Katie realized Arnold must have triggered them.
Fire and smoke filled the street outside the mall as the first truck barreled out of the parking lot at a quick clip. One by one, the trucks, both military and civilian, and several metro buses and one school bus, roared out into the town of Madison.
Overhead the helicopters swooped in an attempt to distract the zombie throng. The mall doors shattered from the heat of the fire within, and burning zombies staggered out into the abandoned parking lot as the last bus rolled out.
Katie held onto the dash for dear life as the truck roared through the town. Zombies rushed them, but the vehicles smashed them or hurled them into the nearby buildings. Their salvation from being overwhelmed was that most of the zombie crowd outside the mall had managed to find its way inside the structure. That meant fewer zombies in the street, therefore, their escape was not as fraught with danger as it could have been.
At last, the convoy broke free of the city limits and climbed into the countryside.
Left behind, the zombies staggered, hands outstretched in desperate hunger, toward the escaping vehicles. Slowly, they began to walk determinedly after them.
The driver of the truck Katie and Travis were in looked very grim. When the radio cackled, he picked it up with a shaking hand.
Katie sank into Travis’ arms. He kissed her brow, rubbing her shoulders.
She cried as the truck rumbled on.
A few minutes later the word came over the radio. All the vehicles that had left the parking lot were accounted for.
The survivors of Madison Mall, overwhelmed by the morning events, rode into the hills toward their new home.
The sky was gray and low as the convoy wound through the barren hills away from Madison. The country road swerved and dove through the hills, the cracks in the asphalt already thick with gnarled weeds. The juniper and cedar trees stretched twisted limbs up toward the sky.
Staring out the window, watching the bare trees slide by, Katie wondered if the trees were praying for those in the convoy to get back to the fort safely. Her bible school days had instilled a lot of verses in her head and she remembered one about trees praying or dancing or something when no one else had a voice. She certainly felt like she could not utter a word without sobbing. She rubbed her brow and snuggled deeper into Travis’ arms as she watched the landscape slipping past the window.
The convoy had taken a long roundabout way to make sure that any zombies trying to follow from Madison would end up wandering in a direction opposite of the fort. Now the convoy was maneuvering through back roads that led them past long dead farmhouses and ranches.
Occasionally, a zombie struggled toward the convoy from one of the long abandoned structures. They seemed pitiful in their slowness. In the first days they had been so fast but now they were so slow Katie was sure that they could be easily circumvented as long as there weren’t that many.
Of course, the mall had flooded with them.
She closed her eyes and fresh tears slipped down her cheeks.
Travis tenderly wiped a tear away and stroked her hair.
There had been so many zombies it had been overwhelming. Running with Travis’ and Jenni’s hands clutched in her own had been the most terrifying event of her life. The moans and screams of the dead and living had been a mind shattering cacophony. Then the most horrible moment had come. Jenni’s hand had slipped from her own.
As long as she lived, she would never forget the despair that filled her when Jenni’s fingers slid so easily from her grip.
Of course, she would never forget what followed either.
Katie remembered looking down from the stairs and seeing the sea of dead looking up at Jenni. For a crazed second, she thought Jenni could maybe jump into the water and somehow make it to the stairs. But then that fast zombie had barreled up the stairs that led up the side of the waterfall, pushing aside the slower ones. Katie remembered that horrible moment when she had watched Jenni swing the gun at the zombie and it had been empty. She hadn’t breathed as she watched Jenni bash the zombie’s brains out with her gun then fling its brains across the crowd below. Foolishly, Katie had thought Jenni was safe. But as she watched Jenni wash her hands, dread had overwhelmed her. Then Jenni had raised her hand and shown the bloody gash on her hand and Katie had known the terrible truth: Jenni was dead.
All that followed…taking the gun from Kevin…sighting Jenni through the scope…pulling the trigger…was just a ritual for the dead. As Jenni stood there, her hand over her head, smiling, triumphant over the undead growling and moaning below her, Katie had understood as well as Jenni that it was over.
And then she had pulled the trigger… Thankfully, Jenni’s body had fallen where the zombies would never reach her.
Lydia had been right. She had been at the mall for more than just a confrontation with the Senator. She had gone there to lay Jenni to rest.
Katie had thought her destiny was something totally other than what it had turned out to be. Yes, she had stood up against the Senator, but in the end, she had freed Jenni from Lydia’s fate. She had also laid her to rest in a way she never could do for Lydia.
“Fuck!” The driver swore, breaking her out of her dark thoughts.
The driver of their enormous truck pulled hard on the heavy steering wheel, tossing them to the side in the big cab. Katie looked up to see the truck in front of them swerving wildly. Reaching out with her hand, she tried to brace herself as their truck shimmied, then caught the road. It began to pass the truck in distress.
The tarp covering the back of the truck opened and a young boy appeared.
His face covered in blood, his mouth open in a scream, he reached toward them. Then someone inside pulled him back inside.
“They’re infected,” Katie gasped. She wasn’t sure if the boy was already turned or a victim, but her pulse was beating rapidly.
“We didn’t have a chance to check everyone before we left,” Travis said bitterly.
The road was winding around a hill and a sharp incline led down into the tree line. As they watched in horror, the truck swerved off the road into the trees, shattering branches and slender trees before hitting the thick trunk of an enormous oak. People began to pour out of the back, bloodied and screaming. Horribly, it was hard to tell if they were turned or infected.
The truck Katie and Travis was in kept moving.
The sound of gunfire erupted. Katie looked into the side mirror to see the soldiers in a Ford Truck riding behind them opening fire on the people rushing up toward the road.
“They’re taking care of it,” the truck driver assured her.
Katie looked at his grim expression then returned her gaze to the tiny mirror reflecting the horror behind them. She saw two of the soldiers hurtling something into the back of the crashed truck, then there were two loud bangs.
Travis sighed and pulled Katie back into his arms. Kissing her brow, he whispered, “We’ll get home soon and put this day far behind us.”
Katie nodded mutely. She still wasn’t sure her father or Bill was alive. She knew Jenni was dead and now so were all the people in that truck. All those poor people who thought they were saved were now dead.
Travis gently stroked her stomach and her hand intertwined with his.
They stared into each others eyes, then kissed, holding each other close.
* * * * * Kevin slid out of the truck and landed hard on his feet. He felt bone weary and numb. Motioning to a Dodge Ram full of soldiers, he stood in the road watching the convoy come to a slow stop. The road was straddled between two wide fields, so it would be easy to see if any of the zombies came their way.
Bette was the first one to him, her face pinched and tired. “What’s up?”
“We lost a truck back there. We need to search the rest of the vehicles for infected. We need to go vehicle to vehicle,” Kevin instructed.
Kevin sighed, rubbing the back of his head with one hand. He looked over the faces of the eight soldiers gathered around him. “We have no choice.
For several tense minutes, there was silence as each man and woman was thoroughly searched for any bites by Bette. Cleared, they moved out.
Kevin hesitated, swore, then followed. If he expected his people to do the shit job, then he better damn well be willing to do it himself.
The first truck was his own. People were helped down and it was laid out simply to them. One woman hesitated then held out her arm, showing a clear bite. Those around her immediately drew back and the woman began to cry.
Startled that someone in his own truck was infected, Kevin took a deep breath. “It’s okay, ma’am. Just step over there.”
“I’m really sorry,” she said again. “I wanted to say something, but it doesn’t really hurt. Maybe…” She stopped then broke into sobs.
Bette carefully led her over to the side of the road and the woman sat down on the ground crying.