Streaks of yellow beams from the sun hit the snow through leafless branches of the trees. The snow sparkled in an array of different colors. I had hoped that the sun would melt the snow, but the biting cold air countered that. The smell of pine trees refreshed my weary body. There were plenty of leafless trees around us, but there were more pine and fir trees.
Our bikes left little tracks in the crunchy snow. It wasn’t easy riding in the snow. When the zombies first appeared, I had thought I was building muscle by the constant running and hacking at them with my ax, but now my legs ached even more. The sky started to dim as the sun began to set.
“I’m hungry,” Marcos said. The little boy had done pretty well on his bike with training wheels, but he could only pedal for so long before his legs got tired. We ended up tying a rope connecting his bike with Hunter’s. Marcos could still be on his bike while Hunter pulled him along. Hunter slowed and came to a stop. The rest of us followed his lead. None of us got off our bikes yet.
“How far do you think the diner is?” Hunter asked me.
“I don’t think it’s far now,” I said, “but I’m not sure.”
“Maybe we should stop for the night,” Darren’s mom said. “It won’t make much of a difference if we get there tonight versus the morning.”
“Except,” Hunter said, “it might be safer inside the diner overnight than out here in the woods.”
Monica placed a hand over the hole in her coat and shuddered. We needed to fix that somehow. If we ran into zombies again, she wouldn’t be so lucky if a zombie bit her in that spot that was now unprotected.
“We don’t know that the diner is going to be a safe place,” Darren’s mom pointed out.
“But my sister and her brother will be there,” Hunter said and waved in my direction.
“And my parents are supposed to meet us there,” Richard said.
I had forgotten about that. He didn’t bring them up much.
Darren’s mom softened as she said gently, “Have you seen their car on the freeway on our travels? I doubt they made it all the way to the diner before the cars, phones and everything else stopped working.”
“I haven’t seen their car,” Richard said, “but most of the time we haven’t been in view of the freeway.”
“That’s true,” Darren’s mom said.
The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun drifted further down in the sky.
“Let’s keep going,” Hunter said. “The diner is going to be on the other side of the freeway. We can cross now.” He shifted his bike so it was now pointing in the direction of the hidden freeway beyond the trees.
“The group of men were also on the other side of the freeway,” Darren pointed out.
“Yes,” Hunter said, “but we have to cross to get to the freeway. They didn’t know we were going to the diner. And we’re on bikes now. Hopefully we lost them.”
“I’m hungry,” Marcos whined again.
“I am too,” Juan said quietly. He stared at the bar handle of his bike as he turned his bike with the rest of us.
“We’ll eat soon,” Mackenzie said to the boys. “It’s not that much further now.”
When we got to the treeline, Hunter and Darren got off their bikes to peek around the trees.
“It looks clear,” Hunter said.
“Can you see the diner?” Mackenzie asked hopefully.
“No,” Hunter said. “I can’t tell how far we are from it, but let’s keep going.”
The thought of seeing Tanner again spurred me on. Hunter probably felt the same about Grace. I wouldn’t have to be solely responsible anymore for Mackenzie. I smiled at the thought.
When we were younger – Mackenzie five, I was ten and Tanner eleven – we were playing in the park near our house. Our parents weren’t there because at age ten and eleven, Tanner and I were old enough to look after ourselves and Mackenzie for an hour at the park. We could easily run home or shout for them if we needed them and it was close enough to our house that they would be able to hear us. Our neighborhood was safe and friendly where most everyone new each other. That was why the man who had been watching Mackenzie seemed so out of place. I didn’t recognize him. His stare had made my stomach queasy and the hairs on my arms stand on end. Tanner and I gathered around Mackenzie protectively. She hadn’t noticed the man. When she came down the slide, Tanner grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s go home.”
She pried her hand out of his and said, “I don’t want to. I want to play some more.”
That was when the man approached us and said he had puppies in his car and asked if Mackenzie would like to see them. She was shy with strangers then so she hid behind Tanner and didn’t answer.
“Go away,” Tanner said to the man.
“I’m a nice man. You don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t you want to see the puppies?”
