Atlanta BoundLilith Saintcrow
Copyright © 2018 by Lilith Saintcrow
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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Print edition ISBN: 9781791614430
Roadtrip Z - Season Four
For Odd Trundles,
who was a very good boy.
I. Atlanta Bound
3. If You're Gonna
5. Good News
6. Home Forever
7. Some Meanness
10. Painted Dolls
13. A Man's Gotta
15. A Different Vocation
16. Terribly Normal
17. Icicle Drops
19. None of Us
20. A Humdinger
22. Emotional Literacy
24. Some Doin'
25. Pretty And
26. Down Easy
27. Worryin Look
28. Unfulfilled Dreams
30. Blackberry Tangle
31. Just Get Me
32. Best Route
33. Not Immune
34. Nice News
36. Damn Kid
38. Checkpoint Golf
40. The Whole Point
42. A Good Apple
43. Imagine That
About the Author
Before the world ended, it generally took four to six hours between Cincinnati and Cleveland, depending on traffic. Now it took two days even though Lake Erie hadn’t frozen yet, and the snow cleared enough they had to take the chains off both Lee’s battered red truck and Juju Thurgood’s black 4x4. Empty cars scattered everywhere—everyone had tried to get out of town, and road-clearing had fallen further and further down the emergency services priority list. No few of the abandoned vehicles had a door or two hanging open or windows starred with breakage.
If you were in a car with a sick ’un when the convulsions hit, it probably got confusing right quick. Or if, God forbid, you had a loved one past the convulsions and that awful, gripping growl started and what was now a hungry corpse lunged for the closest victim, Lee Quartine figured a body would want to get out of a car right quick if that happened, and not be too choosy about the escape direction, so to speak.
On the first afternoon out of Cincinnati raw grey chill roughened the ironpan sky, billows heavy with precipitation refusing to drop just yet. Crashes clogged the road-arteries, and just outside Columbus was a snarl of deserted checkpoints, most with bullet holes chewed through thin plywood walls—holes they added to when they stopped.
“That’s right,” Lee murmured, wishing he had a baseball cap to shade his eyes, not to mention cover up how long his hair was getting. He kept his tone soft, level, conversational. Some people needed a bark or two to keep their mind on the task at hand, but not her. “Now breathe out, and in the middle, squeeze. Don’t pull.”
Ginny Mills did her best. The gun barked, the recoil went all the way up her shaking arms and if Lee hadn’t been bracing her, the pistol probably would have flown backward and clocked her a good one.
Well, maybe not, but in any case, she couldn’t help but clap her eyes shut each time she got off a shot. As a result, the bullets went wide.
Real wide. And each time, she lowered the gun instead of tracking, frowning a little and biting her soft lower lip.
Traveller, in the truck with both windows rolled a third of the way down, yip-howled unhappily. The bluetick coonhound plain hated being put inside and told to stay, but Lee didn’t want him pulling on a leash while someone was aiming. Or, God forbid, goin’ downrange.
Young Steph Meacham took a bead next, concentrating so hard her feathery eyebrows almost met in the middle. She had a good stance, nice and braced, and hit what she was aiming at more often than not. Once, twice, thrice, a neat little grouping of holes exploded in the side of a plywood shack set in the left lane ahead of them.
Each time a gun went off, Ginny flinched. There was just no way around it. Cold wind riffled stray chestnut curls escaping from her black knit cap. Lee stood behind her, his arms on either side of hers, walking her through the motions of checking the gun. “How many shots you got left?”
“Th-thirteen.” Ginny’s teeth all but chattered. Lean black Juju Thurgood was coaching Steph, beak-nosed Mark Kasprak leaning in to listen with his big gloved hands dangling. Next time they stopped, it would be Mark shooting and Steph observing, and Kasprak had a good steady hand with a pistol, better with a rifle. They were both coming along right well.
Ginny was a different story.
“You get used to it,” Lee said. If there hadn’t been firearms involved, he would have downright enjoyed being so close. Bracing her and teaching her to deal with the recoil had its pleasant parts. “Don’t worry.”
“I am worried.” She lowered the pistol even further, index finger locked conscientiously outside the trigger guard. “I’ve got to get this down.”
“Well, you’re doin all right far as I can tell.” Lee couldn’t hope for a better student. She took every safety measure to heart and didn’t do a damn thing he didn’t tell her specifically to. If only more of the asshole kids coming through basic had been half as careful.
Steph squeezed off another shot, putting a hole neatly in the middle of a sign saying TURN OFF YOUR LIGHTS.
“You see that?” Mark crowed, hopping in place. “Damn, girl!”
“Mama always said girls’re good shots. Said it was hand-eye coordination.” Steph blinked owlishly, her face smoothing out. “Your turn now, Miz Ginny.”
