Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 7

The barn was over three hundred feet from the old silo, a football field or more in distance. On many of the area farms, the silo sat right next to the barn; but the Kincannon silo had been an afterthought, added long after the barn had been built, at a time when land around the barn had been adapted for other things like animal corrals and machine storage. It was all moot now, fifty years after either structure had been used for their original purposes; but Richie was glad now for the degree of separation between the two buildings.

Richie hated the idea of trashing the barn, because it was their only nearby source of building materials. The Kincannon house still stood a ways off atop its little, rolling hill, surrounded by a whitewashed split-rail fence. The Victorian home's soft yellow paint was still bright, its white trim still cheerful. The group had done its best to maintain all the original homes where they had been raised, not because they had any hopes of ever going back to live in them, but because of what each home contained. Their families were there, in blue crystalline form, and they looked upon the homes as graves, or maybe as mausoleums. They visited their old homes regularly - or had until the current crisis had begun - and kept them clean and in good repair, out of respect - and love - for the old world and the people in it, and what all of it had once meant to them. Their family homes were untouchable, as far as their plans with the zombie went.

But...to destroy the barn was not an easy decision to make.

"It may just mess up part of it," Jeremy mused, as the two of them stood side-by-side, looking at the structure out of one of the camp's windows the next morning. "The force of the blast will go upwards. It's a good thing the root cellar is on the far side."

Richie nodded. "I think the explosion will just blow the far side wall out, and maybe the roof above it. I'm more worried about the thing catching fire after."

Jeremy sighed. "We wouldn't be able to do anything about that. That camp fuel is going to make a big fireball when it goes up."

Richie looked at him. "Maybe we can."

Jeremy frowned, and then he squinted, and shook his head. "I hope you're not thinking what I think you're thinking."

Richie looked away, unable to maintain eye contact. "It would mean me driving over to Mitersville."

Jeremy released a startled breath, turned and pulled Richie to him, reestablishing eye contact. "No."

"I think it would be safe," Richie returned, defiantly. "I'd be willing to bet nothing is hanging around that town now."

Jeremy laughed, but there was little humor in the action. "Not a chance."

Richie gave a frustrated sigh. "It would be so much easier to use dynamite instead of the camp fuel. For one thing, we could use those blasting caps and set the stuff off electrically, instead of trying to find a way to blow up a can of camp fuel from a distance. And, I have no idea how big a boom a five gallon can of camp fuel will make. We already know how big a blast to expect from a stick of that dynamite."

Jeremy winced, remembering the damage to the back of the hardware store in Mitersville. It had taken them thirty minutes to dig through the rubble to find what was left of Jack and the zombie. The destruction had been thorough, but still limited in scope. The far storeroom containing the ammunition, perhaps because of its reinforced nature, had survived intact, as had the front of the store. The blast from one stick had been just big enough to completely trash an area containing one human being, and one zombie. And, there had been no fire after.

"We can empty some of the fuel from a can and set it off and see," Jeremy suggested.

Richie shook his head. "No. Our boy's pretty smart. He may see us doing that and sit down to think it over. If he thinks too long about it, the plan probably won't work."

"You can't go to Mitersville alone, Rich." Jeremy sighed. "I'll go with you."

Richie smiled. "I figured you would."

Jeremy looked annoyed, but couldn't maintain it for long. It morphed pretty quickly into a smile, and he pulled Richie closer and hugged him. "Its dangerous. Both for us to go, and for us to leave the others."

"It's more dangerous to do nothing," Richie countered. "Or to be fooling around with stuff like camp fuel, trying to make it go off."

Jeremy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, dynamite is much safer. And we know so much more about how to use it!"

"We know enough. Now let's let the group know what's going on."

The others didn't like the idea when they told them about it, and everyone started talking at once. Except for Marnie, who almost immediately raised a hand, and told them to quiet down. "That's enough. We have to do what we have to do."

That ended the arguments, but not the thinking that generated them.

"You'll need a guard," Mike spoke up, as soon as the noise of conversation had quieted. "Someone who can handle a Thompson. You guys will be too busy to do a proper watch."

