Copyright 2016 Lauren Beltz
Published by Lauren Beltz at Shakespir
Also by Lauren Beltz:
Fortitude: Cabin Fever
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Table of Contents
It happened so quickly. In a blink of an eye, the entire situation shifted. A gun exploded into action, then a body fell from the room, recoiling backwards before collapsing onto the ground. At first, all she could think was that Anna had made a move for his gun and ended up getting Nathan on accident. But when the initial shock wore off, she realized the body in the hallway was not Nathan.
“Daniel!” her scream pierced the brief moment of silence that followed the shock. She heard movement resume inside the apartment, but her focus was forward. Pulling away from Davidson, she ran toward the lump on the floor, skidding to her knees at Daniel’s side.
His eyes were open, and she quickly scanned him for where the bullet had hit. When she came up blank, she turned her eyes to his. “Where were you hit?”
“I’m fine,” he breathed, and relief flooded through her. Anna must have missed in the scuffle. He lifted his hand, touched her cheek, and turned her face towards the apartment door.
She wished he hadn’t. Anna had Nathan in a choke hold, and just as she turned to look, Nathan dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes, unconscious.
“Anna!” Lenore yelled. This wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But Anna was on a war path now, and she didn’t even acknowledge the call of her name. Anna’s attention turned to the space behind the open door, and from the angle of the door Lenore couldn’t see what Anna was doing. She could certainly hear it though. Wood cracked as pieces dropped to the ground in sight. Then she heard the telltale sound of wood grating against hardwood floors and realized Anna must have been pushing furniture around.
Daniel, recovering from the shock, rose to his feet and dragged her up with him. They moved towards the open door simultaneously as Lenore heard the sound of a door sliding on rollers. As they moved into the open doorway, Anna stepped back directly in their eyesight, gun raised. Lenore heard the click of the trigger pulled, but nothing happened for a split second. Then chaos erupted once more. Anna backpedaled as far as possible, which was only a step in the narrow entryway of the apartment. “Oh, shitttt,” she panicked as she dropped the gun.
She rushed towards them and Lenore involuntarily took a few steps back, grabbing Daniel’s sleeve and pulling him with her. Stopping only to grab the door and shove it back as far as possible with a significant show of force, Anna dived into the hallway and immediately to the right. Lenore heard the door make contact, but it bounced a few inches back immediately.
Anna, on hands and knees from the dive, shuffled down the hallway. If she had been watching, Lenore would have realized Anna was going for the machete. But Lenore’s attention was drawn to the body that appeared in the entryway now.
It was Hayley, but it was so clearly not. Her stomach turned as she realized Nathan must have had her locked up or barricaded in the small storage closet in the front of the apartment. My God. Caged like an animal, for God only knew how long. Her stomach turned as she wondered how someone could do that to someone they loved. “Hay-” she started to call to the poor girl, but an arm wrapped around her. A hand clamped down over her mouth. The arm pulled her back against a solid body.
Too shocked to fight the embrace, Lenore could only watch as Hayley moved down the hallway towards where Nathan lay crumpled on the floor unconscious. Her movements were jerky, and Lenore could only imagine how stiff her joints were if she had been trapped in that closet for days. She was amazed Hayley could still move at all.
Anna moved to the doorway and impeded their view. “Oh no you don’t, you sick bitch,” Anna snapped as Hayley dropped to her knees in front of Nathan.
The sight of Anna entering the hallway would be forever burned into her memory, though the true significance of the moment was lost on her at the time. The sight of Anna approaching Hayley from behind, welding a machete, certainly led her believe that nothing good would come from the following seconds though.
She watched as Anna bent over and her empty left hand reached down. Lenore couldn’t see what she was doing at first, but then she watched as Anna sidestepped around Nathan’s fallen body, affording her greater movement as she stepped into the open living area space. She had Hayley by the hair, and as she pivoted her body around Nathan’s, she used the momentum to swing Hayley around by her hair as she shoved her towards the ground.
The sight was enough to startle anyone, but then Lenore watched as Anna moved past Nathan and set her sights on Hayley, who had fallen to her hands and knees on the ground, her filthy hair creating a curtain around her face. “No!” Lenore screamed just as Anna raised the machete and, with a precision arc, swiftly chopped at the center of Hayley’s neck.
At her yell, Lenore heard footsteps approach from the right and knew Sebastian and Davidson were approaching, but she could not tear her eyes away from the scene before her. Hayley’s head detached with one swift, fluid swing of the machete. But more than the sound, and more than the sight of the decapitation, the sight of the head as Hayley’s body dropped and her head rolled down the entryway towards them is what caused her stomach to leap to her throat. Daniel took two steps back as the head rolled towards them, dragging her with him.
She had just enough time to turn her head and wrench his hand from her mouth before she lost her stomach. The fact that she hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours afforded the decency of not puking in the hallway in front of the group, but she doubled over at the waist and dry heaved as she gasped for air.
The realization flooded her, and it was dark and dangerous. The blood that spilled from the severed opening wasn’t blood at all. Instead of the low viscosity and red coloring of blood, what seeped from the open ends of Hayley’s neck was a thick, brown sluggish mush. And when Hayley’s head stopped rolling, she finally saw Hayley’s face. But it wasn’t her signature brown eyes and kind, knowing smile that stared lifelessly up at her. The blood vessels surrounding her eyes had all burst, and her eyes were ringed with the same brown color that now littered the entryway floor. Her brown eyes suffered from the white, opaque coloring of cataracts. And while her skin had shrunken in on her facial structure the same as everyone else’s from the lack of food and nutrition, her skin was a hallow pale color.
She had been infected, and there was no telling for how long. The sight in the entryway of Nathan’s apartment sickened him, but a small part of him was also relieved. He saw the image of what she had become on her face, and had seen in on so many other faces during their initial clearing. He couldn’t bear the thought of that… thing getting loose in the building, and it had been only a matter of time before she inevitably had. They didn’t know how much motor skill and intelligence the infected retained as they gave into the sickness, but all it took was the ability to turn a doorknob to risk all their lives.
He grabbed Lenore’s shoulders, gently, and lifted her so he could wrap his arms around her back. She was still gasping for air, but she had nothing to regurgitate and he knew it. Her head tucked into his shoulder, and he slowly rotated them so she was facing away from the aftermath of the encounter in the hallway.
It still unnerved him to see the lifeless eyes and the removed head, but he was somewhat desensitized by now. When he, Davidson, and Anna had made the original sweeps through the building, he couldn’t count how many infected they had taken out. It got slightly easier with each one, as you told yourself over and over that you weren’t a killer, that the infected were no longer human, no longer carried life behind those dead eyes. But it was impossible to ignore the fact that they still walked and still made noise, though they no longer seemed to have the capacity to speak. Even if they weren’t living, there was still a disarming sign of life in the jerky movements of their bodies, in the inhuman eyes.
Anna dropped the machete, tossing it away from her body towards Hayley’s lifeless form. She leaned against the wall and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. Even after the dozens they had collected in the beginning, it was still a shock after each one, in that moment just after, when reality sunk in. The relief that it was over, that you were safe, that you weren’t infected. The regret that clung to your soul through your morality.
She would be able to clean up herself, but Sebastian wouldn’t make her. They were the cleaning crew together, and while physically the task could be handled by just one person, emotionally it took two to do.
Sebastian moved towards Davidson, gingerly passing his sister off to the closest thing she had to a friend left in the world. It was always harder, too, when it was a face you recognized. Those dead eyes still seemed capable of judging, and it was a lot harder to ignore when you knew what those eyes should have looked like.
He was careful to step over and around the head and puddle of sludge as he moved to Anna. “I’ll get the water, bucket, and mop if you want to see if you can find a garbage bag.”
She nodded in response, but she needed another minute to collect herself before she could move. Testing the boundaries, knowing if he happened to overstep them it would end in hurt for him, he tenderly laid a hand on her upper arm and gave it the slightest of reassuring squeezes. “You did good today, Marks.”
Sebastian didn’t stop to think what this would mean to the group, especially when Nathan woke to the aftermath. He knew there would be repercussions for her actions, that Daniel and Lenore and Davidson would all want their voices heard, and Nathan above them all. A moment like this, it threatened the very balance of the already shaky relationship between them all, and he wasn’t sure if they would all be able to survive it.
Especially not when they found out about the supplies.
The breaking point was coming, barreling down the hallway at lightning speed. It was only a question of what tipped the scales now.
The garbage bags were stored in the cabinet below the sink, which was thankfully only the third place she looked. She found a 13 gallon bag that would work for the head, but she would have to chop the remainder of the body up into several pieces to get it to fit in bags of that volume, and that wasn’t a prospect she looked forward to. She rooted around in the cabinet until she lucked upon some heavy duty outdoor 45 gallon bags at the very back. She hadn’t dared hope to get so lucky, especially since no one in the city had lawns to clean, but there they were. Anna grabbed three.
She couldn’t find any latex gloves or cleaning gloves in the kitchen or the bathroom, so she settled with some oven mitts that weren’t perfect but would get the job done. As she suited up with the oven mitts, she side stepped Lenore attempting to lift Nathan up to move him from his spot on the floor. Anna figured she would take care of him herself, eventually. Especially if Lenore wised up and realized she could slide him rather easily across the hardwood floors.
The head was the first part she disposed, as it was the easiest to take care of. As she tied off the garbage bag, she set it against the wall as Sebastian started to clean up the mess off the floor. The oven mitts were already soaked through by the time she finished with the head, so she tossed them to the side as well. Getting creative, she fit a garbage bag over each hand before pulling the oven mitts back on. It made it next to impossible to move the body, but it protected her skin from coming into contact with Hayley’s… fluids.
It only took Anna a minute of trying to negotiate the body into the bag before she realized she would have to approach the problem from another angle. She may be able to cram Hayley’s small figure into the bag, but it would risk stretching the bag and tearing it, which could lead to fluids dripping on the way to the elevator and possible contamination of the hallway. Returning to the kitchen, she found a pair of scissors in a drawer and set about cutting two bags along their seems until she was able to fold them out into rectangles on the ground.
At that point, she realized she could have just used their area rug in the living area to roll Hayley into, but she wanted to cause the least amount of disturbance to the apartment as possible. She had the feeling that when Nathan regained consciousness, he wasn’t exactly going to be okay with the results. Laying the garbage bags out side by side on the clean portion of the floor, she knelt down and began the process of rolling the body onto the bags, while holding the bag to make sure it didn’t bunch up under Hayley or slide across the floor.
