Authors: Norman Christof
"Alex, we need to get the hell out of here!" Chaz commanded in hushed but urgent tones.
"What are you talking about, Chaz? We can't go yet. We haven't even gotten onto the bus yet. The kids are just starting to trust me. I think Christa will open the door and let us in now."
Chaz just shook his head violently back and forth, still trying to catch his breath. "We're leaving, and we're leaving now, even if I have to drag you kicking and screaming."
"Wait! What the hell!"
"I'll tell you on the way; we need to move. What we're doing is too important to deal with this. We've got to get to the fort. We'll take the car. The keys are still in the ignition, and there's enough gas to get us within spitting distance of the fort." He started pushing Alex towards the small car, all the while glancing backwards anxiously at the school bus. A few steps from the car Alex stopped, turned, and pushed Chaz back.
"Alright, that's it! No further! Not until you tell me what the hell is going on. There's no way I'm leaving a bus full of kids unprotected out here in the middle of nowhere. They're going to die alone if we don't help them. What is wrong with you?"
Chaz took a deep breath and glanced at the bus. All the kids were watching them from the windows.
"Go and take a look under the tarp. But be discreet. I don't think the kids can see from the bus, but I'll keep an eye on them."
"Keep an eye on them? What exactly do you think they're going to do? They're just kids."
"Go look under the damn tarp ... quickly, then come right back here."
Alex shook his head and turned towards the tarp, muttering under his breath about crazy old soldiers going bat-shit. As he approached the tarp, the smell became overpowering. Hesitantly, he lifted a corner. The smell was too much, and he backed away, choking down the bit of bile that was rising in his throat. He looked at Chaz's back as he stared intently towards the school bus. Alex pulled a rag from his pack and covered his mouth before pulling the tarp completely off. Initially, he wasn't sure what he was looking at. Drawing closer, he made out several whole bodies, dozens of assorted parts. Two were small children, and the third he thought was a badly mangled soldier. As his eyes scanned the children's bodies from their feet to their bloody necks, the bile in his throat became a rushing torrent. He turned away, vomiting everything he'd had for lunch, and parts of breakfast. Both children were decapitated, and they weren't zombie children. They were human children. Without returning the tarp, he scrambled back to Chaz, wiping himself with the rag.
"What the fuck happened here! Why are there two decapitated children, a mangled soldier, and a bunch of unidentifiable body parts from kids? Damn, that's just sick!"
"I don't know. There was a report that circulated from the CDC about six months ago that made no sense. At least not until now. It said there had been unsubstantiated sightings of zombies doing weird things."
"Weird? You mean like other than walking around undead and trying to eat people? How much weirder are we talking here?"
"Maybe not weird, but just behavior that we'd never seen before. It talked about zombies spontaneously exploding. When they blew, it was like they had bombs strapped to their bodies. Incredibly violent blasts, with bone and skull fragments cutting everyone around them to shreds. They tried duplicating it in their labs, with no success."
"I've never seen that. In all your years, have you?"
"No, never, just a few stories here and there?"
"Stories? You knew?"
"No, of course not, they were just soldier stories. Like sea monster legends that old sailors told. The CDC wrote them off as post-traumatic-stress-affected soldiers."
"So you think that the little body parts under the tarp were from zombie kids exploding? And the kid took out the soldier? That still doesn't explain the two decapitated kids ... they weren't zombies. Why the hell would they be decapitated?"
Chaz shook his head in doubt, then glanced back again at the bus. All the kids were watching them now. "There's one more thing the report said, and this I've never heard anywhere else."
Alex stared intently "Well ... go on ... what is it?"
"The report said that some zombies can revert to human form."
Alex now stared dumbfounded at Chaz, then back at the school bus. Then back at Chaz.
Chaz continued, "The report was vague. It didn't say if they actually changed back to humans, or just appeared to change back to humans. Again, they couldn't duplicate it in the lab."
"Well, Chaz, now's your big chance to find out." He nodded back towards the direction of the bus.
Christa had exited the bus, and was walking towards them. The rest of the kids stayed inside the bus, watching her. Billy was yelling something to her, but no one could make out what he was saying. She got within twenty feet or so of Chaz and Alex. Chaz shouldered his rifle, and ordered her to stop where she was. Christa smiled, and kept coming. Chaz barked the order one more time. Then, there was a loud, dull thud, followed by screams of children from the bus.
A few front windows of the bus were completely covered inside with blood and body parts. The screams became more frantic. The kids were scrambling through the aisle and over the seats towards the back of the bus, where others were huddled. Alex thought he saw Billy moving through the bus, but he couldn't be sure. Alex moved towards the bus until Chaz stepped into his path, rifle still leveled at Christa. Before Alex could move around him, they heard another loud thud. It sounded like when two cars collide at an intersection. The windows near the back of the bus changed from clear to red. They were randomly interspersed with more body parts and bone fragments. Several of the windows cracked, and the screams stopped.
