DECEMBER 10, 2039 – 7:05 AM
Garrett awakes on the floor with a start.
The couch is empty! Where is she? Where’s Cory? She had slept on the couch so where is she?
He jumps up sees the front door is still locked and chained. Garrett steps into the kitchen, sees the back door is also still chained. She must still be in the house.
The bathroom door opens and she emerges.
“What’s all the racket out here Garrett? You okay?”
He just sighs audibly.
“I am now,” he says.
They had got lucky picking this house to stay in last night. The toilets seemed to flush, the water from the kitchen looked pretty clean, the house contained zero zombies, zero corpses, and it didn’t smell like a mausoleum.
“How about breakfast? I have everything you’d like to eat in this pack right here?”
“Is that so?” Cory says, knowing he’s teasing her.
“Yup! Anything you might want as long as it’s either a protein bar or an apple!”
“Surprise me,” she says and shuts her eyes, thrusts out both palm up hands
Garrett opens his pack, pulls out her breakfast, and sets both an apple and a power bar in her hands.
“Open your eyes.”
She smiles but then drops the food and jumps into his arms crying.
He holds her as she sheds the tears that need shedding. He senses that it isn’t the time for questions or words. Maybe later but not now. She’s been frightened, living minute by minute, hour by hour for the last four years, alone in a wonderland of horrors. He can’t imagine how hard it must have been.
They stay that way, him on his knees, her hugging him, leaning into him, as her tiny body is wracked by sobs for a long time.
Eventually, she stops crying, pulls away from him, looks him in the eye then kisses him on the forehead.
“Thanks, Garrett. I feel better now.”
“So is it really zombie-free? Outside of Garland I mean,” Cory says as they proceed down Broadway.
“A lot of areas are, yes. But there are still cities like this, where men and women like me, … well we clean up and get rid of the zombies.”
They are walking west on Broadway when they see the checkpoint exit just ahead.
Then there are zombies. Two groups, five to the left, three to the right.
“I think they’re going to miss you Garrett says to her. “Look! They came out to say goodbye.”
Garrett pulls his two Glocks and faces those on the left. Cory pulls her revolver and faces right.
“Just like Butch and Sundance,” Garrett says.
“Who?” she says.
“I’ll explain later.”
She manages to drop one of her three, before Garrett politely interjects, “May I milady,” head nodding towards the two remaining staggering zombies.
“Why yes thank you, kind sir,” she says.
The zombies down, they walk the last quarter mile to the manned gate out of Garland.
The staff sergeant manning the gate looks to be about 15 years old. Garrett doubts the kid is even shaving yet. Behind the skinny, redheaded sergeant are dozens of other people, marines, reporters, civilians wanting to catch a glimpse of the internet hero and the girl he had rescued.
“You must be Garrett Connor and Cory Grayson?” the staff sergeant says through the locked checkpoint gate.
“That would be us,” Garrett says.
Garrett is acutely aware that his mood is up. For the first time since entering Garland, he has had someone to talk to. Someone he liked very much and that someone was about to go away. He is trying to ignore how much her departure will hurt. Tomorrow he will be alone. Again. Back to clearing zombies tomorrow. He tries to put the thought of tomorrow and even later today out of his head. He had promised NTZAACC twenty years and he had barely served 1.5 years so far. He doubts Cory will still remember him by then.
“Coming through, coming through,” a familiar voice says from the throng of onlookers.
Garrett looks up. Travis.
“Sergeant, what’s the hold up here? Let’s get these people processed and let out already.”
“Yes sir, right away sir,” the sergeant snaps.
“Do either of you have any recent bites or scratches?” the sergeant asks.
They both answer no.
“Please insert your right arm through the slot here, yeah, roll up your sleeve first, thanks,” he says to Cory.
Cory rolls up the sleeve of her soiled T-shirt.
The sergeant takes a small vial of blood from Cory. He pulls a thin strip of white paper from a pad, dips it in the vial. The paper turns light green.
“She’s clear,” the sergeant says.
Garrett kneels before Cory, hoping he won’t cry. “Well kiddo, I guess this is goodbye. I sure enjoyed…”
“Now you, Agent Connor,” the sergeant says, gesturing for Garrett to step forward to the gate.
Garrett had assumed he would have to say his goodbye to Cory here, but if they want to let him out for a few minutes with her, he’s okay with that.
Garrett quickly rolls up his sleeve and inserts his tattooed forearm into the hole in the gate.
The prick, the draw, the test.
“He’s clear as well Agent Travis,” the sergeant says.
