Chapter 60: The Woods
On the cracked highway, the sun was rising over the diner. Its rays shone through the cracks in the boarded up windows, casting the place in patches of light. Francis was in the process of cleaning the Colt M4 carbine, Louis was throwing their meagre food supplies together, and Zoey, having already changed the dressing over the wound on Francis' arm, was now checking Bill's injuries over.
"How are your ribs feeling?" she asked.
"It's hard to tell, but I think the pain's a bit less than it was yesterday," he replied gruffly.
She smiled thinly at that. "It sounds like your ribs are just bruised, rather than broken, thank goodness. It will take less time for them to heal."
Bill grunted in annoyance regardless. "I'm still a liability, and a useless old fart, in my current condition."
"You already were one anyway," the biker chimed in.
Zoey jumped to his defence immediately. "Fuck you, Francis."
He chuckled, and then gestured to her cheek. "How's the gash?"
"Not too bad," she replied, rubbing it. The wounds she had received from the Smoker back in Newburg were thankfully healing quickly. She no longer needed a bandage on her cheek, and suspected that the wound at the base of her neck would not require dressing for too much longer.
It was amazing, all things considered. The encounter at the time had given her a concussion and nearly killed her.
Surprisingly, it was Louis who put a dampener on the mood. "We're running low on food," he said, handing an open tin of beans and a camping fork to Bill. "We probably only have a couple of days' worth left."
"We're getting close to the Alleghany National Forest," the older man replied. "Hopefully we'll reach the evac before it becomes an issue."
"I still say we should have tried to make some sort of SOS signal for the fighter jets back in Newburg," Louis said sourly.
"It was too open for us to stop the van," Bill shot back hotly. "We would have been sitting ducks for any Infected in the area."
Zoey was slightly taken aback. This was probably the first time she had witnessed any bad blood between the two men, and decided to intervene before things got too heated. "We should get moving. Alleghany National Forest is the closest evacuation site left. If it's way out in the forest, hopefully that will mean there are less Infected out here."
"One can only hope," Bill grunted.
Most of the van trip was spent in silence. Aside from having to avoid the occasional group of wandering infected humans, who shrieked and chased after the van in vain, the driving shifts were relatively uneventful. Zoey's attempts to start a game of 'Twenty Questions' or 'I Spy' were not met with much enthusiasm.
By late afternoon, the group of survivors were following the evacuation signs north along Highway 219. To the west stretched an endless sea of trees, dark and foreboding. Even more unnerving was the increasing amount of abandoned cars and makeshift campsites along the road.
"I was hoping we would have seen someone by now," Louis commented as he carefully manoeuvred the van around a liberal congregation of vehicular roadblocks in the middle of the road.
Traffic thickened, to the point where it was no longer possible to continue travelling in the van. No one liked the idea of leaving it behind. At least its walls offered some form of protection against infected claws and teeth.
As the group clambered out of the vehicle, Francis brandished the Colt M4 carbine and looked down the road ahead, which was jam-packed with abandoned cars, all the way to the entrance of the national park. What was more worrying were the bodies sprawled here and there.
The group travelled the rest of the way along the road on foot in silence, looking around themselves as the sky darkened. Fortunately, the resting time in the van and diner seemed to have done Bill some good, and his walking was far less laboured.
Before long, they came to the entrance of the park. The trees of Alleghany National Forest stretched on, and there was not a sound to be heard.
"Pretty creepy," Louis murmured.
Zoey pursed her lips, but chose not to say anything.
"It says that the evacuation site is down this way," Francis called, indicating a dirt trail leading into the trees, next to a wooden bulletin board covered in CEDA notices.
"Okay, Louis, you're on point," Bill said.
The man in question raised his M-16 rifle and moved on into the trees. The others followed in an apprehensive silence. The abandoned cars, the lack of anyone around – all the signs were not indicative of an active evacuation site.
Dead leaves crunched underfoot and the twitter from an occasional bird could be heard in the branches overhead as the sky darkened. Right in the middle of autumn, many trees were missing many of their leaves, or else completely bare. The Dark Forest from the Wizard of Oz is what immediately sprang to Zoey's mind.
Eventually, they broke through the tree-line into a relatively large clearing with a steep-looking drop-off to the north. Aside from a picnic table and a wooden billboard, there was nothing else. No other survivors, no military personnel, no evacuation.
"What the hell...?" Bill murmured, making his way to the billboard.
Zoey wandered over to the edge of the clearing to gaze out over the overlook at the woodland far below. It was a rather beautiful view, but the feeling of dread gnawing at her slowly grew as the sun set and the forest darkened.
"I don't believe this shit!" Bill growled, tearing a pinned CEDA notice away from the board.
"What?" Louis asked.
"The evacuation point has been moved. And that was over three days ago." He looked like he was just about ready to shoot something. "What the hell is this horseshit – a farm? Are they serious?"
"Well, at least the army's still posting signs. That's a good sign, right?"
"It's a whole new ball game now. We're on borrowed time. Goddamn it, how long do we gotta claw our way through all this horseshit before somebody helps us?"
"We all know how well things went down each time someone's tried to help us," Francis muttered darkly.
Their troubling predicament seemed to leach the very beauty from the area, only to be replaced with a sinister and dark ambience. The thought of stumbling through pitch-black forests, to an evacuation which might have already been abandoned to the horde, was a sobering one.
"What's the plan, Bill?" Zoey finally asked softly.
He glanced down at the ratty sheet of paper in his hands once more. "The notice says that there's a relocated evac point not far north from here, along some train tracks. We just need to find the train tracks and then follow 'em." He gazed around silently for several moments, sizing the area up. "I'll take the first watch. Everyone else get some sleep until your you're woken for your watch – we move out at first light. If we gotta make our way through the woods, there's no way in hell we're doin' it in the dark."
