Lafayette Street, 6:12am.
The morning sky was now a deep blue as the sun continued to rise over Cape May. The wind was starting to ease but the snow still came down in heavy sheets, but at least it was no longer coming down sideways.
Lola, Carol, Chris and Kermy sat bunched together in the cab of the massive dump truck. Freezing wind and fat flakes blew in through the busted passenger side window.
“Hang on!” Kermy hollered as he gunned the engine and plowed through a group of walkers.
This happened twice more as they spun toward the end of Lafayette. In the deep snow and whipping wind, driving the big truck was a bit like piloting a small boat; action and reaction less immediate, more gradual, but still true in the end.
At the end of Lafayette they went right at the first jug handle over to Washington, made a left and passed the C-View.
“No wings?” Chris asked.
Kermy smiled. “On the way back, I promise.”
Another jug handle swung them back onto Lafayette and the small bridge over the marina.
Carol helpfully said, “You know you could have just stayed on Lafayette past the one way and avoided the jug handles.”
Kermy replied, “I thought it best not to with the city prosecutor in the car.”
Chris said, “Cops…”
Spirits rose as they crossed the first grated bridge and approached the second, much larger bridge that emptied onto the Parkway and the open road. The truck slowly churned up the south side of the bridge, and at its apex, their hearts sank.
“Jesus Christ…” Carol muttered.
Kermy said, “He’s got nothing to do with what’s going on here.”
Lola simply wept, Chris remained silent.
Before them the bridge sloped down toward the Parkway, but instead of open road, what met them was a scene of complete bedlam; both lanes of traffic were choked with milling groups of the creatures. The Parkway, their path to freedom, had been blockaded by the Army or National Guard. But the blockades were silent, one of them in flames, overrun by the godforsaken beasts. But worse than that, beyond the blockades the north and southbound lanes of the Parkway, as far as the eye could see, were jammed with undead roamers streaming south towards the bridge. Towards the bridge. Towards them.
Whatever was happening was now happening beyond the sleepy little seaside hamlet of Cape May.
“There’s thousands of them.” Lola noted.
“All headed this way.” Chris added.
“Well,” Carol said, “can you blame them? It is, after all, Cape May, the most beautiful seaside resort in the country.”
At this they all chuckled.
“Hang on.” Kermy instructed as he worked the truck back southbound, down the bridge and into the city.
“What now?” Lola asked as they made a left at the C-View and headed down Pittsburgh toward the beach. This time, Chris made no jokes about the wings.
“I… I don’t know.” Kermy answered. “I’m just… driving.”
“I do,” Chris said firmly. “Get us down to Gurney Street.”
Kermy did not argue. All the fight had been taken out of him by the scene of madness and carnage on the highway. His every thought and action was robotic. There was no end to this he could envision that included any of them staying alive. And, truthfully, he was not sure he wanted to.
Down Pittsburgh they steamed, running over a zombie here and there. At Beach Avenue they made a right. Kermy noted with pulling affection how pretty the snow looked falling on the beach, waves crashing in the background as the sun rose higher, bleeding through the snow and casting everything in a steel grey.
The clusters of walkers grew mildly thicker as they made their way closer to the city’s more populous beachfront area. At Gurney, in front of the old Beach 4 movie theater, Kermy threw the truck into park.
“Follow me.” Chris said.
They hopped out of the cab. They all noticed the thickening hordes edging nearer from all directions. Whatever Chris had in mind it had to be quick. And effective.
“This way,” he instructed, and they followed him up the cement ramp that took them to the front of the restaurant that used to be Henry’s on the Beach, where he had buried his dog earlier that morning, where it all went to Hell.
“Chris,” Kermy asked. “I don’t want to seem squirrely, but… where are you taking us?”
But Chris did not have to answer. Instead, from the snowy gloom, a light appeared. No, not a light; lights. Red, blue, green. Then yellow, white, orange. Then they blinked. Then they switched. Christmas lights. As they drew closer they saw it was Christmas lights attached to a large, white rowboat with the letters CMBP painted in black on the side. It was incongruously beautiful amidst the madness, the colored lights playing off the falling snow.
