Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thirty-Fifth Entry: A Slow Start

January 1st

Happy New Year! LOL

It's time to throw out all the old calendar, and I guess just draw a new one since none of the calendar stores opened up this season. Is this a leap year? If it's a leap year I'm going to start getting my dates all screwed up at the end of February.

Of course if that's the worst worry I have by that point then I should consider myself lucky.

This was definitely the worst new years ever, and a lot of that stems from our complete inability to get very far up the freeway. Even with the world all but dead there's still a traffic jam, so here I sit in a cold, dark comic book shop writing and eating Pocky by the light of one candle in an office full of boxes of statuettes. If it weren't for the end of the world, this would actually be sort of dream of mine.

We tried to get an early start of it yesterday morning; it was really cold, so we weren't too worried about zed activity. Beth and Gerry went to pick up the cars from where they were hidden while Maria and I packed up our sleeping bags, the camping stove, and everything else we had been using day to day. We added this stuff to the boxes of supplies in the stockroom. Sharon spent this time having a quiet conversation with the coffee maker.

Even with four of us doing the work, it took a long time to get the cars loaded up. Tetris skills were employed to get everything to fit in just right, and still leave room for the passengers. I rode with Sharon and Maria in the black Excursion while Beth and Gerry would take the tan one. As a result of this, the tan Excursion was filled right up the the backs of the front seats.

Loading the cars might have gone at least a little bit faster if it were not for the fact that Sharon started coming up and hugging me at random moments. Even in the cold I was still sweating and breathing heavily, but since I still don't know how much of her is really in there or how much of her getting better depends on outside stimulus. I don't want to react to her too harshly even if I'm not totally comfortable with her actions. Of course every time she would do this, it would earn me pitied looks from Beth and Gerry and annoyed looks from Maria. I think the looks were actually annoying me a lot more than the odd affection.

Around noon it seemed like we were pretty much loaded, so I went back in to look through the store one last time, and make sure we didn't forget anything. The store looked sad with all the shelves emptied out; admittedly, the trash that we had left overflowing one of the trashcans didn't help that either. This must be what it looked like when a store would go out of business after closing up for the last time.

On the floor over by where Sharon and I had been, I saw a strip of paper lying shoved up partly under the soda counter. Pulling it out revealed it to be a strip of photo booth pictures of Sharon and Alex. They must have taken them when they first got together. Sharon probably had them in her backpack or something.

The pictures made my heart ache for my friend. The top picture showed her and Alex both smiling happily (although I still think they looked a bit father and daughter together). The second showed them with their mouths open, like they had been laughing. The third picture showed them throwing up bunny ears behind each other's heads. The fourth and final picture showed them kissing. My eyes felt like they were burning looking at these pictures, but no tears came.

“Move your ass!” Maria's voiced yelled to me through the back door, “We're leaving.”

I tucked the pictures into the pocket of my coat, and went out back. The passenger side back door of the black Excursion was sitting open, and Maria was standing by it. Gerry and Beth were already in the tan Excursion. They were talking, and looked like they were in good spirits. Maria on the other hand looks like someone have taken a piss in her instant coffee.

“Hurry up so we can go!” Maria barked at me.

“What is your problem, Maria? You've been pissy to me all week.”

“Sharon is going to endanger us all.” she answered.

I looked at her questioningly, “Seriously? What would you prefer we do then, just leave her here to die?”

“ I would prefer you be able to focus on our survival instead of on her.”

“ I am plenty focused, and to me, her survival is at least as important as my own.”

“Well my survival is more important to me, and she's going to get us killed,” Maria snarled.

“That's ridiculous.”

“Is it? She almost got you killed the other day by advertising herself as fresh meat to some passing zombies, right? What if she had killed you too when she killed those two psychos? How hard would it have been for her to have bashed in your skull while she was at it? I know you wouldn't have fought back, not even to save your own life because you love her too much. You wouldn't even hurt her to save your own life.”

“I'm sorry that I feel emotions for someone other than myself!”

“She's dangerous.”

“She's Sharon. The same Sharon she has always been. I thought you and she were friends. She's getting better.”

“She's getting stranger. She endangering herself and us.”

“You have nothing to base that on!”

“Oh yeah?” Maria asked, “Look where she is now,” she point over my shoulder down the alley where Sharon had wandered off and was standing in the middle of the street and looking into the gray sky.

