JOEY RAN DOWN THE STAIRS as Julie closed the front door and backed away.
Harris got to the door first and pulled up a wooden slat on the blinds. He peered out the opening, and then slammed it back in place. “Get down.” Harris laid on the floor and motioned with his hands for them to do the same.
Joey slid to the floor and found himself face to face with Poly. He looked past her to Julie. “What’s out there?” he asked.
“I don’t know. They look like humans, but all mangled and wrong.” Julie’s hands shook. “Are those the infected?” Something hit the front door and she let out a small squeak and crouched her body against the floor.
Harris held his finger over his mouth and motioned with his hand for Joey to come over to him. More bodies thumped against the house. Joey cringed at each noise made. If the things outside acted anything like the things upstairs, they were in deep trouble. Poly’s face quivered in fear.
“Be right back,” Joey whispered to Poly.
“Be careful,” she warned, as another thumped into the wall. She held her dagger in her hand and stared at the wall.
Joey crawled under the window next to Harris.
“Joey, take a look through the blinds and let us know what you see,” Harris said.
He leaned up on his elbows and squinted through a crack in the blinds. Out front, the street had dozens of zombies, similar to the ones on the second floor, coming toward the house. Most had chunks of their body torn off. Just then, one brushed up against the window and Joey fell to the floor, squeezing his eyes closed, hoping it didn’t see him. The thumping sounds grew and the noise of feet stomping around on the porch filled the room.
“What did you see?” Harris asked.
“The street’s full of them, and a bunch are on the porch already,” he answered.
“Oh my god, they’re going to kill us,” Julie whimpered, “I won’t die, not here.” She pulled her knees to her chest and held herself. Lucas scurried over the floor to her and whispered in her ear. She nodded her head and seemed to relax some.
“They won’t go crazy unless they see us,” Harris said. “They are as violent as they are dumb.”
“Maybe they haven’t surrounded the house yet. The back could be clear.” Joey leaned forward a bit so everyone could hear.
“Sounds good. Let’s do it before it’s too late.” Harris crawled toward the kitchen.
They followed him on their hands and knees. The unobstructed windows gave them a view of the backyard—no zombies. They stood next to the back door and Harris placed his hand on the handle.
“Everyone needs to get ready for what we might face out there.” His gaze passed over each of them. “There’s a group out front, and if we’re lucky, we can sneak away without them noticing. But, if it all goes wrong, make a run for the store.”
Joey stretched his fingers and nodded, feeling for his guns. Lucas took his bow out and Poly flipped a knife in her hands. Hank carried the trash bag of supplies, while Julie stayed in the middle between Lucas and Poly. They formed a loose circle as they exited the rear door of the house.
Once outside, Joey heard the grunts and thuds as the zombies stumbled on the front porch. Not ten feet past the back door and he cringed at a hissing sound, like a huge cat. He turned toward the noise and saw one running at them. Its insane eyes locked on him, mouth open, showing its yellow teeth and black tongue.
“Lucas, shoot it,” Harris whispered.
Lucas hesitated, struggling to get the arrow in the bow. He secured the arrow and pulled his bow back, letting it fly. The arrow missed, striking nothing but a few strands of silver hair. He cocked another arrow and shot it, hitting it in the head. It fell onto the fake grass in front of them. Joey had his finger on the trigger and kept it aimed at the back of the thing’s head.
Lucas stared at it, the bow shaking in his unsteady hands. “I had to, it was going to kill me,” he pleaded.
Julie covered her mouth, tears rolling down her cheek.
“Uh-oh.” Hank pointed past the fallen zombie.
The first errant arrow had hit a zombie rounding the corner. It hissed and ran toward them. Lucas unleashed another arrow and hit the thing in the neck. It slowed, grabbed the arrow, and yelled in a guttural, gargling voice.
Moving faster, the creature closed the gap. Joey held his gun out, pointing directly at its disturbed face. Lucas fumbled with his arrow again and Joey put his finger on the trigger.
Come on, Lucas. Don’t make me do it.
Poly leaned forward and threw her knife. It plunged into its head, falling face first on the fake grass. Joey took his shaky finger off the trigger, terrified by the fact he was going to shoot it.
“I can’t do this. We need to get out of here.” Julie shook her hands up and down, frantically looking for an escape.
The need to move hit Joey hard as he looked up to see a dozen zombie-things rounding the corner of the house. Each of their sunken faces changed when they spotted them. Their mouths widened and gaped abnormally. Many of the zombies hissed and growled as they ran at them.
“Run to the store,” Harris ordered, as he pushed them in that direction.
Joey didn’t need a push. He ran full speed, out in front. Glancing back, he saw the creepy group increasing in numbers and closing in.
Harris ran at the rear of the pack. He fired and the gunshot echoed through the houses. He fired again and with each shot, Joey winced. If there were any not aware of their presence, they were now.
Every hundred feet they had to jump over a small, white picket fence separating one fake lawn from the next. Joey ran with his gun in hand, bobbing up and down. He didn’t think it was possible to make a shot on the run the way Harris did.
“Joey, ahead of us, to the right.” Harris nodded.
The large zombie stumbled toward them with his withered, sagging face and open black mouth. Joey slowed down and grasped his gun with a shaky hand. He took aim and fired while walking, striking the thing in the shoulder. He shot again and hit the chest. Panic built as it trotted toward them. Black drool spilled from its mouth. It must have been salivating.
Gunshots blasted from behind. Joey stopped at a picket fence and held up his gun, looking down the sights. Frustrated, he felt the pressure of not letting his friends down. Lucas pulled back an arrow and fired into the ones coming down the side of the house. It struck one in the chest but it kept coming.
“We should get into a house,” Julie screeched.
“No, they’d break down the windows and we’d be stuffed like chickens in there,” Harris said. “We need to get to the store.” He fired six more shots into the group behind them. Some fell onto the fence while the rest pushed it over and kept coming.
Joey saw the fear in Poly’s eyes and the distress in Lucas as he fired another arrow. He had to do something or they were going to die.
