I’d slept uneasily, waking what felt like constantly, with a racing heart and sweaty palms.
Every noise, real or imagined, convinced my barely asleep self that Rachel was awake, prowling, betraying me.
The barricade had stayed intact all day.
Finally, with the sun setting gloomily around us, I gave up on the idea of sleep and dismantled my hasty barricade, listening carefully for her.
Tentatively, with only the knife, I crept down to the room I’d left her in. She was perched on the edge of the bed, the finer details of her expression lost in the murky shadows of dusk. Her shoulders were hunched and she dipped her head as I entered the room.
“Thanks for…” I began. For not killing me? For not leading Harvey here? I let the sentence drift away. Clearing my throat, I continued hurriedly, “We should move out, as soon as it’s properly dark. Let’s eat and get ready.”
“Sure.” She said quietly.
We ate in silence, sharing a tin of cold meat and a couple of dry crackers well beyond freshness. I shared my water with her, both of us rationing with careful, silent sips.
All too soon, we were sitting in near absolute darkness. I was eager to get back to Jay, to make sure they’d made it to Lakes, but venturing out into the world after even an uncomfortable night in a bed still rattled my nerves.
“We should go.” I admitted finally.
Silently, we moved slowly out of the room, down the stairs, out the door after long, careful checks. There was light enough that we could find the bike I’d stashed. I pushed it around the back of the house, nestling it into thick undergrowth, away from prying eyes.
“We can leave this here, in case we need to get back in town at some point.” I was thinking aloud, telling Rachel my plans as an accidental afterthought. Leaving the bike pained me, my sleepy frame of mind protesting dully at the idea of walking all the way to Lakes, but it still felt like the wisest choice. The two of us on a bike would be awkward at best, especially with my gear.
“Where are we going?”
“Lakes.” I answered, after a pause. “If we push, we can get there before morning.”
“What’s there?” Rachel asked.
“Jay.” Hopefully, added a nasty voice in my mind.
We had nothing much to say to each other, and instead silently opted to start walking. We kept pace side by side, cutting through the thick grassy fields and back out onto the open highway, with nothing but the moon and stars to keep us company.
Time didn’t pass normally, it slipped by us in waves, the distance back to the farmhouse stretching out behind us for a quiet eternity.
We approached McKenzie’s without pausing, but I heard an uncomfortable noise from Rachel, almost a cough, an unspoken word nearly uttered.
We pressed on.
We stopped at some point, long after McKenzie’s had disappeared behind us, to take more careful sips of water and let our bodies just breathe for a moment.
With burning aches all over, we continued. We had been walking for hours, sticking close to the side of the highway, the long grass tickling my outstretched hand as I shifted my weight, my pace, anything to relieve or distract the ache without stopping.
Hours into the night, as the inky sky was fading out, we approached the city limits.
Even from here, Lakes looked distinctly different from home. It looked… Tidier, less like ground zero of an ongoing riot.
There were less abandoned cars, and although many buildings had been smashed and ransacked, there were several that looked mostly intact. There were less ripped down fences, less general and wild destruction.
Even in the low light of dawn, we could tell, it was different here. More… human.
“It’s not right,” Rachel whispered, grabbing my arm. “Charlie – we should get off the road. Now.”
We stepped quickly over one of the fences, ducking into what had been someone’s yard. We couldn’t sense anyone else around, but it seemed Harvey had taught us both well – the zombies weren’t the only danger we faced.
“What’s..?” Rachel’s voice trailed off and I felt her grab my arm again, jagged nails digging into my skin through a threadbare patch on my jacket.
“Shh!” I whispered urgently. I heard it too.
An indistinguishable sound at first, a rumble that didn’t make sense at first.
Judging by the extra intensity in her grip, I knew Rachel had worked it out too. We sank deeper into the yard and hopefully the shadows.
“Take this,” I whispered as loudly as I dared. I handed her my shovel.
We might be enemies at times, but right now, we were together. If she didn’t have my back, we had nothing.
Finally it rumbled into view, dazzling headlights lighting up the road in its path. We broke our trance only to shrink further back into the bushes, as far as we could, sharp branches grabbing at our clothes, our hair.
It was a massive offroader, and as we watched, the driver cut the engine and four guys immediately jumped out of the vehicle, heavily armed.
“Check these houses and let’s call it a night,” A deep voice instructed – the driver was out of the vehicle now too, leaving the headlights on while the vehicle sat in park.
Four bursts of torchlight cut through the milky darkness as the guys moved into the house beside us, the door spitting open against their force.
The driver stood at the vehicle, lighting a cigarette and finally turning his back on us to look back up the street, the way they’d come.
