Chapter 8: Zombies

Joey and Finegan are loading the last of the pumpkin exchange aboard, distributing them along the sides of the house atop various boxes or in niches. The goat-herder comes up with a couple packs of goat cheese, walking up the plank and handing them to Finegan. He nods and smiles at Finegan.

Been a pleasure.

As he is walking back down the plank he remembers something, raises a finger and the air and turns.

Going up river past Millstown?

Finegan nods an affirmative.

Watch out for them zombies! Some never left. They're like the living dead.

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The houseboat is moving up the center of a broad, slowing flowing river. The rise in sea level has swollen the river as well as the coastline, so tree limbs are sticking out of the water on either side.

A river-edge town appears in the distance, the streets flooded and all the buildings under water at least into the second floor. There are no high rise buildings, but there are several multi-story brick buildings that serve as the business district. The river front eateries and piers are all under water, with only the top of a sign occasionally sticking above the water. One says "Millstown".

Some stick thin, very pale people begin to emerge from the rooftop stairwells, shuffling toward the edges of the buildings. They stare silently at the approaching houseboat, not waving or calling out. Finegan sticks to the center of the river. Joey hops down from his station atop the roof and sits down on the deck, putting his arm around Barney as they silently glide past the scene.

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Finegan is mooring the houseboat for the night, tying it to a sturdy tree trunk toward the center of the river. Given the scene at Millstown, he does not want to be close to shore. He is ready for a good supper and a solid night's sleep not interrupted by bleating goats being milked at dawn. He is setting up his camper stove and putting a couple fresh coals in the firepit, not yet lit, when he jerks his head up suddenly, hearing the sound of an oar dipping into the water, splashing.

A single man is approaching in a canoe, swinging his paddle from one side to the other to steer the canoe toward the side of the houseboat. He wears a broad brimmed hat, a faded flannel shirt, and faded loose cut jeans. He is balding and middle-aged.

Finegan motions for Joey to catch the end of the canoe and tie the line the man is tossing to the houseboat, while Finegan stands back in case there is trouble. Passing the city earlier, he has his pistol at his back. The man in the canoe asks,

Did you pass a town awhile's back? River front town. Millstown.

The man heaves himself onto the deck and fishes a map out of his back pocket. He opens it and places it against a pile of boxes, running his finger up and down the river and poking at the riverfront town they have just passed.

My mother's there. Or I think she might be. . . We talked just before the trouble started and she said she wasn't going to leave. . . Been there all her life. . . Taken me all this time to work my way across the country. I've got to check.

Finegan's eyes meet Joey's, a wordless understanding between them that Finegan is going to help this man. Simultaneously, they both speak. Joey says,

I'm going with you!

While Finegan says,

You stay here.

They continue to stare at each other, wordlessly. Finegan sighs and steps into the house and returns with a rifle, handing this and some ammo to the man. He hands the sheathed hunting knife to Joey and squats beside Joey with instructions.

Only if someone makes a move on you, OK? Keep it in the leather or you'll cut yourself.

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The canoe is moving downriver, both Finegan and the traveler manning an oar, the traveler to the rear as he is more experienced with canoeing. Joey is seated in the center, holding the rifle upright. They steer to the shore upriver of the town, pulling the canoe on land and setting off on foot through the woods toward the city.

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The threesome are walking along a deserted street not yet flooded. The residences at Millstown run up into the hills, only the business district along the waterfront flooded. Victorian houses, tumbled down with some completely collapsed, are lining the street. All the yards and flowers and bushes are overgrown, fences broken and any painted surface looking very weathered. Most of the windows are broken, and most doors are hanging open.

The traveler is peering at any address number still visible on the houses, and finally, somewhat excited, finds his childhood home.

There it is.

He is running now, Finegan and Joey bringing up the rear while trying to look around them as they do, sometimes running backwards to do so. The traveler bursts through the front door, which has been ajar but not hanging open.

