It’s really quiet on this drive. I mean, besides the sound of the wipers and the noise of the giant engine I’m sitting behind, of course.
Sheesh. I don’t know why I haven’t even thought to check the radio. I realize it’s unlikely, since all the power seems to be out, but I’ll take anything to fill the silence right about now.
I reach over and fiddle with the knobs. Noise comes on, but only static. I scan through the stations slowly. I click over to AM.
Krshhhh, clnkle, shhhh, pop, fzz, “me?” fzzzzzz.
“Oh, crap!” I exclaim as I twist the knob in the other direction.
fzzzzzz“Hello? Is this thing on?”
I found something! Or, I guess, someone, anyways. I was hoping for some music, but this could be even better. Somehow someone is managing to get a signal out. I find myself feeling optimistic for the first time since I woke up.
The station is silent for several minutes until a voice fades in as though walking closer to the microphone.
“…but I don’t know how to get the messages back.” It sounds like a young boy, or maybe a girl. I can’t quite tell.
“How’d did you get this on, Johnny?” another, female, voice asks.
“I don’t know, it just turned on.”
“Must have a battery backup system, honey,” a male voice joins in. “Means we’ve got 90 minutes of power at best. Better turn it off, son.”
“Okay, dad. I think it was this—“ click, krsshhhhhhh.
Damn! That didn’t last long. I guess that, at least, means there are some other people out there. Heck, I could even find them, if I had any clue where the station building for frequency 1000 was anyways.
Doesn’t really matter. I’ve got to get to Zelda as fast as I can. I don’t have time to waste looking for other random people. Not yet anyways.
THUD, THUD, THUD! comes loudly from directly behind my head.
Besides, why would I need to go driving around the state looking for friends when I’ve got a perfectly good drunk one knocking at my door right now?
I should probably pull over and let him out before he gets any madder.
I ease the van to a stop, not wanting to skid on the ice. The snow has picked up around here. Without the plows clearing the road and adding salt and sand, it’s getting dangerous fast. The brakes squeal as I come to a stop.
I look around in every direction possible and see nothing. I listen for any noises that can be heard over the sound of the engine idling and the wipers skidding against the glass. Again, nothing. Feeling as secure as possible, I open the door and peer around it cautiously.
I make my way to the back as before and unlatch the door, sliding it open fast and holding my hands above my head to show I mean the man no harm.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” the man booms in a deep voice, sounding much more self-aware than during our previous encounter.
“Um, hi,” I stammer.
“Are you the one who’s been driving this damned vehicle? Because you sure as hell could learn a thing or two about swerving less. I’ve been bouncing all over the back of this truck. I’ve got a headache that you need to answer to, boy!”
“Sorry about that. The roads aren’t exactly in the best shape for driving or anything.” I look over my shoulder, remembering to keep myself aware of my surroundings at all times. “Would it be possible to finish this conversation up in the front of the van?”
“In the front of the van?” he yells. “No, I want to get this done right—“
“I’m sorry, sir, it’s just that it’s cold out here and, well, you know, kinda—“
“I’m just messing with you kid. I know you’re on a tight schedule,” he says as he jumps down from the back of the truck and walks toward the passenger side.
“Okay…” I say slowly, returning to the driver’s side door.
“You want me to take over driving for a bit?” he asks, reappearing at the corner of the vehicle.
“Um, I think I’ll be alright,” I say, tired, but remembering his condition from only a half hour ago.
“Alright kid, just figured I should offer, since you’re paying me and all,” he responds as he disappears once again.
I walk to the driver’s side as I consider how best to respond to the situation. I open the door and see he’s already sitting in the passenger seat, his head resting hard against the head rest. I struggle to climb into the vehicle and stare at the man. After a couple minutes, he opens his eyes and looks back at me.
“What the hell you doing there, kid? We gonna move or what? I am getting paid by the hour, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” I respond, startled by his reaction. “Wait. Getting paid for what?”
