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Unread postPosted: Thu Sep 01, 2022 1:25 pm
  

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Final Encore
By – Josh Hilden


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The two-lane road spanned west to east through the heart of southern Ohio. In other words, it flowed like a river through the middle of nowhere.

The hot summer sun baked the broken asphalt. Nine months before, it’d been fresh black hot top. Now it was cracked and choked with weeds.

A rabbit, one of the few of its species remaining in the area, hopped across the length unmolested. It was getting safer for their kind, but they still had to be wary.

In the west, backlit by the descending sun, a vehicle made its appearance, and like so many of its species, the sound of its engine proceeded it.

The sound of the engine worried Tommy.

The rumble and strain of the vintage 1979 Jeep Renegade grew more pronounced with each mile the reliable old vehicle traveled. The gas in the tank was the freshest they could get their hands on, but after nine months in the cans, it was almost unusable.

“It’ll make it,” Lucy murmured from the passenger seat. She hummed that same song over and over as they chewed up the miles between the Redoubt and Milford

“We should’ve taken the Cherokee,” Tommy muttered.

“The Cherokee runs on grain alcohol. It’s worth its weight in gold. If the Renegade dies, it’s no big loss. It won’t make it until fall, anyway. Besides, none of the gas will be useable by Halloween,” Lucy said loud enough to be heard over the straining engine.

Then she returned to her humming. She almost started singing but stopped herself. That wouldn’t be right. She wasn’t a singer. If she ever started singing, that was a sign of the end.

The older of the Sadler siblings had been quiet for the majority of the trip. Her words startled Tommy, and he reflexively jerked the wheel. The Jeep scooted sharply to the left before he regained control.

Lucy barely noticed. Her attention was now focused on her sweatshirt sleeve and the forearm it encased. A forearm she didn’t need to see for her to know it was covered in a dark web of black and gray lines. The pain hadn’t been too bad when she’d convinced her little brother to partake in this dangerous endeavor. Now it burned like there were a million fire ants gnawing on her flesh.

Off to the right, a single figure shuffled along the side of the road. Catching sight of the Jeep, the figure raised its arms and moaned before changing direction in a futile effort to catch up with the vehicle.

“There’ll be more of them the closer we get to town. On the last supply run, they were congregated around the pharmacy and the old vet's office.” Tommy said, trying and failing to not look at the thing disappearing in the rear view mirror. As always, he wondered if he’d known them when they were still alive.


“You know damn well they’ll leave me alone by then, little brother. And besides, you’ve faced larger groups and made mincemeat of them,” Lucy half spoke half hummed.

Regardless of the words, she spoke the tune remained the same.

It made Tommy feel ill. The song had been their father's favorite, and thinking of him and what’d happened to him on the fourth night made him want to regurgitate the jerky he’d had for breakfast.

“Lucy, we’re almost to the barricade,” Tommy said.

His words were wooden and perfunctory. The breaching of the barricade on the fourth day following the rising marked the fall of Milford as a safe haven. Before that night, the refugees in Milford had felt a small amount of hope. For a few days, they’d actually believed they’d make it through the worst of the nightmare and come out the other side.

The horde heading north from Cincinnati destroyed those hopes in three hours of death, carnage, and tears. That night the town Chief of Police, their father, Big Jim Saddler, went down shooting and buying time for as many of his people to escape as possible.

“Just go straight through it, Tommy. We need to get a move on,” Lucy hummed. Her arm throbbed, and the pain had spread from the wound on her forearm to the tips of her fingers and ball joint of her shoulder. She forced herself to concentrate on the humming and the song.

The sun slid closer to the horizon.

Tommy stole a look at her and was shocked to see the gray and black tendrils of infection on her neck. He let out an involuntary gasp at the sight. Everyone at the Redoubt knew that look. Lucy had almost no time left.

“Don’t you dare look at me like that, Thomas Eugene Sadler!” Lucy snapped.

Even though her concentration was broken, she still hummed the song. The only song that mattered.

“You don’t look so good, Lucy,” Tommy whispered.

Both of them were painfully aware of his hand resting on the butt of his pistol.

“I’m still in here. I won’t turn into one of those things, Tommy. When I go out, little brother, it’ll be like dad, swinging my ax and laughing in the face of the dead,” she responded.

“Dad went shooting,” Tommy mumbled.

“I said like dad did, not exactly the same as dad did,” Lucy choked.

Both of them ignored the tears running down her once beautiful face. A face now almost half enveloped in a thin spider's web of black and gray lines.

Lucy hummed through the pain.

Tommy maneuvered the Jeep through the remains of the Milford barricade.

The small town, less than a mile away from the barrier, only had one main road in and out. As the dead rose all across the world, the town leaders decided to cut Milford off from the rest of the region. It’d worked for four glorious days. In that time period, the people of Milford cleared the dead inside of their makeshift defenses and prepared for a fight they’d thought they could win.

Of course, they’d been wrong.

“God damn, that was a **** show,” Tommy whispered after he’d cleared the smashed defensive barrier. The trail of carnage leading from the barrier back toward town was a gauntlet of horror.

“I remember,” Lucy hummed.

