Stories, comedy, comics, essays, and stuff

16

The truck they were on had crashed into a large pillar in the middle of the intersection. The cab of the truck was crumpled and pushed to the side enough that the container of the back of the truck was easily within arms reach of the pillar. The pillar had a large metal sign bolted to it, mostly bright yellow, with a cartoon of two crashing cars, and written underneath, 「右折車は直進車に注意」, "Cars turning right, be careful of cars going straight". Right beside the sign was something that looked like it might be some kind of maintenance access, a round metal plate with two large horizontal bars that were probably for gripping when opening the hatch, but looked like two steps of a ladder. Above that, and connected to the pillar on the right was a large cross beam, about the same thickness as the pillar, but square. It connected the pillar to a portion of the highway overpass, and was a couple metres wide on top so that it could be walked along like a short bridge if they could reach it. There was a thick metal pipe that came down the pillar and then followed along the side of the cross beam, providing additional features to climb with.

Everything had an oversized quality, so that the distances between each feature that could be held onto was a little farther apart than ideal for an average person to reach between, but still possible. And on the top side of everything was a layer of charcoal black filth, years of accumulated dust and pollution, that made the surfaces a little slippery. Mike was the first to attack the climb, and as he went, he used a bandana he had in a pocket to clear away as much of the grunge for the next person. It wasn't so much that it was so difficult to get to the top of the cross beam, but the danger of falling down into the chaos of infected and water beneath made every step of the way feel critically risky. Like the difference between walking along a painted line on the ground compared to a beam of equal width between two buildings.

Mari had already done some similar climbing to get away from the police bus at the intersection near the hospital, and with Mike ahead and Chuck following, both helping her along, she was more than capable. When she got to the top surface of the cross bream, the bright white shirt she was wearing, which was already wet from water splashing into the van, was now streaked with large dark grey smudges, and her hands and feet were almost completely black. She wiped her hands on her shirt, not because of any concern for appearance, but to keep the maximum amount of grip for the rest of the climbing they'd have to do. She double checked to make sure the phone that Jessica gave her was still in her shorts pocket. It was a potential life line, and she was determined to keep track of it. She felt guilty for only thinking of Jessica in the context of the phone.

"You still got coms?" Chuck asked as he and Mike were taking inventory of their gear, readying themselves to keep going forward.

"Naw," Mike said. "Got lost in all the water and shit."

"That's less than ideal," Chuck said. Mari noticed the two of them were speaking so calmly that it seemed they were completely without emotion. Only their eyes, which seemed a little motionless, blinking a little less, gave away that they were dealing with other thoughts on the inside. "Well, we gotta go as fast as we can to get to the out-point. Hope they don't close the doors and take the party elsewhere before we get there."

Mike nodded, then the three turned to walk the ten steps or so to reach where the cross beam connected to one of the elevated highways. As they walked, they felt the beam start to vibrate, which for a moment seemed like it might be caused by their footsteps, but then in a second or two it was clear that everything was shaking. They all crouched in place for a moment to be more prepared in case it became more intense. After a few seconds, it passed.

"Aftershock," Chuck said, just to punctuate it and acknowledge to everyone that it was nothing to concern themselves with. When they reached the highway, the crossbeam branched upward at a ninety degree angle, which seemed to block their path. But, on both sides of the crossbeam were thick pipes that they could walk on carefully to get around it. Then, the gap between the vertical beam and the side of the overpass had enough of a gap that it was possible to use both it and the side of the overpass to climb up. There were also large bolts, some metal tubes, and other features to make the climb a little easier than the one up from the truck. Mike was looking on the right side of the vertical beam to assess the best path forward, while Chuck was doing the same on the left side.

"I think this way's easier," Chuck said. "This side doesn't have that fence that you got over there."

"Alright, I'll head up," Mike said, coming over to the left.

"Nah, I got this," Chuck said. "Should be pretty easy." Chuck cautiously put his foot down toward the pipe that ran alongside the crossbeam, pushing on it a little to assure himself it would take his weight. It didn't give in the slightest, so he stepped down and shimmied around the vertical beam, keeping his arms out wide and feeling for every bolt and edge to help him stable. On the other side, he lifted himself up more confidently, with a lot of edges to work with. He reached the top edge of the side barrier of the highway, and peered over. He scanned the area, with his rifle at the ready in one hand, and after a little looking, deemed it safe. He climbed to where he could stop to sit, one leg on either side of the concrete, clipping his rifle to his chest. "Alright, miss, you're next."

Mari felt capable of easily climbing around just as Chuck had done, but Mike held one arm to assist her on the first few steps anyway. She was confident, but still cautious, making sure with every step that the pipe would take her weight and that her hands had a firm grip on something before she committed to moving.

