**Last bit of Chapter 9**
Jack ushered the threesome into the house through the back door that led into the living room. He instructed them all to sit on the couch there while he barricaded the door. He had nailed 3⁄4 inch plywood into the door to cover the glass portion. On either side of the door he had constructed sturdy-looking wooden arms that held a 2x4 in place across the door, like an old castle, locked down against the barbarian hordes.
After locking down the door, he went and checked the few ground-floor windows that were not completely boarded over. In a few of them he had cut murder holes into the plywood. Through these small openings the waning lights from outside cast a dim glow on the interior of the house. With the windows boarded and the doors locked down, it felt more like a tomb than a house.
After he had checked the downstairs for security, Jack walked back into the center of the living room, casting Lee’s weapons into the corner of the room farthest from his reach. Jack then grabbed a gas lantern, cranked on the fuel, and sparked it. The room filled with the cold light of the propane lantern.
With all three of his guests—or prisoners—occupying the couch, Jack chose a wing-backed chair, and situated it to face the trio. He laid the bolt action rifle across his lap and regarded each of the newcomers for a long moment before speaking.
“I’m truly sorry if this seems harsh to you folks, but you have to understand my situation here. I’ve had everyone from the crazy ones to rogue military try to come and take my shit...pardon the language.”
Lee nodded. “You never can be too careful.”
Jack looked at him. “You say you’re army. I seen your ID, but I’m havin’ some trouble believing this story of yours. Explain.”
Lee took a deep breath. “My explanation might seem far fetched to you, but it’s the truth.” He looked at Angela and Abby as he explained, since he had yet to explain the situation to them. “Without wasting time with too many details, I am a part of a government initiative, headed by the US Army called Project Hometown. Myself and forty-seven others just like me are stationed in every one of the lower forty-eight states. Our houses were built by the government and come with a heavy-duty underground bomb shelter...more like a vault. We refer to it as ‘The Hole.’ Anytime something happens that the government believes could cause a serious threat to the stability of the nation, they sequester us, each in our individual vaults. They maintain constant contact with us, until the crisis is over and they release us from the vaults. If the crisis does not resolve itself, our orders are to wait 30 days and then begin our mission.”
“It’s barely been over a month since this started,” Angela interjected. “Did they have you sequestered that early? Did they know this was going to happen?”
“They didn’t know it was going to happen,” Lee shook his head. “But they plan for the worst case scenario. I’ve been sequestered many times, and it has never developed into anything worse than a bad news story. I’m sure they thought this was going to be the same thing...I know I did.”
Jack brought the conversation back. “You mentioned a mission. What exactly is your ‘mission’?”
“Render aide and reestablish a centralized form of constitutional government in the event of total collapse.”
His words were met with silence.
Abby wasn’t terribly in tune with the conversation, but the two adults stared right at Lee for a long time. Finally the silence grew stale and Jack voiced what Angela was thinking.
“So...If what you say is true, you wouldn’t be here if the government still existed.”
“The government is completely gone...” Angela echoed, her voice carrying with it a sense of flat dejection, as though Lee had taken her last shred of hope.
Lee leaned forward. “In all likelihood, the government is wiped out...at least the government as we knew it a month ago. It certainly seems that way to me. My mission doesn’t start until I stop receiving communications from them. The lastcommunication I received was on July 2nd.”
“What day is it now?” Angela sounded lost.
“July 24th.” Jack leaned forward on his rifle.
“Don’t you have some information for us?” Angela asked. “Is there some way we can cure this thing?”
He shrugged. “The information I received from the government was what they knew when they put me in The Hole. That was June 15th. At this point in time, your own individual experiences with the infected probably surpass the limited information I received from my briefing.”
Angela’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not minimizing what you’ve done for me and Abby...but if we know more than you do, what good are you going to be in helping survivors?”
Lee nodded as though to concede that it was a fair question, but Jack jumped in before he could speak.
“Because that’s what he’s trained to do.” Jack stood from his chair, and for the first time, set his rifle down. “He’s trained to organize pockets of people into big groups and get them to work toward a common goal. And he’s obviously better equipped than us, or anyone I’ve seen so far.” Jack pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and stuck one in his mouth. Then he looked at Angela. “You mind?”
She shrugged. “Your house.”
“Thanks.” He lit the cigarette. “If I heard it from anyone else, Lee, I’d think it was horseshit—excuse me—but for some reason I believe you. Or maybe I’m just depressed and grasping at anything that can bring me some hope.”
