“Rome wasn’t built in a day.” God, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that cliché. Dad was particularly fond of it when I had issues with homework or a dilemma in my personal life. I knew what his point was. He was telling me to be patient, to let things progress the way they were supposed to. But, I wasn’t good at that. I never had a lot of patience. I imagined my Dad reiterating the cliché after the North Platte takeover, wondering what he would think of what I’d done. What we’d done. We liberated Nebraska, but we still had a long road ahead of us. I knew Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I was pretty sure the zombies could destroy it in one.
I stood in the guard tower, overlooking the field. My body pressed against the railing. Corpses still littered the ground, but there weren’t as many as when I first came to North Platte. The crews had done a great job of cleaning up, though there was little they could do about the atrocious smell.
The sun sank beneath the horizon, casting hues of orange, pink, and purple onto the silhouettes of the undead. A bullet was chambered into a gun behind me. Quinn had been sitting in a chair behind me in the tower the whole time.
“Quinn, what happened to your parents?” I turned so I faced him.
Quinn rested the butt of his gun on the deck and wrapped his arms around the barrel. He sighed. “My mom died about seven years ago from cancer. I don’t know what happened to my dad.”
I furrowed my brow. “What do you mean?”
“Well, when we heard about the first zombie attacks, Dad wanted to help. Most of the neighbors lived within a few miles, so it didn’t take too long for him to move them onto the ranch. One morning, him and a few of the others decided to venture a little further, see who else might need some help, and he never came back.”
My stomach felt queasy. I averted my gaze to the floor, then glanced back at Quinn. “Did you go look for him?”
Quinn shook his head. “He told me not to. He said no matter what happens, I was to stay at the ranch and take care of the people.”
“Yeah, but you must have been curious what happened to him.”
Quinn nodded and stood from his chair. “Of course, but I did as I was told.” He shouldered the rifle and lined up his sights. He fired
I moved so I stood next to him. “Do you think he’s out there somewhere?”
Quinn glanced at me. “Probably. But I doubt he’s anything like I remember.”
“Doesn’t that make you sad?”
He returned his attention to the sight. “Every day. But there’s nothing I can do to change it now.” He fired another round.
I slumped against the rail. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I averted my gaze back to the field. I rubbed my sore shoulder. A breeze picked up, bringing a chill and the smoke from the funeral pyre. I wrinkled my nose.
“We need to do something about that.”
Quinn straightened. “Like what?”
I shrugged the good shoulder. “I don’t know. Maybe we could put a building around it. It might help contain some of the smoke and smell.”
Quinn nodded. “You should suggest it at the next meeting.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the sound of footsteps on the stairs interrupted me. It was Pam. She still wore her old guard uniform, a relic from Liet’s reign, but it was obvious whose side she was on. Thank goodness she was on our side. She trained me; I knew how tough and skilled she was. It would’ve been a battle to take her down.
“Krista,” Pam said. “There’s someone who needs to see you.”
I pushed myself away from the rail. “Who?”
Pam motioned toward the courthouse. “I think it’s best if you just head over there.”
I looked at Quinn, who shrugged, then the three of us headed to the courthouse.
My stomach fluttered as I pushed opened the door. Visions of Mrs. Johnson’s bodyguard flooded my mind, and I didn’t think I could stand another visit like that. I held my breath as I opened the door. The person stood at the end of the room, her head down as she chewed on her thumb nail. Excitement rose in my chest and relief loosened my shoulders. A smile crossed my lips. I held out my good arm and hurried across the room. Normally, I wasn’t one for hugs, but anyone besides guards from Florida in the office was a welcome relief.
“Tanya! What are you doing here?”
Tanya looked up. She balled her hand into a fist and swung it over her head. I flinched, and the blow hit me on the bicep. Tanya lunged forward, flailing her arms. I crouched and covered my head. I didn’t know what else to do. I was so shocked, I froze. I couldn’t react. Several more hits landed on my back and head before someone pulled Tanya away.
“How could you?” Tanya yelled. “HOW COULD YOU?” She kicked and caught me on the knee.
Pain radiated through my leg, and I rubbed at the minor injury. Anger replaced the shock. Who did she think she was coming into my courtroom and attacking me?
“What are you talking about?” I tried to keep my emotions in check, common sense told me I needed to know what was going on.
“Don’t play dumb with me! You know what you did.” She jerked her arms out of Quinn and Pam’s grasp.
Really? Was she mad that we liberated Nebraska before we helped Florida? I didn’t think it was a big deal, but I guess it upset her.
