Okay, guys, this is it. The end of It's a Mad, Mad, World. I'm so privledged to have had such great viewers along this journey and I'd like to thank each and every one of you. I haven't gotten too far in the sequel, but I do have it all mapped out. Actually, I'm trying really hard to get this published somewhere, sometime. In the meantime, I am working on other projects but have yet to decide if I'll bring them here. All in all, thank you guys so much. Edward loves you more than Hot Pockets. Maybe. -Cici.
She hasn't spoken since we left the house. She stares out the window at the passing landscape, the wooden box still clutched in her hands. Her parents had gone off in search of their only daughter, leaving a note behind in case she stumbled upon their barren home.
They said they were headed for Bella's college and with an empty garage, we figure they were traveling by car. But, we would've seen them. Heard the engine of another car, the flash of it's head lights as it climbed a hill. They wouldn't have gone unnoticed, and neither would've we. I don't think Bella's parents made it to the campus, but I don't have the heart to tell her.
The next two hours went by like lightening and suddenly I find myself, pulling into the driveway of the Cullen house. Even from outside, our house looks nothing like the Swan's. The tall windows bordering the front door are cracked, some even completely smashed. The front door remains locked and as we climb through the broken windows, for the first time in my life, I wish my house was simply broken into rather than pillaged by a pack of hungry zombies.
The image of meatheads destroying our house from the inside out invades my mind. A pair of growling and limping zombies tearing through the windows, another group clawing up the wooden stairs and down the hallways. Our overturned kitchen, pots and pans sprinkled over the tile as our dining room rests in pieces. Their bruised hands stretching towards one of my family members, sends a jolt in the pit of my stomach.
"Cal, do you see that?" Alice appears next to me, pointing towards faint scratches on the hard-wood floors of our house.
Keeping Bella close to my side, I follow the scratches through the living room and out the back door. From there, the scratches turn into matted down, dead grass which filters into the forest behind our house.
"What is it?" Emmett inquires, peering over my shoulder.
"I'm not really sure," I mutter.
"What if it's them, Edward?" Alice's voice rises, her arm hooking through Emmett's.
"Alice has a point dude, w-we have to go check," Emmett's own voice sputters through the brisk morning air.
I cautiously glance at Bella who's now tracing the carvings of the box with her finger, still silent.
"Okay, but we have to stay close," I nod quickly, not needing much to convince me.
Together as a group, we push farther into the dense woods, our eyes, ears and noses ready to pick up the smallest clues of company of any species. Alice and Emmett flank me and Bella, our weapons all drawn with the exception to Bella. At any moment, a group of meatheads could burst through the trees, jaws snapping in anticipation of their next meal. But we'll be ready.
Frost lines the fallen leaves, winter clearly present in every breath we take. Our steps are labored but quiet, our hearts and minds on edge with each moment that passes by.
"Guys, wha-," Emmett begins but suddenly ceases to continue as his body bumps into a string of tin cans stretching from one tree trunk to the other. The jingle of the metal quiets any further comment. Emmett's eyes widen, Alice clasps her hand over her mouth and Bella stiffens at my side. I find myself starting down the barrel of a shotgun. The man and I stare intensely into each other's matching eyes.
My father, this man with shotgun, lowers his weapon. His worn, green eyes swell as his gaze falls upon his three lost children. Without another word, our father drops his shotgun and gathers us into a bone crushing hug. Alice crumbles with sobs as she's squished against our father's chest, even Emmett can't fight the over whelming emotion and together we join our little sister and our father in an embrace full of tears of happiness.
"Esme, Rose, Jasper!" My father manages to bark into the woods.
"J-Jasper's here?" Alice whimpers, pulling her tear drenched eyes from my father's shoulder.
"We all are, sweet pie, we all are," Dad soothes, peering into the woods behind us expectantly.
Expecting to find my father in distress, my mother, Esme and my oldest brother, Jasper, come sprinting through the forest with their own weapons, Rosalie trailing behind in a daze. As their eyes fall upon our group hug, they too drop their weapons. My mother just about screams into the crisp air as she runs faster than I've ever seen before and my father reluctantly takes a step back, allowing her to crash into our awaiting arms.
"Let me l-look at you! A-are you hurt? Scratched? Bruised?" She murmurs through her own sobs, kissing each of our foreheads over and over.
"We're all okay, m-mom. All of us are," Emmett doesn't even to attempt to disguise his blubbering.
"My babies…" she croons quietly.
Suddenly, Alice breaks away from the hug and leaps into Jasper's shocked arms. His arms secure around her protectively and his eyes close as they become aware of the impending tears. He walks closer to where we stand and without any shame, my mother pulls Jasper and Alice back into our family reunion. Even Emmett and Rosalie manage to separate themselves for half a second to join in.
