In the months since the outbreak, Charlie Mills had seen just about every horrific thing you could possibly imagine. He watched as his wife was torn from his hands. He saw friends kill their own family members. He saw others kill themselves because they couldn’t take it anymore. He became numb to it all.
Charlie found refuge with six dozen others outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. The first months since the panic were not pleasant for Charlie’s group. Each week their numbers would shrink while the monster’s grew.
It was mid-February, and there were now only seven left. Food was scarce. Heat was non-existent. The only consolation prize was that as they sat there freezing, Zack was too.
Before the winter, there was talk of a safe zone near Syracuse. They had even found a small plane and a pilot that was willing to make the trip. There was hope. On the morning of the first planned flight, word came down that Syracuse was overrun. They stayed in Scranton. They died.
Charlie decided that if the remaining seven were to survive, they would have to seek out supplies and a better shelter. He remembered the Syracuse zone. He figured it would be safe to travel north due to the frigid temperatures. The plan was simple. Get to the airport, get supplies, and then get out before spring.
They managed to get a couple of snowmobiles for the first part of their trip, but by Marathon the machines had run out of gas. They would have to walk the rest of the way. There was a foot and a half of snow covering the highway, and with each passing hour more fell.
It took days to complete the voyage. The northwest winds howled the entire time. The sun did not shine at all. For as far as the eye could see a coat of white covered the earth. The snow blanketed the road and the cars that still lined the highway. The ghouls in the cars had frozen solid. There were no signs of life anywhere nearby.
As the group finally passed through downtown Syracuse, things began to change. There in the fresh snow, there were fresh tracks. These were not the tracks of the shambling creatures or wild animals; these were tire tracks and fresh boot prints, four pairs. Zack’s remains were scattered along the side of the highway. The group was excited by the sight; the hope that somewhere nearby there was help.
They decided to follow the tire tracks hoping that they would lead to food or shelter. The snow continued to fall. They found themselves right in the middle of a lake effect snow band. The tracks would be covered soon. They had to push forward.
As they passed Carousel Center, the tracks were lost. Darkness was approaching, so they found a truck along the highway and climbed in the back huddling together for warmth.
Early the next morning, the decision was made to continue to the airport and look for supplies. Once they had rested, they would look for other survivors in the city. The closer they got to Hancock’s exit, the emptier the highway became. Most of the vehicles had been moved to the shoulder. Many of the windows had been broken and the ones that were still intact had been splattered with blood and brains.
“Looks like these guys had it all together before they got slaughtered,” Charlie thought to himself.
As the group headed east down Eileen Collins Boulevard, they stopped dead in their tracks a couple hundred yards from the entrance to the airport. They couldn’t believe their luck. The vehicle from the previous day was leaving the gate and headed their way. The group began to wave to the approaching vehicle. It was an old Ford F150. The windows had metal grates over them, and the plow on the front was spray-painted with a bright orange Z. The truck slowed down, some of the passengers held weapons and looked ready to strike.
“Where the hell did you come from?” yelled the driver towards the group.
“Please…can you help us? We’ve been w-w-walking for d-d-days. We’re so…hungry. Please help,” was all that Charlie could get out through his chattering teeth.
After conferring with his passengers, the driver of the truck closed his window, locked the doors of the truck, and then motioned for the group to climb in the truck bed. The driver then turned the truck around and headed back towards the airport. Upon entering the gate, the driver was instructed to head towards the terminal with the visitors.
The seven were in shock. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. No one was supposed to be there. Everyone had been slaughtered. They figured that these survivors had come after the slaughter and started a new group. They were ushered to the medical wing set up in the former airport’s terminal. There, they were checked first for any puncture wounds, and then they were treated for the frostbite and dehydration.
By the time evening came, and they settled down to dinner with the other hundreds of survivors, Charlie began to realize what had happened. As he finished his gourmet meal of rice and rat, he put all of the pieces together. The tire tracks they had been following were from one of the airport group’s trucks. The group that moved all of the vehicles on the highway and killed all of the ghouls was the same group that they were eating with. There had been no slaughter. Charlie then turned white as a ghost as he realized that the Scranton group had been tricked all those months ago. He began to think of all the dozens of lost survivors since that day. For the first time in months, Charlie didn’t feel numb, he grew angry.
Someone had to pay for this.
Before he died, Charlie’s brother-in-law Ethan had been in radio contact with someone in the zone named Tom. Tom had to pay.
As he finished his meal, Charlie began to plot his revenge on those responsible for his friend’s deaths. First, he had to find Tom and then determine if anyone else was involved in the deception. Charlie decided to keep the rest of his group in the dark about the situation. For the first time in a long time, they were safe. They were happy.
That night, while warming himself around a fire barrel, Charlie struck up a conversation with one of the Syracuse zone members, Erin McGraw. She was a member of the Corpse Corps squad that found the “Scranton Seven” as they were being called in the Zone.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what’s it like out there? How did the seven of you survive?” Erin asked while throwing another old phonebook into the barrel.
“There were others. We had shelter. And when we were threatened, we had a plan to get to safety…but it fell apart.” Charlie decided to leave the details of the deception to see if she knew about their planned arrival. “As the summer went on, we ran out of food, the monsters got to be too much for some. It got bad.”
