“What?” Jay’s voice was a sharp burst slicing through the charged silence. “You know each other?”
“We’ve met.” Ken’s hand wavered, but he regained control of the pistol quickly. “Sort of. Your friend here didn’t stop to tell me her name.”
“Look, man, I don’t know what’s going on here, but we need your help.” Jay moved to step toward Ken, but he reacted quickly, lining the gun up with Jay’s chest, his trigger finger carefully poised.
“My help?” He smiled wryly. “My help? Why would I want to help you… help her?”
“Charlie..?” Jay’s confusion was slowly retreating, giving in to fear.
“Shit.” They were coming now, the wall of tears that I’d been holding in. The guilt doubt over what I’d done to Ken and his family. It was an ugly, impure guilt, intensified by Ken’s sudden control over our situation.
If my regret ran only so deeply because we were under threat, I was truly a thing of the new world, a hollow version of myself.
“Go on, tell him.” Ken’s voice was flat, betraying no sign of any emotion. Just a solid determination, a gritty acknowledgement that he was in charge.
“Ken…” His wife had stood now, leaving their frightened son on the floor. She approached Ken, placing her hand carefully on his arm. “They’re just kids.”
“Tell him,” Ken snapped, shaking his wife’s hand off. “Tell him what you were happy to do.”
“I wasn’t!” I found my voice, the words now cascading clumsily out of my mouth. Hurried, unclear, I let my desperation speak. “I only did what I thought I had to. I wanted to call you back, but you were gone. I wasn’t happy to do what I did. Ken, please… I was desperate. We’re desperate. We need your help. Please. She was gone. She…”
“Ken.” His wife, trying again. Her voice was low, a subdued plead. “This is the girl?”
“Yeah, it’s her alright.” Ken didn’t shake his wife off this time, but he stood his ground, ignoring her touch. “She lied. She said they had a kid to look after.”
“We did.” Jay spoke now, taking a step forward, ignoring Ken’s jerky movements with the pistol. “Fucking shoot me then. You think it matters now? We went to see the people you told me about. They wouldn’t let us stay. You know what they did, Ken? They wanted to keep my sister. She’s about the same age as your son here.”
The tiny boy shrank back as Jay took half a step toward him.
“Don’t – ”
“I’m not going to hurt your son!” Jay snapped. “I’m not like them. Did you know what you were sending us to?”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Ken still held the pistol, but Jay’s furious question had given him pause. Despite the invitation, he didn’t shoot.
The full reality of what had happened hit Jay as we stood there. I could see the curtain fall over his eyes, a dark realisation that silenced the fury. He staggered backwards, back into the wall, sinking down to the floor.
I didn’t want Ken’s attention back, but I had to speak. We had to know if he knew anything, if he might help us.
“Ken.” I said softly. “You told us about the group of survivors. We found them. They wanted to keep Jay’s little sister. We got away, but they… They came and took her. We haven’t been able to find them. Did you know? Was it a trap?”
“What?” Ken’s wife stared at him in horror. “What did you do?”
“Laura – I didn’t – I – ” He shook his head, letting his arm fall down by his side, the pistol forgotten momentarily. He looked down at Jay, slumped silently on the floor. “I didn’t know. I… I met one of them, not long after the outbreak. She told me about the group, asked about us… Said we were all welcome.”
His wife – Laura – hurried to pick up their son. She was working it all out faster than the rest of us, panic and fear shadowed all over her face. “Do they know about Toby?”
“I told them about you both, but I…” Ken turned back to us. “Why did they want her?”
“He said they could take care of her. He wants to… to rebuild.” I felt sick as I spoke, each word sitting heavily between us.
“Get him up.” Ken said suddenly, gesturing once again with the pistol. His movements were less confident now, less demanding, but I hurried to help Jay to his feet. “Tell me what you want. Why did you come looking for me?”
“We just want your help.” Jay’s voice was so quiet. So dead. “To see if you knew where they might go.”
“They were at the dairy plant.” Ken replied carefully.
“They’re gone.” I interrupted. “That’s where we found them, but they took Annie and now they’re gone.”
Ken shook his head. “I don’t know anything else. The woman – Rachel? – that’s where she told us to go.”
“Rachel.” Jay said angrily. “Why didn’t you go?”
“I was scared.” Laura spoke up. “It was such a long way to go, and there were… those things… everywhere. Once we got here safely, I didn’t want to leave.”
“We – ”
I don’t know who heard it first.
