Pulling the trigger had been like flipping a switch.
We were a few hours out from Lakes, but it hadn’t even occurred to us to expect zombies this far, not after our hometown had been destroyed. I guessed we’d hoped it had been contained, that they’d been wiped out.
This group, however they’d made it this far, might not be alone.
I didn’t want to dwell on Rachel, lying still at our feet. Her skin was ravaged by bites, her skin sickly tones under the moonlight.
With fear and adrenaline slamming through my veins, I’d shot her without pausing, without thinking. She’d told me to.
The thoughts flurried furiously in my mind, raging against the surge of guilt and panic I could feel rising. I fell to my knees on the grass beside her.
“Fuck.” Jay, who had thrown himself away, had thrown me into the role of executioner, fell beside me, his body still spasming in horror. “Charlie… Charlie, fuck, I just couldn’t… I…”
“Forget it.” I knew I was wrong, weak, but I felt the anger building, dominating the fear and regret. “Just fucking forget about it.”
The rage pushed me forward, forced me to keep going. I dropped the pistol in the grass carelessly, moving to face Rachel as I staggered back to my feet.
“I’m sorry.” I whispered as I stood before her, but my voice was jagged, harsh. I was so angry I could feel it quivering in my chest, dark and controlling. I didn’t bother trying to talk myself down, didn’t pause to regain control.
The anger was the only way I could keep going.
I slid my hands under her, hooking them under her armpits, dragging her body off the road, into the depths of the wild overgrowth. Jay moved as though to help, then swore and turned his back on me.
Awkwardly, I dragged her to a half sitting position, pulling the pack off her back, dropping it on the ground beside us. I stopped only to dry retch into the grass, managing to stumble a few steps away from her before I lost my stomach.
I could grant her that, at least.
We had no tools or time to bury her, but I slid her into a shallow ditch, metres away from the road, covered by long, thick grass.
It was all I could do for her now.
Shaking, I unzipped her pack and pulled her water bottle out, wasting too much water washing trembling hands.
I took a small mouthful of water and spat, too sickened to swallow. Slipping Rachel’s pack on to my front, I cut back through the overgrowth, silently approaching Jay. A small part of me wanted to tell him it was okay, to bridge the furious gap between us.
Instead, I joined him silently, standing with him in the dark for a heavy, cold moment.
“I didn’t see them.” He said finally.
“I couldn’t do it, Charlie. She… The way I treated her. I couldn’t…”
“It’s done now.” I was giving him nothing and the resulting silence cut between us, thick and unforgiving.
I let the silence stretch on for what felt like forever, keeping us both locked in our private miseries. I knew how he felt… How everything he’d done to her, every harsh word, every moment of blame he’d placed on her, how terrible it all was as she had lay before us, bruised and bitten.
Death in our new world was sudden and shocking, people ripped from us in a cruel blinding light that showed only our own flaws in the way we’d treated them.
Anger still throbbed within me, but it was quieting. It had to be me to remove Rachel, to save her from the infection. Jay could never have pulled the trigger on her, never have pushed his hatred that far.
I looked at his face in the dark, and I knew. No matter how necessary it was to do it, some part of Jay doing it would have been borne of hatred. The feelings he felt for her, the anger at leading them to Annie, would have been there, brimming at the surface.
No matter the mistakes we’d all made, none of Rachel’s were bad enough to deserve to die like that.
“Jay, it’s okay.” My voice was quiet, shaking, tears welling in my eyes. “I’m just… I’m just angry. At you, at me, at the whole thing. But I understand.”
He bowed his head – ashamed, grateful, both – I couldn’t tell.
We were just so fucking tired, so lost and running on nothing.
“Let’s just… let’s not talk for a while.” I whispered. “Let’s just keep going.”
With the heavy shadow of guilt sitting over us, we left her there.
I felt a deep ache as we walked – a cold, lonely feeling that settled in from my throat to the pit of my stomach, a silent knowledge that we left part of ourselves with her in the dark.