"Bill, you need to rest – " Zoey started, but was promptly cut off.
"I've been doing nothing but resting for the better part of two days now. We all need to start pullin' our weight, or we're never going to make it. Now settle down and get some sleep." His tone brooked absolutely no argument.
He placed his pistol on the table and at the ready, and then settled down to keep watch while the others laid out their packs as makeshift pillows next to each other on the ground.
"You're tellin' me people camp for fun?" Francis muttered in disbelief as he lay down on the grass.
As Zoey laid her head back on her backpack, she found herself shivering slightly with the cold. Her red field hockey track jacket was better than nothing, but not much. She felt uneasy about the entire situation. What if they got all the way out to the farmhouse and found that it too was abandoned?
Despite these harrowing thoughts, she fell asleep quite quickly.
When Zoey felt a hand shaking her awake, she thought at first that it was her turn for watch. However, she immediately realised that something was wrong. It was still the middle of the night – obvious by the frigid air and dark sky. The sun had not even begun to rise yet.
"What's going on?" she groggily asked Louis, who must have taken over sentry duty a couple of hours ago.
"I heard some noises in the trees just now," he whispered urgently.
Bill and Francis were already awake and alert, crouched down and aiming their weapons into the surrounding trees. In the nerve-wracking silence that followed, Zoey realised now how incredibly stupid it was for them to camp out in the middle of the woods, where wandering Infected would have absolutely no trouble sniffing them out. They could have at least found a ranger's station or somewhere better to hole up.
A thick, guttural scream shattered the silence, followed by the cracking of footsteps as three dark figures burst from the trees and charged at them. Answering gunfire slammed into them, sending their bodies tumbling to the ground before Zoey even got a shot off from her pistol. The engagement was brief, but left everyone shaken. They stayed on alert for several minutes after that, but it appeared that there were no more Common Infected around.
For the time being, anyway.
"Well this is an ominous fucking sign," Francis growled.
"Come on, let's get moving," Bill said, picking up the medical pack and handing it to him. "The sun won't rise for a good few hours, but that was as good a wake-up call as any. We're far too exposed out here."
He led the way north through the woods along a narrow winding trail, four cones from flashlights guiding the way. From the broad expanse of black nothingness surrounding them, it became increasingly apparent how completely exposed they were out here –
Muzzle-flashes lit up the area as they fired on two screaming figures that emerged from the trees, thirsting for blood.
"Son of a bitch," Francis growled. "Whoever chose the forest for an evac point was a fucking idiot."
Louis nodded slowly in agreement. "They can come at us from anywhere. Someone could get seriously hurt."
"Stay frosty," Bill said, leading off. "Eyes and ears, people, and stay quiet."
Zoey felt decidedly less confident than she had been in cities, where it was possible to put her back to walls, to retreat to places to funnel hordes into more manageable groups. Out here, there was nothing but trees and open ground. The wooded trail was surrounded on all sides by vegetation and darkness – excellent hiding spots.
It did not happen often, but she jumped in alarm every time a Common Infected charged out of the trees with strangled cries. Fortunately, Bill seemed to be in his element out here, and mowed down the snarling attackers with his pistol in a heartbeat. However, the intermittent ambushes had everyone's nerves frayed by the time they reached another small camping ground, at the edge of which stood a deep gorge, spanned by a rope bridge.
Really? Zoey could not help but ask the universe.
"Come on," Bill said, motioning the way forward.
As the team made their way across, the bridge swayed slightly, but fortunately national park regulations must have prevented it from being made in the category of 'rickety'. After making it to the other side without incident, Zoey was relieved that the clichéd movie event of a snapping rope bridge did not apply to real life.
However, the thought did occur to her that perhaps they should cut the bridge, to prevent any Infected from following them. However, she quickly dismissed the idea from her mind. What if other survivors eventually came through here after them? They would need a bridge to cross too.
Everyone else in the group seemed to have come to the same conclusion, as no one even suggested it out loud, which only raised her opinion of her companions even more.
"Take a look at this," Bill said softly, shining his light on a nearby sign which pointed the way toward the Richardson Atlantic Freight Depot. "If that don't lead to the train tracks, then I'm the Queen of England."
However, everyone's enthusiasm was cut short by a familiar and most unwelcome sound drifting out of the woods. The pitiful and haunting sound caused an icy ball to materialise in Zoey's stomach.
"Just our fuckin' luck," Francis growled. "Where is she?"
"I don't know…" Bill murmured, eyes flitting around the dark trees carefully. He was reluctant to move on, for fear of encountering the Witch, but they could hardly stand out in the open all night. "Take it slow and easy, and if you see her, turn and walk the other way."
"I've found a path over here," Zoey called softly to them. "It should take us to the depot."
She cautiously led the way forward down the dark forested path. The crying was all around them, but it was impossible to pin-point exactly where it was coming from...
Her heart skipped a beat when her flashlight illuminated the pale figure of an emaciated woman sitting in the middle of the path several metres ahead, facing the other way. However, before she could turn off the light, the wraith turned her head sharply and stared right into her eyes.
Despite the former college student's numerous encounters with a Witch, this was the first time she had actually gazed directly into her eyes – orange embers that gleamed sinisterly.
Her eyes are wrong, her eyes are wrong –
Before anyone could make a move, the growls turned into the most horrible scream ever to reach their ears.
The relative stillness of the night was shattered by a horrifying cacophony of shrill, bone-chilling and blood-curdling screams.