Richie smiled, but shook his head. "Jeremy and I will each carry a Thompson for the trip. We'll need you here, with your gun, to help protect things while we're gone."

He could see that the younger boy didn't like that answer. His eyes flicked to Marnie a moment, and the girl raised one eyebrow at him, questioningly. "Got a problem with that?"

Richie and Jeremy both smiled at the resigned look that came immediately into Mike's eyes. "Guess not."

Richie put a hand on Mike's shoulder, and patted him affectionately. "Thanks for the offer, though."

Mike brightened. "The zombie's here, anyway. Probably be more interesting than a road trip."

"Let's hope not," Richie said, his smile slipping away. He looked around at the group. "So there's things to do today, okay? Jeremy and I have to haul a torch out and do some fixin' on the truck before we can go off in it again. Mike, you and Sherry will stand outside watch. Will, you and Tina will have window duty. You see anything, you sing out."

He turned to smile at Marnie. "Feel like a workout?"

She smiled back. "I could use some exercise. What have you got in mind?"

"I need you and Bennie to unload as much of the stuff from the back of the truck as you can. Put the cases of food in the sling and haul 'em up inside. Can you guys do that?"

"Yes. Can't we, Bennie?"

"Sure."

"What about the tree across the drive?" Mike reminded them. "That needs to be removed."

Richie frowned, having forgotten that. The downed tree would not keep them from coming and going, but it would be a nuisance to them doing it easily. "Well, it was mostly the crown that was in the drive, wasn't it?" He grabbed a pair of binoculars and went to one of the windows facing the drive. "Yeah. The bole of that tree is probably eight inches thick there by the drive." He dropped the glasses and turned to Jeremy. "If we took one of the chain saws up there and cut the trunk just by the drive, would the truck be able to drag the crown to the side?"

Jeremy whistled. "I can't be sure. Have to see it."

"Okay. We'll do that first." He turned to the others. "We'll need Sherry and Mike to go with us as guards. Everyone else should remain inside until we get back. Okay?"

There were no dissenters.

Richie nodded. "Then let's get started."

The four of them emerged from the camp cautiously, eying warily the distant trees beyond the cleared area, and especially the small copse by the head of the drive. Richie had always thought the patch of trees a nice addition to the otherwise barren field; but now he saw that it was a hole in their security, that could allow an attacker to get much closer to them than would otherwise be allowed. Burning the trees out or cutting them down was out of the question. The job would be too big. But it might be worthwhile to clear out the underbrush from beneath the bigger trees, once the area was made more safe. That would at least allow them to see within the copse, and deny anyone creeping up on them a place to hide.

Only the elimination of their new foe would make the area safe enough for such work. Richie sighed, and nodded to himself. What must be done, must be done.

They brought a chain saw down and placed it in the back of the truck, and Mike and Sherry climbed in with it. Richie and Jeremy folded the cargo doors back against the sides of the box and locked them there, so that they would be out of the way. Then the two boys climbed into the cab, started the truck, and drove it slowly up to the head of the drive.

Their eyes darted everywhere as they approached the downed tree, but there seemed nothing out of place to observe. The morning was quiet, and everything seemed peaceful. The zombie was conspicuous by its absence.

The job went very quickly. Richie cranked up the chainsaw, and in a short minute had severed the trunk of the tree on the copse side of the drive. Jeremy climbed in among the branches and wrapped a chain around the bole, and secured it with a nut and bolt. Then they attached the chain to the hitch on the back of the truck, and Richie and the others stood back while Jeremy climbed into the cab, started the truck, and eased it forward to take up the slack in the chain. The crown of the tree rolled, shimmied briefly back and forth, and then followed the truck apparently easily, to the accompaniment of the rustle of a few thousand leaves. Jeremy dragged the crown away down to the other side of the copse, and stopped.

"We'll need to cut that up as soon as possible," he said, as he slid out of the truck. "Just one more place our buddy can hide in."

It was a simple matter to retrieve the chain, and then they all climbed back into the truck and drove back down to the camp. Time taken: twenty minutes.

