Charlie Danton lay in the shadow of an overgrown overpass watching a wide and shallow stream. The road in between was cracked and looked sticky in the July sun. The burned out hulk of a tractor trailer lay on its side further down the road, the skeletal remains of a great beast from some other age. A twisted guard rail sat along the stream’s bank rusting into the earth. Across the stream a lone doe wandered out of the tree line and lowered her head to drink.
Amidst the hanging weeds and vines Danton raised his rifle. He thumbed off the safety and put his eye to the scope. The doe’s eyes drifted along the opposite shore while she drank. Danton stroked her fur with the crosshairs and watched. Birds twittered overhead.
The brush at the doe’s side rustled slightly. She straightened her neck and pricked up her ears. It rustled again, farther down the bank. She turned slightly to watch out of the corner of her eye. It rustled again and she turned to face it.
On the other side of the stream Danton saw her turn and caught sight of her full silhouette. He pulled the trigger. The doe reeled and fell in heap upon the smooth stones at the water’s edge. A small rabbit shot from the undergrowth and darted down the bank before diving into a corrugated drainage pipe. The birds abandoned their roosts and took to the sky.
Danton slung his rifle, ran across the road and vaulted the metal barrier. He slid down the steep bank and splashed into the calf deep water of the stream. He crossed at its narrowest point, near the bend, careful that the current did not sweep his legs from under him.
Danton paused to ensure the animal was dead before hoisting it onto his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. He forded the stream again, although with considerably less speed, and climbed back to the road up a narrow cleft in the bank. The man dumped his kill over the guardrail and ran off down the road towards the dead truck. Danton ran around it and jumped into the light blue Bronco parked there.
He turned the key left in the ignition, pushed it into first gear and drove back to where the doe lay. He opened the door and hopped out before the four by had stopped rolling. Lifting the doe again Danton dumped its dead weight on the Bronco’s roof and secured it with bungees strung through loops on the roof rack.
The doe’s eyes were still open. They were clear and soft and dead but made you want to wait and watch for them to blink. Danton patted her behind the ear and closed her eyes. He pulled back the bolt on his rifle and ejected the spent shell which rolled towards the stream and clanked against the corroding guardrail.
Giving one last look to the silently flowing stream he tossed the rifle into the passenger seat of the still idling Bronco and slammed the door behind him. Pulling away from the weathered overpass he began to twist the radio’s tuning knob. Nothing but static. Danton sighed, not knowing what he had expected, and pushed in the only tape he had. The Best of Hank Williams. It came with the truck.
It was evening when Danton arrived at the zone’s perimeter fence. The sliding chain link gate was chained and padlocked and topped with neat spirals of razor wire. Four of the zone’s residents stood behind it with weapons drawn and aimed at the Bronco’s windscreen. Danton pulled to a stop a few yards away and shut off the engine.
Stepping out of the vehicle Danton extended his hands, palms out. The bearded man on the left lowered his weapon and took a few steps towards the fence. The other three hesitantly lowered theirs as well.
The point man came within a few strides of the fence and called, “It’s been a while, Charlie.”
Danton lowered his hands and replied, “Hey there, Dave. What’s up with the cold reception? I even brought dinner.”
The bearded man spat, “You’re lucky I don’t shoot you, Charlie. You put us all in danger every time you leave the fence for these pointless trips.”
Danton leaned against his Bronco and looked off towards the sunset, “They’re not pointless to me, Dave.”
The other three guards had gone back to talking and neither man spoke for a few moments.
“So, are you gonna let me in?” asked Danton, brushing the dried mud off his jeans.
The bearded man slung his shotgun and walked away saying over his shoulder, “Wait here.”
He returned fifteen minutes later with another man shuffling after him towards the gate. The two men’s shadows stretched out before them pencil thin along the pavement. The bearded man hung back with the other three watchmen and let the man he had brought continue alone. The dusk light was faint and it was not until the limping man had almost reached the gate that Danton could make out his drooping features, graying temples and signature masonite clipboard.