“For moving your sorry ass to Florida, of course. And here I thought I was the one who had been drinking. Speaking of which, why are we up and at ‘em so early? I figured I’d have until check out time to sober up.”
I’m beginning to wonder how you can tell if someone’s got a concussion.
“So, you have no clue what’s happened?” I ask tentatively.
“What do you mean? All I know is that your cheap ass was too cheap to get us separate rooms so I decided to crash on your couch in the back of this here truck. Next thing I know I’m on the floor with one enormous headache and being bounced from wall to wall.”
“I don’t think that I’m who you think I am.”
“Sure you are,” he says as he reaches into his coat pocket and uncrumples a dingy piece of paper. “You’re Frank Simms, son of Andrew Simms. The kid who’s going to make it big in roller coasters or some other such nonsense.”
“Actually, I’m Bert Hamberg, and I’m heading to Wisconsin.”
“Oh shit,” the man says loudly. “Did I get into the wrong van again?” He looks out the window for a reason I can’t quite figure out.
“Oh, no, I’m sure you’ve got the right van, just not the right driver.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well, umm, I guess you could say that I stole the van. Although I’m not sure that’s really all that—“
“You stole it?!”
“Well, yeah, I mean, sorta. I think, considering the circumstances, that steal might be kinda a harsh word, but—“
“And you’re not Frank?”
“Nope, definitely not Frank.”
“You sure as hell look like Frank.”
“I’ll take your word for that.”
“Are you sure you’re not pulling my leg?”
“No, sir. No leg pulling. Definitely not Frank.”
“Well, shit. Ain’t that crazy.”
“Yeah. Crazy is one word for it.”
“Why’d you decide to steal an old moving truck, kiddo? There had to have been some better options out there if you were looking to do some good ol’ grand theft auto-ing.”
“Well, I didn’t have as many options as you would think. Plus, the keys were in the ignition.”
“Well shit. There you go. Good enough reason as any, I guess.”
“In this case, it was one of the only reasons.”
“So, what are you planning on doing with this old hunk a junk, then? Not really something you would be taking out to no chop shop, is it? Hell, the whole reason I leave the keys in the ignition is because I’m hoping someone will steal the damn thing. That way I can collect the insurance on it.”
“I have no clue. Just needed to get out of town as fast as possible with whatever I could use.”
“Ahhh, on the run, huh? Now it’s all making sense. What’d you do?”
“Do you really have no idea what’s going on out there?”
“No, son. I don’t believe I do.”
“I could’ve sworn you said something about the crazies right before you passed out earlier.”
“Yeah, you know, the first time I let you out of the back of the van?”
“Boy, now I think you’re the one who’s confused. If you’re not Frank, the first time I laid eyes on you was about thirty seconds ago.”
“Oh,” I mutter. “Guess I was wrong then.”
“So, we just gonna sit here on the side of the road or what, boy? Seems like if we’re on the run, we should be, you know, running or something. Not that I mind either way. Just seems a waste to be sitting here.”
“Oh, yeah, good call,” I say as I put the car into drive. “Is there any place you’d like to be dropped off or anything?” The van starts moving forward. I decide to just roll slowly for a bit while I figure out what I’m going to do with this guy.
“Dropped off? Ain’t I your hostage?”
“Dude, I don’t know what you think I’m up to, but—“
“Holy shit!” the man yells as he pulls on the wheel in front of me causing us to swerve into the ditch. “Shit, kid,” he says as he opens the door and jumps out. “You almost ran right into that dog out there!”
I feel lucky I hadn’t yet gotten up to speed. If I hadn’t been going so slow, I’m sure the man’s act of grace for the canine outside would have gotten us completely stranded. I picture us stuck in the middle of a snowbank or flipped on our side off a bridge. We managed to merely skid sideways for a couple feet before stopping facing the opposite direction of where we started.
I glare at the man as he runs off into the distance.
