I was fairly confident I was headed into the park on a different enough angle to avoid the dead girl, but still reach the creek. That was about the only thing I felt confident about, though.
The stalked feeling still sat on the back of my neck, sliding down my spine and sending an uncomfortably uneasy feeling to my stomach.
I let myself fade into nothingness under the canopy of trees, my senses on fire, listening for even the slightest unexplained noise or unexpected change in the air. There were no noises but my own footfalls and the empty nighttime sounds of the void the world now was.
No traffic, no people, just the odd insect and general hum of night.
I still felt pretty good about the direction I was headed. If I could shake the invisible target off my back, I’d have almost felt quite secure.
I fumbled in the dark, switching the safety off. A precaution, a way to be ready, an effort to slow my panicked heartbeat.
I heard someone behind me, much later than I’d sensed them. That prickling fear that crawled along my skin was a premonition. An instinct. They’d obviously tried to be careful, but some quiet part of me had registered their presence. My paranoia had tried to warn me and I’d almost dismissed it.
I was paying attention to it now.
Checking the safety was still off, I shrank behind a massive tree. It was dark under here, so dark I had no idea how close they really were or how well they could see me. Was he living, or undead? How fucking well could those things see, anyway?
Whoever it was, they must have realised I knew. Their steps were less careful now, much more distinct. Or maybe my sense were blazing so strongly I was only just now listening properly.
They were close. The bulky pack on my back made it difficult to really squash myself into the tree, but I tried anyway. My vision in the dark was impaired to only a couple of metres around, and I prayed they suffered the same handicap.
“Who are you?” They spoke suddenly. A man’s voice, gruff and jarring slicing through the silent dark.
Fuck, he was so close. Panic flared.
“Who the fuck are you?” I shot back aggressively. I held the pistol ready now, surprisingly steady despite the trembling fear overcoming me.
“I’m … Are you clean?” His voice was slightly less gruff now. He seemed to share my relief that the figure in the dark appeared to be human.
“I haven’t been bitten, if that’s what you’re asking.” I took a step out from the tree and was rewarded with the sight of him, his features smudged and hidden in the darkness. Just by his posture and steadiness alone, I could tell he wasn’t one of them, even without hearing him speak.
I held the gun on him anyway. After that crazy bastard Harvey, I trusted no one but Jay and Annie.
“Fuck, I don’t want any trouble,” He had made out the pistol and backed up. “I’m clean like you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?” I kept the gun exactly where it was, trained on this guy I instantly distrusted.
“I – I’m a survivor. I’m clean.” He repeated, then quickly, “My name’s Ken. I’ve been hiding out with my wife and kid, I… Look, I risked coming back in to town for some supplies and I saw you coming out of that house.”
“So what do you want?”
“I – we haven’t seen any other survivors. Not for the last week or so. I just wanted…”
His nervous answers were contagious, I could feel anxious energy building in the pit of my stomach. Maybe it was just because of what happened at the dairy plant, but I didn’t want to be anywhere near this guy. I actually didn’t give a fuck about him, his family, or what he wanted. I just wanted him to leave.
“Ken, I’m going to keep going, okay? And you’re not going to follow me anymore.” I gestured away from me, keeping my grip steady on the gun.
“Please…” For the first time, his focus drifted away from the gun. He seemed to be looking at my packs. “My wife, my kid… We don’t have much left.”
“What do you want?” I was ready to back away from him now. His desperation was becoming obvious.
“Have you got anything? Anything we could use? It’s just you alone…”
I wasn’t sure if he was threatening me or trying to make me feel guilty about his family. Either way, I didn’t give a damn. I felt empowered behind the pistol. It was a reckless feeling, but I ignored the whispers of caution and went with it.
“There’s…” Something made me pause. I was going to tell him about the house, and how much stuff was left. All the stuff I’d been unable to carry. But I hesitated, and my mind worked overtime in the pause.
