Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scenes from a Zombie Abortion V: The CONFEDERATION Project

We do a little Tarantino-esque time-shifting in the following three chapters. The dark side of New Bethany Church comes to the fore and by the time this is done we’re praying the Confederation is real, because it’s our last best hope for a middle-road sanctuary between the chaos of skin-of-the-teeth survival among the flesh-eaters and the stern tyranny of the church. It’s a hell of a lead in to a Really Big Night that I never got to write.

Maybe some other time. While I get back to work on my main project of the hour, let's run the boilerplate and get on with the show:

In 2008 James Robert Smith and I collaborated on a project we hoped would turn out to be the Winesburg, Ohio of zombie epics, a mosaic tale describing the communities coming together (and squaring off against one another) in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. For various reasons the collaboration fell apart. Bob took his part of the narrative — which included his idea of a border collie manipulating the other abandoned dogs and zombies—and crafted The Living End. I scuffled around for a couple of more years until I came up with The Saga of the Dead Silencer.

For the benefit of those readers who were following the first part of my saga, Bleeding Kansas, and miss having something nasty-mean to read, here’s the fifth installment I wrote for the project. Of course, if you like this, feel free to pick up Bob’s completed work. Support your local architects of the apocalypse....



KEISHA

“You know today was my day to sleep in.”

That was the line Keisha Louise Colvin was saving for when Rick finally came in. It carried the one-two punch of being true (Keisha having a critical and dangerous role to play tonight) while being absurdly dismissive of the madness that had roused them this morning.

She forgot all about it upon first sight of Rick’s face as he opened the door. “Good Lord, you’re as white as a sheet!”

It was a moment before he seemed to hear her. It took another moment for his eyes to focus. “Well, compared to you, maybe,” he said.

“Honey....”

Rick returned her embrace. He straightened as his knees rediscovered their purpose. Other men might have collapsed into sobbing, but Rick took strength from her love. As she did from his.

“All right, baby,” she said, holding him by his arms so they were face to face. “I saw the funky redneck cavalry turning in. Something tells me you’re upset at something else other than Danzler taking everybody the wrong way down the loop.”

Rick looked over her shoulder. “We didn’t get a box?”

“A what?”

“They’re throwing care packages to all the campsites,” he said. “I guess they’re saving us for last.”

“Huh?”

Rick kissed her hard on the lips. He pulled back before she could properly reciprocate. “They’ll be here in a minute,” he said.

Keisha looked into his eyes. Rick was already putting whatever had spooked him aside for the business at hand. She heard the rattle of diesel engines, two of them, growing louder as they approached. One stopped right outside the cabin, then the other. Through the insulated cinderblock wall they heard a loud, jovial voice addressing what sounded like a small mob.

Rick was smoothing down his green Park Service shirt and adjusting the tuck. They listened for what was going on outside but couldn’t make out the words. The vent windows across the top had been closed throughout the cool of night and Keisha hadn’t gotten around to reopening them.

Rick looked up at her. “You know I won’t think any less of you if you go back to the bedroom and lie down. In fact, I’ll envy you.”

“It was bad enough I left you alone with the other monsters this morning.”

“Honey, it was your morning to sleep in! Hell, I’m sorry you have to be up now.”

They heard the gunshot.

“That shriek sounded familiar,” said Rick.

“Huh! I wouldn’t be surprised.”

They heard someone shouting angrily. Then the voice leveled, took on a commanding tone. Dismissing its audience.

“Well, I’m up,” said Keisha. “Let’s not give ‘em a chance to bang on the door this time.”

“Agreed,” said Rick. He took a deep breath and faced the door. He turned his head as if to ask, Ready?

Keisha nodded.

Rick pulled open the door.

“Well hel-lo, Ranger Stranger!” said the monster in the bright morning sun. “We come bearing gifts!”



DARE

The last of the zombies had been put down, and though more were rising later — Dare saw the telltale agony in the faces of those who had suffered the fatal bites — there was nothing left to do but minor medical and cleanup. The security detail in the rear truck might be disappointed. He’d have to watch them.

The survivors in the first camps cheered loudly when they saw the convoy. Dare motioned the boys to their feet. “Remember what I told you,” he said. “Smile big and happy as you throw ‘em the boxes. They’re dyin’ as much for fresh, healthy faces smilin’ at ‘em as they are for this food.”

