Tammy kept her car just under the speed limit, weaving around slower cars and avoiding cars that were stopped along the way. It took nearly twenty minutes, twice as long as usual, to clear the bulk of localized Memphis traffic. They weren’t clear by any means but it was clearer. Tammy would take it.
She looked over at her passenger.
“So, you really aren’t going anywhere?” Ringo just shook his head.
“Then why be out in this?” Tammy asked. “I mean, I’m trying to get home, or I’d be hiding in my room.”
“I doubt that,” Ringo said quietly. “You aren’t a hider.”
“What’s that mean?” Tammy demanded. He looked at her.
“You left your car to see what was going on, and then took part in it,” he explained. “You aren’t someone who hides away.”
“Well. . . .” Tammy trailed off. No, she guessed not. Ringo was right. She always had to see what was going on. Damn it.
“So, anyway, that’s my excuse. What’s yours?” He shrugged.
“No where to go, no where to be,” he said.
“No family or friends?” Tammy pushed.
“Not anymore,” was the quiet answer.
Tammy didn’t ask anything else about family and friends.
“Where did you learn to use that sword?” she asked after a few minutes of silence.
“What kind of school teaches swordplay?” Tammy asked, her tone derisive.
“Private school,” Ringo shrugged. Tammy fought the urge to lash out. Ringo’s one word and two word replies were starting to get to her.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” she jabbed. He shrugged again, but said nothing. Instead he looked out the passenger window at the
countryside they were passing.
“Got nothin’ to say,” he said at last. “No point talking, otherwise.”
Tammy huffed at that slightly, but the comment did make sense. Ringo was. . .still. She’d never seen someone be so still and quiet. On one hand, it intrigued her, but on the other it was a little unnerving.
“Well, you got anywhere you want me to drop you?” Tammy asked.
“Any where’s fine,” Ringo shrugged again.
“Don’t be silly, I can’t just leave you out here in the middle of nowhere!” she rebuffed him.
“Why not?” he surprised her. “One place is as good as another when there’s no place you want or need to go. When you get tired of me traveling with you, just say so. I’ll get out.” With that he went back to gazing out the window.
What the hell is wrong with this kid? Tammy wondered. He acts like his life is already over and he’s just going through the motions. She studied him a little closer, sparing glances away from the road when the way was open.
He’s not bad looking, she thought. Tall, lean, kinda athletic really.
His dark hair cut short. He was wearing jeans and boots, and a tee. She noted for the first time that there were two straps on his forearm, apparently holding something to his left arm. Similar straps were on his other arm, and she suspected around his ankles.
The sword was held between his knees, point down in it’s scabbard. It had none of the usual affectations that such swords normally had. Of course those weren’t for real use normally, either. This one looked as if it had been made with one thing in mind. Use.
His hands and arms were traced with scars, some large, others barely visible. Another scar was faintly visible behind his left eye, running down his face to his neck. Still another started behind his hair line, tracing down the back of his neck and disappearing beneath his shirt.
Damn, where did he get all those scars? she thought.
“Well, I’m trying to get to Fort Bragg, North Carolina,” she settled for saying. “My dad’s in the Army, and that’s his post. He sent me a message telling me to come home before things got bad.” Ringo merely looked at her, nodding his understanding.
“You’re welcome to go with me as long as you want, and you don’t cause me any trouble.”
“Doubt they’d let me on the base, but why not?” he shrugged. “It’s as good a place to be as any, I imagine.” Tammy fought the urge to role her eyes.
“You seriously don’t have anywhere you want to go?” she pressed. “No one you’re worried about?”
“Seriously,” he nodded. “I’d as soon take care of you, make sure you get home all right, as do anything else.”
“I don’t need you to take care of me!” Tammy was angry in an instant. “I’m a grown woman, not some kid with a grandiose idea of himself!”
“Okay,” Ringo shrugged. “You want me to get out?” he asked, looking at her again. “Like I said, whenever you want me to go, I will. I feel like I owe you for helping me before. I like to pay my debts, that’s all.”
Tammy’s anger cooled a little at that. Repaying a debt was something she could understand.
“Sorry,” she told him quietly. “You just. . .that’s a real sore spot for me,” she admitted.
“I see that,” he nodded. “Won’t happen again,” he added.
“Look, I’m not. . .I didn’t mean to sound mad,” Tammy tried to explain. “But I mean, how old are you? Seventeen?”
“Nineteen,” Ringo replied.
“Oh, well,” Tammy’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “If you’re nineteen, well that’s different then.”
