Death didn’t find me that morning.
Some kind of uncomfortable, futile sleep had fallen over me, somehow. I started awake suddenly, my entire body aching from lying cramped in the bathtub.
I didn’t feel any kind of relief to be alive. I’d almost hoped for death.
Sleeping without barricading anything, without even checking the rest of the house, had been reckless. I hadn’t cared when I’d hidden in the tub and I barely cared now. The risk registered dimly somewhere in the back of my mind, but the silence in the house around me only enforced that it hadn’t mattered anyway.
Death had been in this house, but it left me untouched.
I climbed out of the tub, carefully avoiding touching or even looking at the gun I’d taken. The ammo rattled in my pocket and I pulled the box out, sitting it on the floor next to my pack.
I was trying not to think, to remember, but I must have only slept fitfully for a few hours. Everything that had happened resurfaced in my mind, as fresh as when I’d been in the moment.
I thought of the little girl. The one now lying in the dirt at a park, alone. The one who I’d feared as a monster. But the way she’d screamed…
I could hear it snaking around in my mind. The haunting cry of something inhuman one second, and then the pitiful cry of a child the next.
What really twisted in my stomach was thinking about the adult male one, who had led the other kids. He’d been instructing them, following some kind of plan in his mind.
If that were true, he couldn’t be completely gone. He still had some intelligence, some link to the person he’d been. Which meant…
I tried to stop the thought. I knew what dark path my mind was headed down before the thought was formed, and I tried to crush it.
My mind raced full speed ahead.
What if the girl wasn’t completely gone?
What if she hadn’t been able to talk, but she was still a little girl, hiding somewhere beneath the sickness?
Just what had I killed?
I stood before the basin and stared into the mirror. My reflection was smoky, laced with the layer of dust that sat over everything. Still I could see my hollow eyes, my grimy, ratty hair. The splatter of her blood that marked my cheeks.
Sickened, I ripped open my pack with trembling hands. Uncapped a bottle of water and splashed my face, again and again. I rubbed the skin so hard it felt raw.
I set the bottle down on the basin and braved looking in the mirror again. My cheeks were flushed red, but most of her blood had washed off. I rinsed my hands and forearms, clawing to rinse them clean.
I drank the last quarter of the water, not even sure I could keep it down. I still had a couple of full bottles, but it was stupid to have wasted an entire bottle. I’d just had to… I’d been able to feel her blood on me, twitching on my skin, crawling.
I put the empty bottle back in my pack and just sat on the bathroom floor for a long, silent moment. I didn’t cry, I was finished crying. I just had nothing left in me. I kept seeing the girl when I closed my eyes, my mind reconstructing her, healing her, until she looked healthy again.
I no longer remembered her screams as primal, as predatory. My mind betrayed me. I remembered only the haunted cry of a child.
My eyes fell on the gun. It was starting to look like a solution.
The noise might draw hordes of them, but I would never know. I’d be gone.
I picked the gun up and just held it. I wasn’t an expert, but I’d fired before. Just casual shots, down at the pistol range. I was overall a terrible shot, but this would be close range…
Trembling, I checked the safety. I zipped the gun and ammo into their own section in my backpack. It wasn’t the safest place, I couldn’t reach it quickly, but at the same time… It was absolutely the safest place.
I was here to get supplies for Jay and Annie. Without me, they’d have to take their chances with the other survivors. Assuming they could even make it that far. I needed the gun, but I also needed it away from me. The sick desperation running through my veins jaded everything. My heart was clouded, heavy with darkness.
I felt no hope, no energy to continue, but remembering Jay and Annie lit a small flicker of something within me.
I let the feeling burn quietly until I felt I could at least stand.
I slid the bathroom cabinet open. It had been mostly raided – maybe the old man had used this stuff to try and help his wife – but the discovery of a strip of painkillers and a box of bandaids caused the small feeling within me to bloom.
I stuffed them into my pack. There was little else here worth taking.
I moved into the next room, another small bedroom. No one was sleeping forever here.
I found a couple of blankets that I could roll and squeeze into my pack. They were bulky and I would possibly have to ditch them later, but they were also ideal for the cold nights we were facing.