Jared had stopped long enough for Travis and Justin to each get their hands around a box. Before the mob crowded the front of the truck Jared let his foot off the brake. As the truck rolled forward Travis threw a box to a campsite on one side while Justin threw a box to the other. Dare handed boxes to the boys but they soon had their own rhythm going. The smiles Dare had demanded of the boys broadened, became warm and genuine, reflecting the gratitude from this hungry, battle-weary crowd. The rush of true Christian giving. He might salvage these two after all.

As for what he might salvage here...well.

He saw two girls and one little boy standing next to a bloodied and exhausted man with a fire-poker. He’d almost missed them among all the rifle-waving yahoos who might or might not prove useful to Deacon Sparks’ Security Ministry. Assuming they could be properly disciplined. He’d leave it to Sparks to figure these out. Too many of these were nothing more than a lot of loud talk and utterly worthless when it came to honest combat.

As for the rest, they only confirmed what Dare had guessed from the last time he was up here: the best, the smartest, the healthiest had fled beyond the ridge to that pagan heathen enclave and its satellite communities. A lot of what was left here was feral white trash, mean and stupid to begin with, now only meaner and none-too-bright in the extremity of the world’s collapse.

There seemed to be just two physical types: the waddling fatties in their muumuus and XXXL NASCAR shirts and the scrawny ones in their jeans and duckbill caps. As far as natural selection went in this not-so-brave new world, the fatties had long since fallen to the teeth of the walking dead, leaving the scrawny ones to scramble up the hills to safety.

Dare chuckled as he realized that some of the plump peasant types had found their way to work in New Bethany’s kitchens...indeed, the love of Jesus and His children would see that their kind did live on. But there would be no allowing anyone to claim depression or injury to such a degree that they were permitted to lie about in bed doing nothing but becoming more enormous by the day! No, plump boys and girls would grow into stout men and women working the fields as God had no doubt designed them to do, and that was that. The days of liberal permissiveness allowing such abominations as the “morbidly obese” to roll around in battery powered carts were over forever.

Dare saw one intact family at their campsite who had already stacked the bodies of the dogs and zombies in piles by the side. They stood alongside the road with such stone-eyed dignity Justin hesitated in throwing a box to them, instead looking to Dare for what to do. Dare jerked his head towards the family and Justin tossed the box. Instead of rushing forward to tear open the box they stared after the truck as it rolled by. Justin was so spooked he fell even more behind in his rhythm and he and Travis nearly missed their next throws. Dare’s expression became solemn. He nodded at the family in acknowledgment, spared them the Disney World Main Street parade wave.

These people would certainly rate a house of their own at the frontiers of the burgeoning New Bethany township. That they weren’t there already...well, no mystery, really. These were those rare, strong, independent types who feared falling under a yoke. They didn’t know the opportunity New Bethany bestowed upon such as them.

As it was written in Matthew 11:29-30 (man, that old tax collector was getting a workout today!), Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Yes, they only needed to be told. The father would be suspicious, naturally. But they did not call him Deacon Dare merely for his exploits against the legions of ravenous Unclean. Deacon Darius Redding could talk to anybody, anywhere. And he would definitely be talking to that man. God could use a straight-up family such as his on the New Bethany frontier, tending cattle, raising crops, raising children for God’s army.

The rest were the usual dross, and Dare’s smile faltered to see them after the great treasure he had found near the bottom of the loop. He caught himself when he saw the crowd falling behind the truck. Oh, they could sense these things. He thumped his chest with his fist as if it were all just a flare-up of heartburn and resumed smiling and waving.

Dare saw a single man in a campsite regarding him warily as he dragged bodies on to a pile. A former family man who had lost his family? Or some paranoid closet homosexual? He’d stop by to see what’s what on his way to meeting the family.

But now they were closing in the space to Ranger Rick McCracken’s place. Good ol’ Ranger Rick. That poor so-and-so was probably as anxious to be shed of these people as Mark Danzler and the other campers were to be shed of him. When Danzler and his crew had approached the New Bethany council of elders it was Dare who had asked: If you’re so put out with the rules Ranger McCracken set out to enable order and sanitation in your community, what makes you think you’ll fit in here?

