Thankfully, Longview's streets weren't stacked with cars and bodies. Kendra drove past the industrial districts, those smokestacks that no longer belched white, the waterway now clogged with logs that, in saner days, would have gone to the Weyerhauser mill to build houses and make cardboard boxes. Nothing moved. Interstate 5 stayed mostly clear too. Until she'd driven twelve miles down.
There, just as the skies were growing dark, Kendra's headlights showcased an overturned truck that looked like an oil tanker blocking the road. Kendra's heart danced with images of gas for life, until she realized it was only a milk truck.
Don't get greedy, girl.
She slowed and decided the embankment was gentle enough to steer around the truck, amazed at how easily she'd adapted to the challenge. Time was, she would have panicked at the blocked road, but she wasn't the same person she'd been yesterday. Or even an hour ago. Kendra pulled off, steering toward the dirt on the driver's side, her only clear passage.
Her tires had just left the asphalt when a man stepped out the shadows. Kendra's eyes focused on him sharply, showing her every detail in her car's harsh light. He was a big man, with dirty, pale, densely freckled skin. A wild beard speckled white and black, with bits of yellow trapped inside. When he grinned, his teeth looked like he'd scribbled on them with yellow crayon. He'd been living outside. His hands were behind his back as if she'd interrupted him while he was pacing, deep in thought.
Or maybe, just maybe, he was a freak.
Kendra remembered Grandpa Joe's warning never to stop for hitchhikers, and she and the stranger had nothing to talk about. Without hesitating, she pressed her foot harder on the accelerator to make him think she would run him over rather than stop—and maybe she would. She didn't know yet.
That was when he whipped out his shotgun. From four feet away, the barrel loomed as large and dark as a railroad tunnel. He'd fire if she accelerated, and was too close to miss. Heart thundering, Kendra rolled to a stop. She felt her pulse drumming as her hands grasped the steering wheel, her heartbeat shaking her body.
Take your damned chances and drive over him! Kendra's mind screamed.
But she didn't. Instead, with her trembling hands raised high, she got out of the car. She hoped she wouldn't lose more than the bicycle. Maybe he wouldn't see her backpack.
"Heard the car from a mile off," the man said. "Don't see too many cars no more. And a pretty girl really ought not be out by herself. Get out—and bring your stuff. Everybody's got stuff."
Kendra's legs barely obeyed her. She didn't like the way he'd called her pretty. She wished she looked dirtier, too. But maybe he wouldn't hurt her if she did what he told her to do. When she reached back into the car for her backpack, he gestured her over sideways, toward the ditch.
That was when she saw the freak.
The infected man had come down from the I-5, almost directly in line with the car, as if he were purposely concealing himself. A narrow man in a piss-stained business suit, still wearing a tie askew. It walked like most freaks, like it was having a slow-motion seizure. This was an older one, his face scabbed red. Grandpa Joe said the older, slower ones were slowly starving to death, and would do a lot more than take a single bite.
Kendra moved around, backing away, so that the man with the gun was between her and the freak. Had bad luck turned to good luck so soon? The pirate's attention was on her, so he wasn't paying attention. She just needed to keep his eyes occupied for another few seconds...
She summoned a warm-up exercise from a long-forgotten acting class. Kendra shimmied her hips slightly, as if she were about to do a private dance. She saw the way the pirate's eyes widened, lips peeling back in a grin, exposing those nasty teeth again.
"That's more like it, girl," he said, his breathing heavy. "Show me the goods."
Kendra slowly leaned over to rest her backpack on the ground, her eyes on the man with the gun. His eyes roamed over her, and his lip as if she were a steak.
Over his shoulder, Kendra saw that the freak had halved the distance between them, within five yards, close enough for her to see how its eyes were foamed crimson with fungus. Which of them horrified her more?
The pirate still held the shotgun with one hand, but he tugged on his jeans to unsnap them with the other.
That's it, you sick bastard. Keep your eyes on me.