Lee watched the lanky man with a guarded look. Behind his expressionless face, he was thinking that he was growing tired of convincing this asshole, and wanted to get moving. Unfortunately, his job wasn’t to rescue people and then drop them as soon as it was inconvenient. His job was to begin gathering people into a workable unit, and here were two adults who could help.
“Listen,” Lee stood. “I understand the hesitancy that both of you are feeling. I’m not a prophet, and I’m not a leader. I’m not asking for your help. I’m asking both of you if you would like my help.” Lee let that sink in for a moment. When neither Jack nor Angela responded, he continued. “If you choose to accept my help, then we should get going now. If you don’t want it, that’s fine. I would simply ask that you, Jack, give me my equipment back and I’ll be gone for good.”
Angela immediately stood. “We’re going with you.”
Lee was surprised how quickly she made that decision, but he supposed that desperation and survival limited one’s options. Now that the two females were decided, all eyes turned to Jack, who was still casually smoking his cigarette.
“What?” Jack stared right back at them. “You want me to join your merry band?”
“There’s no band,” Lee said. “Just me, Angela, and Abby. Back in my bunker, there’s a twelve-year old kid that watched his father get shot to death earlier today, and my dog’s with him. That’s it.”
Jack folded his arms across his chest and pursed his lips. “Why do you want me to come?"
“Because it’s my job to gather people. Because I could use you. Because you’re a Marine, and—correct me if I’m wrong—you’ve got combat experience.”
“Iraq in ’03 and Afghanistan in ’07 and ’08.”
Lee smiled. “Same year in Iraq as me. But I’m not forcing you to do anything. You do what you think is best. But you don’t have a lot of time to decide.”
“Yeah,” Jack stepped forward. “About you leaving...I don’t suggest moving around at night.”
Lee was about to respond when Jack put up a finger to hush him. For a brief second, Lee thought Jack was just being an asshole, but then he realized that he was listening. In the same moment he heard what Jack was hearing.
“What?” Angela whispered. “What’s wrong?”
Jack snatched up his rifle and Lee dove for the lantern, turning the gas as low as it would go. In the dim light Lee stared up at Jack and whispered, “I’m going to get my weapon.”
Jack only nodded.
“What’s happening?” Angela whispered again, this time her voice sounding like she was on the verge of tears. Abby picked up on the bad situation brewing and began to whimper.
Lee stepped quietly to the corner of the room where Jack had stowed his things and began strapping on his gear. Jack moved to Angela and put an arm around her shoulder. He spoke while moving them towards the back of the room, behind some large pieces of furniture.
“Someone’s coming...there’s not a whole lot of friendlies around here, hence the warm welcome that I gave you. They might not be bad, but we gotta play it safe.”
Lee was geared up in a matter of seconds. “It was us...”
Jack was thinking the same thing. “They either tracked you through the woods, or they just came to my house because it was the next logical place you’d be.” He didn’t say it accusatorily, but simply because it was a fact. “Are they good or bad?”
“I dunno,” Lee knelt down and peered through one of the murder holes. “I got a hinky feeling about them, but I get a hinky feeling off a lot of shit these days." Lee was looking at the side of the house facing the woods where they’d come from. “Side’s clear.”
Jack approached the front door and peered out the murder hole to the left of it. “Eyes on...one humvee...two pickup trucks...five armed personnel approaching the house in a skirmish line...three armed personnel remaining with the truck.” Jack spread his feet apart and rested the muzzle of his rifle into the murder hole. It was just big enough to allow him to sight through with his scope. The dim outside light coming through the murder hole created a pale square across his face.
Lee pointed upwards. “Jack, take the upstairs. You’ve got a better vantage point with your rifle.”
“Negative.” Jack just kept sighting through the scope. “I’m good where I’m at. Five approaching are about 100 yards out.” He spoke louder. “Angela, push the couch you’re behind. Underneath it there is a big black shotgun. It’s loaded, just point and shoot, okay? Anyone comes in the back door, you let ‘em have it.”
“I...but...” Angela stammered.
Lee looked towards her. “Angela, just do it.”
She nodded and pushed the couch out of the way. She leaned down out of view and came back up with the nastiest pistol-grip shotgun Lee had ever seen. Angela stared at it with wide eyes, like she was holding a rabid dog. “Do I have to cock it every time I shoot it?”
“Negative.” Jack responded, still not looking back. “Semi-auto and idiot proof. Like I said, just point and shoot.”
“Jack,” Lee leaned against the wall and rested the barrel of his rifle in the murder hole. “We gonna challenge them or just open up?”
