The pounding beat of a song that civilization had forgotten pulsated in my ears, taking me out of this broken-down car and into a not-so-distant past. It didn’t even matter that the seat belt had been broken in the locked position and was, therefore, digging into my back or that the car rocked and groaned in a way that would have made a lesser woman seasick.
My trance was broken when a shaking hand lurched forward and twisted the knob on the dash until the radio went mute.
“It's not going away,” Jeremiah worried, leaning closer to the window to try to get a better view with his video camera. He flinched violently backwards when a pair of rotting hands beat at the passenger window. “And no one else is coming. What if this is it? What if this is what I'm wearing to my funeral?”
“It's not like they'd have an open casket,” I pointed out. “Though I doubt it’s going to leave enough of a body behind to even find. If our corpse doesn’t walk off first.”
Jeremiah gave a disgusted glare at his stained jeans and tacky, salmon colored t-shirt that featured a faded college logo. “I knew I should have worn my nice button up but nooo. It’s for a special occasion. What’s more special than dying?”
But, as I surveyed our situation a little more closely, I realized that Jeremiah was right. The undead creature was banging, howling, and slobbering away and it hadn't attracted the slightest bit of attention. I guess that is what we get for sneaking out after sunset.
“Well, I guess you know what that means.”
“We should get into the fetal position and wait for sweet death to take us into her embrace?” Jeremiah pressed the video camera right against the window. “Is it me or are they getting even uglier?”
“We should make even more noise.” Without setting the driver's seat up, I put my foot onto the car's horn, prayed it would work, and pressed. A long, splitting honk filled the air.
The undead paused its attack, sniffed the air and looked about to see if something bigger and badder had joined the fight. Seeing that it was still alone, it resumed its attack with vigor.
The car briefly went up on two wheels.
“I'm turning the radio back on,” I warned Jeremiah. “If I die, I want to die deaf and oblivious. Do me a favor and try not to scream too loud.”
“You can't just bury your head in the sand every time we are about to get eaten, Ostrich-Girl.” Jeremiah turned the video camera to face himself. “You see, kiddies, there are three types of people in the world. There are people like Joanna here. She ignores her problems. Closes her eyes and hopes they’ll just, poof, disappear. Then there are handsome, dashing people like me. We are runners. Not the most heroic sort but, hey, we survive.”
The creature suddenly stopped its attack on the car, leaned back, and listened. With a gleeful rumble, it darted into the darkness.
“Where is it going?” I asked. “Wait, where are you going?!”
Jeremiah kicked the door open. “And, perfect timing, there’s the third type of person in this wacky world of ours. That...” The undead suddenly reappeared, tittering backwards and bucking with each gunshot as buckshot pummeled its rotting body.
“That is an Ari.”
From the abandoned street came a leather-clad woman. Marisol King was barely five feet of bottled rage armed to the teeth with weapons and a desire for mayhem. The third shotgun blast knocked the undead onto its back where it struggled like an overturned turtle.
Ari dropped a foot onto its chest to keep the dying creature down. It swiped weakly, tearing her skin-tight jeans. Honestly, it could have skinned her to the bone, and she wouldn't have noticed. She just cocked the shotgun, aimed for the head and fired.
“Yes!” Jeremiah laughed, running over to circle the pair to get the best view and providing commentary as he went. “And the crowd goes wild! Ari King, The King of Mayhem. Ari 'Don't Need No King' King. She might be short...”
Ari re-cocked the gun and pulled it on Jeremiah with a flash of teeth.
Jeremiah backtracked, “Not short. Very average. Tall. Really, a freak of nature!”
“Shhhh.” I carefully stepped around the mess of jello-textured blood, skull fragments, and brain matter. “We've made enough noise to draw a lot of them,” then a terrible thought occurred to me, “Or my sister.”
Jeremiah yelped when Ari stomped on his foot and swiped the video camera from his grasp.
“No! No, no, no!” Jeremiah bounced around in pain, tentatively trying to retrieve his property. “Don't delete it. That’s amazing footage!”
“Shhh!” I reminded them again. “This is why I hate sneaking out with you! You just invite danger!”
“I can't have my father seeing this,” Ari explained as she erased Jeremiah's precious footage. She tossed the now blank camera back.
Jeremiah pouted. “I wouldn't have posted it without your permission. You didn't have to be such a bully.”