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The threesome are standing in the living room of the Victorian style home. The furniture is old fashioned, tassels hanging from lamp shades and over-stuffed chairs and sofa. The traveler has apparently searched the house and found a note on the refrigerator door. He is holding the yellowed piece of paper in his hand, staring at it.

She says she's going to Atlanta with a group of people. The phones are down, and there's nothing to eat.

The traveler looks up at Finegan and then down at Joey, connecting with their faces briefly, then goes back to staring at the note.

That's it. That's all I've got. Off to Atlanta, I guess. . . That's the state capital.

They turn to go out the front door and suddenly freeze. There are zombie people at the front door. The zombie people are at the windows too. Finegan speaks quietly, so that only he and Joey and the traveler can make out what he's saying.

They look malnourished, not mean. I hear they refused to leave the town.

Nobody is moving, all frozen, so finally Finegan has a plan.

Backs together now, let's just push our way out the front door.

Finegan and the traveler are shoulder to shoulder, with Joey facing backwards, at their back, his knife drawn and turned upward in front of his chest. They move as a tight group toward the front door. The zombies are gently knocked aside as Finegan and the traveler come out the front door, pushing steadily but gently. When the way seems clear, they pick up the pace, Finegan with his spare hand on the scuff of Joey's neck, making sure he is not left behind. Joey is almost glued to their backs, walking backwards, his eyes moving from side to side, scanning for danger. When they seem clear by a couple feet, they all bolt in the direction of the canoe, running.

OK. Run for it!

The zombies are following them, staggering along wordlessly, too malnourished to break into a run but clearly intending to follow.

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The threesome are running back to where the canoe is pulled ashore and clamor into it, the traveler pushing the canoe out into the water and stepping in at the last minute. He and Finegan push away from the shore, and paddle upstream energetically. The zombies are approaching the shore, still following them. The traveler says,

Lord! No wonder my mother left. Were we supposed to be supper?

Finegan replies,

Not sure, but I think they were just curious. I think they eat rats, stuff like that. Mostly, they've just been starving. Waiting to be rescued. Probably near brain dead too, from starvation.

Finegan and Joey have been glancing over their shoulder. Finegan says,

I think we're pulling away, but I want to put some miles between us. I'll give you a good breakfast in the morning if you'll help me get upstream tonight.

The traveler says,

Deal. I owe you that.

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The houseboat is moored at a small island in the center of the river, tied to a tree. Finegan has just finished tying the knots, and returns to pick up where he left off the day before - making a meal. He is pulling some potatoes from a bin, and taking some fish out of the wooden box he uses as a cooler. He sniffs the fish and determines they are not yet spoiled. Finegan fires the coals and puts a blackened pot of coffee on the grill, then pulls a pan out and slices potatoes and an onion into it.

Joey and Barney were asleep on the deck, as usual, but stir due to all the commotion. The Traveler is asleep on the house roof, hat over his face, and snoring. Finegan glances at the traveler and says,

We've been taking shifts all night. I recon he's played out.

Finegan scans the shore in the direction of Millstown, several miles downstream.

I recon we shook the shufflers. Joey, after we eat, I'm crashing. You stand watch, eh?

At the smell of frying fish and potatoes and onions in a pan, the traveler awakes, raising first one knee and then rolling over onto his side, hand under his chin and hat pushed back on his head.

Boy that smells good . .

Energized, he rolls onto his butt and scuffs on his butt over to the edge of the roof, climbing down using pile of boxes as stairs.

I'm going upstream a'ways and then overland to Atlanta. . . Not sure what I'll find.

Finegan is dishing out the pan-fry onto three plates, and hands one to the traveler, then pours mugs of coffee. Finegan casts a glance at the traveler's shoes, soft sole for comfort while canoeing.

You'll need some walking boots. What'er you goin to do with the canoe? Carry is overland? . . I've got some boots in a box. They might fit.

Joey gets his clue and puts his plate down, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He goes into the house and starts searching for the box labeled "boots". Finegan is also rummaging around in the laundry pile, and pulls out a red bandana. He holds it up.

Tie this on a tree where you stash the canoe. . . Even trade. . . You goin to need some socks?