Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: Blue Jean Regime - Part Five
Leaving the gym to combat more zeds wasn’t something Jonas wanted to do but not even Haley or Mason could disagree with the necessity, though they were looking mighty hostile about the situation.
By the time he and Donovan pulled out of the parking lot he was feeling downright relieved about ducking out on this little road trip.
Thing about being team leader was you had to make some tough calls on the fly and there was always somebody ready to disagree with you or your strategy. Hell, he didn’t necessarily want to be a leader. Wasn’t even sure how he’d come by the position except that he’d been pretty damn surefooted when the world went sideways. Probably on account of instincts and skills picked up in that damn video game.
One of those instincts was sticking your neck out for your teammates and that’s what he was doing now. Couple of SOS calls had come in while he was in the shower and required immediate response.
His older brother, Eli, was stranded at the airport. He’d flown in under his own power this afternoon, after the military refused to grant him transport, but couldn’t navigate past a significantly sized horde safely enough to commandeer a vehicle to get to the high school.
And they’d finally heard back from Georgia too. About time. That stubborn ass had been so sure she could get herself to the gym without any help. Trapped in her grandmother’s basement, her great plan had been to chop the zeds down to size by sticking a chainsaw out the small high windows. The flaw in that plan only became evident after the fact when the stacked up bodies prevented her from opening the door and making her escape.
They had about ninety minutes to drive forty miles and gather two lost sheep before sundown. Not that they'd have to call off the rescue after dark but their efforts would be seriously disadvantaged once they ran out of light. Besides visibility going to shit, something about nighttime seemed to agitate the zeds.
As they headed for Georgia’s subdivision, Donovan said, “So, how’s the fatherhood thing working out for you? Haven’t had a chance to ask in all the commotion.”
A grin spread across his face, lit up his eyes. “Damn good. I’ve only been at it for twenty-four hours but it’s like I’ve been doing it my whole life. Seems right, natural, normal. What's scary is how normal it seems to be fighting zeds, rescuing survivors, and scavenging for supplies.”
“Yeah, I hear you, bud. I mean, it's crazy but I was just sitting here thinking about suggesting we go get a damn milkshake after we pick up Georgia. That's what we'd have done last week but this week is a whole new ballgame. What I wouldn’t give for a chocolate shake, whip cream, and a maraschino cherry. Loved that cute little blonde who worked the window on Friday nights.”
“Damn it! How many times do I have to tell you to stop with the food daydreams? Totally ruins my appreciation for the cafeteria slop we exist on at the moment. And you didn’t love the blonde. You loved how she didn’t charge you for the extra whip cream.”
Donovan laughed. “You got me. It was the whip cream. But hey, if a girl has any chance with me, at least it’s obvious how to get my attention, right?! What’s that? You barbequed me some spare ribs, sweetheart? Well come on over here and tell me all about your great grandpa’s marinade while I rub your cute little feet.”
He took a left onto Georgia’s street. “Okay. Let’s make this quick. Grab George and make a run for the airport. Don’t want to waste any daylight here. I’d rather have it to spend at the airport if we need to.”
“Sounds good. One little problem. She’s dead set on bringing her dirt bike.”
Of course she was. Damn it. Could just one thing go smoothly today? “No way. I’m not letting her ride it back on her own. She’s got no defense on that thing. And we’re not going to bring it with us either. I’m not going to jeopardize our chance of retrieving Eli because we’re hauling extra weight we’re not equipped to handle.”
Donovan shrugged. “Well you have fun telling her that because I’m not going to be the one to sacrifice myself.”
“Not even for a chocolate milkshake?”
“Dude. That’s wrong. Bringing it back around to food like that. Oh. Wow. Look at that. She really does have them piled up around the house.”
They pulled into the driveway and took a minute to look at Georgia’s ill-fated handiwork. Bodies were stacked around and against the house, still thrashing about, but unable to get very far without their legs. After scouting for and not finding any mobile zeds, they got out and headed for the garage.
Jonas grabbed a couple shovels from the rack and tossed one to Donovan. “Let’s dig out the numbskull and rush her into the truck before she starts in about the bike.”
“Damn the smell is disgusting,” Donovan said, as they cleared a path to the basement door. “You know, hacking them down to keep them from chasing you seems like a great idea but now their mouths are down by your feet and ankles. Makes it hella easy for them to grab your leg and chomp you. Especially when they’re heaped up like this.”
He struggled to move a particularly heavy body out of the way. “No kidding. And now we have to decide whether to take the time to bash every skull or leave them here in a pile and assume some dumbass won’t bumble into them and get bit.”
Donovan hucked a leg across the yard. “You know those dumbasses. Always bumbling into something.”