Sebastian finished cleaning the floor before Anna had the body wrapped, so he helped her finish. They managed to curl the body up into the fetal position and envelope it in the two cut bags. Then Sebastian held the third bag open while Anna worked on getting the mass stuffed into the third bag. When Sebastian was able to pull the drawstrings together at the top of the bag, Anna collapsed to the floor from fatigue. For such a small person who had surely been starved for the past two weeks, Hayley still had some mass to her. Last year, a similar task would barely have stretched her muscles. Now, Anna sat with her head propped against the wall, breathing heavily. Her arms and legs ached. Though the apartment was rather cool, she was definitely sweating.
Sebastian stood in front of her and offered her a hand up. No rest for the wicked, she guessed as she got right back up on her feet. The sooner they finished the job, the better it was. She knew this and accepted it, but man did she want a nap.
Picking up the smaller white trash bag, Anna dropped it in the center of the overstuffed bag. Sebastian gripped the bag by the top, and Anna grabbed the bottom. On the count of three, they both lifted and shuffle walked, carrying the awkward bundle between them, out into the hallway and to the elevator. They placed the bag carefully on the ground in front of the doors. Each of them took a hold of an opposite elevator door and pulled them open.
The first time they had decided to dump a body down the elevator, it had taken all day. The restrictor on the doors had taken hours to bypass in order to create a gap large enough to dump a body. But Anna had been wise enough to disable the restrictor once they had finally gotten the doors open, and now it was a simple matter of sliding the doors open, dumping the body down, and closing the doors once more.
When the doors slid open, it took only a few seconds before the putrid smell of death and decay sent them both tumbling backwards. Sebastian found himself gasping for air, and then the meager meal he had eaten that day resurfaced with violence. Anna typically prided herself on her ironclad stomach and her ability to handle gross situations, but the sound and smell of Sebastian upchucking his food sent her stomach reeling as well, and she soon followed. She at least had time to bend over the garbage bag and projectile into the elevator shaft instead of all over the floor.
With a quick wipe of her mouth, she bent down and rolled the body into the elevator shaft. It toppled down and collided with the top of the elevator, which sat conveniently on the first floor. She managed to slide both doors shut on her own while Sebastian tried to regain his composure.
“You gotta stop being such a little bitch,” she teased. “And for the love of God, will you clean up that mess you just made?”
He still needed to dispose of the mop, bucket & water off the roof, so a quick stop at the elevator to clean up his sick was hardly a lot of extra work. “Yeah, I’ll call the janitor right now.”
By the time he became aware of his consciousness again, he was laid out on the couch. A bob of brown hair sat in his direct line of sight, and for a moment his heart soared as his brain immediately went to his desire. Hayley. But it wasn’t Hayley sitting on the floor in front of the couch, legs crossed and pinned in the small space between the couch and the coffee table. It couldn’t be Hayley. It would never be Hayley, ever again.
The shock of the realization hit him with as much stunning force as it had when he first saw her exposed from the closet. His heart twisted as it shriveled in his chest. The only thing he had wanted to do was protect her, and he had failed. How could he face that? How could he live with that?
His dry throat itched, and he gave an involuntary cough. The push of his chest ached. His throat scratched, causing the irritation to grow.
Lenore turned, twisting at her waist to face him. The normal bags under her eyes that came from a lack of sleep were now accompanied by a red sclera. Her lips separated a fraction of an inch as if she were going to speak, but no words came. It was for the best, he decided. There was nothing she could say that could calm the hurt inside him. He could barely contain the hatred he felt, and the urge to blame her increased with every second she sat there inside of his apartment where she had no right to be.
“I think you should leave.” The words hurt his throat to speak, and he had to clear his throat when he was done with his not so subtle dismissal.
“I just thought someone ought to stay to make sure you were ok,” she responded lamely.
Ok. As if he could be ok. How could she expect him to be ok after what just transpired? He would never be ok again. “Well, I am clearly not, but please don’t let that slow your departure.” He had to fight the urge to reach down and wrap his hands around her thin, frail neck. He wanted to strangle her until he saw the life pass from her eyes. But it wouldn’t change anything, and it wouldn’t bring Hayley back. So he fought the urge.
“Nathan, I am so sorry about what happened to Hayley.” Her eyes glistened as if she had the audacity to sit here in their apartment and shed her unwelcome tears.
“You don’t have the right to ask for forgiveness, not now and not ever. And I really think you should leave now, before you wear out your welcome more than you already have.”
“Anna never should have-”
“Anna nothing. You never should have opened your mouth. Now get out of my sight.”
“I said out!” he snapped, the levy breaking on his control. How dare she sit there, trying to make excuses for what she did. If she didn’t leave, he swore to himself he would greet her with the same fate that had fallen his beloved Hayley.
Thankfully, she stood without another word. She paused only when she reached the mess in front of the closet door, a place he couldn’t bring himself to look. “Are you sure you don’t want me to send someone else?”
“I think you all have done enough damage for one day without stirring up any more trouble.”
The pebbles fell with little accuracy from the height the roof offered. With such a small mass, he guessed they reached terminal velocity before they struck the pavement below, and even the smallest hint of stale wind was enough to knock them off their trajectories. The vast majority of the miniature rocks clanged inaudibly on the ground below. The ones that did manage to make contact with their intended targets simply bounced off harmlessly. The infected did not wince or change or glance or even slow their pace from the small impact.
He didn’t know why he bothered as he pulled another handful of pebbles from the artificial plant’s pot positioned next to him by the ledge. He wasn’t making a dent in the infection below; all he had managed to do for the past hour was scatter more debris on an already trashed sidewalk and street. The pointlessness of the task, however, didn’t stop him. In anything, it spurred him further, challenged him to make a change in at least one of the things on the ground below.
He had left the roof door propped open, so he was not aware of the company that approached until it was at his side. It swiftly grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the ledge. His years of training kicked in, and he moved fluidly without a moment’s hesitation. His hand was around the attacker’s throat while his arm held their arm pinned against their back before he realized it was only Lenore. Lenore, who never approached that close to the edge of the building.
“Sorry,” he apologized immediately as he released his hold on her and took a step back to let her catch her breath. Her hand went to her neck and massaged the area he had grabbed. She coughed weakly a few times. Then she burst into tears, and his comfort level plunged.
“Lenore, I didn’t mean to hurt or scare you. You just sneaked up on me, and I reacted.” He couldn’t handle it when women cried. Tears were not something the military trained you to face, especially not when coming from the eyes of a tired and torn young woman. He didn’t know how he knew, but she would be his undoing.
She shook her head, as if to suggest that his defensive move wasn’t the cause of her tears, but she didn’t elaborate with words. Instead, she approached him once more, her hands grabbing fistfuls of the front of his shirt as she dropped her cheek against his chest and continued to cry.
He stood stock still, unsure of his next move. Not knowing what to do, he chose the simplest of options and did nothing at all. He simply stood there and let her cry against him.
“… my fault,” she choked out after what felt like an hour. “… all my fault what happened.”
Well, he wouldn’t agree but he didn’t disagree either, so once again he wasn’t sure how to proceed. They all carried the blame of Hayley’s fate to some extent and to varying degrees. Nathan never should have kept her locked away in secret. Lenore probably shouldn’t have told William and Anna until the rest of them had discussed options. Anna shouldn’t have gone to the apartment wielding a machete of all things, and William shouldn’t have sent her with one, for they all knew it was William’s call that had started it all. Daniel shouldn’t have followed Anna into the hallway; Davidson shouldn’t have let either of them go into the hallway with Nathan still in possession of the gun.
There were several other ways it could have played out, but Davidson couldn’t help think that, all things considered, it could have been worse. A lot worse. At the end of the day, the only one hurt – at least physically, for they were all at least a little emotionally damaged by the event – was Hayley, and she really hadn’t been much of a person in the end anyway. The story could have ended with one or more of them attacked or infected, or both, but thank goodness that hadn’t been the case. They were lucky for the results at the end of the day, but the method by which they obtained those results was less than ideal by anyone’s standards.
Perhaps his fundamental problem was that he wasn’t programmed the same way as the rest of them, or at least Lenore. He wasn’t mourning the loss of Hayley, as he didn’t see the value of life lost. By the time they got there, her soul – if such a thing even existed – had long since expired. He wasn’t upset about the removal of Hayley from the apartment, but more with how the situation managed to sneak up on him and take him by surprise. He didn’t like being surprised, and this time was no exception. He had continued to play the scene through his mind time and time again, and each time he ran through an alternative means to the end, one that wouldn’t have put them all at such risk. It was useless to play this game of what ifs, but his mind didn’t have anywhere else to wonder in such a confined world.
Lenore, however, didn’t seem too concerned about the fact that Anna and Daniel had followed Nathan into the hallway, though she had certainly seemed concerned for Daniel when his body had projected back into the hallway after the scuffle over the gun. She was upset about Hayley’s demise, and her role in it happening. He didn’t know how to comfort her with that, so he chose to keep quiet. She hardly seemed to expect him to say anything anyway. She seemed content with crying against his shirt.
“He’ll never forgive me,” she said as the tears finally began to dry from her eyes. Unable to meet his eyes now after the display of a somewhat public breakdown, she settled with staring directly ahead at his chest.
“He’ll never forgive any of us,” Davidson corrected her, for he knew it was the truth. It was a truth that they would likely find difficult to manage in the coming days. It wasn’t as if Nathan would be able to cut ties with the group; he still depended on them for food and water and other supplies, and William would no doubt expect him to still pull his own weight around the building, especially now that they officially had one less set of hands helping out.
Their situation was beginning to crumble around them as the bonds in their relationships cracked and broke. Hostility was something unwelcome in confined spaces, and with the six of them stuck with each other for better or worse, Davidson knew it would be for worse. Hayley may have been a danger to them all that they had successfully avoided by one way or another, but the removal of her threat opened another, much larger flood gate. And Davidson knew they would only be able to tread water for so long before they all began to sink.
Her knuckle against the wooden door seemed to echo throughout the hallway. She steeled herself for the moment when the door opened, ready to face an angry William. The William that responded, however, looked almost human. He looked exhausted, for once, and not at all happy to see her standing at his doorstep. For the umpteenth time in the past three days, Anna thought about holding off telling him. But it seemed the time for delays and distractions had come and gone. Sebastian urged her to tell William, and she knew he was right. She just didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news while they were all still recovering from the last big decision she had made.
