Chapter 1: Stranded
"For Christ's sake, JJ, slow down!" Dane hollered. His voice was nearly drowned out by the blaring music and the wind rushing by. With the top off and Jason's pedal-to-the-metal attitude it was surprising they could make out a word at all.
The Georgia sun was scorching down from above. Damn was it hot! Sure would be good to get back home after all this global outbreak crap blew over. Leave it to the media to over sensationalize everything. You'd think the whole world had ended in some sort of bloody apocalypse or something. A few people going nuts and developing a taste for human flesh was freakishly weird but it was hardly the end of the world.
"Relax Dane. Not like there's anyone else on the roads! Come on. Back me up on this one, Tom." Jason turned to look at their companion. The brunette was standing in the back of the jeep, the wind blowing her two braids out behind her.
That'd be Autumn River Thompson. Otherwise known as River Thompson, but to the Jackson brothers she was simply known as Tom. "Your brother's got a point there, Dane!" Holding tight to the roll bar of their jeep she arched her back, face up to the warm sun. Damned if the end of the world wasn't all bad.
Next to her Liam hung his head out the side of the jeep, ears flapping in the breeze a huge grin on his face. So far as the dog was concerned life was great. He was on a trip with his master and two of his best friends. Just another day on the road.
"Speaking of which, just where the hell is everyone?" Dane stared down the empty highway stretching out for miles ahead of them. "Was like a god damn zoo out here two weeks ago." When shit had started to hit the fan they high-tailed it into the woods to wait out the throngs of people panicking and taking to the roads. They expected things to be quieter when they came back out, but not this quiet. This was just creepy.
"Could be in Atlanta already," River offered still soaking up the sun.
"Eh?" With her head tilted back Jason couldn't make out what she was saying.
River leaned over the front seats, "I said maybe they're in Atlanta already."
"I don't know why we got to go to Atlanta. Let's just get the hell outta here. Who's to say, maybe this shit's not spread up home yet," Jason whined, conveying his disapproval for the plan for the fifth billionth time since they'd set out. If he had his way they'd be headed straight for the border.
"Normally I'd agree with you bro, but we haven't heard a new radio transmission in almost a week. Shit's getting serious. I think we should at least check in and see what's going on." Dane, always the more responsible of the two brothers.
"Ya, what happened? There should be at least something broadcasting out there. This is definitely getting weird."
"Leave it to Tom. The dead come back to life to eat the living and the part she finds weird is the lack of radio broadcasts," Dane teased.
"You can go to hell. You know what I meant." River rolled her eyes. "Point is we need to at least stop in and get an update, find out what the status of things are."
"Whatever," Jason shook his head slowly. "When it turns out to be a total waste of time I'll be the one telling you two losers I told you so."
"Who you calling a loser, shrimp?" River reached over playfully tousling the younger Jackson brother's hair.
"Who you calling a shrimp, ya midget!" He wheeled around towards the woman behind him, jerking the jeep towards the edge of the highway.
"Fuck! JJ, keep your eyes on the damn road. You trying to get us killed?" his older brother shouted.
Jason corrected course and brought the jeep back onto the center of the lane and they all broke out in uproarious laughter.
River plopped herself on the back floor of the jeep. They'd dumped the seat a couple towns back to make more room for jerry cans of fuel. Leaning against the side of the wheel well she patted her lap inviting her canine companion to join her. "Liam! Here buddy."
Liam turned, a big string of drool letting go of his lip and flying out behind the jeep. He curled himself up in his master's lap. Life was good.
"Ya lousy," Daryl kicked the bumper of the blue Ford pickup, "no good, useless piece'o'shit!" Making his way around the vehicle he kept booting it with every other word until the front bumper fell off. At least the damn thing'd run outta gas out on a stretch of highway with a few other vehicles.
"Damn lil' bruther," Merle snorted, "lookit wha' ya did t' mah truck!"
"Ain't even yer truck Merle," Daryl retorted.
"Whateva'," Merle said dismissively, "Le's jus' getter back t'gether an' fin' sum fuel an' be on our way."
Giving the pickup one last good kick to the tire, Daryl turned and grabbed a length of hose and a jerry can. "Belong's in a fuckin' junk yard's wha'," he muttered walking toward one of the abandoned vehicles. Kneeling on the concrete he dropped the hose down into the gas tank of a little red sports car.
"Tha's right lil' brother," Merle sneered.
Empty. God damnit. The last batch of cars they'd stopped at had all been empty too. Now they were completely outta fuel, if this lot didn't give up the goods they'd be hoofing it.
"Fuck you, Merle," Daryl hissed. Merle let out a howl of laughter.
