After driving relentlessly for what felt like endless hours, we made it to Texas. This is kind of our 'reorienting' stop. From here we change direction sharply, heading southeast for quite a ways and making more frequent stops than we have recently.
We're staying at a decent-sized homestead in the northern part of the state. There are thirty people here, and my team slept in what is clearly some new construction: a long communal house, meant to hold around fifty people. It's not as spare as I would've thought given how hard it is to build things nowadays, with lots of space for families and privacy plus many small creature comforts. I mention this only as a fact interesting to me, since my brother has been moving toward this design in his constant efforts to rebuild and improve New Haven.
The reason the long house is bigger than it needs to be is that these people are expecting to raise more kids here. Four of the women are pregnant, and there are already five young children here. There should be six, and that sad and simple fact is what I find most fascinating about our stay here.
Sandra Duncan and her husband Brad are parents to two of those five children. The older one is five, and from what I've seen a pretty damn good shot with a rifle. The younger child turns a year old in January. Her name is Jenny. She's adorable, and I'm happy to report that during a minor scuffle with a small pack of New Breed zombies, I was pressed into babysitting while her parents picked off the attackers with gunfire.
I'd almost forgotten how great babies are. Given my experiences over the last few years, I might have tried to forget that on purpose. The moment struck me as pretty amazing, making nonsense words to the little girl and trying to make her smile while the muffled sounds of gunshots rang in our ears. I did it, too--she cooed and giggled, her soft smile and shining eyes gave my heart a little boost.
I'm a sappy guy, I know. I can't help it. Kids bring that out in me.
After, I talked with Sandra and Brad for a while. I learned that Jenny had a twin brother named Thomas who died just before he turned six months old. These people are regular contacts of ours--they know the lay of the land as well as anyone. Losing their child devastated them as it would any parent. They were inconsolable. Add to that horrible tragedy the knowledge, gained by hard experience, that they'd have to...do something about poor little Thomas after the plague activated in his small frame, reanimating him, and you can understand why it's taken this long for them to tell anyone about it.
They put Thomas to rest in a small makeshift crib with high walls after he passed, unable to bring themselves to harm their child's body as it lay still. When he came back, perhaps things would be different, they reasoned. Their instinct to protect themselves and their other children might kick in, and though they would hate themselves for it, they would act.
Except that didn't happen. Every person I've seen die (with the exception of people who've suffered severe trauma) comes back, unless you take steps beforehand to ensure it doesn't happen. You've all seen it. I know I have. And I've seen kids reanimate. Thomas didn't. He stayed gone. Eventually the family buried him, after it became clear that they wouldn't have to watch their child die twice. The longest I've seen a body go before turning is about ten hours, I think, though that's not counting people who were caught in the elements. Extreme cold can stretch that process into a few days.
Thomas died in the spring, and he lay in that crib for two days. It appears that he was never infected, which is something new. I don't know if it's important to our survival directly, if it's something that is more common than we think, or if this is just a one-off situation. I can speculate to the ends of the earth about why Thomas only had to go through the doors of death once, but the why of the thing is less important right now than the simple fact itself.
This child was not infected. We're all infected. That's what we thought. Every one of us a carrier, the hidden invader within us waiting for the heart to stop and the brain to cool before taking over. This is new. This is...I don't know the word. Amazing. Full of potential. If there were still a CDC or a government to run it, I'd beg for a vial of Jenny's blood to send out for testing. Maybe then it would be possible to create a vaccine so that none of us would have to worry about being eaten in our sleep after a loved one died in theirs next to us. Maybe then we could have a little hope that the next generation of people could live in a world where eventually there would simply be no more zombies.
But we don't have that capacity. There's still hope, of course, don't mistake me. I'm thrilled at this development, and it reinforces the romantic view I have of people as constantly evolving beings that can meet any challenge. How much more proof do we need than this? We might not be able to make a vaccine or, even better, a cure that could drop the zombie population in its tracks, but that's okay. Because we have proof now that the plague isn't unbeatable. We have a little light to guide us down a dark road.
I made little Jenny smile. She's a good girl, because believe me, she returned the favor.