“But it’s bullshit. After everything we’ve done for them!” Curtis’ young face was scrunched up with his anger. “Rescuing them, bringing them in, giving them shelter, giving them food...”

“We’ve all done it together. Just some of the latecomers don’t realize how much the original group did.” Travis tucked his hands into his jacket pockets and watched the little crowd grow larger. He noticed some dark looks among those walking by. This was not going to be a pleasant situation, he realized.

“They’re not country folk. They’re not used to having to pull it together and keep going. Working together to beat the odds,” Curtis said in a low voice.

Looking over the group Travis realized it consisted mostly of people from either larger towns or the city. “Well, I’m from the city and so is Katie and Jenni and a few others.”

“Curtis, you’re too young to be so bitter,” Travis said with a little frown.

Peggy appeared out of the hallway that led to the hotel offices. She was flushed and anxious, “Travis! Travis! The military is calling us back.”

Travis ran across the lobby as the small group of people began to applaud.

Curtis threw them a nasty look, then followed Travis into the communication center.

* * * * * Katie sat down next to Juan’s bed and gave him a smile. In her hand she had a bowl of grits, hot and buttery, for him. He had awakened early in the morning and it was her first chance to see him.

Katie shook her head and stirred the grits slowly. “Not yet. But you know Jenni. She’s okay.”

Juan looked better than he had, though a bit pale. He sighed and ran a hand over his curls. “I wanted to wake up and see her beside me. I was hoping the stupid shit with that puta shooting me was just a nightmare.”

“Blanche was a total bitch,” Katie agreed. “And according to Calhoun, a dead stupid bitch.”

“I miss Loca, Katie. I just want her home.”

“We’re working on that,” Katie answered softly. “I miss her, too. I want her back here with us.”

“If she doesn’t come back, I don’t think I can take that,” Juan said after a beat.

Katie set the bowl down and took his hand between hers. “Juan, there is one thing I know about Jenni. She will do everything in her power to get home to you. She loves you.”

Juan exhaled slowly. “I know. I know. She’s just so loca.”

“You need to get better so when she does get home she can jump your bones at will,” Katie added with a grin.

“She is a horny little loca bitch,” Juan conceded with a smile.

Katie grinned and picked up the grits, stirring them again. “So, are ya hungry?”

She could see the tension in their faces and suspected they were leaving for the fort. Within minutes she heard one of the helicopters lift off. She sighed, running her hands through her long dark hair.

The people of the mall had definitely seized upon the idea of the fort and their excitement was growing. Jenni couldn’t blame them as she heard about the horrors they had endured. All she wanted was to get back to Juan and get back to her life. Sadly, she realized these people had no life since that first terrible day.

Being in the mall was beginning to affect her. She remembered all too vividly the first days she had experienced with Katie. Even worse, she was remembering those first moments on that horrible day.

The horrible gurgling, slurping noises had drawn her to Benji’s room after she had wakened Mikey. She had stood in the doorway, horrified at the sight of her husband eating her precious baby boy. Then he had looked up at her, growled, and she had run. She remembered Mikey shouting, “Mom, Mom, Mom!” as she had grabbed his hand and dragged him down the hall with her. She remembered the sound of her husband’s feet against the floor behind them.

When had she let go of Mikey’s hand?

She remembered vividly the flight down the stairs to the front hall, fumbling with the lock to the front door.

Mikey had still been with her. Hadn’t he? Or had he turned back on the stairs?

And then… She had been on the steps staring down at those tiny fingers under the door… Jenni pushed her hands through her hair slowly. She couldn’t go back and change that horrible morning, but she could do her best to help these people.

She sighed and sat back to watch some kids running around the chairs, playing games, oblivious to the deadly world beyond the mall.

* * * * * The zombies stared upwards at the helicopter as it took off. Some continued to slam their rotting, battered hands against the wall, others just continued to moan. As the helicopter angled away from the mall and flew toward the horizon, some zombies turned and began to follow.

As the helicopter banked over the dead town of Madison, Kevin gazed down at the streets feeling a sense of dread. Staggering figures reached up desperately toward the helicopter, their fingers closing on empty air.

Slowly, the walking dead shambled after the helicopter.

They had anticipated this and planned to turn around out of sight of the zombies toward the fort after reaching the outskirts of town. The dead seemed mindless in their treks after food. Usually, they stood in one place, rooted until they caught sight of the living. Once they started off in the direction of perceived food, they just kept walking.

“It never gets easier to see,” Valerie decided. She was seated near him, her gaze also on the world below.

Kevin silently agreed. They had spent a good chunk of the night before curled up together talking about the old days and what they needed to do to make sure there were new days. She was his constant comfort in this world. They had both lost so much in those first few days. Kevin tried not to think of his wife and kids. He knew Valerie struggled not to think of her boyfriend, a mechanic at the base in San Antonio.

They had bonded when she had found him in a service hallway sobbing uncontrollably. After they had secured the mall and managed to feed all the people they had saved from the civic center deathtrap, he had found himself alone for the first time since he had woken next to his wife early that horrible morning. Overcome, he had collapsed. Valerie had come and sat next to him to comfort him.

Looking down, he saw a segment of the highway. This far out of the big cities most of the traffic was the big rigs. There was one rig flipped on its side and a few cars pulled over to the side of the highway. One or two zombies stood staring up at the helicopter. He shuddered, remembering vividly the escape from the city and the clogged highways. This scene was a relief compared to that horror.

The Texas sun was muted by the dark clouds moving into the area. The weather was definitely colder these days. The helicopter began to make its long roundabout turn back toward the fort.

“Do you think they will believe you?”

Kevin looked at Valerie. “I hope so. We can’t hold the mall much longer.

Supplies are so low right now and the ammunition isn’t going to last very long either. That crowd outside only gets bigger every day.”

Valerie ran a hand over her skimmed back hair. “The Senator is a crazy ass bitch. She’s not going to just let us do this.”

“There are at least twenty guys who will go along with her. She’s promised them a lot and they’re desperate,” Valerie added.

Valerie sighed and he knew she just wanted him to make her promises he wasn’t sure he could keep. He decided to anyway, just to make her feel better. “It will be okay. Something will work out.”

She smiled slightly at him. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder.

The minutes slid by slowly as the helicopter flew over the dead world.

They saw the hotel almost immediately when they crested a hill. It stood tall and imposing over the ranch and farm land. The little town around it wasn’t immediately visible, but the red-bricked building was. As the helicopter drew nearer, the town slowly emerged from the trees. They could see the slim farm roads cutting through the countryside.

“Make a pass,” Kevin said into his headset. “I want to see it.”

The helicopter did a slow turn as they looked down at the now abandoned town. There were dead in the streets, slow and lumbering, moving toward the fort. He hated how the dead seemed to sense where the living were once they were within a certain range. The town’s trees were bare of foliage, so it was easy to see the small, old fashioned homes that were nestled in weed ridden yards. The downtown area was not very vast, but most of it seemed to have been reclaimed. A high wall encircled a few blocks of the town and most of the buildings immediately around the wall were now rubble. As they flew over the enclave, Kevin was startled to see what looked like a pasture of cows munching on hay. Some children were running around in the streets, a few were on bikes. As the helicopter roared overhead, the kids looked up and waved.