“It’s 17 miles to Delaware.” Chris said.
“Excuse me?” Kermy replied.
“17 miles. If you can maintain three miles an hour, not really hard in a boat, you can be there in less than six hours.”
“Chris,” Kermy said, “I see what you’re saying, but… it’s me and two women to row, in choppy sea, in a storm. And you… you’ve got one arm, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Chris replied, “I… don’t think I’ll be coming with you. My arm, it’s… you just have to get out of Jersey.”
“Then you won’t mind if I tag along!” came a voice they’d never heard before.
They all turned to see a man, average height, average build, a dark figure in a black, vaguely military-style jump suit, furred hood over his head.
“I’ve got two working arms and your friend is right; New Jersey is no longer an option. It is lost. Our only chance is to get to Delaware before the virus does.”
Kermy asked, “How is it you know so much?”
“Why,” the man answered, “because I started it. That’s how. The failed blockade at the Parkway; mine. A regrettable occurrence but… here we are. I killed the power to your town, scrambled your communications, introduced VOX-23…”
Lola grabbed Kermy’s arm. “That’s him. That’s the guy that came into HQ and… the Byrne brothers.”
“… I observed you from the roof of City Hall but found myself in a bit of a precarious situation, had to jump for it. I believe my ankle is broken. I never would have made it out of the parking lot without your brilliant gambit with the taser. From there I simply followed you from a safe distance; you cleared the path for me. Finally, I hopped in the back of the truck as you pulled out of the cul-de-sac…”
Kermy remembered the clanging sound as they crunched over the first group of walkers.
“… and now here we stand, decisions to be made. And made swiftly.”
“Why?” Kermy asked.
“Money, of course.” Came the answer. “And when we all emerge from this on the other side, I promise you will all be compensated for your trouble. You will never have to work again.”
“No. Why us?”
The man spread his arms. “It’s simple really; small town. Small, controllable population. One horse police department and medical examiner’s office, no offense. Who was to stop me?”
“Thank you for your honesty,” Kermy said and raised his Colt .45 revolver, drew a bead on the man’s face.
The man raised his hands, “Just a second there, cowboy. You should be made aware of the fact that I am your only hope for survival.”
“And how’s that?”
“Because my blood holds the antidote. You don’t think I’d be so foolish as to unleash a plague that I could not cure, do you? No, certainly not. My bloodstream contains the only known antivirus on the planet. If you want to survive, you must keep me alive. Plain and simple. And you’ll never make it 17 miles across open water in a vessel that small with one man and two women doing the rowing. No offense ladies.”
Carol replied, “None taken, asshole.”
“You know the saying,” the man continued, “’The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. It appears we are now a literal translation.”
Kermy lowered the gun. “I was thinking ‘zombie apocalypses make strange bedfellows’, but I get your drift.”
“Excellent. Then let’s not waste any more time. Me, you and the tall fellow will push the boat, your lady friends can move the blocks. We don’t have much time.”
About that the man, infuriating as he was, was right. Even now they could see bands of walkers making their way through the nearby dunes.
“I suggest we hurry.”
So they did. Working wordlessly they moved the boat, slowly, towards the surf. More and more of the beasts piled over the dunes, north and south, as far as they could see.
Carol locked eyes with Kermy. It was a look that said, “We’re not going to make it.”
As if reading their minds Chris said, “We’re not going to make it. Here, hold this.” He unstrapped the knife attachment from his stump and gave it to Kermy, and only then could he see the poor shape it was in, bloody and festering. “And give me that.” He yanked a hunting knife from Kermy’s belt.
“What are you doing?” Kermy asked.
In answer Chris hugged him tightly. “Thank you, Kermy. Thank you. Goodbye.”
With that he ran off. Kermy watched as he dug the knife into the stitching of his stump. Dark drops fell into the snow. The nearing zombie herd noticeably shifted, sensing blood in the air, and slowly changed direction, following Chris.
