"
Helen bit her lip again, and Steven took her arm and steered her towards the back of the hospital, all the while whispering encouragement in her ear. Once they were gone, Peter took off running up the stairs and too his room. Everyone bar Alex and Anastasia was asleep. Peter growled. It would take too long to wake everyone and tell them, so he hurriedly told Anastasia what was going on, a plan forming in his head.
[[You had a plan that quick?]]
Well, yes. Not a good one, mind you. Anastasia still brings it up every now and then when she gets angry with me, but, hey, at least Alex and I got out alive. And personally, I can't argue with most of their reasons for wanting to leave. Everyone else was running away. Everyone else had run away. I mean, we could look after ourselves, and there were no other living patients to look after. All we really had to do was distract Helen while Stephen got the tools he had hidden—the hose for sucking the gas and the food. It was simple, really.
What pissed me off was that they were planning to strand us there. And for what? To protect their reputation.
Yeah. They were doctors and were convinced they were going to reach a safe zone, and they didn't want anyone showing up that could point at them and say "they ran out on living patients at the first sign of trouble." I'm sure they thought that if we did survive, that things would be so bad we would end up in some small enclave far away from them and wouldn't be able to point the finger at them.
Steven had gone to get a length of hose to drain the gas tanks, and had left Helen behind to "guard the ambulances, just in case." She turned her head nervously, jumping at the slightest sound. She could hear the zombies at the front of the hospital, crunching over the broken glass of the hunting store and howling as they tried to get closer to the food. She glanced at her watch again. It was half twelve. They had to be gone before one, before the only remaining Doctor in town woke up and came downstairs for shift change. They couldn't risk him realising that they weren't going up to their rooms.
She was getting frustrated with Steven when she heard footsteps. She wheeled around and clicked on her flashlight. It wasn't Steven, or even a zombie. It was the kid, Peter, and he had the younger kid, Alex, resting on his hip. She was about to tell him to get back to bed, but the words caught in her throat. He looked so lost and ragged, with one hand holding up his too large trousers and his other hand cradling the younger child close to him. Peter's eyes were large and pleading, watering up with unused tears, while Alex kept his head buried in Peter's chest. She thought he might be asleep, but then she realised he was crying quietly.
"You're... you're leaving us?" Peter sobbed, large tears spilling onto his cheeks. Alex squirmed closer, balling up a section of Peter's oversized t-shirt in his small fist. As his head moved, she caught sight of a large wet stain on the older boy's shirt.
"Why?" Peter pleaded.
Helen stood frozen for a moment, wracking her head for the reasons Steven had given her.
"Listen, em, Peter, right? Listen, we have to go. We have families of our own to go to. We can't stay here. Other than you, there are no other patients, and you are healthy enough to look after yourself. And we are leaving you enough transport to get out of here," she said in a soothing voice.
Peter's bottom lip trembled and his eyes seemed to get larger, pleading with her. Even the tears in Alex's eyes seemed to well up more. Helen shifted uncomfortable on her feet. Helen heard a noise behind her, but before she could turn around, Peter lunged forward and grabbed her hand.
"Please don't leave us," he begged.
Up close and personnel, something clicked in Helens brain. She was being played. Alex wasn't crying out of fear, he was crying out of tiredness. How many times had her own son done it at his age? Despite the tears, Peter's face was remarkably calm, even a little hard. Behind her, she heard an engine been started. Helen groaned inwardly. Peter let go of her hand, took several steps back then darted around her. From her left, Helen heard Stephen cry out in frustration, letting out a string of sear words the likes of which Helen had rarely heard. Some of them were aimed at the escaping rear of the ambulance; others were aimed at her for letting them get the ambulance. Personally, Helen didn't care, she was happy they had gotten away.
[[So, what happened next? I press.]]
Not a lot, really. We just drove. A lot of the roads were still clear. Remember, this was still the early stages. Most people were either too busy packing up whatever they could in order to run, were still behind what they believed to be the armies "line of defence," and felt no need to run, or were still in denial so no one was really on the road yet. Can you believe it? Despite everything, they still thought that the army could defend the entire country. They kept themselves preoccupied with trying to buy a lot of food from grocery stores, or trying to loot gun shops, that is, if they could get passed the owners. Occasionally, we would pass a car driving a little faster than was safe, or pull up to a gas station that had three or four cars waiting for the pumps. That's when gas stations still had gas.
[[So, you didn't see the violence? I ask. Peter smiles sadly. When he speaks, it is slowly, as if laden with sad memories.]]
I wouldn't say that. Yeah, we hit out before the general panic clogged up the roads and highways, but still, this was four days after New York had fallen, after the military retreat. People were beginning to realise that money wasn't going to be much good for much longer. We had just hit a town called Broderick, about ten miles into Pennsylvania, and Michael and Adrianna were eager to get their hands on weapons other than the machetes we had taken. They said a proper gun was more likely to deter a living human especially if they were armed themselves.
[[So, what did you do?]]
Charles was the one with a plan.
Charles' uncle was a bear of a man. Six foot six, with a massive stomach, powerful arms and a thick brown beard, he looked like a grizzly bear. He even scratched the massive stomach through the grey, sweat stained shirt he wore.
"So, this shit is as bad as everyone makes out," he stated, glancing around at the group in his boarded up living room. His hand moved from scratching his massive belly to his beard, as if deep in thought.
"Yeah, I can spare a few guns and ammo. I can even spare some fuel and food," he said eventually.
"You aren't coming with us?" Charles asked, surprise written on his face.
"Nah. Things are going to get hectic out there. It's already starting. Must be a real shock for the Mexican border guards to see their rich northern neighbour being the wet backs for a change."
He heaved himself out of his chair and led them to a basement. It was relatively well stocked, but Peter couldn't see how Charles' uncle could spare anything for them, until he pulled a shelf away from the wall to reveal a vault door. Once opened, a stairs lead down.
"Yep, it cost me a fortune to put this in. I bet all those who called me a survivalist nut job will be eating their words now, if they knew about their place. On a more personnel note, it's late, you guys want dinner and a bed to sleep in until you decide to carry on?"
[[Peter smiles again.]]
We stayed with Matty, that's Charles' uncle, for the night and most of the following day. He was a pretty cool guy.
[[Before Peter can continue, we are interrupted by the door banging open, and an elderly woman entering, calling for medical exams. She is leaning on two canes, and she is hunched over with age. I shot a questioning look at Peter, who winks.]]
It looks like you are going to meet Maria.