They got the truck backed around by the ladder again, and Richie called up to Marnie at the window that they could begin offloading supplies. A cargo net suspended from six ropes joined to one at a knuckle was lowered down the hatch tube and spread out beneath the ladder leading up into the camp. It was suspended from the giant eye hook that Jack had bolted through one of the roof cross members. A two-pulley arrangement meant that even one of the small kids could easily haul up several hundred pounds of supplies at one time. Marnie and Bennie followed the net down, and climbed aboard the truck and started piling boxes at the back of the cargo box. Several had been badly beaten up in the fight with the zombie, but none of the cans had been broken open, and a dented can of beans ate just as well as a straight one.

Richie and Jeremy examined the truck while Marnie and Bennie worked, and Mike and Sherry stood nearby and carefully watched their surroundings from behind two of the Thompsons. Will and Tina were at one-eighty positions at windows above, but would move to operate the lift as the cargo net was filled.

"Whew," Jeremy said, examining the warped window frame around the passenger door. "I don't think we can fix this, Rich. And then there's the matter of the window glass." He frowned. "I think our best bet, while we're on the road, is to keep an eye out for a truck with a similar cab, and just take the passenger door off and bring it back here. We can easily enough weld a new screen over the window."

"How about the roof?" Richie asked.

The other boy shrugged. "The dents don't matter to me. I say pull the headliner out, bang the roof back up with a big hammer, and weld a plate over the top of the whole thing, and just forget about it."

"We could look for another truck altogether," Richie suggested. "I'll bet there are box trucks this size just lying around in both Hanford and Mitersville."

"I think I've seen more than one in Hanford," Jeremy admitted. "Trouble with that is that we don't know what we're getting. At least we know that our own truck is sound and runs well. We could take another truck and get halfway back here and have a breakdown." He considered the idea a moment more, and then shook his head. "Plus, any other truck will not have been run in at least two years. That means a dead battery and maybe a tough initial start, at the least."

Richie pondered that. "At some point, you and I will need to go to Raleston. There's that car dealership there, and I remember some big, brand new trucks sitting on that lot. We could take one of them, and each of us drive back. One in the new truck, and one in this one."

"Maybe. That's an idea, certainly." Jeremy shook his head. "But that's almost forty miles, Rich. It would be a fair trip, and I don't want to do that until things here are more stable."

"I know. I was thinking about after we get rid of our friend."

Jeremy just nodded, but Richie knew what is boyfriend was thinking: You mean if we get rid of our friend.

They set to welding a plate over the the roof of the cab, using an eighth-inch thick piece of steel that would make the roof stronger than it had originally been. Jeremy cut off the old, torn lattice from over the broken window, and welded on a new piece of slightly heavier grade. That would at least protect the passenger from grasping hands, if not the rain.

"I can't get over how strong that thing is," Jeremy said, after the work was completed. "Tearing steel like that requires a lot of force. I wouldn't think flesh and blood would be able to take that sort of pressure without getting all torn up itself, in the process. Why doesn't this thing hurt itself when it does what it does?"

"It doesn't seem to be flesh and blood like we are," Richie answered, frowning. "Have you noticed that bullets make holes in our friend, but that there is almost no impact damage to the flesh around them? I mean, you shoot a regular human, or a deer, or anything else living, and the bullet can tear up the impact area a hell of lot more than just the diameter of a bullet. But our friend mostly seems to get a neat, round hole, and nothing more, unless you happen to hit them at an angle where the bullet can dig up some flesh. Even then, there is barely, if any blood loss. A little spatter, and then nothing. It must be why bullets have a limited affect on them."

Jeremy nodded. "That's one more reason not to think of our boy as human. He may have been a man once, but he's not one now, even though he still has the same shape. So I don't feel the same about getting rid of him as I would one of...one of us."

"Yeah. I know." Richie smiled, even though all he felt was a mixture of sadness and regret at what they had to do. "Let's see what we can do about getting this door to work. We can't go to Mitersville with only one working door."

They had to pry the passenger door open, it having been bent by the force of the zombie's attack, and Jeremy beat on it until it opened and closed smoothly again. They examined the hinges and found them still intact, and took note of the bolt sizes that held them on. They were standard, and Richie knew that they would have the right tools already aboard if they by chance found another truck with the same door, that they could liberate as a replacement for their own..

