Nearly everyone came out to watch, until Cleve and Tim protested. “We only need three others,” Cleve said. “Nothin’ for you guys to see out here anyway.”
“You be careful, Tim,” Sara said, hand on his arm. “We’ve lost enough people to those things already.”
“I’ll be fine. We’ve got big guys to hold our leashes. Besides, it’s Cody doing the hazardous part.”
“Where is Cody?” Sara looked around.
“He and Sondra went to get some rope from his old place,” Charles said.
“Yeah,” Max chimed in. “Maybe they won’t stop for a ‘layover’ or anything.” Everyone laughed at that.
“Nope,” said Cleve, “They know it’s time for business. Besides, here they come now.” He pointed down the street toward Laurel, at the couple biking toward them. Each had a coil of rope slung over a shoulder. Most of the crowd was walking or riding the other way.
Cody and Sondra joined them at the intersection, in the empty lot across from the QuickFill. A “NO PARKING - TOW AWAY ZONE” sign stood above the weeds, a relic from the old world of last month. Trucks went by in all directions, under a sky that promised rain but not right away. The holdouts had a crude barricade, knocked together out of scrap lumber, and adorned with a STOP sign borrowed from inside the development. Cleve, Max, Charles, Tim, Big Ben, and Sara stood around it.
“Here’s the rope,” Cody said, handing his coil to Tim. Sondra handed hers to Max, who hung it on the end of the barricade. She shook her right arm; outside the truck-free confines of Laurel, it tingled and sometimes went numb.
Tim paid out the yellow nylon cord. “Not ideal,” he said, “but good enough.” He cut off about ten feet and wrapped it around his waist and each leg, tying it behind his back and leaving several feet of “tail” dangling. “Homebrew safety harness.” He cut two more lengths and wrapped one each around Cody and Ben, then tied a length of remaining rope to their tails.
“I guess I’m ready,” said Tim, picking up the DSLR camera they found in one of the abandoned houses. He turned it on, checked the battery, opened the flash, and removed the lens cap. He set the focus and exposure, then looked through the viewfinder for a moment. Ben picked up his camcorder and nodded.
“Let’s do this,” Cody said. Cleve picked up the rope attached to Cody, ran it around his back and wrapped the end around his arm; Max and Charles did the same with Ben’s and Tim’s ropes.
“You be careful too, Cody,” Sara said. She and Sondra took up each end of the barricade. “Don’t be no hero.”
“Right,” Cody said. He shook his head, and his hair fell across his face before he swept it back. “If it looks like I’m getting in…”
“Yup,” Sondra said, patting her holster, “I shoot out your legs and hope Rita can fix it. You ain’t getting away that easy!”
The women checked the street, then carried the barricade out. Ben was already recording. They set the barricade at the edge of the intersection, then hurried back to the side of the street. Shortly, a truck rolled up, silent as always except for the hum of tires on pavement. It slowed and stopped.
“Let’s go!” Cody yelled, running out to the pickup while Ben and Tim took up positions at the passenger door. Cleve and the others braced themselves while Cody yanked the door open, tilted toward the interior for a moment, then jumped clear and hoisted both middle fingers at the truck. Tim held the shutter down; the camera kept clicking, although the flash quit after the first few shots. Ben zoomed in and out.
“We’ve got what we’re gonna get!” Ben shouted after a minute. “Let it go!”
Cody kicked the door; it shut with a chuff as Sara and Sondra dragged the makeshift barricade out of the street. As soon as the way was clear, the truck rolled away. Cody sat down in the grass, puffing and smiling as he and the others untied their harnesses. “That went okay,” he said.
“I felt it pull you,” Cleve said, winding the rope. “Dunno how I stood without trying to yank you back.”
“It pulled us too,” Ben agreed. “But it wasn’t that bad. We could have done it without the ropes.”
“Yeah, but who wants to take chances?” said Tim. “Let’s get on back and have a look at what we got.”
Everyone crowded around the big-screen TV in the Laurel Room as Ben hooked up his camcorder, chattering among themselves and peppering Ben and Tim with questions. Cody stood off to the side with Sondra, arms around each other, watching the others. “I don’t have any idea what the video quality’s gonna be like,” said Ben. “It was kind of dark in the viewfinder. But we’ve got the stills from Tim’s camera, and the first few had flash, so we probably got something.”
“Roll the tape!” someone called in the crowd.
“It’s all on a flash card, there’s no tape!” Ben laughed. “But let’s see what we got.”
The video began with Sondra and Sara carrying the barricade into the street, then Ben panned around to watch a truck approaching. The view jumped as Cody shouted “Let’s go!” and Ben and Tim hustled forward to the door. Cody jumped into the frame, yanked the door open, lurched forward for a moment, then jumped back. Ben zoomed in, rocking a little as the truck tried to pull him in —
The screen showed a woman sitting at the wheel and a little boy strapped in next to her. Both were bone white — skin and hair — but from their features, they may have been black before driving off. The woman’s purse lay on the floor in front of the child. Neither turned toward the people outside; the only sounds were the men breathing and Tim’s camera clicking. Ben shouted, the door slammed shut, and Ben once again panned to the women, this time dragging the barricade out of the way. The truck rolled away; several people laughed at Cody giving it the finger one more time before walking off-camera.
Sondra stepped forward to break the silence. “It stands to reason,” she said, raising her right arm. “My arm got bleached when I stuck it in one, why wouldn’t it bleach the drive-offs entirely?”
“They didn’t even look at you,” Kelly said. “It’s like they were zombies or something.” She shivered all over.
“How are they eating?” Johnny said. “You ever see one of them things stop for more than a few seconds at an intersection? Besides the ones waiting for the rest of us, I mean. It’s like they never sleep or nothin’.”
The TV flickered as Tim connected the DSLR. A still frame displayed the woman and her child in more detail. Most of the interior was washed out from the flash. Tim stepped through the next two, to the first photo without a flash. The interior appeared to be a uniform grey, perhaps vinyl, but with no texture.
“You remember it looking like that?” Cody whispered to Sondra. “When you stuck your arm in.”
“No. I was trying to keep it from pulling me in, I didn’t bother looking at it.”
“It seems we’re left with more questions than before,” Charles said. “Well, we’ve learned something anyway. Maybe it’ll turn out to be useful later on.”