We moved through the trees silently, deliberately avoiding the path we’d taken to get up here. It was unspoken but understood that we had no desire to see Rachel.
Jay ended up in front of me, his pace hurried, angry. I fought to keep up with him, my limbs aching, my jeans getting snagged in the prickly undergrowth at every step. We hadn’t slept and I was feeling out of it, exhausted, dazed. I felt disconnected with Jay, with everything.
I could feel the weight of leaving Annie hanging over us, following us. We would have to acknowledge it sooner or later and let the pain in.
But for now, we walked.
Hours must have passed in silence, with only my shaky thoughts of Annie, Rachel, of everything we’d lost to keep me company. Jay’s back was an impenetrable fortress, his body rigid, his mind set. He didn’t glance back at me once. I’m not even sure he was aware of me behind him anymore.
I must have let my eyes slip close for a moment, an uneven step breaking me out of the exhaustion. I tripped, catching myself before I could fall into Jay, and blinked back tears. I let them pool in my eyes, blurring my vision, my head hanging low. Everything was too much. I felt finished. I wanted to check out.
“Stay here.” Jay’s sudden voice broke me out of my daze. “I hear something.”
I hadn’t heard it, but I froze. As soon as Jay started inching forward, I made to follow him.
“Stay. Here.” He snapped.
I was too broken to argue, to contend with his temper. I fell back and dropped to the ground, fumbling to grip the knife I still had.
I watched as he crept forward. His movements soon seemed too bold, too confident. What had started out as cautious was quickly becoming rushed. Careless.
He held the pistol ready and as he disappeared behind a curtain of overgrown wild grass, I waited to hear the shots.
There were only the sounds of a struggle – Jay grunting, swearing – and then one of the zombies. It could only be one of them, with their guttural tones. I was standing, starting to run, even before I heard the struggle get worse. The violence amplified, I could hear the unchecked rage in Jay’s grunts as he fought.
I burst through the grass, my heart choking in my throat, holding the knife ready.
As my mind slowly took in the scene before me, I skipped to a stop, my sneakers kicking up a storm of dust and grass.
“Jay, what the fuck?”
He had wrestled the zombie to the ground and had it pinned. Its broken limbs struggled beneath him, the movements jagged, stuttering. Even as I watched, even as I cried out, Jay was swinging the pistol towards its face, a sick crack reverberating around us as it connected. He struck again and was about swinging his arm back to take aim again before I managed to move, dropping the knife and stumbling towards him, ripping the pistol out of his hands.
There was no time.
I fired and missed its head, my second shaky shot somehow hitting it square in the forehead. It stopped struggling beneath him and Jay sat there, unmoving, silent.
It hadn’t had a chance to scream, but I spun around, looking for others. Silence spun out around us.
Disgusted, I threw the pistol in the dirt, backing away from Jay. “What the fuck were you doing?”
He staggered to his feet, standing before the body, looking down on it. He made to walk away from it – and me – but I grabbed his arm, pulling him close to me.
He pushed me away. “Forget it.”
He was about to lumber away from it all – me, the zombie, the gun. I picked the gun up and hesitated before hurrying after him.
“This isn’t something to fucking forget!” I called, and he stopped in his tracks.
“Charlie – ”
“Are you trying to get us killed?” I lost it, like Jay had so many times with me. Before I could stop myself, I was almost yelling, the words crashing around us. “What the fuck was that back there? That thing wasn’t Harvey! You could have been bitten, we could – ”
“Maybe it doesn’t fucking matter.” Jay spat. He turned to face me, his chest heaving with each raging breath. “All I can think about is what if we’ve made a mistake? What if Annie does something that bastard doesn’t like? Will he kill her too? Will he send her out on her own? What the fuck were we thinking?”
I took a step back, his words crippling me. I’d had similar fears as we’d walked, but hearing them made them real. It gave life to what I’d blindly hoped was just exhaustion and anxiety. Rachel had assured us that he’d look after Annie, that she was safe.
“I just want out.” Jay said, filling my silence. “I don’t want to do this anymore. Maybe I wanted that thing to bite me. To end it.”
I felt the same sick sense of hopelessness, the same temptation to just lie down and end it. We’d been going on for too long, and we had nothing left. Annie had kept us afloat, this misguided certainty that we’d find her, that we’d bring her back to us.
Now we had nothing.
We’d naturally drifted back down from the mountains, our hours of walking slowly leading us on a decline, Harvey’s new camp somewhere high above and behind us. It was late afternoon by now, and rundown farmhouses and sheds dotted the hillside.
“Let’s call it a day.” I said finally. I don’t think either of us was sure if I meant rest for the night, or end it altogether. I left the words hanging over us, and we silently fought our way through the waist-high grass, dragging ourselves to the closest house.
We didn’t run our usual checks. There were a couple of smashed windows but the front door was closed, unlocked. We were quiet, sure, but we didn’t check every room. We hid in a small bedroom upstairs and sat in silence.
I sat the pistol between us, and Jay nodded. If there was something here, we were ready for all outcomes.
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