Chapter 20

I lay in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep. My whole conversation with Doctor Bryson kept replaying over and over in my head like a broken record. I couldn’t believe I’d just exploded on him like that. It wasn’t his fault that my life had gotten so screwed up. It wasn’t God’s fault either, despite my best efforts to lay the blame on Him. No, it was me. Me and my stupid unwillingness to look for help. I thought I could handle it all on my own. Boy was I wrong.

Then there was the dream. I still hadn’t told anyone besides Odette about the new version. I’d thought it was just a dream. I mean, sure, I knew Robert was out there and that he was gunning for me, and he had killed me in the dream, but I hadn’t really thought it would happen for real. Then Odette had given me that shoulder rig, and suddenly my death seemed a whole lot more… I wanted to use a word other than “imminent,” but couldn’t come up with anything more appropriate.

Odette. She said she was doing a lot better now, and judging from the way she’d acted after Doctor Bryson’s “treatment” (for lack of a better word), I believed her. If her coming back from the brink and accepting the truth was the only positive outcome of this whole fiasco, than I really didn’t mind.

I must’ve fallen asleep at some point that night, because the next thing I remember, I was startled into consciousness by a pair of twenty-odd pound objects landing on my chest, followed a second later by a brutal attack on my face by a pair of wet, smelly, slobbery things. I opened my eyes to find Dan and Ann on top of my chest, mercilessly licking my face.

“Okay, okay,” I laughed, “I’m awake! I’m up! Stop it!” They continued their attack, giving me no quarter. “C’mon, cut it out!” I tried to shove the two beagles off me so I could get out of bed, but they just squirmed around my arms and resumed their assault. “C’mon, stop it!” I was laughing so hard that tears had started to run down my cheeks. “Hondo! Help!” Hondo immediately leapt into action, though not in the way I’d hoped; he trotted up and joined his two canine comrades. “Traitor! Oh, no! No, not on my mouth! Yech! That’s gross, Hondo!”

“Awww!” I managed to crane my neck around to see the rest of the team and my entire family standing in the doorway, watching my predicament, all of them trying very hard not to laugh.

“Help!” I begged, but not one of them moved to come to my aid. Instead, Scotty pulled out a video camera and aimed it at me.

“Dude, this is goin’ on YouTube!” he exclaimed as the little red light next to the lens blinked on.

“Aw, no, c’mon guys!” I pleaded.

“Monster Hunter Killed Killed by Cute Puppies,” Shannon laughed at the possible title.

“Nope, by vicious killer werewolves,” Chris corrected, unable to banish his smile. Jon, Dominique, and Odette were just standing there trying (and failing) to contain their laughter. The Twins were roaring laughing, Mom was laughing along with them, and Dad was just standing there and shaking his head, but even he was smiling.

“Okay, seriously, get off!” I laughed, giving the two beagles one final push, “I want to get up!” Dan and Ann finally took the hint and reluctantly jumped off the bed, each giving me those hurt puppy-dog eyes that melt hearts as they made their way over to the assembled crowd. Hondo followed a second later as I sat up and swung my legs off the side of the bed. The three of them all sat down in front of the crowd and started whining like I’d been ignoring them for weeks.

“Oh come on!” I said, “You guys know I love you.” All three of them shot me those big puppy-dog-eye looks. Darn it, they knew I couldn’t resist that. “Okay, okay,” I said as I walked over and scratched them all behind their ears, “That better? You know I love you guys. Happy now?” Apparently it was, because all three of them got up and pushed through the crowd, probably heading towards the cafeteria and their breakfasts. Mom, Dad, and The Twins followed after them.

“Thanks guys,” I said sarcastically to the assembled crowd, “you all were a huge help.” They all laughed at that, and I laughed along with them. “Seriously, give me a minute to wash my face off and get some pants on and I’ll be down for breakfast.”

“Breakfast ended an hour ago,” Shannon said, “You slept through it.”

“An hour ago? What time is it?”

“Just about ten,” Odette replied, “I told them about last night; we agreed you needed your sleep. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell your family about the, ah, argument, just that you couldn’t sleep and stayed up late handloading.”

