Chapter 22-2: Almost Dead

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Apocalypse, books, creative writing, drama, Free Online Novel, free zombie books, Horror, horror fiction, killing zombies, living dead, monsters, mystery, novels, serial novels, Survival, suspense, thriller, Uncategorized, walking dead, zombie books, Zombies
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Unknown239

~~~

Once inside the dark building, one of the teens placed a thick wooden beam across the double doors as the others turned on flashlights.

Gina and her group followed Rusty down a dark hallway bordered on both sides by ancient looking lockers. There was debris scattered all along the hall and the air smelled damp and musty. They passed old devastated classrooms along the way, which afforded the only sunlight, as beams of light breached through cracks in boarded up windows and lighting up dust particles in the air.

“Sorry about the mess,” Rusty said. “We left the first floor as it was after the attack on the town to dissuade anyone from thinking we lived here. What you’re seeing is what’s left of the original school after they renovated this place. The main floor was meant to maintain the history of the school while the second and third floors were turned into loft-style apartments. The bungalow on the roof was the last thing added a few years ago. We live on the second floor and up.”

Greg looked up at the ceiling. “Gina, look at that.”

Gina turned and noticed that the whole hallway ceiling was covered in razor ribbon, barbed wire, and a whole assortment of dangerously sharp objects. “Shit,” she whispered.

Rusty laughed. “Yeah… we’ve been busy. That’s our latest renovation to this old building. We have the whole ceiling rigged to collapse if anything gets in on the first floor. There’s only one main hallway in and out of here with a central staircase at the middle of the hall full of so much razor ribbon and whatever else we could find, so that anyone trying to climb the stairs would end up bleeding to death before they made the first landing. There’s a north and south entrance at both ends of the hall which are secured with lock bars. All the classroom windows on the first floor are boarded shut as well.”

“You have been busy,” Stephen remarked. “I have to say, from a teacher’s perspective, I would never have imagined walking into a school full of razor wire and booby traps.” Stephen was stunned. He tried to stay focused on Rusty’s defenses to keep the nostalgia of his former life from overwhelming him. I wonder if I’ll ever see a classroom full of aspiring young minds again.

“We have a teacher upstairs. Miss Marple’s nearly as old as I am. She’s the exception to the last name rule since no one’s ever called Miss Marple by any other name than Miss Marple. She actually taught here a thousand years ago.” Rusty let out a hearty laugh which made Gina smile. “She helps out with the children and she’s one helluva good cook, as well. It’s been a blessing to have her around.”

“You have children here?” Gina asked.

“You’ll meet the rest soon enough,” Rusty said. After leading them beyond the fortified staircase, he stopped before a large door labeled, GYM. “It’s small compared to what the high school has, but we have a full basketball court with a balcony running track above it. It’s a damn shame we can’t risk letting the kids come down to use it. But the track makes an excellent fighting position if we need to stop the monsters from getting any farther… assuming they don’t get tangled up in all the razor ribbon in the hall.”

“Excuse me, Rusty,” Marcus said. “How do you get upstairs? Even if there was an elevator, I don’t imagine there’s power to run it. I didn’t see another staircase that wasn’t full of razor ribbon, either.”

Rusty smiled and said, “Just follow me and you’ll see.” They all entered the gym.

The windows were covered with desks and tables—anything that wasn’t bolted down on the first floor was torn up for lumber and used to secure them. The court itself, although the dust had clearly settled, was surprisingly clear of debris.

Marcus looked up and saw a woman with a hunting rifle watching them from the oval-shaped running track which ran the perimeter of the entire gym.

Rusty waved a hand at the woman and she waved back. “We watch the gym at all times. It’s probably the most vulnerable way into the school. Ahh, here we go.” The old man approached a large set of bleachers and pointed up toward a rope ladder which hung over the track railing and descended eight feet toward the top of the bleachers. “Does that answer your question?” he asked Marcus.

“Very clever,” he said. “You almost miss it unless you’re looking for it.”

“That’s the idea,” Rusty said.

Meredith, who had been quiet up until now, looked at Rusty’s walker and then toward the bleachers and said. “It would appear that nothing is what it seems here, Mr. Rusty. Either these young men carry you up and down the bleachers or you are not as handicapped as you would have us believe.”