“You posted a video of you brushing your teeth yesterday,” I pointed out. Seeing his betrayed look, I added. “I'm not taking sides. I'm just saying you post EVERYTHING.”
Jeremiah just scoffed, taking his loss in stride and beginning to videotape the undead's body. “Well, excuse me. My videos are my only way to connect with the world!”
A crash in the distance made me jump, trying to cower behind Ari. My nearly six-foot frame looking comical behind Ari's short stature.
“It's just a stray dog,” Ari said dismissively.
“You sure?” I peered over her head down the deserted streets. I could spot more abandoned cars and store fronts but nothing else. “How can you be sure? Shouldn't you get your gun ready just in case?”
“As I just said,” Ari roughly nudged me with her elbow, “It's a stray.” A dog barked in the far distance and Ari flashed a smug grin in my direction.
Rubbing my ribs, I backed away. “Well, we should go. Someone is going to notice that we are gone.”
Jeremiah sighed, “Come on, Joanna. You always do this. Relax a little.”
“It's called being responsible,” I defended. I knew I was the 'buzzkill' of our group, but I liked to think I was the only reason that the other two were still alive. If I left them to their own devices, it would be their blood decorating the sidewalk.
“Can we go?”
“Just chill. I have one more store to search and then we can scurry home, okay?” She reached up to pat the side of my ear before heading over to a store with a grungy sign that said PEEP'S KNACKS AND KNICKS.
With no preamble, Ari used the butt of her gun to smash the front window.
I groaned, “She didn't even check to see if the door was unlocked.”
Jeremiah just shrugged. “It's Ari, isn't it? What did you expect?”
While Jeremiah walked around and narrated the tale of how we had nearly been eaten by such a fearsome creature, I kept a sharp eye on our surroundings. We hadn't seen any undead on our journey here but, as the attack suggested, there was at least one. And, if there is one, others are sure to follow.
Another window smashed. Apparently leaving through the same window she had already broken was too easy for Ari, so she had broken the last remaining one on her way out.
“Find it?” Jeremiah asked, shoving his video camera in her face.
Ari huffed, “No. Did they just burn them all or something?”
“A dictionary?” I stared incredulously at the scowling woman. “Please tell me that I didn't almost get eaten because you were looking for a dictionary again.”
“I'm friends with lunatics.”
Once Jeremiah had gotten his fill of taping and Ari had accepted that this little town's stores were not going to provide her with the book she needed, they both relented and allowed me to drag them back home.
Home was a mobile convoy that consisted of five semis with mobile homes strapped to the trailer, another seven RVs, and nearly two dozen trucks, ambulances, cars, and motorcycles. As far as mobile camps went, Sanctum was exceptionally large and always on the move.
It had been started by Father Dragger, a young man at the time of the infection some thirty years ago who grabbed some vulnerable transients and created our little slice of paradise. Over the years, people had come and gone, given birth and died, until Sanctum was fifty people strong.
Even after all this time, Father Dragger still liked to gather those down on their luck. If he found a family struggling, a loner limping along, or, better yet, an orphaned child, he was sure to scoop them up with a warm smile and a promise of a better life.
Sanctum was currently parked outside a small town in New Mexico called Porthall. It seemed to be built around VVCU, a small college which was completely overrun with stray animals and purple flowering weeds. Which, considering how strongly and randomly the wind liked to blow, I was surprised that anything that wasn't bolted to the ground hadn't just flown away.
The convoy had circled itself on top of the fake grass of the football field during its short stay here. The night Enforcers were keeping guard in the Announcer's Booth, high above the arena, and I could see a few couples milling around in the safety of the stadium lights.
“We need a distraction,” I surmised, trying to piece together a plan to sneak back in without the pair in the Announcer's Booth catching on. “Ari, if you throw a rock at Jamerson's truck then...wait, where are you two going?!”
“It's Davis and Rodrick on look out,” Jeremiah pointed out. “It'd be harder to sneak by a blind...”
“And deaf,” Ari added cruelly.
“And deaf, old, paraplegic,” Jeremiah finished with a chuckle.
Sure enough, Davis and Rodrick weren't even facing the convoy but each other. They were obviously too far away to make out what they were saying but a lot of wild hand gestures were being made to emphasize points. I didn't know how Sanctum had not perished with those two as Enforcers but, if there was a time to get up to shenanigans, it was when they were at the helm.