“Yeah, but what are there? About fifty skulls? That’s a lot of daylight,” he said, hauling off the last body that blocked the way.
Donovan hammered on the door and hollered for Georgia. “We’re not going to wait all day, George. Put down the eyeliner and get your fine ass out here.”
They hardly recognized her when she emerged because her long blonde hair had been chopped off two or three inches from her scalp.
She grinned at them and shrugged. “Think of it as being proactive. If we’re gonna run out of hot water and shampoo, I may as well be prepared for it.”
Jonas gave her a quick hug. “Looks good on you but don't you dare give Haley any ideas –“
She grabbed his arm. “Haley? The baby?”
“They’re fine. Haley’s waiting at the gym to scold you for going all gonzo and getting yourself penned in. Come on now. We need to get moving. Gotta pick up Eli at the airport before sundown.”
She nodded. “No sweat. I’m ready. Won’t take any time to get the bike in the –“
Donovan surprised Jonas by interrupting her. “No. No time. No manpower. No room.”
A commotion erupted around the corner and then a middle aged man appeared rifle in hand. “Georgia. You okay? Got worried these peckerheads were bothering you. Thought you might need my help.”
She smiled at him. “I’m good, Mr. Taylor. Go on back to your house. We’re just trying to figure how to load up the bike and then we’ll be gone.”
“That’s good. Couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d let something happen to you. Bitch of it is, I ain’t got much living left now.”
Jonas brought up his rifle. “Georgia, move back away from him.”
She stayed where she was. “What do you mean, Mr. Taylor?”
“No good intention goes unpunished. Not in the old world or in this new one,” he said, lifting his pant leg to reveal a bite on his calf.
Donovan glanced at Jonas, cursed under his breath, and headed for the truck, returning with a box of ammo. “That ought to be enough to finish them off or near as you can get. Be sure and save one for yourself.”
Jonas lowered his rifle, nodded to Mr. Taylor, and grabbed Georgia’s wrist. “Come on. We got to go. Pronto.”
Mr. Taylor winked at her, lifted the rifle to his shoulder and began to empty the clip into the zeds, methodically piercing skulls one by one.
Donovan grabbed Georgia around the waist, lifted her off her feet, and carried her to the truck, dumping her into the cab and hopping in beside her.
As Jonas headed out of the subdivision, the sound of repeat gunfire trailed behind them until there was momentary lull followed by a single shot and then only an echoing quiet.
They rode in silence for several miles before Georgia opened the backpack she’d brought with her and pulled out a yellow notebook. “Grabbed this off the bookshelf when I headed for the basement. All the stupid shit you think of to take with you and what did I choose? My notebook from that computer science class Jay and I took over the summer. Guess it seemed important because it has all our video game stats and strategies in the back of it."
Donovan leaned into her. “Sorry about your neighbor back there. I know my bedside manner sucks but the reality of it is, the clock doesn't stop. We’re racing sundown to get Eli. Mr. Taylor was racing biology to send as many of those suckers to hell as he could before his time was up. I'm sorry I couldn’t stop that second hand and give you time for the kind of goodbye you wanted.”
Jonas looked over at her. “If we're a little keyed up or off our game it's because we lost Jay today and we're not going to let the bastards take anyone else. Haley needs your friendship, we need your companionship, and the crew, the few of us left are anyway, needs your brains, no pun intended."
She leaned back and rested her head on the seat. “Tell me about Jay.”
Donovan took up the narrative. “Got taken out by an unknown. One ran for the ladder and turned the whole thing into a shitstorm. We need to figure out a way to contain and screen them before integrating them into the population.”
She jabbed her chin towards the back window. “Is that what that cage in the back of the truck is for?”
“No,” said Jonas, glancing in the rearview. “That’s an offensive strategy we're working on for road trips like this. We welded up a heavy duty barred square so it fits into the truck bed, can be secured with bolts and keep a gunner safe inside a mobile unit.”
She nodded approvingly. “Nice work. You tried it out yet?”
“Not in any serious capacity. Haven't had the time or opportunity. Been a little busy delivering babies and raiding department stores.”
“Well, I got some recently acquire aggression issues and I might be just the girl to give it a whirl. I’d say the airport would be a real good proving ground. How many are we looking at?”
Donovan shook his head. “Three or four dozen. And if you think I’m going to let you get killed in that thing after all the trouble we went to saving your sorry behind, you’re crazier than you look with that weed eater hair.”
“No,” said Jonas, pulling into the airport. “I’m not risking someone else’s life on my idea. If anyone is going to try it out, I will.”
