We waited silently, Annie slowly drifting into sleep beside me, curled up tight against my good side.
Her breathing settled into that deep, comforting rhythm of someone fully asleep, lost wandering in dreams. I hoped her exhaustion would keep nightmares at bay and she could just lose herself in sleep for a few of these morning hours.
Jay had been watching Annie sleep, but now he leaned forward and brushed some wild strands of hair away from my face. “I lost it back there.”
“I know. It’s okay. This wasn’t like the other times.” Before all this one of our biggest problems had been Jay’s temper. He’d never lashed out physically, but even with a slow fuse he’d eventually let his frustration and anger get the better of him. Times like that, he would shut me out and ignore I was there, until he’d managed to calm himself down.
Back when everything was normal, I’d found it upsetting, confusing. Each time it happened, it caused a rift between us that gradually grew bigger and never felt properly addressed. Hiding in this play house, none of it seemed important. How could it ever have been important?
“Thanks for getting us here.” Jay hesitated. “What happened out there?”
I didn’t want to relive it, but of course he hadn’t been able to see everything that had happened in the dark. I curled my fingers around the splintered handle of the shovel. It was becoming a talisman, my security. “I nearly tripped and that thing was either already coming or heard me.”
“The bastard thing went behind the cars,” Jay said. “I thought it was going to keep going at first.”
“Jesus, that scream.” I shuddered so violently that Annie stirred. We stopped talking and held still, letting her settle back into sleep.
“I think it was calling more of them. I don’t think… You’ve seen the way some of them move, how strong they are. The ones that broke through that first house.” Jay frowned, weighing up if he should continue. “They’re not… what you’d expect. They’re worse.”
“They’re smart zombies.” Once the word had left my mouth, I regretted it. We hadn’t confronted the idea head on. We’d called them ‘things’, but never admitted aloud what they really seemed to be.
“You’re right,” Jay admitted at last, looking pained. “We can’t call them that around Annie. I don’t want to scare her even more.”
“Are we going to get sick?” I pressed my hand against my side, where the gouges from last night were still weeping.
“I just don’t know. It spread so fast I want to think we’d already be sick, but you heard the same news reports I did before everything shut down. They didn’t give much away.” Jay reached over and lifted the tatters of my shirt. “Jesus, we need to clean that up.”
“It’s not so bad.” I pulled away from him, using looking out beyond the jackets as an excuse. The sun was well and truly out now, flickering through the trees and making everything far too visible. Its rays, although bright, were weak and did little to warm us. I wrapped my arm tighter around Annie, grateful she at least still had her jacket on.
Taking the hint, Jay turned his attention to his pack. “I remember there’s a creek not so far from here, and I want to have some water ready when she wakes up.” He’d retrieved two empty drink bottles which I guessed he’d found at the last house.
“Jay – ”
“We can’t wait until tonight.” He interrupted, holding a filthy hand up to stop me. “Annie won’t last. Neither will we.”
I looked at him properly now, taking in the blood layered on his face, splattered and smeared where he’d tried to wipe it off. That thing’s blood, and probably some of my own. I could feel panic letting itself in, sidling its way to sit in the very bottom of my stomach.
Annie wriggled in her sleep, dark shadows resting under her eyes. She murmured and rolled over, cuddling in tighter against me.
He was right. We’d struggled through with no water and little food since leaving that first stranger’s house. We were all at the brink of exhaustion and sickness.
It was a measure of my own exhaustion that I let him go with no further protest. I just watched as he checked all around us, then slipped across the bridge and through the trees.
The dizzying sickness honed in on me as he disappeared from view. Were we sick, or just exhausted, hungry, thirsty? My head swam. I held it up just long enough to check there was nothing coming for us or following Jay.
I let my head drop into my chest, tears dragging at the corners of my eyes. I had to stay awake. Keep watch. Protect Annie.
Exhaustion slipped over me like a blanket.