I noticed Sam Collins coming up the hill of course, how I could miss him bounding and waving the way he was. I didn’t see hordes of monsters hot on his heels or anything else similarly problematic, so whatever he had to tell me could wait till we’d finished the sunrise service.
When he crested the rise I held up one hand asking him to hold on, he looked rather put out with the request. He’d get over it. One of the many hard truths I’d had to learn was that I couldn’t afford to fret over one person’s bruised feeling. Not with the close to four hundred followers we’d managed to rescue depending on me, not to mention all of the lost souls out there waiting to be saved.
Besides Sam often had trouble dealing with the fact that I was more than just the secular leader here. Which admittedly was both an asset and a liability in a second in command but at this particular moment he’d have to look on this as an exercise in patience.
The world had descended so quickly into chaos the first few months after the virus hit. Even now almost a year later with a strong group of healthy re-deemed, we still had to keep on the move almost daily. Partially to stay one step ahead of the infected, partially to save the ones we could, as many as we could.
Existing as we did in an atmosphere of such constant threat and uncertainty these little moments were the only anchors of normalcy we had left to hold on to, and the group as a whole needed them, deserved them as a matter of fact.
So Sam could give me all the black looks and grumbling he wanted I wouldn’t hurry through so much as one word of the closing invocation.
“Dear Lord, we your humble servants thank you for our continued safety and prosperity. We thank you for the blessing that is the enlightenment that has allowed us to bring so many of your children back from the pit of insanity that this cursed virus imprisoned them in. Reuniting husbands, and wives, parents, and children, brothers and sisters. We ask only, as always Dear Lord that you grant us the courage to save the ones we can, the strength to let go of the ones we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.
Right on cue Sam came running over practically shoving five year old Annie Talbot, who as newest member of our congregation was acting as my honorary altar boy, out of his way. Steadying her with one hand I handed her the stole with the other smiling at her ecstatically grateful mother as she scooped her up then scowled sourly at Sam. It was a wasted effort as he’d already launched into his report and until he’d finished nothing else would catch his attention.
“They were everywhere Father James, everywhere. We never stood a chance.” He began shrilly.
Taking him by the elbow I maneuvered him away from the others speaking to him quietly in order to encourage him to do the same. “You’re exaggerating Sam that was a major city, there had to be some of our kind left.” He shook his head vehemently at me. “None. Anywhere. Not even on the outskirts.”
“No Father, I’m telling you it was beyond creepy the entire place was deserted until we got to the heart of the city. Then Father all Hell broke loose. No offense. There were hundreds of them coming from everywhere. We were totally overrun in a matter of seconds. It was almost like they’d planed it. Like they’d lured us into the city and laid in wait for us.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Sam. You know they’ve lost the ability to think logically.”
“Maybe before Father, but I’m telling you something’s changed. This isn’t the first time we’ve been caught off guard lately, the last five cities we’ve scouted were completely inundated with them and it’s been almost a month since we’ve saved anyone.”
“I take that to mean we didn’t save anyone today then.”
“Of the twenty four of us that went out only seven of us came back.” I covered my eyes with a hand but Sam wasn’t finished. “Those were some of our best people, there is no reason any of them shouldn’t have made it back.”
“Do their families know yet?”
“No, I came here first. Father I’m more scared now than I have been since this whole thing started. I mean I just feel like this could be it, you know, the end for real.”
“No Sam, stop you can’t do that you can’t think like,—“
“But Father what if every place is like that? What if we are the only ones left.”
“Then you’d better buck the hell up son, cause if that’s the case, then that would make us the only hope left for humanity.”
“No buts Sam no buts. You know God never gives us more than we can handle. So he must have an awful lot of faith in us. The least we can do is return the favor.” He started in on some argumentative statement or other, giving him a stern look I pointed a finger and repeated, “No buts.” Being gentle never worked with Sam. “Now you go tell the families of the people we lost today that the city was empty and that they went on to other cities to find people to save and they will be catching up to us as soon as possible.”
He stared at me for one more moment then gave me a clipped, “Yes sir.” Turned on his heel and marched off to carry out his orders. Watching him go I fingered the now grey collar around my neck and prayed I’d told him the truth.”
The rest of the day went much as any other. People milled about visiting, resting; enjoying the sojourn while it lasted knowing we’d be moving on again come morning.
They hit us that night, without any warning what so ever. One minute all was quite the next screaming and the sounds of fighting had broken out on the other side of camp. By the time I made it there over half of my people’d been brought down by the monsters, kicking, shrieking, writhing, and fighting to the last breath.
So many were already lost that it was impossible to pick a target until I saw little Annie being dragged away by a large female, in a hold sickeningly reminiscent of a motherly embrace. It was intolerable. I flung myself at her, knocking her to the ground sending Annie flying directly into the arms of a brutish looking male. Letting go of the female I started crawling toward them not getting three feet before I was covered in the monsters. Sam’d been right this was an organized effort. I yelled for the others to run as the monsters turned me over and held me down. The first sharp bite came in my shoulder. Knowing I could do no more for the others I began praying, for forgiveness for having failed in my mission, for protection for any of my followers who may have escaped, for a clean end to my life rather than becoming a carrier for the infection, for my soul.
I knew the virus was taking hold when the creatures garbled vocalizations started to become intelligible.
“What’s he muttering?”
“It sounds like he’s praying Dr., for salvation.”
“How appropriate. Well maybe there is a God after all. Your prayers have been answered Father, welcome back.”