“Thanks,” I said. Mom and Dad had enough to worry about. “So what’s up?”

“Eli called,” Dominique said.

“It’s finished?” I asked excitedly.

“Yep. He’ll have it here in an hour.”

“Yes!” I shouted, fist-pumping the air. Shannon and Odette laughed; the guys rolled their eyes.

“So get dressed and grab some chow,” Dominique said, “it should be here by then. You can meet us in the motor pool.”

“Sweet! I’ll see you down there.”

I ran into the bathroom, stripped, and took the quickest shower of my life. I was literally in and out in less than five minutes. Once I was dry, I quick threw some clothes on and sprinted down to the cafeteria to fix myself some oatmeal. While it was in the microwave, I gave into temptation, pulled a slice of bread out of the pantry, and stuck my head inside the fridge and grabbed the Nutella. I was just about to unscrew the lid when I noticed a small Post-It Note stuck to the side of the jar.

Don’t Even Think About It.
-Odette
P.S. This means you, Steve.

I ate the slice of bread plain.

Once I finished and got cleaned up, I ran back to my room to grab my checkbook before racing over to the motor pool. I got there just in time to see flatbed tow-truck back into the garage. On the back of the truck was a ’69-GTO-shape covered by a black cloth. Only the bottoms of the new American Racing Torq-Thrust rims were visible poking out from the bottom of the tarp. I felt my heart rate increase.

“Steve! You almost missed it!” Odette called. The rest of the team and my family (along with all four dogs) were already gathered in the garage, waiting with eager anticipation. Even Mom and Dad, who were normally indifferent to my muscle-car obsession, were excited.

“Hey Steve-o!” Eli called as he swung down from the truck’s cab. Eli was thin like his older sister, but a head shorter. His head was shaved, making him look like a young Samuel L. Jackson.

“Eli!” He walked over and pulled me into a “man-hug,” (handshake followed by a quick slap on the back) “Looks awesome.”

“Dude, you haven’t even seen her yet,” he laughed.

“Maybe, but Dominique showed me pics of some of your other work, so I know it’ll be incredible.” Eli glanced at the floor, embarrassed.

“Sis…”

“Hey, I just showed him the pics, lil’ bro. He knows quality when he sees it.”

“Enough talking!” Jake said.

“Show us the car!” Terry finished. Both were nearly bursting at the seams with anticipation.

“Right!” Eli said, “Let’s get this show on the road! Sis, can you give me a hand?”

“Sure thing,” Dominique replied. A few moments later and they had the car unhooked and rolled off the flatbed.

“You guys ready?” Eli asked once it was on the ground.

“YEAH!” We were all waiting for this moment with baited breath. My heart felt like it was going to explode it was beating so fast.

“Okay!” Eli said, then turned to me, “Steve, you want to do the honors?” He gestured at the cloth covering The Beast and made a yanking motion.

“You bet!” I said, doing my best to walk calmly over to The Beast instead of sprinting and laughing like an idiot (which, honestly, I really, really wanted to do). I walked around to the rear of the car, grabbed the cloth, then looked over at the crowd.

“One…” I started, “two…” everyone else joined in, “THREE!” I yanked the cloth off of the car.

“Dayum!”

“COOL!”

“Wow!”

“That is awesome!”

“It’s beautiful!”

“Uh, lil’ bro, it’s, uh, it’s blue.”

“Yeah, I know,” Eli assured her, “It’s cool. Steve and I were going over the documentation, and it turns out the idiot who bought the car ordered it in Windward Blue, then decided he didn’t like it and had it repainted black.”

“How does that make him an idiot?” Mom asked.

“Windward blue was a special-order color for ’69 Goats,” Eli explained, “Very rare, and if you ask me, a lot better looking than black anyway. Steve and I talked it over, and we decided to re-paint it in Windward. Right Steve? Steve?”

“Steve, are you okay?” Odette asked.

My jaw was hanging slack, and my knees had suddenly become so weak that I could barely stand up. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.

The Beast was absolutely beautiful.

“Eli…” I said as I finally found my voice, “this… this is… this is incredible!” I think I was actually crying when I said that. “Thank you so much!”

“Don’t thank me ‘till you’ve fire it up,” Eli replied, then tossed me the keys.