Christa, who had turned, looking towards the bus, now turned back to face them, tears streaming down her face. She ran towards Chaz and Alex. Chaz pulled his trigger, and Christa fell to her knees ... unhurt, but still crying. The warning shot stopped her. She screamed, "I've changed ... I've changed ... I've changed ... I don't want to hurt anyone. I won't hurt you. Please help me."
Chaz lowered his rifle. Alex ran to Christa and picked her up in his arms. She wrapped herself around Alex's neck, clinging for dear life. Alex walked back to Chaz, his face torn between emotions.
"She's harmless, Chaz, you know that, right?"
"What I see, son, is a huge unknown and you taking a huge risk with both our lives. Keep your distance, that's an order." Chaz backed away, and Christa squeezed tighter. "You need to put that girl down now, and back away."
"That's not happening, Colonel. Just look at her. She's in no condition to hurt anyone. She's scared. Christa," he said, turning his attention to the girl, "what did you mean when you said 'I've changed'? Changed from what? What is it you've changed from?"
Christa continued sobbing, and kept her face buried in Alex's neck.
"Christa, please, you need to help us understand. What is it you've changed from? We want to help."
Chaz lowered his weapon part way.
Christa raised her head and wiped her eyes with one hand while the other held fast to Alex. "I'm just a little girl now. I only want to be a little girl. A kid. I'm not a zombie anymore. I'll never be a zombie again. I won't hurt anyone ever again ... I promise. Please don't shoot ... please don't kill me."
Then There Were Three
"I don't trust her, Alex, not one damn bit."
"I know, Chaz, I completely understand. This is way beyond crazy, but she's shaking, shaking like a leaf. She's terrified. If you were holding her, you'd understand. There's no way she wants to hurt us. Certainly not in the state she's in now."
"We need to get going to the fort. That's way bigger than her. You know what we're carrying, and the potential it has for change. Now quit being so emotional, and think about the larger picture."
"Really, Chaz? What does the larger picture matter if we can't make a difference in the life of a kid. Isn't that what the bigger picture is about? It's about making a difference in the lives of individuals. We don't even know if the drugs and research we're carrying will work. It's a gamble. But right here, right now, we can make a difference. We can save her. We don't get chances to save many lately. How can we not help her? Maybe she's a key to understanding the zombies. If what she says is true, she could be incredibly helpful. Maybe more helpful than what's in that case."
Chaz paused, and took a breath. Then, he shook his head ever so slightly up and down.
"Fine, OK, damn it! But we're taking precautions. I'm not about to get my throat ripped out by some kid. Get in the car."
They headed over to the car, with Alex carrying Christa and Chaz following safely behind. The safety on his automatic was still off.
"Put her in the front passenger seat and put her seatbelt on."
Alex opened the passenger door, and gently slid Christa into the passenger seat and placed her seatbelt on. She was reluctant to let go of him, but she did.
"Don't worry, kiddo, it's going to be OK. We'll get to somewhere safe."
Meanwhile, Chaz grabbed the keys from the ignition, and popped open the trunk. He rummaged around for a while in the back till he found what he was looking for. He came out holding tie-down straps for the roof rack. Alex look at him and shook his head.
"Tie her hands and feet. Not too tight, don't cut off her circulation, just make sure she's not mobile. Make it tight enough so she can't reach the driver."
"C'mon, Chaz, is this really necessary?"
"I told you, I am not taking any chances. What we're up to is too important. It's not that long a trip; she'll manage."
"Fine!" Alex took the straps from Chaz
Alex knelt down by Christa and wrapped the straps around her wrists.
"I'm sorry about this, but there's a lot we don't understand and he's just trying to keep everyone safe. It won't take us long to get where we're going, and then I can take these off."
"It's OK," she said. "I understand. I know I used to be pretty scary, before I changed. I would have tied me up before too. There's a lot I don't understand too."
Alex smiled back. "It really is just a short ride. I'll get you out of these as soon as possible. I just need to keep the old man happy."
Alex continued tying the straps, not as tight as Chaz would have, but well enough. He looped the straps from her hands through the door handle so she couldn't reach the driver, like Chaz had requested. He secured the strap from her ankles to the seat frame underneath.
That should keep the old buzzard happy
, he thought.
Alex closed the passenger door and reassured Christa that things would be OK. Chaz tossed him the keys to the car.
"You’re driving, and we're going straight through like a bat out of hell. No stops. We need to finish this. I'll navigate from the back seat, where I can keep an eye on our little stowaway. I've got a few questions for her about what really happened here."
"She's not our prisoner, Chaz; you don't need to interrogate her like one."
"Don't worry, son, I'll be peachy-keen nice, so I don't make her cry."
Alex jumped into the driver’s seat, placing a reassuring hand on Christa's shoulder. Chaz sat himself in the back, behind Alex. He flipped the safety of his semi to the on position, and placed it in his lap. Alex started the car and headed off towards Chattanooga. The tarp fluttered off the bodies as they drove by, and Alex made a conscious effort not to look. Instead, he turned towards Christa, giving her the most reassuring smile he could muster.
