They didn't stay in Hollywood very long. Kept running into all the wrong celebrities. Apparently Bill Murray had been the smartest of the bunch, hiding in plain sight, and everyone else was dumb enough to get bit up and turned. Columbus had been all broken up when they'd had to kill Harrison Ford, kept mumbling, "Han, what happened? What happened?" Wichita had decided it was time to split at that point. Tallahassee had been forced to concur.
"Listen," Tallahassee said the night they left. Wichita was on driving duty, Columbus was asleep in the front seat. Tallahassee leaned in close to Little Rock and squeezed her shoulders. "Listen, I'm real sorry about that Hannah Canada."
"Montana," she said, but she didn't have the heart to sound too annoyed. She'd taken it better than Columbus had taken old Indiana's death, but Tallahassee didn't think it could hurt to say something to her anyway. "And her real name was Miley Cyrus."
"Right. Sorry." He nodded sagely. "Maybe we could listen to some of her music sometime."
Little Rock looked a little less sad at that. "I'm sorry we killed Bill Murray."
Tallahassee wondered if he should've been more depressed about that, but it was one death piled onto billions more, and by no means the worst death he'd had to deal with. "Me too," he said anyway.
On the way out of California, they hit up a Wal-Mart in Palm Springs. Tallahassee stood in front of a wall of Twinkies. "Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid."
Wichita came up behind him - snuck up, and he'd be damned if that happened again - and asked, "What's so stupid?"
Tallahassee pointed to the sweets. "Coulda saved myself a hell of a lot of heartache if I'd'a gone to a Supercenter before."
Wichita shrugged. "Where's the fun in that?"
Girl had a point. He picked up a Twinkie, then another. Then a case. Better to be safe than sorry.
Wichita eyed him skeptically. "You gonna eat all of those?"
"Shut up," he huffed. He stared at the case for a second. "Not like they go bad or nothing."
"You're gonna get fat," she warned.
He rolled his eyes. If Columbus kept making them follow his dumb cardio and stretching rules, a Twinkie wasn't going to hurt his waistline and they both knew it. He heard a lurching noise to his right; stuffing the case under his left arm, he pulled his gun out, took aim, and shot. It looked like Wichita got the head, but he'd gotten a pretty good hit to the body. "It's not like I'm going to gorge myself," he said. "I just wanna have 'em around."
She holstered her sawed-off and said, "You're already getting a little chunky."
Wichita smiled coldly. "Don't think I'm saving your ass if you can't run anymore."
He scowled even though he knew she was joking. After what they'd been through - Columbus had made some weepy pronouncement of bonding and family and some other weak-ass crap at the amusement park, and it was embarrassing but he'd had a point - there was no way she couldn't be joking. "Leave me alone."
She shrugged. "Little Rock wants Sno-Balls." He grimaced and she chuckled at the deep pain in his soul, before grabbing a box and leaving.
He brushed a fleck of skull off his case of Twinkies, then thought better of it and dropped the case for a clean one on the back of the shelf. Better safe than sorry.
He picked up an extra box of Sno-Balls too.
It was Little Rock's turn to drive. Columbus didn't like scheduling her for as much time as the rest of them, but Tallahassee and Wichita thought it would only be fair for her to get more time behind the wheel. Little Rock just liked scaring the crap out of Columbus with her driving, and that was all fine by Tallahassee.
The only downside was that the driver chose the music, and now they were being subjected to the Jonas Brothers. Tallahassee hoped they could go to Jersey and shoot the little bastards. He didn't even care whether they were zombies. He glanced in the rearview. Wichita was asleep, and Columbus was too busy white-knuckling the back of the passenger seat to be annoyed by the music.
Not that he had any reason to be scared. Little Rock was a good driver. He and Wichita had been taking turns with her, and between the two of them she had the whole driving thing down pat. But she was seeing the same thing he was in the rearview, and Columbus being nervous was making her nervous. Tallahassee half-turned and glared at the kid. "Settle down, cupcake." Columbus looked a little scared, but he peeled his fingers away from the upholstery and sank back into the seat. Little Rock glanced at him from the corner of her eye and smiled; he smiled back.
Fifteen minutes later, Columbus was asleep, curled up against Wichita. Little Rock spoke quietly. "You think there's anywhere that's zombie free?"