“I’m sorry, Tanya. We had to move quickly. We had to set the people of North Platte free.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not talking about the attack.”
I stared at her for a moment. “Then what are you talking about?”
“You sent zombies down in the truck of supplies! You figured if you couldn’t overthrow The Families, you’d overrun the state with the undead!” Tanya yelled, then attempted to attack again. Pam and Quinn restrained her and stared at me.
I picked myself off the floor, staring at Tanya wide eyed. Zombies in the truck? What? When? Why would I have done that? I hate those things! I would have to get pretty close to put those in the truck, and I wasn’t willing to do that. But someone must have. Who would be stupid and conniving enough to do that?
“Tanya, honestly, I have no idea what you are talking about. Maybe you should fill us in on some details.”
Tanya snarled. “The truck showed up a few weeks ago, with Mrs. Johnson’s bodyguard behind the wheel. He said it had come from North Platte, and I assumed it had another shipment of guns. As usual, I was going to wait until night to collect the weapons. My father took the vehicle to the storage yard, like he always did. I was done working at the coffee shop, so I decided to see what you guys sent. I stood at the chain link fence, watching the guys work, when I heard my father scream from the trailer. The others ran to see what was going on, and a zombie lurched out of the vehicle. They ran.”
Tanya continued her story, and I pictured the whole scenario in my mind. She was a bit lacking on details, so I filled in the blanks with my own imagination. It wasn’t hard, especially when you’ve seen as many zombies as I have. There were three creatures, buried under crates. Two men, newly turned with just the slightest hint of yellowed skin. Their clothes were dirty but not yet torn. The third, a woman, she had been a zombie for a while. Her stringy blonde hair was knotted, caked in mud, and falling out of her head, only wisps remained on the bottom and right side. Her clothes had almost completely decayed, tatters of a floral print dress clung to her the bones exposed in her chest and legs. Her gray, wrinkled skin looked like leather. They hid in the shadows, hard to see, and for some reason, they didn’t moan like the others when food was near. The workers didn’t know they were there and had unloaded almost the entire truck. They were almost finished when the attack started. Tanya ran through the gate, making her way to the back of the truck, just in time to see her father beating one of the creatures with a tire iron. The third one was still pinned behind a crate. Her breath caught as she watched the creature’s mouth snap for her dad. Her dad panted with exhaustion. He leaned against the side of the truck for support. Blood, brain matter, and bits of skull were everywhere, and the smell was overpowering. Tanya was about to climb in, find out if her dad was all right, but he told her to stop. He collapsed onto the floor, sliding down the wall. He cradled his hand. The zombie had bitten him.
Tanya set her jaw. “The other one that got out of the truck attacked several of the workers before it was put down. I don’t know how many of them got bit, but within a few days, we had an epidemic on our hands. They got it under control, but thirty people got infected.”
Pam and Quinn released her, and she pointed a finger in my direction.
“You just couldn’t wait, could you? You just had to make all of us pay.”
My throat felt tight and a knot developed in my stomach. I swallowed hard. “What happened to your dad?”
Tanya snarled. “Instead of waiting for the plague to take its toll, he took care of himself.”
I lowered my gaze to the floor. My stomach lurched, bile rose into my throat. I took several deep breaths, but the feeling never abated.
“I’m sorry, Tanya.” I looked into her face. “I really, truly am. But I did not put zombies in the back of the truck. Why would I harm the people I’m trying to help?”
Tanya shook her head and opened her mouth to speak.
“Think about it,” Quinn interrupted her. “The Families were afraid of losing control. They knew about the rebellion here in North Platte, and they knew the people would soon hear about it. They had to do something to ensure the people wouldn’t revolt, so they planted zombies.”
Tanya stared at him for a moment, letting the information sink in. “Maybe,” she spoke softly.
I stepped closer to her. “Tanya, please, you have to believe us, we would never do anything like that. Smuggle guns to kill the regime, yeah, but we wouldn’t infect Florida with zombies.”
Tanya took a deep breath. “Maybe.”
“Didn’t Bill and Kyle tell you what was going on?” Quinn asked.
Tanya faced him. “They did.”
“What happened to them?”
She took a deep breath and averted her gaze to the floor. “After the attack and my dad’s suicide, guards, um, did random house searches and they were arrested.”
Pam’s, Quinn’s, and my eyes grew wide.
“What?” Quinn glanced from Tanya to me. “Arrested? Why?”
“They were outsiders.” she responded. “I guess they felt they were a threat to The Families and Florida.”