Those bluff good-old-boys spluttered and shuffled as the council stared them down from the ornate semi-circular breakfront on the tall dais which accommodated it. All those halfwits knew was that New Bethany set a heckuva table in the common room and they wanted to be where food and solid brick-and-mortar shelter were all but (though not quite altogether) taken for granted.

Dare had pointedly asked the council in front of these people if they wanted to risk the manpower and resources for such as they. And Danzler, danged if he didn’t fall to his knees and start blubbering how they needed God, that they were sorry, that they hadn’t realized how far they had fallen since The Thing. His compatriots quickly followed suit, all waterworks and Please, please, please!

You’d think the council was holding guns to their heads, and in a sense, maybe they were. For they had sat at the communal lunch served whenever newcomers appeared at New Bethany. They had felt the warmth and welcome as the congregation approached each and every one of them and shook their hands and welcomed them to the bosom of Christ.

Moreover, they had felt the warmth of real food in their bellies, the firm embrace of four walls, a ceiling and a clean, solid floor. Camping was fun when you did it, oh, maybe once a month in the summer. Not so much when you had to do it halfway up a mountain in the cold and wet of winter. That they hadn’t thought to come down this last winter spoke much to the pigheaded Godlessness of these people. So long as Franklin still had stores of canned food in the houses they were just fine without Jesus.

Dare checked himself. He had to watch becoming judgmental; it was an easy trap to fall into in this line of work. True, most of these people needed stern treatment but just like these two former skate punks here in the back of the truck tossing boxes, maybe something could be made of them.

Some of them, anyway.

Danzler’s and Corey’s trucks turned into their respective sites, leaving the New Bethany trucks to roll on alone to the ranger’s cabin. There were still food and general supplies along with the spare Blessing Boxes in Dare’s truck. The second truck was wall-to-wall with five gallon plastic jerry cans of gasoline. A small crowd had followed them well past their own campsites. They clustered around the rear of the trucks as they stopped beside the cabin.

Jared climbed out of the cab and closed/locked the door behind him, as did Caleb in the truck to the side. Both came back to their respective flatbeds carrying rifles as Frank and Neil jumped down with theirs. The crowd backed away — Frank and Neil’s rifles had been out of sight until now. They stood at arms before the center of either truck’s tailgate as Jared and Caleb hoisted themselves into their flatbeds and took seats, their rifles across their knees.

The maneuver showed a practiced fluidity. Even these yahoos couldn’t help but see: We’re not just armed. We’re trained. Don’t even think about it.

Deacon Dare stood at the rear of his truck. He spread his arms: “Brothers and sisters, I expect you’re wond’rin’ what’s goin’ on here. Well, this is it: Brothers Danzler and Corey met with the New Bethany Council. So if you’ve been lookin’ for rescue from your privation here in these campgrounds, then here we are.”

The crowd cheered. Dare let it go on for a few seconds then raised his hand: “But! We’re not leaving right away. Moving this many people at once is a major operation.” He paused. “For that matter, we don’t know if we’re moving that many people.”

The crowd grumbled, shuffled nervously.

“You see, it’s come to our attention some of you people have trouble following basic rules of hygiene. You don’t like someone tellin’ you you can’t leave trash in your campsite. You got problems with someone tellin’ you you can’t use the bathroom in the drinking water.”

“Mebbe I juss got problems with people tellin’ me what to do!” someone shouted from the crowd.

“Who said that?” said Dare.

The crowd was frozen silent.

“Brave enough to speak out, but not brave enough to show your face doing it. Maybe none of you should go with us.”

The silence continued.

“You see, we have clean running water in New Bethany. The toilets — also clean — flush. We don’t have trash running out of the houses and into the yards. We have a place for everything and everything in its place.

“So maybe your place is out here with the animals. Keep this in mind, though. People like Frank and Neil, Jared and Caleb got standing orders about wild animals around New Bethany. So if you’re thinkin’ about —”

“It was him, preacher.”

“Whut! Fuck you, man! You don’t know whut you’re talkin’ about!”

Dare nodded. “Yes, I recognize those dulcet tones. All right, I don’t need to know his name. Just show him to me.”

The crowd backed away from a generically wiry, though dirtier than most little man. His soot-black beard seemed to hang in rags about his face.

