For a brief moment, when Molly woke this morning, she smiled. She stretched her long, lean body under the sheet that covered her and smiled at the sound of a blue jay close by. Then, she heard the other sound. The sound of a spastic, shuffling walk. Had it been three years ago, she could have imagined it was her father making his way home after another celebration at the local tavern.
But it wasn’t three years ago.
And the wandering footsteps were not her father’s.
She began to get up but Kyle’s steady hand on her shoulder kept her in the bed. He lifted his bow and made a shush face while stealthily making his way to the window. He peeked quickly and lifted a single finger towards Molly.
“Just one,” she thought. “Small miracles still happen.”
Kyle gently turned the handle to the door and quickly flung it open. The light that flooded in hurt Molly’s eyes for a brief moment, but she heard the swoosh of the arrow followed by the thud of the body as it fell by the window. Seconds later, Kyle appeared back in the room. His hand held an arrow, covered with gore.
“So, what do you want for breakfast?” he asked with a wide grin.
“Bacon and eggs,” she said, “with hash browns, a side of waffles and a large coffee.”
“You got it kiddo,” he answered quickly. “One can of franks and beans minus the franks coming right up. See if there’s any clean water left.”
Molly and Kyle were out scouting for their home group. Their job was to find food, weapons and ammunition. They were also supposed to map out the area and if they saw another group, mark exactly where they were.
They were not to make contact.
Their home group was already filled to capacity. The last thing they needed were more hungry mouths to feed or more sick people to drain their make-shift hospital of supplies. The situation was nearing the critical stage.
Paradise used to take in anybody that wandered along. That was the name of Molly’s home group, Paradise. They were extremely well-stocked when the world went to hell three years ago. There were still no answers as to what happened. One minute the world was fine and the next… chaos everywhere.
At first, there were just a handful of the dead. It seemed like the cops and National Guard had it covered fairly well. Then suddenly the cops were outnumbered. Suddenly the National Guard was spending more time trying to evacuate than stopping it.
And nobody knew why.
Except for Molly.
It was the planes. The ones that left the streaks across the sky. She had grown up seeing the vapor trails, but one day it seemed as if there were more than she had ever seen. Almost enough to make a basket-weave pattern in the sky. The next day, a man pronounced dead woke in the back of the morgue vehicle. The driver and attendant were shocked of course, but eager to help the man.
They were eager right up until he bit the driver fiercely. The attendant tried to pull him away only to have the dead man turn and take a bite from him as well. When the police arrived, the man was on his knees, blood splashed and smeared all over him and the street under him. The attendant was torn open at the stomach area, with the dead man cheerfully eating his lower intestine.
The driver had left the scene, running in a panic until he fell and rolled into the ditch next to the road. He quickly covered himself with the branches of a nearby bush, still in fear of having the madman find him. Seven hours later when the jogger saw his body and moved closer to see if he was alive, she became the fourth victim. He continued well throughout the night, infecting almost thirty people before an off-duty policeman shot him in the head.
“It was those damned planes,” Molly mumbled as she thought about it.
“Again with the planes?” laughed Kyle. “Why would the government risk killing their own people? I mean really, if they did that, who would vote for them?”
Molly looked at Kyle, the corners of her mouth turned down and her head slowly turning from side to side.
“I’m in the wilderness during a zombie outbreak,” said Molly, still shaking her head, “too far away from the safety of Paradise and all that stands between me and death is a tool.”
“I’m a tool?” Kyle asked, feigning hurt.
“Yes, a tool,” she replied, kissing his cheek. “The worst part is, you’re my tool. Now let’s load the food in the car and keep going a bit more.”
While the pair finished loading their supplies, an eager set of eyes watched them through an expensive set of high-powered binoculars. The hands that held them were rough and covered with scars. The man they belonged to was about to introduce himself to the young couple in a way they would never forget.
He handed the binoculars to another man and took the rifle he held in return. Gingerly, he let the barrel of the M24 rest in the crook of the small tree that was hiding him. The cross-hairs of the scope blurred for an instant as he set his distance and then came in crystal clear. He allowed them to linger on Kyle’s head for a few seconds, debating on taking the young man out and then thought better of it when he noticed the slight swell of Molly’s belly.
Seconds later, he chuckled as they both ran back into the house after he shot the tire out of their pickup. He turned and handed the sniper’s rifle back to the man and then made a circling motion above his head
“Mount up!” he said gruffly. “We got us a little family that needs protectin’.”
Kyle eyed the rising dust as the group moved towards them. Molly remained in the shadows of the ramshackle house, her finger locked within the trigger guard of the old Remington 30 06 and her eyes fixed on Kyle.
The sound of the motorcycles outside reached a deafening crescendo as the young couple waited to hear their fate.
