Life Among the Dead: 11
War Never Changes
"Jackson and Heather saw them last night, just outside the gate. They said that if we aren't careful they'll break through." Morgan chatters away to me with her arm around her boyfriend, Luke. Her good girl looks didn't match his bad boy demeanor but even in an apocalypse kids will be predictable and follow the cliché.
"Did they use them for target practice? Jimmy made those rifles silent so that we could get some practice in." I ask as the three of us stroll down the street at the fastest pace my expanding belly will allow. I didn't plan to get pregnant right when the end of the world started, but it happened and we were all dealing with it the best we could.
"Yeah, they brought up Ron and Jimmy since neither of them have had a lot of time shooting yet." Luke informs me pulling the petite brunette closer while still keeping his hand close enough to pull the weapon strapped to his back. They seem like an odd couple, but sometimes it is the unusual that works. She had been his tutor when the first lockdown happened and they had been dating somewhat secretively but this had eliminated the need to keep quiet. Her parents, the main force keeping them apart, were no longer among the living. She told anyone who asked that he was her knight in shining armor and that she wouldn't know what to do without him. When we found out her parents had been lost in the first wave she had stayed with us to make the transition easier. She was still a recently orphaned teenage girl, but she was handling it much better with him at her side.
"Well that's good. Give me a minute guys, I just need to sit down." I request sitting down on a bench that was still mostly intact. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere alone. It was only a ten block walk to our supply center but it's a long walk while this pregnant. The two dutifully stopped and didn't complain. The first time we'd walked to get supplies the other adults in our group had overheard Luke complaining about my pace and it didn't go over well. They learned very quickly where my husband and Luke's brother stand on keeping me safe. Teenagers can be very predictable but so can the alpha male types. His complaining was seen as a threat to the security of our group and he was dealt with rather harshly.
"I know that the walk isn't that long, but you'd think that Michael wouldn't let them send you. Well that or maybe we'd be allowed to use the car. We can use some of that gas we're given instead of storing it for whatever diabolical plan you guys have going." Morgan complains lounging on the bench beside me and adjusting the weapon she has hidden at the small of her back. They both liked strapping the weapons to their backs but he concealed his higher than she did.
"You'll see what we're storing it for. We have a plan for the fuel." I promise her waiting for the baby to stop moving. It seemed like every time I decided to walk more than a couple of blocks she'd start kicking and then I just couldn't watch for danger. It only took one of those things slipping past the defenses and I wasn't going to be the reason we lost one of these teens to that particularly nasty fate. Working together was the best way to ensure our survival and the teens are very handy when it comes to the electronics that have started failing lately.
"You guys have been saying that for months." Luke grunts out sitting on the other side of Morgan. "I agree that this is two hours we could spend elsewhere." Even though he was complaining his training was showing. His eyes were constantly sweeping the area. Very few people were out but he was making eye contact with each of them while he checked alleys and gaps between houses for any suspicious movements.
"We do this twice a week. Come guys, let's get moving." I order standing up slowly and pushing our cart down the sidewalk toward our center. "You will understand what is happening later, I promise. I know we've been saying that but you guys are only sixteen so let us make the decisions. Plus as an added benefit walking should make labor easier and that seems like a great idea to me. We do have a few tricks left up our sleeves."
The rest of the walk was quiet as we continued on. It was silent but watchful. At every intersection the kids walk in front of me and he looks right while she looks left for any sign of trouble. We've had them up on the roof with binoculars four nights a week so that they know what to look for and they know the layout well enough to understand if something looks wrong. We even got our hands on binoculars with night vision and heat vision so they really know what to look for.
When they both nod we cross the street. No cars are allowed on the streets to avoid those things being hidden by them. All of the extra unclaimed cars were moved to empty parking lots outside of the secured space while those claimed by residents were in a secured lot and everyone has a designated space. That is how they ration the gasoline. For every other person you're allowed one car and for every car you're allowed two gallons a week. Makes me really grateful that Michael had a small car and we weren't left with my SUV. My SUV does have a full tank though, we made sure of that by making everyone put in one gallon a week out of their rations. Then we moved on to the other cars. We make sure to drive each car around the block a few times a week to make sure that it runs but not waste our gas stores.
We continued on our way to the center and when we got there we were greeted by the usual armed guards. They used to be on edge and constantly watching for signs of danger but the lull in activity had made them much more casual. In just over six months we'd moved from chaos to strict martial law and finally we were breathing a little easier once the attacks hit less than an average of once a week.
"Bekah! We weren't sure we'd see you today. Thought maybe Michael would keep you indoors and out of the potential rain. You never do know about the weather now that the weather channel isn't running." The first guard laughs casually about our life such a short time ago. "I miss being able to check the forecast from my phone."
"Oh he knows better than to keep me inside. I have to see the doctor while I'm here so I had to come. Last time they told me to keep walking and labor would be easier so he's stopped fighting me for now."