Rusty turned toward Meredith and noticed her suspicious glance at his walker. He laughed and said, “Now aren’t you a smart old bird.”

“Excuse me?” she said. “I’m not that old!”

“Just an expression, Ma’am,” he said and then looked at the teens and added, “I think she’s figured me out, boys.” At that, Rusty stepped away from the walker and climbed the bleachers with the ease of a man half his age.

“Now that I didn’t expect,” Frank whispered to Gina.

Rusty reached the top of the bleachers, turned, and said, “Well, come on then. Supper’s getting cold.”

“You’re pretty spry for an older gentleman,” Gina said with a laugh. She signaled the others to follow Rusty up the bleachers.

“Never trust what you see, Gina, and never underestimate the value of deception. When you have little else to arm yourself with, a good ruse may just give you the edge when you need it. I learned that a long time ago.”

“Sound advice,” Frank said with a smile. He whispered to Gina, “I think I like this guy.”

Rusty ascended the rope ladder and waved them up. “If you need a hand, Tommy and the boys can help you.”

After everyone was safely up on the running track, the woman on watch pulled the rope ladder back up and laid it on the floor.

Rusty was already in the second floor hallway. “Well… come on, then!” he barked back impatiently.

He led them down a hallway lit up by kerosene lamps which were placed on school desks just outside the ten apartment doors on the second floor. He casually made remarks as they headed back toward the front of the school. “No one lives down here. We’ve turned most of these apartments into storage rooms for whatever we could salvage from the cafeteria, gymnasium and a few others rooms on the first floor. Whatever we didn’t use to board up the place, and whatever was useful, ended up in these rooms. I send the boys out for runs at night when we’ve got the moonlight on our side and whatever they bring back from town also ends up on this floor.”

They reached the end of the hall, which opened up into what appeared to be a large lounge converted into a play area for children. There were several large fold-up gym mats spread out across the floor, shelves full of toys and various board games, and a few more desks placed along the walls with colored paper and crayons. Directly above the playroom was one large window, covered in a thick black material to keep the interior light from reaching out into the streets below. Off to their left, another flight of stairs led up to the third floor.

Gina couldn’t help staring at the numerous pictures taped on the walls. The children living here were still drawing rainbows and unicorns, along with their families and friends, dogs and trees and mountains… She was nearly overwhelmed with emotion.

Rusty caught them all staring and laughed. “This was Miss Marple’s doing. She insisted we make the kids a place to… well… just be kids for as long as such a thing is still possible. Quite brilliant, really. The families take turns watching the children at all times when we let them loose down here. You should see the little buggers. They act like nothing’s changed when they’re in here.”

Meredith was openly weeping. “This is wonderful,” she said. “I could sit down on these mats and get lost in here for hours.”

Greg looked back down the hallway and asked, “Is this area secure? Don’t you worry about them little ones wanderin’ off?”

Rusty pointed to a large plywood barrier with cut out gun ports, which was mounted along the intersecting wall on what looked like a sliding mechanism that stored neatly beneath the stairwell. “When the kids are down here, we slide that all the way across the hallway. It latches into place on the opposite wall. It’s sturdier than it looks.”

“And you have a fall back fighting position should something make it to the second floor,” Frank added.

“You got it, big guy,” Rusty winked. “Fortunately, we have never had to use it other than just to keep the kids contained. Ready to head up?”

Gina and the others looked toward Rusty as if waking from a trance. The children’s play room seemed like a paradise in light of the horrors just beyond the brick walls. They reluctantly followed Rusty up to the stairs.

The third floor was like the second; ten more apartment doors lined the hallway. There were no lamps lit up on the third floor. Another large window at the other end of the hall facing the rear of the building provided the only light.

“We leave it dark up here for safety reasons,” Rusty explained. “With all of our sleeping quarters on this floor, we don’t need an accidental fire on our hands. Besides, there’s plenty of light coming in through the south window at night. Not much of a view, unless you like staring out at the top of some trees, but it’s good concealment from the south should anything start staring up at our windows from the street. We’re almost there now. Roof stairwell is near the end of the hall. Used to be a mounted ladder, but when they build the penthouse addition on the roof, they added the staircase. Everyone’s topside getting supper ready. If we don’t hurry, they’ll start without us.”

