“Breakfast is ready,” I shout, loud enough to be heard over the ruckus in the living room. Walking over to the kitchen doorway, I lean against the frame and watch the contest going on. Both Ryder and Aaron are sitting on opposite ends of the living room table, clasping each other’s right hands. Their free hands are behind their backs, and the others are watching and cheering them on, waiting to see who wins the arm wrestling contest.
As I watch, Ryder begins to get the upper hand. Slowly but surely, Aaron’s smaller arm begins to lower to the table, but it doesn’t go down. It hovers just above the wood while Aaron struggles to hang on for just one more minute. Before Aaron can recover, Ryder slams his arm down on the table, effectively winning the contest.
Reese and Naomi cheer while Todd and Madison pat Aaron on the back. “It’s okay, Aaron. You’ll get him next time,” Madison says.
Aaron smiles good naturedly, and leans across the table to offer Ryder his hand. The two shake, and everyone is in a good mood as they pile into the small kitchen for breakfast. I notice that Aaron still has a slight limp when he walks, but it’s barely noticeable as his right leg has healed amazingly well over the last six weeks.
Not only is Aaron feeling better, but Ryder’s arm has recovered, too. Every once in a while I’ll see him reach for something above his head and wince, but he’s gotten to the point where he can shoot a weapon again, and that’s a very good thing, considering we’ll most likely be doing quite a bit of that on the road.
I glance over at Madison as she eats her scrambled eggs with ham and red and green peppers. Over the last few days, I’ve noticed her watching both Ryder and Aaron with the same look as me, and I know that she’s anxious to finally get on the road. The sooner we leave, the sooner we can potentially save what’s left of the world. I just hope we haven’t waited too long. If we’re living in a zombie world and we just don’t know it, the odds of us making it to Montana and then Detroit are slim to none.
It will be hard enough getting there without having to battle a world full of the undead. Just the thought of getting torn apart by ravenous, flesh-craving monsters has shivers running down my spine, but I refuse to think about that now. Finding and implementing a cure will be worth any risk to myself, and even though it makes me feel awful, I know it will also be worth the risk to my friends.
I look around at the large group of people I’ve become so attached to over the last couple of months, and I can’t fathom living without any of them. There’s Madison, my cousin and the only real family I have left, and her boyfriend, the ever annoying Todd, who every so often manages to surprise me with his sweetness and hope. Then there’s Reese, who has looked after me from the very beginning, and Ryder, who I’ve already given my heart and body to and has done more for me than anyone else in my entire life.
I think about Aaron’s good natured self and leadership abilities, Naomi’s quiet determination and unwavering friendship, and even Daisy, who has battled her inner demons and found the will to live, despite all the odds being stacked against us. I know the road to Montana will be a treacherous one. One that we all probably won’t survive, and the thought of any of these people being taken from me has me clenching the side of the table so hard my knuckles turn white.
I’ve grown tremendously since the infection started almost nine months ago, and even though I’m stronger than I’ve ever been—both physically and mentally—I know I’m not Wonder Woman. There’s a very good chance I won’t be able to save all of these people. The best I can do is hope that they don’t suffer, and that I’m not the cause of their death.
I already have enough nightmares…I don’t need my dead friends blaming me for their fates as well…
Ryder’s hand brushes against mine as he reaches under the table to comfort me. His fingers curl around my hand, and he holds it tightly, never looking up from his breakfast. I smile at the contact and try to will myself not to blush. Even after months of being together, Ryder’s touch still has the ability to drive me crazy, and I know he enjoys watching me flush with heat every time.
When I look up, I notice that Reese is scowling into his bowl of breakfast. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been dropping hints that I want to consider leaving soon, and he obviously isn’t happy about it. It’s been two months or so since we voted as a group to try for Montana, and he still hasn’t gotten over it. He thinks it’s the wrong decision, but he’s given up on trying to talk me out of it. He knows my mind is made up, and that nothing he can say will change my mind about this cure.