This guy was nothing to us. He was vaguely threatening – at least, I felt that way in the moment – and I had no idea what he might be capable of, what his desperation might encourage him to do.
I thought of his unknown wife and kid. In a way, they were kind of just like me, Jay and Annie. Three survivors just trying to…
I could tell him about the supplies still left in the house, and he could feed his family. At least for a while. A nasty thought of what if was snaking around in my mind.
What if we needed those supplies? I knew the way into that house now, I’d faced the horrors it hid upstairs, and I knew what items were left in the pantry. There was a chance someone else might find it, but why give the items away to a stranger?
“What?” Ken asked eagerly. Despite the gun, he had moved closer and I could make out his features. He was middle-aged, I guessed. His face was unshaven, naturally, and the lines on his face were deep and etched in shadows. His eyes were empty and haunted, sharing the same hollow look I imagined was reflected in my own eyes.
“What have you got to trade?” I’d asked the question before I’d even properly considered it. Looking into his eyes made being so cold impossible. I shifted my gaze, choosing to stare at a patch of darkness beside him.
“Trade?” The disappointment in his voice sat heavily on my shoulders. It made me ache, somewhere between my heart and my gut.
“I’ve got some spare food.” I managed to keep my voice somewhat even, firm. “If you have something to trade.”
“I have a kid…” He said it quietly, the way I imagined he might talk to the kid if she’d disappointed him.
“So do I.” I said flatly. “And I’m thinking of her. If you don’t have a trade, I’ve got no more time to talk.”
I looked back at him in time to see, briefly, his nostrils flare. It was the only indication he gave that if I wasn’t armed, I wouldn’t have been safe.
After a long, heavy pause, he pulled a few grimy packets out of his pocket. “Seeds.” His voice wavered with a tremor of anger. “It’s all I have that we can spare.”
“Put them on the ground.” I gestured down with the pistol. “And step back.”
The less I let myself think, the more the selfish bitch in me took over. I could pretend I didn’t care about Ken or his family. A part of me didn’t care. It was easier to fear him. He could be just like Harvey.
The barely controlled anger in his voice betrayed him, I told myself. If I wasn’t armed, he wouldn’t hesitate.
I ignored the thought creeping in to my head. If I wasn’t armed, he wouldn’t be so angry because I wouldn’t be acting like this.
I pushed the thought away.
Ken didn’t speak. He glowered silently at me, but placed the small handful of seeds on the ground and stepped back. Keeping the gun carefully trained on him, I awkwardly bent down to inspect them.
They looked okay. They were dirty and old, but useful. A few winter vegetables. Maybe some things we could plant back at the farmhouse, if we could stay there.
“Okay.” I said finally. “Take a few more steps back and sit down.”
“I – ”
“Do you want some food, or not?” I snapped. The more he spoke, the more time I spent with him, the more I could realise he was an innocent survivor, just like us.
I just wanted this over. I had no idea what I was doing. I just wanted to make this trade I’d started and leave. I didn’t even want to think about what I was doing.
“Okay. Okay.” Ken took a few steps back and quickly sat on the ground.
I pocketed the seeds. Awkwardly, I unzipped my front pack and pulled out several tins of canned food. As an afterthought – borne of guilt, remorse – I included the smallest strip of painkillers I’d found.
I placed the items on the ground in the middle of us and backed even further away, holding the pistol steadily trained on him once again.
“Go.” I said, roughly. “Pick the stuff up and just go. If you try and follow me, I’ll shoot you.”
I wouldn’t. If he was Harvey, I think I could do it easily. But this man, whose only crime was to find me, to ask for help… I shook off a violent shudder that climbed down my spine.
Ken rushed forward and collected the items. He held them awkwardly. “Thank – ” He froze mid-sentence. He didn’t want to thank me, the filthy, terrifying girl that hid in the shadows with a gun held against him.
I didn’t want him to thank me. The weight of what I had done was rushing toward me full force. I could feel a wave of nausea rising.
“Go.” I whispered. My voice was harsh, jagged. “Just go.”