“Shit!” I cursed, and jogged off after her. Before I got to her, she started walking quickly up the street and around the corner of the store.

She had not yet reached the front of the store when I caught up to her , but we were out of sight of the others, “Sharon, hon, where are you going.”

Sharon looked at me, “Home,” she answered in that dreamy distant voice she's been using.

“If you mean Mallville, that's not the right direction, and it's not home anymore,” I said as I put an arm around her, “We're going to find a new home.”

“But what about Alex and Tara? Aren't they coming?”

My eyes got hot again, and chest got heavy at Sharon's question, and it was a second before I could answer her, “No, Sharon, I don't think so. They're.... They said to go on ahead, and they would catch up if they could.”

“Oh,” she replied, “but you're coming, right?”

“I would never leave you,” I answered, and as far as I can control it, I meant it.

“Okay, that's good then, “she answered, looking me in the eyes, and I mean looking at me, not through me for the first time in a week, “I don't know what I would do without you.”

I remembered the pictures then. I pulled the strip of photos gently out of my pocket, and gave them to Sharon, “Here, I found these.”

Sharon took the photos from me, and looked at them. Her mouth dropped open, and her eyes filled with tears which quickly overflowed her lids, and rolled down her cheeks. “Thank you, “she said.

I led Sharon back into the alley, and over to the black Excursion. Maria was sitting inside it now. We went around to the passenger side where the door was now closed. I opened it, and helped Sharon get inside.

Since the plan was for me to sit in back with Sharon to make sure she didn't try to get out of a moving vehicle, or perhaps get a hold of a gun and start firing it inside the car, all of our sleeping bags has been piled into the passenger side front seat so that we could get to them easily. I climbed into the back with Sharon, trapping her between myself and a driver's side back seat full of duffel bags.

“Oh God, is she crying again?” asked Maria, looking at us in the rear view mirror.

“She's fine, thanks for your concern,” I answered.

“Just keep her quiet. I don't want to hear her bawling while I drive.”

“Maria, seriously, shut the fuck up.”

“And if I don't” she asked, not looking.

“Then I will shut you up.”

Maria looked at me in the mirror in shock for a second, and then laughed; it was a real laugh, not sarcastic or scornful, but an actual amused laugh, “I bet you would try, wouldn't you?” she laughed again, sounding in better spirits than she has recently, “Okay, lets hit the road.”

Maria started the car's engine, and gave the horn one short honk. In front of us, I could see a cloud of exhaust float out of the tan Excursion's tail pipe as it started up, and slowly we rolled down the alley away from the Snacky Mart, and after a short drive to the freeway, out of Covenant.

Before I had any real time to feel sad about leaving my home behind, we found a new problem; a big problem. It seems that even in a dead world, traffic jams are inescapable. The freeway was cluttered with abandoned cars. Some were off to the side of the road as if they had broken down, or run out of gas, but others blocked the lanes.

We weren't ten miles outside of town before we came to a traffic snarl that we couldn't get around. We parked the cars, and all got out to see if we could figure out what to do about it. It didn't help that the road was only two lanes each side here, nor that there was a thick cement wall running down the center of the dirt median which would have allowed us to drive on the other side (which honestly was not in any real better shape)

I can't help wondering where all of these people thought they were going. What would I have done had I not been in the relative safety of Mallville? Would I have ended up in this mess? Where would I have tried to go?

“Did your plan cover this?” asked Beth

Maria stiffened, “No, it did not.”

In front of us were a dozen cars, all covered with months of the dust turned to mud by rain. The surface of the road itself was colored brown by a layer of the dirt blown up from the field to our right. What was probably a crop of some sort when the end started was now a brown windblown patch of land.

Over to the left, behind a row of trees, looked like some sort of truck yard. I crossed over to that side of the freeway to get a better look, and that place would have looked creepy even without the potential of zeds lurking in it.

Maria yelling my name caused me to turn back from my view of the truck yard. “Your 'tard is getting away again!” she was pointing off into the field.

I climbed over the center divide, and ran after Sharon, who had made a bit of distance into the field. I bounded down the slope leading to the field. Thankfully the ground was not muddy, or I'm sure I would have slipped and fallen. I ran into the field as fast as I could.

There wasn't anything big enough in the field to hide a zed (and I would have thought it was really too cold for them anyway), but I was afraid that if she got too far that I would lose her. I was worried that if she got out of my sight I might not be able to find her again.

