The final showdown we may have wanted didn’t come. The late afternoon set silently around us, the house betraying no other presence beyond the occasional settling creak.
“I guess we’re alone.” Jay said finally, as he stood and stepped over our packs. “I’m going to have a look around.”
He didn’t ask me to go with him, and truthfully, I wanted to be alone. He was rough, angry – and we were both grieving. We had lost Annie all over again, and now we were adrift.
He’d left the pistol with me but I ignored it, favouring standing at the window and watching the day disappear.
I found myself thinking about the last zombie I’d killed, the one Jay had been … Messing with. We killed them out of necessity, but now I remembered everything I’d read at the clinic, and every time one of them had tried to speak or had shown a flicker of consciousness.
We killed them to survive, but what Jay had done crossed a line, and I felt sick just remembering. More than that, though, he’d risked our lives.
I didn’t fear death anymore, but we didn’t know what these things really were. We didn’t know what they knew, what they remembered.
He had no idea what he might have been sentencing us to, if it had all gone to hell.
Rage sat heavily on my stomach, adding to the weight of my exhaustion and misery. If we were to end it, I wanted to see only the end – not whatever alternative the zombie’s existence offered.
I let my shoulders slump, my forehead resting against the cold glass. I closed my eyes for a moment, exhaustion whittling away my anger. We could discuss it later. I could try to sleep now, try to lose myself for a few hours.
I opened my eyes, committed to curling up on the stranger’s bed here, hiding under their blankets and pretending they were mine.
The window, caked with dust, came slowly into focus as my eyes adjusted from heavy, closed eyelids.
There were three of them, awkwardly working their way through the overgrown grass, making slow progress towards the house. The one in front seemed almost coordinated, its movements more fluid and natural. Its eyes were fixed on the house, while the other two trailed, not really directing their gaze at anything but their leader. Their movements were disjointed, uncertain.
I backed away from the window, nearly tripping over our packs. I caught myself and spun around, retrieving the pistol off the floor.
“Jay!” I called, afraid to raise my voice much above a whisper. Where the fuck had he gone? Was he even still upstairs?
Casting a useless glance behind me – I couldn’t see them out the window from this side of the room – I crept through the doorway and started down the hall.
I pushed the first door I came across open, checking inside without stopping. I didn’t have time. If he was downstairs –
I could hear something downstairs.
I rushed halfway down the stairs, thick carpet muffling my steps, stopping at the landing. My heart pounded in my chest, the frenzied beat drumming in my ears.
Everything was so loud.
They were at the door, the knob rattling as one of them struggled with it.
I was frozen on the landing until adrenaline kicked me into gear – clicking the safety off, holding the pistol ready. I could get a fairly clear shot through the railing, maybe take them out as they filed in through the doorway.
The rattling stopped.
There was an unintelligible mumbling from outside, and slowly, slowly the door creaked open. I caught movement out of the corner of my eye – Jay. He had heard what was going on, and was crouched under the dining table, unarmed.
One of them stepped over the threshold – one of the awkward ones. It twisted its neck, looking for us. It hesitated, lingering in the doorway, and I knew it hadn’t seen us. I steadied my grip on the pistol and fired, somehow landing a perfect shot. It staggered mid-step and fell just inside the doorway.
The second one followed, but this time I missed. It had taken a few jittery steps inside, its head hanging on a bent angle, its arms hanging uselessly by its side. My second shot burst through its arm, and it snarled, looking curiously at where its arm had been just seconds ago.
While I was still scrambling to react, its jaw dropped open, a screeching howl beginning. Unsure if it was screaming out of pain or for help, I landed my third shot in its forehead, and its body slumped only a metre in front of the first.
“Charlie!” Jay’s voice was hoarse, shocked. He scrambled out from under the table.
As he was about to cross in front of the door, I cried out.
There had been three of them approaching the house. The less awkward one, the determined one, hadn’t shown its face yet.
“Get back!” I screamed, but it was too late.
It slammed into Jay at full, running force, sending them both skidding across the room and straight into the wall.
I fell down the rest of the stairs, tripping over my own feet. They were locked in a fighting embrace, leaving me no opening to shoot.
I ran to the table, placing the gun down, just as Jay’s fist connected hard with its lower jaw, sending it stumbling backwards. As it shook its head and made to corner him, I picked up the closest chair and slammed it over its head.
