Blood on the Road
Rickett stood before the door and tightened his grip on the aluminum bat in his right hand. There seemed to be a significant gap of silence between the shots fired in the black truck’s cab and the other men exiting their trucks, which were parked in the middle of the road, perpendicular to the wreckage.
The first man out hopped down from the driver’s side of a lifted blue pickup. He said something to the passenger in his cab before moving his attention to the black pickup and placing his hand on a firearm holstered on his right hip. His clothes were splattered with a mixture of blood and earth; red, brown, and black—a Rorschach of life and death, of survival and defeat—covered him from shoulder to boot. He moved to the front of his truck and motioned to the other pickup, a smaller, white pickup truck with wheel wells caked in mud—or gore for all Rickett knew. The driver of the white truck—a broad chested, heavier fellow—exited and brought a shotgun with him.
The two men met in front of the blue truck and talked, motioning towards the black pick up, the school, and the road ahead throughout their dialogue. The driver of the blue truck seemed to be the leader of the two men as he did most of the jawing while the other fellow nodded. They eventually broke their huddle and headed toward the black truck and surrounding wreckage. Rickett moved away from the door, trying to position himself against the cooler of water so they wouldn’t see him as they approached the truck. Because the gym had so many windows, Rickett was able to keep an eye on the drivers.
The others moved slowly, cautiously, towards the truck. The leader, the man splattered with blood and dirt, drew his gun, a 9mm, and approached the driver’s side door. The man with the shotgun advanced to the passenger side door.
Rickett knew what they would find. Death was all too familiar with him lately, and it almost seemed to gravitate towards him. You’ll find them, dead. Bullets in the head. But he still waited, frozen with anticipation to see their reactions, and—ultimately—to pass judgment on them.
Just how human were they?
Obeying a bark from the leader, the larger man opened the passenger side first and peered into the cab with the shotgun raised.
“Dead,” he said. “Johnny’s dead.” His shoulders slump and he takes a step back, lowering the shotgun. “Stan, too.”
Now that they were closer, Rickett didn’t need to strain to hear them or make out their words; the rest of the world was silent.
“Hell, now,” the other man exclaimed. “Why’d they go and do that?” The leader jerked open the driver’s side door to look for himself.
“You saw what happened back there,” the larger man yelled, pointing in the direction of the school hidden within the billowing smoke screen that slowly inched its way closer.
“Ain’t nothin’ we coulda done to protect everyone.”
“Sure there was. We could’ve turned around and got help, but you and Stan thought we could handle it alone,” he accused the leader.
“They got bit. Stan musta shot Johnny before slingin’ one inta his own head.” His voice was detached, uncaring.
A horn sounded from the blue pickup. A blonde fellow opened the passenger door and yelled over the roof of the truck’s cab at the two men squabbling around the wreckage: “Got more coming this way!”
The biters had broken containment from the school; the others’ effort to regain control with the fences of fire had floundered. Rickett couldn’t see how many were emerging from the smoke, but he knew that if there was one, more were not far behind.
“We need to take them back.”
“What’s that?” the leader asked.
“We’re taking them back, Clint.” The larger fellow moved back toward his truck. “Terry,” he said to the blonde, “climb out and give us a hand.” Terry looked to Clint for confirmation, but Clint didn’t notice.
“List’n here, Gus!” Clint barked, charging after Gus, who had already placed the shotgun on his driver’s seat. “We ain’t got the time for that. Scabs are trailin’ us, and we already lost two back there.”
“Sarah and Alex are gone because of your decision. You ordered us to retreat, and so we did.” He donned a pair of work gloves and walked around Clint to the black truck. “We can make it right. Stan had his boys back at the lot. Johnny’s wife is pregnant. This is the least we can do.”
Rickett was in pain, and not because of his sore ankle. He could see the loss and frustration on Gus’ face, how everything was turning his beard gray and hardening his brow into a consistent scowl. He could tell Gus cared, if not for the dead, for at least those who would mourn them. Rickett wanted to help, but now was not the time. There was still Clint, and he wasn’t sure about the blonde fellow. Clint was too eager to leave, and that pained Rickett even more. The guilt of leaving Gavin rose like bile in his throat: acidic and bitter.
“Alright, Gus. You’ll get your way this time,” Clint said as he motioned for Terry to jump out of the truck and help expedite the process. “But I’ll have to tell Vince.”
“That’s fine,” Gus groaned as he pulled Johnny’s body from the wrecked truck. “That’ll give me a time to let him know how it got to this point.” Terry grabbed Johnny’s legs. Both men struggled to carry the dead weight back to his white pickup. They laid Johnny’s limp corpse on the trucks bed.