He tried to reach around Tanner and grab Mackenzie’s hand. She shied out of his reach. I kicked the man in the shin while Tanner kicked him right in the crotch. The man doubled over. Tanner grabbed my hand and Mackenzie’s and we ran back to our house where we promptly told our parents. Our dad immediately ran to the park while our mom called 911. Another neighbor had seen the incident and was already there holding the man back. My dad joined him and they held the man long enough for the police to arrive. I never knew what happened to the stranger after that, but there was never an incident like that again in our neighborhood.
We moved quietly across the freeway. There wasn’t as much snow on the road as there had been elsewhere. It still crunched beneath us as the tires left little treadmarks.
We went into the trees on the other side and headed in the direction of the diner. It wasn’t too long that a strange noise sounded in the air. If I believed in ghosts, I would think it sounded like ghosts on the wind. But I didn’t believe in ghosts. We slowed our pace, but continued on. The sound became more identifiable the closer we got as a chorus of groans. Hunter stopped and looked at me from the bike.
“It’s not coming from the diner is it?” Richard asked. His voice was just more than a whisper.
Hunter got off his bike and pushed the kickstand down. The rest of us followed his lead.
“I’ll go check it out,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. I readied my ax.
“Wait,” Darren’s mom said. “It sounds like a lot of them. I don’t think we should be separated.”
The children clung together as they watched us. Mackenzie placed her hands on Juan’s shoulders. She swallowed hard with fear in her eyes. Victory stood near Mackenzie, but her stance was one of protection. She readied her bow and arrow.
Hunter looked at me as if I would have the answer, but I didn’t know what to do. “I think we shouldn’t be separated,” I said.
“Do we take the bikes closer or leave them here?” Maria asked. She was readying her bow. Monica had her gun out ready. So did Richard.
“Leave them,” Hunter said. “They’ll hinder our movement. Let’s take our packs with us though just in case something happens and we can’t come back right away.”
I didn’t like leaving the bikes, tarps and everything else we left behind, but they might hinder our movement and they would make noise. I wasn’t sure zombies would react to that noise though. They seemed to react more to noise that humans made more than other noises. We each strapped on a backpack. We weren’t going to give one to Marcos at first, but he insisted so we gave him a light back with some of the art supplies and toys we had picked up at the superstore.
Hunter and Victory led the way with their bows. The groaning got louder. It was a horrendous sound that raised the hairs on my arms and sent an electric chill down my spine. Molly’s hackles were up as she stayed close to Arthur’s side. She bared her lips, but was silent as she traveled with us.
Before we got to the treeline, we could see the shuffling zombies. Some were right at the edge of the treeline, but more were beyond the treeline. I could see the diner now. That didn’t make things better. My stomach dropped with despair. The door to the diner was open. Zombies shuffled and groaned all around the outside of the diner. They freely went in and out. There had to be more zombies than even we could see as the cacophony of groans was more than we could account for.
“Tanner,” Mackenzie whispered beside me. Her face was pale and gaunt. Her eyes scanned over the zombies quickly for our brother.
I looked over them too. I searched for his familiar brown hair and for any clothes that might be familiar, but I didn’t see anything. I shifted my focus and looked for Grace. Her long, black hair might stand out more. The light grew dim rapidly as the sun had almost set. Stars began to faintly sparkle up above.
“I don’t think Grace and Tanner are there,” Hunter whispered.
“Dad,” Richard whispered. I looked at him and then followed the direction of his eyes. There was a heavy set man with his back to us moving in the trees ahead of us.
“Dad,” Richard’s whisper was louder as he called out to his dad.
The man turned. It went deathly still as we stared at Richard’s dad. He had looked normal from the back, but from the front, his stomach was bloody and ripped open. Intestines drooped out. His leg was bloody by the ankle and he had a large hole in his throat. His pupils glowed green.
“Dad,” Richard whimpered. A tear fell from his horror stricken face. He bent over and dry heaved just as the zombie groaned loudly, urgently. More zombie groans joined it. This wasn’t their aimless murmuring groans. These were groans with urgent purpose. The crowd of zombies from the treeline and the diner all turned and started our way.
“Run!” Hunter yelled.