"He could have driven you and just let you walk around your block. You're walking a couple miles every week." The other guard says scanning the street for trouble. He was sporting injuries to his face which were common with the current method of discipline. A man got in trouble and the next time you see him he'd be sporting new bruises, cuts or broken bones. Some of those in power around here took protecting the children very seriously and would beat the adult men into submission. I'd seen women on the receiving end, but usually they were dealt with by having their gas rations taken away or some other privilege removed.
"Yeah I guess so. We are trying to save the gas rations for my bad days or when I need to get here quickly. It's only a matter of time. Plus it's easier to drive around with a baby than it is to walk this far with one. We're just saving up."
"Good idea. Just keep in mind the stuff has less than a year for shelf life. Get in there and get your supplies before we hit the rush. There's a group coming back from beyond the wall in the next couple hours and they are going to be given extra rations. Not a lot of people in there now, you should be able to get in and out quickly." The first guard says winking at Morgan who responds by playing tonsil hockey right there on the street before following me inside. Sometimes I feel like I will never understand teenagers. This is one of those moments.
Life among the dead was like life anywhere else: everyone needed food to eat, water to drink, shelter from the elements and a certain level of companionship. In the last six months we had all been ripped from everything we'd known and were forced to face a threat like no other- our own dead were attacking us. It hadn't happened rapidly but we hadn't been able to stop it. Within a month of the first reports cities had fallen. It had been a long and bloody fight for any area that wasn't able to prepare with massive casualties on our side. Most cities had gone dark. Everyone had at least one family member or friend they assumed was among the dead. Many people had lost most of the people they'd ever met.
Now all towns that survived had tall gates and fences. They didn't accept outsiders very easily. The small towns seemed to survive better since there was lighter traffic and they could be more easily contained. We were lucky, in a town of just under a thousand it could be barricaded and locked down almost completely. In the six months since the outbreak we'd lost less than a hundred people and that included death due to accident, injury and illnesses other than the virus. That's what people called it, the virus. Maybe elsewhere it had a fancy title, but here we didn't want to think about it.
Our group was luckier than most out there, we had known that it was coming and had laid groundwork for our own survival. Our small group was ready should the situation get worse. Things had been quiet for a while, but it's always quiet right before the storm when the smartest of animals all go into hiding. Humans, with our elitist ideals, aren't the smartest of creatures. After things calm down we instantly assume that the worst is over and try to go on with our lives. We never did learn that sometimes things can take a break just like the eye of a hurricane.
The stores were now more or less government run. You were given ration books depending on your various needs. Michael and I got a larger amount due to my pregnancy but we were storing the extra away just in case. We also had Morgan in one of our spare bedrooms so we got rations for her and gas for the second car thanks to her. Our entire group was already rationing, we knew what was eventually coming. This wasn't over.
Shopping was totally different now. It wasn't like shopping before the virus. We went to the back of the store to a counter set up to accept your ration books. It was manned by five two-man teams. This was partially to prevent theft or cheating as both offenses were punishable by death. People kept forgetting that part of this was about protection. One of the clerks per team are what we call a half, or someone that once bitten was only partially infected. They maintained the status of a prepubescent child. They weren't greedy and they followed orders without question. There was also the added effect that they aren't attacked by other infected and can travel into areas that we can't to get supplies and look for survivors. Of the thousand people here we had about fifty halves that we sent out to do various missions outside of our barricades. Normally they are sent with a partner since they are incapable of making decisions quickly or thinking about the group as a whole. It is kind of like taking your five-year-old and sending them to the store. They get sidetracked by shiny things and then they see this person with an interesting shirt and that distracts them too. Eventually they don't come back home. We lose about one a week due to them just wandering off and not being able to find their way home.
"Hello Mrs. Hunt. How are you today?" The older half asks me kindly. He had been a pharmacist before all of this happened and no one was sure if there was something he had given himself to stop the total change or if it was luck of the genetic draw. Either way most of his medical knowledge remained and what he'd lost never seemed to be an issue. In the majority of cases around here they don't retain the knowledge of their trade. We had an electrician that tried fixing a fuse box and the entire house was lost to a fire.
"Hey Johnny, I'm doing just fine today." I reply smiling broadly at him. He responded with the satisfied smile of a child and it just looked wrong on his weathered face. He would have been a good Scrooge before the change. Johnny (or Mr. Smith before he turned) was much more pleasant now that he was a half. Sometimes their personalities changed and sometimes they stayed the same. Johnny had become happier. I guess he didn't remember that his wife had left him, charged him an outrageous alimony every month and had not only ruined his credit but had managed to stick him with sending her to medical school after the divorce. She even managed to get an insane amount of child support and get him to keep their kids. Luckily they had been with her when the outbreak happened. Halves are hard on the family and if they are single parents the kids end up with a foster parent.
