Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1000 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days
Jim Collin’s eyes snapped open. His senses were flooded as his mind woke up from unconsciousness. Two things overrode everything else. The room was very bright, and Jim hurt. Jim wasn’t a stranger to pain, but this was a level he’d never managed to achieve before. His entire body throbbed with a deep and intense pain like a constant electric current. He wanted to go back to the blissful darkness of unconsciousness. In the eternity of a second, Jim figured he was awake for a reason. He pushed back against the pain as hard as he could. It dulled, but not much. It was enough for him to start processing the rest of the world.
Jim’s eyes finally focused. He was in a hospital room. That didn’t make any sense. The last thing he remembered was with that group of soldiers in the valley. Why had he been in the valley? Jim struggled to remember. Zombies. It had something to do with zombies. That was why the Zombie Strike team was in Wyoming. Was that right? He tried to wade through the soupy mess of memories that wouldn’t form. Then, the door opened and all of Jim’s thoughts stopped.
She looked good. Her auburn hair had some wisps of gray. She was wearing her hair short and straight now. There were some aging on her heart shaped face, but she still looked a decade younger than her age. There was a little more weight on her thin frame, but it just accentuated her natural beauty. Her eyes hadn’t changed. There were still the warm pools of hazel that always managed to make Jim forget everything. Jim knew he was staring. He couldn’t stop himself. Even after all of these years, she was still so beautiful.
"You’re awake," she said, "Thank God for that." Her voice was still the melodious soprano, but there was a new timbre to her tone. They just stared at each other for a long silent moment. Then she gingerly stepped into the room.
"What are you doing here?" Jim blurted out, and instantly wanted to take it back. She flinched at the question. With great effort, Jim held up his hand. "Wait, I’m sorry. It’s a little hard to think straight right now."
"Well, that’s understandable," she answered cautiously, but there was an undercurrent of warmth in her voice. She smiled, and Jim could feel his pain lessen. Her smiles always managed to do that. The silence returned as each tried to think what to say next.
"Where have you been, Nate?" she asked, her smile melting to tears. She stormed to his bedside. "You just disappeared. Everything that happened and you just disappeared. I didn’t know if you were alive or dead or …" Jim didn’t let her finish. With all the strength he could muster, Jim snatched her off her feet and enveloped her in a desperate embrace.
"Don’t Jeannie," Jim murmured, "Don’t." They just held onto each other, feeling emotions neither expected to feel again. It was more than passion, more than love. It was that deep emotional connection poets and songwriters desperately tried to capture in their work. For the first time in years, Jim finally felt like he belonged in the world again. Why in God’s name did he ever leave this? Leave her?
Then the memory slammed through him. Jeannie felt him stiffen as his mind replayed that horrific night. He remembered that desperate look on her face. The look that pleaded with him. His arms went limp. She scrambled off of him with as much as grace as she could muster. From the look on her face, she was remembering that night also. The last time either of them had seen the other. There was panic on her face, and shame. Jim groped for words. He needed to tell her it was alright. It wasn’t her fault. He didn’t blame her for the choice she’d made. He hoped she wouldn’t blame him for his choices.
Memories flooded his mind. Jim could still see her sitting at her dining room table so many years ago. She was sipping a glass of red wine, waiting for impatiently for someone who wasn’t coming. A sudden look of surprise, delight, and something else as Jim stepped through the door. No, not Jim. He was Nate then.
The happy memory was torn apart as the face of a man stormed into Jim’s mind. The lower half of the face was covered by a black bandana, but Jim could clearly see the man’s black eyes. They were smoldering with a dark hatred. It was the face of the minion that led five thousand zombies through Jim’s home state. The man that shot Jim. Pain flashed through Jim’s head. The man’s face opened a torrent of memories. Jim could make sense of most of them. He remembered why the Zombie Strike team was here. He remembered fighting against the zombies with that group of soldiers. He remembered the flash of the rifle’s muzzle as the minion shot Jim. The minion’s face froze in Jim’s mind. Why did he keep coming back to that man’s face? Jim knew there was something that his mind was trying to tell him. Something important about that minion. Jim grunted with frustration. Why couldn’t he remember?
The minion’s face vanished as Jeannie put her hands on Jim. He looked up at her, letting all of his thoughts just fade into the background of his mind. All he could concentrate on were her eyes. Those warm hazel eyes. Those eyes full of concern, of love, and an unspoken promise made all those years ago. Jim wanted nothing more to accept that promise. To leave this life he’d created after that night. To find a life with some semblance of real peace. All he had to do was tell her. A few words were all it would take. The moment was shattered before Jim could form the words.
"Jim we need to talk," growled Mateo Cortez from the doorway of the room. Mateo was Zombie Strike’s field commander, and Jim’s team leader. Mateo was dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. He could have been mistaken for a refugee from Silicon Valley. Except for the pistol holstered at his right hip and the smoldering fury in his dark eyes. Jeannie involuntarily stepped away from Jim. Mateo had that effect on people when he was angry.
"You’ll have to excuse us, ma’am," Mateo said without looking at her. The tight controlled tone belied the politeness of his words.
"I don’t think that’s…" Jeannie’s protest died as Mateo flashed a glare at her.
"It’s okay Jeannie," Jim said reassuringly, "I’ll be okay." There was reluctance in her look. She didn’t want to leave him alone with Mateo.
"I’ll come by and check on you later Nate," she said before scurrying out of the room. Jim’s eyes darted back to Mateo, but the team leader didn’t seem to notice Jeannie’s slip of the tongue. There was an uncomfortable silence between the two men. Mateo stalked across the room and loomed over Jim. It wasn’t the first time Jim had seen Mateo’s infamous rage, but it was the first time it was directed at him. Jim was at least ten years older than Mateo, but that look made Jim feel like a little boy that had just come face to face with the monster under the bed. Long silent seconds passed.
"Before we left, I asked you if there was anything you wanted to tell me," Mateo said in a tightly controlled voice, "You told me no, and I let that pass. I figured you’d tell me if it was important. After all, a man is entitled to his secrets." Mateo’s face darkened.
"Unless those secrets threaten my team." Jim’s blood went ice cold. "I read the transcript from your encounter with the minion. Some of the things you said to the Army people make me think you know more about why that minion is here. So, now I can’t let you keep your past anymore. No more secrets," Mateo said through gritted teeth, "You will tell me everything you know about what’s in that valley, or so help me God, you will not leave this room alive." Sudden realization flashed through Jim. Not the realization that Mateo was serious. Jim already knew that. No, it was the realization that in his attempt to hide his past, Jim had hidden things his team needed to know. Good God, he had almost let them walk into Death’s Grove without warning them!
"I’m sorry Matt," Jim croaked as he was filled with shame, "I’d been hiding it all for so long, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you." Mateo held up his hand. There was no forgiveness in the man’s eyes.
"Tell me about Nathan West," Mateo said.