It seemed like forever ago that he'd crushed Columbus' dream of finding a safe, happy place. Then, he'd thought it was necessary to toughen the kid up.
Now, he wanted to lie.
But he ended up saying, "No," after a second. He knew Little Rock wanted the lie, but she deserved the truth. When he looked at her, she was staring out at the road with her lips pursed, and he felt a little guilty. "Maybe we could make one."
"Maybe," she said. The Jonas CD was coming to an end; wickedly, she set it back to the first track to let it play over. He pretended to be annoyed.
They cleared out an Army surplus store outside Dodge City. Mostly, Wichita cleared it out, going ape-shit on just about everything until all that was left were some tattered clothes and a few boxes of MREs. She and Little Rock were both a little antsy, and either Columbus didn't know why his girlfriend was acting the way she was or he just wasn't spilling to Tallahassee. For his part, Tallahassee didn't like it one bit and couldn't wait to roll out.
Tallahassee's turn to drive. "Feel like hittin' Wichita, Wichita?" She glared at him from the backseat, like she was thinking about killing him. From the looks of her, Tallahassee decided this time she wasn't joking. "Okay, fine, we'll go around it." Little Rock was quiet, a little too subdued, next to her sister. Bad memories. He could dig. Not even the dogs of hell could drag him back to Florida.
He was planning on stopping in El Dorado, but Little Rock piped up and asked him if he could just keep on driving 'til they got to Missouri. It was a long haul from Dodge City to the Missouri border, so Columbus ended up taking the wheel at El Dorado anyway. Tallahassee tried to sleep for a couple hours. The second worst thing about the zombie apocalypse, he thought, was how it fucked with sleep cycles.
And so it came to pass that when they pulled into a motel just over the border, he was wide awake at 3 AM. They cleared it, ate their MRE dinner - he conned Columbus into taking the only "ham slice" meal so that he could take the Jamaican pork chop the kid had pulled - and Wichita and Columbus crashed on one bed while Little Rock took the first watch.
Tallahassee lay on the second bed and watched her watching the window. After a few minutes, she turned back to him and said, "You're kind of creeping me out."
"Sorry," he said. He took his eyes off her and stared up at the ceiling. "Why does Wichita hate Wichita anyway? Ex-boyfriend or something?"
"Something," Little Rock said.
That probably wasn't it, he figured. "Your folks?"
"Who said you could pry?"
"I wasn't-" Of course he was. And he didn't even know if he had the right to. "Sorry."
There was a long pause, real long like she was giving him the silent treatment. Then she said quietly, "Our dad."
It was only two words, but the way she said it made him sound worse than the zombies.
Melee practice on the walkway outside their motel rooms. He didn't much like the idea of staying in the same place for too long, but Wichita had pointed out that they'd only been stopping to sleep or stock up since leaving Hollywood, and everyone was getting a little crazy from driving all the time. He took the rolled up, duct-taped mattress and leaned it up against the closest pillar.
"Little Rock, get over here," he said.
That gave him pause. "It's the apocalypse. What in the hell are you busy with?"
Tallahassee rolled his eyes and went over to her room. They would all sleep in the same room at night for safety, but during the day, everybody got a little space. Well, he and Little Rock got a little space. He was pretty sure there wasn't much space between Columbus and Wichita at the moment, wherever they were. "I wanna work on your form out here," he said through the door.
"I'm busy," she said again, sounding far more exasperated than earlier.
He thought about just busting in, but then he remembered she might be doing girl stuff in there. Civilization may be gone, but that was no reason to act uncivilized. "Can I come in?"
She waited so long to answer that he almost took it as a no, but finally she said, "Sure." He opened the door; she was on the ground with a shoebox filled with pictures and an empty photo album in front of her.
"You and your sister?" he asked, pointing to the box with his baseball bat.
Little Rock picked one photo up and handed it to him. "Her and our mom," she said. Sure enough, there was Wichita, around the same age Little Rock was now, and their mom who looked just like the two of them. "I'm putting them in the album, 'cause it's easier to carry."
"Yeah," he said. He looked at the picture but didn't really register it; he hadn't taken any pictures of Buck, except the ones in his wallet. He hadn't had the time to go home and get them. "You wanna tell me about her?"
Little Rock didn't even hesitate. "Nope. Just help me sort 'em."