Just as she was within reach of the overpass side, and Chuck was reaching down to take her hand, an infected, a man in a paramedic's uniform, came from the highway side and grabbed Chuck, biting directly into his neck just below his ear.

"Fuck!" Chuck yelled out, and frantically tried to get his rifle around so that he could shoot the man attacking him. But with one hand grabbing at the edge of the ledge of the overpass to stop himself from falling over, and fighting the infected off with the elbow of the arm reaching for his rifle, he was completely ineffective at pushing off the man attacking him. The man wasn't trying to push him over, but also had no concern for either or both of them falling off, so as much as Chuck pushed to get inward from the ledge, the infected man automatically pushed back while clawing at Chuck.

"Chuck!" Mike yelled out, and pulled his rifle from its clip and raised it to fire, but there was no way of shooting without almost certainly killing Chuck. Mari screamed and crouched, two hands on an edge of a metal plate, and her feet on the pipe, trying as she could to turn sideways so most of her weight would be above the pipe and not hanging beyond it. She was out of reach of anyone above, and out of the way of any potential gunfire, but if anything fell her way or caused her trouble, she was in no position to hold on, and would almost certainly fall. She glanced below at the swirling chaos of water, infected, and debris that she would disappear into.

Chuck's resistance gave way to a shuddering motion, and his eyes rolled back in his head. The infection was affecting him within seconds of having been bitten. He had given up putting his gun to use and was clutching onto the infected man as much to help prevent himself from falling as push the infected away. At a certain point, the infection started to overwhelm his awareness, his grip loosened, and the infected was not grabbing him hard enough to stop him falling. He slipped away, his body clenched up so that he was like a mannequin, and fell into the water below. Once he splashed into the water, the thrashing infected all around him swarmed toward the motion so that he was immediately lost in darkness and white water. Mike watched, his mouth open in disbelief as Chuck fell, and then a moment after Chuck disappeared from view, he turned his gun back toward the infected paramedic on the overpass.

"You motherfucker!" Mike fired a long string of bullets into the infected paramedic, who had taken notice of Mari but had not yet moved much from where he was when Chuck fell. He was standing so that he was mostly facing directly at Mike, completely without any apparent awareness of what was going to happen, and took every bullet that Mike fired. His body jerked as if someone large had grabbed him by both shoulders and was shaking him. One of the many bullets went straight into his face, and the back of his head burst open with a spatter of blood. He fell out of view.

There was a silence, only the sounds from below of infected splashing and dull muffled sounds of cars and debris knocking into each other. But those sounds didn't matter enough to register. Mari shut her eyes tight when the gunfire began, and held them shut after it stopped.

"Come on back here," Mike said. Mari opened her eyes and was relieved to see Mike holding out a hand, indicating he would help her back onto the cross beam where he was if she got back within reach of him. She didn't know how she would feel watching a friend die right in front of her, so she didn't know what to expect from him, but she felt the range of possibilities included him not having any concern left over for her.

She worked her way back the same way she came, and he pulled her up so that the two of them were standing together. Once she was securely on the cross beam, Mike stopped, not facing her, just looking downward at nothing in particular. His face had no expression, he didn't move, he didn't say anything. It was clear to Mari that Mike needed some time to deal with things internally. She had no intention of saying or doing anything until he was ready, so the two of them stood in silence for a while. Earlier in the night, when it seemed they might just be able to drive away from everything, she noticed him glancing at her, her looks not lost on him. Now, that was completely absent. He was completely engaged with a reality that had no room for intentions other than survival.

"Alright," Mike said after running a hand over his face as a gesture of resetting himself. He was a different man now. His tone was efficient, deliberately unfeeling, focused on tasks in place of thoughts that would be too easy to dwell in. "We still gotta try and get the fuck outta here. There don't seem to be any other dudes lining up to eat us up there, at least for the moment, so maybe we can still go that way. Let me go ahead and see what's what. Follow after when I tell you it's safe, okay?" Mari was glad that somehow, in spite of everything, he was going to keep bringing her along.

After replacing the ammunition clip in his rifle, Mike followed the same path Chuck took, but when he got to the point where he could look over the ledge and survey the highway, he was a lot more tenacious than Chuck had been, taking more time and moving more slowly. With his rifle at the ready, Mike made it over the ledge and Mari could see him immediately adopt a trained position, his rifle up against his shoulder, looking down the length of his gun, and swivelling with his whole upper body as he scanned the area, so that if he saw anything he could shoot it immediately. He stepped away from the edge so that Mari could no longer see or hear him, and she felt an immediate loneliness. It was different from normal life when someone might head around a corner to see if the shop you were looking for was up ahead. In this situation, the moment someone was out of sight you had no sense of assurance of ever seeing them again. Mari clutched herself, not because it was a cold night, but because being alone feels colder.

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