I couldn’t see why the car in front had slowed down until I reached the bridge. An old, glacier-blue Buick was stalled on the side of the road. The windows were rolled up, and a couple remained inside. A woman was staring blankly out the window, only moving when the man next to her tugged while he tore at her flesh with his teeth.
Instinctively, I thought to cover the eyes of my children. In the same moment I realized they weren’t with me, and the panic and anxiety of getting to them, and wondering where they were and if they were scared or okay, became nearly too overwhelming for me to drive.
“I’m coming, babies,” I said, swallowing the sob welling up in my throat.
One long stretch of highway north and another equally long stretch to the east would lead me to my girls. Two small towns stood between us. Their populations were only a few thousand, if that, but that was too many people to wade through if the dead were wandering the streets.
Most of the caravan turned west, toward more rural areas. It was the direction I would have headed if my girls were with me. West on Highway 11 was one of the roads we would’ve taken to get to Dr. Hayes’s ranch.
Along with just two other vehicles, I turned the Jeep east, where each town’s population was bigger than the last: Kellyville, Fairview, and then Anderson was on the other side of the interstate.
The stories of the families in the other two vehicles piqued my curiosity. Ahead of me was the Toyota with the car seat, behind me was a green seventies-ish pickup truck. Whether it held one person or a family I couldn’t tell; the truck kept several car lengths back.
Five minutes from Kellyville, my hands began to tremble. I wondered if the other two drivers were as afraid as I was. Preparing for an outbreak like this was impossible, even when we’d been told for decades that it could happen, and were presented with hundreds of different methods of survival by the entertainment industry. Hoarding food, weapons, medicine. But none of that mattered if you were bitten . . . or eaten.
The Toyota sped up a bit as we entered Kellyville’s city limits. My nerves were on edge, and my brow felt damp. At any second a quick turn or evasion maneuver might be necessary.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the town appeared abandoned. No walking dead, no living humans. No running, no screaming. It gave me hope that maybe some way, somehow, the epidemic had stalled.
We left unscathed, just as we had come in, but it felt too easy. Something wasn’t right. I turned up the volume on the radio, but the news was the same. Once in a while they would report that someone famous had been found dead or was killed because they’d succumbed to the sickness spreading, but even then the story was similar.
The DJ reported that the state capitol had been overrun just as we entered the west side of Fairview. A sick feeling came over me as we passed the high school. Bodies littered the football field, whole and in parts. I couldn’t tell if it was students or adults, or a little of both. I tried not to look that close. A few corpses were ambling around, but nothing like I’d expected to see in a town overrun. Maybe they had gotten out.
The Toyota ahead of me slowed to a stop. I wasn’t sure what to do. In the rearview mirror, the pickup stopped, too, maybe a hundred yards back. I waited for a moment, and then glanced around, hoping for an answer.
I had several all in one second.
The church on the corner was surrounded by reanimated corpses. Women, men . . . and children. Some with torn, bloody clothes, some I couldn’t tell had been wounded at all, but I could see from the road that they all shared the same milky-white eyes. I shuttered at the sight, feeling more desperate to get going.
The dead were banging on the boarded windows and the doors. They moved sluggishly and clumsily, but fervently. They were hungry. A vertical trail of bright-red blood was on the west wall. Someone wounded had crawled to the upper level. The mob seemed to be drawn to it.
I understood then why the Toyota had stopped. There were people inside. They’d holed up in the church, and probably had nowhere to go.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said quietly. “Not with that baby in the car.”
The Toyota horn beeped once, and then again, getting the attention of a few of the bloody corpses pounding on the front doors of the church. The horn beeped a couple more times, and then the driver’s side door popped open, and a man stepped out, waving his arms.
“Hey!” he yelled to the corpses. “This way! Come over here!”
A few more turned in his direction, and then immediately stopped their plight to make a lumbering, slow journey to the road. Their shuffling caught the attention of more, and then a whole section of them broke away from the church to trudge in our direction.
“Shit,” I said, my eyes darting between the corpses and the Toyota. I honked several times, too. “Get in the car. Get in the car!” I yelled the last words, banging my palms against the steering wheel.
The man jumped up and down a few more times.
“Get in, John! Get in!” his wife screamed, leaning over the console and grabbing for him.
John jumped back in, and pulled away quickly. I followed close behind, my heart thumping in my chest as I passed the approaching corpses safely.
A dozen or more appeared in my rearview mirror, and then I saw several people—alive people—dart across the street. The green pickup was still a block away from the church, waiting for something.
My heart never settled down after we left Fairview. I was just that much closer to my children, and closer to the obstacles I would likely face to get to them, closer to knowing if they were alive.
Tears streamed down my face as we approached the overpass that would bring us into the edge of my hometown. At first, it didn’t faze me that there were army reserve vehicles of every shape and size parked at the mouth of the overpass. I was too distracted by the mess of vehicles on the interstate below.
“Jesus,” I breathed.
It was as I had feared. Multiple-car pileups and stalled vehicles. Some people were standing outside of their cars and trucks, begging from the on-ramp for the soldiers to let them pass.
The Toyota stopped at what seemed like a checkpoint. John exited the car, and immediately something felt off. The soldiers were antsy, their eyes darting from each other, to the car, to John. Governor Bellmon was in town, so they were probably keeping Anderson quarantined, controlling who came in. Making sure no shuffling dead snuck by and threatened the man who might be the only living member of the state government, especially knowing the state capitol had been overrun.