“Go, go,” I broke myself free of the twigs as quietly as possible and gestured wildly around the side of the house, away from these soldiers, or whoever they were.
We made our way around the corner of the house, my knees weak with relief at the realisation that there were no more vehicles in sight, no soldiers waiting for us.
We jogged for blocks, at the fastest pace our fear would let us, a stifled run barely faster than a brisk walk. Three blocks in and we stopped, pressing ourselves up tight against another, hopefully vacant, house.
“Who – ”
“I don’t know.” I interrupted, waving my hand. “And I’d rather we find out before letting them know we’re here. Let’s just get to Jay and see what he knows.”
Jay. The idea of him sneaking in to Lakes with these soldiers around… Trying to sneak the others in, especially Toby, who was even younger than Annie… A shiver slid down my spine. It seemed impossible to even hope they’d made it.
“Where is he?”
“I know the way, I just need… “ I looked around a little helplessly. “Just give me a minute.”
I was turned around, confused after running from the soldiers. I hadn’t been to Lakes for a while, even before the outbreak had happened.
“I think I’ve got it.” I said finally. “We can head down this way – it’s only a few blocks more – we have to hurry.”
We only had fifteen, maybe twenty minutes before dawn would be upon us. With no sound of the vehicle or the soldiers approaching, we broke into a proper jog this time, putting three blocks behind us before I stopped us in our tracks.
“Just across the street.” I motioned over the road. Without another word, we checked our surroundings and ran, our sneakers flying over the bitumen.
My aunt’s house matched the rest of the houses around here – mostly intact, with an abandoned feel but free of large scale damage.
We scaled the fence, dropping our gear over the other side before landing heavily beside it. The grass was overgrown and wild, but we pushed through it easily, silently.
The floorboards creaked quietly as we crossed the back porch, but nothing around us reacted to the sounds of our intrusion.
The back door clicked open easily, the house dark and still before us.
I nodded at Rachel and we let ourselves in, closing the door behind us.
“Jay?” I called quietly as we moved from room to room. “Laura? Ken? Jay?”
There was no answer, no movement to answer my call.
“Jay?” I cried, dangerously loudly this time.
A scuffle from deeper in the house sent Rachel and I forward, our movements panicked and jittery. The shuffle of movement, of life, stopped suddenly as we got closer.
I heard the click of the pistol a split second before the voice, and in that brief moment of time, I already knew. I’d already lowered the knife and rushed forward.
It was Jay. He stood before us, safe, ready with the pistol he now set beside him and reached out for me instead.
Rachel had stood back, trying to lose herself in the shadows of the hallway, but I felt his embrace stiffen, felt him pull away suddenly, and knew he had seen her.
“What the fuck is she doing here?”
Suddenly the pistol was in his hands again, ready, pointing towards her at the end of the hallway.
“Jay, stop!” I weaved between them, standing in front of him. In front of the gun.
“Charlie…” He warned. “Get out of the fucking way.”
Rachel was frozen, her mouth opening silently, uselessly, her lips setting in a firm line as she looked away, shoulders hunched tight, arms crossed defensively across her chest.
“She had to do it, Jay. Harvey… They threatened her brother.” I was more sure of the truth to her story than I had been before, and the newfound conviction was evident in my voice. I remembered the unchecked rage in her voice when she spoke of Harvey now.
“I don’t give a damn what – ”
“She’s going to help us find them. Get Annie back. She knows more than we do, she can lead us to them.” I interrupted him, placing my hands around the pistol, removing it carefully from his grip.
His breathing was heavy, his glare cutting towards her, the hatred tangible. “I swear… Fuck, I swear, if you step out of line, if we don’t get her back… I will fucking kill you.”
“I know.” She whispered.
“Ken.” Jay called sharply, his voice careful.
Ken appeared from one of the rooms at the front of the house, a towel in his hands as he wiped them dry. “Charlie – you made it.”
His voice was free of the animosity he’d held towards me, a calm, indifferent tone replacing it.
“Ken.” I nodded, uncomfortable still around him, with the memory of how I’d treated him.
“She brought Rachel with her. I believe you’ve met.” Jay nodded his head roughly in her direction, then turned back to Ken. “Can you take her to Laura, get her away from me?”
“Sure.” Ken said agreeably, half nodding in recognition at Rachel.
The exchange was strange, the dynamics of the group different to when I’d left them. I watched as Ken led Rachel away, into the room he’d emerged from.
“My aunt..?” I asked, searching Jay’s eyes.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. The place was empty.”
“There are soldiers. We saw them.”
“Yeah.” Jay put his hands on my shoulders and led me to the dining table, taking a seat next to me. “Let me fill you in on what’s been going on.”