“We have a bit of a situation, I’m afraid,” she got straight to the point without giving any specifics.
“Nathan’s infected now and you want to chop his head off with a machete?”
She bit back her retort, though his words were a low blow if she had ever felt one. He was, after all, the one who had shown up at her apartment and asked such a thing of her. He was the one who had placed the machete in her hands. Was it her fault that she was the one trusted to step up and take the actions he refused to do himself? Who was he to point the finger at her?
But she held in the bitterness. Tension was thick enough between everyone in the group as it was; no need to start tossing fuel into the fire when they were all hot enough to ignite.
“The supplies are gone,” she stated simply as if she were merely commenting on the weather.
“Who do you think took them?”
It takes her a moment to process his statement, and another for her to realize his interpretation of what she has said is that someone stole a supply stock.
“We all did. Sebastian and I cleared the second floor a few days back and cleaned out the last of the apartments.”
Anna couldn’t read the look on William’s face, but she didn’t have to in order to know she didn’t like it.
William pondered over the revelation for a moment longer, leaning his tall frame against the door. “It’s too soon to tell the others,” he finally spoke, voicing the sentiment she had been feeling all along. Telling them they no longer have a safe means of finding what little food they had would not go over well with any of them, and the prospect of leaving the building after what just happened with Hayley… even Anna wasn’t looking forward to the thought.
“Keep a tight lid on it for now. Tell Sebastian to as well. Continue your normal schedule, but work your way back up through the building and double check every nook and cranny of all the apartments again. Collect anything you might have missed the first time.”
She was slightly insulted to have him think they could have possibly missed anything in the past few months. They would find nothing edible left in any of the apartments; Anna was confident of that fact. They would only be wasting precious time and energy on a hopeless mission, when they should be using that time to come up with the next step of their survival plan. She had half the mind to tell William just that, but she kept it to herself. They all just needed a few more days to recover and adjust.
With a slight nod, Anna decided to leave it at that. No point voicing her concerns at this juncture. Better to let William think he was still the smartest and in control. But Anna planned on spending those wasted hours searching the empty apartments at least coming up with ideas on where to go from here. When they finished re-searching all the apartments and undoubtedly found nothing, she wanted to be able to bring a plan of attack to the group instead of leaving them feeling helpless. The last thing they needed right now was to start turning against each other in an every man for himself mentality. Another incident like Hayley’s, and she highly doubted they would all make it out of the encounter alive.
The knock at the door surprised him enough to pull him from his stupor. With the routine open door policy in their group, the sound of a knock sometimes made him forget where he was for the smallest of moments. He waited for the guest to let themselves in, but time continued to pass in silence. Begrudgingly, he rose from the couch and moved to open the door. With all that had gone on in the past few hours, he didn’t know who to expect, but he wasn’t surprised to find Anna waiting in the hallway.
“Where’s your sister?” Anna asked him, her tone harsh and her voice lowered.
“Locked herself in her room and is refusing to come out. While a hunger strike is the last thing she needs right now, it will at least help buy us some time with our supplies.” As he spoke, he couldn’t even tell himself if he was joking or serious, but he suspected it lay somewhere along the spectrum of seriousness.
“Then can I come in?” she suggested as they continued to stand there.
Stepping back, Sebastian ushered her inside, “Can’t say I’m looking forward to the type of conversation that requires a sit down and secrecy from my sister.”
“It appears as if everything should be kept a secret from your sister,” Anna commented.
“Hey.” He was exhausted and not ready for a fight, but he wouldn’t tolerate her bad mouthing his family as if that whole incident had been their fault. Especially not by the person who had been swinging the machete.
She held her arms up in an offering of peace. “Just trying to lighten the mood, amigo.” While he sank back onto the couch, she propped herself on the edge of the coffee table.
He was used to close proximity to her as it was something that had been forced upon him during countless days of clearing small sized apartments. This voluntarily closeness, however, was new to him and rather unsettling. It felt a bit like standing next to someone with a grenade in their hand. “Can you just say what you came to say?” he asked as he rubbed his eyes. “It’s been a tiring day.”
“I talked to William.”
“I bet that was a pleasant conversation.”
“See, now who’s trying to lighten the mood?” she accused, but it did not bring a smile to his face.
“Anna,” he prodded.
“He wants us to sweep the building again, from the bottom up, to see if there is anything left that we might have missed the first time around.”
He snorted at the absurdity of the suggestion. “Bullshit,” he snapped, extending his arms across the back of the couch as he leaned back into it. “There is nothing left, we made sure of it.”
“I know that and you know that, but William is looking for some kind of excuse to hold off on telling everyone so the whole Hayley situation can blow over.” It bothered him how casually she breezed over what she did to Hayley, but the last thing he wanted to do was start an argument over something that was already done.
“So we’re just going to waste what, a week? Two weeks? Looking for supplies and food while everyone else keeps consuming what little they have left while we find nothing? What happens when we come back to William with nothing to show for all the time we wasted?”
“By then, hopefully you and I have come up with a solution to the problem that we can present to the group.”
The thought was downright laughable. “And you think that they aren’t going to turn into an angry mob when they realize we’ve known about the little problem for a while without telling anyone? Delaying the inevitable is not going to solve anything. Sure, tempers might have calmed down a little by then, but the fact that we hid the truth will counteract that. And then they will be starving, and panicked, and do you really think William is the one they are going to turn on first?”
“What is the point in telling them if we don’t have a plan to fix it? Once we’ve had some more time to brainstorm, then we can approach William again about telling everyone.”
“We have been brainstorming,” Sebastian reminded her. “And we haven’t come up with anything yet. Our best chance at finding a viable solution is to let everyone help in the planning. We both know the answer to our problems isn’t going to be simple or easy, so the more time we have to plan for it, the better our chance at survival will be. It’s suicidal to keep this hidden from everyone.”
The look she gave him then told him that she agreed with him, even if she argued against him. He had always admired her for being a strong, independent person, even if it caused tensions with others more than necessary. But as he sat there and stared across the short space between them, he found himself staring at a soldier of William. She opened her mouth, and he heard William’s words spewing from it.
“Look, if you really think it’s a good idea to hold off on telling people, then I won’t open my mouth to anyone. Far be it for the youngest, most inexperienced in the group to stir up trouble.” The bitterness in his voice was not well masked.
“The last thing we need right now is a panic, Sebastian. Give them time to cool off, even if it’s just a few days. We’ll spend our time roaming the floors bouncing ideas off of each other, and then once Nathan and the others have calmed down, we’ll discuss going to the group again, even if William doesn’t think it’s time.” The way she spoke, he felt like her interest lay in self preservation. Anna was not only the one who had taken Hayley down, but she was now the scavenger that had to bare the bad news. His gut told him that they were wrong, but he squashed the feeling.
“Then I guess I’ll see you in the morning,” he sighed, tilting his head against the back of the couch and staring up at the shadows on the ceiling.
She responded with a nod, and he could read the relief written across her face. “Get a good night’s sleep. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time.” Sensing her dismissal, she stood. With a nod, she led herself to the front door.
“What else is new,” he mumbled as he stared up at the ceiling even after the door swung shut behind her.
“Hey,” he called out when he looked up and saw Sebastian approaching. He had given up on throwing pebbles and settled on sitting on the ledge and staring down, deep in thought. He longed for something to do, but without direction he didn’t want to return to his empty apartment. They all needed space right now, and the fresh air on the roof was better than the dim lighting and the wafting breeze through the open window in his apartment.
“Was hoping I would find you here,” Sebastian said in greeting. He did not share his sister’s nervousness and promptly plopped himself down next to Davidson, swinging his legs over the side of the building.
“Hope I’m not in trouble,” Davidson commented vaguely as he turned his attention back to the city that stretched out endlessly before him, a vast sea of concrete, metal, and glass.
“I am hoping I can request a favor,” Sebastian confessed, and Davidson had to give him props for not beating around the bush, though he thought he could have lived with a bit of small talk.
“I am intrigued. Request away.”
“I need you to teach Lenore self defense.”
That caught Davidson’s attention. He turned his gaze towards her brother. “Did she tell you what happened earlier? Because honestly, she just took me by surprise, that’s all.” By the puzzled look on his face, Davidson could tell that Lenore hadn’t said a word.
“Uhhh, no. She has locked herself in her room for the time being, but I highly doubt the two are related. You know how she is. But anyway,” he continued, “after what happened with Hayley today, I think it would be a good idea for her to at least be able to handle herself should anything happen like that again.”
“I’ve learned a lot about your sister,” he commented, though it wasn’t strictly the truth. In fact, he had hardly learned anything about the siblings at all. But he had observed her, and he knew a lot about her personality that he hadn’t had to ask. “She doesn’t strike me as someone who can’t handle herself in a pinch. Sure, she gets a bit shell shocked, but self defense lessons aren’t going to fix that. Sadly, exposure is really the only cure for that.
“And besides, the last thing she needs right now is to be physically exerting herself. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but she looks like a twig.”
“Of course I’ve noticed.” By the snappy tone of his retort, Davidson ventured to guess that the subject was one of the common Lenore-Sebastian argument topics.
“If she’s not eating, the last thing she needs to be doing is burning more calories.” Davidson was not a doctor by anyone’s standards, but that fact seemed obvious enough to him that he was surprised Sebastian would even suggest it. Sure, Lenore appeared to have frozen up when she saw Anna handle Hayley, but self defense lessons didn’t seem like the first logical leap of conclusion.
“I know that. And I’m not saying they need to be strenuous exercises. You could go slow, even just go through the techniques with her if you don’t want to practice them. She didn’t grow up in the city, and she’s never had an athletic background. It would be good for her, and I think it would help her take her mind off the whole Hayley incident.”
“I’m more than happy to spend extra time on water duty with her,” Davidson offered, “if she needs to stay busy to keep her mind off what happened.”
“I’m not talking about water duty here, man.” Sebastian sounded frustrated and insistent.
A warning flag rose in Davidson’s mind as he eyed the young man sitting next to him. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Will you just do this for me? Please. You’re the only one here she really trusts, and if the suggestion comes from me she won’t even consider it.”
He pondered it over for a bit before he finally answered. “I will agree, but only under the condition that you tell me why it’s so important to you for her to learn self defense right now.”
