We waited like lambs.
Ken had retrieved the rake he’d used to smash over Jay’s head not so long ago. They stood together now, the only wall of defense between us and the zombies.
The first one dragged itself through the doorway on its hands and knees. It was in a worse state than the girl had been – its skin visibly decayed, eyes sunken and grey. This one had been a young man, and it moved slowly, each move a carefully orchestrated twitch of its infected limbs.
There was only one crack this time, and it slumped flat on the ground. Jay’s aim had been on the mark, a burst of blood marking its forehead.
The body spasmed on the ground for a couple of seconds before falling still, its neck twisted awkwardly so it stared through us.
Toby’s soft crying was gradually rising, reaching a wailing pitch. Laura hurried to hush him, but his cries continued, only slightly muffled by her jacket.
One screamed from just outside, an unearthly feeding call. There was no trace of human left in this one’s cry, nothing but a primal hunter closing in on its catch.
This one entered the building fast, with no rattled movements or hesitation. It made to lunge for Jay.
Two cracks of the pistol shattered the air around us. The second one hit, the zombie collapsing at their feet.
Something was still out there – it was still and quiet, but I could sense its presence. From the way Jay kicked the last corpse out of his way and crept forward, I knew he felt it too.
“Do you have any more ammo?” He asked, not pulling his gaze from the door for even a second.
“Here.” I fumbled with my pack, pulling the ammo box out and placing it in his outstretched hand. I retreated quickly – unarmed, I was worth little more than a body shield for Toby.
If it came to that, if they broke through, a body shield is all I would be.
Jay took advantage of the ongoing silence to reload. I could see his hands shaking from here, but once the pistol was reloaded and ready, he seemed to steady himself.
The voice came from just outside the building. It sounded almost normal, although maybe somehow thinner than a normal human voice. As though it was missing something, some key human quality that left it a soft echo of normal.
Jay was more ready than ever before. He rushed a few steps forward, and the pistol cracked the moment the thing had shown itself. It slumped first to its knees, almost like it was begging. It swayed there momentarily, its forehead blooming red.
With a wet, sickening thud, its head slammed into the concrete floor as it fell. This one didn’t twitch, it lay there completely still, voiceless now.
“We need to move,” Jay said quietly. “This is nothing but a death trap.”
Silence blanketed around us once again.
“I’ll go first. Then Ken. Laura, Toby – you follow. Charlie at the back.”
If anybody disagreed, they kept quiet. Laura helped Toby stand up and wiped his face. His eyes were wide open, enormous with terror and tears.
I moved to the side to let them in front of me. Jay looked back just once to check on us, then approached the doorway.
Crack. Crack. At this close range, Jay’s shots were right on target, hitting with enough precision for the two zombies at the door to fall immediately.
As a group, our pace quickened. Jay set the speed and he could see outside the building now. He moved quickly, not even pausing to look back. He had no choice but to assume we were following.
The daylight was blinding around us. We’d spent so many weeks hiding during the day, sleeping through the sunshine. I held a hand over my face to protect my eyes, trying to salvage some range of vision around us.
We edged away from the building. There didn’t seem to be any more zombies out here, but the back of my neck prickled in anticipation. I kept turning to check behind us, but there was nothing. No sound or movement out of the ordinary.
Jay led us a good distance from the building, finally stopping against a massive tree trunk. The sun filtered through the thick leaves here, dappling everything in a brilliant glow, but offering some light protection, a thin mask from complete visibility.
“What now?” I asked as I reached them. Nobody else had spoken, but I couldn’t shake a smothering feeling of urgency. It sat heavily in the pit of my stomach, pressed cold fingers on the back of my neck, sent butterflies racing past my heart.
“Can you get Laura and Toby to the closest house?”
I just nodded. We had no choice. We couldn’t stay here in the park and we couldn’t make it to the farmhouse in the daylight.
“Ken and I will trail behind, make sure nothing follows you. We don’t know if there’s any more of these bastards out here.” Jay raised a shaky hand and rubbed the back of his neck, the tension creasing every line of his face.
Ken had been quietly tending to his wife and child, but he pulled away from them now. “We’re going together?”
“Of course,” I spoke quickly, before anyone could interrupt me. “We can’t leave you here with those things.”
Laura placed a hand on Ken’s arm. He looked at her and she nodded silently.
“Fine.” He said at last. “Lead the way.”
We were still fairly close to the boundary, so I led us to the edge and we made our silent way through the park, eyes and ears strained to detect any foreign movement or sound. Despite the screaming, the zombie hadn’t managed to alert any more of its buddies to our presence. Somehow, Laura managed to keep Toby mostly quiet, cradling him in her arms as we walked.
We travelled through the park uninterrupted.
We’d reached the other end before anyone spoke.
“Wait.” Jay said. The houses were in view now, most looked somewhat worse for wear. This was a street we hadn’t visited since the outbreak, but it looked as though many had been here.
Cars sat in the sunlight, doors left open, bonnets covered in dust. Gates had been left unlatched, doors of houses wide open.
“Which one?” I asked. None of them were an obvious choice, all looked to have been looted and hopefully abandoned.
“The closest.” Jay replied firmly. “There’s no cover on the road, we don’t have time to be picky.”
We stood and watched the road for a while, partly hidden in the long grass.
Nothing moved out there.
After a few minutes that moved much too quickly, I knew it was time to go.
“I’ll go first.” I said quietly. “Laura, if it looks clear, follow.”
“Okay,” She breathed, almost to me but mostly to Toby. “Okay…”
I squashed every instinct telling me to stay and pushed forward, on to the road, expecting grunts or dragging to suddenly start, expecting to be hunted.
I made it across to the closest gate and turned back to see Laura hurrying after me, Toby bouncing in her arms. She met me and we went through the gate, not waiting to see if Ken or Jay followed.
They had to follow, after all.
We needed them.
We’d made it to the back door when they joined us, Jay grabbing my arm to stop me.
“I’ll go in first.”
The door was already open, the lock looking like it had been busted by a heavy object. He pushed it open with a slight creak, then disappeared into the house without a word.
We waited like lambs.
An eternity later, he softly called out to us. It was clear. I ushered Laura into the house, following closely behind her. Ken watched our backs, holding the mostly useless rake ready.
We barricaded the door shut behind us as best we could.
“Let’s get upstairs,” I told Laura. She nodded and we headed up the creaky, dusty stairs.
For a while none of us spoke except for Ken and Laura trying to comfort Toby, who cried quietly in the oversized armchair we’d sat him in.
I dug through my pack and found some dried fruit and handed that to Laura along with one of our water bottles. She nodded her gratitude and encouraged Toby to eat and drink.
Jay had been standing guard at the top of the stairs and by the time he joined us, Toby had finished the fruit and fallen into an uneasy sleep.
“Seems we’re okay for now.”
“What the hell happened out there?” I asked nobody in particular. “They talk?”
“We haven’t seen them like that before,” Ken moved away from his sleeping son and joined our huddle at the door. “We’ve had a few run ins with them, but they’ve all been mindless.”
“I saw one…” It had seemed a lifetime ago that I’d observed that zombie giving the kids silent instructions, hunting for me. “He didn’t talk, but he seemed smart. He was leading a group of…”
Zombie kids. I stumbled and couldn’t finish the sentence, my voice trailing off into silence.
“So the bastards can talk,” Jay flicked the safety back on the pistol and sat it on an otherwise empty chest of drawers, out of Toby’s reach. He turned back to us, deep worry carved into his expression. “The question is are they old zombies learning to talk… or are they fresh zombies forgetting how to talk?”