The car's GPS told them they were a little over four hours from Fort Knox. It was pretty quiet inside the car. The day’s events had taken their toll. Christa got comfortable enough to fall asleep in spite of her restraints by the time they reached the city limits. Driving through a major city these days was always an experience. It was one thing to drive through the open country where visibility was good. Every city was different. Most were pretty safe, and managed to keep the zombies at bay. You still had to be on your guard. Every time you turned a corner, there was potential for danger. Chattanooga, like most cities, was run-down, but was mostly zombie free.
Dusk fell as they drove the city streets, and there weren't many people around. Downtown Chattanooga closed up tight after the work day. Buildings were dark, and only a few small businesses still had lights on. A small convenience store was still lit up as Alex stopped at an intersection.
"Hey, Chaz, what do you think? We've got money, how about we stop in and pick up a few supplies?"
"Ah, c'mon, we're in good shape here at the moment, and the kid looks sort of hungry." Christa never budged from her slumber.
"It's less than four hours to Fort Knox. We could be sitting on a time bomb here right now ... literally. The sooner we get to the fort and let the experts assume responsibility with the package and the kid, the better. Then you can worry about stocking up on supplies. Stay focused. Just because things feel normal, doesn't mean it won't change around the next corner. Just pay attention to where we're going, and make sure that damn GPS doesn't turn us down some back-alley slum swarming with freaks."
"Alright. She just seems so exhausted, I have to wonder when she ate last."
"If you feel that bad for her, you can give her some of your rations. Don't forget, we have no clue what we're dealing with here. She said she was a zombie, and we're in the business of killing those mothers. If that's truly what she was, then we can't let our guard down. What's to say that she won't turn back? It's all too friggin’ crazy to be real. This war was a lot easier when the enemies were all slobbery, mangy beasts from hell. Now, they’re shooting sniper rifles and dressing up like little girls. What's to say she won't pick up a sniper rifle and take a shot at you while you're buying her treats in the local quickie mart over there?"
"Hell, Colonel, I don't know. My gut tells me she's fine. Different, yeah, sure, but not evil. At least, not towards us. Wouldn't she have done something by now if she could have? All she's done so far is sleep."
Alex continued down Martin Luther King Blvd through the heart of the city, then picked up the main interstate that would take them out of the city. The interstate looped around the Tennessee River as it wound north to south. They could see across the river what looked like a major medical facility. Half of it looked like it had been bombed out. The other half was smoking from a still smoldering fire. The GPS indicated it was a mental hospital.
"Can you imagine, Colonel, what turning into a zombie would be like for a mental patient? I mean, you're already pretty screwed up to start with. What would go through your head when you start falling apart and have urges to eat your friends and family?"
"Zombies don't think, son. Their brains are mush. It's probably a relief to the crazies that they can't think anymore."
Alex noticed that Christa had woken during their conversation, and was staring across the river at the burning buildings. She was listening, but couldn't take her eyes off the buildings. She lifted her bound hands and placed them, palms out, against the window. It was as far as she could reach. "I wouldn't want to be any crazier than I am now. Maybe that's how insane people start. Maybe they all used to be zombies. Am I going crazy?"
"I don't think it works that way, kid. Crazy people have been around a lot longer than zombies."
Christa glanced back at Alex. "Are you sure about that? How do you know? For sure, I mean."
"Well, it's just common sense. We've only been fighting the zombie wars for the last fifteen years."
"Yeah, but we've had wars for a lot longer than that. I learned about them in school. Those wars all seemed pretty crazy. Insane, even. Maybe those bad guys were zombies?"
"I don't think so. We'd know the difference."
"I hope you’re right. Do you think they can fix me where we're going? At the fort?"
"So you were listening? Just pretending to be sleeping, huh?"
"I wasn't pretending, I can do both."
Alex narrowed his eyes. He looked at Christa, then back at the road a few times. "What do you mean you can do both? Either you're sleeping or you're not."
"Part of me was sleeping, the other part of me was listening to you guys."
Alex felt a bit of a shiver down his spine, and looked up in the rear-view mirror to see if Chaz was paying attention. Chaz's rifle was on the seat beside him, but his right hand was on the handle. He stared back at Alex without saying a word. The remaining car ride to Chattanooga's city limits was silent.
Once outside the city limits, the scenery changed. Out in the low-lying foothills, green space abounded. It was easier to see distances in the open spaces, no longer surrounded by urban sprawl. They were surrounded by trees, hills, and mountains. No longer could creatures in human or zombie form jump out from behind the next street corner. This was as close to smooth sailing as could be expected.
Alex enjoyed the change of scenery. He let himself imagine a world were beautiful vistas were the norm, and children were allowed to be children. A world where everyday was as boring as the next. Where, the only complaint most people had was about their hum drum jobs or spouses. He wondered, if he'd ever get to live in a world like that again. Maybe, just maybe he thought ... the next road would lead him there.