“That’s Derek Munder!” a woman’s voice said. “He’s the one doin’ most of the —”

Dare glowered in the woman’s direction. “I said I did not need to know his name! He’s trash and unwelcome in New Bethany! End of story!” Indeed, Dare had recognized him from the last leg of their journey up to the ranger’s cabin. One of those people you could tell just looking at him.

“Whut about all that lost sheep stuff an’ ever’thing ‘bout comin’ to Jesus!” the ugly little man said.

“You’re not looking for Jesus,” said Dare. “For that matter, not many of you are. You’re just looking for another place to make a mess while eatin’ decent, hard-workin’ people out of a house at home.”

“Man, yew ain’ right! Y’all ain’ nothin’ but a buncha got-damned hippo —”

For the third time that day a bullet hummed by Munder’s ear. The crowd jumped as one, widening the area in which the dirty little man now kneeled whimpering in the dirt.

“Keep quiet, you abomination! These soldiers in Christ won’t hesitate to put you down like the diseased little creature you are!”

Dare looked up at the crowd. “Now listen carefully! All of you! I want you to go back to your campsites. Open your Blessing Boxes if you haven’t already. Ask yourself how you’re gonna make it all last. This might be the last time some of you see clean blankets and safe food.

“Brothers Frank and Neil here will be walkin’ around lookin’ at where you live. More importantly, they wanna see how you live. You keep a clean house, we might have a place for you. Otherwise, well, we’ll leave you to wallow in it. We work hard for the good life we have in New Bethany. We got pigs there, but they got sties to live in. And they usually end up as smoked bacon. Some a you people, near as I can tell, you ain’t even fit for that.

“Also, I’m noticin’ some a you got bit in that attack. We need to have a look at those people. Don’t worry, all of you who were hurt, we’ll extend the Lord’s charity to you. But whether or not you actually get to come home to safety and plenty — heck, why not just call it salvation — well, we’ll just see.”

A few looked on Dare in varying shades of terror and resentment. Most hung their heads as if examining their feet, or looked up and away into the treetops. Lookin’ for the Salvation Monkey, Dare thought. O Lord, my Lord, in how many camps You reckon we’ve seen that pose? All I need do is say Your Name, speak Your Word and their eyes go to the far away, lookin’ for anything but the You who stands before them, arms outstretched....

“I gotta talk to the person who used to be in charge before you all decided you were too good for simple direction,” Dare said. “Now you all get back to your sites and wait for me. I’ll come around and talk to you all personally. We’re leavin’ in the mornin’. You got that much time to decide whether or not you wanna get right with God.

“Whatever happens, don’t say no one gave you a choice.”

Frank and Neil looked to Dare as he got down from the flatbed. Dare muttered something to them as they pulled backpacks from the flatbed of their truck. Shrugging into the straps, their rifles before them, they began walking down the loop towards the campsites. The crowd was already breaking up. Some ran ahead as fast as their feet would carry them. Derek Munder disappeared.

Dare waved Justin and Travis from the flatbed as he walked over to the truck’s cab. Jared held up the remote and unlocked the cab from where he sat with the rifle. As the boys gathered behind Dare he opened the door. Hoisting himself to the running board he leaned over into the back seat and pulled out a black, zippered pouch with a clasp.

He handed it to Travis. “This here’s the true joy of my life. The true joy of anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, but this one is especially mine. I expect you to take good care of it. You understand me?”

“Yes sir,” Travis said.

“Now, Justin, what are we gonna be studyin’ here in the shade on this bee-yoo-ti-full mountain mornin’?”

“Matthew Chapter 4.”

“All of it?”

“First four verses. Sir.”

“Can you tell me which part of the Gospel of Luke correlates with that?”

“Um, Luke...chapter...um....”

“Luke Chapter 6, sir!” said Travis.

“A small step for a man,” said Deacon Dare. “Just remember, this isn’t a contest. You’re to help each other. You need drillin’, don’t hesitate to ask one of the brothers here. Jared, I’ll take the ranger’s box now.”

Jared set aside his rifle. He leaned over and pulled up a box. He handed it to Dare.

“I want it word for word, boys. Word for word.”

“Yes sir!”

“All right, then.” Dare walked over to the ranger’s cabin. The door flew open before he could knock. It was all Dare could do not to laugh.



RICK, DARE, KEISHA

The box was smaller than the ones Rick had seen thrown to the campers. Dare insisted he open it.
 
“Well,” said Rick.