“I’d rather not.” But Ginny gamely lifted the piece again, and Lee stepped back to give her room this time.
“Keep yo arm straight,” Juju said.
“I don’t like guns,” Ginny said through gritted teeth for the fiftieth time, and blam, muzzle flash. This time she actually hit the checkpoint, about shoulder-height on the plywood. “Oh. Oh.”
“Yeah!” Mark cheered, pumping his fist in the air. “Now that’s what I’m talkin about!”
“You’re such a dork,” Steph said, but gently. She wasn’t keeping her distance from the boy anymore, but something had sure enough changed between them. Puppy love grew just like the puppies did, maybe.
“I’m bein supportive,” the boy popped back, with a grin. He was filling out his expensive new parka with a vengeance now.
Travel agreed with him.
“Check yo clip, Steph.” Juju squinted, glancing down the freeway. They could get past on the shoulder here, but a crash near the checkpoint had involved fire. Twisted metal corpses stood silent sentinel, charred and dripping with melt. “Comin up on fifteen, Lee.”
“Yeah.” Lee checked his half of their surroundings—a modesty screen of wind-torn bushes, an embankment full of yellowed winter grass and patches of slush crowned with a high fence and the back end of mini-mall. “Ginny, check and clear, now.”
“Okay.” Her fingers trembled visibly. Still, she popped the clip out and checked the chamber, carefully pointing the business end away from Juju and
the kids. A high, pretty flush stood out on her cheeks, and her dark eyes were still and liquid with concentration. “Like that?”
“Just like that.” He didn’t miss her sigh of relief when she surrendered the gun, or her almost-flinch when he clipped it again and holstered. “You’re doin all right, Ginny. Learnin just fine.”
“Great.” She bit at her lower lip again, and he was powerfully aware that she’d moved her sleeping bag closer to his last night. He kept meaning to stay awake and listen to her breathing, but as soon as the light was off, he was too, just like the damn dog. It was the best sleep of his life, nevermind the cold office floors. If she curled up next to him again he’d probably snore until spring.
At least she’d stopped saying sorry each time she pulled the trigger. That was progress.
“Uh…” Steph said, and pointed ahead past the abandoned checkpoint, the wrecks, and another thin dribble of abandoned cars. “Mr Thurgood?”
Juju glanced the way she was looking, and his face hardened, full lips compressing. “Get on in the four-by, kids. Lee?”
He saw it, too. Shuffling down the middle of the highway, blundering between wrecked cars, its head cocked at that queer angle and its eyes filmy-grey, a walking corpse in tattered desert camouflage dragged its boots along. So far, there was just the one.
That was why the practice stops were only fifteen minutes long. The noise inevitably drew shuffling, chewing, dead-eyed critters.
“Pack it up,” Lee said. “Next stop’s t’other side of the city, we’ll find food. And more ammo.” Always, always, they looked for more ammo.
“I’m not that bad a shot.” Ginny edged for the truck. Her dark eyes were wide, and Traveller’s yodeling took on a sharper edge.
Lee caught another flicker of motion between the back of the mini-mall and a sagging chainlink fence. “Rather have it and not need it, darlin.”
“Darlin,” Mark mouthed, and Steph giggled, elbowing him as she lengthened her coltish stride.
Inside the truck, Ginny held Traveller’s collar and soothed him, petting behind his ears while Lee twisted the key. Juju had scouted a way around this checkpoint when they stopped, so now he took it, the four-by’s tires crunching on wet shoulder gravel, sinking a bit in freezing mud before hauling along. Lee followed along, nosing the truck carefully through the tangle.
All told, it wasn’t a bad morning.
The red Chevy rattled, and Ginny jolted into wakefulness. She just couldn’t seem to get enough sleep, though she passed out each night despite the discomfort of sleeping bags, foam pads, and cold. It was probably just the recovery from her bout with the flu, and thank goodness it hadn’t been the flu, the one that turned everyone into…well, zombies was the word the kids used, and she might as well.
It was certainly a more efficient term than ”shuffling, chewing, groan-grinding corpses.” If they weren’t dead, they were certainly close—higher brain function seemed to be gone. The only thing remained was the imperative to bite, and the hunt for…well, they were no doubt looking for food.
The thought of maybe turning into one of those brainless foot-dragging things sent a chill down her back even now. She was lucky. How long until luck ran out? For her, or for someone else in their little group?
“It’s all right,” Lee said quietly, the same way he did every time she startled out of a nap. He gazed out the windshield, a clean-cut profile. “Just lookin for a place to spend the night.”
Her mouth tasted like morning all over again. Hopefully she hadn’t been snoring; she wiped at her chin. No drool. That was a blessing. “I hear Ohio hotels are good.” She stretched her arms, then her legs, careful not to dislodge Traveller. The dog preferred to nestle between them on the bench seat, but Lee had suggested Ginny sit in the middle so she could lean on a shoulder instead of the window. Easier to sleep that way.