I was terrified at that thought. I was terrified that I might fail Sharon like I failed Tara, and Bishop, and Molly, and all of the rest of them. She was walking pretty fast, but my fear made me run fast enough to catch her easily.

I grabbed Sharon by the shoulder, stopping her progress, and forcing her to turn and face me. “Where are you going, hon?” I asked, panting.

“I don't want to hurt you,” her voice still dreamy and distant, but she was again talking to me, and not through me.

“Your leaving would hurt me; it would hurt a lot.”

“But if I stay, I'll get you killed, or maybe even kill you myself.”

“That's not true.”

“Maria says I'm dangerous. She says that I murdered two people, but I don't remember that. My memory has gone all... all fuzzy. Did I kill someone?”

“You saved me from being attacked. What you did was to help me. You did not murder anyone. They would have killed you if you didn't kill them.”

“What about last week? She says you could have been killed because I attracted the zombies.”

“Don't worry about what Maria says. Maria has a stick up her ass about something, and she's just taking it out on you. When did she even say all of this stuff to you?”

Sharon raised her right hand, and started rubbing her right eyebrow with her first two fingers as she spoke, “This morning, while you were putting stuff in the car. It's all... segmented. I guess I got in her way or something, and she told me the you should have left me behind because I wanted to stay. She said I should have stayed with Alex.,” Sharon looked me in the eyes, “Is that true? Did you force me to leave him?”

“Alex wanted you to be safe. He wanted all of us to be safe. We were trying to escape together, remember?”

Sharon nodded, but her face showed no signs of understanding, “Then I remember you giving me those pictures, “ she pulled the strip of photos from the pocket of her think baby blue ski jacket.

“You had left them in the store.”

Sharon looked at the pictures, “He died for me, didn't he? He would have made it if not for me.”

“You don't know that. He might have made it if he hadn't tried to save the rest of us, but then he still might not have.”

Sharon tried to pull away from me. “I should go, I don't want to hurt you too.”

I yanked Sharon back, probably harder than I really meant to. “Your leaving would hurt me. You are the only thing I have to live for, everything else is gone.”

“But Maria said-”

I lost my temper then. I grabbed Sharon's arm, and started back for the road. Sharon was struggling to keep up with me, she tripped a couple of times as we crossed the uneven damp field, but I was pulling her so fast that she didn't have any choice but to stay on her feet.

I stormed up the embankment, Sharon in tow, and back onto the road surface where Maria, Gerry, and Beth were looking at the pair of burnt out overturned cars at the front off the traffic jam. They weren't even looking at us as we approached.

Releasing Sharon's hand, I suddenly started running. All of the anger and fear and rage of the last week was channeled into me at that moment, and I was directing all of it at Maria. The three of them heard my footfalls as I charged, and they turned to face me.

The look on Maria's face as I barreled into her was one of utter shock; despit her earlier words it never really occurred to her that I would actually get physical with her. I slammed her back into the rear of a dirt covered minivan.

“No!” I heard Sharon scream from the side of the road.

I'm a good half a head taller than Maria, and I'm pretty sure I'm physically stronger, but she has finesses and skill that I lack. I'm not sure how it happened, but my world spun suddenly, and I found myself with my left arm wrenched up behind my back (still hurts too), and with my face pressed hard against the dirt smeared rear driver's side window of a blue Dodge Magnum.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, boy?” Maria yelled, pulling my arm harder.

Before I could grunt out an answer, there was movement from inside the car. A small face and a pair of hands slammed themselves against the inside of the window I was pressed up against.

I made a noise that sounded approximately like “Wuuaaagggh!” and found the strength to shove back against Maria, and away from the car despite the armlock she had me in.

When I turned, Maria was on the ground, and my left shoulder was screaming white hot pain. A large part of me wanted to charge Maria while she was down; wanted to get revenge for what she said to Sharon, to take out all of my hurt on her, but a bigger part wanted to know who the hell was in that car.

Maria was more interested in a fight. She was on her feet and charging me in a flash. Her momentum drove me back into the Magnum, and I heard the window crack from the impact, but thankfully it didn't shatter.

Maria punched me once in the gut, while snarling something that I'm guessing was obscene in Spanish. If there's one thing I can do, it's take a punch to the stomach; it hurt, but it didn't knock the wind out of me. I shoved her backwards.