But he must have heard something—or, more likely, smelled something. He wheeled around just in time to meet the freak face to face. Too late to run, barely time to scream. The pirate managed to get off a single shot before the freak grabbed him, and it went so wild that Kendra ducked. But not before she saw the freak's teeth tear into his exposed neck.
Kendra ran, and as she did saw that there were two more Freaks...one staggering in from the west, and one running from the north. The runner was dressed like a fry cook, his apron tattered and blood-stained, his eyes filled with red veins. A fast one! The older freak was a woman, thin now but her clothes were so loose that Kendra guessed that she had once been plus-sized. Skin hung in diseased folds on her face, and her eyes were clotted red. They were driving Kendra. Funneling her toward a kill zone.
They travel in packs. They lay traps. Even as she ran, Kendra struggled to comprehend.
No time to jump into the car or grab her backpack. No time to do anything but flee. She climbed up the side of the road, toward the rising bank of the I-5, the freak below her now, trying to claw toward her. She heard a shot, and a scream from behind her. The scream went on so long that its gurgling echo scarcely seemed human.
Kendra's world went gray, nearly white, as the fast freak’s hand clamped on her ankle, dragged her back down the incline a few feet while she kicked, expecting to feel the teeth pierce her skin at any moment. Kendra screamed like an animal. At last, a kick made contact. The freak lost its death-grip and rolled away. Kendra clambered up to the road and ran.
She was running so wildly that she nearly lost her balance, flailing her arms as she crossed I-5's eight lanes to disappear down the other side--the steeper side she hadn't been willing to chance with the car. Panting hard, she ventured a peek.
The thing appeared atop the far embankment and lurched like a drunk, trying to figure out which way she'd gone, and could not. It lost focus and staggered north.
Sobbing, Kendra curled into a ball behind a pine tree. She had lost everything. One piece at a time her fragile world had been dismantled, the pieces ripped from her hands. She had lost her backpack, her bicycle, her rifle, the car. Her mother. Her father. Her grandpa. Everything and everyone. How had she been deluded enough to feel anything remotely resembling joy just yesterday?
She'd been a fool to dream of living.
Might as well just stay here, curl up in the dark. Wait to die.
Then...she heard the engine. Just a groan at first, something that might almost have been mistaken for wind in the trees. Then a blue truck appeared on I-5...no, a bus. Some kind of school bus, a wedge-shaped snow plow mounted on the front.
The bus slowed, pulled off along the road the way she had, its lights suddenly so bright that she could only see its hazy outline. Kendra hadn't moved, was pinioned directly in its headlights.
Kendra felt no fear. No curiosity. In fact, nothing at all. Exhaustion and terror had congealed into a kind of quiet courage. She only held up one arm to shield her eyes from the bright light.
The bus stopped with a tremendous squeal of brakes, and a smell of burnt rubber. The door opened, and she was able to look in past the stairwell to the driver's seat. The bus driver was just a boy, only a year or two older than she was.
He wasn't dirty. He didn't have a gun. He had an angel's face with dark, curly hair and bright eyes. Behind him, she saw others on the bus: a pale girl with long black hair with a single streak of white. A narrow face, cradling a rifle in her sinewy arms. One guy standing next to her, tall, thick-chested, darker than Kendra, a toothpick in the corner of his mouth and his lips curled in a lazy smile. A dog stood at the top of the stairwell, some kind of Lab mix, eyeing her suspiciously.
The driver's eyes were wide, intelligent and kind. So kind.
They were, he was, the most beautiful sight Kendra had ever seen.
He smiled at her. "Need a ride?"
© 2012 by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due. Devil's Wake. Atria Books (July 31)
Library Journal on Devil's Wake: "The husband-and wife writing team of [Steven] Barnes and [Tananarive] Due puts a fresh spin on the zombie plague motif by hinting at an extraterrestrial origin of the phenomenon. Verdict: Gruesome but not overly graphic, this tale of young people struggling to remain human--and humane--in a post-apocalyptic near future features top-notch storytelling and believable characters."