Georgia snorted. “Oh, hell no. Besides, I am not going to spend what’s left of our pathetic lives listening to Haley bitch about how I let her baby daddy get chomped by zeds.”
He braked and pulled the truck to the side of the road. “You know what I just remembered? That arguing with you is pointless. You want in the cage, my amazon friend? You got it. Come on.”
Took the better part of five minutes to get the cage properly tightened down, rifles loaded and passed through the bars to her.
Donovan racked the steel. "You don't make it out of here alive, you should know I'm gonna lay claim to that dirt bike Course, out of respect, I’ll wait a couple days to go get it. But hey, to soften the blow, you can go to your grave knowing I said short hair doesn’t look too bad on you.”
Jonas reached through the bars and handed her a single bullet. "You know the rules. Always keep one for yourself."
She closed her fingers around it and nodded. “I’ll give it back to you before the night is over.”
Donovan put a fresh clip in his rifle, one in his handgun, and got back into the cab. "Let's roll. Sun's going to drop in fifteen."
Jonas got behind the wheel. “Hanger B, here we come.”
They saw the zeds soon they cleared the mechanic bay. Four dozen was a fair estimate. Ought to be able to take down half that before closing in. Donovan was already working the trigger, making his bullets count. Cowboys and gunslingers in the Wild West counted bullets so as to know when their opponent was vulnerable but they counted bullets to gage clip changes and accuracy and every wasted bullet was considered a sin.
They were close enough now that he could see Eli, perched on the wing of a plane. Donovan had them down to about a dozen zeds by the time Jonas got under the wing. He could hear Georgia hollering at Eli, telling him to hold tight, let her pick off a couple more before he climbed down. But Eli wasn't waiting around for some bossy girl to save him. He reached into his jacket, drew out a 9 mm and knocked down five of the remaining zeds.
While Georgia took out the other two, Eli dropped a set of duffle bags on the cage, followed them, and rapped on the roof with his boot. They took off out of the hangar and airport, the setting sun on their backs, stopping at the gate, where it was clear, to let Eli into the cab, and then they headed for the gym, Georgia still out back in the cage and enjoying the ride.
Eli looked over at Jonas. “Good to see you, kid. Guess I can’t call you that now. You’ve grown up while I was gone. You have to appreciate the irony that you just saved your big brother, in spite of me being fresh off four years in the army.”
He looked out the window to hide the tears. “Only thing I appreciate is you coming home, Eli. Missed you something fierce.”
Eli ruffled Jonas’ hair. “We’re going to get through this. That’s what Kiddricks do, right? We take care of each other. That’s what families are all about.”
Donovan cleared his throat. “That family thing includes me too, right? Because I got a lot of time invested in you Kiddricks and if I don’t start seeing a return …”
Eli chuckled. “Don’t get your boxers in a twist, Donny. You know we look after our wiseacre friends and kamikaze sidekicks too.”
“Yeah, I just didn’t want the two of you having a reunion snot fest without me. Now somebody hand me a tissue, will ya?”
The ride to the gym was filled with more drama and laughter. Their arrival went smoothly, without ladder mishaps, and soon as they got downstairs Jonas felt the weight of his leadership mantle slide off. Simple things like welcoming hugs, bowls of warm chili beans, and the noise of happy voices were the best welcome home he could have wished for - for his family, for his friends, and for himself.
Room assignments were given but in the end, when it was lights out, all seven of them ended up in one room, cots side by side and end to end. Friends. Family. Together. He lay on his side, arm curled around Eden, other hand laced with Haley’s. This here, with intertwined lives under one roof - this felt good, right. Haley and Eden snoring. Mason humming. Donovan's feet hanging off his cot. Georgia curled up as near to Haley as she could get. Eli stirring restlessly.
He'd do anything to keep these people safe. Losing Jay was a pockmark on his heart and while he couldn't beat himself up about it for too long, he wasn't going to let that lesson go unremarked. Sacrifices were made every day. Mr. Taylor sacrificed himself for Georgia. Eli sacrificed his oath to the military to come home and be with them, look after them, shepherd them, as he had since their parents died.
What sacrifices would he make when the time came? Everything. Everything he was or had aspirations of being. All his hopes and dreams were right here in this room, under this roof. He would give his heart, his broad shoulders, his blood. Whatever they needed to survive, he would give it and gladly.
Snuggling Eden closer, he lifted her little hand out of the blanket and counted her fingers. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. God, she was beautiful. Precious. His. Here in his arms. Two shell ears, two luminous eyes, one button nose, one rosebud mouth, and five fingers. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Who needed sheep when they had pudgy baby digits? One. Two. Thr …. zzzzzzz.
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