From the end of the driveway it was two-point-six miles exactly to the Longbranch city limit sign. Across that distance, however, there was a change that went beyond geography. She didn't know why she went, exactly. Only that she had to get out of the house, away from the gloom of nonstop outbreak coverage, her aunt's oppressive absence, and the looming specter of two mounds of fresh earth under a broad oak in the Calhoun's yard.
The ride was the best part. Instead of her S-10 she took her uncle's Power Wagon, a monster truck compared to the little Chevy and one of the few possessions he'd left where the practicality of hanging on measured favorably against selling it for bill money. And practicality aside, there were other reasons.
On the road, rolling with the windows open and the radio off, she could still think back and grab bits and pieces of how life had been when she first arrived - sixteen, socially uncertain, unwelcome at home and unwanted elsewhere. As lost as she was capable of getting and without plans, aspirations or hopes. A forsaken soul in a strange land.
She had learned to drive in the old Dodge under her uncle's patient tutelage, scratching paint off the lower panels in the pecan bottoms, figuring out how to use mirrors and parallel park and knocking out the left tail light the time she tried to back through the gate after an otherwise-successful run to the feedstore. She had frozen then, waiting for the outrage that was sure to follow; her prior experiences in control of a motor vehicle were terrifying affairs, her mother serene in the passenger seat until some potential hazard prompted her to scream out seemingly at random, her stepfather altogether uninvolved until she screwed up.
She waited, expecting fury.
Her uncle slowly took the cigar from his mouth and peered into the rearview mirror. He scratched his head.
"Is it bad?" she'd asked.
"Well," he said. "You found the gate."
Despite herself she laughed.
Sometimes, if the wind caught just right, she could catch the woodsmoke smell of the cigars or the spice of his aftershave. Like maybe if she looked fast enough she would see him on the other side of the cab, wrapped in a caramel-colored barn coat with his old crushed felt hat back on his head and the tip of a stogie held out in the slipstream.
She though of him especially on the cold mornings, remembering when he'd been up before the sun to feed the cows. In time she had adopted the habit and gone along, though she could never get the hang of flinging fifty-pound sacks of feed or square hay bales. Sometimes he took small-time work feeding cows for other neighbors. He stood in the back and tossed feed while she drove at a crawl through the pastures, a long tail of black cattle ambling along behind. Afterwards they would go the cafe in town for donuts and she would walk from there to her first class.
Out of curiosity she looked sideways. He wasn't there today; he never was, in all the times she'd checked. Only Ranger, front feet on the armrest with his head out the window. Squinting into the airflow with his ears back and his tongue out, sneezing occasionally.
She'd often wondered at the connection between the two.
When Ranger jumped the fence and became her dog Charlie Morgan had less than a year to live. None of them knew it then. But one fine morning they stepped outside in the pre-dawn darkness and he stopped at the bottom of the back steps, made a half turn, and collapsed. The ambulance from the senior center in Longbranch was there within minutes, lights and sirens ripping the morning apart. She'd needed both hands to keep the dog back while the paramedics loaded the limp figure on a gurney and sped off for the medical center in Everett.
She didn't go to school that morning. Instead she sat on the back steps with Ranger pulled in close and waited. And knew.
In hindsight she decided the two were somehow related, whether or not that was really the case. She liked to think it was meant to be. It made her believe that there was some sort of order in the world, a greater plan supervised by a loving and forgiving God, contrasting sharply with the fickle, bloodthirsty drill-sergeant God favored by the pastor of her parents' church.
They drifted past the city limit sign at a stately thirty miles per hour. Beyond the green marker stood a white mesh billboard with WELCOME TO LONGBRANCH welded in an arch across the top. A scattering of civic organization roundels crossed the lower half and at the bottom POPULATION 753 stood out in rusting red letters. There was no other traffic on the road.
Even before Reelfoot Longbranch was a dying town. The sort of place where the quaint pastoral visions of small-town America slammed into the harsh reality of a fading local economy, a declining birthrate, and a population heavily weighted towards the elderly. The largest employers within the city limits were the retirement home and the school, the former languishing for lack of funds and help, the latter slated for closing sometime in the next few years with the student load of two dozen or so being bused elsewhere in the county.
The main drag was a straight shot, one end to the other. On either side three feet of concrete elevated the sidewalks above street level. Down its length a quintet of stoplights swung slowly on their cables, cycling in unison over the four empty lanes. At the far end of town a steel bridge spanned the river, the highway curving away southerly on the other side. The drag was sparsely dotted with parked cars. She saw a few windows lit and movement in the form of the odd pedestrian. She took it to mean the town was safe enough. Quiet - but not unusually so for Longbranch in the evening.