“Yeah!” The Twins shouted. “Fire it up! Fire it up! Fire it up! Fire it up!” Pretty soon, everyone had joined in the chant, even Mom and Dad. Hondo started barking in time with us, then Dan and Ann started howling along. Only Lulu looked genuinely uninterested.

“Okay, okay! I’ll start it up. Yeesh!” I said in mock-annoyance. Really, I was even more eager than they were to hear The Beast come to life. I popped open the door, slid into the driver’s seat, paused for a second to let the anticipation build (and savor the new-car smell of the restored interior), then slid the key into the slot and turned it.

“WOAH!” The thundering roar echoed off the garage’s walls. I revved the engine, blipping the throttle and laughing like a madman. It sounded absolutely wicked. I don’t know what Eli did to the engine, but it sounded like a whole new car; incredibly smooth and incredibly mean. I just sat there, revving the motor and cackling wildly like a man possessed, for what felt like hours before reality finally returned and I killed the engine. I quick pulled my checkbook out of my pocket and made one out to Eli before opening the door and returning to the world

Everyone was cheering as I climbed out of the car. I walked over to Eli and presented him with the check.

“Dude, that is the most incredible, bad-ass car I have ever seen,” I told him, “Thank you so much.”

“My pleasure, Steve,” he said. He took the check, and his eyes bulged when he saw the amount.
“Woah, dude, this isn’t right!”

“Yeah it is.”

“But… but this is twice what we agreed!”

“And you earned every penny,” I said.

“Steve… I can’t take this.”

“You can and you will,” I told him, “I meant what I said; this is the most beautiful, incredible, bad-ass GTO in the history of Pontiac.”

“Thank you…” was all he could manage.

“No, thank you,” I replied, doing my best not to start crying again. “Thank you so much.” I pulled him into a hug. He clapped me on the back in return.

“Ahem!” Jon cleared his throat and the two of us quickly released each other and turned back to the crowd. “So,” Jon continued, “who gets to ride shotgun during the test drive?”

“Well…” I said, mulling it over. Truth be told, I hadn’t thought about it…

“Well,” Dominique said, “As team leader, I feel that I should be the one to make the sacrifice and help Steve put The Beast through its paces.” A chorus of boos and jeers erupted from the assembled crowd.

“Steve, we went to school together,” Jon implored, “Pick me!”

“Don’t forget I let you shoot Abomination!” Owen said.

“We’re your brothers!” Jake and Terry insisted, “We should get first dibs!”

“And I’m his father,” Dad said, “I should get the privilege.” I knew he was jealous of his roommate’s Charger!

“Can I go on the first ride?” Shannon asked, “Please?”

“Steve, pick me and I’ll give you unlimited access to my Tannerite supply!” Scotty said.

“I’ll let you shoot my Ma Deuce,” Chris said. Mom shot him a look. “What? It’s a machine gun!”

Actually, guys, I think I’ve made my decision,” I said, then looked Odette square in the eye. “Odette? Wanna go for a ride?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yep. C’mon, let’s go.”

“I don’t know…” she said.

“We’ll only cruise around inside the compound,” I said quickly, “I don’t want to take her outside and have wights or whatever mess it up right after I got it.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about that,” she said, “but the thing is… ah, it looks like someone else decided for you.”

“Huh?” I looked over at The Beast and saw…

“Hondo? Aw, c’mon!” While everyone was arguing over who got dibs on shotgun, Hondo had quietly trotted over to The Beast and climbed in the open driver’s-side door, and was now sitting in the passenger’s seat giving me a look that said “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

Everyone started chuckling as I marched over to The Beast. “C’mon Hondo, get down!” He looked at me like I was crazy, but didn’t move. “C’mon, out of there! It’s not your turn.” He gave me that look of absolute hurt and betrayal he gave me whenever I tried to discipline him. I rolled my eyes. That move had lost its affect years ago. “Hondo. Out.” He stared whining but slowly climbed out of the car. “You’ve got second dibs, Hondo, I promise. He just shot a hurt look over his shoulder as he stalked away. I turned to Odette.

“So how about it?” I asked. “Wanna take her for a spin?”