“She’s my sister. My artistic, highly impractical sister, who used to live with her head in the clouds. She isn’t built for this… whatever this world is now. If she’s going to survive, she’s going to need to learn how. Now.”
There was definitely an ulterior motive behind his request, and it bugged Davidson that again something eluded him. He made a mental note to pay special attention to Sebastian for the time being. “Fine. I will start giving her lessons, but I am free to revoke the favor if I even have reason to consider that it might be adversely affecting her health.”
The pure, unfiltered look of relief that flooded over Sebastian’s face unnerved him. His reluctant agreement should not have meant that much, and the fact that it had made Davidson worry.
Sebastian thanked him several times before heading back inside. Davidson continued to sit on the rooftop, even as the sun began to set and darkness settled over the sky. The events of the past twenty-four hours continued to irk him, and he began to wonder if he was losing his touch.
The first time he saw her, he had just awoken and thought for sure it was a figment of his imagination, something caused by the haze of sleep still lurking in his eyes. He had blinked, and she had disappeared as if she had never been there in the first place.
The second time he saw her, he was scrubbing the hardwood floors where her body had lain. They had done a good job cleaning up after themselves, but he still saw the traces of their heinous actions. Again, he wrote her off as something not truly there. When he had sat down on the floor and wiped the tears from his eyes, it was as if he had imagined the entire thing.
But now he saw her everywhere, a shadow of herself that stayed with him throughout the day. The others had stopped by to try to check on him, perhaps even to apologize, but he refused to open the door. Instead, he laid on the couch and stared at her figure in the armchair across from him. She never spoke, but she would look at him in such a way that he could tell what she was thinking.
“I’m sorry,” he told her now, as he sat on the floor in the entryway and stared into the open closet. She sat huddled in the corner, her legs pulled to her chest. “I am so, so sorry, Hales.” He choked on her name as he watched her.
She lifted her head from her lap, resting her chin on her knees. Her soft, brown eyes held sorrow and hurt, and he would have given anything to take that away. He had never wanted anything more than to make her happy, and he had failed so miserably.
“I never should have put you in there,” he sobbed. “You were sick and needed my help, but I was worried for myself. I was so selfish. Being stuck in that small space only made it worse, I know.” He remembered the sounds she used to make, the guttural calls as she had scratched at the door, and it only made the tears fall more fiercely.
“You were asking me for help, and I just locked you away to rot. I didn’t know what to do, but I did it wrong. It was all wrong, Hales. I would give anything to go back and do it differently.”
Her legs slid to the floor, and then she moved to him in an instant. Her hand took his, and he could almost feel her lips against his forehead as she kissed him. How could she ever forgive him? Never in a million years would he ever deserve her forgiveness. She had always been too good for him, and he had spent his life trying to prove otherwise only to lose her in the worst way imaginable.
When he lifted his downcast head and looked at her, she seemed to change. Her beautiful brown eyes turned dark, and the color seemed to change. His heart broke all over again as he saw the transition coming. The time he spent with her felt cursed, as if it was his penance for what he had done. To see her everyday, to remember how wonderful she had been, only to have her taken away again, every single time. As her eyes turned yellow, veins of red began to appear as well.
“No, Hales. Stay with me,” he pleaded as he watched her skin sink in to the hollows of her bones. She opened her mouth, as if to speak, and he watched as her teeth instantly rotted. She made no sound, but he watched as she gasped silently for breath, her hands clawing at his arms for help though he couldn’t feel a thing.
He watched numbly as she turned, reliving the same nightmare he had been dealt for the past week. She changed before his very eyes, and he sat helplessly as she did, as unable to help her now as he was the first time. It broke his heart all over again, day in and day out. He collapsed onto his side, bringing his knees to his chest in a fetal position as he watched her fall over from some unseen force. And then she disappeared in a poof of black smoke.
He stayed huddled in a ball for a long time after, his eyes brimming with tears at the fresh loss. This was his punishment for treating her so; he watched helplessly as she died everyday, thanks to him. He would never get her back, and the assurance of this fact drove him further into his hatred and despair.
“Like this,” he said as he moved to stand behind her. He caught her wrists and repositioned her hands in the correct position. “And remember, don’t tuck your thumbs into your fists; that’s an excellent way to break them.”
She let out a huff of frustration as she rolled her head around and wiggled her shoulders to loosen them up. They were on their fifth day of training and she wondered once more what had possessed him to suddenly have the urge to teach her. She had to admit, it did help pass the time, but she was hardly any good and he was clearly frustrated as well, making her wonder why he hadn’t given up on teaching her yet.
“You always want to be either on guard or on attack. And even when you are on the offensive, if you aren’t punching with a hand you still need to be blocking with it.” He had already told her all of this the previous day, but it didn’t seem to want to stick. She knew the rules, but implementing them turned out to be a lot more difficult than she had imagined. Hand and feet positions were fluid and constantly changing, and sometimes she dropped a fist to her side as she laid out a jab, something that was apparently a blasphemy in Davidson’s book.
“Right,” she said with a nod, and she repeated the mantra in her head. Her head was so filled with techniques and dos and don’ts that she dreamed purely in martial arts. With the concentration she was putting into her lessons with Davidson, she had actually managed to fall asleep for an hour or so over the past few evenings. Even with the Chuck Norris type dreams, it was a welcome addition to her exhausted life.
“Let’s go again,” he suggested, moving to stand back in front of her. He didn’t have a practice target to punch, so he held up his open palms instead for her to aim. At first, she had been reluctant to even swing at him, but the first time she had punched him he had laughed and called her a sissy. She wasn’t quite so hesitant anymore, though after almost a week she still hadn’t managed to inflict a single bruise, something she was disappointed in if she was being honest.
As instructed, she lowered herself into an appropriate stance, her knees bent like he had instructed for better movement and agility. While the self defense portions of their exercises were slow-goings, she had done well on the initial footwork teachings, proving she was much more agile than she had thought. A pleasant surprise considering how bad her blocking work was going.
He tapped on his open palm with his index finger, as if she didn’t know where to direct her punch. Holding her left hand in place to protect her face, she cross jabbed with her right hand, making sure to pivot her rear foot for the highest impact possible.
“Better!” he commended her. “But you still hit like a girl.” His favorite put down. “Put some muscle behind it this time.”
She had little muscle to speak of, but she tried to hit his palm harder as she punched a second time.
“Good, good,” he praised. “Now add the kick like we practiced yesterday.”
She hesitated as he widened his stance and lowered his center of mass closer to the ground. He raised both arms to his sides, his hands in fists, ready to block her attempts. “I still don’t know about kicking,” she confessed. The extra bit of workout coupled with the several flights of stairs had left her muscles sore the past two days. A few light blue bruises littered her lower legs, not to mention the ones she had on her arms from where she had blocked his punches.
“You’re never going to learn if you don’t practice,” he reminded her for the millionth time. He wasn’t wrong though, and she found to her surprise that she rather liked practicing. After the meager dinners with Sebastian, she had taken to retiring to her room and practicing in the mirror until it grew too dark out to watch her reflection. Without his careful eyes to critique every minor mistake, she rather enjoyed practicing the limited martial arts he had taught her over the past few days. It was mainly when he stood there, staring at her as he was then with that expectant look in his eyes, that she faltered, her self confidence gone.
“Bring it, Lenore,” he taunted her, darting forward to slap her fists teasingly. “I’m growing old waiting.”
So she brought her left leg – he had scolded her for relying too heavily on her dominant side – around in a roundhouse kick. He easily blocked his side with his arm. The top of her foot made contact with his arm, resulting in a weak smack. Her foot dropped immediately to the ground by his side, and she hopped a step to regain her balance. He immediately criticized her for not returning her foot back to the proper beginning stance and made her go again. The rest of their session continued in a similar fashion, her every movement dissected and judged as they went.
The only thing that stopped Davidson’s teachings was when the ominous clouds overhead buckled under the weight of the rain, and the skies opened up with fury. The first drop hit her head as he caught her wrist and spun her around. The next hit his hand where he held her wrist as he challenged her to break free of the grip. The next several pelted them both in their faces as she tried in vain to break his hold using a few of the techniques they had practiced.
A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, and it finally jarred them from their concentration. “Better get to work,” he told her, and she answered with a nod in agreement. They snatched up the buckets and moved to the trough. “You’ve come a ways since we started,” he shouted above the noise as the downpour began. “I didn’t think you had it in you, but you are just full of surprises.”
“Thanks!” she shouted back, wiping the hair from her eyes as she helped pull the mesh away from the trough and set to work.
He expected the knock at his door as soon as he heard the storm outside break, but it still came as a surprise when she appeared in his apartment, drenched head to toe, struggling to carry two buckets of water so full that water sloshed over the rim with every step she tried to take.
“Sorry,” she mumbled as he rushed across the room to help her keep as much water as possible from spilling onto his hardwood floors. He tried to take both buckets from her, but as soon as he relieved her of one, she took off towards his bathroom to empty the other. He followed behind her, taking the time to make sure the contents of the bucket stayed inside it. By the time he reached the bathroom, she had already emptied the first bucket into his bathtub and was setting it on the floor.
When she saw him, she stepped forward to take back the second bucket. He handed it off without comment, waiting to see if she would say anything. She continued to work diligently, and he cringed as he watched the water drip off her onto the bathmats and the tile. It would take him forever to clean up the wet trail she left from his front door to the bathroom. He had heard the rain but hadn’t thought it as intense as it clearly was.
With the second bucket emptied, she collected the first one and squeezed past him back into the living room. “Back with another load in a minute,” she told him as she headed out without another word.
He watched as the door swung shut behind her. He wasn’t exactly sure what to think. Granted, her duties required efficiency as they were heavily dependent on the weather, but he had at least expected her to open her big mouth and spew some kind of judgmental opinion. It felt weird to have her say nothing at all.
Daniel has just settled back down on the couch and found where he had left off in his novel when she quickly returned, leaking water from herself and the buckets once more. He bit his tongue to hold back a snappish comment and returned the bookmark as he crossed the room once more to lend a hand.
“I’ve got it,” she protested, but let him take a bucket from her when he insisted. He followed her steps into the small bathroom and emptied the bucket along side her in tandem. Then he reached for the towel rack and grabbed the cleanest towel he had, extending it towards her as a sign of a peace offering.
