Narrated by Bob Eccles
Clouds of bloody mist erupted in a burst of popping sounds like firecrackers exploding. Through the scope of his light machine gun, Vincent watched a now-headless teenage boy fall face down in the snow. Steaming blood pumped from the ruined neck.
Vincent’s stomach lurched. The LMG fell from his shaking hands and he hunched over the roadside ditch, puking.
Once again…he hadn’t pulled the trigger.
“Definitely live ones,” said Shaw, a fellow Ranger. A body thumped into a wheelbarrow, and Vincent’s gut recoiled again. “Shamblers don’t bleed so much.”
“Can’t risk contagion getting into Canada.” That voice belonged to Corporal Nick Nelson, their company leader. “We hold the line and make sure nobody crosses it, living or dead.”
But they come with such hope in their eyes. Vincent could still see the latest three, a middle-aged man and his two sons close to Vincent’s own 21 years. They’d been underdressed for February in Quebec and talked with accents straight out of Gone With the Wind. On foot, like most Yanks from farther south than about Pittsburgh. Since the outbreak gasoline was almost impossible to get in the States and Mexico. Why don’t they turn back when we tell them to?
Footsteps crunched toward him. “You okay, Bertrand?”
He retched twice more before he managed to gasp, “I will be. Sir.”
Nelson crouched by his side, handed him his LMG. In the distance Shaw, Laurent, and Donnelly stopped their corpse-laden wheelbarrows at the incinerator. Vincent shut his eyes against the sight of Rangers tossing bodies into the flames.
“You’re probably the best shot in our company, Bertrand.” Nelson’s voice almost got lost in the incinerator’s roaring. “But if you don’t actually shoot, there’s no use in your being here.”
Nelson clapped Vincent on the back, stood, and crunched away to the camp bonfire where the Rangers listened to reports from the two-way radio and passed forty-pounders of whiskey and gin. When he was sure his stomach was settled, Vincent scooped clean snow and scrubbed puke off his face and hands. I’ve got to toughen up. Shaking his head, he stood and trudged to join the others around the fire.
Night swooped down on the village of Lacolle and the surrounding farmlands. Half the Rangers bedded down in an abandoned barn, while the rest stayed on duty and tried to keep warm.
The two-way spat to life. “Lacolle company, do you read?”
“We read,” returned Radio Sergeant Roussel. “What’s the news?”
“Helicopter sightings. Some fifty shamblers moving upriver, and a lone vehicle northbound on 223 from New York.”
“Torrieu!” Roussel waved Donnelly to wake the Rangers in the barn. Shaw got busy hitching a trailer to haul corpses back to the incinerator, and Laurent directed teams saddling horses and loading ammunition in jeeps. Roussel confirmed to central command, “We’re en route downriver in five.”
A hand on his shoulder stopped Vincent’s climb into a jeep. He turned to face Corporal Nelson. “You’re staying here, Bertrand. You’re our best shot. I need all the Rangers I can muster to deal with those shamblers. Only you can cope solo with inbound living.” Nelson stepped closer, almost nose to nose with Vincent. “Do your duty. Turn them back or shoot them down.”
Vincent swallowed bile rising in his throat, but he saluted. “Yes, sir. I’ll hold the line.”
Minutes later he stood alone in the intersection of 202 and Rue de l’Eglise. His eyes watered, his goggles unable to fully keep out the -15C breeze.
When headlights appeared in the distance he steadied the LMG on his hip. A Chevrolet Silverado approached the crossing, and he raised one hand to command a stop.
Behind the wheel sat a balding man wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Next to the driver sat a wide-eyed woman. In the back seat Vincent observed two more heads, faces lost in darkness. He beckoned to the driver, who climbed out but kept the engine running.
“I’m truly sorry, mister, but you’ve got to go back. Nobody can enter Canada until the plague ends.”