Digging deeper into the wardrobe, I retrieved a couple more jackets and a small backpack. I rolled them up as tightly as I could and squeezed them into my pack.
The second backpack might come in handy, although I knew it would make my trip out of here awkward. My current pack was nearly full to bursting point.
It was afternoon by now, the short winter day gradually giving way to the moonlight. My senses were blazing, an ominous tingle of fear and danger surrounding me.
I wanted to check the kitchen here before I left, but I wanted to be on my way as soon as darkness fell. I crept back to the top of the staircase, blocking the couple from my mind. I was close to them again and I could feel it rattle me – an uneasy, morbid feeling.
There was no movement around the house that I could see, no sounds that didn’t belong. The world slowly entered its nightly slumber, nothing unnatural here to disturb it.
I descended the stairs slowly, gripping my shovel, ready for whatever things might be lurking in the thin shadows.
Nothing emerged from the darkness.
Shaking, I sank against the wall at the bottom of the stairs. The kitchen was so close. I paused for only a moment, forcing myself forward before I could let the fear overcome me.
The kitchen was empty.
I set my shovel and pack down to free up my hands and crouched down low, crawling along the floor. I had no idea where those kids with their leader were now, but I didn’t want to risk anyone or anything seeing me through the kitchen windows.
I cracked the pantry door open as little as I could to get access.
The contents had me weak at the knees and I had to brace against the door frame to hold myself steady.
There was still plenty of tinned food left here. I wasn’t sure how long these people had stayed healthy in their house, eating their stores of food, but there was more left here than I thought I could carry.
I crawled back to my pack and pulled out the empty backpack I’d taken from upstairs.
Cautiously, I started pulling tins down from the shelves. Enormous cockroaches were scuttling around the bottom of the pantry, fleeing from my invading hands.
I’d pulled far more than I thought I could actually carry to the front of the pantry and now I reviewed the items, discarding the less useful items. I started packing the best food – fruit salad, tinned tuna, crackers, dried noodles – cramming as much as I could into the new pack, constantly testing its weight.
Once I had it packed to just about breaking point, I thought briefly of the risks I would be running. The two packs would slow me down. But if I could wear one on my back and one on my front, I could still sort of hold the shovel… or the gun… and have some kind of defense.
The added weight would mean a slower trip with more breaks. If I headed back now, I could still make it within the week with time to spare. I’d found little in the way of first aid supplies, but the food could save us.
The memory of Annie’s wiry frame and hungry eyes made the decision for me.
I managed to cram a couple more tins of fruit salad into my old pack and tested the weight of both. I could manage them, but barely.
With these new supplies, I knew the time had come to ditch the shovel. The idea sank into my knotted stomach, heavy and almost painful to realise. I clutched it for a long moment, tears nipping at my eyes.
I had no choice. It wouldn’t fit in any of the packs and the gun offered better protection.
I remembered Jay saving our lives with it. The zombie looming over us in the car, and then suddenly, gone. Jay standing over it, freeing us from the car, his face dripping with the thing’s blood.
I gritted my teeth and unzipped the pack, retrieving the gun. I checked the barrel and reloaded quickly, my faint memories of handling coming back to me in an instinctive flash.
I dragged my packs back to the front of the stairs. I had to check the rooms down here, just in case.
Adrenaline surged, pushing me to check the rooms quickly and more recklessly than I probably should have. I was rewarded with another pack of over-the-counter painkillers and two small boxes of bandages.
As an afterthought, I crawled back to the pantry and pulled two tins of tuna. I sat on the bottom step, the gun beside me, the packs at my feet, and devoured the tuna, the juice dripping down my hands, my stomach both relishing and shrinking away from actual food.
Once again, it was time to go.
I silently carried the packs over to the window I’d first entered the house through. Darkness was shrouding nearly everything now, but there was still some time to wait. I needed complete darkness to mask what would be my slow escape from here.
I sat beside the packs, hidden underneath the window. I chanced intermittent looks out onto the street, holding the gun ready each time I looked.
There was nothing out there.