My mom's eyes fall upon Bella and she clears her throat. "I'm so sorry, where are my manners? Who might this lovely lady be?"
"This is Bella, Mom. Bella Swan, she went to the school across from mine," I nod, tossing Bella a reassuring glance.
"Oh, isn't that wonderful, they have such a beautiful campus! Did you two meet at school?" Mom asks, turning towards Bella with curiosity.
"Not exactly," Bella murmurs.
I feel my father's gaze on me and I can tell by the look in his that he's asking about her family. I slowly shake my head once and he solemnly nods.
"Well, it looks like you kids could use a good meal," Dad interrupts, pulling Mom away from an overwhelmed Bella.
A warm, crackling fire sparks in the orange and purple skies. Our family gathers around the heat, feasting on a dinner of hot dogs and bakes beans. Bella's wooden box rests on her lap as she watches us banter back and forth.
"We first moved out here right before the looters came," my father explains.
"Thought it was safer out here, hidden in the woods," my mother continues.
"What's with the cans?" Emmett asks, his mouth full of beans. A collective mix of laughter floats into the sky along with the burning embers of the fire.
"Zombie security system," Jasper chuckles, taking a long sip of his water bottle.
"Jasper and I set up the cans to border our camp. Anytime a zombie stumbles through, we hear it." Dad continues Jasper's thought, his free hand glued to my mother's.
"We're finally putting that tree house you guys begged your father build to good use," Mom nods, gesturing to the hand built, wooden tree house between two trees a few yards away. "It's not too bad, actually."
"Do you guys sleep up there?" Alice inquires, resting her head on our mother's shoulder.
"We sure do," Mom and Dad say in unison.
"So what your saying is that one time I refused to come down and Mom ended up making Dad sleep up there with me, prepared you for the real deal?" Emmett laughs through yet another mouthful.
"Just like the Swiss family Robinson," Bella breaks her silence, forcing a small smile.
My mom's finished plate rests on her thigh, her arm draped around Alice who's leaning against her like she did when she was just a kid. Jasper ruffles Emmett's shaggy hair which fuels Emmett to playfully punch him in the chest. We all laugh, the usual family antics resuming like they were never forced to stop.
The wooden planks of the tree house comes nowhere close to a Tempur-Pedic mattress, but with a few sleeping bags it's just enough. My mother kisses us all good night, even Bella before settling into her own sleeping bag. I offer to take the first shift of keeping watch and Dad quickly agrees to help me and I know exactly why.
My feet dangle off the edge of the tree house, Tiger resting at my side as I scan the dark forest for any sign of movement, my father right next to me.
"Go ahead, they're all asleep," I push.
"Go ahead, what?" He plays dumb.
Breathing out a quiet chuckle, I shake my head. "You want to know how we're alive."
My father looks down at the forest floor, his mouth open as if he's about to talk.
"You guys thought we were dead."
"Your mother was worried she'd find you and your siblings…like them," he sighs, finally lifting his eyes to mine. "Every night that went by and you weren't here, it became harder and harder to reassure her. And when Jasper got sick, she became even more of a wreck."
"Jasper's sick? Dad, what happened?" My head snaps over to the sleeping form of my brother.
"He's fine now, Ed," he rests his hand on my shoulder, forcing me to meet his eyes. "Listen, before you tell me how the hell you made it here in one piece, I have to tell you why we didn't come looking for you and Alice and Emmett. I don't want you to think I'm using this as an excuse but when Jasper's injury got infected he became too weak to walk. We could barley get him into the tree house," his head shakes at the recalled memory. "We had every intention of getting to you guys but I couldn't leave your mother alone with Jasper as sick as he was. I don't think they would've been able to survive too long on their own. I knew that you would do everything you could to find Alice and Emmett somehow and bring them back home. It was the only hope I could hold onto. And here you are."
"Here, I am," A smile forms across my lips as I bring my own hand to rest on my father's shoulder. There was no way I could blame him for not coming to find us. He was doing the best to keep alive the family he had here.
"Now, how about that story."
"Ah, buckle up, Pops, it's not one for the faint hearted," I chuckle quietly and keep my voice low. I tell him everything starting with Scott and his all to realistic "Halloween costume", to meeting Bella and stumbling upon Super-Walmart. About how Bella saved my life with the medicine, and how I thought our lives were over when we met Jeremy. I tell him about Ronald McDonald, finding Alice and Emmett and searching for Bella's roommate. I even introduce him to Tiger and they shake hand and putter. He asks about her roommate and after making sure Bella is fast asleep one more time, I tell him all about that day: finding Angela zombified, happening upon her empty house and the wooden box and note.
"And her parents, their dead?" He questions, a hint of skepticism in his voice.
"Not sure, but wouldn't we have seen them along the way? We were both using the main roads, we would've noticed if they made it there."