Madison glances at me out of the corner of her eye, and I nod my head ever so slightly. She clears her throat, gathering the attention of everyone in the kitchen. Reese puts down his spoon with a resigned sigh, and Ryder doesn’t look all too excited either. They know what’s coming, and it doesn’t take the others too long to figure out either.
Madison dives right in. “Ryder and Aaron have healed—probably as much as they’re going to—and Sam and I think it’s time we consider starting this trek to Montana. The sooner we leave, the sooner we can get this over with, and the sooner this nightmare can hopefully end.”
“Is it wise to leave yet?” Naomi asks. “They’re in good shape, but they’re not in great shape. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this yet, but Ryder is kind of our top dog. If he’s not in the best possible shape, we’re at a serious disadvantage out there on the road.”
“My shoulder is fine,” Ryder says, rotating his right shoulder. “I can fire a gun again just like I could before, and it doesn’t hurt anymore.” I alone know that last part is a lie, but I keep my mouth shut after a discreet look from him. Ryder’s arm will probably always pain him some, but if he thinks he’s ready to get out on the open road, then he’s ready to go. I trust his judgment more than anyone else’s—even my own.
“I think we should wait,” Reese says, surprising no one.
“Reese, we can’t put this off forever,” I say, trying to reason with him yet again. “We need to get this done. Just think, if we succeed, we’ll be able to live our lives without looking over our shoulders. No more nightmares and no more losing the people we love. Can you imagine that?”
“But as nice as that sounds, it’s not a guarantee,” he says patiently. “What if none of us even make it to Montana? What if we do manage to miraculously get there unscathed…and there’s no cure? What if this guy turns out to be just crazy? What if he’s dead and the place is overrun?”
“We can’t think like that,” Madison says, cutting in. “We have to have hope that everything will turn out alright in the end.”
“I think we should go for it,” Aaron says. “My leg feels fine, and it’s not going to slow me down. I think if we start getting ready now, we could be ready to go by tomorrow and be on the road by noon.”
Reese sighs but doesn’t say anything else. He just finishes his last bite of breakfast, drops the bowl in the sink, and walks out. Ryder squeezes my hand under the table. “Don’t worry about him. He’s just scared.”
“I am, too.”
Ryder looks down at me. “Don’t worry, Sam. I’ll take care of you, I promise.”
I lean over and kiss him on the cheek, feeling the scratch of unshaved bristles on my lips. “I know you will. I just hope I can take care of you, too.”
“We’ll all take care of each other,” Madison says. “Don’t worry about it so much, Sam. If you worry so much, something is bound to go wrong, and we don’t want that.”
Naomi clears her throat from near the fridge. “Um, how exactly are we all going to get to Montana? We sure as hell are not fitting in one car.”
“Reese and I will go into town later to find another vehicle that can make the trip. We’ll start siphoning gas while we’re there. That way we’ll have enough room for everyone, and all the supplies we’ll need to make the trip.” I look around at everyone in the room. “We’re really doing this. We’re going to make a difference.”
Hours later, the jeep jerks to a halt in front of the only car dealership in the area. Reese pockets the car keys, but he doesn’t exit the car. He just sits there rubbing his temple as if he has a migraine, and I wait impatiently for him. After a thirty minute drive into town from the middle of nowhere, I’m feeling anxious to stretch my feet, and to get this done, and waiting for him does not make me happy.
Finally Reese slides out of the jeep, slamming the door shut behind him. Rolling my eyes at his attitude, I head into the dealership parking lot to look for anything that will be able to fit us all. The sound of Reese’s boots clunking against the pavement is the only indication that he’s deciding to follow me, and I hope he’s paying more attention to our surroundings than I think he is.
I constantly scan our surroundings, always on the lookout for any sign of movement. The gun belted to my side feels right at home on my hip, and with it always within my reach, I feel more confident than I ever have before. With this weapon, I can do anything, survive anything.
“What are we looking for exactly?” Reese asks, sidling up beside me. He’s holding his assault rifle so tightly his knuckles are white, and I can tell that he’s angry about this.