“Don’t feel like it’d be right not to give ‘em a chance...” Jack obviously wasn’t concerned with Lee’s opinion on the matter because he immediately yelled to the men outside: “You men approaching the house! Stop where you are! Lay down your weapons and put your hands up!”
Lee took his eyes away from the murder hole for a moment. He looked at Jack for the brief second after he had issued his challenge. He opened his mouth to ask a question.
“Shit!” Jack hit the deck.
Neat beams of light speared the darkness, one appearing rapidly after the other, tracing a line from one side of the house to the other. The visual was spectacular, but the sound hit Lee’s ears a second later. The sound of automatic gunfire punching holes through the plywood-covered windows and Angela and Abby screaming in unison.
Lee followed Jack’s lead and flattened himself to the ground.
“Motherfucker!” Jack yelled over the gunfire.
“He’s got a fuckin’ SAW!” Lee referred to the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, a 5.56 mm belt-fed light machine gun issued to military personnel. The sound of it chattering away at them was unmistakable.
Jack turned his head to look at Lee. He face was still pressed to the ground, trying to be as small as possible, and all Lee could see were his eyes peering over the top of his left shoulder. Lee thought the man must be insane, because, though he couldn’t see the rest of his face, Lee could swear Jack was grinning.
“Guess they’re not friendly after all!” Jack yelled.
Then the house exploded.
From where Lee was plastered to the floor, he could see up the staircase to the second level. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash, then a billow of smoke as shreds of curtains, chunks of wood, and pieces of plaster went flying in. A heavy cloud of dust and smoke billowed down the staircase and covered him with white powder. He hadn’t even registered the explosion, but his ears were ringing.
“—the fuck was that?” Jack yelled.
“RPG!” Running on auto-pilot, Lee hauled himself up off the floor before his brain had even registered that the gunfire had ceased. He was on his hands quickly, but it felt like it took him forever to find his feet.
Jack seemed to suddenly realize the gunfire had stopped and rolled away from the door. “We need to get the fuck out of here.”
“Yeah. Let’s go.” Lee stumbled to his feet, realizing the concussion of the blast had made him a little unsteady. Perhaps his inner ear was damaged. He shambled over to where Angela and Abby were hugging each other, both curled in the fetal position in the corner of the room. Lee felt angry at them that they hadn’t followed Lee and Jack’s example and flattened themselves on the ground. All around them on the wall were bullet holes. It was a damn miracle that they weren’t both shot to shit. In fact...
Lee knelt down beside them as Jack went to the back door and peered out the murder hole.
“Back sides clear.” Jack announced. “We need to move, now.”
Lee shook the two girls. “Come on. We gotta get up!” As he spoke he was checking them for bullet holes. Sometimes the adrenaline masked the pain and someone could go several minutes without realizing they had a wound. They both appeared to be unharmed. Lee grabbed Angela by the arm and pulled her up off the ground—perhaps a little hard, but he didn’t have time to be a gentleman about it. “We need to fucking move!”
He shoved them towards the back door. Abby had her hands pressed over her ears and her mother looked shell-shocked and was still holding her daughter like a teddy-bear. Jack stepped in for Lee and grabbed Angela by the shoulder, giving her a hard shake. “Look at me,” he said.
She just kept staring at her daughter.
Jack smacked her across the face. The look she gave him was utter shock, but he had her full attention. “I’ll apologize later,” he said and put his hand on the door knob. “When I open this door, we’re going out first, then you and Abby come out and start running. Run straight back for the woods. Lee, you take the right corner, I’ll take the left. Ready?”
“Ready.” Those words always made Lee’s stomach tighten.
Jack wrenched open the door. Lee moved through first and cut to the right with his rifle up and ready. He didn’t see what Jack and the girls did behind him. There was an old piece of advice that Lee had received many years ago during infantry training at Sand Hill. That advice was watch your lane, referring to each member of a squad’s individual lane of fire. It also corresponded to all individual responsibilities. When you were focused on whether everyone else was doing their job correctly, you were least likely to be focused on doing your own job correctly.
Lee was focused on the corner of the house. In that instant, the corner of the house was his whole world. He kept moving to it, rifle at the ready, walking heel-toe, ready to toast anyone that came around the corner.
About ten feet before he reached it, Lee kicked out a few yards and “pied the corner.” He leaned to his left and pied a few degrees of angle, then a few more, then a few more, slicing up “the pie” into tiny pieces that gave him more and more angle on the side of the house...
Man with a gun.