It was a logical idea, and a nice one, too. So far, he was the same steady, quiet man he’d been since Cotton Crossing, even if she was sleeping in the same room with him when their stops permitted. It wasn’t like she expected him to change…but you never could tell, with guys.
“Might stop in one. Or another grocery store.” He didn’t quite squint, but his gaze sharpened. His sandy-darkish hair was growing out and curling a little, stubbornly, and it suited him, along with the five o’clock shadow. Back in the Crossing, her private nickname for him had been Military Felon, and now she felt a little guilty about it.
It wasn’t a nice thing to call someone who had yanked you out of gunfire and beaten off your zombified neighbor, or someone who had climbed outside a fifth-story window and busted a glass door to help you, or someone you’d held in a darkened office kitchen and whispered there was nothing you could do to while he shook with dry, suppressed, silent sobs.
If there was an etiquette manual for these situations, she’d missed when they were handing it out.
The sky had turned ugly-grey and infinite, clouds smoothing out. It looked like more snow, and Lee’s window, rolled down just a little though the heat was on, breathed a cold metallic tang into the truck’s cab. It wasn’t cold, but she shivered anyway. “It’s going to snow.”
“Most likely. Have to chain up again.” He glanced at her. “How you feelin?”
That was something else he asked every time. Her mouth was rancid, her neck hurt, and dear God, she wanted a salad. Maybe if they stopped at a grocery store she could try to find some unspoiled produce. Carrots, maybe some apples that hadn’t gone mushy. “Fine. Are we stopping to shoot again?”
“Not until tomorrow.” The truck slowed, edging past a pileup in the right lane. Lee’s hands were raw and reddening; she had to find him some good lotion when they stopped in a place likely to have some.
No more shooting today. Relief filled her chest. “Great.”
He smiled, and it did good things for his face as well. People got a lot more attractive when you liked them, there were all sorts of studies proving it. How many scientists had been lost when the sickness swept the world?
Well. She’d lasted a few minutes without a hideous thump in her stomach when she realized one more awful thing about current events. It was a new record.
At least they were getting closer to New York. If this was a normal trip home, she’d generally have a hotel room planned somewhere just before Cleveland so she could handle Buffalo and the tolls afterward while she was relatively fresh. Or she’d have taken the train, and Dad would have picked her up in Albany. Flying home had become ridiculous ever since they added all the security theater.
God. Imagine someone sick on a flight, going into seizures in a pressurized aluminum tube at thirty thousand feet…
Another horrible thought, like clockwork. They wouldn’t stop while she was awake, but at least she wasn’t remembering her dreams. They were probably real creature features by now. Ginny bent, restless, rummaging in the footwell on the passenger side for her purse and the two books—a relatively recent Merck Manual and an early volume of Foxfire.
One for trying to figure out what this illness was and the other for rebuilding. If they survived.
The closer New York and her family got, the faster she wanted to be going—and the more uncomfortable thoughts rose. Her sister had probably gone into labor by now. Well, women had been giving birth for millennia, Flo should be okay. There were retired doctors all over the gated community her parents had retired to. “Gated” meant “safe,” right?
But Mom and Dad were elderly. Hopefully they were riding all this out. If Ginny was immune, if what she’d had was only the regular flu, then hopefully they should be immune too, or at least halfway? And Flo, and her baby? Or maybe only one of her parents had immunity…
She was still bruised all over. High fever, febrile convulsions—if it hadn’t been the zombie flu, it was like it, even if Juju had stories about soldiers and stress-triggered illnesses. “Lee?”
There was a bruise on the inside of h
er right arm that looked for all the world like a needle had gone in. But that was ridiculous. Nobody had injected her with anything, she must have done something to herself when the fever spiked.
She had a hazy memory of Lee breaking into her hotel room and holding her down as the seizures hit again, and the layers of bruises all over her were from throwing herself all over said room. “Nothing,” she said, finally, opening the Merck Manual again. Tissue-thin pages carrying a civilization’s cargo of medical knowledge, more precious now than ever. “I’m just a little weirded out.”
“Be strange if you wasn’t, darlin.” One half of his mouth curled up and he ducked his head a little, a shy movement from the boy he must have been. He was probably quiet then, too.
Darling. It sounded different when he said it, and it wasn’t just his accent.
She tried to imagine bringing him home to meet Mom and Dad. In the normal course of things, would he have talked to her before she finally got an offer and left for a bigger city, a bigger library system? Would she have seen the steadiness in him, the calm, or any of a hundred other things she was now taking for granted, outright relying on?
A goy, Mom would say to her friends, looking to the sky to witness her eldest daughter’s latest not-quite-measuring-up. He’s very handy, though.