Charlie quickly packed his things and exited the house. Not wanting to be easily seen from the windows, he entered the narrow rows of leafy vines along the side of the ranch home and was soon surrounded by ripe foliage. The plan was simple: Ditch the losers, circle around and through the large vineyard, and head for the freeway on the other side. From there he could follow Interstate 90 toward the Ashtabula group and finally be done with these disorganized misfits and the crazy red-headed bitch who continued to make his life… unpleasant.
He was still fuming as he hiked down a hill and into a denser part of the vineyard.
“Fucking cunt! It’s not enough to humiliate me in front of the others, so she has to threaten me, too! And they all just let her get away with it and keep on following their ruthless dictator right off the eventual fucking cliff edge! Unbelievable!”
Charlie was oblivious to his surroundings as he wandered from one row to the next, consumed by his own outrage.
“If it wasn’t for me, none of them would have made it out of Harpersfield in the first place!”
He thought back to yesterday evening with a devious smile on his face. After commanding the sickly looking zombies to tear his captors to pieces, he’d picked up a long metal pole from a dumpster and began smashing quarantined storefront windows at random.
The weakened dead had risen up, compelled by the sound of his shouts. “GET UP AND KILL! GET OUT AND FEED!”
Charlie had looked like a raving lunatic as he laughed in exhilaration at his makeshift army of about thirty zombies, shambling ahead of him as if the devil were on their heels. By the time they’d reached the town hall, the dead needed no further prompting as they caught the scent of the living and charged the park.
Charlie had opened up town hall, where the bulk of the dead were being starved, and stood back as his horde became seventy-five corpses strong.
During the chaos in the park, he’d worked his way around and back toward the church, just in time to watch the residents of Harpersfield retreat into the sacred structure, believing they were safe.
After slaughtering and devouring the majority of the grey-eyed freaks in the park, the dead had surrounded the church but could not breach it.
Charlie’s need for vengeance had not abated. On his way to release more monsters on the town, he’d found a grounds keeper’s truck parked nearby with a lawnmower in the flatbed and two containers full of gasoline.
He’d doused the backs of the relentless undead attempting to breach the front door, and then soaked the porch as well.
Charlie had lit a match and watched old, dry wood blaze up quickly as both the dead and the living burned…
Charlie nearly tripped at the sound of the weak, raspy voice coming from the other side of the vines to his right.
He pushed his way through and found an open area where a tractor sat next to an old supply shed.
Charlie spotted the legs of a rotting corpse sticking out of the shed surrounded by flies. The smell was overpowering as he covered his mouth and nose with the bottom of his shirt.
Did I just hear that thing speak to me? Charlie was horrified. He moved in closer to examine the dead thing buried in the shadows of the shed. He discovered the remains of a long-dead woman wearing a soiled sundress which fell loosely over rotted flesh. Its skin looked like ancient leather stretched over bones. Charlie caught a glimpse of the zombie’s face as light slipped in through a crack at the back of the shed, exposing two dark and sunken eyes gazing back at him from a partially exposed skull. There was a knife sticking in the woman’s left ear. He could tell that the reanimated corpse had recently been put down.
“Help!” the voice called out.
Charlie jumped back, believing the woman was about to rise, and then he saw the arm waving at him from beneath the tractor.
“Fuck me, is somebody under there?” Charlie moved cautiously toward the tractor until he saw a second woman partially hidden behind one large wheel.
This one was alive. The second woman was wearing a bloody jean jacket with sleeves rolled up exposing her tattooed arms. She had long braided blond hair, a nose ring and smeared black eyeliner around her eyes.
The woman appeared to be stuck beneath the tractor as she waved to him again.
“Are you injured?” Charlie said, moving in toward the girl.
“Don’t… no closer. I’ve been… bitten,” she said.
Charlie stopped, not knowing what to do. Her pale skin made her look like a ghost; she looked malnourished and very sick. “What can I do? Where were you bitten?”
“My leg,” the woman said. “Damn thing… surprised me. It was… in the shed. I was trying to find a place to hide… and it was in the shed. I turned to run… it grabbed my leg… tripped me… then took a bite.”
Charlie looked toward the shed. Of course, the knife. “You killed it?”
The woman nodded. “Crawled under here… thought there were more. I almost blacked out… until I heard you.”
He was torn. Charlie didn’t want to touch the infected woman. But he could do nothing for her until he moved her clear of the tractor. “Are… are you thirsty?”
Charlie reached into his pack and retrieved a bottle of water.
The woman took it and drank greedily. “Thank you,” she said with a weak smile.
Charlie noticed that she had stunning blue eyes. What a waste.
The woman seemed a little stronger. “Thanks. My name’s Celine.”
