Not far, mind you, but we put enough distance between us and the diner that it wouldn’t look suspicious when we pulled over and stopped on the deserted highway.
“We doing this?” I turned sideways in the front seat so I could see everyone, including the brown paper package nestled between Corrine and Sean like a pouting kid in timeout.
“Is it even a question?” Tammy kept her eyes on the road, knuckles white on the wheel.
“Not really, I just wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
“Family first, that’s the way we operate.” She turned and locked eyes with me, determination and fury fused into something startling, disturbing, alluring. “Amy first, then we push on to Claremont.”
Tammy glanced in the back seat, saw approval, and gunned the GTO back onto the road with a hiss of gravel. The tires chirped as they found traction on the blacktop.
I leaned back and closed my eyes.
Rolly Truckerman, I made up the last name, had given us a lecture on the history of New England highways and byways. If the sleepless night detouring out past Worcester to avoid a pair of herds hadn’t been enough to drive us all into deep slumber, this trucker’s monotone baritone sure did the trick.
Fortunately, we took turns kicking each other under the table to stay awake. Only Tam slept.
I’ll boil the man’s diatribe … the guv had pulled back to the main cities, cleared the stumps, set up rigid quarantine sweeps, and fortified the outskirts. They maintained trade with the farming communities beyond the walls for food, but the population had been hit hard and fast enough that wasn’t the issue books and movies had projected.
Lucky for us, we live far enough out in the suburbs to be outside the ‘safe-zone’ and under the rule of the city. We were on our own. We didn’t answer to anyone but ourselves.
According to Rolly, three sizeable herds wandered north of the I-90 line.
The city kept tabs on the herds with scouts and drones. They tried to divert them away from the cities and did their best to avoid larger settlements, but that didn’t mean keeping the roads clear. That’s where listening to the chatter came in handy.
If we moved now, we had an alley between two stump herds that would shoot us straight to Keene.
Tammy shot that gap with a vengeance.
We looked at each other in alarm. Mr. Riley’s body twitched at my feet, but made no move to rise.
“Casey. Mikey,” I called out in a stage whisper as I crept past Sean.
The living room sat empty. The kitchen the same. All I could hear was my own breath.
“Basement door’s closed.” Corrine followed on my heels. “We would have heard if they had headed down that way. Only one way to go.”
“Up.” Sean pulled the gladius from the back of his belt and stood in the door between the kitchen and dining room. He took a step back the way he had come and froze. Corrine and I had turned to take the hallway toward the front stairs and cued our movement on Sean. “Do you hear that?” he hissed.
I tried to pull my eyebrows on top of my head, as if that would help me hear better. I shook my head and glanced to Corrine. She shrugged and hefted her trench knife.
“It sounds like scratching,” Sean followed up.
“Another stump?” I asked in a low tone.
Sean looked at me funny and asked, “Stump?”
“What do you want to call them? They aren’t people and I’m not going to take the time to call them the walking dead or undead or some crap like that,” I said, my voice getting louder with distraction.
Corrine thumped the back of my head with her gauntleted hand and slipped past me on velvety soft feet.
She motioned to the pantry and we turned our attention there.
I heard it.
Corrine mimed opening the door and I followed her wordless directions. With my heart threatening to pound out my ears I found myself with my hammer cocked and one hand on the doorknob to the pantry. I glanced over my shoulder to find Sean and Corrine poised and ready the demolish whatever stumbled out.
I nodded and jerked the door open.
Mikey and Casey stood frozen, poised for flight at the sudden intrusion. Mikey grinned at us. Casey relaxed and crunched another mouthful of chips.
Sean burst out laughing, but Corrine looked as if she wanted to thump the twins’ heads together. To be honest, I’m kind of surprised she didn’t. Corrine is that tough love kind of friend who doesn’t mind leaving you a little battered and bruised if it gets her point across.
“You guys seen Tammy?” I asked.
They both pointed up at the same time.
I left the door hanging open and led the way to the entryway and the base of the stairs. A soft murmur of voices drifted down.
I strained to hear and identify the voices.
“Is that her mom?” I looked to where Corrine had drifted over to Sean’s side.
“Sounds like,” Sean said with a nod.
“Why don’t you guys snag the twins and check the basement for anything we might want to take back to the fortress. I’m going to see what Tam’s up to.”
Sean glanced down to Corrine and she shrugged back at him. Then, in wordless agreement, they headed back towards the kitchen, avoiding the blood trail and skirting the dining room on the far side of the table from Mr. Riley’s husk.
I took a deep breath and gripped my warhammer in both hands. Settled, I began to climb.
The voices grew more intelligible.
I could hear Tammy talking to her mom. The words remained indistinguishable, but I noted a confident set to Tammy’s voice. Her mom, on the other hand, sounded torn. I’m guessing she had an inkling of what had happened to her husband.
“Mom, it’s ok.” I finally drew close enough to make out the words. “Dad’s ok.”
I rounded the corner to see Tammy shake her head.
Our eyes met. A frown marred Tammy’s usual calm happiness. Mrs. Riley had her back to me, but I noted the blood crusted on the shoulder of her shirt.
She cradled the arm in her lap, out of my line of sight.
Tammy gave a slight shake of her head
Her mother picked up on it and turned to see me. A sad smile creased her kind face as she recognized me. I know exactly where Tammy gets her smile from. Then I saw her arm. She must have known from the look on my face. She dropped her head and quiet sobs shook her shoulders.
I looked back to Tammy and found death staring at me.
“Can I borrow yours?” she asked in a distant voice as she set her Dane Axe against the wall. “Mine’s too big for inside.”
“Do you want me …” I started to ask, but she cut me off, holding out her hand.
“I’ll have to find something smaller for the future.” She stood there with one hand on her mom’s good shoulder and the other stretched out to me. “I have to do this Mac. If I put it on you, I’ll always hold it against you. I can’t have that.” Tears strained against her eyes.
I handed her the warhammer, but held onto it a moment too long as I tried giving her some of my strength. I don’t know if it worked, but she blinked back the tears and set her shoulders. She even went to far as to quirk the corner of her mouth into that cute little grin that I love. Unfortunately, it didn’t reach the painful set of her eyes.
“Can you give us a minute?” she asked with a sigh.
I bobbed my head and shut the door behind me.
As I stood outside that closed bedroom I knew her thoughts, but I still flinched when I heard the wet thud.
Deflating, I sat down on the top step and waited.
I don’t know how long I waited, but when Tammy was ready she opened the door and wiped her eyes as she handed my bloodied hammer back to me.
“Can we take her outside?” She sat next to me. “Bury her proper?”
“What?” She shot me a look.
“Them,” I repeated. “Your dad was downstairs in the dining room. He was already like Mrs. Miller.”
Tammy sort of collapsed sideways onto my shoulder. “I guessed, but hoped,” her voice a whisper from deep within her soul. “I need to find Amy.”
Thanks for reading. I hope this is pulling you in and you are having as much fun reading as I am writing. I’ll get back to AG3 in a couple days … when I figure out the best course for Atom to take. Part 4 of this piece should be out tomorrow, so keep your eyes open.
Unfortunately, copies of Genesis: Atom & Go won’t reach their destination before Christmas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still pick up a copy for your favorite sci-fi aficionado.
In the meantime, keep on reading, keep on building snowmen, and keep on flying the Black.
Follow this link to The Dark Road 4