“Sorry,” she apologized as if noticing for the first time the dripping. Moving to the sink, she lifted her shirt to clear the counter top and then wrung the heavy fabric over the ceramic bowl. Water dripped in a steady flow from it, even after a second wringing. Once she had done the best possible with her shirt, she tilted her head over the sink and wrung out her hair as well.
Finished with her minimal tidying up, she ran a hand through her drier hair to tousle it before standing upright and facing him. “I’d better get those buckets back up to the roof. They aren’t going to fill themselves here.”
He took a step back and to the side to block the doorway and offered the towel to her once more. “The buckets can wait for a second.”
Grudgingly, she took the proffered towel, running it against her hair, then drying off her face and neck.
“You’re acting weird, and it’s confusing me,” he admitted when he grew tired of standing there watching her towel off in silence.
She scoffed, “You’re the one who has been avoiding me like the plague all week.”
“I’ve been on laundry duty. Any avoidance was completely unintentional.”
“Sure.” She wrapped the towel around her back and began to rub it against the wet fabric of her shirt. The towel was already turning a noticeably darker shade of blue as it grew damp.
“If I’ve been avoiding you, that would imply you have been looking for me,” he suggested, stuffing his hands in his pockets when he could find nothing else to preoccupy himself with.
“I’m sorry I ratted on Nathan, okay?” She paused with the towel and looked up at him. Even in the almost nonexistent lighting of the windowless bathroom, he could still see the clearly defined shadows under her eyes. “I only did it for the safety of the rest of the group. If I had to do it again, I would. In a heartbeat, because I know it was the right thing to do. But I would do it in a different way. I never meant to betray your trust.”
“By blabbing it out in some friendly pillow talk to Davidson? Yes, well, I would hope you would handle it a bit more delicately next time around.”
She let out a dry laugh at his comment, giving a slight shake of her head as she bent down to press the towel against her pants legs one at a time. “You honestly think I told Davidson in some post coital chat? I told him based on the sole fact that I value his opinion, and you and I were obviously at an impasse. Thus, I needed a second opinion. I’m insulted that you think I told him because you think I’m sleeping with him. Thanks for the towel,” she snapped as she tossed it to him.
He caught it easily, though the trailing edge of it swayed around from its momentum and caught his shirt.
“I don’t know why I thought I owed you an apology. If I hadn’t done what I did, who knows what would have happened. One or all of us could have been infected or killed by now. So yes, I’m sorry that I had to betray your trust to do what I thought was right, but I’m not sorry I did it. What Anna did was wrong, there is no denying that and I’m more upset than anyone about it, but at least it was handled. No thanks to you.
“Can I please leave now?”
It took him a minute to realize he was still standing between her and the door frame. He hesitated as he stood there. He wanted to apologize, but what she had said had only served to piss him off more. It was a subtle ‘I told you so’, but it was one nonetheless, and she hardly had the humility he thought she ought to have learned from the incident. He had gotten lucky that he had missed most of the skirmish, but it could have ended a lot worse for him in Nathan’s apartment, and she didn’t even feel the need to apologize for putting all of their lives in danger in her quest to prove she was right.
He stepped back into the hallway to give her room to pass. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
“At least I don’t have my head up mine,” she rebutted.
He had half the mind to grab either end of the towel, whip it into a rope, and lash it out at her. But that would hardly make him feel better, and it certainly wouldn’t remove them from the rut they seemed to be in now. Perhaps he had been avoiding her. After all, now he was pissed that he had opened his mouth to say anything, as the tension had only gotten worse. Their numbers were dropping, and the last thing he needed to be doing was going around and making enemies out of his friends, which was exactly where they seemed to be at now.
She emphasized her stance as she took the time to drop the buckets in the hallway in order to slam his front door as hard as she possibly could.
“This is hopeless,” Sebastian snapped as he banged his fist down on the kitchen bar in frustration. Anna slammed through the cabinets and pantry haphazardly with the same sentiment. “We’ve wasted an entire week,” he continued as he sat down on a barstool and ran his hands through his hair, “and what do we have to show for it? My own cabinets are starting to look as bare as this place. We haven’t found a single useful thing, and we don’t have any idea what to do now that the clock is running out.”
She tried to be the voice of reasonable hope since he took the role of pessimist this time. It was a toss up on any given day on which one of them was going to snap in frustration first and which would have to act as the emotional anchor for the rest of the day. “Well then, let’s brainstorm. This place is as good as any, and it’s far enough away from William that we don’t need to worry about him overhearing.” They had only made it halfway back up through the building to their own floor, though that pace was drastically quicker than when they had cleared and scavenged the floors in the first place.
Anna dropped herself onto the bar stool next to him. “There’s the store directly across the street we could try. And then there’s the other one, across the street and down one block.”
“The only way out of this building, apart from jumping out of a second or third story window – which we can forget about – is to remove the barricade on the first level and the front doors. Is that something we really want to attempt, or something the others will even allow?” His question was rhetorical.
“What other choice do we have?” she asked logically. “We are out of options in the building, and that sad excuse of a garden that your sister and Davidson attempted on the roof didn’t produce anything. There’s no where to go except out.”
“What do we do to the person, or the persons, who volunteer to go, if we can even get any? Do we barricade the doors back up and hope they can make it on their own, or do we set up a defense at the front of the building while they scavenge? We have no idea how many infected there even are now, but from what I’ve seen from the roof, we don’t have anywhere near the manpower to hold this fort once the perimeter is breached. And, food or no food, we can’t afford to lose our stronghold, or we are royally screwed.”
Anna thrummed her fingers against the countertop as she thought. He was right, of course. If an infected got into the building, it would bring a horde after it. Gruesome sightings from the roof in the early stages of the take over had proved that beyond a doubt. They might be able to hold off a single infected, but they would be powerless against more than a few. They couldn’t risk leaving the front of the building exposed, but that would leave their runners with no way back into the building with supplies.
“What if we could fashion some sort of zipline across the street? Then we could run buckets back and forth, above street level, from one building to the other with the food.”
He thought about it for a moment before he shook his head. “I don’t see how you would be able to get the line attached on the other building off the first level. And even if we could, there’s no telling if the market across the street even has access to the second floor of the building or if we could get to the second floor. And across 91st is one thing, but Broadway is a wide intersection. I doubt we would be able to get enough rope to even make such a system.
“But say we managed to figure out how to do all of that. We would still need a way to get the others back into the building. And there’s no telling what they are going to find in these other buildings that weren’t blockaded. That market could be teaming with infected people they wouldn’t be able to see until they got inside and it was too late.”
He ran his hands against the sides of his head, deep in thought. Their brainstorming was making her lose confidence in their ability to do anything outside of their own building, which did not bode well for how the others were sure to react to the news. After wasting a week with meaningless searching, they now found themselves staring down the barrel of the gun. She wished for the first time that she had agreed to take the issue to the group a week ago when he had suggested it, instead of playing along with William’s desire to calm the storm.
They hadn’t seen Nathan all week. Lenore and Daniel still weren’t on speaking terms, and Daniel hadn’t spoken to Anna either. Davidson didn’t seem to have an issue with her, but every time she saw him he seemed deep in thought on something or another. And then she had sworn she had seen Lenore and Davidson in a physical altercation the last time she went up to the roof to sponge off. She even felt like she was on shaky terms with Sebastian these days with their mutual mounting tension. Waiting hadn’t calmed the group; if anything, tensions were steadily on the rise.
“We need to tell them,” he repeated for what must have been the hundredth time that week, but for the first time she found herself in complete agreement. Their brainstorming session was going exactly how the previous ones had been, and they were still beating their heads against the wall. If they brought the situation to the group, they would have twice as many heads to come up with a plan. Anna’s own food supply was getting drastically low, and she knew that none of them were going to last long without food. William had been pressuring her heavily about finding something on their runs for the past three days, but offered no solution himself.
“How do we tell them?” she asked. They would have to gather everyone together, which would be difficult with Nathan’s current state and would rouse suspicion as they had not had a group meeting in weeks now.
It took Sebastian a while to respond, and she thought he was trying to process what her question actually meant. She had finally given into his urgings, and it was obviously coming as a shock to him. “We pull everyone into the hallway,” he responded as if it would be as simple as knocking on everyone’s door and asking for a brief minute of their time. “Preferably in front of Nathan’s apartment so that he can hear through the door, since I doubt he’s going to come out, and I don’t really think we want him to even if he would.”
“But we don’t tell William,” she added as an afterthought.
“No,” Sebastian agreed. “If we tell him, he’ll find a way to commandeer the meeting and derail it before we even start.”
“Right. So I’ll just have to deal with him once the meeting is over and everyone knows. That will be a pleasant conversation to be sure.”
“A necessary evil,” he said. She knew he was right, but that didn’t make the prospect of the idea any better. “So do we tell them now?”
“Today, for sure,” she said as her fingers continued to dance across the countertop as she pulled together a hasty plan. “But not right this minute. Davidson and your sister are tied up with the storm right now, and we should give them some time to get situated once it’s passed before we bombard everyone. But this evening, right before the sun sets, when everyone is winding down for the day.
“Everyone will be exhausted, which isn’t ideal, but hopefully then they won’t have the energy to stir up much of a fuss. It will also give them tonight to process the information so we can start discussing our options tomorrow morning.”
Sebastian let out a sigh as his forehead dropped to rest on the countertop. “This is not going to go well at all.”
He was stating the obvious, of course, but hearing the words aloud made her doubt her change of heart. The group was hardly solid with tight bonds of relationships that would be hard to break. They hadn’t known each other for all that long, and even Lenore and Sebastian didn’t seem like they were on the best of terms before the world went to hell.
“Tonight,” she repeated as her hands balled into fists at the thought.
He had to admit, he was impressed when she managed to pin his arm behind his back. Granted, he could have gotten out of the hold and easily incapacitated her if he tried, but considering her lack of muscular build and previous knowledge, she was catching on quickly.
“Good,” he told her so as she held his arm bent behind his back. He didn’t have to see her face to imagine the smile that spread across it.
“Say uncle,” she teased.
He chuckled, then spun one-eighty and caught both her wrists before she even had time to react. Her jaw practically dropped, and the smile disappeared in an instant. Perhaps he should have let her enjoy the moment longer, but he didn’t take well to gloating.
“How about we leave uncles out of this, hm?” he suggested with a raise of an eyebrow.