Evelyn slowed and nosed the old Dodge over into a parallel spot in front of the five and dime and killed the engine. She got out slowly, suddenly aware of the openness of the place. It was a heady sensation after the time spent indoors, and the visibility made the high grass along the Calhouns' driveway seem claustrophobic by comparison.
And she felt a strange sadness. Longbranch was her home like Dallas had never been, and even with the world on the downhill slide to hell she thought it maintained a certain sense of aged class. She produced a leash from under the seat.
"Go for a walk?" she said to the dog.
They climbed up onto the sidewalk, neither in any great hurry. The sun hung low in the west, painting the empty street in pastel shades of orange.
They started at the east end and walked towards the sunset. She counted the bricked facades of familiar places as they went. Bellmont's Hardware & Lumber, where she had tagged along on various repair and improvement projects, occupying the choice real estate at the corner lot so westbound drivers couldn't miss it. The Lone Star Cafe, red-checked curtains drawn across the picture windows, the glass papered on the side by faded flyers and advertisements. Leal's Sporting Goods, where her uncle had been a weekly regular. He bought his guns there and his ammunition at the hardware store, which was cheaper. A gap where a furniture store had once been, long out of business. Cracked and starred windows looked in over a dusty showroom strewn with trash.
At the corner they stopped, looking south down the cross-streets to the dingy houses. Few were lit. Further on the boxy, cream-colored silhouette of the old folks' home. The ambulance usually parked out front was gone, the parking lot empty.
They went north.
Across the street, Creede Feed & Ranch Supply. Around the back was the loading dock where - happily - she'd managed to avoid adding any more dents to the truck. The dinky video store next door, bleached and outdated movie posters still framed beside the entrance. A small antique store that used to be run by an old man with an electric larynx - good place to go treasure-hunting until he died and his kids turned it into a repository for worthless crap. Marchand's Drug; if she shaded her eyes against the glass she could make out the soda fountain and the row of barstools. The curiously named Big Picture, a theater with a stage and single screen that sold the world's worst hot dogs and overpriced popcorn. The billboard advertised a live revue by a small-time comedy show she'd seen at least twice.
Set back off Main Street were the bars - there were two, both with their loyal customers - and the pool hall, and the auto body shop built into an old service station with adobe walls and a curved side comprised entirely of glass panes. On the south side a small meat market and the dinky no-name grocery store with a clerk who sometimes didn't card for alcohol sales.
On the western edge of town they followed the bank of the river as far as the old bridge, a rusted iron trusswork with a deck of rotten planking. She stood on the footing with her hands shoved in her pockets while Ranger sniffed around the base of the BRIDGE CLOSED sign. Barn swallows dove and wheeled between the banks, lighting occasionally on the mud nests that plastered the supports and girders. Down in the river, in the shallows, she watched the shadows of perch flitting through the light. Another day she might have been adventurous and gone down the embankment to walk beside the water, maybe as far south as the dam and the old mill. Ranger loved the water.
Instead she whistled and took the slack out of his leash.
On the way home she followed the sinking sun in her mirror. It was a blood-red ball, half sunken below the horizon. The tops of trees and power lines stood black against the glow.
What was strange is how nothing had changed on the surface. The sun rose and set. The fields along the highway wavered in the breeze. The birds still sang.
To the casual observer there was nothing at all amiss.
She put the Power Wagon in the garage and pulled down the door, regretting now that she hadn't driven it more often. Nothing was harder on machinery than having it sit idle, as her uncle was fond of telling her. She thought maybe there was something to that. How maybe it applied to people as readily as cars and tractors. She'd come to Longbranch too late to make many friends in public school, skipped most of social events there up to and including her graduation and what passed for a prom. After her uncle had died she'd stopped visiting his friends and cut back driving the old Dodge to once a month, and between job hunting and getting trained at Clower she hadn't had a weekend free in months.
One way or another she'd effectively walled herself off and let the world go by.
She regretted it now.
But there was nothing to be done about it. If she got tomorrow, she promised, she'd do better.
She unclipped his leash inside the fence and went up and sat on the warm concrete porch steps. The problem was fear. With a very few exceptions she couldn't recall a time she wasn't at least a little bit afraid of something, some horrible consequence. Real or imagined. The result of something she'd done or hadn't done. The lingering effects of a genetic perfectionist streak against which she'd never measure up but couldn't tune out.
Folding the leash, she watched Ranger make his circuit of front yard, investigating fence posts and the old pecan stump and marking and remarking. Presently he finished his round and came to the paving-stone walk. He stopped just out of arm's reach and cocked his head. She snapped her fingers and patted the step, to no avail.
Very slowly the dog took a step back. His lips peeled away from his teeth and he began emitting a low growl, not unlike those she'd heard sometimes at night when there were unexpected visitors or strange animals outside. A danger warning.