Frank elbowed Greg and pointed out two more plywood barricades on the third floor, which were fastened to the walls and looked like they folded out and across the hallway almost like saloon doors. One was at the top of the third floor landing and the other, just before reaching the last stairwell up to the roof. “Last line of defense,” he whispered.

Halfway up the final stairwell, they could already smell the food.

“It ain’t hot dogs, hamburgers and steaks these days,” Rusty said apologetically. “Most of it is potted meats—whatever we could find out in town—but you’d be amazed at what a little grilling, sauces and spices can do to canned ham and tuna.”

Rusty led them up to the roof top.

“Well would you look at that,” Meredith said, immediately taking in the view of the twilight sky as wispy cirrus clouds graced the fading blue canopy overhead in soft hues of pink and red, resembling gentle strokes from God’s paintbrush before finishing his sunset masterpiece. Early evening stars slowly began to breach the sky and a cool October breeze gently eased the senses.

Rusty watched in amusement as his dinner guests gawked at the roof top paradise.

Just ahead of them was the penthouse, which was just a small two-bedroom, one-story bungalow which sat toward the back while the rest of the roof formed a neat horse shoe shaped porch around it. On the left side of the apartment was a small patio with various lawn chairs surrounding three charcoal grills.

A man in an apron was busy grilling up dinner on one of them. The man turned briefly, saw Rusty and his guests, and gave them a quick wave before returning to his grilling.

Stephen waved back long after the man had turned, feeling like an idiot.

On the right side of the roof, there were four large picnic tables connected to form one community table where several people either sat chatting away or were busy setting up plates, lighting candles, or placing food dishes along the center of the tables. Everyone tried to remain polite and not stare back at Gina’s crew, trusting in Rusty to take care of introductions. Everyone, except the children, who were pointing and laughing at the strangers.

The teenagers came up last, saw the man grilling, and looked to Rusty anxiously.

Rusty nodded and the teens rushed over to the grill where the man whipped up some To-Go plates. The hungry boys took their food and headed back downstairs.

Greg and Frank admired the set up. The entire roof top was surrounded by an eight-foot tall wooden picket fence which made the roof look like an enclosed yard with the apartment at its center. From the street, the fence completely hid them from view with the exception of four sliding ports which were cut into each side of the fence.

Gina and the others didn’t know what to do. These were the first regular people they’d seen since the camp at the power plant, doing regular things from a past they all believed had perished. To their exhausted minds and heavy hearts… the scene was a little overwhelming.

The old man’s laughter brought them back. “My… oh… my… you folks have been on the road for far too long, if your shock is any indication. Haven’t you ever been to a cookout?”

“You’re the first real people we’ve seen in a very long time,” Gina said, feeling a bit choked up. “You’ll have to forgive our staring… it’s just that… this seems more like a dream than anything we could hope to be real.”

“Well, the food’s real enough,” Rusty said, breaking the ice. “Let’s go find you folks a seat and I’ll introduce you to the last living neighborhood in all of Jefferson.

Aside from the five armed teenage boys who seemed to be the only real protection Rusty’s group had, the rest of the old man’s group comprised of several families with a combined kid total of eight, nine adults, and an old retired school teacher they all called Miss Marple, who appeared to be in charge of the day-to-day operations inside the apartment complex.

Introductions were brief. Names were quickly thrown about the crowded picnic area. Parents tried to keep their kids under control while others were busy filling up paper plates with food or carrying on sidebar conversations.

Rusty took a seat at the vacant end of the combined tables and motioned for his guests to join him on either side.

Amanda sat down next to Meredith, elbowed the older woman, and whispered, “What strange planet have we landed on again?”

Meredith simply shook her head with a smile while staring at the bustle of activity surrounding the picnic area. “Almost feels like the way it used to be… almost.”

Stephen moved in on Amanda’s opposite side and sat down.

Amanda immediately tensed up.

“Isn’t this great?” Stephen said. “It’s like a roof top public park… without the grass. That food smells good, whatever it is.”

Amanda gave Stephen a weak smile and quickly turned away.

When everyone was finished serving plates full of food, Rusty stood up and said, “If I could have everyone’s attention before we start.”

Everyone in the picnic area took their seats, including the children. All eyes were on the old man.