“Well, now you’re safe with us here. I don’t know what Brook’s got planned for you seven, but if you can make the trek up 81, you might be a good fit for the Corps.”
While they were talking, a tall muscular man stopped by the fire for a few seconds and then continued on his patrol.
“Was…was that the QB from SU? Nelson? Or something like that?” Charlie asked.
“Nielsen. Yeah, he’s one of us. We’ve got all sorts here. Rumor is there’s even a hitman.”
“Funny. I was wondering, have you heard anything from outside the area recently? Any news if the government is ever coming back to help us? Any word from anywhere?”
“The only communication we’ve got is with some short range walkie-talkies that we’ve scavenged. Phone’s are down. No long range communication as far as I know.”
“The reason I ask is that before he died, my brother-in-law was in contact with one of you guys. Somebody named Tom. That’s why we made the trip here. We knew it would be safe here.”
“The only Tom I know of is Slater, but I’ve never heard of him communicating outside of the zone. He’s busy with the Corps”
“Tom’s friendship with Ethan was one of the things that kept us going. We knew that there were others fighting the battles with us. I’d like to meet him sometime and thank him for all that he has done. Do you know where I might find him?” Charlie asked, the whole time running scenarios through his head of what he wanted to do once he finally met Tom.
“Slater’s probably over by the tower, but I don’t think he’s the guy that you’re looking for. Slater’s not really the friend type,” Erin then excused herself as the fire slowly burned out.
Charlie made his way around the vast airfield. He weighed his options as he crossed through the parking garage towards the tower. He was finally safe. Should he forget about what happened to his friends? There was nothing that he could do to bring them back from the dead. Would any action on his part have dire consequences for the other six survivors? As he walked the last hundred yards towards the tower, the images of his fallen family and friends kept running through his head. His anger grew. Tom could not get away with what he had done.
“Hey! Are you Tom?” Charlie yelled as he approached Slater. “We need to talk.”
“The name’s Slater. Or Captain. Since you’re new here, I’ll let this one slide. You’re from Scranton, right? What’s on your mind?”
Charlie continued to yell at the much larger man, “Ethan trusted you. He thought of you as a friend. Why did you do it? Why did you deceive him? Us? People died because of you, good people, my friends, my family, and your friend Ethan.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, but I honestly have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t know any Ethan, so I suggest you get your facts straight before you start making accusations.”
“Don’t deny it! Dozens died because of your lie. I want answers. Why did you do it?”
“Son, the only things I’ve killed were already dead. You’ve had a long journey here, I suggest you join the others and get some sleep. We can set up an appointment for you to meet with the local shrink in the morning. Once again, I’m sorry for your loss, but what happened in Scranton had nothing to do with me.”
Slater turned and went back into the tower, watching Charlie as he began to make his way towards the Best Western. After only a few feet, Charlie screamed out for the whole zone to hear, “I’m not done with you Tom! I’ll have my revenge!”
Late that night, Charlie was woken abruptly by a group of three men. One of the men whispered in Charlie’s ear, “Don’t make a sound. Get on your boots and coat and come with us.”
Once outside, Charlie once again saw Tom Slater standing over him.
“It is my duty to the residents of this Blue Zone to keep them safe from all attacks. We welcomed you and your people, and you then accuse me of murder and threaten me. Others heard you, and asked me to do something. I do not want to do this, but I must to protect the people.”
The men placed Charlie into the back of a rumbler, and drove him outside of the zone. They drove out into the black night that Charlie had worked so hard to escape.
“I don’t know what you did, man, but you sure pissed off the Cap’n,” one of the men said to Charlie as the group drove out made their way towards the western suburbs.
As they rode, Charlie told them all about Ethan and Tom and the deception. One of the other men quickly turned around from the front seat.
“I think that you’ve got the wrong Tom. I think I know the guy your buddy was talking with. I’m pretty sure you mean Crazy Tom, not Tom Slater,” he said in disbelief. “That guy’s gone bonkers though. He shot a gun off in the tower. Claimed he was saving us all. I heard he’s been locked up somewhere since then…Did you really threaten Slater? Did you see the size of that guy?”
It was almost dawn as the vehicle came to a stop at the base of Westcott Reservoir. The man from the front turned back around and asked, “Do you want to lose the use of your right or left hand?” In the early morning sunlight Charlie could now see the hook the man had in place of one of his hands.
“What is wrong with you people?” Charlie screamed as they pulled him out of the rumbler. The men carried him to the top of the hill and handcuffed Charlie’s left hand to a chain-link fence. They gave Charlie a half-eaten sleeve of stale crackers and a hacksaw.
“You people are insane! You can’t just leave me out here! You want me to cut off my hand like Captain Hook here?”
The man with the hook knelt down next the Charlie in the snow and whispered, “You can if you want, but if I were you, I’d use it on the cuffs. The choices that you’ve made since arriving have put you in this situation. I think it’s about time you made better choices. How you choose to free yourself is entirely up to you. Slater wanted me to tell you that if you make it back to the Zone he’s willing to give you a second chance.”
The men then left Charlie chained to the fence and headed back home. As the rumbler vanished into the early morning fog, Charlie could hear a faint moan in the distance and began to saw.