The fine hairs stood up on her neck and arms.
"What?" she said, pushing off. "What is it? What's wrong?"
She heard it then. Something moved in the house. In the living room. A clumsy, heavy footfall. Glass broke.
"Stay," she ordered, splitting her attention between the dog and the front door. Very slowly she stepped up onto the porch and turned the knob.
The smell hit her first, an odor not unlike meat left out that had soured and begun to spoil. She narrowed her eyes. The sun was sinking fast, casting the living room in shadow. On instinct she reached for the overhead light switch. The rocker clicked. The room remained dark. She tried again with the same result.
The rolling blackouts had caught up.
Then she felt the change. The indefinable certainty that something had stepped into the space with her. Something foul and unnatural, like she'd felt Saturday night at the tank farm. The presence of another in close proximity without the warmth of life.
For the briefest of seconds she saw a silhouette step through the opening to the kitchen. It seemed to pause, and there was a sound like air forced out of a bellows.
Evelyn backpedaled until she ran out of porch. For a moment she was airborne. She landed hard on the walk with the wind knocked out of her, stunned, and the ghastly intruder came flailing out in pursuit. In the gathering darkness it was hard to make out any identifying characterics. She recognized that her attacker was human, shorter than herself but stockier, and female. It flew off the porch and landed hard on her abdomen, broken fingernails tearing at her face.
And just as quickly it was knocked aside, sent rolling by a brown and white blur that came tearing out of left field. Through the stars behind her eyes she heard his growl over the tearing of cloth. She pushed herself up and gained her unsteady legs.
Unstable but determined she mounted the steps and pushed through the living room, barking her shin against the couch and coffee table and crunching glass beneath her shoes. Her outstretched fingers touched the banister rail and she took the steps two and three at a time, careening around the last corner into her room. She dropped to her knees beside the bed and felt underneath until she gained a hard plastic case. Throwing it on the mattress, she popped the thumb latches and grabbed for the contents. She blinked involuntarily as 160 chalk-white lumens turned her bedroom into daylight. Fumbling, she picked up a magazine and shoved it into the grip of the pistol, jerking the slide back and feeling the first round sliding home.
She ran down to the front yard, suitably armed, and grabbed for Ranger's collar. With considerable difficulty she got the two combatants seperated and physically dragged him towards the fence, trying as she did to offset Ranger's not-insubstantial momentum and defensive urges long enough to lay the pistol sights on the interloper.
In the glare of the weapon light it began to rise - haltingly, stiffly jointed. It exhaled again and shuddered around towards the light, and in doing so revealed one final surprise.
The mortal remains of Beatrice Morgan stared at Evelyn with one milky, unseeing eye and half of a face. The jaw hung slack, the exposed teeth glinting a faint pink in the spotlight of the LED. Black to the elbows, the bony arms swiped for her niece as she stumbled forward.
Evelyn fired. The shot went wide, gouging into the lawn low and the right. She tried to correct and put a hole in the gatepost. She began to retreat, pulling her dog by the collar. Where she was going she didn't know. Only that she needed to get away, and that for reasons beyond her understanding she suddenly couldn't hit shit.
She could find help there.
"Ranger!" she shouted, and turned to run, secretly terrified that he would try and stand and fight. To her relief she heard him huffing along beside her in the dark. Barking, even. She supposed they were hitting all kinds of rare mileposts tonight.
They circled the house like a slapstick gag in the Saturday cartoons she'd watched as a girl. They cleared the gate and swung wide of the garage, facing down the long dirt ruts.
She hadn't run in a week. It was easily half a mile to the house. This was going to hurt.
She didn't feel it, though. She didn't feel anything but the overriding urge to put distance between herself and the stumbling horror at home.
Dark shapes flickered in her peripheral vision along the way. About halfway another one stumbled out of the tall grass to tangle itself in the barbwire. She threw a bullet at it, not slowing to see whether the shot was good.
Up ahead a greenish light bobbed in the road, casting a wan glow against a pair of legs. As she closed the gap she made out Danny, hissing Coleman camp lantern in one hand and a breakover shotgun in the other.
"Run!" she gasped as they drew abreast and passed him by.
"The barn!" he yelled after her, following suit. "Go to the barn!"
She didn't stop. Well behind her she heard the barking report and Danny swore. She broke stride and wheeled around, bringing up the pistol. He was trying to juggle the lantern and the shotgun, fumbling a thin shell from an elastic cuff on the butt. A third - one she hadn't seen - was staggering closer. She threw up the Walther, settled in her grip like it had been poured there, and fired.
It was a strange spectacle. An instance of ballistic zen.