“Why?” The simple question caught her off guard.
“I was being sarcastic,” she told him.
“Thought so,” Ringo nodded. “Just checking.”
Tammy drove in silence for a while, trying to calm down. This kid’s seeming lack of any kind of emotion was starting to get to her. She thought about it for a while, and finally tried a different track.
“So, are you from Memphis originally?” she asked.
“No.” Tammy waited, but there was nothing else coming.
“Then where are you from?” she pressed. “I mean, where were you born? What brought you to Memphis?”
“I was born in Wisteria, Texas,” he replied. “Moved to Memphis to live with my Uncle after my parent’s died in a plane crash. Long time ago.”
“Oh.” Tammy didn’t know what to say to that, and stayed quiet for a while.
“I’m sorry about your parents,” she apologized a few minutes later. “I didn’t mean to drag up bad memories.”
“You didn’t,” he assured her. Tammy’s hands gripped the steering wheel hard. No reaction at all. Nothing.
“What about your Uncle?” she asked. “Won’t he be worried about you?”
“Not anymore,” was the quiet reply.
Uh-oh, she thought to herself. Stepped in it again, Tammy. Not knowing what else to say, she remained silent after that, determined that he would be the next one to attempt conversation.
Only he didn’t. He sat quiet and still in the passenger seat, watching the countryside go by in the window. If he moved at all, she didn’t see it.
This is gonna be a long trip.
They had managed to get clear of the worst of the traffic, at least for the time being. Tammy looked at the fuel gauge, seeing it was a three-quarters. She took the next exit. Time to fuel up and get something to eat. Maybe some poggy bait for the road, too.
“I need to fill up the car,” she told Ringo. “And we need to make some plans and get some things.”
“Like what?” Ringo asked.
“Well, we need to see about getting a couple gas cans, for one thing,” Tammy replied. “We need to get some snacks, too, I think. Like jerky and stuff. Water for sure. It’s a long way to Fort Bragg.”
“Okay,” Ringo nodded. “Want me to pump the gas?” he asked.
“Would you mind? That would help. You keep an eye on our things while I see what we can get from the inside.” Ringo nodded and got out, walking around to the pump. Tammy walked inside and asked the woman behind the counter to start the pump for a fill-up, surrendering her Amoco card for payment.
The store had three five gallon fuel jugs, which she carried out to the car for Ringo to fill.
“When you’re finished, lock up and come inside,” she ordered. “It looks like they’ve got a pretty good sandwich shop and I’m hungry. Might be beanie-weenie’s after this, so we better eat up. And I need to use the bathroom.”
“Okay,” Ringo nodded, as he started to fill the cans.
Once he was inside Tammy ordered their sandwiches and loaded a hand basket down with jerky. She had Ringo get them a case of bottled water and two sports drinks apiece. She also purchased a cheap Styrofoam cooler and a bag of ice.
“Anything else?” she asked, looking at her travel partner. He picked up a bottle of acetaminophen, another of ibuprofen, and then some foot powder.
“What’s the powder for?” Tammy asked.
“We might have to walk,” he shrugged. Tammy snorted.
“As long as my car runs, we’re driving.”
“As long as it runs and we have an open road,” he nodded. Tammy got the powder. The woman happily rang up the purchases and ran Tammy’s card. She frowned as the machine said ‘wait’.
“What’s wrong?” Tammy asked. She wanted to get on the road.
“Machine’s acting funny,” the woman sighed. “All that money for this stupid thing and now it won’t work. Hold on.” She reached under the counter and brought out an old fashioned sliding card machine and a card blank. She had the slip prepared quickly and set it out for Tammy to sign.
“I shouldn’t be surprised, I guess,” the woman sighed again. “Nothin’ works this mornin’ it seems. Must be all these riots they’re havin’ in the cities.”
“Riots?” Tammy asked, accepting her copy.
“Yeah. Couple o’ truckers in here a bit ago said it’s all over the CB. Got a riot in Memphis, and word is there’s others in St Louis, Dallas, and Chicago. Not tellin’ about them city folk,” the woman shook her head sadly. “You kids drive safe.”
“Thanks,” Tammy tried to smile, and partially succeeded. “Let’s go,” she ordered Ringo, who picked up the cooler and followed her to the car.
“I think we better get going,” she said. Ringo nodded, placing the cooler in the back seat.
“I want to stay in the interstate as long as we can,” she told him, buckling her seat belt. “We’ll make better time. I. . .I didn’t think this would spread so quickly.”
“All it takes is a bite,” Ringo told her. “Once you’re bitten, that’s that.”