"You want your usual today? Or do you want to try doing something else? We found a great stash of peanut butter, so you could do crunchy or super crunchy this time instead of creamy." The new sunny disposition is so weird that it almost makes me not trust him. I keep waiting for him to yell at me for something like he would have before. The man was a genius when it came to medicine combinations that worked or failed, but he was never friendly or thoughtful.
"That just sounds divine. Thanks for thinking of me. That is very kind of you."
"You treat me like a person. Most people don't." Pain flashed across his eyes before he disappeared behind the curtain to gather my rations. His partner just stood there watching me and not saying anything. I make people uncomfortable. So far every birth that this community has seen has been stillborn or so badly deformed that the baby doesn't survive. My tests look good, but no one knows anything for sure. No one knows just what to say to me. People look at me like I'm a dead woman walking. The percentage of mothers dying in childbirth is almost eighty percent and I'm not far from my due date.
Just as his partner is about to say something Johnny comes back out from behind the curtain with a large box filled with all of my supplies. Just like always it's packed neatly but it fills up the entire thing and he refuses to let me carry it. As usual he places the box into a cart that he has stashed at his station just for me. Michael always brings it back to him on his way to work the next day. It's a routine that seems to please everyone since it feels normal. Right as Johnny is loading the goods into the cart Morgan and Luke bring their boxes and add them in.
From there it was off next door to the doctor. They always run a vast number of tests and eventually let me go. This time it was just over an hour before I was allowed to slip back into my yoga pants and tank top. With the lack of maternity shopping I just have to slip into my old exercise clothes or raid apartments that have been vacated by the virus. Walking home after being prodded by the doctor always hurts and I have to rely on the teens to be more vigilant to make up for my slack. Of course this is when it starts pouring rain and visibility goes to just about as far as you can reach. Today was just not meant to go well for us. You can hear, see, smell and sometimes it seems like you can taste when the dead are near when the weather permits.
My cell beeps and it causes the three of us to jump. Cell phones worked about as often as anything else around here, unless you had our connections. The teens had somehow obtained phones that they were able to make work on a regular basis, but we just couldn't flaunt them. We always remembered that things could be confiscated with no compensation. You can't order things on the internet anymore.
"Michael? What's wrong?"
"Bekah, thank God. I was starting to worry. Are you all on your way here?" He was worried about visibility and he was calling me? It seemed like just the type of frantic, illogical thinking that tipped me off that something was happening at our base camp. It might be an apartment building, but we called it base camp. I guess it made the guys feel macho.
"Yes, give us about thirty minutes and we'll be there."
"Where are you right now? We have the car and we're coming to get you three." We usually meant he had Luke's brother Jackson. No one went anywhere alone and those two had spent the outbreak getting close.
"We are outside the old candy store. I can sit on the bench and we can wait if you'd like. This is less than three minutes from the parking lot." I could barely see Morgan and Luke ahead of me. They looked to be having an intimate conversation, a sweet moment, before all of a sudden he pushes her to the ground and stares into the alley in front of him. Something had alerted him. It was hard to see anything in the rain, but I could see her pink tank top move as she fell.
"Yes, wait for us." And that was when I saw it, moments before its jaws locked onto Luke's shoulder and he let out a hoarse scream. The thing was ugly and deformed. I gasped and Michael heard it. I don't know what he said, he was just yelling into the phone.
"Michael, hurry to us. One got in." I said hanging up and slipping the phone into one of the bags in the cart. Morgan was frozen in panic and Luke was unable to shake the thing biting into his skin. It was up to me. The time to freeze was over.
I pulled the knife out of my boot and had just enough time to think that this was an inconvenient place to keep it as I heard the distant racing sounds of a car. I pulled the knife up and shoved the blade into the skull of the walking corpse. It gave one giant shudder as it released the hold on Luke and fell to the ground.
"Luke, hang in there. Help is coming." I reassured him as I took the shirt Morgan handed me and used it to cover the bite as I started applying pressure to stop the bleeding. Not only had the thing bit him, it had started to gnaw on him. Luke was moaning in pain which kept Morgan at his side. She held his hand and ran her other through his hair. Right then we could have been attacked and lost all three of us but since no others had come at the smell of blood we were probably safe. We learned in the early days that blood alerted them. Women weren't allowed to go on raids and everyone was checked for wounds before they went out and when they came back in.
I was applying pressure to the wound right as Michael and Jackson jumped out the car and helped us in. I didn't see any others, but that didn't mean that the fight was over for tonight. I applied pressure to the wound as Morgan cried in a ball and the two men got the car back to our fortified apartment building as quickly as humanly possible.
We were supposed to report the incident. By standard procedure we should even turn Luke over to the military unit controlling our city but it never crossed our minds. That might not have been the only one in the walls, but we were only concerned with protecting our own. It had begun. We made the choice to protect the group over the city. We would be labeled as traitors and killed if they found out.