Tommy felt like the tune was jackhammering into his soul. He wanted her to stop but knew when she stopped, it was all over, and he wasn’t ready for that.

He’d never be ready for that.

Lucy did her best not to think about how hard all of this was on her little brother. Still humming, she checked the contents of the duffle bag. She’d put it together immediately after the incident. She’d known time was short, and she’d always, or at least since the rising, known what she’d do if the unthinkable happened.

Seven hours earlier, during a simple hunt, she’d been bitten.

“We’re almost there, Lucy,” Tommy said, not even trying to hide how upset he was.

“Just drop me in front of the Millstone, and I’ll do the rest, little brother,” she said, zipping the bag closed. She was confident she had everything she needed.

“I’m not going to leave you here alone,” Tommy snapped. Anger warred with the despair he felt.

Lucy started to whisper the words to the song as she checked the hatchet strapped to her belt and the light strapped to her forehead.

“Well, she was an American girl. Raised on promises.”


The Jeep came to a stop. They were less than three yards from the main doors of the Millstone Tavern. In the years before the rising, the Tavern had been the entertainment and culinary center of Milford.

Now it was dark and stank of rot.

“Are you ready?” Tommy asked, wiping his eyes.


There was no more trying to convince his sister to not do this. This was what she wanted, and he would do whatever he needed to so that she could accomplish her goal.

She nodded, still singing softly.

“She couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life, somewhere else.”


Before he could say anything else, Lucy leaned over, hugged him, and kissed her little brother on the forehead. For the last time. Then she was out the door lugging the duffle bag and doing her best not to cry out from the pain.

Time was short.

“Good luck,” Tommy said, locking the door behind her and killing the headlights. Then he backed away from the building and waited. The dead were coming. He could hear them through the glass. He’d be there until the end, but he didn’t want to call attention to himself.

Lucy pushed the Tavern's double doors open and disappeared into the dark.

“Good luck Lucy, I love you,” Tommy said.

Inside The Milford Tavern
The pain from her forearm was almost unbearable. The fever her body had been fighting for the last few hours was spiking higher than a human body was meant to withstand.

The light from her flashlight cut through the darkness and illuminated the interior of the building. Everything, down to a bottle of scotch and a single glass on the bar were undisturbed. Only one lone chair was overturned to disrupt this time-capsule.

“After all, it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to.”

For a second, when she couldn’t locate it, Lucy started to panic.

She only had one thing left undone on her bucket list.

Then she saw it, leaning against a stool on the Tavern’s small stage.

When she’d been younger, Lucy had fallen in love with the guitar. She’d spent hours and hours practicing on her dad’s old Fender. More than one weekend had been spent on this very stage jamming with other local musicians. Being a musician was her passion, but there was one thing she’d desired and never been able to obtain.

Resting on the stage was her holy grail, a Gibson Custom 1959 Les Paul. Before the rising of the dead, the instrument had been close to priceless. Now it was her singular goal in what remained of her life.

Scooping up the guitar, Lucy only took a moment to admire the perfectly crafted machine. Grunting in pain, she shouldered the instrument, balanced the weight between the duffle and guitar as best she could, and made for the back room and the ladder to the roof.

“Oh yeah, alright, take it easy, baby. Make it last all night.”


Each step up the ladder was an agony, and by the time Lucy reached the hatch, her face was coated in sweat, and her head pounded in agony. Using her black and gray hand, Lucy unlocked the roof hatch and pushed it open.

The struggle to pass through the portal and attain the warm summer night was almost impossible. But in the end, she attained the roof and managed to get to her shaking feet. Then, moving as fast as she could, considering her rapidly deteriorating condition, Lucy opened the bag and set up the battery-powered amp.

“She was an American girl.”


She moved everything to the edge of the building and looked out a growing crowd of the dead drawn to the earlier noises of the Jeep. Nodding, Lucy plugged the guitar into the amp and flipped on the power switch.

Then she strummed the strings and smiled at the sound.

“Well, it was kind of cold that night. She stood alone on the balcony. Yeah, she could hear the cars roll by. Out on four forty-one like waves crashing on the beach.”

Licking her lips, Lucy scanned the darkness until she located the Jeep and the young man within. He’d have to be a man now with her no longer there to watch his back. Tears ran down her face as she started to play, whispering the lyrics as she played her heart out.

“And for one desperate moment, there he crept back in her memory. God, it's so painful when something that's so close Is still so far out of reach.”

Leaning as hard as she could into the rhythm, Lucy left nothing on the stage. She could feel the infection penetrating her mind and clouding her thoughts. There were scant minutes left, and she knew it.

Still playing, she stepped onto the ledge of the roof and looked down at the zombie-crowded concrete below. This was it, one last stage dive to end her final performance.

“Oh yeah, alright, Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night.”


On the final note, that last word, Lucy plunged from the roof to the enraptured crowd below. Swinging her ax and living in that last moment for the rest of her life.

“She was an American girl.”





The End

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© Copyright 2022 Josh Hilden

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Unread postPosted: Fri Sep 02, 2022 3:27 pm
  

Champion

Joined: Tue Mar 13, 2018 7:08 am
Posts: 1757
Comment: They/Them
Nice! Thanks for sharing it with us!

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Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.


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