“How do you know?” Tammy asked.
“I seen it.” She remembered the fight she helped him with and nodded.
“Well, we aren’t gonna get bit,” she said firmly. “We’re going somewhere safe, and we’re gonna stay that way.”
Ringo nodded, saying nothing. Tammy shook her head in resignation, and headed down the ramp back onto the interstate.
Their first bit of trouble came less than an hour down the interstate. They were about twenty miles outside of Jackson when the traffic began to pick up quite a bit.
“What in the hell is the problem,” Tammy muttered. “Where did all this traffic come from?” Ringo began watching the other vehicles around them.
“What are you looking for?” Tammy asked him.
“Just keeping an eye out,” he said softly.
“For what?” she demanded.
“Trouble.” She sighed. One word answers again. Great. Through a short break in traffic she could see blue lights flashing. Now what? A wreck?
“This doesn’t look good,” Ringo said quietly.
“What? Why? What are you talking about?”
“They’re looking for someone, or something,” Ringo answered. “Might be us, too,” he added.
“Why would they. . . .” she trailed off. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Nope,” Ringo shook his head. “There were a lot of people back there. For all they know, we just randomly killed people on the highway and drove off.”
“Well, that’s just great,” Tammy snorted. “What do we do now?”
“Let them look at us,” Ringo shrugged as he pushed his sword beneath the back seat, along with her bat. “We cleaned up at the truck stop. They don’t have a reason to search the car. Unless someone got your tag number, there’s no reason for them to stop us.”
It was the most he’d said at any one time since she’d met him, but it didn’t really soothe her any. Still, he was right. And they were trapped in traffic now, anyway. There was no way off the interstate and no way to turn back the way they came.
Traffic crawled slowly along the highway and angry drivers began to let their frustration be known with their horns. Tammy resisted the urge to join in. No reason to call attention to themselves and the horns weren’t working anyway. As they reached the half-dozen troopers, Tammy rolled her window down.
“How you folks doin’ this mornin’?” the trooper at her window asked.
“We’re fine so far, but the day ain’t over yet,” Tammy smiled. “Do you need my license, officer?”
“Where ya’ll headed?” the trooper asked, instead of answering her question.
“Home to see my daddy,” Tammy answered in her best ‘daddy’s girl’ voice. “He’s meetin’ my boyfriend for the first time.” She jabbed her thumb in Ringo’s direction. The boy looked suitably nervous.
“Where’s home?” the trooper asked, chuckling slightly.
“Fort Bragg,” Tammy smiled. “My daddy’s in the Army.”
“Is that right?” the trooper smiled. He was looking at both of them closely, while his partner was looking at the car through the rear window. “Just the two of you on this trip?”
“Uh, yeah,” Tammy looked puzzled. “Why?”
“Oh, we’re just doin’ vehicle checks,” he smiled. “It’s a pain, but the brass expect us to do it every month or so. Personally, I think they just want us to have to be out here in the heat.”
“Well, that’s not very nice of’em,” Tammy shook her head. “I bet they’re all in the air conditioned office, right now!”
“Wouldn’t doubt it,” the trooper nodded. “Well, you folks drive safe, hear? And don’t let your boyfriend get too anxious. He might pass out on ya.”
“Thanks officer,” Tammy smiled again, and eased away as the trooper motioned her on.
“He’s lying,” Ringo spoke finally as they sped up, leaving the impromptu road block behind.
“Well, duh,” Tammy replied sarcastically. “Ya think?”
“They weren’t looking for us,” he clarified. “They’re looking for infected.”
“How do you know that?” Tammy demanded.
“They’re all wearing gloves and they have masks around their necks, hidden inside their shirts. The guy on my side, his mask was showing.”
“Really?” he had Tammy’s full attention now. “I didn’t even notice.”
“You were too busy playing ‘daddy’s girl’,” Ringo snorted. “Good job, by the way,” he added.
“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?”
“I just said ‘good job’, didn’t I?”
“Well, yeah,” Tammy shot back a little lamely.
“You did good,” he nodded. “This might not be our only road block, though.” He thought about it for a minute.
“I think you’re right about staying on the freeway, though. We’re less likely to draw any real interest, as long as we aren’t looking sick or bloody. If they’re looking for infected, that’s probably all they’ll be focusing on.”
“Well, I’m glad you approve,” Tammy snorted. Ringo sighed deeply, and leaned back.
“This is going to be a long trip,” he murmured.
“What’s that?” Tammy demanded. “You say something?”
“Not a thing.”