Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies.
We all fall down.
– Old Children’s Rhyme
“You can’t just leave me here!”
Lindsay clung to the sleeve of Katie’s coat, nearly causing her to drop the gas mask she held. Katie tried to ignore her and adjusted the straps on the mask, but the tugging on her sleeve became more insistent. Finally she gave up and turned to face her friend. Lindsey looked terrified and desperate and instantly Katie’s heart went out to her.
“You’d only slow us down. No offense, Lindsey, but I am barely allowing Katie to do this,” Katie’s dad said as he zipped up his white parka and shouldered his pack. They were both wearing thermal gear and a thick, waterproof jacket. The jacket and their pants were both white with woodland print. They’d used them for hunting in the snow in the years past. As Katie fingered the mask in her hands, she began to wonder if her dad hadn’t used hunting as a cover for a lot of things.
“No I won’t, I promise! I can be fast! Please, Mister Fox, it’s my mom!”
Katie looked at her dad, her face full of questions. When her gaze met his, his jaw tightened and he shook his head.
“I’m sorry, but Katie’s been trained and you haven’t. It would be even more dangerous if you were with us.”
“She showed me how to shoot a gun though,” Lindsey said, her fingers falling away from Katie’s arm. Katie froze, looking back at Lindsey with a frown. Why did she have to mention that?
“Two summers ago… you were away on business,” Katie said. “I just thought it’d be good for her.”
“Katherine, her mother…” her dad began to say but stopped, shaking his head. He pulled his gas mask off the peg of the supply room, picked up his rifle and shouldered passed them. “Doesn’t matter now. The answer is no. It’s safer in here for her. This will be hard enough with someone I have trained.”
Katie turned back Lindsey and put a hand on her arm, squeezing gently. She drew her close and touched her forehead to Lindsey’s. It was an old custom, something they used to do when they were younger, thinking they could share thoughts. She thought very hard now. Be strong. Trust in us. She broke the contact and leaned up, kissing Lindsey on the forehead before grabbing her rifle and turning to go.
Behind her, Lindsey began to sob.
“Ready?” her dad said as they approached the entrance to the bunker. Katie let her AR-15 hang off its tactical sling as she prepared to don her mask. She nodded and then pulled it on, tightening the straps to make a good seal. The wide, wrap-around lens offered good visibility, but the first few breaths she drew tasted of charcoal and chemicals. There was a slight effort involved in drawing air through the filter and it took a moment until the shortness of breath subsided.
Meanwhile her dad already had his mask on and was applying power to the door again. Together they drew it open and stepped out into the stairwell. Katie quietly moved up the stairs until she was at the hatch and waited until her dad had closed and locked the main door again. Once the code was armed again, Katie unbolted the hatch and slowly raised it a few inches. They’d already checked the external cameras for any… zombies—though Katie was still unwilling to accept such a thing was real—and found the area clear. Still, it was dark outside and her dad didn’t want to use the hydraulic opener just in case. It was good for a quick entrance, but could provide too much sudden movement if anyone was nearby.
She waited for nearly a minute, searching and listening for any sign of movement before opening the hatch further and stepping out into the snow. She drew her weapon to her shoulder and went to one knee, covering her dad as he exited. The butt of the rifle against her shoulder sent a dull pain through her system, but it wasn’t as bad as she thought it should be. Obviously, her dad was right. The glass hadn’t hurt her as much as she thought it had.
A quick tap on her left shoulder and her dad was moving quickly towards the cabin. Katie rose and followed, keeping her head on a swivel as they moved through the dark woods. Thankfully, the moon was nearly full and provided enough light to see by. The ice storm was gone but the sky overhead was overcast. Katie guessed that snow was on its way.
It took them nearly fifteen minutes to reach the cabin. During the summer months, she and her dad could get from the cabin to the bunker in five minutes, if not less, even with all their gear. Now, however, they were careful to check their approach and scan for anything moving in the woods. Katie found that her fear was held in check. She had a job to do, a clear goal and it drove all other thoughts away.
They climbed the few short steps to the cabin’s back door and each took a side. Her dad made a hand signal for her to check the far corner and that he would do the same with one behind him. They split up and circled the cabin, but found no one when they met at the front door. Katie saw that no fresh tracks were made in the snow, either. No one else had been here.
“Do we take the truck?” she said, leaning close so he could hear her through the mask. Her dad looked over his shoulder towards where the vehicle was parked. The ice had made a sculpture out of it. He grunted and shook his head.
“We’ll have to take the snowmobile,” he said, nodding towards the north side of the cabin, where the aging Polaris sat covered up. Katie loved that old machine and missed the days when they were still a family, and she was here during the cold and bitter winter months. Her dad would drive her up into the mountains with it and they’d camp under the stars.
The snowmobile only took two tries to start up after her dad got the keys from the cabin. Soon they were driving northwest through the woods, an eery red-yellow glow on the horizon. She held tighter to her dad as he drove.
They stopped where the tree line thinned out before dropping down a gradual incline to the town below. Through her mask, Katie couldn’t smell the fires, but the smoke wafted up through the trees, rising like an ash-colored cloud. Emerging from the woods, they knelt at the edge of the incline.
“Oh my God,” she whispered, the sound echoing within her mask.
Mount Hope was a small town, where two streets met and was nestled into the shadow of the Appalachian mountains. Katie grew up thinking that one day, if she was lucky, she might get out of this town. She might go to the west coast, or overseas somewhere. Now, as she looked down at what was left, all she wanted was that life back.