“We’re not infected. See for yourself.” The driver stripped off his sweatshirt, motioned to the woman to join him, and pulled off his longsleeved tee as the woman emerged and shook off her parka.
“No exceptions.” Despite the cold, Vincent broke out in a sweat. Mon Dieu, make them see reason! “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
Man and woman traded glances across the roof of the Silverado. They nodded, reaching silent agreement. Not again. “Don’t make me use this.” Vincent patted the LMG, hoping he looked stern as he stepped nearer.
They shut themselves inside their car. Vincent sweated and prayed.
With a roar of the engine, the Silverado surged forward—directly at Vincent. He dashed aside—but never lost his aim.
He shot one tire after another, exploding them in shreds of rubber. The car veered off-road and flipped twice before slamming into a basswood.
None of the occupants moved as he approached. Let them be dead, and this be over. He pulled a flashlight from a pocket of his ski jacket and shined it at the interior. The woman turned her blood-streaked face to look at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, though he knew they couldn’t hear him.
He loosed a burst of rounds at each head, one after another. Pink mist sprayed from shattered windows. Clenching his teeth, he watched, willing his nausea to pass.
A muffled groan from inside the wreck. Vincent swallowed hard. They can’t be alive. Can’t even be shamblers. Not after I shot their heads to pulp.
He shined his flashlight at the interior again, trudging nearer.
In the middle of the back seat sat a little girl, too young and small for Vincent to see when he counted heads from a distance upon the Silverado’s arrival. I’ve orphaned her.
Nausea defeated him. He fell to his hands and knees in the snow and dry-heaved until he was dizzy.
“Do your duty,” Nelson’s words echoed in Vincent’s memory.
“Mon crisse, she’s only a baby.” Same as I was, when my family died in that boating accident. Tears steamed from his eyes, turning to ice on his cheeks.
Freeing the girl from her car seat took cutting the restraints with his combat knife. She meeped and flinched from him when he lifted her out.
“Shush, I won’t hurt you.” He almost lost his grip on the girl covered in her family’s blood.
She stared slack-jawed at him, silent and trembling in his arms. He carried her to the four-person plexiglass booth where, not long ago, border guards checked the identification of Yanks crossing Canada’s border. Rummaging in the storage lockers, he found two thick blankets, which he wrapped her in.
“That should keep you warm. I can’t switch the lights on, or the other Rangers will find you and shoot you. But I’ll get you out of here and take care of you, I promise.” She didn’t react to his words. He gave her shoulder an awkward pat. “We’ve some leftover soup. I’ll heat some for you. Stay here, I’ll be back.”
He put a kettle of cold soup in the edge of the bonfire. While it simmered he checked the two-way radio. Nothing but dead air.
I can’t carry her far. He gazed into the dancing flames, lulled by the crackling firewood. I’ll have to take a horse or jeep when the others return. But how?
Searing pain flashed through the back of his neck. He whirled around and aside. Blood dripped from the girl’s mouth—his blood. Festering fingernail scratches lined one of her hands.
As agony spread from his wound, Vincent tried to imagine shooting first the girl and then himself. Or grabbing her and leaping into the incinerator with her. “Can’t risk contagion getting into Canada,” Nelson repeated in Vincent’s memory.
“I know my duty, little sister.” He peered into the girl’s expressionless eyes. “But I can’t do it.”
Vincent knelt in the snow and hugged the girl. When she bit him again, it didn’t hurt at all.
They waited, man-shambler and girl-shambler, hidden behind musty bales of hay inside the dark barn. Soon prey would come. All they had to do…was hold the line.
AUTHOR BIO: Molly N. Moss lives in Georgia, but plans to escape to the Pacific NW as soon as she finishes building a wormhole from scrap metal and baling wire. She’s confident she’s close to either success or annihilation of Earth. Her fiction has appeared in Interstellar Fiction, Perihelion SF, Big Pulp, Silver Blade, and other venues.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is an internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.com