“I think we got ‘em pretty close to your size,” said Dare.

Rick inspected the labels. “Looks like you nailed it right on the head. I’m impressed.”

“Well, I remember you tellin’ me the last time how badly you’d like somethin’ to wear other than a ranger’s uniform.”

Rick had forgotten the smell of new clothes. Blue jeans, a flannel shirt, the plastic ties and pins and paper still in them. New underwear, socks and a pack of T-shirts, all still in the plastic.

“I’d model them for you,” said Rick, “but I really need a shower first.”

“I can imagine,” said Dare.

“You ever see anything like this?” said Rick.

“Like what?”

“Dogs. Egging them on. It’s weird enough they’re all up here at this elevation.”

“They weren’t just stumblin’ downhill?”

“This mountain’s not that tall and you know it. If anything was coming down we’d have seen it long before now. Besides, you saw the clothes on some of them. Business suits. Most of those things looked like they’d come in from the city. Just like these clothes.”

Dare grinned. “Why, now, Ranger, how’d you think we ever managed that?”

“I have no idea. I just know the nearest place you could have gotten that store-brand juice in your other boxes was from just inside the Charlotte city limits.”

“New Bethany is expanding its reach, what can I say?”

“That’s just as incredible to me as zombies coming uphill to attack. I mean, hell, how did they even know we were up here!”

“Ranger McCracken,” Dare said, the grin gone from his face. “I trust you are by no means suggestin’ we had something to do with this.”

“I’d like to think I know you better than that. Still, you gotta admit it’s something of a coincidence. I mean, what would you think if you were in my shoes? Hearing the kind of stories I’ve heard about Deacon Sparks?”

Dare turned to Keisha where she sat on the sofa next to Rick. “I knew I recognized you from somewhere,” Dare said, the grin reasserting itself. “You used to work with the Children’s Ministry.”

“I don’t see how you could have missed me,” Keisha said evenly. “Or do people with my particular skin tone all look alike to you?”

“I’m not like that,” said Dare. “Not that I expect you to believe me. Anyway, what I wanna know is how you just up and got away in the middle of the night like you did. Didn’t say a word to anybody. One day you’re sittin’ and laughin’ with the other women at the common room table, next thing you’re gone. The children were heartbroken.” Dare’s face turned serious again. “How could you do a thing like that to them?”

“If I could have slipped ‘em all out with me I would have.”

“How can you say a thing like that? You people are all but fixin’ to starve up here!”

“Between starvation and slavery I’ll take my chances.”

“Honestly, Ms. Colvin, that’s what gets me. Every time I saw you you were smilin’ an’ happy. Nobody made you do anything you didn’t wanna do at New Bethany.”

“You’re forgetting how you recognized me.”

“Pfff! People are always tellin’ stories outta school ‘bout Brother Trenton! Now I know Mister Trenton V. Sparks personally, an’ I can tell you right now the most ferocious you’ll ever see of him is in battle with the Unclean!”

“I saw the way he smacked those boys around with my own two eyes, Mr. Dare.”

“You’re tellin’ me some of those boys don’t need a little discipline?”

“I was raised by good people,” said Keisha. “What I saw wasn’t discipline. That was cold-blooded sadism.”

“Now it might have looked that way to you but --”

“I’ve heard the way he talks to people, too. I know what he said to me. Wondering who I’d be paired off with. I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. Then he asked if I could have babies. That’s when I told him flat out it was none of his business and he just laughs. He says I better hope for my sake I can unless I wanted to follow my ancestors back into the fields. But he hopes I don’t --”

“Miss Colvin, assuming half of what you say is true —”

Keisha was on her feet. “So now you’re calling me a liar?”

“I’m not sayin’ anything. Now you’ll believe what you wanna believe but I can tell you right now ol’ Trenton was just jokin’ around. Maybe he wasn’t bein’ what folks call ‘politically correct’ but I can assure you he meant no harm.”

“That’s not what Sister Katherine thought when she saw this fist ready to go upside his head. Which I was about ready to do when she and Brianna Simmons came charging in and pulled me back. Mad as I was they might not have succeeded if I hadn’t seen how outright terrified they were.”

“Well, Trenton does have a temper, too, I can attest to that. It’s not somethin’ most people like to see.”

“Oh, he was in a fine temper when he walked off. The looks on those women’s faces made his day! You can damn me for a liar all you want but I know a sick sociopathic asshole when I see one!”