“Come on, you sick twisted freaks!” He shouted, backing into the surf as the creatures bore down on him, and away from the boat. Ankle deep, then up to his knees. At chest height he turned and kicked into the ocean. The zombies, spurred by blood lust, followed him into the water and were swallowed up in the pounding waves of the storm. With one arm and two powerful legs Chris pulled further out to sea, trying to buy them enough time to get the boat into the water, and succeeding.
“Everybody in!” Kermy called as the boat hit the water.
Carol, Lola and the stranger jumped in, Kermy continued to push until it go too deep and the others pulled him in.
“Thanks,” he said, shooting sea water out of his mouth and nose. He peered over the seascape, looking for Chris. The steady snow and deep green of the choppy water made for difficult viewing and he did not see him anywhere. It appeared he had made the ultimate sacrifice.
In the meantime the stranger had put the oars in the rings. “Whenever you’re ready, compadre.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Of course. But if you want to live, we need to keep moving.”
Fury rose in his blood and eyes, but again, the man was right. They had a very short window in which to operate. If they were still out to sea when the sun went down they stood no chance, as opposed to the very slim chance they stood now. So he sat abreast of the man and pulled the oar.
“Very good,” the man said. “You’ve been trained well.”
“Eat a dick.”
The man laughed. “Very well.”
Silently, efficiently they pulled on the oars. Slowly, very slowly, the nightmarish scene on the beach began to recede. Kermy kept scanning the horizon looking for Chris, losing hope with each passing second.
The stranger spoke. “Ladies, stay down out of the wind. Officer Torres and I will need a break in roughly one hour, and every hour thereafter. You will need to stay as warm as possible, conserve your strength, and take over the oars for fifteen minutes every hour. Can you do that?”
The ladies nodded and lay down on the floor of the boat, covering themselves in the solar blankets they had taken from the police station, and the crocheted afghan blanket they’d nicked from the Queen Street house.
It went this way for another 15 minutes, the men rowing in silence, Kermy with his eyes narrowed on the horizon, the stranger with his eye on Kermy.
Finally, Kermy asked, “How does it work, your blood being the antidote?”
The stranger answered, “In layman’s terms, they take a sample of my blood, isolate the enzyme, and synthesize a cure. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but all beyond your milieu, I’m afraid. I have a medical team waiting at the Lewes Ferry Terminal, if they’re still alive.”
“If they’re not? What then?”
“A most excellent question.”
Half of the stranger’s head disappeared. A hole in Kermy’s trench coat smoked where the bullet blew through.
Carol and Lola sprang up from the floor of the boat.
“Kermy!” Carol cried. “What have you done?”
Kermy answered, “He’ll still have blood when we get to Delaware.”
Lola said, “But he’s right, Carol and I can’t row all the way across the bay. And you can’t do it by yourself.”
Kermy replied, “I won’t have to.”
At this he pulled an oar from the ring and extended it into the water. Chris’ powerful hand grabbed it. Kermy pulled him close, the ladies helped him in.
“Get a blanket on him.” Kermy instructed.
Kermy shoved the strangers body out of the way, replaced the oar and resolutely pulled on both, daring not lose any forward momentum.
“My God, my God…” Carol muttered and lay on top of Chris, who shivered beneath the blanket.
Lola, who was also on top of him, looked up. “How did you know…”
“I spotted him about 15 minutes ago. I slowed my rowing stroke just enough to arc the boat in his direction, but not enough so that rat bastard would notice. He talked like a Secret Service of Black Ops guy. Me? I was Navy. No way he’d notice such a subtle change in direction. All he knows is flash bombs and hand grenades. The rest… the rest was up to Chris. And now, here we are.”
Chris, jaw chattering, near frozen, was unable to say much. But the look in his eye said, Thank you.
Kermy also said nothing, just gave him a little nod and wiped a tear away.
There were joyful hugs all around, then they settled back in to the business at hand; crossing the bay.
“Scooch.” Carol ordered and Kermy slid over on the bench as she took the second oar.