“Did they find out about the guns?” I stammered out the question.
Tanya looked at me. “No. Those are still safe.”
“How did you get here?” Pam chimed in.
“After everything calmed down, I took the boat Bill and Kyle came in on and found their vehicle in Texas. I made my way up here to you.”
“Do you know what happened to them?” Worry coated Quinn’s eyes.
“I’m sure they’re not dead. I’m sure The Families kept them for interrogation.”
Quinn rubbed his hand over his mouth, staring at me. “What are we going to do? Everything is ruined. I told you we had to attack simultaneously.”
Confusion and anger coursed through my body. “It’s a moot point now. We’ll figure it out. It’ll be fine.” What did he expect me to do? I couldn’t change the past.
The room was silent for a long moment. The group glanced at each other out of the corners’ of their eyes, then averted their gazes to the floor. My head spun. When we first took over North Platte and found out there had been a spy, I felt like I was losing control then, but after Tanya arrived, I knew I lost my grip. An all-out attack on Florida was out of the question. They would know what was coming. Plus, we were grossly outnumbered by Floridian soldiers. Despite the tragic nature of the event, a zombie attack wasn’t a half bad idea. It would keep the soldiers busy long enough for our people to get in and take control. There would be some collateral damage, but in the long run, it would lead to the liberation of the people of Florida.
I shook the idea out of my head. How could I even think of that? There were innocent people down there. Children. It wouldn’t work. Besides, three zombies had already done enough damage. I couldn’t believe Tanya thought we sent the attack.
Quinn grabbed my arm and directed me away from Tanya and Pam.
“We’ve got to evacuate the city.”
“Don’t you see what’s going on? Florida sent men up here to investigate what happened. They planted zombies in the back of the truck and blamed it on us. They are trying to rally the masses against us.”
“Yeah? So what else is new?”
“The people they sent here were the dregs of society. They were causing problems in Florida. They are still causing problems. This is the perfect excuse to wipe us off the planet.”
My stomach knotted. The color drained from my face. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew Quinn was right. They were probably on their way to level the city.
“There are two thousand and eleven people in North Platte.” I couldn’t raise my voice over a whisper. “Where are they going to go?”
Quinn pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and shook his head. “I don’t know. All I know is they can’t stay here.”
“What about Liet? What are we going to do with him?”
Quinn didn’t have the opportunity to answer.
“Everything all right over there?” Pam asked.
We faced her.
“No. I don’t think it is,” Quinn responded.
“Well, maybe you’d like to fill the rest of us in.”
Quinn glanced at me for a second, then back at Pam. “I think you need to call a town meeting.”
“Just do it!” I didn’t mean to yell at her, but I had no control over my emotions. The room spun and breathing was difficult, it just slipped out.
Pam hurried out of the room, and I sank to my knees. I lowered my head and closed my eyes. I felt light-headed and nauseous. I couldn’t believe it was this hard. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. I felt Quinn’s hand on my back.
“You all right?”
I looked up at him. “I’ll be fine. Just give me a second.”
Tanya moved so she stood in front of me. Her knees popped as she knelt down.
“What are we going to do now? Everything has been ruined.” She lowered her gaze. “I ruined it. I can’t believe I was so stupid to believe you would have sent zombies!”
I took a deep breath and stared at her face for several moments. Anger clenched my chest. I wanted to tell her it was her fault, that she should have known we would never do anything so devious, but it wouldn’t get us anywhere. Her eyes were red rimmed and her shoulders slumped forward. She probably didn’t stop traveling until she made it to the city. Rage kept her moving. Her desire to see me dead or maimed fueled her journey. After she found out the truth, rage was replaced with sheer exhaustion. Sadly, her journey wasn’t even close to being over.
Besides, I wasn’t mad at her, I was angry at the universe. I was upset that my luck had run out. The same rage that kept her moving was going to have to sustain me. We still had a job to do, we just had to rethink it.
“You didn’t ruin it,” I told her. “You were just reacting to a situation you thought we created. It’s understandable.”
She placed her hands on the floor and leaned forward. “I want to help you fix it. Please tell me what I can do.”
“First of all, we’ve got to get the people to safety. Then, we’re going to disappear.”
“And go where?”
“The only place we have left. The West.”
For the contest, anyone who leaves a comment on any of the blogs will be put into a drawing to win a coffee mug, a spiral notebook (2 will be given away), or a complete signed set of books (both Life After the Undead and Death to the Undead) (2 will be given away). Be sure to leave a way to be contact in case you win.