Jay’s question hung over us. It wasn’t something that had occurred to me, I wasn’t ready to face what he was suggesting.
Judging by the shocked expressions on Ken and Laura’s faces, their thoughts hadn’t made it that far down this path of darkness either.
“What are you suggesting?” Ken asked, finally breaking the silence.
Jay shook his head. “We don’t know if…”
As his voice trailed off into uncertainty, my mind rushed along the path his question had shown us. Forms of communication – telephones, TV, newspapers – had all stopped before we had any real information on what was going on in the city. “The last news report we saw said there was an outbreak of some kind,” I said slowly, carefully. “That a medical place had failed to keep quarantine.”
But they hadn’t said what it was, silent thoughts nagged at me. They didn’t know. We were suddenly faced with static, with mindless bodies wandering the streets. We’d assumed they were mindless… But they seemed to follow noise. They could…
“Jay…” Panicked, shaky thoughts were rushing at me now, clamoring for priority. “Back at the start, those zombies – they climbed the stairs. They followed us out to the window. That one I saw, out on my own, he was sort of … grunting instructions at the others. They were following his lead.”
“What have you seen? Have you been this close to town the whole time?” Jay fired the questions off at Ken and Laura quickly, not pausing for a response. “How many of them have you seen?”
“I’ve seen dozens.” It was Ken who spoke. “Mostly from a distance. There were hundreds of them at first, spilling out from the city. We don’t know why they’ve thinned out.”
“Have you seen any other survivors?”
“Ken met Rachel,” Laura spoke softly, her worried gaze fixed on their sleeping son. “There were others at the start, but…”
“We hid.” Ken said simply. “People were getting crazy – violent.”
“There must be more of us.” I whispered so quietly I don’t think anyone heard me. My quiet plea for reassurance fell unheard.
“You haven’t been into the city?” Jay asked.
Ken shook his head, shrugged. “Most of them were coming from that way. A lot of them seemed to head back. It seemed safer to stick to the suburbs. But we’ve been running out of supplies and we have very little planned for the long term. Soon we won’t have a choice.”
“We have supplies.” I said, carefully. “As much as I could carry, for three – ” my voice hitched, “ – of us.”
“Is there more where they came from?” I looked at Jay as he asked the question, feeling guilt and shame over what I’d done to Ken wash back over me.
“Yes.” I admitted finally. “I can get back there, maybe even fill the packs one more time.”
“If you tell me how to get there…” Jay spoke slowly, planning it out in his mind. “I could go back, get more supplies… You could take Ken and Laura to the farmhouse.”
“Isn’t that where they took your sister from?” Laura asked, shaking her head. “We can’t risk taking Toby there.”
“I don’t think they’ll be back,” I said, “but she’s right, Jay. We don’t know what that asshole might do if he finds out about Toby.”
“You’ll have the gun,” Jay replied quickly. I could tell his impatience was taking over, his plan coming out rapidfire now, both an effort to convince us and to block himself from dwelling on the misery that Annie’s absence caused. “In, to get the supplies, and out. We need to figure out where to head next, but we can’t leave all that stuff. We’ll need it.”
“Plenty of places to hide in the mountains,” Ken suggested.
“No!” I shook my head. “Rachel said her brother was going that way – and that she would try to follow. Harvey could be there too.”
“I’ll be going that way.” Jay’s voice was hard, grim. “As soon as we have somewhere safe to settle, I’m going to get my sister back.”
The four of us stood in an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t have the words Jay needed.
I didn’t have Annie.
I snaked a quivering hand into his own and squeezed lightly.
“How long would it take us to get to the next town?” It was Laura who spoke, her idea that seemed like a beacon of hope.
We had no idea if the outbreak had spread that far, or what we might find, but the idea held a quiet kind of promise, just a hint of possibility.
These days, a hint was enough.
“Lake would be closest… A few days with Toby,” Ken offered. “He’s a tough little kid, but he’s still little.”
“It’s an idea.” Jay nodded. “You guys can head to the farmhouse, get our stuff, and keep moving. If you kept a good lookout, you could move from house to house as rest was needed. You’d have the gun.”
“What are you going to do?” He’d been fairly quiet about his plans for himself, and the thought of parting from him again, when we’d already lost Annie, made me feel ill.
“You’ll tell me how to get back to the rest of the food you found,” He replied, “but before that, I’m going to head into the city. There might be something I can find out about these things – ”
“That’s insane!” I cried. “You heard Ken – they went back into the city! Have you forgotten how many there were?”