“C’mon out!” shouted the group’s leader. “Ain’t nobody gonna hurt ya.”
“Why should we believe that?” replied Kyle.
“Because if I wanted you dead,” came the gruff reply, “your pretty little girlfriend would be scrapin’ little pieces of your brains off her blouse! Now stop this shit and come out before it does turn into somethin’ bad.”
Molly nodded to Kyle, as she sized up the situation. There was no thinking that they could out-fight this gang, nor could they run away. All they had left was cooperation, and just maybe they would stay alive when it was over.
“We’re coming out!”
The sun was still bright as they both took a quick count of the gang that sat outside. There were at least thirty, all rough looking and all armed to the teeth. The big man in front smiled as they walked out and pushed his kickstand to the ground.
“See?” he said, throwing a leg over his bike. “That wasn’t so bad. But before we talk more, I’ll need you to hand over that rifle Sweetheart. And your bow too Sonny.”
“What do you want from us?” asked Molly as she handed him the Remington. “We don’t have much.”
“How long you been on your own?” said the man as he jettisoned the cartridge from the rifle. “You look like you’re holdin’ up pretty good.”
“Since it started,” snapped Kyle. “We got nothing to give, so like she said what do you want?”
The man turned to the rider next to him and smiled for a moment. Behind them, dozens of kickstands went down almost in unison.
Kyle felt a quickening grip of panic.
The man laughed heartily at it.
“My name is Max,” he said, still laughing. “We ain’t here to take Sonny, we’re here to give. As in give you two a chance at seein’ that baby come into the world.”
Molly’s hand instinctively went to her belly. She wasn’t aware that it was already showing. She suddenly wished she had taken the doctor’s order to stay in Paradise.
“We’ll…we’ll be alright” she stammered. “We’ve made it this far.”
“Yeah, you did make it this far,” answered Max. “But takin’ into consideration that neither of you looks like you been on the run for more than a day or two and you got an awful lot of stuff jammed into that little car, I’m gonna guess you two belong to a group.”
“Am I right?”
Max laughed when Molly quickly looked down. He remembered his own daughter, and how he would always catcher her in a lie by the same means. His eyes shifted to the still defiant Kyle, and the smile on his face slowly eased off.
He brought a .45 up fast, leveling it at Kyle’s head.
“Lemme tell you somethin’ boy,” he said angrily. “If you’re that baby’s father, it would be in your best interest to take that look off your face. I’d just as soon take her back alone!”
“OK!” yelled Molly. “OK, we’re with a group. Please, we just want to get back there. Take whatever you want.”
“What’s your name Sweetheart?” asked Max.
“Well Molly,” he continued, “why would a smart girl like you pick such a dumbass to be her baby’s daddy?”
Max’s hand had slowly brought the .45 down as he spoke to her, but the sound of Kyle clearing his throat to speak brought it right back.
Max’s eyes never left Molly’s the whole time.
“He’s only being a dumbass to protect me,” she said quietly. “If you’ll let us go, I can promise you he’ll smarten up real quick.”
“Now that’s a problem Molly,” Max said. “Y’see, that place you call home…Paradise is it?”
“Yes! How did you know the name of it?”
“We were there yesterday morning,” he answered. “Seems your camp had a lot of dumbasses in there. One of them left the gate open. Nothing but the dead in there when we rode in. See that smoke off yonder? That’s what’s left of Paradise.”
Molly’s head hung down, while Kyle fell to his knees. Her tears formed at the thought of his mother and younger brother there. The doctor that had taken care of her through so many cuts, bruises and fevers. The men and women that walked perimeter patrol with her.
“Did anybody survive?” she asked through a tear-veiled set of eyes.
“Yeah,” replied Max. “You two.”
As one of the other men moved towards the car, carrying a car jack, Molly saw the emblem across his back. As others started moving around to help, she could see they all wore the same emblem. A blue circle with an orange ring around it. Inside the circle was a helicopter. Within the orange ring, written in white letters, a simple phrase that Molly recognized in an instant.
Her mind slipped back to her high school days in Irvine, California. The emblem was hope and trust for so many back then.
“Yeah, El Toro Search and Rescue,” said Max as he watched her. “When the shit hit the fan, we figured we had all been drafted again. Now we ride, look for pretty young girls and their dumbass boyfriends and get them back to Toro. It’s the safest place on Earth now.”
Molly smiled at the words.
The safest place on Earth.
Max wouldn’t think so if he could see the mega-herd of the dead that pushed against the fences there. Even with so many of the brave Marines that returned there to make a fortress in the middle of this hell, piling up the broken, wracked bodies of the invaders, the dead were winning.
And Molly was following Max and his group straight into it.