The man named Ken did as I told him. He ran. He didn’t look back.
He didn’t know my eyes followed him as far as they could into the darkness. I wasn’t checking up on him. Not really. I knew the fear he felt for his family. They were the same worries I had for Jay and Annie.
I knew the fear he felt of me.
The same fear I’d felt of Harvey.
That some loose cannon, some crazed person, could take it all away in an instant.
That crushing sense of failure hanging over you. That you’d spent so long surviving zombies, only to be destroyed by another person. Someone who should have been helping you to survive, not ripping it all away.
So I knew, unarmed, he wouldn’t take any risks. He’d seen the pistol. He trusted I could be spooked into using it.
I wasn’t used to being someone’s Harvey.
I felt wrong, misplaced. I hadn’t even found the guilt I knew was coming, not yet. It was just something looming over me, a sense of impending hell. As though I’d sent the universe, the greater powers, a message.
I was bad now, tainted. A creature of this new world, fit to be punished.
“Ken…” It was too late, of course it was. He’d scurried away from the maniac I’d become as quickly as he could.
My voice was soft, low. Shamefully so.
The voice of someone hollowly asking for redemption. Not someone who wanted to help or really make amends.
There was no answer from the darkness.
I pushed forward, into the park. Avoided the girl’s body. Drank the water I had left and refilled the bottles. Stashed them away. Resting only for a minute, I forced myself to continue through the park.
I stopped and listened regularly. Nighttime was silent, with no other beings closing in behind me. I felt more secure once I was out of the park. Even the weight of the packs, gnawing into my skin, felt lighter with the relief of completing a step of my journey without further trouble.
Once I hit the outskirts of town, I flicked the safety and stashed the pistol under my waistband. I felt even safer out here in the wide open. The moon shone, the empty world glowing around me. I stuck to the thick overgrowth, regularly shifting the weight of my packs, trying to ignore the discomfort they caused.
Finally I could ignore it no longer, and trekked deeper into the overgrowth. I slid both packs off my back and laid the pistol beside me. I sat under the moonlight, carefully sipping water and finally popping open one of the smallest tins of food.
I thought about Jay and Annie. How great it would be to see them again. How much happiness these supplies would bring us. The seeds –
Ken snuck into my mind again. I wondered if his kid was young and tough like Annie, a real little trooper. I wondered what he and his wife would do if he came back to her mostly empty handed.
For a long, bleak moment, I finally felt the guilt seep into my heart. I could have told him about the house, how to get in, how much food was left in there. It’s what I would have pleaded for someone to do for me. Despite everything else we’d had to do, it was this that made me feel like I’d crossed a dark line. It was the first thing I’d done that was borne purely of selfish survival instinct. It hadn’t been a life or death situation, it hadn’t been like the girl I’d killed. That had been her or me.
I hadn’t just refused to help him, I’d made him give up some of his precious few items.
With a surge of disgusted anger, I picked myself up and struggled back into the packs, the pistol back securely under my waistband.
I walked without thinking, the adrenaline of my fear and sadness pushing me forward. Jay would make this better. I’d tell him what I’d done, and he would understand.
I walked for hours, my trip slow and unsteady, the packs making everything difficult. Every part of me ached and faltered with exhaustion.
I knew sunrise was working against me, that I was pushing it to make it back to the farmhouse in time. I also knew, after everything, I didn’t want to spend another entire day out here on my own. I had to make it.
I walked harder, faster. As fast as my struggling limbs could move.
Sunrise was coming, a mottled grey sky opening up, when I could finally make out the silhouette of our farmhouse in the distance.
I pushed myself into a shambling run, the heavy packs bouncing against me, each bounce slamming into something that was already aching. I pulled the gun out of my waistband and kept going.
Something caused me to hesitate as I finally reached the door.
I had no time for more hesitation. I checked around me for followers but saw no one in the dim approaching daybreak. I left the safety on but held the gun up, ready, and pushed tentatively on the back door.
To my surprise, the door fell open immediately.
I shrugged the packs off and dropped them just inside the door. Sensing movement, I clicked the safety off.
Something felt wrong.
“Charlie?” His voice was hoarse, different – but unmistakably still Jay.
“Thank Christ,” I breathed. I put the safety back on the gun and placed it down beside the packs. “Thank Christ.”
“You’re okay?” He asked as I fell into him, pushing myself as hard against him as I could. I wanted to fade into him, just disappear for a while. Let him do all the thinking, deciding, talking. Just not exist for a while.
“I’m – I – I will be.” I answered finally. “How are you? Where’s Annie?”
I didn’t realise it until he finally spoke, but he didn’t answer for a long time. I was so lost in finally seeing him again that the long silence passed me by quickly. I was already starting to feel better just being here.
“Charlie.” Jay pulled away, turned his back on me. I felt the silence sink between us this time, a heavy feeling of dread that settled in the empty space he’d left.