Rachel had been in shock after shooting Jackson. Yes, he had turned and tried to kill her, but she had felt a small part of herself die when she pulled the trigger. She hadn’t known him long, but he had become a friend. A friend that deserved better than to turn into one of the raging infected and get shot in the head. She couldn’t even bury him. He was still strapped into the cab of the pickup, sitting in the bottom of a flooded ditch. Not a fitting way to go out.
She didn’t know how long she stood in the water in the bed of the truck after firing her pistol and ending his life. It was a long time, based on how high the sun had gotten in the sky. Slowly coming out of her shock, she looked around. It was a beautiful day after the storm. The air had been scrubbed clean, the temperature down after all the rain. It was deathly quiet, the violent winds having denuded the countryside of all life.
Dog sat at the lip of the ditch, looking off into the distance, watching over her as he patiently waited. She forgot she’d left the Bronco running, and it idled away, waiting as patiently as Dog. Forcing herself to move, Rachel stepped over the tailgate and started wading through the water toward the earthen ramp. She had only covered a few feet when she stopped and turned to look back.
Her rifle and pack were in the cab, next to Jackson’s body. The last thing in the world she wanted to do was go back down into the ditch and climb into that cab, but the weapon and supplies meant a chance at survival. She knew she was extremely lucky to have survived this long, and didn’t want to go on with only a pistol and the clothes on her back.
Heaving a sigh, she holstered the pistol and trudged back through the water, climbing over the tailgate again. Reaching the back of the cab, Rachel bent and looked through the window she had broken out. Jackson sat lifelessly in the driver’s seat, seat belt holding his corpse upright. Her pack was next to him, sitting in close to a foot of water. Cautiously, she reached into the cab.
Rachel’s skin broke out in goose bumps as she extended her arms into the space next to her dead friend. She imagined him suddenly reaching out and grabbing her in his iron grip. Pulling her all the way into the cab before tearing into her throat with his teeth. Heart pounding, she forced her body forward, grabbed the pack’s straps and yanked it through the opening.
Adrenaline gave her a boost of energy and the pack came easily and quickly. But, it was heavier than she remembered, and the fear-induced adrenaline didn’t help her manage the weight when she straightened up and it struck her in the stomach. Rachel let out a whoosh of breath as she was knocked onto her ass in the bed of the truck. Sitting with the pack on her lap she looked hard at the cab, but the body hadn’t moved. It wasn’t coming after her.
“Stupid.” She muttered to herself and spun up onto her knees to see through the window.
She couldn’t see her rifle, but knew it was in there. It must have slipped onto the floor and was under the muddy water. The only way she could retrieve it was to climb all the way into the cab and feel around in the water. Moving before her courage could falter, Rachel stood and slipped a leg through the opening, gently placing her foot on the submerged seat. Quickly working her other leg through, she followed with her hips and splashed onto the seat.
A quick check of Jackson, who thankfully still hadn’t moved, and she started searching for the rifle. It only took a moment to find, and she was concerned when she lifted it and water started running out of every opening. Would it still fire? Of course it would. John had swum across a lake with a rifle strapped to his body when he’d rescued Dog back in Georgia. But had he stopped to dry something out or clean something when he’d reached the shore? That she didn’t know.
Steeling herself, Rachel squirmed through the window into the open air. With every movement, her skin crawled, expecting Jackson’s corpse to suddenly reanimate and attack. But it didn’t. He was dead and nothing was going to change that. This wasn’t a cheesy TV show about zombies, she reminded herself. This was real, and nothing’s more real than death.
Back at ground level, Rachel went to the rear of the Bronco and lowered the gate. As the sun warmed her chilled body, she opened the pack and spread its contents out to check and start drying. Her eyes fell on a plastic encased MRE and her stomach grumbled so hard it nearly cramped. Using one of her precious bottles of water, she prepared and wolfed down the meal.
It was tuna with noodles, and nothing had ever tasted as good. She’d heard John and Jackson and a few other soldiers grumbling about MREs and how bad they tasted, but she was hungry enough to eat anything and enjoy it. Dog had joined her as she prepared the meal and she shared with him as she tried, and failed, to not eat too fast. Apparently he agreed with her assessment. The food was good!
Next she set about trying to figure out how to dry out the rifle. The damn things came apart. She knew that. She’d seen John with one stripped down to more parts than she could count, but she couldn’t figure it out. She settled for removing and unloading the magazine and shaking all the water out of it. Then pulled the bolt open and shook the rifle hard before holding it to her mouth and blowing into the opening to force out any trapped water.
Magazine reloaded, she pulled the charging handle and a round went into the chamber as smoothly as ever. So far, so good. Stepping away from the idling truck, she held the rifle out at arms length, aimed into an empty field, and pulled the trigger. It fired and cycled, loading a fresh round. Best of all, it didn’t blow up. Satisfied with the results, Rachel worked the sling over her head and let the weapon hang down her back as she inventoried her supplies.
Finally satisfied, she loaded everything back into the pack and deposited it between the Bronco’s front bucket seats. All she had to do was gesture and Dog leapt up into the truck and moved onto the passenger seat. Climbing behind the wheel she checked the gauges and looked up when Dog growled softly.
A vehicle was approaching. It was far in the distance, coming from the east, and had just come over the horizon. Rachel’s heart immediately started beating faster. Her experiences with other survivors did not have a good track record. They might have seen her, but then they were far enough away that if her vehicle wasn’t moving it should just blend into the environment. Did she start driving and try to outrun them, or was it better to hide until they went past?
Rachel only thought about it for a moment before shutting the engine off, grabbing her pack, taking the keys out of the ignition and jumping down to the pavement. Dog followed her out of the truck and she ran in a crouch for the rice paddy on the north side of the road. The ground gradually dropped away from the Interstate at first, quickly transitioning to a short, steep embankment down into the flooded field.
Rachel ran until her feet were in the water, then turned and threw herself onto the mud. She was facing the truck, 75 yards away and well concealed by the terrain. Raising the rifle, she looked through the scope. She had intentionally left the door swinging open on the driver’s side of the Bronco, and it made it look more like an abandoned vehicle. As long as no one stopped and felt the heat from the recently running engine, it would seem as if the truck had been sitting there for weeks.
The hiss of the approaching vehicle’s tires finally reached her ears. It seemed to take forever before she also heard the engine and exhaust, then an old station wagon flashed by without slowing. Rachel let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, listening to the car speed farther and farther away. The farther the better, as far as she was concerned.
After a few minutes she could no longer hear any sound from the vehicle and decided it was safe to move. Picking herself up out of the mud, she glanced around and walked back to the Bronco, Dog staying close to her side. Behind the wheel, she inserted the key into the ignition and reached out to ruffle Dog’s ears. He dipped his head toward her, enjoying the contact. With a wan smile, she grasped the key and turned it to start the engine. Nothing happened.