Gritting his teeth, he let the anger flood through his body. A chill started in the back of his neck, sweeping over his whole body—not the normal kind of body chill, but a shudder that felt as if his bones were brittle. The chill wasn’t the only thing different, the sounds of the world around him became muffled, and Poly stopped running at his side.
He stopped and turned around, facing his friends. They inched along, legs barely moving. He watched Harris’s gun as it fired. The flame sparked out of the barrel followed by the bullet flying toward a zombie.
Can I actually see that bullet? He traced the bullet’s path to where it would strike a zombie in the head. Holy shit. Joey looked ahead to the drooling zombie and leveled his sight on its head. He pulled the trigger. Before the bullet even left the gun, he knew it was a hit. He wasn’t sure how he was doing it, but he didn’t want to waste a second of it.
He turned his gun to the next zombie. It went down in a heap. Behind him, four more went down. He shot at everything around him, reloaded, and shot it again until it was empty.
Joey hopped the next fence and shot the large zombie ahead, as well as the many staggering between the houses. He stopped at the last house before the parking lot and looked back at his friends. They had barely moved in the last minute. Before he could get his mind around what was happening, the sounds rushed to him and his friends accelerated back to running and yelling at a normal level.
“Come on,” Joey said and waved for them to follow him.
They ran, jumping over the last few lawns and reached Joey at the edge of the asphalt parking lot. Lucas still had the arrow cocked and was looking wildly around for a target.
“They’re all dead. How the hell did you move so fast?” Lucas asked, out of breath.
Joey opened his mouth to try to explain, but Harris broke through the group, still running.
“Keep moving!” Harris yelled as he ran across the parking lot.
Nausea swept over Joey. He stumbled forward, but kept his feet moving. He ran at the back of the pack and watched his friends run into the store. Harris stood next to the open front door, motioning for him to get in. Joey holstered his guns and ran. He turned the corner and put his hands on the glass door. A man in tighty whities broke from the front of a new zombie crowd as it reached the edge of the parking lot.
Joey held the door as Harris ran through.
“Lock it!” Harris yelled.
They slammed the door shut, but fumbled with the lock as underwear zombie guy crashed into the door. Harris and Hank held the door closed, but the creature pushed back hard. Poly jumped in and pushed against the door. Harris reached up to the top and grabbed a metal bar that lowered across the door and locked it in place.
The zombie frantically punched and ran into the glass door, its black mouth open as he growled—spit droplets of black splattering on the glass.
The slower zombies made their way across the parking lot at varying speeds. Each zombie crashed against the glass like birds against a clean window.
Joey, unable to hold back the nausea, staggered over to the plastic Shocker Cola bucket display and threw up into it. Julie held onto Poly and sobbed. Poly, with one arm holding Julie and the other holding a knife, stared at the creatures slamming against the windows. Hank stood next to Harris near the front door, bent over and breathing hard. The bag of supplies sagging over his feet.
“Lucas, get the back door closed and locked,” Harris ordered.
Lucas jerked at his voice and lowered his bow, dropping his arrow. He plucked the arrow off the floor and struggled to get it into the quiver.
“I’ll go with you,” Joey offered, standing up and wiping his mouth. He already felt better, but some of the nausea still clung to his stomach.
They went to the back door and secured it in the same manner as the front, with a steel bar across the door. In the hallway were two other doors, one a bathroom, and the other marked Employees Only.
Joey sighed at the sight and sound of the zombie’s deranged bodies pressing against the glass. Some pounded with the hands and heads while others slapped and kneed.
The loudest pounded its face and hands against the glass door, turning them into mush, leaving black smears on the glass. Joey held his hand over his stomach and thought he might add to the cola bucket.
He didn’t consider himself claustrophobic, until being trapped in the store and the urge to flee swelled. He looked over to Poly, who still held Julie with one arm. She glared at the wall as if daring them to break through. The glass bulged in and vibrated with each hit. How long could the glass take such a beating?
Poly met his gaze and nodded. He nodded back and reached for the grip of his gun, knowing full well, the glass would break. This was it. They were going to die right there. Her nod gave him the will to stand, to push the panic down. He pointed his gun at the window, waiting for it to happen; but the glass didn’t break—not even a crack. The zombies pounded, yelling and heaving en masse, but the glass held.
“It’s bullet-proof glass. Should keep them out for a while,” Harris said. “I saw it when we first got here. This is some sort of a hold-out place.”
Julie stopped crying and, with tears still wet on her cheeks, marched close to the glass. Rage filled her face as she edged next to the window. Her proximity created a frenzy as they clawed and battered the glass. She screamed, loud and hard, letting it go until she had no breath left. Hank stumbled back from the scream.
She lowered her head, wiping a tear from her cheek, and turned to Harris. “You knew!”
His steel expression never faltered as he and Julie stared at each other. “I knew it was possible, but this town seemed clean.”
“Clean!” Julie pointed at the windows.
“Yeah, this is not cool. We could’ve died out there,” Lucas said.
Harris’s cool gaze focused on him. “I wouldn’t let that happen.”
“Did you make that same promise to our parents?” Julie asked.
His face showed signs of creases as he stared at the floor. He didn’t respond and Joey thought it was clear he had made that promise. Julie trembled as she glared at Harris.
Joey walked over to her. “Can you check the back door, and see if they are trying to get in?”
She looked at him with her hazel eyes, and his heart hurt as he saw the raw emotion. He didn’t really need her to watch the back door, but she needed something to do right then.
“I’ll go with you, Julie,” Poly said, taking her by the arm.
Joey turned his attention to Harris. “What are we going to do?”
“We can’t stay here. This glass won’t hold forever.” Harris examined the glass.
“What about the camera?” Joey whispered and nodded to the camera behind the front counter.
“Let’s see if we can ask them,” Harris said. He crossed to the front counter and jumped onto it, waving in front of the camera. The lens of the camera shifted as he continued to wave. After a minute, Harris jumped down.