With the back of his hand Daryl wiped the sweat that was starting to bead on his forehead. He moved on to the next one. Empty. And the one after that, same thing. Every god damned one of them was empty.
Daryl let out a string of curses that'd put a sailor to shame. "Hell, Merle, there ain't nothin' here." Not a drop.
That's when they heard it. The sound of an engine in the distance. Both brothers turned to look. Hadn't seen another vehicle on the roads in over a week. Hadn't seen another survivor since they'd picked up the chink doing scavenging runs in the city.
"Over there!" Dane pointed, "Grab the rifle, Tom. Looks like there's two of em."
River grabbed her .308. They'd planned to do some hog hunting while down in Georgia. Of course, that was before all hell broke loose. Hanging on with one arm in the moving vehicle, she loaded the magazine with the other. In a fluid motion she chambered a round and brought the rifle up using the roll bar as a rest. She had the first target in her sights.
"Shit, Dane, I don't think those are whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-thems. I think they're people."
"You sure? We sure as hell don't want to get bit if you're wrong."
"Pretty sure," she said her target still in the crosshairs.
"You sure or pretty sure?" Dane hounded.
"Pretty sure," the woman repeated slightly annoyed lowering the rifle. "It's not like there's a bloody guide book: how to identify your mindless undead. JJ, mind bringing us in so we can get a better look?"
"Let's just keep going. What's it matter even if they are?" Jason was getting nervous in the driver's seat. He didn't exactly like people he didn't know. Add in the end of the world hysteria that seemed to be floating in the air and this was a recipe for disaster.
"We need to stop, they could need help." River the bleeding heart.
"Or they could try and kill us and steal our shit. The world's gone crazy." Jason warned. His hand was resting on the shotgun sitting between him and his older brother.
"Then we shoot them, not like we're unarmed and helpless here." River the pragmatist.
Dane just shook his head. "That's our girl. Gone from help 'em to shoot 'em in 10 seconds flat."
"You know you love me," River beamed rifle at her side. "Come on, pull up over there, eh."
"Do I got a choice?"
"Nope, not really."
"Whatever then," Jason came roaring right up to the two people standing on the highway bringing the jeep sliding sideways to a stop. People, definitely people. First ones they'd seen since returning from their little hiatus from the whole end of the world thing.
"Jesus, fucking hell JJ, I'm driving the rest of the way," Dane's knuckles were white as he death-gripped the side of his seat. Not to mention he looked a little green. Jason and River just laughed.
Merle got a bit twitchy as the jeep skidded to a stop in front of them. He got a lot twitchy when he saw the bitch in the back was armed and started fondling his Remington 700. Picking up on his movement River brought her own rifle back up. Just let 'em try and stir up shit.
"Hey there, you guys alright?" Asked Dane from the passenger's seat.
"How 'bout tha' nice 'lil piece'o'ass ya got in th' back there puts down 'er rifle then we can talk?" Merle motioned towards River with his own firearm.
"Like hell I will while you're waving that thing around!" In a fight or flight situation River would pick fight every time. She was liked the damned Chihuahua trying to take on a German shepherd. Didn't matter one lick if she knew she couldn't win, it just wasn't in her makeup to back down.
"How about everyone just puts down their guns," Dane offered trying to smooth things over before there was a chance they'd get out of hand. And with River there was always a good chance they were going to get out of hand.
Jason was trying to make himself look small in the driver's seat. Why couldn't they have just kept driving. Damn him for listening to those two. God please let River not start anything. These two assholes looked tough as nails and he didn't want her getting into it with them.
"Trailer Trash here can go first," River snapped still offended at being called a piece of ass.
Liam sensing her tension came to her side nuzzling her hand with his wet, cold nose. Absent mindedly she stroked his head to let him know not to worry. He sat down and leaned against her leg.
"Th' hell people. You dun go an' turn tha' shit off an' stop yellin' imma kick all y'alls asses," redneck number two finally spoke up. "'less yer tryin' to get us all killed. Th' rackets gonna bring every one of 'em Walkers fer miles."
Man had a point. Dane reached over and cranked down the nob to the stereo.
"Just let it go, Tom" Jason whispered nervously to his companion in the back. She huffed but lowered her rifle. Trailer Trash did the same.
"There, now how about we start over," Dane suggested always trying to be the diplomat.
"Tom? Woooo! Wha' kinda name is Tom fer a girl? Maybe we shoul' take a look-see an make shure she ain't a he. Whatcha say Daryl? C'mon girlie, show us th' goods!" Merle turned beet red with laughter.
Daryl didn't say anything.
In the back of the jeep River twitched, she was itching for a fight with this loser. Jason, praying not to have to bail her out, reached back gently laying his hand on her arm. Wordlessly sending her the same message: Let it go, Tom.