“Thank you. Well, as you know, we have guests this evening. This marks the first time we’ve seen fresh faces in a good while… and it’s about damn time, too, since I’m tired of looking at most of you.”

This received a few laughs.

“Anyway, these folks have been out there on the road for some time and now they’ve found us. Lord knows we’ve all lost a lot of things these days, but that doesn’t mean first impressions and good manners have fallen to the wayside… so let’s remind these folks what it means to be civilized and treat them to a little home-style cooking, fellowship, and charity befitting of the ways we used to be.”

To Gina’s amazement, everyone began to clap at Rusty’s speech, some were even in tears—the pride of their modified community clearly evident on all their faces.

Even Greg, Stephen and Meredith were clapping, getting caught up in the moment.

Rusty lifted his hands. “Thank you, friends. You do my heart good by reminding me of what we’ve never lost… and that makes all our losses a little more bearable. We still have each other and the Good Lord above who has blessed us in this dark time.”

“Amen,” Greg said.

Rusty turned toward Gina and asked, “Gina, as the leader of your group, would you do us the honor of leading us in prayer this evening?”

“What? Me?” Gina was caught off guard. “With respect, Rusty, prayer is not really my thing. If it’s alright with you, I would like to let my friend, Greg, have that honor.” She turned to him and winked.

Greg was smiling from ear to ear.

Rusty turned to Greg and laughed. “By all means… Greg, would you do us this honor?”

Greg stood up and lowered his head.

Everyone did likewise and the roof top community fell silent.

“Dear Lord,” Greg began, “you’ve always known that I’m just a simple man. I don’t pretend to know your ways like I should, but I try to follow Jesus as best I can these days… even when the sky stays dark and the path is unclear. I just want to thank you for all these good people who gave us a place to stay tonight and reminded us that we are still here and that love is still alive and well… even in the apocalypse. We all come together tonight to give you thanks for seeing us this far and for leading us in the days ahead… no matter how dark the sky remains. Thank you for this meal and may it provide nourishment for our bodies, and may our fellowship with these good people provide nourishment for our souls. In Jesus’s name, Amen.”

“Amen,” came the soft chorus from the tables.

Rusty smiled at Greg and said, “Well put, my brother. God smiles down on his children this evening.”

“Thank you,” Greg said. He felt too many eyes on him and quickly sat down.

Gina continued to look over at her older traveling companion. She had never heard Greg speak so passionately, so clearly and confidently, then in that moment of prayer. She was deeply moved.

She reached over and placed her hand on top of his. “That was beautiful,” she said with a smile.

Greg smiled back and said, “With all this talkin’ and prayin’, it’s a wonder that my food isn’t cold yet.” He finished with a teasing wink.

“Please… everyone eat up!” Rusty said. He then looked over the heads of his guest toward the bungalow. “Now where is that old girl when I need her,” he mumbled to himself. “She’s the talkative one… not me—ahh, here she comes now.”

An older woman with silver hair tied back in a bun, slowly approached the table. She was a big woman, who wore an apron that looked several sizes too small. But the woman’s smile was bigger than her girth.

“It’s about damn time you woke up,” Rusty teased.

“Oh, shut your ever-loving pie hole, you old fart!” the woman said.

Rusty laughed and said to his guests, “Ladies and Gentleman, I introduce you to the definition of class: Miss Marple.”

Miss Marple dismissed him with a wave and sat down near the others. “How’s the food?” she asked. “If you don’t like my cooking, then you best pretend that you do and tell me you love it.”

They laughed.

“It’s wonderful,” Gina said. “Thank you for sharing your food…” she was feeling choked up again as she turned to Rusty and finished, “and for all of your kindness. It’s not what we expected.”

“So, Rusty,” Marcus started, “just how do you and your people manage to have cookouts with the dead roaming the streets?”

“We’ve been cleaning up our streets for some time now,” Rusty explained. “We figured out early that the dead have a nose for blood so we’ve been burning the bodies over at the high school. The scent lingers, as I’m sure you’ve all discovered coming into town. The smell takes some getting used to but it hides our scent effectively-”

“Now enough of that talk,” Miss Marple warned. She gave Rusty a dirty look and said, “Obviously our leader has forgotten to explain the rules: No end-of-the-world conversations of any kind at the supper table. We have little ones who don’t need to hear it so save those questions for later.”

“My apologies,” Marcus said.

“I know you all have questions,” Rusty explained. “But Miss Marple is correct. We don’t tell horror stories at the table anymore.”