It was a hard hit, the impact sending painful jolts up my wrists, but the zombie snarled and slammed into Jay again, his head hitting hard against the wall with a nauseating crack.
The zombie paused, caught between finishing Jay and coming for me. I whipped around, diving for the table, my fingers closing around the pistol.
It chose me.
I caught it with a bullet in the chest, which did nothing but stagger its movement for a second. It grunted at me and kept coming.
The fourth shot erupted in the middle of its forehead.
Its grunt was cut short as it fell at my feet, blood splattering on the front of my sneakers.
I fought a wave of nausea and leapt over the body, throwing myself in front of Jay.
“Jay!” I cried. “Jay!”
He was bent unnaturally against the wall, his chest rising with each shallow breath, but he didn’t stir. Instinct took the reins, and I found myself running upstairs and pulling the water bottles out of our packs, then stumbling back down the stairs and crouching in front of him again.
I splashed water on his face, his cheeks and forehead, saying his name over and over.
“Please wake up,” My voice had faded to a whisper as the tears started to fall.
Every word we’d uttered, every thought we had about ending it, faded into nothing. Faced with Jay being gone, I broke. I’d still had so much fight left, even if I’d lost it for a while, even if I’d danced with the idea of it all being over.
In desperation, I threw what was left of the water in his face.
He stirred, coughing, struggling to sit up properly. “Annie?”
“No… Jay… It’s me.” I knelt in front of him, pushing his hair back from his eyes. “Are you OK? Are you hurt?”
He nodded, then shook his head, looking confused. “I’m… I think I’m okay. Did you get them?”
“Yeah.” I said, sinking to sit properly in front of him. “They’re dead. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I just feel…”
The confused look on his face and his slow speech had my heart caught somewhere in my throat. His head had hit the wall so hard, hard enough to knock him out momentarily. I knew the risk of concussion had to be considered, but all I knew to do was try to keep him awake. I felt useless, shit, unprepared to help him when he needed me the most.
“It’s okay. Just give yourself a minute. Drink this.” I handed him the bottle that still had some water in it. “I’m going to get our stuff, okay? You need to eat, and stay warm, and just… Just stay awake, okay? I need your help when I get back.”
I raced to the front door, dragging the body on the threshold out of the way, and closed the door, checking it was locked and pulling the table over to barricade us in.
Glancing at Jay, I ran back up the stairs and grabbed our packs and some blankets off the bed. I stuffed a pillow under my arm and ran back to him. He was still awake, but barely.
I dropped out stuff around us, grabbing his shoulders and guiding him forward. I ran my hands through his hair, checking for blood. When my hands came back dry, I propped him up against the pillow, wrapping the blankets around him.
“I need you to eat something, okay?” I pulled out the first pack of food I found – some dry crackers – and ripped them open, holding the packet out in front of him. “Just a little bit?”
He nodded wearily, and silently took a couple of biscuits, eating them without a word. While he looked away, to take a drink, I wiped the fresh tears from my eyes.
I had to keep us both awake. If I could keep us awake through the night, he would be okay. I opened another bottle of water and took a few sips.
He set his own bottle down and looked at me, eyes low and barely open. “I’m real tired, Charlie.”
His voice was sluggish, his words slurred.
“I know – me too.” I whispered, wriggling my way under the blanket, pushing myself up against him. “We just need to stay awake awhile, okay? Talk to me. Tell me about … about Annie.”
I could feel the smile on his face, even though I could barely see it. It was a heavy, sad smile, full of memories and regret. “She’s really gone, isn’t she?”
“She has to be. We both know that.”
“She’s the greatest kid,” he said quietly, “and I don’t think I ever told her that.”
“She knew.” I said, and it was about the only thing I’d felt sure of for so long. Something deep within me ached from the certainty.
“What do you think she’s doing now?”
“Probably sitting around that fire, having dinner with the others.” I could picture them, sitting in their little group of chosen ones, under Harvey’s ever watchful control. “Her and her friend – Amirah? – will probably be together.”
“I’m glad she has a friend…” Jay’s voice trailed off, with the first twinge of happiness I’d heard since we set out to find her.
My mind was swimming with clouded thoughts, exhaustion weighing me down, bringing me under. I struggled against it, struggled to keep talking, but we only managed murmured mutual reassurances to one another.
“We have to stay awake. Jay… We have to…”