Tallahassee put his bat down and sat next to her on the floor. "It'd probably help not to ignore your past."
"You do," she said. If it were anyone else, he would've thought she'd meant to be hurtful. But she was quietly sorting through pictures, arranging them by date, and besides, she was right. The only way he'd figured he could survive was to bury his old soul and move on. A picture in a wallet, a story about a dog to strangers. Behavior that should have gotten him killed ten times over. This had been his response to the plague. He looked at her a little closer. Her hands were trembling.
Her gun was on the other side of her. Tallahassee figured she was about eleven years old, and her gun was on the other side of her. If a grown-ass man like himself could get knocked that far out of alignment after the end of the world, he didn't even want to know what it was doing to an eleven year old who was already killing for survival. Tallahassee pulled her close to him and held her against him. They didn't cry or anything, they just sat there until he heard her breath even out in sleep.
He began slipping the pictures into the photo album. She and Wichita could rearrange them later.
They headed north up to Iowa for a bit, then veered east. It took a total of seven hours of driving to hit Chicago; not having to obey speed limits was nice. There didn't seem to be much other than zombies in the city, but everyone was a little sick of driving around and staying in these tiny little towns with nothing around them for miles. It was about time to hit a big city, and besides that, Tallahassee had a plan.
Columbus stood outside the car and stretched. "Home of deep dish pizza, the Bears, and Barack Obama. Hey, you think he's a zombie?"
Tallahassee wasn't really political, but he didn't want to think too much about the president being a zombie. Now the vice president, that guy would make a pretty funny zombie. But thinking about the president would just be crossing a line. He smacked Columbus's back a little harder than he had to and started walking around.
"Where're we headed?" Wichita asked. "Don't think we'll be able to get a deep dish anywhere around here."
Tallahassee smiled broadly and said, "The beach."
Columbus didn't look quite as happy as the ladies, but that boy needed some sun and Tallahassee refused to feel guilty about it. He had a plan, and no pasty little nerd was getting in his way.
They'd had to go to Macy's first, as nobody had thought to pack swim wear for the zombie apocalypse. And there was an FAO Schwartz there, which Little Rock had insisted on visiting, and Columbus pretended he wasn't also insisting, but all of them knew that was bullshit. And Wichita had asked Tallahassee what his game was, and he hadn't answered but they both knew that anyway too. Wichita was okay with it, which gave Tallahassee peace of mind; Little Rock didn't seem to mind when he'd tossed her a toy gun that shot Nerf balls and proceeded to play against her until Columbus got in their line of fire.
Him and Little Rock against Wichita and Columbus. Probably a little unfair. Probably a little weird, considering what they'd have to do for real, with real guns, if one of them ever got infected. But he crushed that thought, and they made it to the shore in good time with Frisbees and buckets with little plastic shovels tied to them, drove the SUV right up onto the beach, and set up the portable CD player with that Miley Cyrus album Little Rock had picked out. Today, they would be normal. Today, there was no zombie plague. Wichita produced a Polaroid camera from he didn't even know where, and held it out in front of her so she could get a couple shots of the whole lot of them with the water in the background. They were too big for a wallet, but he could stick them to the dashboard all right.
They played on the beach and in the surf for hours. Little Rock completely hustled him at checkers, winning half a box of Twinkies that he knew she didn't even like too much. He pretended he'd been letting her win the whole time. When the sun started going down, they decided to pack up. It was Tallahassee's turn to drive, and Little Rock clambered into the passenger seat beside him. "Where're we headed now?" she asked, drowsy.
He thought for a second. "Motel," he said. "Then I don't know. We'll have to talk." Wichita and Columbus were already conked out in the back.
"I think we should choose a new name," Little Rock said.
"What do you mean?"
She turned around a little in her seat. "Well, we can call each other by our real names, and whenever someone else asks us who we are, we give them a group name." Little Rock pulled one of the pictures off the dash and looked at it thoughtfully. "Like Chicago."
Tallahassee knew the two in the back were already calling each other by their real names. He was still scared of getting attached, but Little Rock wasn't. Maybe he shouldn't be either. Maybe she wanted a real dad for the first time in her life - not that Wichita had been doing a bad job of raising her, but maybe Tallahassee needed to be a dad again, too. Anyway, he was pretty dumb and she was pretty smart, so he nodded and said, "That sounds like a fine idea."