Benjamen Carter held onto the vinyl covered handle molded into the roof of the SUV, gripping it with white knuckled fierceness as the corporal piloted the careening vehicle down the pothole strewn road. ‘Pilot’ was a more appropriate description than ‘drive’, Benjamen mused, as the car seemed to spend more time in the air than in contact with the road. As if in response to that thought, they struck another large hole, which sent him bouncing off his seat and lurching against his seat harness. He gripped the handle even more fiercely while he hugged his leather satchel against his chest with his other arm.
“You’re going to break an axle,” Benjamen warned, trying to keep panic out of his voice. He didn’t relish the thought of being stranded out on this road, miles away from the walls and safety of the forward operations base.
“Don’t worry about it,” the corporal insisted, “They built these things better than that.” As if to punctuate his point, he hit an even larger pothole.
“Jesus,” Ben exclaimed as his grip was temporarily pulled loose from the handle, “I think you’re doing that on purpose.”
The corporal laughed, then swore as a figure lunged in front of the car. He jerked the wheel to the side, putting the car onto the shoulder, then yanked the wheel back to reacquire the road. The tires spun and slid, and for a moment Ben was certain they would crash. They didn’t.
“Sorry about that,” the corporal offered, “I wasn’t laughing at ya. It’s just that my dad always called that thing your hanging onto The Oh Jesus Handle, ’cause thats usually what ya want to be saying if you’ve grabbed hold of it. I just never heard someone actually say it out loud before.”
The corporal seemed completely unphased by their near disaster, and it occurred to Ben that the apology was only for the laughter and not the driving.
“Just get us there in one piece,” Ben answered, wishing for at least the tenth time that he had waited for a helicopter rather than jumping at the first available transport to the base.
Why was he even doing this? He was a historian, not a soldier. He should be back in his office in Kansas City, pouring over documents dropped off by others more suited to such adventurism. Field work was never his calling. But if the rumor was true, if those lost pages had been found, he couldn’t trust this to anyone else. Nobody else seemed to understand the importance of it, the unique insight that this artifact would grant into such a pivotal time in human history. He couldn’t just sit there, waiting and hoping that the document might make its way to him from so deep inside uncleared territory.
“We are almost there.” The corporal’s statement broke Benjamen from his revery. Sure enough, he could see the walls and lights of the base ahead. As they approached, another figure shambled into their path on the road. The corporal artfully swerved around it, sending the creature spinning as it bounced off the reinforced mirror jutting from the passenger door. Closer to the base, many more such figures could be seen.
So many of them. Finding a path through to the gate, it would be impossible. Ben was about to say as much when a path began to open up. Almost in unison, two of the undead were flung onto the ground, their heads disappearing in a spray of black ooze. Then two more. And two more. The corporal slowed his approach to avoid driving into the hail of bullets before the path was clear. Soon, none stood between them and the gate, and the gunners began aiming at targets farther away on either side of their path. Ben tried to see where they were shooting from, looking for muzzle flashes, but then he realized he wouldn’t see any with the weapons they were undoubtedly using.
The gates opened, and they drove through to safety. They didn’t enter the full base immediately. The main gate granted access only to a quarantine area, with high fences separating it from everything else. After parking their vehicle beside several similar SUVs, the corporal and Ben entered a shack made of corrugated sheet metal where they were poked and prodded with detached medical efficiency. Lacking any zombie bites or any sign of infection, they were allowed to leave by a second door that exited into the base proper. Almost as soon as they stepped outside, they were met by another uniformed soldier, a tall woman who’s short brown hair was almost completely concealed by a red trimmed beret. The corporal snapped to attention.
“At ease,” the newcomer ordered, “Go grab some chow or something, I’ll take care of the professor from here.” The daredevil corporal quickly departed.
“Technically I’m not actually a professor,” Benjamen began to explain, “I’ve doctorates in anthropology and history but I don’t presently have a teaching position…” He trailed off as he realized his audience probably didn’t really care about such details. “Just call me Ben.”
“Well Ben, I am Sergeant First Class Emily Rochester. You can call Emmy.” She stuck out his hand, which relieved Ben of the impulse to salute. They shook hands, and then Sergeant Emmy set off across the base with Benjamen in tow. “The base commander sends his regrets that he can’t meet you in person, but he told me to help you however I can. I have to admit, a lot of us are pretty excited about what we found, and were are really hoping you can tell us if its the real deal.”
“I am hoping that too,” Ben gasped as he tried to keep up with the Sergeant’s brisk pace.
“OK, here we are.” Emmy let them into another shack-like building, an office decked out in typical military austerity. The sergeant sat behind a particle board desk that could have come from any pre-collapse office store. She motioned for Ben to pull up a chair while she plucked a folder from one of the desk drawers and dropped it on the desk. “So, what do you think?”