“We are looking for a vehicle that will have enough room for us, and as many supplies as we can bring,” I explain patiently. Reese’s attitude is starting to get on my nerves, but I understand his fears when it comes to this plan of ours. I know that he’s worried about his brother, and about me, and even about the people we’ve only just started getting to know.
“I just don’t see why—”
I raise my hand, cutting him off mid-sentence. Without another word, Reese and I duck down beside the nearest vehicle. The sound of moaning reaches our ears, and a zombie shuffles toward us, having probably heard the sound of our voices. As it inches closer, I take the time to study it while we wait and see if there are anymore around.
This zombie is in surprisingly good shape considering how long it’s been since the world ended. His face is fully intact, even if his eyes are lifeless and cloudy. His black suit and tie are in tatters and hang off of his gaunt frame, and his dull red hair is falling out in clumps, leaving him bald in some places. The pale, bloated skin of his skull peeks through, looking weathered and slightly yellow.
“Is it alone?”
“I think so,” Reese says, quickly scanning the area around us. “I got it.”
“No, stay here and cover me in case there are more of them,” I say, sliding a knife out of the sheath strapped to my thigh. The long, thin blade shines in the sunlight as I tighten my grip around the handle.
A few more steps puts the zombie near the bumper of our hiding spot. Reese tosses a pebble at a nearby car, making a light clinking sound. The zombie pauses mid-shuffle and turns his head to investigate the noise. I leap from my place behind the vehicle and bring my arm up, plunging the knife into his head.
His body goes still and my knife slides out of his head as he collapses to the ground. He slumps forward and his head presses into my stomach. With a grimace, I shove him away from me, and he falls back into the dirt with a thump. Reese comes up behind me, and I notice a tiny smile on his lips.
“You’ve grown so much since we first met.”
“I’ve been through a lot. I had to grow. If I hadn’t, I’d be long dead by now.”
“You’re a fast learner,” Reese says.
“I had good teachers.” I reach over and elbow him gently. “Come on. Let’s get this done.” His smile instantly vanishes, and I resist the urge to roll my eyes again at his behavior. “Reese, you know that this is the best thing for us.”
“No I don’t,” he mutters stubbornly.
Ignoring him as best as I can, I head over toward the car dealership building. It’s in far better shape than most buildings I’ve seen since the zombie apocalypse started. None of the windows are smashed out, there’s no blood smeared against the walls, and there are only a handful of dead bodies lying around. Judging by the bullet holes in their heads, it looks like someone else already came through here some time ago, probably looking for a safe, reliable vehicle. I hope they left the other keys inside.
I ease the door open and slip inside the darkened building while Reese props the door open, allowing for some light to spill in behind me. On the inside, the place is trashed. Papers and shining keys are strewn all over the floor, a desk has been overturned in the far corner, and a body lies sprawled out across a desk. Dried blood coats the side, probably from the old gun shot square in the center of his forehead.
Reese starts digging through the multitude of keys on the floor while I head over to a door on the far side of the room. It’s slightly ajar, and I nudge it open with the toe of my boot, bringing my gun up, just in case. The room is pitch black, and instead of heading blindly in and hoping for the best, I stand there outside, listening for any sign of movement.
Seconds pass by as my heart pounds in my chest. Just as I start to think the room is empty, I hear the scuff of a shoe on tile, and I take a quick step back. With my finger on the trigger, I wait for the zombie to emerge while I even out my breathing and steady my hand. There’s a low moan from the darkness, and a woman in a gray pencil skirt rushes out at me, her fingers curled into dangerous claws.
I squeeze the trigger.
The woman falls back, hitting the tiled ground so hard her head cracks against the floor.
“You okay?” Reese calls.
“Yeah,” I answer without looking back at him. I stare into the darkness for another minute, making sure nothing else lunges out at me. When I’m finally sure that we’re alone, I nudge the woman’s feet out of the way, and close the door, sealing her body in that tiny bathroom forever. She’ll probably decompose into a pile of fatty soup, and for the first time in months, I feel a twinge of guilt.
Killing them isn’t the same as it was before. If this cure Madison told us about exists and it actually works…that means I just killed a potential person with thoughts and feelings. If they can be healed, and I kill them…isn’t that murder?