Even from a long distance away, I tried to catch a glimpse of Davis. It’d been ten long years and I still felt like that eight-year-old peeking around cars to see the new boy without being caught. Would I ever grow out of that? I was almost eighteen and it sure didn’t look that way.
I thought we were in the clear. Jeremiah had already split off to head towards his family's RV while mumbling about edits and soundbites while Ari and I headed towards the semi-trailer that held the mobile home that Ari and I shared with her Father.
It had been about three years ago when Ari had started seeking her own space and, instead of sharing that small room with me, she’d taken to sleeping in the seats of the parked semi at night. It didn’t look comfortable, but I wouldn’t complain about having my own room.
“You cool?” Ari questioned as we reached the semi-trailer.
“Would it matter if I wasn't?”
“Not really.” Ari gave a wide grin. “But you don't have to worry so much all the time. I got you.”
We both froze as my sister's voice rang through the otherwise silent night. From behind the trailer, the Enforcer strode. As always, my sister was immaculate, not a strand of gold hair out of place, a wrinkle in her clothes, nor a fleeting emotion to break her stony persona.
The first time Jeremiah met Olwen, he had gone as far as to poke her shoulder and marvel “how life like she was”. I still haven't managed to convince him that Olwen wasn't a robot. Just lacked, well, any sort of personality.
Olwen's amber eyes swept over the both of us before landing back on Ari. “Pulchritudinous.”
My pathetic crush on Davis was not the only thing that hadn’t changed in the last ten years. Olwen had used that time to stage a long assault on Ari and, by the way she’d started appearing with more and more words as of late, she was determined to drive Ari crazy before the short girl turned eighteen.
Ari gritted her teeth, a low, grinding noise. “Stupid Head.”
“Your vocabulary astounds me,” Olwen droned, her demeanor unchanging even as the insult lit a fire in Ari's eyes that promised harm. “Did you learn that word on the back of a cereal box?”
“Can you two stop it and help me up?” I struggled to climb onto the back of the semi-trailer. Everyone else made it look so easy but, no matter how often I tried, I always looked like a newborn deer on black ice.
“Two? She insulted me first!” Ari snapped but came over and shoved me the rest of the way up.
Olwen didn't even blink, just studied the two of us closely.
“What is on your shoes, Joanna?”
I glanced down. Despite being careful, I still had managed to get a smear of black/red blood on the white of my converse. I hastily scraped my shoes against the trailer. Olwen watched.
“That wouldn't be undead blood, would it?” Olwen didn't wait for an answer. “Because that would mean you snuck out again. But you wouldn't have done that after you promised Ari's father that you’d outgrown that type of nonsense, would you?”
I just squeaked but Ari, a much more practiced liar, intervened. “Of course, we didn't sneak out. Even if we wanted to, we wouldn't have been able to sneak past Davis and Rodrick.” Ari leaned against the trailer with a sly smirk. “No one can sneak past them. Very bright. And alert. I tried sneaking into your oh-so private trailer, and they totally stopped me. I definitely did not get a chance to hide a snake in your bed. That’s how alert they are.”
Olwen was clearly not convinced. It did not help that, while Olwen mulled over a smartass response, one of the Enforcers in the Announcer's Booth leaned against the controls and a booming voice echoed through the stadium.
“And then I was like BOOM! You should have seen this thing drop. It was insane.”
Olwen rubbed her temple. “Excuse me.” She turned to Ari. “Pulchritudinous.” Then she strode away, heading towards the Announcer's Booth to ream her subordinates.
Ari spluttered. “Moron!”
I grinned. “We really need to find you that dictionary.”
“Oh, shut up.” Ari spat. “Just go to bed. Tell my pop that...”
The front door of the mobile home opened, and Father Dragger gave an unimpressed clearing of his throat.
Ari had gotten her height from her father but, despite his small stature, he had a big personality and an affinity for an unusual dress of a bolo-tie with socks and sandals. Now, though, he was wearing blue flannel pajamas.
“Now, girls. It's late and the good people of Sanctum are preparing for a long journey in the morning. Joanna, come in and prepare yourself. Will you be joining us, Ari?”
Ari just pointed to the cab of the semi and waved over her shoulder as she headed away.
Father Dragger just shook his head with an exasperated shake of his head. “What shall we do with our girl, Joanna?”
Luckily, Father Dragger didn’t see the stain on my shoe and let me slip to my room without an inquisition.