“What the hell was that about?” Lucas said. “Is there someone watching us?” He moved in front of the camera and looked into it. “Hello? We’re trapped in this store with freaking zombie things outside.”
“I don’t think there’s sound.” Harris shook his head. “No microphone that I can find.”
Poly and Julie came from the back hallway to look at the camera. Julie glared at Harris, then inspected the area around the cash registers, as if not willing to rely on his ability to spot for a microphone.
“That camera doesn’t mean there’s a person behind it. It could be automated, as most security cameras have back-up power,” Julie said.
Joey winced at the sound from the front of the store. Julie squealed as each of them turned to view the long crack in the front door. More spider cracks formed around the main one.
“There was a door marked for employees next to the bathroom,” Joey said.
They crowded the hallway in front of the door. He grabbed and twisted the handle—locked.
“Kick it in, Hank, right at the handle.” Harris stood back.
They gave Hank room as he reared back and kicked the door. The jamb splintered and the door swung open, revealing a small office with a cluttered desk.
“Great, now we have an office to die in,” Lucas said under his breath.
“We’re not going to die,” Poly answered.
“Poly’s right,” Harris said. “At least, not here and not now.”
Lucas’s face contorted with a mixture of fear and anger. “Listen, you freaking freak head.” He pointed his finger at Harris’s chest. “You’ve taken us to some other world and dragged us through miles of desert, only to arrive at some town filled with crazy dead people . . . and now you say we’re not going to die? I don’t think you have a clue what’s going to happen. None of us do!” He picked up the printer on the desk and threw it to the floor.
The printer struck the orange carpet with a dong and bounced, breaking into two pieces. The odd sound resonated and the room went silent.
“Poly, cut out the carpet,” Joey said.
“With pleasure.” She took out a knife from her thigh and bent over to cut the old carpet from the floor. She made quick work of it, cutting a large circle. Hank grabbed the carpet and peeled it up.
“That’s no floor,” Julie said.
A metal, circular hatch lay on the floor.
“Where does it go?” Lucas asked.
Joey looked to Harris in desperation and hoped he knew what to do. There was no handle, no hinges, just a smooth steel door on the floor.
“I think it can only be opened from the other side,” Julie said.
Harris shrugged his shoulders, bent over to the door, and knocked three times. “Hello in there. I know you can hear us. You saw on your video camera that we’re not infected.” No answer. “If you don’t answer, then I have to assume no one is down there and it will be safe to use my explosives to blast the door open,” he continued.
After thirty seconds of silence, they heard from below the door, “Have any of you been bitten?”
“No,” Harris responded.
The sound of steel creaking and a latch clanking filled the silent room as it opened. Joey leaned back from the opening, gripping his gun. An old man appeared, squinting as he gave everyone a quick look over. He stood on a ladder over a dark hole.
Crashing glass, a sound worse than the first, came from the front of the store. A windowpane had finally given to the pressure and shattered.
The sounds of crunching glass and zombie hisses filled the small office. Joey grabbed the desk at the same time Harris did. They pushed it against the broken door, and as soon as the desk was in place, a thud from the other side hit the office door. He pushed against the desk, but the door inched open and grimy fingers clawed their way into the sliver of space.
JOEY FROZE, APPALLED BY THE fingers. Harris kicked the bottom of the door and wedged his boot there. The door stopped opening, but two more sets of slender fingers joined the first.
The old man on the ladder let out a cry and tried to slam the hatch-door closed, but Hank caught the door with his hand and shook his head at him. The old man pulled at the door in panic, but it didn’t budge. He finally let go, giving Hank a defeated look.
“Quick, get in here before they break through that door,” the old man squealed, climbing down the ladder.
“Everyone, move,” Joey yelled as he pushed against the door, his muscles straining under the pressure. He watched as each of his friends climbed down the ladder into the darkness. He looked from Harris to the hole. The opening was only a couple feet away, but he felt the pressure against the desk and knew Harris would be in trouble the second he let go.
“Go, Joey. I can hold them back,” Harris ordered.
He stared at Harris, not wanting to leave him. “You sure?”
Joey took his hands off the door and shot down the ladder. He looked up at Harris struggling with the door. “Come on.”
“Get out of the way,” Harris said. In one motion, he jumped into the stairwell, grabbed the steel door, and closed it. He spun while hanging on the wheel, locking the door. Feet pounded on the steel door and hands scratched on the steel. He let go and dropped to the floor.
Joey stared at him in amazement. “How’d you do that?”
“All those years training in Parkour.”
Joey couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. The zombies pounded at the hatch.
“Will that thing hold?” Poly asked.
“Yup.” The old man nodded. Or maybe he wasn’t nodding, as his head seemed to shake uncontrollably of its own accord. His tattered, dirty clothes clung to his frail body, but he smiled at his new visitors.
In the dim lights, Joey saw the steel walls and ceiling, a long desk with a wall-mount TV above it, and a couch on the opposite side, facing the TV. A closed door stood at the end of the room. It had a musty, subterranean smell. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to exercise, but it was far better than the alternative. He looked to the ceiling, thinking of all the zombies overhead and shuddered.
“Wow.” Lucas stared at the ceiling. “Good thing I found that hatch.”
Harris moved toward the old man with his jacket pulled back on one side. “Thanks for letting us come down here. You alone, sir?” Harris asked.
“Yep. You can call me Ferrell. Sorry for the mess in here, but I haven’t had company in a long time.” He laughed and whistled at the end of his laugh. “Don’t worry, missy. Those things can’t get through steel,” he said, looking at Julie who stared at the ceiling. His chuckle sounded like a motor trying to start.
Joey slid his foot forward and took a big step toward Ferrell, keeping Julie behind him.
“How long have you been in here?” Julie asked.
“Oh, not too sure on that, maybe a few years.” Ferrell grinned, keeping his eyes on Julie. “You sure are a beautiful thing there, young lady.”
Lucas frowned and stepped toward Ferrell as well.