The town burned. Nearly every house and building was on fire, or flattened. In the center of the town, where Main Street intersected Central Avenue to form the single streetlight, only a crater remained. Blackened scorch marks reached out from the crater like skeletal fingers and debris lay everywhere. Katie couldn’t speak, her words were caught in her throat. Her mouth was dry and her eyes burned from staring so long without blinking.
“Damn. So that’s what the vibrations were,” her dad said, just loudly enough for her to hear. His voice brought her attention back to the here and now and she turned to him. Through the plastic of his mask, she saw the grim set of his jaw, the squint of his eyes.
“What?” she said, moving closer so he could hear her.
“While you were recovering, there were tremors, like an earthquake. I thought maybe… goddamnit, Bill.”
“Missile of some kind, Tomahawk maybe. Attempt at a quarantine. Isolated area, stop all traffic, close all media outlets…”
“Dad,” she said, his words reminding her of things he’d told her long ago. “They’d evacuate anyone not infected.”
“Maybe,” he said and motioned down the hill. “One way to find out. Hand signals from here on.”
Without another word, he made his way down the hill. Katie followed, knowing better than to question him at a time like this. He was in the lead, and she did not disobey orders unless circumstantial knowledge demanded it. She’d been taught how to follow him, how to shoot, how to execute a battle plan and how to survive. It was those lessons that she held tight to now. The world was burning around her, and her dad and his training was all she knew.
They moved across the open ground between the slope and the town at a quick trot, keeping low and their weapons ready. Several times she nearly put her finger on the trigger, but years of scolding and instruction overrode her anxiety. She kept it against the guard, ready, but at least she wouldn’t fire off a shot by accident.
The old Romero’s building was all but rubble, the walls so low they had to crouch to take cover. Her dad moved quickly, heading towards the far corner that would take them toward Main Street. Katie followed, keeping her eyes trained on their left and sweeping around behind. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but she certainly didn’t want to run into anymore… zombies.
They’re not real, she told herself as they reached the far corner, her dad leaning around to the front of the building. He tapped her on the shoulder and signaled to cover him. She readied herself and when he went around the corner, she took his place and went to one knee. Training her field of view to start at her dad’s right and sweep nearly 180 degrees behind her, she kept her eyes open and her thoughts to a minimum.
Her dad paused at the door to Romero’s market and aimed his weapon at it. Her breath caught, heart hammering in her chest. Were there more of those things in there? She kept her weapon trained in his direction, ready if he needed help. For a long, tense moment, nothing happened. Then her dad lowered his weapon and moved into the doorway and waved her over.
Once she reached him, he leaned close and said that any quarantine would be in the school. It had a bomb shelter. It was the only place where things could be contained and sealed. She nodded and they turned their gaze northward.
There, in the center of the road, was the first body. Blackened, charred and hardly recognizable, it lay in the middle of Main Street. The body was so badly burned that Katie couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. Her stomach nearly heaved what little she’d eaten before they’d suited up. They gave the corpse a wide berth.
They moved, quietly and quickly, from destroyed building to destroyed building. Katie saw nothing to indicate life, only more bodies. They lay in the street, or in houses and buildings. She made herself look at any that were half-recognizable. None were Lindsey’s mom.
The school was flattened, but they found the entrance to the shelter. It was a metal door that was slanted away from base of the building into the dirt. They managed to pull it open after several attempts. It was nearly welded shut.
Inside was all that remained of Mount Hope. Clothes and paper and mementos lay everywhere, discarded in a panic. There were bodies here too, but they weren’t burned. They weren’t moving around either. Laying in cots, where they’d been shot in the head, were men, women and children who all showed signs of infection. She knew them, every single one. Miss Taylor lay with her eyes closed, her dirty blonde hair nearly covering the red, seeping wound in her forehead. She’d taught her geography in seventh grade. There was a boy her own age who lay curled up into a fetal position, hugging a pillow. His brown hair was curly and mussed and Katie sank to her knees.
Josh Niven once told her that she was pretty. He was in a special class for kids who couldn’t read well. He had some kind of autism, but she never knew much more than that. He always smiled at her during Study Hall, where he’d sit and color something with markers. She could still smell them. Red was his favorite. She’d given him a whole pack for Christmas once, before she’d left for New York. Now a pool of red blood collected on the cot and seeped slowly through to drip onto the floor.
“Katie,” her dad said from behind her. She tore her gaze away from Josh, fighting the brimming tears that threatened to fall, and turned away. Her dad held a piece of paper in one hand and tapped at a number written on it with his thumb.
“What is it?”
“A Shelter number. It’s a three-digit code, an even number for east coast, a four usually means New England… the rest I’m not sure of.”
“Do you think they got out?”
Her dad didn’t say but folded the paper and shoved it into his pocket. A quick search yielded no other hints of survivors, but Katie didn’t find the body of Lindsey’s mom either. After a while, her tears stopped and she just felt numb. She could barely think of anything but doing whatever task was ahead of her.
Finally, they climbed the stairs from the bomb shelter and into the night air. It had gotten colder and a light snow was falling. It coated everything, from the burned bodies to the destroyed buildings, hiding them in a blanket of white like a burial shroud. They’d walked a dozen feet back towards the incline when her father threw out a hand and stopped her. Instantly his weapon was up and she followed suit, her eyes peering into the darkness ahead. At first, she saw nothing, but then she heard it.
The moans of the dead.