“Deal,” she agreed. He released his hold and took a step back. Then he watched as she rubbed her wrists, and he instantly regretted his actions. He had forgotten how easily she bruised, and with the length of their sessions increasing with every outing, her skin had turned into a palette of different tints of blue, black, and purple. Her wrists were bound to bruise even from his simple hold.
“How about we call it for the day?” He hadn’t even wanted to continue their session after the rainstorm died down, but she had insisted. The gleam of excitement in her eyes had done him in, but he couldn’t let her push herself too far.
She shook her head, abandoning her wrists as she held her fists up protectively in front of her face. “Let’s go again. I think I’ll still be able to get you even if you put up a little resistance this time.”
At least she understood he was taking it easy on her and that she wouldn’t be so lucky against a real opponent. He hadn’t given her enough credit for that. He had almost decided to give her a couple more rounds to prove herself, but then she started to cough, and her hand went to cover her mouth.
As she cleared her throat, he shook his head, “You’re done for the day. The last thing we want to do is risk affecting your immune system if there is even the slightest chance that you might be getting sick.”
“It was one cough,” she protested.
But he wouldn’t budge this time. “We’ve been at it long enough today, and it’s about to get dark soon anyway. We’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow.”
“Fine,” she consented, but she clearly wasn’t happy about the fact.
He followed her across the roof to the stairwell, and watched the way she moved carefully as they proceeded. Her limp was faint but noticeable if you knew what to look for. The bruises on the backs of her legs were much more obvious, as were the ones on her arms. He was a little surprised no one had said anything about it yet, but he gathered the one who would be paying the most attention was Sebastian, and he was the one who asked for the training in the first place. Still, he didn’t like the way she looked as she slowly ambled down the stairs to their floor. Maybe he would have to ease back on their sessions to give her some time to heal before she pushed herself too far.
They ran into Anna right as they exited the stairwell onto their floor. “Ah, perfect,” she exclaimed when she saw them, “just the people I was looking for. Group meeting in ten minutes in front of Nathan’s apartment.”
The group meeting surprised him, but he had been expecting something of the sort ever since Sebastian had asked about the self defense classes. Something was clearly up, and it apparently had to do with both Anna and Sebastian, which only meant one of two things – infected people or food. Neither option left him feeling optimistic.
“I guess I’ll see you in a few minutes then,” he told her as they reached Sebastian’s apartment and he continued on down the hallway to his. He wanted to at least clean his face and try to steel himself for what was to come next.
He ignored the pounding on the door as he sat at the small dining table and stared down at the bowl of soup in front of him. He didn’t want to eat, but Hayley kept insisting that he couldn’t just give up on life. Every time he pushed the bowl away, she would move it back and stare him down.
He grudgingly slurped the soup, but it had no taste as he ate it. Every bite upset his stomach, and he wondered if he would even be able to keep it down this time.
The knocking returned to the door and he grew frustrated. Why couldn’t they get it through their thick heads that he wanted to be left alone? They had caused enough damage for one lifetime. They were a disease, each and every one of them, and he was better off keeping his distance. But still they came, at least once every day or so, knocking at his door, pleading for him to open up and talk to them. Trying to apologize or make excuses.
“Go away!” he shouted, though his voice was hoarse and cracked at the words. He coughed into the soup in front of him.
“Group meeting!” a voice shouted through the door. He recognized it immediately, and the spoon tightened in his grip. “Five minutes. In the hallway!”
He ignored her as he had in the past. He wouldn’t listen to a single thing that bitch said. Her words were poisoned with lies, and she would stab him in the heart if it pleased her.
The group had turned their backs on him when they had tricked their way into his home. They had manipulated him, lied to him, and taken away the one thing he treasured most in the world. They could have their group meetings as often as they liked, but he wouldn’t show his face for such a farce.
“Screw them,” he grumbled aloud. He stared across the table at her ghost of a reflection. “I won’t let them take you away a second time. I promise, Hales.”
“What?” he asked. At first, he felt certain he had misheard Anna. They all stood cramped in the narrow hallway while Anna spoke louder than normal to try to project through the door for Nathan to hear.
“The supplies in the building have diminished,” she repeated, “and it’s time that we got together to come up with some alternative solutions.”
“Diminished as in we have picked the metaphorical bone completely dry?” Davidson asked as he propped one foot up against the wall and leaned back against it, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Afraid so,” Sebastian confirmed Daniel’s worst fear. They didn’t have to say what came next – that they would have to leave the fortress they had worked so hard to build up. The relative safety and security they had spent so much time and effort building was worthless now if they were going to survive.
“So the plan is…” Lenore trailed off, waiting for Anna to fill in the blank.
“That’s what we’re hoping to figure out now. Two heads are better than one, and five are better than two.”
“There are a few grocery stores within a block or two of the building, but we still need a plan on how to get there safely to retrieve food and supplies.”
“If there are even any left,” Lenore added. “How do we know others haven’t already picked the places clean? We could risk our lives to get there, just to find out the place has already been raided.”
“We haven’t seen any other humans,” Davidson pointed out.
Lenore turned her head to address him, “We haven’t been looking for them either,” she reminded him.
Davidson snorted, “You haven’t been looking for anything.”
Daniel felt the insult poorly veiled in the words. Lenore looked down at her feet.
“I’ve seen a lot of infected out there, but I haven’t seen any other humans on the streets.” Davidson continued. “Not since the first week. The people who had been out on the streets either got infected or got the hell out of dodge.”
“Or have been holed up like us,” Anna added.
“So then what makes you think it’s a good idea to go out on the streets?” Lenore asked. “What if there is another group who has already claimed the store?”
“No one said it was a good idea,” Daniel finally joined in the conversation, “but it’s not like we have much of a choice. What else are we going to do?”
Lenore glanced up at her brother, almost desperately, but no one said a word. He was right and they all knew it. They were all thinking the exact same thing, he was just the only one willing to say it.
“So what’s the plan that you have developed so far?” Daniel asked, turning his attention to Anna.
“Get to the store, get supplies, and head back to the building.” Anna shoved her hands into the pockets of her jacket while she talked. “I would suggest sending either two or three people to retrieve supplies, at least for the first run.” Lenore scoffed at the suggestion of more than one run. “Leave the rest for look out and back up. Plus, we’ll need people to re-barricade the doors on the first floor once the retrieval group has left.”
“And how is the retrieval group supposed to get back into the building with the supplies if the doors are barricaded?” Lenore asked.
“Hence the need for a look out. We’ll need someone watching the group’s position to see when they are coming back so that the group remaining can unblock the door and provide ground support as they make their way back.”
“Broadway is a mess,” Davidson said. “Cars were deserted bumper to bumper, not to mention bodies and trash, and you won’t have good sight from the ground across the street. And there’s no way you would be able to watch the side streets from the front of the building. Your look out is going to need to watch from the roof and communicate somehow with someone on the lower levels. I can scout from the roof if you want,” he shrugged off the suggestion as if he was just making a comment on the weather. “It’s kind of a hobby of mine already.” They all glanced at him as he called spying from a rooftop a hobby, but no one voiced a concern.
“We don’t necessarily need to relay the position from the roof to a look out on the ground floor,” Anna thought aloud. “If we have a look out on the roof, our retrieval group could signal to the look out that they are on the approach back, and the look out could gather the rest of the group and get down to the ground floor.”
“And what if the ground group removes the barricades on the doors before the retrieval group returns?” Lenore asked. “The last thing we need is for the support team to get overrun by infected. Or, what if the support group doesn’t get the ground floor open in time for the retrieval group? They’ll be sitting ducks out there.”
“We could leave the view of the revolving doors unobstructed so that our ground team can see the retrieval group once they get through the cars. It will let them know when to free the doors.” Anna suggested.
“We don’t even know if the doors on the first floor still have all their glass panes,” Sebastian argued. “In fact, we don’t even know what the situation on the first floor is like; we blocked it off at the stairwell. The whole first floor could be overrun for all we know. We could get the barricade in the stairwell off, just to get overrun before the retrieval group can even get out of the building.”
“I might be able to lend a hand there,” Davidson said. They all turned their attention to him once more. Daniel could almost see the cogs in his head turning as he thought. “I can probably rig a device to go out of a second story window and peak down through a window on the first floor. Or at least get a decent look at the front of the building to gauge what state it’s in.”
“What on Earth makes you think you can do that?” Anna asked.
Davidson’s first response was a crooked grin. “I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. I can start on that tomorrow morning, it you want.”
Anna nodded. “I’ll cover your shift if it rains,” Sebastian offered.
Davidson shook his head. “You haven’t worked water duty before. If it rains, I’ll work on rigging up my device when I’m done. Besides, don’t you have sweeps to finish?”
Sebastian and Anna shared a look. “We’ve been resweeping the building,” Anna finally spoke up. “We finished clearing out the lower levels about a week and a half ago. We haven’t found anything all week.” She paused for the briefest of moments before adding, “We don’t expect to find anything else.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to keep looking,” Daniel suggested. “Just in case. I know Davidson was usually the extra hand on scavenging, but I can lend a hand if you need. I can put off laundry for another day.”
“An extra hand is always welcome,” Sebastian said in thanks. “And we’ve cleared all the nasties out, so it’s just rummaging through empty cabinets now.”
“I’m sorry,” Lenore spoke up, “but have we forgotten that we still don’t have a plan on how to get past all the infected down there roaming the streets?”
“If we could find a way to blend in with them, we might find a way to walk through them unnoticed,” Daniel suggested. A lump formed in his throat just at the thought.
“Blend in with them?” Lenore asked, turning her full attention to him for perhaps the first time in over a week.
“They are attracted to the unique smell of humans,” Daniel told them. “If we can find a way to mask our smell, then if we send only two people – three at the absolute most – they might be able to walk through the infected unnoticed.”
“How are we supposed to mask our scent? We already go with showering only once a week.”
“We cover ourselves in infected blood.”
“What?” a chorus of the word echoed through the hallway. Daniel swore he could hear Nathan laughing on the other side of his apartment door.
“It could work,” Sebastian offered. “It worked in The Walking Dead.”
“That was a TV show, Seb!” Lenore snapped.
“Comic,” he corrected her.
“It was a graphic novel before it was a TV show. But that’s not important. When we were clearing, they did seem attracted to us, like they could pick us out of a crowded room.”
“Where would we even find infected blood?” Davidson asked. At least someone was trying to keep the conversation on track now.
“The elevator shaft,” Anna said, as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. “There are God only knows how many infected bodies in the elevator shaft.”