This is no shock to Garrett. He has been here for 20 months. In all his time in Garland, the only physical contact he has had with zombies was shoving one away while wearing gloves, and once (something he still dreams about) when a zombie he hadn’t even seen, stumbled and fell into Garrett’s back. He had been wearing his pack luckily and completely unaware a zombie was approaching from his six. The gun was instantly in his hand, the zombie dispatched. But he had never been bitten, touched, scratched, or even touched the skin of one of the zombie residents.
They are let out of Garland. Two portable decontamination tents were set up early that morning Each unit was enclosed in its own long, narrow, canvas tent. They both enter, go through the five-minute decon routine, and are given clean clothes to wear.
“I’m going to need that pack back later!” Garrett growls to the private that is stowing his pack. When I go back.”
The private says something noncommittal and locks the pack in a set of lockers that stand adjacent to the fence.
Cory is dressed in blue shorts, a bright yellow T-shirt that has a skateboarding careening cartoon boy shouting ‘Cowabunga.’ Garrett thinks it might be a reference he remembers. Burt something?
He is wearing blue jeans that don’t fit at the waist and a white T-shirt. He’s holding the waist of the pants as he steps out of the far end of the long decon tent.
“Can we get this man a belt over here?” Travis shouts over his shoulder.
“You must be Miss Cory. You may not know this yet, but you have quite a fanbase on the internet young lady. You are a hero! You survived in there… ” Travis shuts up before he provokes anything he can’t handle. “Anyway, it’s a pleasure to meet you, young lady.” He extends his hand and she shakes it solemnly.
Travis turns to Garrett. Cory begins scanning the faces in the crowd. Looking for aunt Ruth.
“Handler Thompson it’s a pleasure to see you again,” Garrett says and extends his hand.
“Not like that,” Travis says as he brushes Garrett’s hand aside, steps in for a tight hug.
The hug continues until a familiar private says “The belt you requested sir.”
Garrett, Cory, and Travis are sitting in Travis’s mobile office. Which is a fancy way of saying his tent.
Garrett looks at his watch. Travis will want to wrap things up here quickly he assumes. If he’s back through the gate by 11:30, he might be able to knock out at the last twenty houses on Elm, then maybe slide over to Oak, scout a good place to crash for the night. Plan his approach for tomorrow.
“First you, Cory. We haven’t been able to locate your aunt Ruth yet. But this nice lady here is, what’s your first name Private?” Travis says
“Colleen,” the private says.
“Cory, this is Colleen. Colleen this is Cory. Colleen is going to drive you over to Rockwall and we are hoping you might remember where your aunt lived. Does that sound okay to you?”
“Okay,” Cory says.
Private Colleen leans over and whispers something in Travis’s ear.
“Oh right. Cory, can you think of any other relatives your mom or dad might have mentioned?”
Cory slowly shakes her head as if she is still thinking about it.
“Well if you think of anyone, anyone at all, please let Colleen know okay?”
“We’ll give you a couple of minutes to say goodbye,” Travis says. He and Colleen exit the tent.
Cory looks at Garrett and begins to tremble.
He picks her up and hugs her tight.
“Hey, hey, you are going to be okay! You are going to meet your family. One day, years from now, I’ll be out of here. You see I kind of owe these nice people a few … several more years of work. But one day I will find you okay? Don’t forget me okay?”
“Never,” she promises and he believes her.
“Okay!” Garrett shouts towards the tent door.
Colleen comes in and escorts the little girl, silently crying, out of the tent.
Garrett wipes at his eyes.
“Saying goodbye sucks,” Travis says.
Garrett wipes his eyes again, nods.
“It sucks but we aren’t sure Ruth will be found. We scoured the reconstructed internet records from 32 but we found no trace of her even then. I sure hope we find someone in her family,” Travis says.
They sit silently for a minute.
“So what time do I go back in? I think I can finish sector 5H today possibly.”
Travis holds a palm up. “You don’t go back in today. The success of our F2S (felons to sweepers) program worked out so well here that Garland has a huge influx of civilian volunteers. We decided to use them to finish up here. Hell, we were about 98% done here anyway. Even with just a few hours of training, if I put in two hundred volunteers armed with baseball bats and instruct them to stick together and not kill each other, they will be able to do just fine. Congratulations and thanks! Garland is a notch in your belt Garrett.”
“And then?” Garrett asks.
“And then? Well then I guess I’ll convert that civilian team of sweepers to be cleaners, probably have some dropouts at that point I’m guessing. It’s more glamorous to kill the z’s than to extract all their nasty ass carcasses out and start rebuilding Garland. But that’s not your problem anymore.”
“So where am I headed now? I hear Sherman still has sweeper teams in place? Isn’t that one of your cities?” Garrett asks. “Pardon me if this is out of line, sir, but I’d prefer to be assigned to another one of your cities, if I have any say in the matter, that is.”
Travis smiles thoughtfully, clearly touched by Garrett’s loyalty.
