It was not until Jack steered the old gray sedan onto the highway, with its wide shoulders and open spaces, that anyone in the vehicle felt like they could relax. There were no zombies stepping out from behind buildings or around parked cars; they would see them coming if they were there. If it were not for the pale salmon colored dust of particles that the professor’s van was kicking up in front of them, at times like a blizzard whiteout, most everyone in the car would be sleeping.
Jack looked down at the dashboard’s dusty gauges, including the gas gauge with its red needle almost touching E. “I hope the professor remembers that we need to stop for gas because I don’t think I know where the observatory is if we lose him.”
“I have a general idea where it’s at,” Sarah said as she positioned her lumpy purse for a pillow. She had not slept in over a day. “How much gas do we have?”
“We’ll need to get some in the next fifty miles or so,” Jack said as he slowly switched lanes to avoid a jackknifed semi-truck and a cluster of cars parked like a child’s Matchbox racers crashing at the finish line. “If there’s no electricity at the gas stations we’ll need to siphon it from a car.”
No one said anything for several minutes. Father helped Jack watch the road through the flushed haze, Sarah closed her eyes, Georgie played Plants vs. Zombies on his Kindle, and Willis looked out the window at the queer view. While not immediately apparent, he noticed no contrails in the sky, no cars whizzing by in the opposite lane, and no people outside houses and businesses, not even around the cars parked haphazardly on the freeway. Then Willis broke the silence, “You were great, Father, fighting off that zombie.”
Father turned around and smiled at Willis. “Well, thank you, lad. Who would’ve guessed I’d be a zombie fighter. But I did give him a run for his money.”
Georgie looked up from his game giggling, and then asked, “Did you know any of them?”
“Well, let me see,” Father said, cupping his thumb and forefinger around the bottom of his chin. “One might have been a parishioner, a parishioner whom I don’t see very often.” He paused then added facetiously, “who has been a bit shy in tithing.”
Jack laughed. “I guess he got what was coming to him.”
Without opening her sleepy eyes, Sarah asked, “So how have your donations been, Jack?”
Jack cleared his throat as it tightened around his vocal cords. “Okay, not so good. Sorry Father, I haven’t been a very good Catholic lately.”
Father smiled. “Don’t worry, Jack, it’s nothing a little confession won’t fix.”
“Sure,” Jack said, glancing back at Sarah in the rear view mirror with a ‘what did you get me into’ look.
The vehicles sped along through the diminishing fog of swirling particles, avoiding abandoned cars still in their lanes. The first exit did not have a gas station, McDonald’s or anything. It led drivers leaving the highway to a paved country road where a combine was parked in a half harvested field of grain.
“Looks like that red stuff is going away, like the sun’s melting it,” Father said, moving his gaze from the window to Jack. “What is that stuff?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Jack answered. “But the professor and I think that the red sparkles are actually spores that the aliens put into Earth’s atmosphere so that it would filter down and infect people, like that fungus that infects ants and turns them into zombies.”
“Cool,” Willis said, eager to hear more.
“What?” Father questioned, his eyebrows raised. “Zombie ants?”
“The professor can explain it to you,” Jack said, flapping his hand as if shooing a fly.
“The sparkles being spores makes sense,” Sarah said, half asleep, speaking as if she was in a trance or had a little too much to drink. “We must have a natural immunity to it, but what worries me is the professor’s wound. I hope the spores don’t get into it, and then into his blood stream and make him susceptible to being infected.”
“Oh, that’s good news,” Jack quipped as he shot a glance over his shoulder to Sarah, who did not see him.
Father reached into his jacket and pulled out a black beaded rosary. He wrapped it loosely around his hand while his fingers gently moved across the metal crucifix.
Jack looked over at Father, who appeared to be getting ready to say the rosary. “Can we get one of those indulgences?” Jack asked, unsure what an indulgence even was.
Father looked up at Jack and smiled. “Are you in a state of grace?”
Jack chuckled and looked back at the road.
Father’s smile was bright and wide, similar to the Grinch’s but with the opposite intent. He did not respond to Jack, but rather began silently reciting the rosary.
“I saw people getting sucked up in a blue light beam and into a spaceship,” Georgie said while still focused on his game.
“I did too,” Sarah said, mumbling. “When they came back down and walked out of the light, they were changed, more aggressive.”
“And I believe you saw all this while you kept me locked up in jail with those two crazed freaks,” Jack said, teasing Sarah.
“What? You’re a criminal?” Willis asked.
“No, I’m not a criminal. I was only in jail for not paying some fricking speeding tickets,” Jack said, exasperated. “Do I act like a criminal?”
“No,” Willis said. “But you could be faking it.”
“I think he’s okay,” Sarah said, hoping her intuition was not leading them astray, but she did not know who he truly was.
“The important thing is that we all stick together and help each other if we’re going to get through this,” Father said.
Georgie looked up from his tablet and said, “Or you’ll beat Jack up if he’s a criminal, just like that zombie.”
“Okay, are you guys done picking on me?” Jack asked, amused and perturbed at the same time.
“I’d love to continue being part of this conversation, but I’ve got to get some sleep,” Sarah said, only partially stretching her legs in the cramped quarters. She then turned onto her right hip and looked out over the cornfields, wondering who was infected of the people she knew. It was hard to believe what was happening, but she was glad for the breather, though she knew it would be short-lived when they stopped for gas.