“Hey… Charlie. I was riding past this shit-hole town… wrecked my bike on the freeway and came in here to crash for a few hours. I thought it was safe… God, this hurts!”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Charlie felt stupid. Words were just pointless now. He’d seen this before on the tracks. The girl was already dead… like the thing in the shack. Her body just hadn’t caught up yet.
“I found that bitch in the shack… I’ve been here all day and never knew she was in there until I checked it an hour ago.”
Charlie nodded and let out a deep sigh. “There’s nothing I can do for you… sorry. I can’t stop it from spreading. You’re going to turn.” He supposed he should’ve said something more comforting, but he just wasn’t built that way.
Celine laughed. “I know… Charlie… I fucking know. That’s why I called you over here… need you to help me end this.”
“I’m not following, Celine.” He knew exactly what she meant. Charlie wanted to leave and cursed himself for ever acknowledging her voice.
“You know… Charlie,” she said. “I can see it… on your face. I need you to finish me off. The pain’s too much to bear… I can feel it trying to consume me… but I won’t let it.”
“You can’t stop it-”
“I’M NOT FUCKING DEAD YET!” Celine yelled into the sky. “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO CHANGE ME… YOU HEAR?”
“Keep your voice down! There might be more out here.” Charlie had no idea who she was yelling at. He decided it didn’t matter. It was time to go. He felt sorry for the girl—no, actually, he didn’t. It was her own carelessness which put her in this position.
Just another stupid bitch who thought she had it all figured out. Probably got her man killed in the process, not listening to anything he had to say. Typical.
“Look, I’m sorry, Celine, but I have to go,” he said. “You understand that it’s dangerous here and I can’t stay.”
“Wait… Charlie,” she pleaded. “Just… do what I asked… please. My knife’s in the shed.”
“I don’t think I can help you, Celine,” Charlie said. “Do you realize what you’re asking me to do?”
Celine became upset. “What’s the matter with you… where’s your fucking human compassion? I’m the… one who’s dying here! I need you… need you to cowboy up… and fucking… fucking help me… before it… happens!”
Great, one more psycho bitch trying to order me around. “Fine! If that’s what you want, I’m glad to do it!” He went to the shed and retrieved Celine’s knife from the corpse’s ear. On the way back, he looked into Celine’s dying eyes and had an enlightening thought.
“Hurry… please… I can’t hold on… for much longer…”
Charlie knelt beside the dying woman and showed her the knife. “You sure?”
Celine nodded. “Yes… fucking… yes! Please… just be quick… in the head… it always has to be the head.”
Charlie lifted the knife as Celine turned away.
“Thank you… for this,” she said, trying to hold back her tears.
He stared at the knife for what felt like an eternity as the revelation continued to form in his thoughts.
I can’t believe it took me this long to see it! Holy shit! It’s all so fucking clear now.
Celine began to struggle for breath. She turned to look at him, her eyes already staring into a far off place.
Charlie smiled at the dying woman and tossed the knife toward the shed.
Celine looked at him accusingly, trying to understand… and then the light began to fade from her eyes as she struggled to breathe.
He sat back and watched as Celine fought in vain; the horrific transformation from woman to monster overpowering her futile hold on life. Her eyes were locked in on his until all recognition drifted from them. Celine’s body convulsed twice and then she ceased all movement and lay completely still.
Charlie was mesmerized by her passing. He’d never seen death operate in the final moments. It was exhilarating… liberating… beautiful.
He sat there, staring at the dead woman, oblivious to all else. Not too much longer, he thought… and continued to wait.
Meredith and Greg sat at the small kitchen table staring out through the glass door at a beautiful autumn day. The sun had made a show of the morning, flaunting its brilliance among the scattered clouds. They shared the moment in comfortable silence, letting nature act as a soothing salve over their eyes to temporarily combat the images of violence and death branded into memory and scarred across the windows of their souls.
Meredith was the first to pull away as she resumed the redressing of Greg’s wounds. “It’s almost tempting to believe that we’ve just woken up from one long nightmare when you look outside at that,” she said.
Greg was in complete agreement. He rubbed his scraggly beard and laughed. “That canvas out there is just another of God’s ways of lettin’ us all know that there’s still somethin’ left for us when we’ve finally made it out of the other end of the Valley of Death.”
She stopped and smiled at the thought. “You really believe that, don’t you, Gregory?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I do… I have to.”
Familiar with the Biblical reference, she added, “I never much cared for all that ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ talk. To me, it always sounded a bit morbid and overused at funerals.”
She had Greg’s attention. “I think I know what you mean… but go on,” he said.