She was not as strong a rower but she was game. Kermy altered his stroke to match hers as they inched across the water, cutting through the chop towards Delaware.
Lola remained on top of Chris, imparting as much of her warmth into him as possible. And Chris, as much as he could for a guy who’d nearly drowned, froze and lost a limb in the last few hours, seemed to genuinely enjoy it.
And on they went. After 30 minutes Carol and Lola switched. The boat crested and dropped over each swell. The water calmed considerably the further they got from shore. On and on they rowed.
After a few hours Chris had recovered enough to take the seat next to Kermy.
“Your arm?” Kermy asked.
“Seems the salt water and the open air is doing it a world of good. So…we’ll see.”
And they rowed, on and on, Kermy staying in the right seat, grimly determined, the other rotating to his left. On it went, hour after hour, mile after mile. Morning came and went. Midday, too. Cape May became a distant smudge on the horizon; Lewes Delaware became a not so distant smudge on the other horizon. The sky began its darker turn from afternoon to dusk. And forever there was the snow. Incessant, but beautiful.
Finally, they could see the shore.
“We’re almost there, Kermy,” Carol said and placed a hand on his thigh.
Kermy said nothing, just kept pulling the oar, steam rising from his head, rivulets of sweat running down his fact, an icicle hanging from the end of his nose.
“Almost there,” she repeated quietly. She could not help but think of the legend of John Henry.
They edged closer and the beach came into sharper focus; dunes, houses, jetties.
“Do you see that?” Lola asked Carol.
“See what?” Chris asked from the rowing bench. He and Kermy had their back to the horizon and so could not see the sharpening image of people on the beach.
“I’m not sure,” Carol replied. “Could be people, could be…”
She did not have to finish the sentence.
And so on they went, no choice, really, There was no going back. Only forward.
“We’re close now, Kermy,” Carol told him and brushed his cheek.
The water grew choppy, angrier as they neared the beach. They did not know what they would find in Delaware, but whatever it was it had to be better than what they’d left behind. Didn’t it?
They were only 100 yards from the shore. Carol stood, steadying herself on the shoulders of the men on the bench. The 20 or so observers on the beach did nothing, just stood there in the falling snow of early evening.
Lola began to pray, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
No reply from the beach.
She waved again.
She looked down at her friends, unsure how or even if she could tell them the people on the beach were not people at all.
“Ho there!” A voice cried.
From the beach.
Elated, Carol dropped onto the rowing men and hugged them both around the neck. Chris beamed, Kermy kept his eyes forward, focused on the task that needed completing. Lola continued her prayer though now the words were accompanied by quiet tears of joy.
A minute later the boat skidded onto the sand and stopped. The observers, about a dozen of them, immediately set upon them. They all wore white CDC hazmat suits and masks. One assisted Lola out of the boat and away to an ambulance. Two more lifted Chris’ exhausted form from the bench, eyed his purplish-yellow wound, nodded at each other and took him away for medical attention, as well.
Three of the white-clad, ghostlike figures removed the body of the stranger and spirited his corpse away to a separate vehicle. A fourth lingered a moment, regarding Carol and Kermy through his face mask and respirator. What was coming from that concealed face? Pity? Anger? Pride?
Then off he went.
“Miss, come with me please,” another of the men said to Carol, but she flicked him off and instead took a seat next to Kermy on the rowing bench, her own tears now running down her cheeks. They were the warmest thing she’d felt in what seemed like days.
She flung an arm around his shoulder. “Hell of a morning, huh?”
Kermy was silent.
Carol squeezed tighter, as if afraid he might try to escape. She felt his body tremble, his chest heave, but he was cold as a stone. Twelve hours. Twelve hours straight he pulled their little boat across the expanse of water that rightfully should have been their final resting place, should have swallowed them in a cloud of snow and ice. But here they were. Because of him.
Snffing back a tear she rubbed his arm. “It’s okay, Kermy. It’s okay. We made it. Thank you.”
Very slowly he turned to her.
Then his body stilled and his chest heaved no more.
Gestation time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.