It took a couple of hours to get the truck shipshape again, by which time the others had unloaded all the cases of food from the rear and hauled them up into the camp. Marnie and Bennie stowed the ropes and the cargo net, and then everyone went back inside for lunch. They took turns at the windows, so that everyone could relax a little and eat.

After lunch, Richie and Jeremy and Mike went out and checked Mike's traps, and brought back two rabbits. There may have been more, but the boys were only willing to check the traps in the cleared areas, and so anything caught in one of the traps in the woods would just have to stay where it was. Richie sighed at the waste, regretting killing anything that was then not used for food. Somehow, life had become more precious to him since the Changes, when so many had vanished from the face of the earth.

"I think we should go to Mitersville now," Jeremy said, after they had returned. "Half-hour there, half-hour back. Probably a little longer, depending on the roads. Not too much time in the hardware store..." He winced at that. "At least, I don't want to be there for long."

Richie understood. It was the last place they had been with Jack. Their parting with the man had not been a pleasant one.

"You don't think it would be better to wait until morning and go?"

"No, I don't. I know Jack said these zombie things heal really fast. By tomorrow this thing might be ready to come back at us. If we go today, it will probably still be laying low, healing up."

Richie looked at his watch. Not even one p.m. yet. He glanced up at the sky, and nodded. "Doesn't get dark until almost eight o'clock. Seven hours should be plenty of time, I think."

It was settled. They informed the others, who simply accepted it as a done deal. They would stay inside and keep watch while the older boys were gone.

"I wish the old cell phones still worked," Marnie said. "It would be nice to be able to keep in touch with you the whole time you were gone."

"I know." Richie nodded. "The power of walkie talkies was regulated by law, so that's why they don't have a lot of range. Jack said once that we needed to look in the sheriff's station and see what kind of com gear was there. It would have more range than anything we have now, he was sure." He sighed. "We just never got around to it."

Marnie put a hand on his wrist and squeezed it gently. "I know. Jack was a whirlwind, that's for sure.. We've all slowed down a little since he left us."

"Yeah. He always knew what he was doing, Marn. Or, he seemed to know. Jere and I have to feel our way. We're...we're both so worried we'll make a mistake."

The girl smiled, and leaned forward and gave him a small hug. "The two of you do wonderfully, Richie. Jack gave us a start, but it's you and Jeremy that have kept us going."

Richie smiled at that. "It seems to have been a group effort, from where I'm standing."

Marnie nodded. "I know. These kids have been wonderful."

Richie returned the hug. "We'll be back as quickly as we can." He smiled. "I'm glad we're leaving things in good hands."

The boys pulled a pair of Thompsons from the rack and checked the drum magazines. They were a royal pain to reload, but Mike and Sherry had become fairly good at it, and took the job of keeping them ready very seriously. Richie and Jeremy also wore their pistols, and each carried a walkie talkie and a small canteen.

"Stay inside, all of you. Nothing outside needs to be done while we're gone." Richie smiled at the assembled faces. "You guys know the drill. Stay safe. We'll be back soon."

They traded hugs with everyone, had a quick look outside, and then descended the ladder to the ground. They climbed into the truck, and Jeremy started them on their way. Richie settled the Thompson in the crook of his arm, the muzzle tilted up at the roof, and relaxed.

If they had been willing to travel fast, they could have reached Mitersville in a half hour, easily. And, on the open road, with good visibility ahead, they moved along at a fair clip. But when the road reached the end of the valley that held the other town, they entered a wooded area, and to drive too quickly through the woods was to invite trouble. There were simply too many blind curves, too many spots where the visibility ahead was poor. Roads in such areas are normally kept clear by the continuing flow of traffic; when there is none for a long period of time, all sorts of hazards could crop up to stop an unwary traveler in his tracks.

The first time they had been through here with Jack, they had been required to stop and saw up a tree that had fallen across the road. The big tool chest welded to the frame to one side of the rear cargo box contained all sorts of useful gear, now including a chain saw and a hydraulic jack. Jack had believed in being prepared, and Richie had always thought that the man would have made a wonderful Boy Scout. But the best part of being prepared was to use reasonable caution in unknown places, and so driving through the woods was something they did at a very sensible pace.

