They reached Juan’s memorial garden and found Katie sitting on a bench with Lenore. The big, black girl was crying silently, clutching a bright pink teddy bear. Peggy sat nearby dabbing at her eyes and smoking a cigarette.
Maddie sat beside Rune, eyes closed, tears staining her face. Rune had his head down, his arm around Maddie’s shoulders, grief etched into his posture.
“This is just the beginning of it,” Kevin said somberly.
Both of the men hesitated at the edge of the garden, feeling as if they were about to enter sacred ground. Above them the second helicopter was coming in.
“We did the right thing,” Travis said finally. “We’ve diverted half of them today.”
Kevin nodded. “Doesn’t make it feel any better though, does it?”
Katarina came up behind them with the Reverend, her soft cries breaking both men’s hearts. They turned as she drew near and she forced a smile.
“He died like he wanted to,” she assured them.
Travis hugged her first and kissed her cheek. He could feel the deep shudders inside her body and it broke his heart. She turned to Kevin and hugged him, too.
Katie came, kissed Katarina’s cheek, and drew her into the garden. For a brief moment, Travis took Katie’s hand and they exchanged a deep, sorrowful look. The Reverend joined the mourners and took a seat, his Bible clutched in his hands.
Peggy nodded and dabbed at her eyes with her damp Kleenex again.
“I think it was new,” Travis said. “Poor Peggy. Poor Ken and Dale.”
They reached the doorway to the hotel and both men looked up. It seemed unconquerable and strong, but they could not depend on that impression.
“Let’s get to work,” Travis said, walking into the hotel.
The room was dark except for a small Sponge Bob night light tucked into a wall socket across the room. Kevin sat at her side, his hand tucked under her long, pale hand. It felt slightly cool to his touch and he pressed his other hand on top of it to warm it.
Nerit looked younger with her hair falling gracefully alongside her face.
Her strong features were not what someone would call beautiful, but perhaps elegant. Kevin wondered what she had looked like as a young Israeli sniper.
It was nearly midnight and the fort was very quiet. The day had drained everyone. It was hard to find one dry eye in the entire fort. Dale, Ken and Bill were men who left an impression. The chapel had been overflowing with people trying to attend an impromptu memorial service.
Meanwhile, the meeting in the manager’s office had been crazy. Calhoun had crashed it, bearing his camera like a samurai sword. A few other concerned citizens had forced their way in as well. It had been a tense event with quite a few raised voices.
The recon mission with Juan had showed just how successful they had been in their attempt to draw off the zombies. The two trucks had directed a majority of the zombies traveling along the road toward West Texas.
That had been the good news.
The bad news had been a large swarm of zombies that were trekking through the wild and nowhere near a road. A segment of this group had swarmed the Durango with Ken and Dale inside. Some of those zombies were still standing in the road around the Durango. Another portion had drifted off toward the West. Another faction was traveling down the road.
Despite the success of the mission to direct the zombies away from the fort, the loss of life had been high. Since most of the zombies were off the roads at this point, it was determined not to send anymore Durangos out.
“We’re going to have to fight them on the outskirts of town. We control this area. There are too many variables out on those roads that we cannot control,” Travis had said.
“The secret government is controlling the clones, I tell you,” Calhoun had declared immediately. “They are trying to wipe us out cause we won’t obey their stupid laws.”
Kevin smiled slightly at the memory and looked toward Nerit’s peaceful face. “You should have been there, Nerit. Calhoun was in top form.”
“And how the hell do you expect to fight off that many zombies on our territory?” one of the concerned citizens had shouted back.
That question actually led to some positive planning. Kevin had been amazed by the plans organized by a man named Roger and a bunch of teenagers. Evidently the science teacher, who had perished on a mission, had worked with the kids on some very creative ideas to defend the fort. It was Juan’s adopted son, Jason, who had laid out the plans for the adults.
Calhoun had to be his weird self. He repeatedly sniffed Jason, declaring, “He is possessed by his dead mother, Jenni! Her wisdom from beyond the grave is guiding him!”
His odd declaration worked in their favor, because Calhoun then shut up and stared enraptured at the teenager.
In the end, the meeting had terrified everyone with the truth of the oncoming dead, but had calmed everyone when the plans to defend the fort were laid out.
It would take a lot of hard work to pull it off, but it was doable. How effective it would be was yet to be seen.
“It is never easy to face death. Even when you have laid out plans so perfect in composition you cannot believe they will fail,” a voice said behind Kevin, jarring him from his memories.
He turned in his chair to see a young woman standing next to the bricked up window. She had long blond hair that was braided over one shoulder and was wearing a uniform he did not immediately recognize until he saw the Israeli flag. Tall, lean, and elegant despite her intense stare, she was striking to gaze upon.
Stepping toward him, he saw the sniper rifle slung over one of her shoulders.
“The truth of any war is that you must plan for any eventuality. You must be persistent in trying to tear apart your own strategies. You must anticipate all possibilities and be prepared to immediately adapt.” The young woman ignored the form on the bed and sat next to him, her keen gaze resting on his face. “You must know your enemy and never underestimate him.”
“The enemy is dead, Nerit. They are us, dead and gone, but still up and moving around. You know this,” Kevin answered. “They don’t think. They just do.”
“Again, you are underestimating them. Three men died today. You almost lost three others.” Her gaze was so intense it was almost unbearable.
Kevin took a deep breath and looked at the old woman in her bed then to the woman seated next to him. He could see the similarity between them.
“If I am and I am sitting here talking to you, then consider the capabilities of those who are dead and out there.”
“But they don’t think, Nerit,” he insisted. “They just kill and eat.”
“A force drives them,” Nerit answered. “A basic need to eat. That is instinct. It is overwhelming. And that instinct makes them cunning whether or not you wish to believe it.”
“There is no way those things are smart, Nerit”
“Cunning. A small child is cunning when it wants a cookie in a jar. It just does what it has to to get to the jar on the counter. It moves on instinct, does what it must.”
Kevin stared at the young woman’s face all the while holding the old woman’s hand. “I see what you are saying.”
“Desperation can create the most deadly of foes,” Nerit said.
Letting go of the old woman’s hand he reached out and grasped that of the younger. He could feel the similarity between the hands even though the older woman’s knuckles were thicker. The young version of Nerit stared intently back at him.
“We need you,” Kevin said. “You can’t just leave us.”
“I obey my God. I will do as He says,” Nerit answered.
Kevin had not expected this answer for some reason. Nerit had never come across as especially religious in anyway.
“We’re all praying that you wake up,” Kevin whispered. “We’re lost without you.”
The young woman’s hands encircled his and she leaned toward him. “You are all stronger than you realize. I am just a soldier who has more experience than you. All of you are capable of great things. Today, Bill, Dale and Ken did great things whether they realized it or not.”
“I need you back,” Kevin said, his voice breaking. Tears filled his eyes. “I need you back, Nerit. You make me feel less alone in this world. Less afraid. I stand next to you and I feel strong.”
Nerit’s young face smiled at him softly. “Have faith in yourself, Kevin. You did good things at the mall. You saved so many.”