“All that death talk does is kill a good mood… and our appetites,” Miss Marple finished. “We try to enjoy what we have and relax together at supper. There’s so much work to be done at any other time.”

“Makes sense,” Stephen said. “I can almost forget about what’s out there while I’m sitting with you all now. It’s quite refreshing for a change.”

“He’s a teacher, too,” Rusty said.

Miss Marple lit up. “Wonderful! Where did you teach?”

Stephen looked uncomfortable. “I… I used to teach at a private boarding school… History mainly.”

“And you, dear,” Miss Marple asked Amanda, “what did you do in the real world?”

“I was a waitress. No big loss to society… but you asked.” Amanda had nothing more to add.

“There’s no shame in that, dear. I did my fair share of waiting on tables to pay my way through school. I certainly don’t miss those drunk bastards who thought a ‘tip’ meant spilling their drinks on the table every Friday night,” Miss Marple said, rolling her eyes. She turned to Greg and asked, “You have the look of a mechanic. Am I close?”

Greg smiled and said, “I did my fair share of grease monkey work… but I mostly worked construction.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” Gina said. “Greg’s a jack-of-all-trades. We’ve seen him in action.”

“And what about you?”

Gina picked up her glass and nervously took a sip. “This is wonderful ice tea. How do you keep it cold without ice?”

“That was Rusty’s doing. There’s a creek which runs behind this building. It’s deep and the trees keep it shaded. I let it brew in jars under the sun and then he ties them to a rope and lets them cool all day in the river.”

“I have some beers down there right now,” Rusty said with a wink.

Gina laughed and then realized Miss Marple was still waiting for an answer to her question. Hell, it was going to come out sooner or later, I suppose. Might as well get it over with.

“I was a… dancer,” Gina said.

“How lovely,” Miss Marple said. “Did you perform locally?”

Meredith choked on her tea and then tried to hide her amusement.

They were all looking at Gina now.

“A dancer?” Frank said with a puzzled face. “Really?”

Stephen laughed, considering the topic of conversation. He looked to Rusty and Miss Marple and explained. “We’ve been through so much together but we’ve never had time for small talk. In some ways, we’re all still just strangers, but in other ways, I know that every one of these people have my back when it counts. We’ve been in survival mode for so long that who we were before… well, it just became irrelevant. It’s funny to me that we’re still only just discovering things about each other.”

“And if you’d all had a place to hang your hat for more than five minutes at a time, then that wouldn’t be the case,” Rusty said. “Sounds like you had it rough out there.”

“It’s been rough,” Gina said. “I wish we’d met more people like your community along the road, but that just wasn’t in the cards for us.”

“Rusty, don’t hijack my conversation,” Miss Marple said. “Save the ‘out there’ discussions for later.”

Rusty laughed and said to Gina, “Now look what you’ve done. She’ll be harping on me for days after this.”

“I think you’ll figure out a way to get back into her good graces,” Gina reassured with a smile.

“I want to know more about this dancing gig, Gina,” Frank said with a mischievous tone.

“Oh, yes… sorry, dear,” Miss Marple said. “Please finish.”

Gina shot Frank a stern look. He excels at being annoying.

All eyes were on her again. Gina thought about her illustrious stripping career at Herbie’s House of Ladies which felt like a thousand years ago. Hell, there are worse things to be afraid of now than a reputation. She started to speak.

“I was a fortune teller,” Meredith interrupted.

“Really?” Miss Marple was amused. “Fascinating! How does that work?”

Gina looked over at Meredith and gave her a grateful nod: Thank you.

Meredith gave her a quick smile back: You are welcome, honey.

With all eyes on her now, Meredith continued, “Well… I’ve lost my crystal ball and tarot cards, but I still keep a magic carpet in my bag…”

The joke made them all laugh… except Amanda. She was having a hard enough time keeping herself from ripping Stephen’s face off with her bare hands.

~~~

Next Episode 22-3

Previous Episode 22-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 22-2: Almost Dead” Copyright © 2014, 2015 Scott Scherr. From the Novel “Don’t Feed The Dark, Book One: Southbound Nightmares”.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Comments
  1. nashmcgowan says:

    Well done, kind of a tame chapter until that last line. *Insert evil grin* I can’t wait for the next one!

    Like

    • sscherr says:

      Hey Nash, yes… this chapter starts off tame. I wanted to give these poor souls a chance to breathe and find other survivors (people who aren’t out to kill them, at least). They’ve been on the run so much that finding a group of ‘normal’ people seems strange compared to everything ‘out there’ now. Just allow this chapter to simmer it bit… everything is about to happen (sorry, no spoilers) here ;)

      Liked by 1 person

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