They encountered some fair-sized branches down by the sides of the road, but nothing that blocked their way. A large tree had fallen away from the road since their last trip, taking out the power lines and snapping off the top of a utility pole in the process. But none of it blocked the road, and without any operating utilities to worry about, the loss was not important. Still, it was sobering to see such damage go unrepaired, and it only served to remind them of the loss of the old world they had known so well.

It was a pleasant afternoon, warm and breezy, and would have been cheerful under other circumstances. But even pretty days lost their luster, when the world that hosted them was as dead as a stone. Richie kept his eyes moving, looking for anything that wasn't part of that deathly stillness, and which therefore could mean a threat to them and their mission.

But there was nothing. The world here was as still and quiet as it was back in Hanford, as dead as the world, everywhere, seemed to have become. The closest they came to action of any sort was when a pair of squirrels chased across the road in front of the truck, requiring Jeremy to briefly tap the brakes. Richie smiled at that, again realizing that only one species was actually dead and gone. But it was the species that had given the life to the world, by its actions, and it numbers, and the sheer force of its will. The world itself had kept on going, but now, like a driverless car, it was on its own as to where it might wind up one day.

Eventually, Mitersville came into sight, and they simply stopped at the top of a rise and surveyed the town ahead through their binoculars. It looked exactly as they had left it a year ago, save for the absence of the thin haze of smoke that had still been hovering about the rear of the hardware store the last time they had seen it. The air was clear now, of everything but the memories of that day.

Richie tried not to revisit those moments again in his thoughts as he looked the place over through his binoculars. There was no point in it, 'no profit to it', as Jack himself used to say. They were here for today, not for that lost day a year past.

"Looks quiet to me," he said, after five minutes of watching. Mitersville was larger than Hanford, and had been home to more than twice its population. But, even so, as towns went it was still small, and they could watch the entire place without much movement of their glasses.

"Yeah, I don't see anything going on. How about we do a drive-through, and then watch from the other side a bit?"

Richie nodded. "Go for it."

Jeremy started the truck and set it into motion, and they drove the rest of the way to the edge of town, and turned down main street. It seemed just as they had left it, save for a noticeable accretion of dead leaves in the streets, and especially along the curbs and in the gutters. The yards they passed were overgrown now, just like the ones in Hanford. The business district looked untouched, with no broken windows, no broken doors hanging crooked on their hinges. Nothing seemed touched at all, save by the rains, the winds, and the gentle forces of time.

But they drove on through town and out the other side, found a good hill and turned the truck around, and then they sat and watched some more, until they were convinced that the town was empty of human - or zombie - life.

"Okay. Let's go."

They went back to main street and along it to King's Hardware. There was an alley to one side of the building that led around back, and Jeremy nosed the truck into it while Richie leaned forward and watched everything closely. But nothing leaped out at them, nothing happened to stop them. They reached the back lot, looked about, and saw nothing out of place. Jeremy drove down to the other end of the building and backed the truck up to the dock near the side door they had used to load ammunition once before. Neither boy looked for long at the rear doors as they passed, save to notice that the big truck doors were still down as they had left them. Their eyes kind of skittered over the blown out exit door beside them, and the crumbled walls around it, and the spray of debris that still littered the dock.

The place where Jack had died.

Jeremy turned off the engine and they sat there for a while, just listening. Mitersville had the same sort of silence thing going on that Hanford did, with just the same faint rustle of tree leaves and the occasional bird calls to keep the silence from being complete. Very probably, Richie realized, every city and town in the world now sounded much like this one. Empty.

Richie opened the door and looked around again, and then motioned to Jeremy for them to get out. They hefted the Thompsons and stood on the dock and looked about one more time, but there was simply nothing going on, nothing to worry about.

"Thought it would be quiet here," Jeremy said. "Any self-respecting zombie would die of boredom in this burg. If there was one here since we were here last, he's moved on to better hunting somewhere else."

