All it took was a single glance to know what they were.
Cutter stopped in his tracks and looked down the avenue, counting silently. Automatically he did a mental accounting of what he was wearing and which of his weapons he’d brought along. Unlike so many others he had not given up his makeshift armor, nor had he given way to moving around the city without his guns. And he had seen others walking the streets without even a bludgeon to protect them. So many had grown complacent that they were beginning to think the danger was past, that the dead were no longer a grave threat to the city.
All they had to do was to see what he was seeing and whatever that sense of security they had all felt would have been proven to be nothing more than a bad idea.
The dead were there.
He didn’t bother to count, but knew at a glance that there were scores of them. And when you could see that many, there was good reason to conclude that hundreds were around.
“They’re coming from the countryside,” Ron said.
A few other people had been going about their ways on the street and their gazes, too, had been drawn to the irregular movement of the things that were heading their way. Apparently there had been no other people closer to the edge of town to see them approaching, and so no warning had been given. Or, quite possibly, the people who had first encountered them had been taken out before they could sound an alarm of any type. If there had been screams, they had been snuffed out before others could hear them.
.45 pistol. Hammer. 30.06. 100 rounds, all told. These were the terms foremost in Ron’s mind. Next, he tried to recall where Jean and Oliver said they would be. They had all decided to go scrounging for supplies that morning and each had gone in separate directions with specific goals in mind. If the others had made the same progress Ron had made, then each of them were more than two miles from home. There was almost no possibility he could find either of them and get back before this herd of the dead came staggering into city center.
Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The hope came to him as he watched the figures advancing stiffly, implacably. It had been so long since he’d seen more than one or two of the damned things that he realized that the sight had shocked him. Something like nausea scratched at his gut.
He began counting the ones directly in front of him, and as he got to twenty-five he not only realized the situation was a bad one, but that it might be worse than he could imagine. His hand going for his rifle, he took it from his shoulder and peered down the barrel, using the scope to take a look northward. As soon as his eye met the lenspiece he saw a dozen new deaders rounding the nearest corner, their pale eyes staring hatred, lips drawn back to reveal teeth prepared for ripping. They were hungry.
As he stood, deciding his next move, someone came running down the street, a young man of no more than twenty years, his black hair streaming behind him in the cold air. The guy raced right past Ron and did not stop, did not even pause as he went dashing madly down the street, headed for city center. At least there was nothing to block the fellow’s way. The street had been completely cleared of the wrecks and debris that had cluttered it. The Colonel and his men had bulldozed the stuff away, hauled it all onto empty lots or dumped it at the ends of streets they weren’t planning to use. Now the roads were almost the way they’d been that last time civilization had been intact and things like road maintenance was something other than fantasy.
Turning to watch the other person, Ron was staggered to see that there were dead coming from that direction, too!
“Watch out,” he yelled. His warning was heard and the man skidded to a halt just as a pair of zombies crept out from a darkened alley, their hands clawing at the youth who was well out of reach because of Ron’s call.
At first Ron was relieved to see that the man was armed, a 9mm pistol suddenly in his bare right hand. But he knew what would happen should the guy start firing. The shamblers would come from everywhere, and they’d move at a much faster pace, aroused by the sound of gunfire. To one of the dead, the report of a discharged firearm was almost like a dinner bell. They would come from everywhere at once, zeroing in on the thing they wanted most of all.
And, of course, before he could ask the young man to hold his fire, the gun went off.
Two shots pierced the relative silence, precisely. A Glock, Ron thought, recognizing the sound. At least the man could shoot, the tops of the skulls of the nearest pair of deaders turning into bloody fragments. The duo went down in a heap of dessicated flesh and tattered fabric. But, as always, there were more moving up to take their places.
They were new dead, Ron saw. These were zombies from the wilderness. The creatures had not been witness to the constant withering fire of the citizens of Charlotte. Colonel Dale and his army had never blasted these things, teaching the survivors that they were the ones who would be going down for the count, seeing their fellow monsters cease to exist in explosions of lead and brain matter. All they knew was that urge to gnaw living flesh. If there was fear in their rot-eaten brains at all, that fear was vague and forgotten and had never been rekindled in them.
Most of his attention drawn by the escaping man, Cutter almost failed to see that three zombies had staggered to within a dozen feet of his position, coming out into the sunlight from a dark and bare walkway that he had thought led only to a loading dock. Now, though, he surmised that the concrete path between the buildings either went all the way through the block to the next street, or that the zombies had been filtering into the city for many hours and had already found places to wait in hiding.
One of the things groaned, its voice the dead’s equivalent of a curse. He hated the sound and it brought back the loathing he had felt for the damned things before the Colonel’s plans had given them all a sense of security and normalcy. “To Hell with it,” he said, his jaw set and his teeth grinding.
The .45 bucked in his gloved hand. The zombie that had uttered the sound went away in a shower of atomized flesh, its already ruined face vanishing as a vast flower opened gory petals across the space that had been its skull.
Another of the deaders was right behind it, filling the space almost instantly. This was like the worst of times, a return to the days when the living corpses had filled the city and made it their own, when the simplest task of moving and scouting was a dangerous undertaking. Ron’s thoughts kept going to Jean and Oliver, then back to his own situation. He had to keep telling himself that if he didn’t concentrate on the here and now then the welfare of his family wouldn’t matter at all. Because if he didn’t worry about himself, he’d die.
Ron heard someone screaming for help. He risked a glance in that direction and saw the man who had passed him earlier was in a bad situation, surrounded by the lurking mass of hungry monsters that now poured out of one of the partially blocked alleys. “Damn,” he said, knowing that he had to try to save the guy.
There were two zombies directly between himself and the trapped stranger, so there was nothing to do but go through them. Ron fired the .45 and the bullet plowed through the head of the nearest of the pair. But he knew that he couldn’t just shoot his way through the mass; there were far too many of them to take out that way. Eventually he’d run out of ammunition and that was a situation he didn’t want to face; not ever.
Rushing toward the second of the two he brought his boot down on the side of its bare leg, aiming for the outside of the knee. There was a snapping sound and the leg bent inward, toppling the semi-naked thing. It fell to the left and sprawled on the street, scrabbling for some way to right itself. They couldn’t feel pain, but with a shattered leg there was no way it was going to stand upright again. Cutter left it clawing at the asphalt as he pushed forward.
“This way,” he screamed at the man with the Glock. “Don’t try to go north,” he yelled. “This way!”
There was just a second’s hesitation as the man paused, trying to decide whether or not to heed Ron’s advice.
But that was all the time the zombies needed to close the small gap behind the man. Ron was not able to close his eyes as the mob descended on the unfortunate soul and bore him to the ground.
“Just like old times,” Ron whispered. There was a hint of panic in his mind and he fought hard to contain it as the monsters around him suddenly lost interest in him and concentrated on the meal that screamed in the boiling center of the mass of killers in the street.
Turning his back on the action of tearing arms and bloody mass, he trotted easily away. He could make it back to his home with no trouble, he figured. And if something truly did rise up to block his way, there were any number of good places where he could retreat if he had to find refuge. Or the Colonel’s people would certainly emerge from their fortresses to kill back this resurgent plague. As he dodged from point to point along the recently cleared thoroughfare, he kept expecting to hear the approaching march of Dale’s cadre or the orchestrated precision of their rifles. But there was only the sound of his footsteps and the occasional groan of the living dead.