“So we just open up the elevator on the second floor, wait for all the bodies to spill out, and then roll around in the blood?” Lenore asked, incredulous.
Sebastian shook his head. He bit the end of his thumb as he thought. “Impossible. It took over a week for us to get the shaft doors pried open on our floor. There’s no way we’d be able to do it again on a lower level.”
“So what then? We try to lure an infected into the building so we can kill it and use its blood to try to get past the others?” Anna asked. “Assuming the blood, of course, doesn’t infect us on contact.”
Davidson was the one who spoke up this time. “It’s simpler than that. We lower someone down the elevator shaft to retrieve a body. Or part of a body. Then they can bring it back up – we can rig a sort of belay system to help pull them up – to cover the retrieval group.”
“How do we decide who gets that honor? Rock, paper, scissors?”
“I’ll do it.”
All eyes turned to Lenore. If the voice had not been so feminine and so clearly hers, Daniel never would have believed he had heard those words come from her mouth.
“What?” she asked. “Someone was going to suggest it anyway, whether they wanted to or not. I’m the lightest of the group by far, which will make me the easiest to pull back up the shaft with the added weight of…” she couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.
Daniel could not stop staring at her. “Lenore-” Sebastian started to protest.
“I’ll do it,” she repeated, her voice insistent this time, as if no amount of negotiating would change her mind now that she had offered.
“You couldn’t even stand the sight of Hayley,” Anna said as she shook her head to herself. “How do you expect to be able to handle a horde of dead ones?”
“It wasn’t the sight of her I couldn’t stomach,” Lenore snapped, her voice seeping with venom. “It was your inhumanity that I couldn’t stand.”
“Right,” Anna laughed. “So you’re saying the smell of perhaps a hundred rotting bodies isn’t going to bother you at all?”
“Anna-” Sebastian warned. Daniel could see the group start to split into two camps. He wondered vaguely which side he would end up on if it did.
“Of course it will bother me,” Lenore replied. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t handle it. I can. And I will.”
“I’ll fashion a harness and make sure we have enough rope to lower you safely to the base,” Daniel offered. They met eyes for the briefest of moments.
“We’ll pay extra attention for anything we can use to fix into rope,” Sebastian said. “We haven’t been collecting any more sheets or towels since we already have more than we need, but we can grab some tomorrow to fix into a substitute rope. But I can go down into the shaft. I don’t weigh that much more than Lenore-”
“Seb, I’m going to do this,” Lenore insisted again. “End of discussion.” The way the siblings glared at each other then, Daniel could tell it was clearly far from the end of the debate, but the remainder would be held in their apartment later.
“How about we wrap up this meeting?” Davidson suggested, and Daniel figured he must have sensed the mounting tension as well. They all had a lot to mull over and digest, and it was getting late. “We’ve got enough to keep us busy for the next day or so, and I’m sure everyone could use a good night of sleep.”
Daniel knew he wouldn’t be sleeping well, if at all, that night, but he mirrored the sentiment. “We could reconvene in two nights’ time,” Daniel suggested, “to formulate the details of our plan once we know our situation and our options a little better.”
They all nodded in agreement. They didn’t hear a word from the other side of Nathan’s door. “Needless to say,” Anna started right before they all went their separate ways, “that we need not bring up this discussion with William.” They all nodded again. “I’ll handle him tomorrow,” Anna added, almost as an afterthought.
It was going to be a long week, Daniel thought as he made his way back to his apartment.
Sebastian was already wide awake by the time she pulled her tired eyes away from the ceiling and got up for the morning. He was waiting for her at the table, a half eaten can of tomato condensed soup and some stale saltine crackers set out. Wincing, she lowered herself into the first chair she reached. A new bruise had found its way onto her side overnight, and her aching muscles did nothing to mask the pain.
“Morning,” she grumbled as she sat down. Folding her arms, she dropped her head to the table and yawned. Even her jaw seemed to ache.
“You know you don’t have to-” Sebastian started, but she was already lifting her head back up to stare at him.
“I’m going to do it,” she told him, cutting him off before he could go into detail about the fact that she had offered to lower herself into a pit of decaying, rotting corpses with God only knew what kind of disease. “I would appreciate it, however, if you would volunteer to stand by to help pull me back up. If it isn’t too much trouble.”
“Of course it isn’t. I just don’t understand why you feel like you need to be the one to go.”
“I know you don’t understand,” she answered impatiently. They had had the same exact conversation the night before. Or, at least, Sebastian had tried to. About half way through, she had feigned exhaustion and excused herself to bed, where she had inevitably laid awake staring at the ceiling until the sun came up and she heard noises in the kitchen. Figuring she might have dozed off once or twice, she reckoned the most amount of sleep she had gotten was an hour. Two hours, tops, but she didn’t think so.
In truth, she was terrified about the task that lied ahead, especially since it seemed like it would come sooner rather than later. On one hand, that was a good thing, as it wouldn’t afford her time to chicken out and change her mind. But the sheer amount of fear and dread she felt was eating her alive. She knew she had at least fallen asleep long enough to dream, because it was coming back to her now. She remembered seeing Hayley at the top of the pile, head miraculously reattached and body reanimated, though not completely. She had begged Lenore for help as the pile of bodies around her sucked her in, until she couldn’t be seen and her screams were muffled.
When she refocused on Sebastian, he was looking at her as if awaiting a response.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked, completely oblivious to any question he might have asked.
“Did you sleep at all last night?” he asked. She had a feeling that was not the original question he had posed.
“Of course,” she answered as she stifled another yawn.
“You don’t look so good,” he commented.
She scoffed, “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m sorry that at the end of the world I’m not keeping up my appearance as well as I ought to.”
He gave her a look as he replied, “You know what I mean.”
“I’m tired,” she admitted as a sort of apology. “I think I spent most of the night tossing and turning and didn’t get much sleep.” A truth within a lie, but it would have to do for now.
She hesitantly reached for the sleeve of crackers, and he eagerly pushed them towards her. Guilt washed over her then, that her younger brother felt the need to worry about her. She should be the one concerned about him all the time, not the other way around.
A memory flooded her, one she hadn’t thought of in a long time. Sebastian had been about five, which meant she had been eight. He had been up all night crying and screaming, and had had a fever of 102. Her parents had argued on and off all night about taking him to the emergency room, afraid of waiting to take him to the doctor in the morning. Her father had argued that the emergency room would cost a fortune and would hardly be able to do more for him than they could since it was only a fever. Her mother had argued that they couldn’t afford to risk it, that their son’s life was worth the cost of a hospital visit.
Lenore had stood at the top of the stairs, her hands on the railing, her face pressed up against two rails, looking down and seeing the shadows of her parents standing in the hallway fighting. His crying had woken her up, and she was heading to her parents’ room to complain about her selfish brother who wouldn’t be quiet. The concern in her mother’s voice scared her, so much so that she had sneaked into her brother’s room, crawled onto his bed, and put her hand on his forehead to check his temperature, just as their mother did to her when she was feeling sick.
His forehead had been damp with sweat, his cheeks wet with tears. “Stop whipping the blanket,” he cried as he pulled his head away from her hand.
“No one’s touching the blanket,” she told him.
“Mommy and Daddy keep grabbing the blankie and whipping it at me,” he cried again.
“You have a fever. You’re probably imagining it.”
“Make them stop.”
“Ok,” she told him. She had been tired, but if she didn’t help him he would be up all night and that would keep her up. She pulled his blanket and sheet from the bed, pushing it over the foot of the bed onto the floor.
“Better?” she asked. “The blanket’s gone now. They can’t whip it at you.”
It seemed to confuse him, as he had watched her remove the blanket, but he could still see the imaginary version of things in his head.
“I’ll go get you some water,” she told him, thinking that a glass of ice cold water might help bring his fever down.
She had spent half an hour with him until their parents came back to check on him and found her laying in bed with him. Worried he might be contagious, they had ushered her off to her own room, but not before her father had kissed her on the forehead and thanked her for being a good sister and keeping an eye out on her brother.
Lenore wondered what their parents would say now. She was trying to look out for him; she knew she had let him down when she had left home, even though they hadn’t been on the best of terms anyway. Two teenagers vying for the same resources had gotten competitive, especially after her decision to drop out of med school and her parents’ constant disapproval afterward.
“Do you think Mom and Dad are still out there somewhere?” she asked. She wasn’t sure where the question came from, but the memory of when they were younger had her thinking about their parents. She was almost ashamed she didn’t think of them more often.
“Who can tell?” Sebastian answered, being practical with a shrug of his shoulders. “We don’t know how widespread the infection is, and we don’t know how many other non-infected are still out there. But Mom and Dad are smart, so I’d like to think they’re still okay. Or at least surviving like us.”
Was that what their life had come to? No longer okay, no longer living, but just surviving? It was hard to argue against it, but it made her feel horrible inside.
“Do you think we’re going to make it?” The thought had been on her mind, but Sebastian voiced it first. Hesitantly, she reached across and rested her hand on his. They had never had the type of sibling relationship that had foundations in hugging or goofy yet affectionate nicknames, and the gesture felt abnormal to her.
“I think we can. If we stick together and stay tough. It sure as hell won’t be easy, but I think we’ve got a chance, yeah. We have no idea what it’s going to be like outside this building, but we’ve been fortunate enough to have it up until now, and once we get some food and supplies to bring back, we’ll be lucky to have it again.”
Uncertainty clouded them from every direction, but she knew they had to keep moving forward and that they had to stick together. And she was going to do her best to protect her brother and herself, no matter what it took. She had cut her ties with her family once, but her visit to New York had been her chance to reconcile with her brother for his eighteenth birthday, and now that she was stuck here she couldn’t help but think it had happened at this particular time for a reason. She hadn’t seen her brother in three years, and now she had all that time to make up for.
“We’re a team.” The sentiment was cheesy, but it felt like the right thing to say. They would stick together, and they would get through this, somehow. They just had to stay strong and keep hope.
“You did what?” His anger was palpable, but she wouldn’t back down. They had made their decision, she and Sebastian, and she stood by it. Keeping secrets would only tear the group apart, and they were going to need everyone’s help and involvement if they were going to find a way to survive. They had already lost Hayley, and effectively lost Nathan. With a group as small as theirs, the loss of even just two members made an impact.
“We had a meeting last night with the others to assess the situation.”
“Without my approval.”