Richie nodded, dug out his keyring, and found the one for the side door. He unlocked it while Jeremy covered him, but when Richie pushed open the door and jumped back, only silence greeted them from within. "Come on, Jere. Let's get this over with and get out of here."

They found the reinforced storeroom untouched, and helped themselves to more ammo, which they carted out to the truck in larger boxes and stowed in the rear. Then they returned to where the dynamite was stored and carefully removed four sticks, and placed them within the big plastic storage box they had brought along for that purpose. The box was stuffed with squares of soft yarn in odd sizes, the products of Mom's aimless knitting, and had eyelets at the four corners. It was meant to be used for stowage on a boat, and could be tied down if needed. But it was ideal for their needs, and they had adapted it to hold the explosives for transport.

They returned to the rear of the truck with the box and fastened it at each corner to the four wires hanging down from the overhead at the rear of the cargo box. The wires were separated into a larger rectangle than the size of the box, which allowed each wire to apply equal tension to each corner of the box, and the whole thing hung about four feet below the roof of the cargo box. The carrier would be allowed to move freely as the truck bounced along over the roads, but not hit against anything in the process. Jack had said that this particular type of explosive was very safe to transport, but the boys weren't taking any chances with it flying about in the back of the truck on the journey home.

Next they returned to the store and removed a box of six blasting caps from the cabinet behind the cash register. These were safer to transport, and would be wrapped in more knitted squares and placed in a plastic bag attached to the front of one wall of the cargo box. This kept a separation of nearly eighteen feet between the dynamite and the caps - the entire length of the cargo box - and was as far apart as the two explosives could be and still be within the same vehicle.

After that they did a quick walk-through of the store and grabbed a few things they thought they might need, and tied them down in the back of the truck. Then they locked up, and climbed back into the cab and closed the doors and locked them. Only then did Richie breathe a sigh of relief. "That wasn't so hard."

Jeremy laughed, and held up a hand. "Then why am I shaking?"

Richie smiled at him, and set his Thompson against the door so that the stock rested on the floor of the cab. "Slide over here a second, and I'll take care of that."

Jeremy grinned, looked quickly about through the windows, and then set his own Thompson on the floor and slid over next to his boyfriend. Richie received him into open arms, and they closed their eyes and held each other in silence. Richie was trembling a little himself, but Jeremy made no comment on it, just squeezing their bodies together a little more snugly and pressing his face close.

"Oh, god," Richie said softly, "I don't know what I'd do without you, Jere."

He felt the other boy nod. "I know. I feel the same way."

They traded a long and heartfelt kiss, and then Jeremy sighed and pulled back. "We'll look pretty stupid if the zombies attack while we're in a clinch like this."

Richie made a face. "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

Jeremy nuzzled him, and nodded. "Haven't noticed that ours has anything like a sense of humor."

"No." Richie sighed, feeling again a sense of frustration. "Damn things are hard to figure, I'll certainly say. Why this one doesn't just move on really bugs me. That it's willing to face the weapons we have just to kill us seems almost suicidal. Why is it still here?"

Jeremy smiled. "I still think it's mad that I took a shot at it in the field the other day. I'd be hot if someone did that to me."

Richie shook his head, and then smiled at the way his face rubbed against Jeremy's when he did it. "I just don't get the thing at all."

"You're probably right, and it's crazy," Jeremy offered. "Stark, staring nuts. I know how badly we were affected by the Changes. How would it have been to wake up as something that was no longer even human?"

"I can't even imagine it," Richie admitted. "We've seen that they're still intelligent, but what kind of changes have been done to their thinking? They may still be smart, but that doesn't mean that they're still sane."

Jeremy laughed, kissed Richie a last time, and then slid back to his side of the cab. "We should go, love."

Richie sighed, looked longing at Jeremy one more time, and then nodded. "You're driving this bus."

Jeremy started the truck and pulled forward, and they retraced their way to the street. They paused at the head of the alley, looking both ways, and Richie spied the Sheriff's Office, just up the street. He waved a hand at it, recalling that they had yet to cut open the equipment lockers at the police station in Hanford, and wondered if it would also be worth doing here, too. "Drive around that building once, will you? I want to make sure the doors and windows out back are all still in place."