"We never should have stopped," Jason mumbled under his breath. Why didn't these two ever listen to him? Sucked ass being the youngster in the group.
"I think we all just got off on the wrong foot here," Dane worked his magic. "I'm Dane, this is my brother JJ."
River rolled her eyes. Guess they did stop to make sure these two country boys were okay after all. Wasn't it even her idea. "You can call me River."
"Though' you was Tom," Merle snorted.
"It's Autumn River Thompson. Like I said, you can call me River. Only these two shitheads get away with calling me Tom."
"Th' hell kinda name's Autumn River?"
"My parents were hippies," she shrugged. "Could be worse though, eh. They could have named me Starbreeze or Moonbeam." She earned a chuckle out of the beet faced hick she'd dubbed Trailer Trash.
"Merle, an' that ugly bastard's my brother Daryl." Properly introduced. Daryl nodded at the three of them. Hadn't said a word, that one, not since he flipped out and gave them all shit bout the music and yelling.
"We noticed you stopped on the highway, everything all right here?" Dane pulled the conversation back on track.
"Damn truck gone dun run outta gas," Merle spit landing just short the trucks tires.
"Tried siphonin'," Daryl muttered gesturing to the vehicles around, "Ain't nothin' left in any of 'em."
"We got fuel," River apparently ready to let bygones be bygones. Thank the Lord she didn't hold a grudge like some women. Usually.
The Dixon brothers stood speechless. Surely she wasn't just offering it to them. In this world people took, they didn't give, not unless it went with a hefty price tag. Food, guns, gas those were the usual currency now.
Jason gave her the evil eye. He'd go to the end of the earth for his friends, but he didn't like strangers. People couldn't be trusted. Definitely didn't like giving away precious resources to some hick assholes they'd just had the misfortune to meet.
River smiled reassuringly at the boy. "Headed to the refugee center in Atlanta?" She asked Trailer Trash while she grabbed one of the 10 gallon jerry cans her and Liam were sharing the back with.
Merle snorted. "Ain't nothin' left in Atlanta 'cept th' geeks. Las' place a sweet lil' thang the likes of you wants t'go."
"What do you mean there's nothing there?" Dane pushed. That's where all the broadcasts had been telling people to go. Just what the hell happened since they decided to take their camping trip and wait things out.
"O'er run," Daryl chimed in. "Like Merle said, ain't nothin' left."
"Where you boys headed, then?" River asked hopping over the side of the jeep and joining them on the hot, mid-afternoon concrete. Keeping her eyes on Trailer Trash she handed the fuel to the quiet, brooding one named Daryl. He gave her a slight nod in thanks.
"Got a camp jus' down the highway sum," Merle titled his head towards the city.
"How far?" Dane was now out of the jeep and staring down the long empty road.
"'Nother 5 mile or so. Deputy Dickhead says t' bring in any survivors we's come 'cross. Saefty in numbers or sum such bullshit," Merle spat again, this time nearly landing on Rivers boots.
She glared at Trailer Trash. Now River was used to being around guys, but this one just rubbed her the wrong way. "You're a disgusting pig."
"Now, now tha' any way t' treat a new friend?" He chuckled. "Here we was gonn' invite y'all t' come wit' us. But if yer gonn' be callin' names then maybe we jus' gonn' leave y'all here."
Rivers jaw just about hit the concrete. She was easy to bait and she'd just taken it hook line and sinker. "If I recall," she fumed, "It was us that just saved your sorry asses! You'd be walking back to your precious camp if not for us!"
Merle roared with laughter.
Hell no. Bad enough they had to stop and chat with these assholes. They were not going with them. Absolutely no way were they going to follow them to this camp of theirs. Jason gripped the steering wheel. Just get back in the jeep and drive away. That's all they had to do. Head for the border.
"What do you say, Tom? Just for one night. Go find out what the hell is going on. That's what we were heading to Atlanta for anyway right?" Dane turned to her. River nodded in agreement.
"What the hell guys, don't I get a say in this!" Came a squeaky voice from the jeep. "Let's just forget it and head to the border, eh?"
Putting one foot up on the back wheel and grabbing the roll-bar for leverage River hopped back up into the jeep. Liam met her with wagging tail and a plethora of kisses. She scratched the dog behind the ears, "Wasn't going anywhere without ya bud, don't worry."
"Uh hello, guys?" Jason waved his arms wildly above his head.
River gave him a playful nudge in the shoulder. "Suck it up, princess, it's just for one night."
"Lead the way," Dane hollered to the two rednecks as he climbed back into the passenger's seat.
"I hate you both," Jason grumbled.