“Well… death never seemed so… dire to me… at least, not before all this happened. I mean, in my experience, it was never the end of some horrific battle with darkness just to reach the other side. Hearing those words spoken at eulogies always made death seem so… unnatural… like an enemy to face.”
Greg considered her words for a moment and said, “Never cared much for funerals, myself. All that cryin’ and making a fuss over tryin’ to find the right words to say… and tryin’ to be a comfort was so damn uncomfortable, and that was after you had to dress up all uncomfortable to begin with.”
Meredith laughed. “We do have our strange ways of saying goodbye, don’t we? All that trouble to find words at the end, when what mattered were the words we’d already said while they were still with us…” She stopped, noticing Greg’s tired face droop as he stared back outside. “Oh, I’m sorry, Gregory. I wasn’t thinking.”
“No, it’s alright. It’s just like you said, I’d already told my baby girl how much I loved her… when she was still here… before all them devils started walkin’ about .”
Greg seemed far away. “It never seemed appropriate to say much of anythin’ at the time. You know, at funerals and such. I reckon’ ole’ Death had the final word and everythin’ else after just seemed like stallin’ on the goodbyes.”
Meredith treaded carefully. “Maybe some people still have words that need said… words they couldn’t find before, because they were locked away in a room with all that grief, pain and regret… maybe that’s why we do what we do… as uncomfortable as it is… because we need to get all those words out into the open.”
Greg thought about this and nodded. “I talk to her sometimes, when it gets real quiet. I ask my Ashley to talk to Jesus for us and see if he’d send us some sort a sign or somethin’. Anything to keep us alive one more day.”
“And does she speak to you, Gregory… in those quiet times?”
He looked at her with tears welling up. “I believe she does, her and my man, Jesus, both. They speak to me in here.” He put a fist over his heart. “It’s nothin’ like words and such… more like a knowin’ feeling.” He laughed and said, “It’s like a heavenly flashlight shinin’ over all that hopelessness which tries to creep out of the corners of your soul and eat you alive like those dead things out there. When the light comes, the shadows run like a cat with its tail on fire!”
Meredith busted out laughing at the analogy. “That, Gregory, is an image I’ll not soon forget.”
He chuckled and continued, “Yeah… it’s just like that to me. I’ve always been simple when it comes to things… not stupid, just simple. That’s a language I understand and I reckon’ Ashley told Jesus all about it. And so he speaks to me and lets me know that we’re gonna be okay.”
Meredith saw the man’s genuine smile and it beat out the autumn sun. She patted Greg’s hand and said, “Thank you, Gregory.”
“For carrying all that hope in your bag. Sometimes I think the rest of us forgot to pack enough.”
“Ahh… but you see, it’s my man, Jesus, who is carrying my load,” he said. “Frees my arms up to shoot more dead-heads that way.”
This made them both laugh.
She decided to broach a sensitive subject. “Gregory… do you understand what it is that I do?”
Greg smiled mischievously and said, “Of course! Whenever the monsters are around you get all Linda Blair like and sound off like a thousand car alarms!”
She lightly punched him in the shoulder. “Not that…. I’m talking about before. Do you know what I did for people?”
Greg got serious. “I have an idea, Ma’am.”
“But your God doesn’t approve… does he?”
Greg let out a loud sigh, rubbed his fingers through his hair and said, “I don’t pretend to understand everythin’ the Good Book talks about—remember, I speak and understand simple—but I do understand you, Meredith.”
“Do you now,” she teased. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Now you have to tell me what that means.”
Greg smiled and said simply, “I don’t know what to think about what you do or did—heck, with the dead runnin’ around out there among the livin’, there’s a whole lot more I don’t know about these days—but I am certain that whatever it is you do, you do it with love… and that’s all that matters in the good book of Gregory.”
Meredith was genuinely touched.
“And I’m pretty sure my man, Jesus, would back me on that,” he said with a wink.
“Fair enough,” she laughed. “And… thank you.”
She swallowed hard and said, “Now let me do something for you, if I can… if you’re open to it.”
Greg smiled and said firmly, “Meredith, I love you, but no thank you.”
She was shocked. “Is it because you don’t believe I can speak with her?”
“Whether you can or can’t… doesn’t matter. And I think you know why already.”
Greg leaned in and said, “Because Ashley already knows… we done said all those words which needed sayin’… all the important ones, at least.”
Meredith wiped a tear from her eye and whispered, “Gregory, I believe you are so very right… so very right.”
Just then Gina stormed into the kitchen.
They got to their feet.
“What’s wrong?” Greg asked.
“It’s Charlie. He’s missing,” Gina said. “I need you two to watch over things for a little while.”
“Gina,” Meredith said with alarm. “Where are you going?”
She looked pale. “This is my fault. I’m going to find him and bring him back.”
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