“Dammit,” Clint scoffed. “Scabs are closin’ on us.” All three men turn to face the biters headed their way and closing the distance, their tongues flicking in and out of their mouths, tasting the air to find their prey. Rickett couldn’t see their eyes, but he had been close enough to them to know the milky, mucus-based film that covered their wild, searching eyes was there. He knew the brown, frothy saliva that leaked from their mouths. Their insatiable hunger. He knew it all too well.
“How the hell did there get to be so many?” Terry squawked as he and Gus made their way back to the truck to collect Stan’s body.
“Place was turned inta quarantine once it was evacuated. The mercenaries gathered all the wounded and housed ‘em in the lots and dorms.” Clint faced the swarming hive of biters and yelled over his shoulder, “We ain’t got the time to grab Stan. We got to head out.”
“Stan comes with us,” Gus hollered, pulling Stan from the driver’s seat. “We took on more back there, so just knock them around until we can get Stan’s body loaded up.”
“His boys, Clint!” Gus almost dropped Stan’s body before Terry was able to grab its legs.
Clint vaulted into curse-laden rant, yelling on his way back to his truck, and Rickett was losing it. The itch to help was there. But Clint—he had to watch Clint. Something wasn’t right about this. He felt Clint was about to abandon the others as they were attempting to rescue their friend’s body from the biters. Instead, Clint pulled a machete from the truck’s cab and advanced to the closest predator.
Gus and Terry struggled with Stan’s body. He was a larger fellow, a little bigger than Gus. The stress of the situation was obviously wearing on them and causing them to almost fumble the body to the ground.
Clint was smart to not initiate the fray by slinging bullets and creating more noise with each shot. Instead, he swung the machete and grunted when he pulled the weapon free from his target. Clint moved out of Rickett’s line of sight as he continued his advance, attempting to hold the biters at bay.
“Terry!” Clint yelled. “Get your ass over here!” More grunts came from Clint; Terry stumbled and dropped Stan’s legs. Gus was off balance but caught himself to avoid falling completely to the asphalt.
Terry grabbed sledgehammer from the blue truck and went to help Clint. If Rickett wanted to see the outcome, he would have had to move his position at the cooler. He was able to see the oncoming horde of biters but not the two fighters that helped buffer Gus from the violence.
The hive was expanding, growing, almost pulse-like from the smoke. Rickett couldn’t tell how many were actually out there, but the number had grown from around a dozen to easily forty or so. Shit, he thinks to himself. The storm is here.
What Clint and Terry didn’t take into consideration was how the biters were predators, not just stumbling brawlers. They stalked their prey as a group, expanding and contracting when necessary to trap their victims, as their entire existence was based on consumption.
And that’s when Rickett finally decided to act. Biters were spreading themselves out, strategically placing themselves in positions to broaden their reach. Terry and Clint were primarily to the right of the scene, smashing and cutting, but Gus, attempting to heave the weight of Stan’s corpse into the bed of his truck, was to the left. Like a giant carnivorous mouth opening to eventually close on its prey, Rickett sensed the looming danger, and Gus was weaponless. Gus was human, overwhelmed by compassion, something that set them apart from the biters or the “scabs” as Clint called them.
“Clint!” Gus tried to yell, but the attempts to heave Stan’s lifeless body onto the truck’s bed had stolen his wind. He knew what was around him, and he may have been regretting his decision to rescue Stan’s body.
Disregarding the pain in his ankle, Rickett moved quickly, opened the door, and raised his revolver.
He fired two shots, immediately dropping two biters closing in on Gus. Clint and Terry were startled, not expecting to hear gunshots, knowing the sounds would only bring more frothing mouths in their direction.
“Who the—,” Gus clamored.
“Never mind that,” Rickett roared back. “Get the body in the truck.”
But Gus was still fumbling his words, unsure of who this new face was and what danger he may have posed.
“Hurry!” Rickett yelled at him, firing his last shot and tossing the revolver. Another biter fell, giving Rickett time and space to help Gus pick up Stan’s legs and get the body onto the truck’s tailgate. Before Gus could respond, Rickett had moved away from the white truck to fend off a few more biters.
“Hey, you!” Clint moved towards Rickett, using the machete to carve a path, leaving gaping wounds in the biters’ brittle heads. But Rickett ignored him and continued swinging the bat, aluminum shattering bones and faces, crushing the milky white eyes and open jaws.
It wasn’t until Rickett had fought off enough biters that he became fully aware of his situation. Clint and Terry were advancing towards him, yelling. Clint drew his weapon and pointed the machete. Rickett was ready for the confrontation, but he wasn’t ready for the blow from Gus, the Remington’s stock hitting his temple, sending him spiraling into darkness.