A vehicle starts outside, and I force myself to move away from the closed bathroom door. When I get back to the front door, I see a large, silver, four door truck idling in front of the dealership. Reese sits behind the steering wheel, waiting for me. He taps the steering wheel impatiently, and he gives me an irritated glance as I walk over.
“Ready?” he asks.
He tosses me the keys to the jeep, and he waits for me to start it up before he pulls out of the dealership parking lot and eases onto the road. I follow along behind him, going well below the speed limit. I stare out the window while I drive, observing the town around us. There isn’t much left here now, but I suspect there wasn’t much to begin with. There aren’t many cars on the road, and the main street is lined with small, old-fashioned businesses. The only thing even remotely city-like is the Wal-Mart near the heart of town.
We drive around the Wal-Mart parking lot, searching for any sign of life that might be a threat to us. There are about twenty or so zombies wandering around one end of the lot, grouped together like a mindless mob, but we avoid them easily as we park on the opposite end of the lot. I turn off the jeep and hop out, hitting the ground with a loud thump.
Reese takes a clear hose from the back of the jeep, and I grab the three empty gasoline containers beside it. He heads over to the closest vehicle and crouches down near the gas tank. He unscrews the cap, sticks one end of the hose into the tank while I keep watch. Reese starts to cough and I look back just in time to see him spit out a mouthful of precious gasoline. He tucks the end of the hose into the container, and the only sound in the parking lot is the gas as it begins to fill the empty container.
Reese moves on to the next vehicle in line, and he begins the process all over again. I worry about him swallowing any of the gas, and I hope it doesn’t have any adverse affects on his health. I can smell it from where I stand, and I can only imagine how it must taste. Just the thought of having that liquid in my mouth makes me want to gag.
A bird screeches above, and I lift my head to catch a glimpse of the bright blue creature. The sight of something so small and beautiful brings a smile to my lips, and I feel myself begin to relax just a little. I can’t remember the last time I saw something alive that wasn’t terrified or about to die. Just knowing that there is still life out there other than myself has me feeling hopeful for our future.
Once this is all over, everything can begin to heal. We can start over, and someday, this will all just be a nightmare…
Deep down, I know that nothing will ever be the same. The events of the last year will haunt mankind for the rest of eternity, but we’ve proven time and time again that we’re resilient. Like a legendary phoenix, we’ll rise from the ashes and become bigger and better than ever before. Things won’t be the same, but we can make things worthwhile again.
I wonder what kind of life Ryder and I will have once this is all over. Will he get some kind of security job somewhere or will he be a part of the new military? What will I do? I have no skills other than survival. I won’t let myself be a dependant liability ever again, but for now, I have no clue what the future holds for me. I’ll probably end up doing some mundane house work, or maybe taking care of other people’s children while they work.
The thought of being useless instantly puts me in a bad mood, and I feel myself frown. I head over to where Reese is crouching beside yet another vehicle, and I try not to let my feelings fester into something dark. Instead, I opt for conversation. “Reese, why do you think there are so many abandoned cars here? They clearly have gas, so why didn’t they get out of this parking lot?”
“My guess is that people flocked here during the first days of the outbreak in an attempt to stock up on supplies, and some zombies probably made it inside, and a lot of people died. That’s why their cars are still here, because most of them never left.”
Six months ago, his words would have sent a chill down my spine, and the thought of all the people that died here would haunt my dreams. But it hardly affects me anymore, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I don’t want to lose my humanity and become a cold, heartless monster, but part of me will always be glad that the fear is gone. If only I could get rid of the nightmares as well. I function much better when I’m not scared of my own shadow, but I wonder if turning off my fears will end up hurting me more than it helps in the long run.
Reese gets off his knees and brushes off his pants. “I think we’re good to go. Fifteen gallons isn’t gonna get us far, but it’s a start. Hopefully we’ll be able to find other places to siphon from on the road.” He glances over his shoulder at me. “Or we could just stay home and not worry about it.”