Dare sat quietly. He stared at the coffee table between his chair and the sofa but Rick knew Dare was watching him. Seeing how he’d control his woman.

“Sorry, Deacon,” said Rick, “but this isn’t the only story of its kind I’ve heard about your boy Sparks. Nor is Keisha the only one to tell it.”

Dare continued to look at the coffee table.

“What?” said Keisha. “You counting on that table to feed you another line? I don’t see anything passive-aggressive about that coffee table, Mr. Redding. I saw what I saw, I heard what I heard, and while you’re thinking of another half-dozen clever ways of calling me a liar without saying so outright, why don’t you explain the fact that I couldn’t just walk away on my own free will!”

Dare looked up from the table. “One man. This is all about one man who hurt your feelings, isn’t it?”

“The only man I’m looking at right now is the weasel trying to change the subject!”

“I’m not trying to change the subject! As I recall you were the one who brought up Trenton Sparks!”

“That’s Deacon Sparks to people like me at New Bethany — and by people like me, I mean everyone who’s not a deacon or an elder or Doctor Mark Smarmy Snake-Oil Winthrop himself!  Besides, your dear ‘Brother Trenton’ is beside the point! I was asking you a direct question about those who want to leave!”

“We’re concerned about people’s safety. No more, no less. After this mornin’ I figured you’d understand that as much as anybody.”

“Keeping people safe for Deacon Sparks and his goons to shove around when they’re not working hard enough! Or just plain there when he’s in a mood!”

“Keisha’s not the only one with these stories,” said Rick. “I’ve talked to other refugees.”

Dare drew back. “Refugees?”

“People who took their chances running in the middle of the night. Two who managed to escape into the woods during the day. They were working like slaves in the fields. A rifle stock to the face for motivation, as opposed to the lash.”

The corners of Dare’s mouth turned up. “I thought I recognized a few faces around your campgrounds. The again, shiftless white trash does tend to look alike to me. You won’t argue with that observation, will you, Miss Colvin?” His teeth showing, he turned to the ranger: “So how’re these people working out for you? Not so good, from what I saw comin’ in here.”

“Oh, those you can have back. Most of the ones I’m talking about moved on.”

“Really?” Dare chuckled. “To where?”

“The Confederation.”

“The Confederation? Oh! Do tell!”

“I know you’ve got shortwave down in New Bethany.”

“Oh, there’s always some crank on the airwaves wasting good batteries on bad rumors. Sometimes even good rumors.” Dare laughed. “It was like that even before The Thing.”

“I’ve heard the voices of people who made it. Sparta is for real. So is Lilith. So is Beulah.”

Dare snorted. “Lilith!”

“Used to be Antioch. Just a couple of miles across the saddle from Sparta.”

“I know where Antioch is, Ranger. You’re forgettin’, I grew up in these parts. For that matter you’re also forgettin’ how people at the death camps in World War II were made to write letters to their relatives tellin’ ‘em how great the so-called re-settlement centers were. I wouldn’t believe everything you hear. Heck, I wouldn’t believe anything that came outta there! Man, you just don’t know, do you!”

“We know about New Bethany,” said Rick.

“Well, she knows,” said Dare, rising. “You just know what you’ve been told by her and a few other malcontents who can’t be bothered to work. Or,” Dare nodded towards the outside, “follow basic rules of sanitation. It’s a wonder you don’t have a regular cholera epidemic on your hands.”

Rick rose from the sofa. “Well, not yet,” he said. “But they were sure working on it.”

“It’s a shame you won’t be coming with us,” Dare said. “There’d be a deacon’s slot made just for you. We could use someone to manage the wilderness about New Bethany. Ms. Colvin, you and your man here could live in the woods just beyond the tree line. You’d count yourself lucky to ever see Deacon Sparks and his men.”

Keisha reached out and gripped Rick’s arm. “Thanks, but no thanks,” said Rick. “We’ll take our chances up here.”

“Keep in mind, New Bethany isn’t desperate for citizens. I don’t know how much you heard of my little speech I made outside before comin’ in, but we’ll by no means be takin’ everyone who wants to go. You’re gonna be stuck with the dregs, Ranger. For that matter, what’re y’all gonna eat? Franklin’s been looted clear to the foundations. An’ it’ll be a long while, if ever, before game runs through these woods again.”