“Sure,” Odette replied, a big grin spreading across her face.

**********

It turns out that the compound used to be part of a coal town, owned by one of the companies that ran Scranton’s various coal mines decades before. After the mines went bust back in the late 40s, the town was all but abandoned. The mining company eventually demolished most of the houses and wound up selling a big chunk of the property to MHI for a song back in the early 70s. Though nearly all of the old houses and stores were long gone (a handful near the firing ranges had been restored and converted into a Hogan’s Alley), most of the town’s roads remained, and nearly all of those were long and twisting.

It made for a perfect testing ground for my reborn Beast.

I’d started off driving cautiously and conservatively, both to get a feel for the car’s improved handling and to not freak Odette out by driving like a maniac. But after spending a few getting used to The Beast, I had to glance over at Odette. She looked back at me, gave me a big smile, gestured at the long straightaway in front of us, and said three short words.

“Go for it.”

I needed no second bidding. I racked the shifter into 1st and floored the gas. The Beast’s engine bellowed as the rear tires started to evaporate in a cloud of white smoke. I let off the gas just a little, the tires found traction, and we raced down the road. I hit every upshift almost perfectly, laughing like a madman all the while. Odette had a huge grin plastered on her face. The end of the road arrived far too soon, forcing me to downshift and break as I swung the wheel hard to the right, the back end on the ragged edge of breaking loose. Tires squealed in protest, but I was able to hold the turn.

“Are you okay?” I asked as we roared into the next straight.

“This is just like a roller coaster!” Odette shouted over the roar of the big V8.

“Sorry,” I said, letting off the gas.

“Don’t be!” she said, “I love roller coasters!”

“Really?”

“Yeah!”

“Well, in that case…” I downshifted and floored it again. Odette let out a whoop of delight before joining me in cackling like I’d lost my mind.

Soon the straight ended and I slid onto a long, twisting thoroughfare.

“This new suspension system is incredible!” I said. It was true; before, The Beast would have slid all over a road like this, but now it was hugging it like the finest German or Italian supercar.

“It is really nice,” Odette added. “I bet the tires help too. Those old polyglass slicks were worthless.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, then realized what she’d said. “Wait, you like muscle cars too?”

“A little. I kind of had to get into them when Robert and his father restored that Chevelle, and I read up on the GTO back when we tried to restore this thing ourselves. Remember?”

Come to think of it, she had spent an unusual amount of time helping out in the garage.

“You seriously like these things?” I asked.

“I’m learning to.”

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“I… I thought you might think I was weird,” she admitted, “I mean, muscle cars aren’t something girls are supposed to like.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, “We hunt monsters for a living! Weird kinda comes with the territory, don’t you think? And either way, if you ask me, a girl who likes a classic like this isn’t weird.”

“What is she?”

“A dream come true.” I said. Odette looked at me like I was crazy, and I suddenly felt a compelling need to remove my foot from my mouth. Then she laughed that beautiful laugh of hers. She wasn’t laughing at me, not to insult me, anyway.

“You’re weird,” she said with a smile, “Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Yeah,” I replied with a smile of my own, “I’ve heard that a few times.”

“We should probably get back,” Odette said, “Everyone else is probably getting impatient.”

“Yeah,” I said, “too bad.” I turned back towards the motor pool. The big garage appeared down the road a few moments later. Everyone was standing outside, watching us approach. Dominique flagged us down.

“She still has to wait for Hondo to take his turn,” I said with a laugh.

“Ah, Steve, I don’t think she’s thinking about getting a ride right now,” Odette said, her voice suddenly very serious. And she was right: as we approached, I could see that Dominique’s face was all business. I pulled up next to her and killed the engine.

“Get your gear together,” she said as I cranked the window down.

“What’s going on?” Odette asked.

“We just got a call from Earl. Zombie outbreak in Philadelphia. It’s big: last reports said at least 500 undead, and the number is rising fast.” I felt my face pale, and I turned towards Odette. She looked just as frightened as me.

“What does this mean?” she asked.

“It’s begun,” I replied.

<><><><><><><><><><>

Author’s Note: for the curious, here’s what The Beast looks like:

Chapter 21

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