He stops about fifty feet away and begins a hunt for, I’m left to assume, the dog that he thought we had almost run over. He is crouching under cars and climbing on top of trucks in ways I wouldn’t have thought a man of his sobriety would be capable. All the while, he shows a complete disregard for the amount of noise he is making.
I stare as I try to decide if I should help him or just leave him here on the street. My good Catholic upbringing kicks in and I begrudgingly decide to help. The fact that I’d rather not bring anymore unwanted attention our way definitely aids in the decision.
I reach down to unbuckle my seatbelt and just as I look up to put the van in park, a tiny golden-furred puppy leaps onto my lap and licks me in the face. I look off into the distance and see that the man is still hunting for the animal which is now treating me as though we were old friends.
I honk the horn. I know it’ll be loud, but if I can get him back here quickly, it won’t matter. And I’d rather not have to go outside if I can help it. He slips on the ice in surprise at the sound of the horn. He then jumps to his feet and runs back to the truck in a fit of rage.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing—“ he stops himself mid-yell. “You found him!” he shouts in joy as he jumps into the cabin to pull the miniature dog into his arms.
“Well, technically he found me,” I say flatly.
“Of course he did!” the man exclaims as the puppy squirms in his arms. “The little guy just wanted to get warm, didn’t you?” he asks the puppy excitedly as he scratches its neck.
“Alright, are we good to go now?”
“Depends on if you’re going to pay attention to the road or not. If you’re not, perhaps I should take over driving.”
“I think we both know there is not a chance in hell you should be driving right now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says. The smile the puppy had brought dissolves as he weighs the accusation against him.
“Nothing,” I say, waving my arms at him, “nothing at all. Just, you know, I’ve still got some energy. I should probably do the driving.”
“Sounds good, kid. I should get to know this little guy better anyways. Of course, we should attempt to find his owners. I’m not seeing any tags on him, but a cute little guy like this couldn’t possibly have managed to get out here without any owners. You got a cell phone we could use to call a shelter or something? Mine’s in the back.”
“Look, guy,” I say, realizing I still don’t know the man’s name, “Sorry, this might go better if I actually knew your name.”
“Hell, kid, you just said it.”
“Pretty sure I didn’t.”
“Sure you did. Guy.”
“No I didn’t, guy.”
“There you go, you said it again.”
“This is getting ridiculous.”
The man bursts into laughter. “Sorry, kid. That never gets old for me.” He slaps his hand against my back as he continues laughing. “Name’s Guy. Guy Manchester.” He extends his hand to me as he wraps the other even tighter around the dog.
“Oh,” I say, giving a light humoring chuckle. “Okay. Umm….nice to meet you, Guy.”
“You too, kid. Say, what’s your name?”
“Umm… still Bert.”
“Glad to see you’ve got a sense of humor there, Bert. Hey, you know what? I think I just met some other guy named Bert not too long ago.”
“There’s a few of us out there.”
“I suppose there is,” he laughs some more. “Alright, so about this dog. Do you think the shelters are open yet?”
“Guy,” I say softly. “I don’t really know how to tell you this—“
“What’s going on here, Bert? You’re always so damned serious.”
“Are you really sure you don’t know what’s going on out there?”
“You mean the blizzard? Hell yeah I know about that. I was just out there running around in it, wasn’t I?”
“No, I don’t mean the blizzard. I mean the zombies.”
Guy stares at me as though I had told him I was an android sent from Mars on a mission to probe him rectally. After thinking about it for a moment, I realize that’s not an entirely inappropriate response.
“I know it sounds like something out of a bad movie, but I’m serious. Zombies.”
“I don’t know what sorts of drugs you’ve been taking, but I’m seriously thinking I should take over on the whole driving thing.”
“Are you going to tell me you haven’t noticed anything weird going on outside? I mean, we’re on the highway right now and there are cars stopped everywhere.”
“Have you not ever been in a blizzard before, kid? Happens all the time.”