He was closer than Lee expected. Lee pulled the trigger twice, instinctively. Both shots ripped through the man’s chest. The intruder’s body jerked, and he lurched towards the house. Lee’s angle was too shallow and the man disappeared from sight. Lee immediately pied off a bigger angle, bringing the entire side of the house into view. The man he’d just shot was leaning against the side of the house, on his knees, hunched over and doing his best to bring his rifle up to bear. Lee registered that he was wearing jeans and black shirt and was carrying an AK-47. Lee popped him two more times and he crumpled to the ground, ass up in the air like he was bowing.
There was a dark shape behind the dead man, moving up fast.
The side of the house exploded, spraying his face with chips and splinters. Lee cried out, more in surprise than pain and ducked back behind the corner. A gunfight was a game of chess that happened in the span of a few short seconds. You didn’t have time to think, so you made your moves and hoped your training and instincts were better than the other guy’s. At that brief second in time, Lee knew the initiative and the advantage had gone to his attacker and that if he waited too long, he wouldn’t be able to get it back.
A gunfight was constant motion.
When you move fast and non-stop, you deprive the enemy of the ability to reason. You put them in mid-brain, and that’s where Lee’s better training could win.
Lee went down to one knee, then hit the ground on his left side, “urban prone,” so the top of his head and his rifle were just barely around the corner. The dead man lying ass-up blocked most of Lee’s field of view, but his untrained opponent came running up to his downed buddy, hugging the wall of the house like an amateur. Lee gave him two, then two more, just to be sure. He fell right on top of his buddy, and Lee thought the position was darkly comical.
Rising to his knees, Lee spared a look behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Angela and Abby sprinting for the woods. Jack was on one knee, leaning out around the corner and covering the opposite side of the house.
“You ready?” Lee yelled.
“You call it.” Was Jack’s response.
Lee briefly glanced at the terrain behind the house. It was about fifty yards of unkept grass, and then another hundred yards of plowed field before the woods. “Tactical retreat! I’ll cover you from the field!”
“Whatever!” Jack shouted and took a shot. The .308 made Lee’s 5.56 sound like a tack-gun. The Marine cranked another round into his chamber and sighted down the scope.
Lee reached into his chest rig and extracted a grenade. He peered around the corner and saw the muzzle of a rifle peeking out from the far end of the house. Looked like a few guys mustering up a stack to take the back of the house. If they were smart, they’d take the inside and bust through. Lee would give them a little something to think about.
He pulled the pin and stepped into full view for a brief moment, tossing the grenade underhand. It flew low and rolled just beyond the corner of the house where the enemy were stacking up.
Lee didn’t wait for the blast.
He turned and started sprinting for the field. He heard a few screams and shouts as someone recognized what had just been tossed at them. Then there was a BOOM, followed by relative silence.
Lee felt like he was running faster than he’d ever run. He felt like the ground was moving underneath him faster than his feet could keep up, like the whole world was a giant treadmill turned up as high as it could go. He reached the end of the grass and the beginning of plowed field and wasn’t sure whether he dove or tripped, but landed face first in the soft dirt, recovered quickly, and came back up to his knees.
He immediately brought his rifle up.
The man with the bolt-action jumped up and left his corner, heading straight for Lee. Though the grass in the backyard was overgrown, he could just see enough over the top of it from his kneeling position to cover Jack effectively as he beat his retreat. Lee would have preferred to be prone, but the battlefield was a dynamic environment where you made the best out of what you had. At least the tall grass provided him some concealment, though it did nothing to protect him.
Jack hit the field and ran straight past Lee, continuing on to the trees. Lee kept the side of the house in sight. Around the corner Jack had been covering came two men, both wearing ACU’s and carrying AR-15’s. They both moved and looked like professionals. They took the back of the house fast, then scanned for threats. They didn’t appear to notice him poking out from the tall weeds, but trained their rifles on the figure of Jack, still heading for the woodline.
Lee didn’t wait for them to take the first shot. He opened fire, feeling very odd that he so readily was shooting at what appeared to be American troops. Perhaps he subconsciously didn’t want to kill them, because his shots went very high and both guys immediately went prone.
“Shit,” Lee turned towards the woodline and was already sprinting when he heard Jack call out to him, “Gotcha covered! Move!”
The soft plowed ground was difficult to run across, like running in sand, and Lee nearly ate it twice before he finally hit the woodline. Just before he reached it, he saw Jack, leaning up against a small tree, taking aim through his scope, and firing one solid round right over Lee’s shoulder.
Lee flinched, felt the shockwave smack him in the face, and kept running.
Behind him, he heard Jack keeping pace.