"Has Bella mentioned anything since you left the suburbs?"
"She's barley spoken, barley even moved," I lift my shoulders in a shrug.
"Give her time, son. She's probably got a lot to think about," he gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Don't we all."
Silence overtakes the next few moments before my father speaks again. "Why don't you get some sleep, I was planning on waking up Em. Haven't talked to him in a while."
"You sure you don't need me any longer?" I hitch a brow.
"Good night, Edward."
The early morning sun floods through the cracks of the tree house and my eyes open to the wooden beams lacing across the ceiling. Suddenly, I'm seven years old again, and I've just woken up next to my brothers after a sleepover in the tree house. The only worry I have is wondering if Mom and Dad made waffles or pancakes for our Sunday morning breakfast and if Alice went through my comic books. Life was easy, simple. I didn't have to worry about where I'd be sleeping the next night, or if I'd be sleeping at all. For a moment, I let myself truly believe I'm safe.
We have a morning breakfast, but it's puny in comparison to the feast we used to gobble down without a second thought. Bella even seems better as she smiles at something Alice's blabbing about, Rose making faces in the background. And when my Mom asks if she'd like to help get water from a nearby stream, she nods her head yes. I don't like the thought of either of them going off alone but my father assures me that the stream is nearby and within our boundary. The way my mother secures her arm around Bella's shoulder as they walk off reaffirms my assumption that she already thinks of her as one of her own.
The afternoon comes quickly and I decide to tag along with Jasper and Emmett to gather more firewood. It's been too long since we've been just brothers and that needed to change.
"Hey Emmett, why don't you come over here and I can give you a much deserved hair cut?" Jasper smirks, heaving an axe over his shoulder, a stump easily splitting in half.
Jasper's the oldest out of all of us, but not by too much. He's only two years older than I am but man he looked older and just flat out bigger. Sure, we're look relatively the same and stand at a similar height but Jasper has muscles where I didn't know you could have them. He studied Pre-Med just like Bella and graduated top of his class. Now he's- or rather was - working as in Intern at some local hospital. My parent's have always been proud of him and his ambition to succeed, I mean who wouldn't be? He's like a miniature version of our father, always working to improve himself.
"Dude, you're just jealous of my luscious locks," Emmett scowls, turning a stump over to sit down on.
"Winded already?" I snort, gathering the chopped wood into a pile.
"Yeah actually, I am. Dad had me up half the night, I forgot how much the man likes to talk."
"Man's like a Furby," Jasper grunts, slamming his axe down upon another stump.
"Whoa, whoa whoa, don't you even think about stealing my Furby line, Jazz." I object, my eyes narrowing as I collect the pieces of the sliced stump.
"Let me guess, you called Alice a Furby?" Jasper raises a brow, wiping his forehead clean of sweat.
"Yeah, I did. How'd you know?"
"She told me," he huffs and points for another stump for me to ready. "And because it's true." We all erupt in laughter and thank God that Alice's not snooping around somewhere.
"So, Ed, tell me about Bella," Jasper starts as we sit down for a short break.
"He's in love with her," Emmett butts in.
"Gee, thanks, Em," I grumble.
"No problem, lover boy," Emmett makes a heart with his hands.
"Congrats, man," Jasper chuckles, nudging my shoulder. "She seems great, Edward, really."
"You should see her when she's kicking zombie ass," I nod, twirling Tiger in my hands.
"It's true, girl can dish it out," Emmett agrees.
"Speaking of the meatheads, how many do you get around here?" I question, casting a glance around us.
"Not too many actually. I mean, once in a while we get one stumbling through but it's nothing we can't take care of," Jasper shrugs.
"You boys just going to sit around or should Bella, your sister and I do the wood chopping?" My Mom's voice echoes through as she comes into site, Bella , Rose and Alice at her side. Bella cracks a small smile in my direction and I flash one back.
"Hi, Mommy," Emmett grins.
"Hi, baby," she coos.
"I was just explaining the meaning of life to Emmett and Jasper, my bad," I keep a straight face as I spring into a standing position.
"Oh? And what is that, Edward?" Mom's eyebrow hitches as she balances a bucket of water on her hip.
"It's simple: to find Hot Pockets," I dreamingly sigh.
Jasper and our mother exchange a quick look as Alice stifles a giggle. "Good luck with that, honey," Mom encourages and leads the girls back to the tree house.
"What was that about?" I inquire, my eyebrows furrowed.
"Not what you're thinking."
"Jasper, tell me!"
" I don't know what you're talking about."
"Emmett, help me out here," I beg.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he copies Jasper.
"Check the food box, idiot," Jasper shakes his head.
My heart jolts and I swear I can hear Stairway to Heaven somewhere in the distance as I jog- in what seems to be slow-motion- back to the tree house.