“Hey now, meant no harm in that. Just an observation,” he said, looking at Poly and Julie, and then licking his cracked lips. “It’s not like I get to look at young pretties every day, you know.”
Hank put a hand on Lucas’s shoulder, as Harris spoke.
“Let me introduce everyone, I’m Harris and this is Joey, Lucas, Poly, Hank, and Julie.”
Ferrell smiled and laughed at each name. He mouthed the word ‘Julie.’ “It’s nice to meet you all. Since you’re down here, I might as well give the tour. Built this whole thing myself, ya know. Well, I had it built from my design. I didn’t actually put it together myself.” He laughed and turned with his hunched back and slow walk, waving for everyone to follow.
Ferrell told them about how he was part of the house community and one of the lead developers for the whole project, but he was most proud of his bunker. Each word describing it was like a doting parent referring to their child. He explained that it consisted of five, eight-by-forty-foot cargo bins welded together. Joey was amazed at the size of the place after the initial shock of the first room. He had two bedrooms, a bathroom with shower and toilet, a kitchen, and a living room. He had backup generators, a large storage of batteries, a solar power system on the roof, a well for water, and a septic system for all wastes.
He grumbled a few times because the place didn’t fit seven people, but it would do fine for a little while. Joey didn’t intend to stay for any longer than needed. The feeling of having earth over his head made him uneasy.
The tour ended at the same room they started in. Joey stared at the couch in the center of the room. It looked inviting even with its cotton showing at the corners. His muscles ached from trekking through the desert all night, taking goods from the houses, fleeing from the undead and finally touring an old man’s bunker. The occasional scratch and thump on the ceiling above didn’t discourage his need for sleep.
He yawned and stretched his arms. His friends’ faces said the same thing. Harris, however, looked fresh and had a strange smile as he looked around the room. Does this fascinate him?
Ferrell brought some chairs from the kitchen into the family room so everyone had a seat.
Joey longed for the soft cushions of the couch, but decided to take one of the fold-up chairs from the kitchen. Hank and Lucas sat next to him. Poly and Julie plopped on the couch. Harris stood with his back to a wall and crossed his arms with one of his hands stuffed into his jacket.
Joey sank into the wooden seat. He blinked, but they wanted to stay shut. Ferrell hovered around, near the kitchen. Joey wasn’t going to sleep with that man looking over him. Maybe Lucas could take the first shift; he seemed more awake. He opened his mouth to speak, but Lucas spoke first.
“What happened to this world?” he asked.
Ferrell gave a quizzical look. “Where have you been, boy, stuck on the space station?” he laughed. No one echoed his laughter and Ferrell cleared his throat. “How could you guys not know? It’s everywhere, isn’t it?” his voice went into a high pitch at the end, full of hope. “Is there any place where they aren’t?”
“Our religion had us living in a cave for years. We’ve had no contact with the outside world for some time,” Harris said.
Ferrell perked up at this. “Cave dwellers, eh? Well, as far as I know, the world still belongs to them.” He pointed to the ceiling. “We built this place before those things entered this world. When it all went south, we hoped this town would be far away from it all, thinking that maybe it wouldn’t get here.
“Then a group of those things came and washed over the town one night. If I hadn’t been working the night shift. . . .” he appeared to drift off into old memories. Shaking his head, he said, “They all thought I was crazy, building this bunker. Now look at them.”
Harris interrupted his rambling. “We’ve had a long night and day. Is there any way we can have some sleeping arrangements here?”
“Oh yes, yes,” their host said, opening a cabinet next to the TV. “So many, so many, I don’t have enough.” He rummaged through the cabinets, tossing blankets behind him.
“We’ll sleep in the family room if it’s okay with you,” Harris said.
Ferrell turned around and faced them, holding two blankets. “Sure, no problem. I have some blankets in here, not enough for everyone, but the nights are good, just like the days are good. Nothing ever changes down here.” He whistle-laughed as he passed out blankets and pillows.
“Thank you much for this hospitality.” Harris smiled.
“Nothing to it,” Ferrell said. “I don’t have much, but does anyone need something to eat?”
Joey perked up in his chair at the mention of food. Perhaps he could stay awake long enough for food.
“Very kind of you, but we brought our own supplies.” Harris pointed to the large bag of food they took from the houses. He pulled out the cans of food and passed them around like Santa. Joey ate his potato soup.
Ferrell stood near Joey, watching everyone eat. His hands shook and he bobbed up and down. The corners of his mouth moved and Joey heard soft laughter from him. He may have been having a discussion with himself. Perhaps it was a funny joke.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen another person?” Joey asked.
“Oh, not long. People come and go.”
“Really?” Lucas asked.
“Sure, just a few weeks ago my daughter visited.”
Lucas raised an eyebrow, but didn’t ask any more.
After everyone ate, Joey moved his chair back into the kitchen and found a spot under the TV to lie down.
“Well, I’ll be right in there if you need me.” Ferrell pointed to a door that wasn’t part of the tour. Must have been his bedroom. His gaze hung on Julie for a moment. “Good night,” Ferrell said and left the room.
Joey relaxed with that creeper out of the room. Harris gave him a nod, as if to say that it’s okay to sleep. Julie stood from the couch holding an empty can. She looked around for a place to throw it away. She shrugged and walked toward the kitchen.
Lying down, Joey watched her cross the room and pass Ferrell’s door. In a flash, his door flung open and his wrinkled arm grabbed Julie. She screeched as he yanked her into his room and slammed the door. For a split second, Joey thought he had seen it wrong, that he’d imagined it. Then her muffled screams came through the door, and the reality of it hit him hard.
Ferrell had just taken Julie.
Joey jumped to his feet but a second slower than Lucas. Lucas bolted to the door, grabbing the handle and throwing his shoulder into it.
“Open this door.” Lucas twisted the handle and slammed his body against the door. “Open this goddamned door, now!”
Joey saw the panic taking over his friend. He nudged next to him and put pressure on the door, but it wouldn’t move. It felt solid as a stone. Another scream from Julie sent Lucas into a fresh fit.
“Hank!” Lucas called. “Kick this door in.” It came out in a high-pitched scream.
“Don’t touch me,” Julie called out.
Hank ran to the door and kicked at the handle. He kept kicking, but it held. Joey felt the panic overwhelming him as well, a completely helpless feeling. A stupid two-inch thick door stood between them and a friend.
Lucas and Hank pounded the door with their feet. “Let her out of there,” Lucas howled.
Joey pulled out his gun with a shaky hand. He pointed it at the door but didn’t know where Julie was on the other side. She could be leaning against the door for all he knew.
Lucas spotted his gun and stepped back. “Shoot the door,” he demanded.
“Don’t shoot it, it’s steel,” Harris said.
Joey slowly lowered the gun and breathed out. Lucas looked at his gun for a moment and Joey stuffed it into the holster. Lucas had lost all control of his emotions as he punched at the door and screamed into it. He continued to kick at the handle with Hank.
“Julie!” Lucas yelled, pulling at his hair.
She yelled out an intelligible sentence, but the tone in her voice told Joey they needed to hurry. His mind ran wild with what the old man could be doing to her in there. The panic swelled and he moved his hand to his gun again. He had to get through that door no matter what.
“Joey, grab the tool box in the next room over,” Harris muttered to him.
He breathed hard and took his hand away from the gun. A toolbox . . . Joey knew where it was. He ran to the mechanical room and grabbed the metal toolbox. “Here.” He handed it to Harris.
Harris grabbed a hammer and crow bar from the box. Lucas took half a step back but hovered over him. Harris shoved the crowbar between the jamb and door. He pushed against the crow bar and hit it with the hammer, wedging the crow bar deeper into the jamb. Harris pushed hard, letting out a groan as he strained.
Lucas pushed Harris out of the way and took a hold of the crow bar. He screamed as he pushed against it, his face turning red. Hank grabbed the crow bar with Lucas and for a moment Joey thought the bar itself would fold over before the door opened but then the door popped open.
Joey ran in the room behind Lucas. One lamp on the nightstand next to the bed gave enough light to see Julie and Ferrell on his bed.
Julie sat on the bed, sobbing. Ferrell sat behind her in his underwear, one arm holding her in place; the other ran over her hair as he brushed it. He didn’t look up as Lucas lunged at him.
“You sick bastard.” Lucas punched Ferrell.
The old guy fell off the bed and landed on the floor. Lucas pounced on him and kept beating him. He raged with incoherent words and flying punches. Julie hadn’t moved and kept sobbing. Joey rushed to her side and took her hand.
She wiped a tear from her face and looked back at Lucas. “That’s enough, Lucas.”
Ferrell moaned. Lucas stood over him and kept kicking him.
“Stop it!” Julie yelled.
Lucas’s cheeks flushed red and his matted hair stuck to his face. He regarded Julie for a moment and then Ferrell. He kicked him one last time before bounding to Julie, pushing aside Joey. “You okay? Did he touch you?”
“He didn’t do anything but comb my hair. Kept calling me Janice.”
“Janice,” Ferrell cried out.
“Shut up,” Lucas warned to the man over his shoulder, before turning back to Julie. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, I just want to get out of here,” her voice shook and sounded weak.
Lucas hugged her and helped her to her feet. Joey watched them leaving the room. Ferrell moaned on the floor, and Joey thought about going over there and finishing what Lucas started.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” Lucas asked, noticing a limp.
“When he grabbed me, I fell and twisted my ankle,” Julie explained as she lifted her leg.
Lucas turned with fresh rage and Joey wasn’t about to stop him.
“Leave him.” She grabbed his hand and stopped him.
He huffed and left the room with her.
Ferrell cried on the floor and rocked back and forth.
Harris walked over to him and propped him into a sitting position. “I’m going to tie you up so you don’t cause any more problems. If you stay quiet, I’ll let you loose in the morning.”
Ferrell nodded his head. Blood trickled from his nose.
“Good.” Harris tied him to the bedpost. Joey paced behind Harris, watching the knots, making sure the sick old man had no chance of getting free. Satisfied with the knots, they went into the family room.
Lucas paced in front of the girls, as Poly sat on the couch, holding Julie.
“We should just kill the guy,” he said.
“We’re not killing him,” Julie interrupted him before he went too far. “He’s just some sick old man.” She left Poly’s shoulder and crossed her arms. “I think he thought I was his sister or some other family member.”
Lucas walked toward Ferrell’s room.
“Stop it, Lucas.”
He turned around and paced once again. “Well, I’m not staying here . . . with that guy sitting in the next room.”
“He’s not going to harm anyone,” Harris assured. “I’ve tied him up and I’ll stay up all night, watching over him.”
Lucas grumbled more, but Julie was able to calm him down from murderous rage. They took their positions back on the floor. Joey made his bed under the TV and stared at Ferrell’s open bedroom door. He thought he heard Ferrell sobbing. He rolled over and faced Harris.
Joey closed his eyes, but it would be a long time before the adrenaline left his system. After more time passed, he got used to the sounds of a whimpering Ferrell and eventually exhaustion overtook him.
JOEY WOKE TO SEE HARRIS rubbing medical goo on his gut wound. He didn’t notice Joey’s stare and winced in pain. Harris closed his eyes and pulled down his shirt. Joey sat up, making sure not to wake anyone.
“Is it morning?” Joey whispered.
Harris looked at his Panavice. “It will be soon.”
He took a seat next to Harris on one of the folding chairs. Soft thumps above reminded him of the danger overhead.
“That bastard try anything last night?” Joey nodded toward Ferrell’s door.
“Nah, I heard him crying for a while, but he’s been silent for a long time. Lucas did a number on him I think.”
Joey took in a deep breath; Lucas’s rage was still fresh in his mind and thinking of it made his pulse race.
“We can’t stay here,” Harris stated the obvious.
“Who would want to?” Joey didn’t want to be in this hole for any longer than necessary. Chills ran down his arms as he thought about where he was.
“What happened yesterday? You moved faster than I could see,” Harris said.
Joey leaned forward on the steel chair, placing his elbows on his knees. How could he explain something he didn’t understand himself?
“Has it happened before?” Harris prompted.
“I don’t know, maybe back in Watchers Woods?”
Harris nodded his head, looking into his Panavice. “What’s it like?”
Joey thought of the chills that swept over his body. “It’s like the whole world is in slow motion. I don’t feel like I’m moving any faster. Everything else is slower.”
“Fascinating,” Harris said.
“What’s going on? Did Isaac do this to me?”
Harris put his Panavice in his jacket and looked at him. “They did something to you, to all of you, but I think it hit you more than the others.”
Joey shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Harris took a deep breath. “You know Isaac and Marcus started their experiments on the few natural people left on Vanar—the ones who lived were sent to Mutant Isle. But the experiments all came to a halt when they found Ryjack.” He looked to the ceiling. “They had a whole world to mess with and not a person or thing to stop them. That is until Isaac messed something up and created these zombies. They rule this planet now.”
“What’s a natural person?”
“On my planet, everybody is a product of genetic modification. Early on, they put blockers in our DNA. You can’t adjust it. But naturals, such as you, can be played with.”
Joey buried his face in his hands, rubbing his forehead. “You’re joking, right?”
Harris laughed. “This planet is a product of Isaac’s testing. You tell me.” He stared at Joey with his piercing eyes, full of wisdom and pain. “I don’t believe in fate, but I think it’s too large of a coincidence that out of the endless possibilities, we ended up on this planet.”
“Bad luck seems to run through our families.”
“Now you get to see the failed versions of what eventually became of you. It’s important to know who we are up against and how far they are willing to go to get what they want,” Harris said.
“I just want to get home and back to my old life. I want to make sure Samantha is okay and my parents . . . their parents.”
They didn’t speak for a while and the thoughts of the zombies above being some kind of precursor to what he was sent shivers down his body. He didn’t feel comfortable in his own skin, thinking of what was running through his blood.
How could his parents have kept so much stuff from them? He remembered his dad saying the truth would probably sound like a lie and maybe he was right. How could you explain jumping to different planets, or that a person from another planet changed their DNA? He wouldn’t have believed it even if his dad told it with a straight face.
A thump on the steel door resonated through the family room.
“What’s the plan?” Joey asked.
“Let find another way out of here. I don’t think we got the full tour.” Harris said.
After some searching, they found another way out—a ladder hidden behind boxes of dried food. Joey climbed the ladder and opened the hatch. The hatch thumped against the concrete floor of the garage. He pushed himself out through the hole and stood, gawking at the vehicle filling most of the space in the garage.
“Get the others. We’re getting out of here.”
JOEY STARED WITH WONDER AT the vehicle in front of him for a while before taking in the rest of the garage. Cabinets lined both side walls, and a large steel roll up door filled the back. Light poured in from windows at the top of the door.
Lucas climbed from the hatch and into the garage. “Yes,” he called out as he jumped next to the car. “There is no way in hell I was walking past the things out there.”
The others emerged from the hole in the floor and filled the space around the vehicle. Joey slid his fingers across the paint and the emblem H1. Large steel bumpers lined the front of the massive SUV, perfect for plowing through those zombie things outside.
“It’s like a Hummer,” Joey said. He’d seen one a few years ago in Preston. A monstrosity on wheels his mom had said.
“Think it’ll run?” Hank asked.
“I don’t know. I bet Ferrell planned on it running. Look, it’s some kind of diesel hybrid.” Joey shuffled through the empty boxes of fuel stabilizers sitting on a workbench. “Here’s a fuel drum and there’s a pump on top.” He had used a pump like this once to fill a tractor his dad rented. He pulled the handle over to the gas cap and stuck it into the tank. “Pump it—on top of the tank.”
“Wow, a combustion engine,” Harris said. A wide grin spread across his face as he touched the back of the Hummer. “I have a collection of combustion vehicles, but nothing like this one.”
“Who’s going to drive?” Julie asked as she held onto Poly.
“Let’s have Poly drive. She probably has more experience than the rest of us,” Joey suggested.
Poly’s face lit up. Harris eyed at him, but didn’t say anything.
Gas spilled out of the cap. “It’s full,” Joey said. “Hank, once we’re all in, open the garage door.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Lucas said as he opened the car door and helped Julie get in. Harris climbed into the third row back seat.
“Amen to that. I never want to see this place again,” Julie said. “What about Ferrell?”
“Let him rot down there,” Lucas seethed.
“I untied one of his hands and gave him a case knife to cut the rest of the rope. It will probably take him a half hour to get loose,” Harris said.
Lucas huffed and crossed his arms.
Poly clapped her hands and climbed into the driver seat. Joey ran to the front passenger side and slid onto the tan leather seat, elated to have an option other than walking to death in the desert. The keys dangled from the ignition.
Poly stared at Joey and placed her hand on the ignition. “Okay, here we go.” The SUV growled as the motor cranked, and for a second, Joey’s heart stopped, thinking it wasn’t going to start. Then the motor roared to life and smoke puffed out the back.
Joey leaned out the window and looked back at Hank standing next to the garage door. “Okay, Hank, let’s get out of this hell hole.”
Hank slid the sliding garage door up and ran to jump in the car, slamming the door behind him. The sun barreled into the garage. Joey squinted at it and felt the heat blazing on his face.
“Turn on the AC,” Lucas said, wiping the sweat from his face.
Joey turned the dial and felt the warm air blowing on him. After a few minutes, the air started to cool. He let the cool air blow into his jacket sleeves. He pulled his jacket off and tossed it to the floor. He turned his arms over, looking at all the dirt and filth on them. His shirt stuck to his chest and the straps holding his holsters left sweaty marks on his body. If alone, he might have torn down to his underwear and let the cool air blow over his whole body. It wasn’t as good as a shower, but he somehow felt cleaner.