“Okay, fine, sure,” I stammer, “but—“
“But nothing, kid. Now, enough of the excuses. If you want to get this van to wherever the hell you’re going before the storm really starts picking up, we had better get moving.”
“Okay,” I say, realizing this is as good of a reason as any to get us moving forward.
“And, hand me your cell phone so I can find a shelter to drop this little guy off at.”
I consider fighting him on the topic once more before finally deciding to let him figure it out on his own. I reach into my coat pocket and retrieve my cell phone, handing it to the man without a second thought.
“You get 4-1-1 on this thing?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You alright with the charges?”
“Sure, whatever. Go for it.”
“Alright, just wanted to make sure.” He grunts in frustration as he attempts to figure out the phone on his own. “Chicago, Illinois,” he said, pronouncing the S at the end of the state’s name.
I turn the van around and return on the path to my daughter. Now that it looks like Guy’s sticking around, I feel comfortable getting up to full speed.
“Animal Shelter,” he says, accentuating every syllable as though talking to a child.
“Who are you talking to?” I ask, realizing he’s gotten much farther than I had expected him to.
“The operator machine,” he says matter-of-factly before repeating, even more slowly, “An E Mall Shell Terrrr.”
“But,” I mumble as lights turn on in my head, “but…”
“An E Mall Shell Terrrrr!” he yells into the phone as he pulls it away from his ear and directly in front of his face.
“The phone lines are back up?” I ask eagerly. “Give me the phone!”
“Hold on,” he says as he holds a hand up in front of my face. “Humane Society,” he says calmly into the phone.
“Come on, give me the phone. I’ve got to call my daughter!”
“Hugh Main So Sigh Et E!” he screams into the phone before throwing it down on the floor. I see his foot rise in anger. In a fit of excitement mixed with absolute terror, I slam my foot down on the brake. The dog flies forward into the dash and bounces off it before landing on the floorboard. I lean over to rescue my phone from its impending destruction as Guy does the same for the dog.
“What the hell?” Guy asks angrily.
“The phone lines are back up,” I answer absentmindedly as I thumb through my contact list and look for Laura’s number.
“You could have killed us with an act like that,” his nostrils flare. I find the number and hit the green icon which tells the phone to make a connection.
The phone rings.
“Dammit, kid!” he yells. “You can’t just slam on the brakes like that in a storm like this! Stormy’s not even buckled into anything!”
“Stormy?” I ask, suddenly aware of more than just the phone.
“That’s the name I gave to our little buddy here. Stormy, just like the weather we found him in.”
“Oh,” I say, as the phone continues to ring. “Come on,” I mumble. “Pick up!”
“You have reached the answering machine for The Joneses. Sorry we’re not able to pick up the phone right now, but leave a message and we’ll return the call as soon as we can. Beeeep.”
“Laura? Roger? Anyone there? Pickup. Come on, pickup. Okay, look, I don’t know if what’s going on here is going on there, but I need you to call me back, like now, okay. Just, look, just call me back.” I press the button ending the call and throw the phone down on the seat beside me. “Dammit!” I yell.
“What? Couldn’t get the pound?” Guy asks.
“No, you idiot. I was trying to get a hold of the people taking care of my daughter to make sure that she’s okay!” I’m losing control of my breathing. Anxiety takes over as I stare at the road. My knuckles turn white as I clench the steering wheel. Stormy steps off Guy’s lap and nuzzles my side.
“Whoa there,” Guy says as he places his hand softly upon my back. “I didn’t realize you had a daughter. How old is she?”
“Four,” I say between labored breaths.
“Perfect age. I remember when my own little girl was four,” he smiles. “Some of the best years of my life.”
I feel the tightness loosen as I turn to look at him. “You have a daughter?”
“Of course I do. Her name is Peggy. She’s old now, but, boy was she a little spitfire at that age.”
“Yeah, Zelda definitely has some energy about her. Seems as though every day is something new.”
“That doesn’t change, kid.”
“Yeah, I bet it doesn’t,” I say through a long and deep exhale. My heart rate feels as though it’s beginning to return to normal.