I started toward her, but suddenly Gerry and Beth were between us. Gerry was trying to hold Maria back, yelling something at her that I couldn't understand over Beth telling me to calm down.

“What the fuck?” Beth yelled at me, shoving me to the side and away from the thing behind the cracked window, “You need to calm down and stop, now!”

Sharon's scream drowned us all out, “Stop it! Stop fighting! I'm sorry, I'll try and be better!”. Then she fell to the ground.

I shoved Beth roughly out of my way and went to where Sharon was laying on the ground. I knelt down next to her, “It's okay, Sharon, just calm down.” Adrenaline was coursing through my veins, but I tried to make my voice sound as calm as possible, but there was no reason to, Sharon was unconscious.

Everything was silent then, except for the thing in the Magnum punching at the cracked glass. Gerry led Maria away, towards the overturned cars while Beth came to talk to me.

“Did she just speak?” Beth asked, kneeling down, and checking Sharon's head for wounds from her impact with the road surface.

“She started speaking a few days ago, “I answered, trying to calm down, “but today is the first time she's really seemed like she has any idea what is going on around her.

“Were you going to tell us?”

“Would you have cared?”

“What kind of stupid question is that?” Beth asked, “Of course we would care.”

“Maria just wants her gone, and if that's how you all feel, we'll leave; that's what she was trying to do.”

“Maria doesn't speak for Gerry and me, so you can knock the whole feeling sorry for yourself shit off right now. We are a team and a family, and you are both important to us.”

“Well Maria-”

“Maria is scared! We're all scared. We all need to take care of each other. If Sharon is talking to you, if she is aware of her surroundings again that is a good thing. Don't let your big macho protector feelings for her make you do something stupid.”

That got through to me, and I really did start to calm down then. 'You mean like attacking Maria?”

“Exactly like attacking Maria; she could have broken your neck, you idiot. Now lets get Sharon back into the car.”

Beth helped me get Sharon up off of the ground, but I carried her myself. Either I've gotten stronger over the last year, or she's lost weight; she seemed so light in my arms. We put Sharon in the backseat of the Excursion, and then locked her in by flipping the child lock button on the door.

Beth led me back to where Maria and Gerry were standing, looking at the zed in the back of the Magnum. It turned out to be a kid, and was not strong enough to smash through even the cracked window, nor smart enough to open the door to get out. It seemed slower than the kids we found in that church months ago, but I don't know if that's from going who knows how long without eating, or if it was a reaction to the cold.

Beth stayed in front of me, but slightly to the side so that I could look Maria in the eyes. Maria looked at me like a tiger ready to strike out at me.

“I'm sorry,” I said, some of my anger returning as I saw the anger in her eyes.

“So am I, but if you ever raise a hand to me again, only one of us will be walking away from it. I value you as a member of this team, but no one gets away with hitting me.”

More of my anger was returning hard now, and Beth saw it. Can you blame me though? Someone who I thought was a friend just threatened to kill me; that should piss pretty much anyone off.

“Why don't you go sit with Sharon, okay?” Beth suggested.

“Yeah, sure, that's how I'm a valuable team member,” I started to stalk back towards the cars.

“You're the one who wants to get into her pants!” Maria called after me.

I turned around to face her, and Beth stepped forward to be between us in case I did something stupid again, “I don't know what is wrong with you, Maria, but you were her friend, were my friend; at least I thought you were. If that's not the case anymore, then fuck you!” I very maturely flipped her the bird as I said it.

I went back to the car, making sure to turn off the child lock before closing myself in. Sharon stirred in her seat as I closed the door.

“I'm sorry,” she said softly, “I'm trying; it's just so hard. It hurts so much.”

I was alarmed, “What hurts? Was it when you fell?”

“No, it hurts here,” she took my hand, and placed it on her chest. It was over her jacket, but it still made me feel weird; uncomfortable

I pulled my hand away, “Please don't... do that,” I had trouble saying the words.

“What?” she asked, looking puzzled.

I motioned to the front of her jacket, “That... make me... that,” I stammered, unable to put it into coherent words.

Sharon looked down at the swell of her breasts at the front of her jacket, then up at me. She cocked her head to one side just like the other day, only this time she frowned. She then nodded her head twice, closed her eyes, and lay her head on my shoulder. Within moments she was snoring softly.

A few minutes later, there was a single gunshot.