“There are water bottles back here,” Hank mentioned from the back of the car, holding a case of Aquis water.
Spotting a camera pointed at them through the windshield, Joey leaned forward far enough for the camera to see his middle finger.
“This must be that creeper’s bug-out vehicle,” Julie said.
Poly reversed the Hummer and a pair of zombies hit the back window.
“Floor it!” Joey ordered.
The Hummer accelerated and the two zombie rolled under the tires, bouncing everyone inside. Poly glanced at him as she turned the wheel. She backed up, swinging the front of the car around, hitting another zombie and knocking it to the ground.
Joey watched Poly; her expression was one of cold determination as she shifted into drive and ran over a few more bodies. He kept his eyes on her as she drove around the side of the store, steering around a small group running at them. She shot him another glance and smiled as she saw him watching her.
“Wooo!” Poly cried out as the Hummer bounced over a dirt mound.
“Drive through the parking lot and get on the main road,” Harris instructed. “And don’t slow down for them.”
Poly followed the advice and drove through a pack of zombies at the edge of the parking lot. The vehicle jumped the curb and landed on the main road through the center of town. Passing by the houses, they saw some zombies still standing on the porch of their last house visit.
Joey looked out the back window, watching the zombies stumbling after them. His attention turned to Julie’s strained face. She rubbed the bottom of her leg. Lucas sat next to her, his hands hesitantly close to her leg. Hank and Harris sat in the back row. Hank looked out the window, and Harris moved his fingers over his Panavice.
“Where we headed?” Poly asked, looking in the rearview mirror.
“New Vegas. Just keep on this road.” Harris spoke without looking up.
Poly nodded and kept both hands on the steering wheel.
“New Vegas.” Lucas rolled his eyes. “New Vegas? Really?”
“What?” Poly asked.
“I don’t know. It’s like, why don’t we just call the Prime Minister of America, who lives at the beige house in Washington A.C. We can meet with him in the square room and share some Alligatorade, eat some Kwinkies and drink some Dan Jackneils.”
Harris laughed. Joey looked back over his shoulder to see it in person and memorize this new expression. Julie smiled too, but quickly went back to tending her leg.
“Julie, how you doing?” Joey asked.
“My ankle’s sore,” she replied. The hummer hit a bump in the road and she winced.
Lucas glanced back and muttered something under his breath. Joey caught the name Ferrell. Another bump and Julie winced taking Lucas’s attention away from the rearview. He moved closer to Julie and unbuckled her seatbelt. “Lie down, Julie, and put your leg on me.”
Once she laid down, he held her foot gingerly on his lap.
“You doing okay, Poly?” Joey asked.
She smiled. “You think I can do donuts in this thing?”
“The rear wheel drive should make it exceedingly easy,” Julie said before wincing from another bump.
“Let me know if you need to pull over and switch drivers,” Harris said in a higher tone than he normally used.
“I think I can handle driving on these roads.” Poly’s head bobbed from side to side. The corners of her mouth pulled back as her lips pursed. When she turned to face Joey, a big smile spread over her face. It was infectious. He found himself smiling and trying to forget Ferrell’s small town and the horrors it held.
A burnt car sat in the middle of the road. Poly slowed down and passed by it using the dirt shoulder. The Hummer bounced as she navigated the large sandbars stretching across the road next to the car. Joey had driven his dad’s truck down the dirt road a few times, but his dad became so nervous he had him pull over.
“I’m okay back here, if anyone’s interested,” Hank said.
“Good to hear, Hank,” Joey replied. “That really takes a load off.”
“How far to New Vegas?” Julie asked after a few minutes.
Harris answered, “About a hundred miles.”
“Is the Alius stone in Vegas?”
JOEY STRETCHED HIS LEGS OUT and took a deep breath. He kept his gaze on the landscape as it passed by. With his eyes open, the world seemed normal. Cactuses and bushes . . . nothing in the desert showed what happened to this world. Did the animals know? Did the jackrabbits still run, snakes slither, and vultures scour?
“I guess I’ll be the one who asks the question.” Lucas broke the silence. “Joey, what’s going on with you? How did you move so fast? You were in one place, one second, and in another, the next.”
He kept his forehead against the glass, looking at the desert. He had expected this question from his friends at some point, but he didn’t understand what happened himself, and felt like some freak. “A chill goes over my body and the world slows down. I’m at a normal speed. Everything else is just going slow.” Hearing himself explain it aloud sounded ridiculous. Joey turned his head to look at Poly, but she kept her face toward the road.
“Holy crap, are you serious?” Lucas asked.
“You must be moving near the speed of light,” Julie said. “The closer to the speed of light you get, the slower time goes, sort of.”
“Harris, what do you think?” Poly asked.
“Isaac manipulated your genetics. I’ve seen many mutations, but nothing like this,” Harris said.
Joey looked at his hands, studying his fingers. He wondered what was under his skin, deep in his cells, all the way to his DNA. He wasn’t normal. Putting his forehead against the window again, he made note of how the hot glass made an interesting contrast to the cold interior.
“I’m still the same Joey,” he said.
“We can call you Flash if you want,” Lucas offered. “Give you some kind of superhero name.”
Joey groaned. He hated this.
“Speedster,” Hank said.
Julie chuckled and added, “Joey Lightyear.”
“Come on, guys,” Poly reprimanded, looking in the mirror. Joey sighed in relief at the end of the names. “Speedy Gonejoey is the obvious choice, anyway.” She reached over and squeezed his hand, giving him a wink.
He laughed at the ridiculous name and saw Poly eyeing him, smiling. She kept her hand wrapped over his and eyed him again, with a softer smile and the look in her eyes gave him a warm feeling in his gut. She pulled her hand back to steer, but he kept his hand in place, looking at it and back to Poly. He watched her glowing face with new eyes.
“Harris, if that small town had all those zombies, wouldn’t a city like Vegas be a terrible place to go?” Hank asked.
“Are there any . . . regular people left on the planet?” Poly asked.