“Feeling better?” Guy asks.
“Yeah, I think so. Thanks.”
“Not a problem. Look, I’m really thinking it might be in our best interest to have me take over on the driving for a bit. You’re not looking too sharp there.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I agree, feeling as though the last few seconds have taken all the wind out of me. “Are you sure you’re safe to drive?”
“As safe as ever,” he beams. “Why don’t I—“
“No!” I cut him off as he reaches to opens the passenger door.
“What?” he asks with a confused look on his face. “I was just climbing out to take over—“
“Because of the damned—“ I cut myself off, realizing the zombie argument has a small chance of working on him right now. “Ummm…well, you know, it’s cold out there and it just finally started getting warm in here. Why don’t I just climb over you and we keep the doors shut?”
“I don’t know, kid. Sounds a little fruity to me.”
“I promise there’s nothing fruity about it. Just seems like the best choice, considering what’s going on outside.”
“Alrighty,” he says with a not-too-sure look upon his face, “but the first sign of any funny business and I’m outta here, okay?”
I slide out from behind the wheel and stand in the area between the dash and the seat. As I’m pressed against the windshield, I notice a small group of people walking along in the ditch on the passenger side. By their stumbling posture, I feel it’s safe to assume they’re not of the standard living description. I just hope Guy doesn’t notice them out there. Considering how much trouble he went to get a dog out of the cold, I’d hate to see what he’d do if he saw a bunch of people out there.
He quickly slides across the seat behind me, lifting his feet up onto the seat as he passes me and settling down behind the steering wheel. As soon as I see he’s reached his spot, I fall back into the seat behind me and slide over against the passenger side door.
“So, where to, kid?” Guy asks.
“Just drive,” I say urgently, hoping to get him ahead of the people I see nearing our starboard side. “Fast.”
“Okay,” he says cautiously as he puts the vehicle into drive. “I’d really like to have an idea of where I’m heading though.”
“Sure,” I say, my eyes not leaving the walking dead. “Menomonie,” I say slowly. “Menomonie, Wisconsin.”
“Oh, hey, I know someone from there. That’s out almost near Minneapolis, right?”
“Great. I’ve got some business to take care of in the ol’ Twin Cities. It’ll be good to be back over there.”
“Good to hear it,” I say anxiously. “Just drive.”
“Alright, already, kid,” he says as he presses down on the gas pedal. “I didn’t realize we were in such a hurry.”
The zombies disappear in the distance behind us and I sigh in relief. “Sorry,” I say as my senses return to me. “It’s just that I promised my daughter I’d be there before 10. I’d prefer to not be too late.”
“You’re taking off a little late in this kind of storm to try to get there in such a short period of time.”
“I know,” I answer. “I was supposed to fly out there, but, well, the flight was cancelled, I guess.”
“So you decided to steal a moving van?” he grins. “Bold choice, my friend.”
“Yeah,” I reply. “Something like that.”
“Well, don’t you worry yourself about it at all,” Guy adds. “I’ll make sure you get back home to your little girl before 10. Just leave it all to me.”
He speeds up and we drive on in silence.
“Hey,” I say when I realize the steady sound of the windshield wipers had been entrancing me for an undeterminable amount of time. “You mind if I shut my eyes for a bit. I could really use some rest.”
“Heck, kid. Considering how quiet you’ve been for the past twenty minutes, I thought you were already asleep. It’s the only reason I haven’t turned on any music.”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” I say as I close my eyes and press my head against the cold glass of the passenger side window.
“What do you mean?”
“The music, wouldn’t do any good. I wasn’t able to find any radio stations.”
“That’s odd,” Guy questions. “Guess the storm must have knocked out a tower or two.”
“Well, don’t you worry a bit. Get yourself some sleep and when you wake up, we’ll be well on our way to your daughter’s tiny little arms.”
“Thanks,” I say as I drift off slowly.
Go to Chapter Seven