Not knowing what condition he might find the pages in, Ben tentatively opened the folder and looked at the top page without touching it. It was handwritten on unlined paper. Printing shown through vaguely from the other side. He carefully turned over the page and found that it had been written on the back of a coffee house menu. All the pages were like that. His imagination played the scene on the screen of his mind… A stack of menus sitting on a counter surface. A band of survivors, guns drawn, dashing in to look for supplies. The menus, perhaps almost an afterthought, claimed as a replacement for the journal that was lost. The handwriting looked right, but he had to be sure. Ben opened his satchel and pulled out a thick three ring binder. Sergeant Emmy’s eyes widened.
“Is that…” she began to ask.
“Its just a photocopy,” Ben explained, “I wouldn’t risk the originals here.” Ben opened the binder to a random page and then laid one of the new pages next to it. He squinted carefully at the two for a while before declaring, “Yes, its definitely written by him.” Ben looked up to see the Sergeant beaming like a new mother.
“I knew it,” she declared with pride. “When we found it on recon, I knew it was important. I was certain it was from him.”
Ben knew he should answer, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the page. He found himself reading it.
It was all going so well up until we began scavenging in the engineering building at the university. At first we were ecstatic. We had hit the mother load… a treasure trove of tools and components I could use on the next generation ZKR. I had my nose buried deep in one of the supply closets when all hell broke loose. Literally. Suddenly the place was swarming with dead. They had poured out of a set of double doors from an adjacent room, cutting me off from the rest of my group. I just ran. After almost plowing into another group of dead in the hallway, I cut into a classroom, through to the adjoining lab, then back into another hallway and running. I could hear gunshots somewhere behind me. And the howls. The howls of those damn monsters when they’ve got the scent of prey.
More would be coming. All that noise… every undead freak in the area would be heading this way. I wanted to try and find the rest my group, but I knew I couldn’t stay where I was. It just wasn’t safe. Not with the place now destined to become zombie central. I would need to get clear, then we could all regroup and meet somewhere. I just had to contact Michael with my radio.
That is when I realized. My duffel bag was still sitting on the ground next to a supply cabinet in a room full of zombies. The bag that held my radio, food, water, even the pistol that Jack had insisted I take.
My journal. It was also in the bag. It should be the least of my concerns, and yet I feel its loss more profoundly. I don’t think I realized until this moment how important writing in my journal has become to me. I think it has kept me sane through all the insanity. It might be the only thing keeping me together right now.
Ben reluctantly tore is attention away from the page. As much as he wished to continue reading, he knew he should not leave the Sergeant just sitting their waiting on him.
“I’ll finish this later,” he said as he carefully put the page back into its folder and the folder into his satchel. “Right now, I should probably grab some dinner. Then if possible I would like to talk to the soldiers who found the pages. There descriptions of exactly where and how they were found might add some important context.”
“Sure, I’ll get you pointed at the mess hall. The squad you want to talk to is on a patrol right now, but I’ll bring them around to the commissary as soon as they are off duty if you are OK with hanging out there for a while. The commissary is right next to the mess hall. It doesn’t have much selection, but the beer is cold at least.”
Ben began closed his three ring binder and began to slide it into his satchel but then noticed Emmy’s eyes fixed on it. He recognized the longing he saw there. He thought about what it had been like for him when he had first found the journals. The eagerness with which he had devoured the words. The slow dawning of the significance of his find.
He made a decision.
“Would you like keep this?” he offered as he held the binder out to her.
“Oh I couldn’t,” she answered reflexively, but her hand moved slightly toward the binder. The decision had already been made to accept it.
“It’s OK, really,” Ben assured, “This is just a copy. I’ve got others. Besides, I don’t really think of it as mine. I’m just a… curator. This is our history. I want you to have it… to read it. Everyone should read it.”
Emmy took the binder from him. She seemed to be contemplating her next action, as if torn between her promise to assist Ben and her desire to begin reading the journals. Ben decided to make the decision easy for her.
“Hey, I’m sure I can find my way to the mess hall myself,” he suggested. “I saw the corporal head that way. How about I leave you here to catch up on whatever work I’ve been keeping you away from, and we can catch up later at the commissary.”
“Sure, that sounds like a plan.” Sergeant Emmy stood and offered her hand to Ben, “I’ll be here if you need anything in the mean time.” Ben stood and shook her hand again. Emmy looked down at the binder sitting on her desk, then looked back up at Ben. “Thank you,” she said with considerable feeling. Ben simply nodded in reply. He felt he should say something more, but it seemed he had depleted his words. Anything more offered to the conversation would be awkward, he thought. He turn and left, but looked back into the office as he closed the door behind him, catching one last glance of Sergeant Emily Rochester. She was already sitting again, with the journal open before her.
She had begun reading.