Clipboard looked Danton over and said somberly, “You’ve been gone for quite a stretch now. We thought you were dead this time.”
Danton slid off the hood of the Bronco, “Long time no see, Clipboard, but I’m still kickin.”
Clipboard frowned, “You run into any trouble out there?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“Did you find him?”
Danton looked away, “No.”
Clipboard motioned to the bearded man, “You won’t mind if we don’t take your word for it.”
Danton stood naked in the examination room and was thankful it was summer. The room was small, with a low ceiling and lit by subtly flickering fluorescent lights. A cold metal table stood in the center with two matching chairs. He had been escorted to this isolated room, told to remove all of his clothes, and wait for someone to fetch the doctor. It wasn’t necessary. He knew the drill.
Danton heard the bolt being drawn back before the door swung open. A white haired man wearing a bow tie and a lab coat walked in. There was a clanking at the door as the guard outside bolted the door again.
The doctor smiled warmly, “Hello, Charlie.”
“Doctor Krezner, it’s good to finally see a friendly face around here.”
“It’s good to see you too, Charlie. I don’t have to tell you that none of us really expected to see you again. How have you been, by the way?”
“You know how it is. Running for my life and sleeping in the cold and the rain.”
“That last part I can see for myself. I can give you a cream for that. Remind me before you leave.”
Danton looked down, “Thanks. What have you been up to Doc? I didn’t miss anything big did I?”
Krezner opened a black nylon bag that he had carried in and pulled out a syringe and several empty vials which he set aside, “There was some excitement last week. We lost more than a few good people. A lot of us were wishing we had you around.”
“Stick to medicine. You’re better at it.”
“Alright then. Hold your arms out and place your feet shoulder width apart.”
Danton did as he was asked and Krezner inspected him for any telltales.
He didn’t find any, “You can get dressed now. I just need to take some blood before we’re done.”
Danton collected his clothes from the pile on the floor; they were stiff with dirt and grime. He dressed quickly and laced up his heavily worn boots while Krezner made some notes. He took a seat opposite from the doctor at the metal table and rolled up his sleeve.
Krezner was tying the rubber tubing around his arm when Danton asked, “Why do you still wear that bowtie? Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Armageddon, and Doc Bill Krezner still takes the time to tie his tie every morning.”
The doctor looked up from Danton’s arm and said, “It’s a clip on.”
Krezner flicked Danton’s arm a few times and inserted the needle into the vein in one smooth motion. Dark red blood snaked its way through the clear plastic tubing on its way to the vial. Danton couldn’t help but be reminded of a crazy straw.
He watched Krezner fill the first vial and then the second, “Real nice Doc. I barely even felt it.”
Krezner put the vials back in his bag, handed his patient a swatch of gauze, and dropped the used needle into a ziploc bag. These things couldn’t be thrown away anymore. They had to be sterilized.
He zipped up his bag, “Cut the crap, Charlie. Why are you doing this to yourself?”
Danton held the gauze against the vein and met Krezner’s gaze, “I have to.”
Krezner shook his head, “What would Danni say if she saw you like this? She loved you like family.”
Danton swallowed hard, “Danni Meehan is dead.”
“Well, what would Mike say if he were here?”
“Mike is gone.”
“Exactly! Mike is gone. It’s been almost six months since Mike was bitten. Why are you still looking for him.”
Danton looked at the cracked leather of his boots, “Because I have to. Because nobody really knows what Solanum does and Mike could still be in there somewhere. Because he might never be able to rest until I find him and take care of him. If there is the smallest chance that he’s still suffering in this world or the next I have to stop it.”
Krezner sat back in his chair, he tried to hide it, but nobody could miss the pity in his eyes, “How are you even going to find him?”
“He can’t have gone far from where we lost sight of him after he was infected. There’s no reason for it. He has to be in that general area.”