As if in a daze she watched the bullet as it cleared the muzzle and took flight. To her amazement it made contact, burying itself into the thing's right thigh. It collapsed facedown in a rut and flopped like a fish out of water. Danny didn't stick around for the show to admire her handiwork. He loped to her and pointed to the barn with the barrel of the broken gun.
"In there," he said. "We can bar the doors from the inside."
Evelyn didn't argue.
The Calhouns' barn was much larger than the one behind her house. She held the lantern up and studied the new hideout while he wrestled a bar across the side door. Built in a cruciform shape, the wing in which they'd sought shelter was lined with stables. Most appeared empty but she heard horses nickering somewhere in the gloom. Ranger's white markings picked up the propane light as he trotted off, nose down and sides heaving, lost in a world of new and exciting smells and dark corners.
Danny snapped his breakover together with an oiled click and she remembered the pistol in her hand. Finger off the trigger a small voice in her head admonished. Her lungs and legs burned. Her mouth was dry. Her aunt's face ruined face flashed in her brain like an out of focus film projection. A thousand questions crowded her mind.
"The hell," she managed.
Danny didn't answer. Since last they had spoken she had wondered at his gesture - at the two fingers pressed up under his jaw. She had secretly wondered if it was a murder-suicide or a double-murder. The distinction seemed less important now. Details aside, she grasped now the haunted emptiness in the eyes and the failure of words.
"Reelfoot," he said, finally.
"No - " she shook her head. "Reelfoot kills. It makes you sick. Not a zombie..."
He looked at her, impassive.
"Shit," she said. "It makes you a zombie, doesn't it?"
"More or less. Like people-rabies."
Neither spoke. Danny catching his breath. Evelyn trying to catch up with a world that had taken a sudden and violently upsetting turn. The realization struck like a lightning bolt.
"Ranger!" she called. The dog moved silently out of the darkness, wheezing when he stopped beside her. She knelt and took his jaw in her hand, studying his muzzle. If it was like rabies...and if he'd bitten her aunt hard enough to draw blood... She dropped the magazine from her pistol and emptied the chamber, then used the light. She didn't see any red. Was that good enough?
She doubted it.
He tried to lick her face and she pulled back. She sat down on the bare dirt, afraid again. The Border Aussie laid his head on her leg and whined.
"How long does it take?" she asked.
"I don't know. A couple of days. It comes on pretty quick."
"Do you have an empty stall?"
"Yeah, a bunch. Does he have his shots? If he has his shots he might be fine."
She tried to remember. Strong chance he did - ever since she'd been allowed to keep him she'd always stayed on top of vaccinations. Still, those shots were for regular rabies. She didn't know much about Reelfoot. Hell, she didn't know anything about it. None of the available news stations ever bothered to explain the virus in any detail. Not when there was perfectly good carnage to report.
The barred door rattled heavily. By the sound there were two or three out there now.
She wondered about their chances of getting out. If years of bad zombie movies were any indication, farmhouses offered lousy odds for survival. Barns...she was less certain. There were fewer windows and the walls were thicker. By turns, the doors were larger. Hopefully sturdier, too, but if one came down it'd be like opening a floodgate.
She turned the magazine over in her hand, thinking. How many times had she fired? A full mag was fifteen - she mentally kicked herself for not grabbing her spares out of the case - and she thought somewhere between four and six between the start of the attack and their holing up in the barn. So twelve left. Conservatively, ten. Worst case scenario she needed two. She didn't know how many shells Danny had left for his shotgun, but by the look of things it was a .410 and probably not a whole lot of a good against a determined infected.
What time was it? Darkness cut their survivability by an unhealthy margin. Daylight would improve their chances, if only a little. She absentmindedly stroked Ranger's fur, the dog now gone silent. He perked briefly as somewhere far away a coyote howled. Another picked up the cry.
"Do you have any buck for that?" she asked.
"This?" Danny hefted the shotgun. "No. Just number nine."
"I keep it for possums and snakes," he said, exhaustion evident in his voice. She wondered if he'd slept since last she'd been here. Probably not much, and he'd been on the raggedy edge then. "I really wasn't expecting this."
Was anybody? she wondered. Bird flu, pig flu, Spanish influenza...those she could understand. The dynamics of a mass sickness and die-off she grasped, at least on paper. The thought of a later stage where the afflicted became ambulatory and violent was something else. How did it spread? By blood? By air and water? She'd seen people in news clips of Asian cities wearing surgical masks and respirators, but most of them were probably dead now. Optimistically, she reasoned, they might only have a couple of days left themselves. They'd know soon enough.
More coyotes joined the chorus. Ranger stirred and rolled onto his side. She smiled sadly and smoothed the fur over his swelling ribs. Worrying wouldn't do much good here. The night was early yet. Midnight would be an achievement. And dawn was long way off.