Jeremy nodded, and turned that way up the street. The Sheriff's Office was on a corner, and was a stand-alone building with a parking lot that ran all the way around it. They drove up the street and entered the lot, and circled around to the rear. Only one blue and white cruiser with the Sheriff's emblem on the door sat there, in a parking space with a sign marked 'reserved'. The other cruisers were probably sitting in front of the three deputy's homes, or somewhere on the streets about town. Any deputy on patrol the night that the Changes occurred would still be in his car, a blue crystalline statue working a graveyard shift that would simply never end.

Sheriff Pitcher had lived alone in an apartment above the small town library, a scant hundred yards away from the police station, and had simply walked home when he was off duty. This would be his car, then. It was dirty now, and encrusted with bird crap, and looked somehow forlorn sitting there all by its lonesome.

All the windows and doors in the building looked secure. As the Sheriff's Office would be a prime target for any human survivors entering Mitersville - along with the grocery store and the hardware - and as yet all had been untouched save for the explosive damage Jack had caused at the hardware, it seemed certain that there were no survivors within a reasonable distance of their own territory. Other survivors would have done just as they had done: check out the nearby towns for other survivors, and for supplies. The fact that neither Hanford nor Mitersville had ever been visited by anyone but themselves in the two year's time since the Changes meant to Richie that there just were no other survivors nearby to come a-calling.

"Hey, look there," Jeremy said then, pointing up to the other end of the lot. Richie followed his boyfriend's outstretched finger, and spied a truck sitting over in the corner. It was blue, and had the state's logo on the door, but was obviously not a police vehicle. "Probably supplies, or something," Jeremy mused.

"You want to check out what it's carrying?" Richie asked.

Jeremy smiled at him. "The cargo box is smaller, but the cab is the same as ours, Rich. That means the passenger door is the same as ours."

Richie laughed out loud. "Oh, I forgot all about that. You want to get it?"

"Yeah, if we can. Let's at least go and look."

They drove up and parked near the other truck, and turned off the engine and sat and listened and watched for a few minutes. When it seemed the coast was clear, they got out and inspected the other truck. It was in good shape, but the passenger door was locked when they tried it. Jeremy sighed. "I can bust out the window on the driver's side to get in. Shame to do that, but I don't see any other way inside."

He walked around to the driver's door and climbed up on the running board and looked inside, while Richie covered him with his Thompson. The town still reeked of empty, and every one of Richie's senses told him that they were alone here. But it never paid to get comfortable when they were out and about, as what had happened with Jack Castle had so clearly illustrated. Had they been more careful and followed procedure that day, and had their Thompsons with them, the outcome would surely have been different.

"Well, look at that," Jeremy said, and Richie could not miss the delight in his boyfriend's voice. Jeremy leaned to the side of the running board and grasped the door handle and pulled it out, and the door popped open. He grinned at Richie. "Only the cops would leave a truck unlocked out in a parking lot."

Jeremy slid inside and across the bench seat, and opened the passenger door. Richie went back to that side to keep an eye on him. "Anything of value in there?"

Jeremy shrugged, looked in the glove box and the door pockets. "Paperwork, of some kind. Some receipts. Junk, mostly."

"How about behind the seat?"

Jeremy grunted and slid out, and pulled the seat forward. "Hmm. Some tools worth taking. Jug of antifreeze, unopened. We can use some of this." He gathered the things he had named, and stashed them behind the seat of their own vehicle. Then he went to the rear of their truck, climbed inside, and returned with a set of sockets, an extension, and a ratchet. "I'll have this door off in a couple of minutes."

At one point Richie had to shoulder his Thompson and hold the door while Jeremy removed the last bolts securing each hinge. He gazed about nervously as he did so, the sheer quiet of the town almost as worrisome as the thought of being attacked. Towns should never be this quiet, he thought. This empty. It wasn't right, and even after two years he still had not gotten used to it.