A few minutes after that the driver's door opened, and Beth climbed in.

“Where's Maria?” I asked.

“We've talked it out, and decided that maybe she should ride with Gerry for a while, so I will be your chauffeur for the rest of the day.” Beth smiled at me in the rear view mirror.

“I'm sorry about all that,” I said.

Beth shrugged, “Don't apologize to me. She told us what she had said to Sharon; if someone said all that crap about one of my friends I'd hit them too. I hope you got it all out of your system though. I don't want to see a repeat of that.”

“Yes, teacher,” I said, feeling properly chastised.

Warm air started to blow out of the vents as Beth started the engine, “ If you want my opinion, I think Maria's jealous that Gerry has been hanging out with me,” in front of us the tan Excursion started to move forward, pulling to the right, “Not that there's anything going on between us, mind you. I think she has feelings for him, but it could just be that she's feeling like a third wheel. Hold on, we're going through the field.”

“What?” I asked.

Before I could react, the Excursion in front of us suddenly dropped down the slope at the side of the road, and into the field that I had only minutes before chased Sharon out into. I grabbed Sharon, who was not wearing a seatbelt, just as we started down the slope.

Unfortunately I was not wearing a seatbelt either, and while I somehow succeeded in keeping Sharon from bouncing around the inside of the car, I myself managed to slam my own head into the ceiling. My scalp was quite happy to remind me that it was still sore, and that I should avoid being dangled by my hair again anytime soon. At least Maria didn't pull my hair, lord knows there's enough of it; Tara had been bugging me to get it cut.

When the stars cleared from my eyes, Sharon was leaning the other way, up against the bags of clothing, and my arm was stretched across her breasts. I pulled my hand away quickly.

“Don't worry, “Beth chuckled at me, “I won't tell anyone you were copping a feel.”

“Shut up!”

Beth just laughed at my embarrassment. I wasn't trying to cope a feel, just for the record. I'm not a complete scumbag.

That experience set the tone for the day. Every few miles we would have to navigate around wreckage blocking the road. At one point we found ourselves blocked in by trees on both sides, orchards of some sort I guess. When we tried to go around it by crawling through a muddy field, we ended up at the edge of an irrigation canal, and had to backtrack to find a side road around the orchards, got thoroughly lost, and blew most of the rest of the day.

The final straw was just past a small town called Lobo when we discovered a collapsed overpass that apparently had been under construction back in the spring. It was blocking the road completely.

“Fuck it!” said Maria as we all stood looking at the pile of cement, rebar, and wood, “Lets find somewhere to sleep tonight.”

“I agree, “said Gerry, “It's getting dark. We can find our way around this tomorrow. Lets go back to that town there and find somewhere secure enough to sleep.”

I kept my mouth shut during all of this, partly because I agreed, but mostly to not draw attention to the fact that Sharon was again staring into space and smiling at people who were not there, and in fact was not wandering off only because I was holding her hand tightly.

Lobo looked like a small war had taken place. Most of the stores on the town's small main street had been ransacked. Broken glass, and burnt wreckage all over the place, including what looked like an overturned school bus in what looks like it was once a gas station. I can only imagine what happened here.

After a bit of searching we found a building that seemed to be untouched, it was a comic book store called “The Geek Shall Inherit”. After confirming that the place had somehow escaped the destruction that seemed to befall the rest of the town, and that it in fact did appear to be zed free, Gerry opened the doors for us, and we pulled the now mud-coated Excursions around ton the store's side to keep them as out of sight as possible.

I like it here. If I thought we could find enough supplies to make a go of it, I think I might stay here with Sharon. Also, aside from the general condition of the area, and the lack of supplies that that indicates to me, the water here is out. No running water means no toilet, and I'm to going to go into any detail about how we have dealt with that.

Sharon likes it here too. She's been reading mangas ever since we got here, that and eating Pocky and drinking warm Ramune drinks. She hasn't been talking though, and that worries me a bit, but then she's not talking to invisible people, so maybe it's a good thing.

Everyone else is asleep now except for Maria, who is sitting by the window on watch. I think she's reading a Preacher TPB, but I'm not totally sure. I would like to go and talk things out with her, but I'm afraid it will end up in blood and tears, so I won't.

Instead, I'm going to finish my Pocky, read for a little bit, and try to get some sleep. Hopefully we will make better time tomorrow. We're really not going all that far.

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