"Mom, where's the food box?" I sputter.
"In the tree house, sweetie," she laughs and without another I word I bolt towards the tree house.
Of course, the drop ladder leading into the tree house doesn't want to corporate and attacks my feet as I try to climb up. "Please," I beg. "You have no idea how long I've been waiting for this little pocket of paradise." The Hot Pocket gods must have heard me because with that plea, the ladder backs off and I pull myself onto the wooden boards.
Like a little boy on Christmas, I rush straight towards a big cardboard box of food resting in a corner of the tree house. I fall to my knees, my hands stretch forward and dig through the mess of nonperishable foods in search of that beautiful red and white box. And suddenly, there it is. Stairway to Heaven pipes back up as I hold the amazing red and white box of Hot Pockets in my hands; grasping the meaning of life. Could my family have changed from their joke-playing ways? Could they have saved the last Hot Pocket on the earth just for me?
"Is this real life?" I murmur, turning the magnificent box around in my hands.
"Probably not," the voice of Jasper snorts from behind me.
"Shh, let me have my moment," I mutter, tearing open, wait, why is the box already opened? Why am I know just realizing how light the box is…As I gently tip the box, pockets of hotness do not slide out into my awaiting hands, instead a piece of notebook paper does.
As soon as a grocery store opens, I'll buy you a box.
My body seems to fill with fire. "You're dead…."
"Dude, those things spoil if you leave them out over night! We haven't had power in a month!"
"You're dead," I drop the soiled box and rise to my feet, walking towards my idiot of a brother.
"I told you it wasn't what you were thinking!" He backs away, still laughing.
"Dead. That's what you are to me," I raise my fisted hand and punch him right in the shoulder.
"Hey! I said I'd buy you a box when the stores come back!" He hisses. "Watch it, I'm crippled!"
"You have a band-aid on your leg, that's not crippled!"
"Dream ruiner!" I groan, shoving him one last time before dropping down to the ladder and from there, onto the ground. "Mom, I can't believe you were apart of this!"
"Aw, sweetie, I thought it would lighten the mood a bit, I'm sorry…" even she can't help but laugh.
"If it makes you feel any better, I haven't read a People Magazine for three months!"
"Doesn't help!" I call.
Nope, same family.
Unfortunately, dinner does not consist of Hot Pockets and instead we gather under the sunset for another round of baked beans. Considering how hungry everyone is, the meal flies by in no time and as my family climbs up the tree house for bed, I hear that smooth lullaby roaming through the forest. I inform my mother about where I'll be, promise to come back before dark and slip away to the campfire.
I follow the rhythmical notes until I find Bella sitting on the ground, her back pressed against the trunk of a tree and her wooden box clutched in her hands. She barley looks up as I lower myself onto the ground across from her.
"Can you believe my own family did that to me? My own flesh and blood…" I shake my head, watching as her fingers trails across the carvings of the box. "I bet your parents wouldn't do that to you."
"Your dad taught me how to kindle firewood today," she murmurs, changing the subject. "He's like Bear Grylls or something."
A soft chuckle mixes with the even tones of the lullaby as I nod. "Yeah, he definitely is."
"I'm glad we found them, Ed, I really am," Bella flickers her light blue gaze up to mine, her fingers busy winding the music back up.
"Thanks, Bella," I smile, reaching my hand to finish the turning for her. "They like you a lot, you know."
"Especially my Mom," I laugh quietly once again. "She thinks you're the best thing since the Dyson Ball."
A hint of a smile touches Bella's lips. "I think she's pretty great too, all you Cullens are."
Silence grasps the moment and I sit there watching her watch her feet, wondering what she could be thinking about. Bella gets up after a moment and places a kiss on my cheek. "Good night, Edward," she climbs up the ladder and disappears into the tree house.
Alone in the woods next to the dying fire, I whisper the words: "Goodnight, Bella."
Something stirs inside me and my eyes slowly flicker open. I roll over in my sleeping bag and stare out into the foggy, undisturbed forest. I hear the even breathing of my family lying beside me but my ears catch something else. No, not a moan of a zombie, or the thumping of their heavy footsteps. I hear silence where the usual light snore from Bella Eaton can be heard. My heart stops as I look over into Bella's corner to find her sleeping bag neatly rolled and tucked away. A box top lies on top of Bella's makeshift bed, her messy scrawl staining the cardboard and no Bella in sight.
I must have read the note a hundred times, but the words remained unchanged. I stand looking down at the extinguished fire, the morning sun breaking through the still forest.
I couldn't do it while you were awake. I don't think you would've let me anyway. I know they are alive, I can feel it. I need to find them.
I feel more alone now than I ever did when I thought I was the only human left on earth.
DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNNNN!