Long Roads

There aren't many stops when you drive cross country. Every few hours you'll pass a fueling station, and usually a little community is cropped up nearby. People today treat gasoline the way they treated water in pioneer days, it seems. It's a very rare commodity. With fewer people around to work, and with a focus on PTA prevention, most people are working in that field. A lot of the time, oil miners and refiners are orphaned teenagers, homeless people, the otherwise destitute. It's a very bloody business these days. But it's necessary, so we keep the plants open and running. Of course that means that gas and oil prices are tremendously inflated in order to keep the machinery moving and the people working. Nobody wants to do it for very long, so they have to pay a lot of money to keep workers on. Not to mention the fatality rate of having unskilled workers doing that sort of thing. So right now, gas costs about 13$ per gallon. So Belle is going to have to figure out where we're going, since all the money I had saved up from work was only a couple thousand dollars. It's been two days, and we've already spent about two hundred dollars filling up the jeep twice, plus food and water refills.

Last night, we parked at the top of an old parking garage. It probably was originally used for a mall or a hospital. Now it's just empty except for a few old rusty cars that probably belonged to people who didn't have time to come back for them. Some areas got hit suddenly by the virus, unlike my hometown where it crept in and stole two or three people at a time. We parked in a corner on the top floor, and we stretched and ran laps and just got some space from one another. Belle's never had to drive a car before, so she's been sleeping while we ride, and I've been sleeping when we find a parking space while she keeps lookout and reads my old school books and manuals.

I dreamed about my grandmother last night. We're sitting in the living room of her house. The walls are a light salmon color, and there are nick knacks, pictures, children's drawings and paintings everywhere. She's sitting in a big, brown fluffy couch and I'm on a green armchair catty corner from her. In the middle of the room is a coffee-table sized storage hamper, light color tweed, with a wooden top and leather accents. The top of the hamper is open and she's going through photographs. We're talking about her children, and she starts to talk about my mother. "She was such a sweet baby. I just wish she would have stayed that way. You look so much like she did when she was your age. Except her hair. Her hair was jet black from the day she was born." She pulled out a little envelope of pictures and started flipping through them. She then handed them off to me.

"You see that boy there?" She asked as she pointed out a face in a photo of my mother at age fifteen and some boy about the same age. "That was her last boyfriend before your father. He was a sweet boy, very responsible, but he just couldn't handle her. She really cared for him, you know, but she was going through puberty. That's when her illness really started to..." She trailed off. She always did that when it came to talking about mother's mental health. The whole family did, really. It wasn't something openly discussed. It was something you hid from the world, something shameful. In the dream, as I'm looking at the photo, the figures start to move. They look away from the camera, towards each other. They're talking, but I can't hear them. Mother laughs, she steps out of the frame of the photo and comes back with something in her hand. She shows it to the boy, and he looks at her... strangely. Like he's confused, then angry. Then he walks away and she drops the thing and I can't see it because the photo is only waist up. Then she puts her hands to her face and sobs. Then I wake up.

"Belle," I said groggily as I rose from the backseat. "I need to stop somewhere before we go anywhere..." My eyes were still closed, til Belle responded, "We have some more pressing issues right now, Dahlia."

I opened my eyes and looked out the window. There sat a little girl, eating a live rat, at the opposite corner of the garage. "It's just one little girl, Belle. You've seen this before. It's PTA. She's all the way over there, she doesn't even know we're here, and we're leaving anyway. We're in the jeep, she can't get to us here."

"But Lydia, what if there are more downstairs. It's dark now, and if they've been living on rats and other animals, like that girl there, it's pretty likely that they've trained themselves to come out at night to hunt nocturnal animals. There's a good chance she's not alone."

She had a good point. It was a pretty common occurrence in deserted towns. The Undead don't really work together, but they can be trained after many months or years. As with any natural selection, only the strongest will survive. Somewhere, deep down, a primal sense of fear still survives the bacteria to a point (or maybe the bacteria comes with fear, who knows?) but when the playing field is narrowed down to only alphas, they stop trying to hurt each other unless they have to. At least, that's the theory behind Undead communities. It's still not been studied, because we've never watched a community form, we've only ever stumbled upon them and that's the easiest explanation. However, it happens, though, if that's what this was, we were in trouble.

"Belle, that's a little girl. I really doubt she's an alpha. If there's a community here, and she's a part of it, they're not nocturnal. She would hide while the alphas are around and only come out when they're gone. There's no way she could coexist with them. The worst case scenario, there was a local orphanage and there's going to be a ton of little bodies running around out there, just like her. And we can handle that. So we're going."

We put on our seatbelts and I started the engine. The Z heard it, and turned toward us, I turned on the high beams, which was something she obviously wasn't accustomed to, because she immediately threw her arms over her head to shield her eyes from the light. I sped off toward the exit spiral and we made our way down quickly but carefully.

Upon reaching the bottom, we found that I was mostly right. There were undead children all over the place, as well as other weaker or injured Z's trying to find some fuel. Many of them were eating rats and birds, some were fighting each other, but not many. I supposed that many of them had only survived so long on animals dead from natural causes. All of them, though, left us alone after seeing the bright lights on the jeep. Some of them, obviously afraid of dawn and the alphas that could come with it, started to go back to their hiding places.

"There must be a group of alphas that come out at dawn to feed on the betas who aren't fast enough to hide. That's why we didn't see them when we first got here, it was almost dusk. They don't want to come out until nearly dawn."

It was gruesome. Belle cried a little. I wanted to cry, but I had to keep my eyes on the road. Even when you know what they are, you can't help but hate driving past a seven year old girl, bleeding from her head and arm, missing a finger and an eye. You can't help but your heart break from the sight of a little boy beating another boy to death, and clawing at his face. Even when you know they're already dead, even when you know they can't register these events in their brains, it's human nature to defend children. It's in our genetic code, and so it literally hurts every cell of your being to watch this brutal scene and know you can't do a single damn thing about it.

But we had to get moving. I had to see if my grandmother's house was still there. I had to see if those photos were still there. I needed more than anything a tie to my family right then. It felt like she was trying to contact me, all these dreams about her. I needed to see if my mother had left anything at all that could make these dreams stop.

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