It was suicide. My insides were bleak and icy at the prospect of his idea.
“We need to know what the hell we’re up against,” Jay snapped, “maybe I can find something, or just watch these things. Figure out what the fuck we’re fighting.”
“You can’t – ”
“He’s right.” Ken said, interrupting his wife’s protest. “We need the supplies, and… I think it’s best if once we get out of here, we don’t come back. We head to Lake, see what shape they’re in.”
“How are you going to find us?” I thought it was the obvious question, but nobody had asked yet. I looked to Jay, hoping there wouldn’t be a way and he’d have to stick with us.
Last time we split up, we lost Annie. What would happen this time?
The thought slid down my spine and I shuddered. Going out on his own – leaving us the gun – Jay was putting himself in the most danger. If he didn’t come back, if he couldn’t find us, how would we ever know what happened to him?
He hadn’t answered me yet, instead shaking his head and looking away. “I’ll work something out before we split.”
My mind was working hard, desperate thoughts flurrying, trying to find some way out of this plan, trying to figure out something else that might work.
One of us had to go with Ken and Laura, to show them the supplies. We needed the food, there was no way around that. Even with another run to the house to get more, the stuff wouldn’t last us long, not with five of us.
Annie. We would find her and there would be six of us.
The thought, though forceful, did little to comfort me.
“We could use my aunt’s house,” I thought aloud. “She …” Has? Had? I pushed on, “…has that cottage, just outside Lakes.”
“Of course!” Jay nodded. “I didn’t even think of it, but I remember how to get there.”
“What if I go, instead of you?” I had moved even closer to Jay and asked him this question quietly, not certain I wanted Ken or Laura to overhear us.
Jay studied my face, then slowly shook his head.
“I know where the rest of the food is.” I said quickly, before he could speak. “And if you get to my aunt’s house and it’s okay, you could go and search for Annie right away.”
That gave him pause. I could see the turbulence behind his eyes as he considered my suggestion.
“I won’t be able to get her back on my own.” He said finally, his words slow and careful. “Harvey is too prepared for that.”
“Finding out where she is would be a start,” I argued, adrenaline rushing through me, making my words snappy and rushed.
I’d had the idea of being the one to go and it had grabbed me – it was the right way to do this. Jay was the better shot, he could defend the others – Toby – better. He could keep them walking all the way to Lakes, motivate them, push them harder.
Heading into the city proper was the more dangerous path. It was Jay who still had family, Jay who had Annie depending on him, waiting for him to find her.
Jay who could get the others settled and start working on a plan to find Annie and bring her back.
I could feel my pulse racing with the urgency of the idea, with the frantic determination that he accepted my suggestion.
It had to be me.
“Jesus, Charlie, you can’t – ”
“I can, and I’m going to.”
My stubbornness had shown its ugly face, and Jay didn’t have the energy to fight me now and I knew it. Exhaustion, panic, agony was eating a way at him from all directions, and being faced with an argument about this was too much.
“Either way, we all need to get some rest,” he turned to Ken and Laura, raising his voice slightly. “We usually only travel at night. We have a few hours of light left, I suggest we all try and get some sleep.”
As an afterthought, I distributed some of the food we had to them, but Jay and I sat on the floor together without eating, leaving the chair to Toby and the bed to Laura and Ken.
“So we’re going to head to Lake?” Ken asked, standing awkwardly beside the bed.
“Yeah,” Jay said after a pause. “At least to see what’s there, what’s happened.”
“Okay.” Ken looked at us for a moment. “Thanks.”
He said it stiffly, but I knew he meant it. He was thanking Jay, not me, and I knew he still thought poorly of me after our first interaction and the way I’d treated him.
“Don’t mention it.” Jay said softly. His thoughts weren’t with us anymore, his empty expression spoke volumes. He was thinking about Annie, and the bloody wrath he wanted to take out on Harvey.
Laura had quietly approached the window and pulled the heavy drapes closed slowly, blocking out the shimmering sunlight that tried to brighten the room.
At some point Jay stretched out on the floor and after a long, silent moment, I joined him, pressing myself into him. We lay silently like that for a long time, not sleeping or speaking, just existing.
We would have a final face off about who was going back to town as night fell, but for now, our existences slowly blurred into sleep, nightmares and terrors fueling our unconsciousness.