“There are a couple of hundred thousand ghouls out there, Charlie. How are you going to find him?”
“Before the Panic hit, me and him were working construction. Mike got a nail in his boot and couldn’t get it out. So he just bent it back and left it. I could see it clear as day in any track he might leave.”
Krezner pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned against the table, “You know what a long shot that is.”
Danton removed the gauze from his arm and saw that the blood had coagulated, “Yeah, I know. I don’t care.”
“Well people around here just might. There’s a growing number of them who want to kick you out.”
“Kick me out. I’m barely ever here.”
“That’s their point. Some people wonder why they should help you when you’re never around to help them.”
Danton clenched his jaw, “That’s bullshit and you know it. I haven’t taken a damn thing from these people. That Bronco out there is mine and so is the gas in the tank. That Winchester in the front seat, I found and haven’t taken a single round from the Zone armory for. When I leave I take with me only what I brought. Not only that but I bring whatever I can back from out there. You saw that deer I got tied to the roof.”
Krezner squeezed his arm, “I know. I know. You’ve done all that specifically so that this wouldn’t happen, but people here are on edge and you are providing a very tempting scapegoat.”
Danton sat back in his chair and thought for a moment, “Well, if I’m already gonna get kicked out could you do one thing for me?”
“I’ll help if I can.”
“I need you to get me a sidearm. A handgun.”
Krezner lowered his voice to a whisper, “I don’t know. Brooks and Clipboard have a pretty tight hold on everything and that’s a big ticket item.”
“Just say you’ll try. Nothing fancy. A pistol with a couple spare mags.”
“Okay,” said Krezner as he walked over to the door and knocked twice.
The bolt was drawn back and the door opened. The guard waiting in the hall left at Krezner’s signal.
Danton got up, walked out the door, and asked, “So am I free to go?”
“You’ve got a clean bill of health.”
Danton turned and began to walk off in search of food and an empty bunk when Krezner called after him, “Whatever you do, just be careful.”
The next day when Danton gathered his things and found where they had parked his Bronco, he found a man sitting on the hood. The stocky man in his middle years watched Danton as he approached and didn’t say a word. Danton walked past him and tried to open the driver’s side door. It was locked.
The man behind him on the hood jingled a ring of keys, “Where are you running, Charlie?”
Danton lowered his head, “Nowhere, Frank.”
The man tossed him the keys over his shoulder, “Nowhere is right.”
Danton turned to look at him, but the man still stared off in the direction he had come, “What the hell do you care anyways?”
“I care because we were friends once.”
“We were never friends. You were always trying to be my dad. Only problem was I already had one and he’s dead. Never needed a second.”
“Do you remember that day, winter before last? Damn was it cold out.”
Danton looked away, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
The sun was rising and the pair watched it in silence for a few minutes.
“I saw your gun,” said the man on the hood.
“Yeah. Hell of a find; an old one like that. Winchester Model 70: the rifleman’s rifle.”
Danton glanced at it through the window, “Why didn’t you come with me?”
“It never really sat right with me. This is something you got to do.”
“And Frank Chesterfield has his own problems to deal with.”
The man on the hood slid down to the ground and said, “Something like that.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets and started to walk away.
Danton looked down at his keys, “Hey, Frank…”
The man kept walking, but answered him as he went, “You, more than anyone I have ever met, know the true meaning of loyalty. Do what you have to do and don’t look back.”
Danton unlocked the Bronco and threw his pack into the back seat. He turned the key and revved up the engine. He was reaching for the stick when he noticed a Baretta and two spare clips on the passenger side floor mat along with a tube of Benadryl. He smiled, pushed play on the tape deck and drove off towards the gate.
A light rain pattered against the Bronco’s windows and trickled down them in tiny streams that came together and branched off into miniature deltas. The moonlight shone through these so they glittered and seemed to glow in the gloom. Danton lay reclined in the back seat covered in a coarse wool blanket his hand resting on his pistol. He was trying to sleep, but finding it difficult with the moaning outside.