“There are pockets of people, here and there. They’re usually fortified underground, like Ferrell, or in enclosed compounds.”
Joey adjusted himself in the seat. Hearing Ferrell’s name made him uncomfortable. He glanced back at Julie and she brushed her hair back with a disgusted look. If there were more people like that on Ryjack, he would make sure to avoid them.
Julie, with her feet resting on Lucas, pulled out her cellphone. She sighed and stuffed it back in her pocket. “Hey, Harris, can I have a look at that smart phone of yours?”
“My Panavice? Sure.” Harris took it out of his jacket pocket and handed it over. Her eyes lit up under the soft glow of the screen. “It’s a bit tricky to use the first time, if—”
“Oh my god, you can scan everything electronic around you.” Julie interrupted Harris as her fingers flew across the screen. “I can see the Hummer’s computer, and even my cellphone.” She slid her fingers around the screen. “Ha, I can access my phone and get the data out of it. Lucas, I can get into your cell phone as well.”
“Yeah, well, if you happen to see anything weird in my search history, it’s probably that time my phone was taken. . . .”
“When was your phone taken?” Hank asked.
“Dude, remember that time, like the end of last year?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going near your demented places. I do have some hacking morals, you know.”
Lucas visibly relaxed and Joey thought the whole thing hysterical.
Julie’s face scrunched as she tapped at the screen. “It locked up on me.”
“It’s biometrically attached to me. I can only put a two minute-timer on it for guest users.”
“Oh, whatever.” Julie huffed and handed it back to Harris.
Lucas smiled at the exchange. His browser history was safe.
“I didn’t see one thing about our parents in there.”
Joey looked back at Julie and then to Harris.
“Were you there when it happened?” Lucas asked.
Poly hands fidgeted on the wheel and she stared into the rear view mirror more than what Joey would consider safe. But then, he had the luxury of turning around in the front seat.
“Can you tell us what happened?” Julie pushed the issue.
Harris sighed and pulled at the edges of his jacket. “When Isaac came to get you from your parents, he wasn’t counting on them fighting back. It was our best advantage. What we had not counted on was the group of Arracks he brought with him. We had a plan, but it went terribly wrong and some of your parents died in attempt to save your lives.”
“Why the bar?” Joey asked.
“Your parents didn’t think they could explain what happened,” Harris’s voice cracked.
“Yeah, but how did they all get pregnant at the same time, and go into labor on the same day and stuff?” Lucas kept the conversation going.
“That, I’m not sure of. Your parents didn’t talk too much about it.”
“Was this Simon guy involved?” Poly gripped the steering wheel and looked in the rear view mirror.
“No one knew what Isaac was doing. But he must have left something behind because not long after we dealt with Isaac, Simon began his search for you.”
“He’s been searching for us for eighteen years?” Julie asked.
“Yes, and now that he has your scent, I suspect others will be helping him. Simon isn’t the only dangerous person working for Marcus; in fact, he isn’t even the most lethal. You may have all of MM searching for you now.”
Joey turned and faced the front of the car. He slid into his seat and adjusted the seatbelt, exhaling as he stared at the windshield. He wanted it all to end . . . and wished he had never taken the path into Watchers Woods. Anger built and his hand balled up into a fist.
Poly touched his hand and he loosened his tight grip. She glanced at him. “We’re not going to let them get any of us. If we get caught, our parents died for nothing.”
Joey nodded and looked out the window.
A LARGE GREEN SIGN APPEARED on the horizon. New Vegas: 12 miles.
“We’ll see the city after this hill,” Harris said.
Joey saw the large city below. The setting sun reflected its yellow light off the glass of the towering buildings. The thought of going into the sprawling city gave him the chills. Millions would have probably lived there.
“Stop the car,” Harris said. “We better not go there at night. We can camp here and head out in the morning.”
Poly pulled off the road and parked the Hummer behind a dirt bank. Joey gritted his teeth at the idea of wasting more time, but going into the city at night seemed like a bad idea.
Poly cut the engine off, and in the stillness, he realized how jarring the ride had been. His arms and legs tingled as he opened the door to stretch. It did not take long in the hot, dry air to find comfort back in the front seat.
Looking through the dirty windshield, they watched the sunset over the distant mountains. He was getting sick of sunsets. With each passing one, it felt as if he were disappointing Samantha. He was in a different world, a new reality. If he thought about it too much, his brain hurt. He turned to Poly, hoping for a warm smile. She turned and gave him what he wanted.
They made themselves comfortable in the Hummer for the night. Poly and Joey up front, with Julie on the middle bench, and Lucas on the floor underneath. Hank and Harris shared the back seat. The car shifted as Hank struggled to find a comfortable spot. Joey reclined his seat back until Lucas complained.
“What’s your world like, Harris?” Julie asked.
“Vanar? It has some amazing places. The Three Falls of Benri is the most astounding sight I’ve ever seen on any planet.”
“You married?” She was on a roll.
“I was,” he said, putting his hands behind his head in an effort to lean back in the rigid third-row seat.
“What happened?” Julie asked.
“In a way, MM killed her. In a way, it was my fault,” Harris said.
Joey was glad she did not press the questions any further. The awkward silence was better than hearing about a man’s dead wife. If Harris thought he had any responsibility for his wife’s death, how did he live with himself? If Joey got any of them killed he wouldn’t be able to . . . well, just thinking of it tightened his chest.
He stretched his legs and pressed on the floor mat. The city of Vegas filled his view. Somewhere down there was the next step to getting off this planet. He slid his hand into his jacket pocket and felt the velvet box. He thought about going to Vegas at some point in his life, but not like this. He watched TV shows about Las Vegas, how the city illuminated at night with huge screens and millions of lights. New Vegas sat in complete darkness, disappearing into the black abyss.
“We’ll get back to them,” Poly said, touching the top of his arm.
He smiled at her and placed his hand over hers. Some of the tightness in his chest unwound. Poly was an amazing woman, a knife-wielding, hummer-driving, zombie-killing woman. She gave him hope.