But nothing happened, and Jeremy removed the last bolt. The door was free then, and heavier than Richie had expected. He grunted and shifted his weight, and held on while Jeremy laid the ratchet driver on the seat and moved to help him. They wrestled the door away from the truck, got a better grip on it, and then carried it around to the rear of their own truck and hefted it inside. Jeremy crawled aboard, stood the door upright, and then lashed it to stays on the side wall. Then he hunted around in the toolbox a moment, and reemerged with a thick square of folded plastic.

"What's that?"

Jeremy grinned. "Painter's drop cloth. I'm going to cover the opening we left, just in case. We might need some other parts off this truck, and it won't do to have the weather inside, messing things up."

Jeremy stopped long enough to retrieve a roll of duct tape from behind the seat of their truck, and then they returned to the other vehicle. Jeremy grabbed his tools off the seat and stuffed them into his pockets, and then they opened out the large square of plastic and arranged it over the empty door opening, and securely taped it in place all around.

Richie grinned when they were through. "Jack would be proud of us," he said, stepping back to look over their handiwork. "He always did say to never waste a potential resource."

Jeremy nodded. "This truck is too close to home not to keep in reserve. Next time we come I want to look under the hood. It would be nice if it has the same engine as ours."

"You don't want to do that now?"

"Nah. We've been taking our time as it is. It's getting on toward supper, and I'm hungry." He sighed. "We've been away long enough. Time to get back."

Richie nodded, casting a look into the sky. It was late afternoon, definitely, and maybe they should be getting back to the others. It would be nice to have time to unload the truck and do a few other things before dark --

Richie froze, staring up into the sky. High above them, a contrail was moving rapidly across the deep blue. The faint spark of sunlight glinting off of metal was at the fore of the contrail, but whatever it was so high up that Richie could not see a single detail. "Jere...look!"

Jeremy tilted his head back, turned it, and immediately spotted the moving spark. "Is that a...it's a plane!"

They both stood and just stared. Richie could not quite believe his eyes. The bright dot moved rapidly across the sky, far too quickly to be just any kind of aircraft. The implications of this were clear. This wasn't some errant Cessna, perhaps flown by a lone survivor. A plane at that altitude and traveling at that kind of speed could only be a jet aircraft, and the support for such a plane was much more extreme than for some prop-driven puddle-jumper. That meant people somewhere, and an airport, and maintenance, and some sort of support services.

Had they spied this two days after the changes, it would have not have seemed so amazing. But two years...it could only mean survivors! And survivors organized in a big way, too.

"Unless zombies can pilot jets," Jeremy said then, almost as if he had been privy to Richie's thoughts. Richie shook his head in wonder, but could not take his eyes off the bright moving speck.

"I don't think so, somehow. If they could even do simple things like drive cars, we would already know about that from Jack. They don't seem to have any technology-use left in them at all."

Jeremy frowned at the tiny speck overhead. "No. That has to be people." He dropped his eyes to Richie's. "The government, you think?"

"Hell, I don't know. I don't even know where the nearest National Guard planes might be based."

"Mm. Me, either." Jeremy raised his eyes again, his frown deepening. "They're awfully high. That tells me they're heading somewhere, rather than looking down for any survivors."

Richie had to nod in agreement at that. "They are way the hell up there, you're right. No way they are searching for other people."

They watched in silence until the bright speck disappeared into the glare near the horizon.

"But it was a plane," Richie decided. "That means people, somewhere." He grinned. "And that means maybe the whole world didn't come to an end, like we thought."

The idea excited both of them. They climbed back into their truck, and Jeremy turned it around and headed it back to the road. "Um..let's be careful what we tell the others," he said as they stopped at main street. "No use getting everybody's hopes up. For all we know, we'll never see it again."

Richie nodded. "Yeah. I do want to tell them we saw it. But...let's keep our speculations to ourselves."

But as they headed out of town, Richie could not help scanning the sky now and then, looking for the bright speck, or any other like it. Suddenly, the sky was interesting again. It had been an airplane they had seen, of that he was certain. And that meant there were people, somewhere, that still had technology, still could get things done, still had some semblance of the old organization and civilization that had made the world great. People that still had some hope for what the future might bring.

They needed to be a part of that, if they could just find out how to go about getting it done.
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