Horror visibly rippled through us. Ken’s grip tightened on the pistol and he swung it away from us – toward the main door. Jay took a sidestep so he was in front of me. Laura pulled Toby closer, backing up until they were slightly hidden around the corner.
It was the sound of a shuffling footstep. It moved closer toward us, at a pace that wasn’t the slow and careful walk of a survivor. It was a calm, careless pace, the pace of something mildly interested but not yet in a frenzy.
No. Not one something.
“Can you shoot?” Jay had edged towards Ken. “Ken! If it comes to it, can you shoot them?”
“I’m not – I’ve never – ”
“Give me the gun.”
Ken hesitated, his distrustful eyes falling on me for a long moment.
“Goddamnit, Ken! Give me the fucking gun!”
Finally he released the gun – and his control – to Jay, not looking at me again.
As if they sensed the shift of power, the things outside stopped moving. Silence.
Somehow, Laura was keeping Toby silent. She had him held tight, his little face hidden somewhere in the thick jacket she wore. She quietly rocked him, rubbing his back, whispering calming words I couldn’t quite hear.
Jay waited, a deep frown lining his face. He had moved to take a step forward when she appeared in the doorway.
Like us, her frame was slight, her thin, wiry body a testament to the ordeal we’d all faced. Her hair hung in limp, damp ringlets around her shoulders, greasy and wild.
She held her face turned slightly, looking towards the floor as she awkwardly moved forward.
“He – nhh.” Her voice was dry and scratchy, not quite forming the words properly. She looked up at us, her face was twisted into a confused, frustrated expression. “He-nh.”
“What?” Jay asked. Standing so close beside him, I heard the telltale click as he flicked the safety off.
If the girl heard, she didn’t react. She wasn’t afraid of us, instead moving with a slow, steady confidence. “He-nnh.”
“Are you alright?” Laura’s timid voice came from behind me. She still held Toby close, but he was looking at the girl now too.
Shadows seem to flit around her in the low morning light.
“Hel.” Her voice was slowly becoming clearer. She let out a dry sort of wheeze. “Help.”
The strange, thick sounding word was punctuated sharply by the sound of the pistol firing.
Everything moved so quickly, but at the same time hung suspended in a drawn out chain. Laura and Toby cried out from behind us, in shock and fear. I heard Ken cry No! but of course, it was too late. I stepped involuntarily toward Jay, a faint plan forming to wrestle the gun away from him.
“Charlie!” He stepped away from me, hand up in the air, a gesture of innocence. “Check her!”
The stranger was writhing on the ground, an unearthly wail escaping her lips. She had been struck somewhere in the chest, at close range, she couldn’t –
As I got close enough to lean toward her, her head snapped up to stare directly at me. Her eyes seemed to be covered in a thin white film, her skin a pasty white that shone in the low light.
Just as I’d worked it out, just as I made to move away, her arm streaked out towards my neck, using the surprising strength in her thin arm to pin me down. She hovered over me, slack mouth slowly opening to reveal dirty teeth. She leaned closer into me, our faces almost touching.
She had just started to scream, to call for the others, when the pistol went off. Twice, three times. Her scream was suddenly cut short, her grip on my neck slipped away.
Her blood rained on me as she fell, crushing me into the ground, cold face pressed into my neck. The bulky items in my pack dug into my skin as our full weight pushed it into the ground.
She was only there a second before Jay pushed her off me, lifting me up, his breathing a heavy, panicked gasp. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head, knees sagging under my own weight. She was motionless beside us, the thing that had been a young woman only weeks ago.
“She spoke.” It was Ken who voiced it first. “She… How can she be one of them?”
Coldly, distantly, Jay handed the gun back to Ken. He turned back to the body on the ground and pushed her over with his foot. He’d shot her in the head at least twice – once on her forehead, a dark mess where he’d hit.
Her white filmy eyes were glazed open. Now that she was still, we could make out the faint blotches on her neck and chest. They were like sickly bruises.
The sharp silence that had surrounded us after she fell suddenly broke. Toby was crying – loudly – and Laura was desperately trying to comfort him.
“What now?” I asked Jay. There wasn’t time to ask him how he’d known she was a zombie, or be sick or wonder how one of them had managed to talk.
“There’s more of them.” He nodded towards the door. “Give me the gun back and get ready.”
Without a word, Ken handed the pistol back to him.
Jay carefully inched his way toward the door. The shuffling had started again, but it was impossible to tell how many were out there.
I backed up towards Laura, leaving Jay and Ken between us and the zombies.
My entire body shaking, the blood on my face itchy as it dried, I listened as the shuffling came closer.
They moved faster now.
They were coming for us.