“Garrett, did you ever wonder why we didn’t get you some sweepers once your team started dying off? Especially once it was just you?” Travis asks.
“I figured you had your reasons,” Garrett says.
“Well, I guess I did. But mainly I was busy doing some other … thing. And also, I just enjoyed watching you work. It was selfish of me. I hope you’ll not think less of me.”
Garrett doesn’t think less of Travis. They own him for 18 more years. The sweepers inside worked alone anyway and each was just a reminder to the other of where they had come from. Prison. They talked on the radio every day and occasionally shared a few words on the times when their supply drops were combined.
Travis raises his eyebrows. No questions are asked.
Travis reaches down to a case on the floor and extracts a ruggedized tablet computer and a thick file full of documents.
“Watch this,” Travis says as he hands the tablet to Garrett.
It was a video of Travis having some altercation with a fellow teammate, Frank, during their training.
In it, Garrett was distorted with rage. He is sputtering, sweating, and heaving.
Garrett feels shame but then surprise dawns on him.
He has changed. His twenty months in Garland had done what his seven years in Huntsville could not. He felt like a different man, from the sputtering, hyper-reactive man on the tablet.
He hands the tablet back to Travis. Travis loads another video.
“Now watch this please,” as he returns the tablet to Garrett.
It’s his rescue of Cory in the alley. The aerial cameras even managed to catch a bit of them eating apples afterward. Garrett watches Cory on the screen, missing her fiercely.
“You’re not the same man Garrett. You have been rehabilitated. You are a new man. Hell, I knew this months ago, way before that thing with Cory in the alley.”
Eager to change the subject, Garrett deflects the conversation with a question. “The other thing? The thing that kept you from finding more sweepers for Garland? Is that what’s in the file?” Garrett asks, pointing.
Travis tugs at his lower lip, opens the file and begins dealing the various documents into a row in front of Garrett.
“Motions for clemency to the Texas attorney general going back to February. Appeals to the governor. Motions to overturn your conviction. Letters requesting a pardon for your crime in light of your rehabilitated nature and your service to ZAACC.”
“All denied?” Garrett says.
“Last week I had a phone call with POTUS. He said he felt for me and thought that he could almost see a
case for granting clemency but he wasn’t quite convinced it was the right thing to do.”
“I see,” Garrett says deflated.
“But that was last week. Once he saw the viral video of you saving Cory, he called me and told me to make it happen.”
Garrett doesn’t trust his ability to speak at the moment. But he has to ask, “Make what happen, sir?”
Travis reaches down into his attache again, retracts a thin white envelope. Tosses it onto the desk it slides to the edge. Garrett catches it before it falls.
“It arrived this morning.”
Garrett is sure he is just dreaming. He will awake to his alarm any second on a hard, living room floor, in some random house, in some uncleared sector, in Garland.
He opens the envelope and scans the contents inside.
The official letter of clemency, he starts to shake with disbelief and hope.
A small handwritten note inviting Garrett to the White House.
Travis sees him pick up the check.
“I thought it should have been for more. But that’s probably enough for a downpayment on a small starter house. Someplace you can call and make into a home.”
Garrett looks up, eyes wide.
“Hey, sorry! I read your mail! I felt entitled to after all the work I put in this year. Travis sweeps his arms across the desk indicating the row of documents.
“But … I’m … FREE now? I thought I signed on for TWENTY years? I’m free?”
“Correction, you signed up for a time NOT to EXCEED twenty years.”
Travis stands up and gives Garrett another hug. Garrett shakes for a bit, so Travis waits until he’s done before breaking the hug.
“Will this hurt as much as the injection?”
“I’m not sure. Yours is the first extraction we’ve ever done. Hey look, we can leave it in, if you know, you’ve grown attached to the little thing. Personally, if it were me, I’d prefer to have the C4-shaped explosive device removed from my neck. But hey, I’m not your boss anymore!” Travis laughs and slaps Garrett on the back.
“No, no, take it out. You can do that now, here?”
“MEDIC!” Travis shouts at the tent flap.
The flap opens and a corporal carrying two medical supply boxes enters.
“We are a go for STINGER extraction,” Travis tells the corporal.
“Well think about it. Take as much time as you need,” Travis says.
Garrett will think about it. It’s a terrific opportunity. Travis has asked him if he wanted to come work for him as either a trainer or assistant handler.
Garrett thinks about it and he keeps thinking he wants to stay a sweeper. But he’s almost certain he will take one of the other two jobs. After he visits Marlene.
“I have something I need to see to. Now that I’m free. If I’m …”
“STOP! This isn’t a gift; you deserve this. You have earned this. Go deal with whatever it is you need to deal with. Think about the offer in the meantime and, if you want, come see me when you’re ready.”