“Looks like good weather for a hike, I suppose.”

“To that Confederation?”

“I dunno. It might bear checking out. Anyway, it’s a big country out there. Gettin’ bigger every day.”

“Fillin’ up with wild dogs and walkin’ dead, from what I see. Anyway, I wish you both luck.” Dare extended his hand. Rick took it. “You got till tomorrow mornin’ to change your mind and take the easy way home. Otherwise, I want you to know there’s always a place for you in New Bethany. You change your mind, you find your way back to us, hear?”

Still gripping the ranger’s hand, Dare looked at Keisha. “You too, Ms. Colvin. For what it’s worth I’ll have a talk with Pastor Winthrop about Brother Trenton. It could very well be his success has gone to his head.”

Keisha had crossed her arms and was looking away. Dare looked from her to the ranger as he spoke: “He wasn’t originally with the church, you know. He started out just another tired, hungry refugee runnin’ out of the city. Showed up on our doorstep right when The Thing got goin’ good two years ago. He took straight to work, though, and lemme tell ya, New Bethany wouldn’t be around today if he didn’t take over our security detail. There’s no doubt in my mind it was God Himself sent him to us. All this food we’re throwin’ around, those clothes on that table, that’s his work. The fact I’m free to do this Rescue Ministry, aided by people he trained his own self, that’s God working through Mr. Trenton V. Sparks. Still, if the Devil’s leadin’ the good deacon astray, we’ll get him straightened out. You can count on it.”

Dare released Rick’s hand. “Well, I gotta get out there and make my rounds. Sort the wheat from the chaff, see what’s what with what’s left of your people out there. We’re gonna have a big cookout tonight. I hope you’ll see your way there.”

Rick smiled. “Wouldn’t miss it. Anyway, I need to make some rounds myself, soon as I get myself put back together. I’ll likely cross paths with you as the day goes on.”

“All right. We’ll se ya, then.”

“Right.” Rick raised his hand in farewell as Dare let himself out.

Rick and Keisha stood quietly, looking at the door. Finally, Keisha said, “You said he was throwing boxes of food at the campers.”

“Yes.”

“Notice we didn’t get one.”

“We weren’t counting on it, were we?”

“No. Would’ve been nice, though.”

“So you’ll cuss him up one side and down the other but you’ll still take his food?”

“You’re taking his clothes, aren’t you?”

Rick sighed. “Yeah.”

“Tonight won’t get here fast enough for me.”

“I hear you.”

“You go make your rounds. I’m gonna get us packed. Take your key ‘cause I’m locking up behind you. I’m taking a nice long nap this afternoon so keep it quiet when you come in.”

“Keisha, I’ll tell you. When I saw those juice boxes still in their plastic like they just came off the pallet and the club store, I was sick with terror. It was all I could do not to go running into the woods screaming. Crazy, huh?”

“Crazy to think you’d run off screaming without me.”

“Just thinking of what they’d have to do just to get close to the city, let alone in it — I can’t even imagine it, really. There’s literally millions of living dead still walking up and down the Interstate.”

“Enough that some of them are finding their way up here.”

“Yeah. That, too. Still, if New Bethany can push that far into no-man’s land....”

“Then it seems like a real good idea we got as far away from them as we can. Or we’ll be working on that plantation sooner than not.”

“Well,” Rick said, managing a weak smile, “you’ll be a deacon’s wife.”

“You really don’t believe any of that crap he told you, I hope!”

“I don’t know what to believe,” Rick said, unconsciously checking the tuck of his shirt. “Except that I better start talking to our people.” He felt for the key in his pocket. “It’s tonight or never.”

“How are we going to sneak the children away from here?” Keisha asked as Rick reached for the door. “You know they’re going to take every last one of them.”

Rick’s hand rested on the doorknob. “I have no idea,” he said. “We may have to give up on that.”

“Like hell we are!”

“If you say so. I just dunno, is all. I really don’t know.”

He pulled the door open and went out. He heard Keisha lock it behind him as he set off down the loop.

Darkness falls on these undead-infested woods. I know, let's take a hike! In the dark! With women and children! What could possibly go wrong?



Copyright © 2008, 2013 by Lawrence Roy Aiken

The Living End © 2013 by James Robert Smith


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