The Bronco had run out of gas. Danton had searched all the nearby vehicles, but they had already been siphoned dry. He went back to the truck grabbed his pack, slung his rifle over his shoulder and clipped a large machete to his belt. He checked the car over once more for anything useful, locked it, and started walking in the direction the group of infected had taken the night before.
Danton had been tracking a small group for a few days when he found a track in some thick mud on the side of the road with a hook shaped depression on the ball of the foot. It had not stopped raining, although at the moment the clouds could only muster a light mist. The print was fresh and had not yet washed away.
Further down the road he came across a small farmhouse with an aluminum roof. Most of the windows were shattered and the door was hanging by its top hinge. There were fresh tracks all around it and loud bangs and yelps coming from inside. Danton drew his pistol and climbed the steps as quietly as he could.
Danton ducked under the crooked door and walked down the main hall. There were still pictures on the wall, but they were too warped to make out in the dim gray light filtering in through the small windows. The owners had apparently decided against carpeting of any kind and the floorboards creaked under his weight. The sound of the rain hitting the thin metal roof was fairly loud and Danton hoped that it concealed his presence.
He had progressed to the end of the hall and the moaning and scratching were at their loudest. In what was once a family room three ghouls knelt in the corner. Their heads were together and bent low to the floor and from them the grinding of teeth and a horrible wet sucking sound filled the room. They were too absorbed in their meal to notice Danton enter the room and click the safety off his Baretta.
Danton drew a bead on the one farthest to the left and squeezed the trigger. The creature fell dead in a mockery of prayer. The other two lurched to their feet and turned to face him. He squeezed the trigger again. The second fell in a bloody heap tripping the third who fell at Danton’s feet. It groped at his boots and his legs, straining to bring its nearly toothless mouth to bear.
Danton drew the machete from his belt and hacked off its head. He kicked the ruined skull aside and planted his foot where it used to be to wrench the blade from the wooden floor. He nudged the other two bodies with the toe of his boot. They were strangers.
The trio had been gnawing on the carcass of a dog. Danton couldn’t tell what breed. They must have followed it in lieu of human flesh and cornered it in this house. The yelps he heard from the road must have belonged to it. He wished he had taken the steps two at a time. The flies would be at it soon and finish the work the monsters had begun.
Danton left the family room and returned to the hall. He walked back to the front of the house and climbed the steps to the second floor. He took some blankets from one of the bedrooms and brought them to the top of the stairs. He pulled a long cord hanging from the ceiling.
A set of rickety stairs descended and came to rest in a pair of smooth ruts worn into the floor. Danton took out his knife, cut the cord and gathered up his blankets. He pulled the stairs up behind him and settled down for the night. He would only sleep for a few hours. It would take the smell longer than that to seep upstairs.
The rain was plummeting from the black clouds above in fat drops that pelted Danton as he slogged through ankle deep mud. A bolt of lightning struck a large oak in the distance and split it in half. The thunder boomed and shook him inside his chest. The wind lashed the trees and their boughs screeched under the strain. The rain was an ever present roar, almost as loud as the thunder.
Through all this Danton could make out a low chorus of inhuman voices.
He shouldered his rifle and continued down the path. The voices grew louder by the minute and soon overpowered even the rain. At last he came to the edge of the tree line and saw in the distance an old school house and in front of it dozens of the infected had congregated to lament in the heart of the storm.
Danton slid onto his chest in the muck and put his eye to the scope. He searched the faces of those assembled there in the brief flashes of the lightning. He saw their twisted features and their wild roaming eyes. He saw how they swayed in the wind and their mouths gaped wide as if to swallow the storm. He saw his brother.
He pulled back the bolt and loaded a round into the chamber.
He thumbed off the safety and whispered, “And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is thy brother?’ ”
He slid his finger into the guard and rested it gently on the trigger, “And Cain said to the Lord, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ “