She stepped neatly over a few rotting bodies on her way to the truck. Once settled behind the wheel, she patted her suitcase and smiled.
It would be good to approach the fort with a motherly smile in place, her well-prepared speech spilling from her lips ringing out as though it was flowing from her heart. She would even let tears spring to her eyes. They would have pity on her and take her in. She would be humble and repentant before them.
Slowly, she would work her way back into their hearts and back to the top.
But this time, oh, yes, this time, she would be Mother Teresa, the Virgin Mary, and Princess Diana all rolled into one. They would forgive her past and embrace her as one of their own. It would be only a matter of time before she ousted Travis and became the fort leader. Then, she would slowly, but surely make the fort believe in her special plans for them.
The drive toward the fort was boring. The sun was just barely rising and a scattered mist gave the impression of wandering ghosts flowing over the fields. She hummed to herself as she drove and couldn’t help but smile.
Failure was not an option to her. She had taken a hard knock, but she knew how to recover. Lord knows if George Bush could win a second term in office way back when, she sure as hell could get her ass into the fort.
Cresting the hill, she looked down at the fort and gasped. The walls were a lot more extensive than she had remembered the photos showing and there seemed to be catapults mounted on top of buildings. A lot of the town had been demolished, but there was a no man’s land leading up to the fort walls for a two block radius in every direction except for a large expanse before the hotel.
Pushing down on the accelerator, she drove the truck down the winding road until she was driving through the old demolished neighborhoods toward the east side of the town. Many of the roads were destroyed or barricaded with what looked like the remains of the old houses and buildings. It was like driving through a maze.
She never saw the hole the truck fell into, but one second it was cruising just fine, the next it was nose down in a huge hole in the ground. Luckily she had her seat belt on and only hit her forehead on the padded steering wheel, but the jolt made her scream. She hadn’t even seen the hole and it was huge. How she had missed it, she couldn’t imagine. Staring out the windshield she was eye level with the road. The truck was sputtering its last as steam rose from beneath the crumpled hood.
Getting out of the truck slowly, her heels sank into the mud gripping the front tires. The hole was about three feet deep and the mud immediately sucked her shoes off her feet. Panicked, she managed to grab her suitcase and fling it and herself onto the back end of the truck bed. She had to scramble, but she managed to climb in. Catching her breath, she looked down at the hole again to see what looked like a swatch of cloth painted like the road mushed up into the mud.
“A fucking trap,” she muttered. Probably for outlaws. Cursing under her breath, she opened her suitcase and pulled out a fresh pair of shoes. Using a blouse to clean off her feet, she kept an eye on her surroundings. No undead fuckers were around here. Tucking her feet into the almost too tight black shoes, she forced herself to calm down. She would walk to the wall of the fort. It would be fine. She zipped up her suitcase and decided to leave it there. Someone could come back for it. It was a little pain getting the bullhorn she had found in Blanche’s sports closet out of the cab, but she managed to lean in through the open doorway and snag it.
Maneuvering over the cab of the truck was difficult and she almost fell.
Finally, she managed to leap from the top of it onto the street. A quick tuck of her blouse, fluff of her hair, and adjust of her jacket, and she was ready again. Taking a few deep breaths, she concentrated on reclaiming her earlier mood. That’s right, she had to be positive and glowing. She had to be as genuine as possible to win over those behind the walls. She was sure she could do just that.
Walking briskly down the street, clutching the bullhorn, she kept her eyes on the corner. She would have to go around that corner, then down another block to draw near the wall. The windows and doors of all the buildings were boarded or bricked up, so she wasn’t worried about anything lurching out at her.
She reached the intersection and took another breath.
This time she caught whiff of something bad. She spun around worriedly and spotted a dead body sprawled on the street nearby. It looked like someone in a police uniform and they were truly dead. Nothing to worry about there. She looked beyond the body down the long narrow street that seemed to swerve around toward the area where the hotel loomed. Again, she felt like she was in a maze.
Turning to face the wall, now a block down from her, she walked on. The sun was higher in the sky now and sweat began to trickle down the back of her neck. She shrugged her shoulders and felt a few beads of moisture slide down her spine. Ugh! She hated sweating.
Her foot hit something on the road and she stumbled forward in an unstoppable fall. She reached out to catch herself and heard a sharp mechanical clang. The ground was rushing up to meet her and she gasped.
She never hit the ground but was abruptly shoved back as what felt like an invisible truck hit her. Gasping, she found herself gazing at her hand lying on the ground a few feet away from her, the bullhorn still gripped tightly in it. Her mind sputtered as it tried to register what she was seeing and feeling. It was a cascade of information filling her brain and she could barely comprehend what was happening.
Her hand lay nearby, perfectly manicured, sliced off at the wrist. Her vision was blurred with a thick liquid flowing from her forehead. She tried to move, but she could not. She felt numb but beneath it was excruciating pain. It made no sense as her body tried to understand its state.
What her mind never understood as the Senator bled to death in a matter of seconds was that one of Jason’s traps had gone off. It was razor wire carefully laid over a frame and rigged to springs. It shot up from its prone position when she had triggered it and locked into latches attached to metal pipes driven into the road. As it had snapped upright, the mesh had cut deeply into her body.
Arteries were sliced open and her blood flowed onto the street and slowly ran downhill past Curtis’ body.
The Senator was still staring at her hand and trying to call for help when her eyes clouded over and death came for her. Her last thought was a panicked one.
They don’t know I’m here, she thought. They don’t know-- Then she was gone.
No one knew. Or would have cared.
2. When All That Is Left Is Goodbye
“So this is what the last day of your life feels like,” Katie mused as she stood in the moving elevator waiting for the doors to open.
“Yep,” Nerit answered from beside her.
“Pretty much,” Travis said as he rubbed her back.
Katie laughed and turned to look at all three of them. “You’re all twisted.”
“It’s a good day to die,” Kevin said from the corner of the elevator.
Katie flicked her gaze at him and shook her finger at him. “Oh, no! I’m not dying.”
“Or she knows something you don’t know,” Nerit teased as the doors opened to the foyer off the ballroom.
It was crammed full of people leaving off their small children, the elderly and the disabled. It had been planned that anyone not involved in the battle would remain at the highest point in the fort. Despite the tension flowing through the room, the sounds were muted and tender. People held their loved ones one last time as they said goodbye.
Katie stepped out and to the side as the others filed out. Everyone was not only saying goodbye but eating breakfast tacos laid out on the buffet tables and drinking coffee. Jack came bounding up to her and she leaned down to hug him.
“Hey, boy,” she whispered, and he licked her face. She flashed back on the old days on the road with Jenni, the dog tucked between them as they rode into the west in their beat up truck, and she smiled a sad smile. “Who thought we’d come this far, huh?”
Jack woofed at her, then took off to weave his way through the crowd back to Juan’s four children. The kids were in the ballroom sitting around Juan’s grandmother’s wheelchair munching away on tacos.
“She gave me four kids,” Juan said to Katie.
Looking toward him, she lifted an eyebrow. “Hmm?”
“Loca. She couldn’t have anymore kids, but she found a way to give me four. Two boys, two girls.” Juan grinned. “That woman had a way of getting her way, huh?”
Pulling her close, Juan held Katie, then kissed her cheek. “Thank you for bringing my Loca to me.”
Tears sprang instantly into her eyes and she couldn’t speak.
Juan seemed to understand and patted her cheek, then headed over to his kids.