The sun was two hands above the horizon. Dust blowing up from the south had just become visible, the ghost of a pink stain padding the sky. It was too late in the day to be this hot, but that meant nothing. Grif spat on the road, expecting it to sizzle. He heard Mike’s bike before he could see him. Knew that sound anywhere.
Mike had come back from Pittsburgh to say he got the gig. He asked for volunteers and of course, Grif said yes. So Grif got his ride ready and loaded up his saddle bags with provisions to meet the others by the clubhouse. They were heading east.
Grif liked to keep his bike shiny. He rubbed the rendered pig fat and corn oil along the gas tank and struts, down the exhaust. When the fat was boiled long enough it stopped stinking. This stuff was not boiled long enough. His bike was unpainted, because he liked the way the sun hit the old metal. Without paint, he could catch the rust before it took hold. Rust was the enemy. Parts were hard to find. He topped off the tank with ethanol, and took a swig himself for the departed.
The clubhouse was a crumbling motel on the outskirts of Chillicothe. A line of motorcycles was forming in the parking lot. Women and children gathered outside the main office to watch the men line up for the trip. They all wore the leather with their club’s logo painted on the back. “Enduring Vengeance,” flames and a skull. It was the longest running club west of The Jersey, and north of the growing southern dustbowl.
Grif and Mike were like brothers. They played together in the dirt clumps behind the old motel. Grif had a set of old toy soldiers, Mike sometimes found firecrackers. When Mike’s parents were murdered by xombies up north, Grif’s dad took him in.
“Watch out for those goo-brains,” he had told them both. “They don’t look dangerous. You might think they’re skinny and weak but they ain’t. They don’t talk, so don’t try to reason with ‘em. You run. They’ll come at you before you can do anything. Deadly evil. Just run. You run’s fast as you can. You find me or anyone from our chapter. Don’t let ‘em get close to you.”
Mike and Grif grew up together, survived the membership tests, and joined the same chapter as their dad. Mike was taller than Grif, had long straight black hair and grey blue eyes. He beat all challengers in hand to hand brawling and could drink his share and stay clear headed. Grif loved Mike, as a brother, as a member of the pack, and more. When Altus died, Mike became the leader of their chapter.
Under his command, the chapter raided weaker camps for water and supplies. Nobody dared to mess with the Mennonites or the Amish, but there were plenty of other farming communities to raid and force into servitude. They won over the fealty of several settlements under Mike’s leadership, but they lacked the support of one of the Boss Families. The wealth of one of the major families might provide the support they needed to grow their chapter, and gain control of more land. This was why Mike had decided to go to Pittsburgh for a gig.
Mike and Grif knew the old roads from stories passed down from Altus. The pack of bikers was riding east on the inner-states. Most of it was passable. They rode in a long line, avoiding sinkholes and rubble where the inner-state was too far gone. Roads like these needed tending, and there was no one to tend them now, except the xombies. You didn’t want to ride on their roads anyway. If the road looked too good, or got shiny it meant there were xombies near. Xombie roads were dark gray and shined like gleaming coal. The road they rode along now was safe, just a pale grey narrow strip between the encroaching trees and brush. Grif had been told the inner-states used to be at least twice this wide, smooth, and easy on the wheels. Those days were long gone.
They camped the first night east of Pittsburgh, making do with what was left of an old service area off to the side of the inner-state. They passed that night without incident.
The next day, they circled around Scranton, another town under the control of one of the boss-families. Scranton wasn’t as wealthy as Pittsburgh, and the clubs there were hostile to Enduring Vengeance. The pack took a wide birth. Mike told them they were getting close.
They were well past Scranton the third day out on the gig when Grif thought Mike missed a turnoff. The road had gotten shiny, making everyone nervous. The pack kept going even though it meant they were in danger. Mike knew what had to be done, and was the keeper of the ways passed down by Altus. No one questioned his directions. Night came, and they made camp in a large flat square near a line of ruined long buildings with grass and trees growing up through old concrete.
The pack spent the night drinking around a fire like usual. Bedrolls were out for sleeping, everybody getting something to eat. A couple of members were playing shoulder punch, a couple of others were practicing knife throws. Grif was laying down, tired and drunk. The sky was clear, and there was a moon rising. The air was cooler here than back at the clubhouse. The group was in good spirits, excited about the job ahead, knowing it would mean more work if all went well. It took a long time before anyone saw the girl. She was standing just past the edge of the firelight, wearing a thin white dress, just looking at them.
Mike got up to point his rifle. Then he stumbled. He fell. Grif thought he saw his head go off on its own, away from his body. Other members of the crew scrambled for their guns and they fell. Blood sprayed onto Grif’s arm, and into the fire. Grif forced himself to stay down, reached to the side for his rifle and shot in the direction of the girl. She wasn’t there anymore. There was yelling behind him. He heard movement off past the fire, away from the road, and he was running in the direction of his bike.
He kicked the starter hard and was away. He counted six others who made it. Nate, Barrow, Trig, Lester, Dewey and Haight. There should have been twenty more, but Grif knew they weren’t coming. They crested a hill and saw a bridge. It looked a mile long, spanning a big river. Grif checked behind him, expecting to see xombies. “Over the bridge!” he yelled to the others. He gunned his engine down the hill.
Grif yelled to his fellows, “Far side and make for the trees!” Mike was dead, and he couldn’t allow himself to think about it. He was next in line. The others followed him. He didn’t know what the gig was. His only thought was to get the rest of the pack to safety. If he had the dynamite, he’d blow the bridge behind them once they crossed. All of it was back at the camp.
They roared across the long dark bridge, the wind in their hair, drink in their guts, straining to put the danger behind them. There was a town ahead. Grif thought he may have made a mistake, but it was too late to turn around. Only speed could save them now. Flashes of light sparked high up in the cables ahead of them causing Grif to rise up and get a look. Something punched him hard the the chest. He saw his bike go on without him. In the air, he reached to grab the handlebars again. Something else hit him in the eye and his body slid along the pavement to a stop.