The man shifted his gaze from the thin band of blue sky up ahead to the rearview mirror, where he saw nothing but angry clouds and darkened countryside. Seemingly following him on the same northwesterly tack, the pewter smudge was depositing big heavy flakes on the rolling hills and abandoned farmhouses and rust-streaked silos whipping by on both sides of the winding State Route.
Thinking ahead, just after traces of the first snowfall of the season began to stick, the driver had stopped on a zombie-free stretch of road a few miles back and engaged the four-wheel-drive. Now, negotiating the snow-dusted rollercoaster-like two-lane cutting between Wyoming to the east and Utah to the west, all the driver had to concentrate on as he approached his destination were the clusters of walking dead making yet another slow motion sojourn north. As he halved his speed and zippered between the staggering human husks, he noticed that their movements seemed sluggish—more so than usual—their already diminished motor skills seeming to degrade before his eyes in pace with the rapidly dropping mercury.
As the rig passed within arm’s reach of another slow-moving group—where normally the younger and more agile specimens would at least crane and get an eye lock on him or, if the conditions were right, manage a clumsy swipe at the vehicle—there was a delayed response, their maws opening and arms extending only after the SUV was well past them.
“Well, well,” said the man, flicking his eyes to the rearview. “That is what I was hoping would happen. Levels the playing field, a little.” Despite the task at hand, a grin spread across his face and he rapped a ditty on the steering wheel. “Bite me biters … aren’t such the bad asses now are we?” Though he wanted to stop and take out thirty or forty of the things in one fell swoop, he didn’t want to expend the energy clearing their carcasses from the road would require. As he swept his gaze forward, he saw off in the distance the north-moving herd he’d first seen two hours prior and a number of miles south.
Spitting a string of expletives, the man slowed the vehicle and grabbed his binoculars from the seat next to him. Then, knee-steering, he risked a couple of glances at the shambling mass, only pressing the field glasses to his eyes for a couple of seconds at a time, which was all he needed to learn that the main body had just passed his turnoff, leaving only a loose knot of walking corpses and the few lone stragglers bringing up the rear for him to worry about.
Knowing the distant herd would soon crest the small hill and then be on the downslope and out of sight, he slowed his ride to a crawl, swung wide right, and hauled the wheel hand-over-hand. The sun-dappled horizon swung a one-eighty across the windshield’s wide curvature and the tires squelched on the far shoulder as he straightened the wheel and looped around the listless pack of dead he’d just bypassed. A hundred yards south around a bend in the road where he figured the vehicle’s silhouette would be masked from the dead, he eased off the gas and let the rig coast until its forward momentum bled off. Now, with two hundred yards or so and a grass-covered hillock between him and the biters, he jammed the SUV to a stop on the solid yellow centerline and put the automatic transmission in Park. For the sake of comfort, he took his boxy semi-auto pistol from its holster on his hip and placed it on top of the dusty dash within easy reach. Eyes threatening to close on him, he kicked his seat back, elbowed the door lock down, and flicked on the stereo to start the soothing sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach flowing from the speakers.
The man’s respite was cut short just minutes into his powernap when the half-dozen dead not fooled by the coast maneuver caught up to the inert vehicle and began raking their nails against the sheet metal. Though the late German composer was being all but drowned out by the keen of bone against metal and hollow moans of the dead, the man tolerated the sneering creatures batting the window just inches from his face for ten long minutes.
Once the ten minutes had passed, for good measure the man stared at the second hand’s sweep and allowed five more minutes to crawl by. Finally, convinced most of the dead would be far enough away to the north so as not to key in on the growl of the diesel engine, he jacked his seat up and started the motor. Fighting the wheel and clunky gearbox, he conducted a three-point-turn and was rolling north at a fair clip.
Seconds later, he arrived at the crest of the hill where he had first spotted the herd which, in the thirty minutes since, had only shambled a half a mile beyond his turnoff and into a veil of falling snow. Closer in, however, was the smaller knot of biters that inexplicably were still within eyeshot of his turnoff, which was a narrow dirt road shooting uphill and to the right off the paved State Route.
Practicing what he preached to his kids—better safe than sorry—he gently pressed the pedal to start the SUV rolling forward over the hill’s crest. Once gravity grabbed the three-quarter tons of American iron, he jacked the transmission into neutral, manhandled the transfer case out of four-wheel-drive, and then killed the engine. Without the boost of power steering, keeping the SUV’s squared-off grill guard aimed at the throng of dead took considerable effort.
Halfway down the hill, the wind whistling through the half-dozen bullet holes in the driver’s side door alerted the dead to his approach and, sluggishly, as if in slow motion, they turned in unison and faced the noise.
A beat or two later, the sickening sounds of the coasting SUV plowing through the picket of corpses made its way through the rusted floor pan and again the soothing string work of another Bach masterpiece was drowned out. Before the remaining corpses could scrape themselves off of the roadway, the man had set the brake, grabbed his weapons, and was unfolding his massive frame from the high clearance vehicle.
Standing on the road in the midst of the crushed and mangled corpses, he slipped his Glock back into its holster. Then he donned his faded knee-length western-style duster, leaving it unbuttoned. Finally, he cracked his back and neck then slipped the corded nylon rope over his head and adjusted the scabbard it was attached to so that the pommel of his ancestral blade was within easy reach behind his head.
“Come to Daddy,” he growled, a wolfish grin spreading on his face as he began wading through the leaking corpses to get to the throng of dead vectoring toward him.