I roll my eyes, making sure he can see. “Reese, we’ve already had this conversation.”
“Well we’re gonna have it again,” he says tightly, taking a few quick steps toward me. He grips my shoulders tightly and forces me to look him in the eyes. “Are you prepared to lose some of us?”
“I’m serious, Sam. There’s a chance—a pretty damn good one if you ask me—that you could lose all of us on this stupid trip. Could you live with yourself knowing that we were gone and never coming back? What if you lost my brother? What if you lost Madison? What would you do?”
Without breaking eye contact, I take a deep breath and answer him. “I would finish what we’re about to set out to do, and when the cure works, you guys could come back to me.” This next part is going to hurt, but he has to hear it. “But even if you guys didn’t come back, it would still be worth it in the end. A chance to set things right is worth whatever price I have to pay.”
I can see the hurt in Reese’s eyes as what I say sinks in, and he takes a step back, sliding out of arm’s reach. “You would sacrifice all of us?”
“The world is far more important than any one person, including myself. If I have to die to get this cure out, so be it. I know the sacrifice will be worth it in the end. The same goes for you and everyone else I care about, and I’m not sorry for that.”
“You’re not?” he asks incredulously.
“No,” I answer firmly. “Maybe I should be, but I’m really not. I would never be able to live with the guilt if something happened to you or anyone sitting back at the house, but it’s a risk we have to take. It’s for the greater good. You can think I’m heartless, or even crazy, but I don’t care. I know what’s right, and I know how important it is we get this done.”
“Sam, you’re making a huge mistake, and you won’t figure it out until it’s too late.”
“I disagree. I’m sorry you don’t agree with me. I’m sorry you don’t see how important this is. You know, you don’t have to come with us. If you want to stay behind, then go ahead, stay. But I am going, and the others are coming with me.”
“Let’s get back to the others. They’re probably starting to worry about us by now.”
I reach over and grab one of the full five gallon gas cans with both hands and half carry half drag it over to the back of Reese’s new truck. Reese comes up behind me and takes the gas can from my hands, lifting it up into the back of the truck with such ease that I’m actually jealous. I glance down discreetly at my body, and I wish I was in better shape. Ryder has helped me train after he started working out again, but so far I haven’t seen much progress.
I’ve gained a couple measly pounds of muscle overall, but I still don’t have the strength I should. I’ll probably never be able to carry Ryder or Reese if they were to get hurt, but in my current shape, I might be able to drag them. I’m not sure how much good that will do though if we’re being chased by flesh-eating monsters. I hate knowing that I’m too weak to save Ryder or Reese if something happens to them, but there isn’t much I can do about it. I just have to keep training and hope for the best.
The sound of the engine roaring to life startles me out of my thoughts, and Reese looks at me with a frown on his face. “You’ve been doing that far too much lately, and it needs to stop.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I mutter tightly as I walk by the open truck door.
“Yes, you do. This deep thinking thing is going to get you killed, Sam. If you want to daydream or think about things, do it at home, where you’re safe. Not out here in the open, where any number of things can go wrong. You’re going to get yourself killed if you can’t control your thoughts. Don’t be that idiot that gets other people killed.”
“I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” I say, even though I know it probably will. Lately all I’ve been able to do is think. I think when I’m preparing food for everyone. I think when I’m bathing. I think when I’m working out. I think in dangerous situations like this. I even think late at night when I’m in Ryder’s arms. I don’t know if I can turn off my mind anymore, and that honestly frightens me.
I won’t be the reason someone else dies.
I climb into the jeep and slam the door a little harder than necessary. Sighing, I start the jeep and follow Reese through the empty parking lot. We drive close by the small group of zombies, and I try to avoid their dull and lifeless eyes. I know if I make eye contact with them, I’ll most likely start wondering if the person they once were is still in there somewhere, trapped beneath sickness and impulse control.
If I think of them as potential humans, I’ll never be able to kill them, and me or someone else will end up paying the price. I can’t be stupid about this. They’re not human…yet. They’re still monsters, and I have to keep thinking of them that way.