Anna swallowed her distaste at the word ‘approval’. While William was effectively the leader of the group, it was hardly a dictatorship. And lately, Anna had noticed, he seemed to be contributing less and less and becoming a bit of a recluse himself. Off the top of her head, she couldn’t think of a single task he had lent a hand on in the past week. “We decided the issue couldn’t be put off any longer as we still had not found any additional supplies on our secondary salvage of the lower floors. We had an impromptu get together, and we’ve already gotten a few ideas that Davidson and Daniel are helping on. By the end of the week, we should have a complete plan put together, ready to execute. If not before then.”
“And what of Nathan? He is still a bit of a wild card to contend with.”
Nathan had not made an appearance during their meeting the previous night, though she would wager he had been able to hear. She was partially just thankful he hadn’t fired a round at the sound of her voice through his door. “Perhaps you could speak with him. Let him know that if he would like to stay a member of our community, we expect him to still contribute to the efforts of keeping it running. We’ve got the tasks handled for now, but when we send the party out to collect supplies, we are going to need all hands on deck to make sure they are kept safe and that we keep control of the building. The last thing we need it for this place to get overrun with infected.”
“I’ll talk to him,” William replied. “And you say you have a plan in place?”
“We have a plan in progress,” she corrected. “There are still quite a few details to work out, and we greatly value your input, but at least the wheels are in motion now. If they all have things to keep them busy, then it will help keep our minds off the fact that we are all tired and starving.”
William nodded. “We will, of course, need to have another meeting to iron out the details.” He was pissed that they had not included him in their confessional last night, as she suspected he would be. But he didn’t seem angry as she had expected, or at least not as angry, about the fact that they had gone ahead and told the others without his awareness. If anything, it seemed his ego and pride were damaged atop all else, which was a fact that Anna could easily live with. Catering to William’s whims had been exhausting and she had grown tired of it, but he was not a man you wanted to piss off. While he hadn’t shown a display of his power, it boiled just under his surface. She half suspected that he could kill them all in their sleep if he so chose.
“I was hoping you could talk to Nathan, convince him to come out of his apartment and socialize with the group again. And then we could all get together and discuss our plan of action.” By giving William a task that none of them wanted under the guise that he was the only one would could accomplish it, they catered to his ego while avoiding a conflict they didn’t want. It seemed a win-win to her, and William didn’t baulk at the idea.
“I will find you later,” he told her. “Once I’ve had a chance to discuss matters with Nathan. We’ll set a time for the meeting and you can let the others know.” She nodded, keen to let him have the final word as he always desired. No doubt he would have her running around playing secretary to coordinate the meeting, but it was a task she was fine doing. She had made it out of this discussion faring a lot better than she thought, a fact that made the smaller things seem insubstantial.
The sight that awaited him on the roof surprised him. He even did a double take at first, sure his eyes were playing some kind of trick of him. But the view remained the same. Lenore stood at the edge of the building, hands gripping the edge as she looked out onto the street below. She turned to face him as he approached and though the fear was clearly written on her face, she managed a smile and remained standing in her spot.
“Good morning.” The cheery words couldn’t hide the exhaustion in her voice, but they masked it well. Her smile even seemed genuine. “What?” she asked as he continued to approach her without returning a greeting, his head tilted just past vertical.
“I’m trying to figure out if this could be an early sign of infection,” he joked before returning her grin with one of his own. “Radical changes in attitude and behavior. Sudden fearlessness.”
“I wish,” she replied, her gaze turning back over the ledge of the building. “I guess I just realized that I was going to have to deal with it sooner or later, so I might as well know what we are getting ourselves into.”
He joined her at the edge, leaning his arms against the ledge, his elbow just brushing against hers. “Kind of wishing you hadn’t worked up the stones, right?”
It took her a moment to reply, and when she did it was what he expected to hear. “I just don’t see, realistically, how we think we’re going to be able to make it back.” Her words mirrored the thoughts he’d been having since the previous night, and really for weeks now. “Maybe a small group will be able to make it out and even into a store. If we’re lucky, there will still be food on the shelves that hasn’t already been looted or broken. But even if they can get the food, there’s no way they’re going to make it through that undetected. Getting back is going to be impossible.”
They stared down at the slow but steady stream of aimless infected below. A quick glance over showed him the goosebumps littering her arms. “It certainly won’t be easy. If it was going to be easy, we would have done it weeks ago.”
“Are we really going to send people we know, people we sort of like, out into that? How could we ask that of anyone? It’s suicide.”
“Maybe we won’t have to ask. Maybe a few people will volunteer.” He felt her eyes on him and tilted his head to meet her gaze, “What?”
“Tell me you aren’t thinking about being such a person?”
It took him a moment to find the right words for a reply. “I would. Believe me, I would. I sit up here and stare down at the streets below. I never see a single person. At least not a healthy one. And I think to myself, what are we even doing here? Are we just biding our time, one hopeless day after another as we half starve ourselves to death? This is hardly a life anymore. When I start to think like that, I want to do something productive, you know? Something that shows that we’re still fighting, that we aren’t just holding out until it takes us anyway.
“But I don’t think it’s going to matter,” he added. “I have a certain skill set that I’m willing to guess is unique to our group, and I’m going to end up being the air cover for the group going on the run.”
In all the time he’d known her, he still hadn’t told her what he did. Sure, he had mentioned that he was in the military and was on quick leave before his next deployment, but he hadn’t told her what his actual job was. He hadn’t told any of them, because he could guess at the reactions it would elicit, and none of them were favorable. But he doubted he would be able to keep it hidden for much longer. Luckily, she didn’t pry further. For now.
“It’s hard to even consider,” she said, her eyes transfixed on the street below. “To be willing to put your life on the line in order to help others. I know that makes me sound unbelievably selfish, and I never would have even thought of it in another life, but it’s all I can think now.
“It’s not just risking your life, it’s risking your humanity. I know some people probably think that there’s a military group or the CDC or a group of scientists out there working away on a cure to bring the infected back to life, but realistically… they’re zombies. There’s no coming back from that. It’s a fate worse than death.”
“It’s amazing, what you find you have the courage to do in the face of danger. You might even surprise yourself,” he told her. He fought hard to hold off the memories, to push them back down and bury them where they belonged. They didn’t have a place here, in this life, anymore.
“Well, I volunteer to handle water duty today,” she told him with a sad smile. “Nothing too heroic about that, but maybe it’s a start. I’m sure you’ve got something better you could be doing today. Everyone does. Except me.”
“Lenore.” He wondered if she had always had self esteem issues, if she had always struggled with self doubt. He hesitantly reached over, placing his hand on hers. “You’ve already made the biggest sacrifice of us all so far. You’re going to go get us what we need to give us a shot out there on those streets. That’s the most important thing any of us can be doing right now.”
This caused her jaw to tremble and he knew tears would be next.
He released her hand to wrap his arm around her shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but overcoming our weaknesses is what makes us strongest. And besides, water is vital to our survival. Water duty is nothing to bash.”
Without a word, she leaned her head against his shoulder. After the briefest of moments, she pulled away, wiping at her eyes with embarrassment. “Go do something useful,” she snapped jokingly to lighten the mood.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll come back to check on you when I’m done. If it starts to pour, I’ll head up. We need to collect as much in reserves as we can to send some with the scavenge party. Water is still number one priority.”
“If I need your help, I’ll come find you,” she told him. “Scout’s honor.”
He doubted she had ever been a scout a day in her life, but he was going to hold her to her word just the same.
“So this is the joy of scavenging?” Daniel asked as Anna gestured him into the next apartment she and Sebastian had just finished clearing.
Sebastian nodded and headed straight to the pantry. Anna followed him into the kitchen and started opening the cabinets one at a time. “Doesn’t get monotonous at all, does it?” she asked.
“I could think of a couple other things I would rather be doing, but with our resources limiting our available activities…” he trailed off. In reality, with the building completely swept and fortified and Lenore and Davidson handling water duty, there wasn’t much left for them to do now a days. The savages for food were done, which was clearly apparent by the fact that he had been going from apartment to apartment for the past five hours with Anna and Sebastian, and all they had managed to find were the bedsheets they needed to make their belay. Sure, he still needed to handle laundry duty every once in a while, but with the cooler, dryer winter approaching they had recently cut back on nonessential water uses, laundry and bathing included.
“You think we have enough sheets?” Sebastian asked as he shut the pantry door, reappearing in view empty handed.
Daniel gave a quick shrug of his shoulders. “We have enough to fashion a harness for her and to easily lower her to the first floor, but it wouldn’t hurt to collect as many as we can carry. We might be able to fashion some sort of protective gear out of it to protect the skin of the group that goes.” It was a recent idea of his that he hadn’t had a chance to share with the group yet, but he might as well share it now. They were short on time, and any idea could help at this point.
“Go grab some more,” Anna agreed as she continued to open and shut cabinets with loud bangs. “Check the drawers before you move to the bathroom,” she instructed Sebastian, who immediately followed orders.
Daniel followed the hallway to the single bedroom, hesitating for just a moment before he grabbed the door handle and turned. What would someone think, he wondered, if they were in the same position in his apartment? What would his home say about who he had been? The door creaked as he pushed it open.
He noticed the photo on the top of the dresser to his right as he entered the room first. A young couple, smiling as they stood with the Space Needle behind them. He had never been to Seattle, but he didn’t think he would have liked the rain. Although, it was perhaps a bit more ideal, climate wise, for their situation now.
He went to the bed, which was neatly made. He almost felt guilty as he pushed the decorative shams to the side and stripped off the comforter. The patterned beige sheet below was easy to remove, as was the bottom sheet that was not fitted in the corners. He grabbed it as well, rolling the wad around his left arm. Pausing at the picture again as he left, he wondered how long ago it had been taken. He wondered what had happened to the couple in the photo. He wondered if his apartment, with the same layout as this one, would be viewed with a similar inquisitive mind once he had come to pass and someone went to clear out his home.
Ripping the sheets proved more difficult than he originally predicted. A tear was difficult to start with the seams along the perimeter, and once he finally managed to tear a sheet, it never seemed to want to rip in a straight line. After several botched attempts, he smartened up and retrieved his sole pair of scissors. The daunting task ahead would no doubt dull the sharpness of the blades, but he doubted it would be difficult to find another pair in the building. He only wished he had grabbed a couple of spare pairs while they had been doing their sweep.
The scissors sped the process along considerably, and before long he was surrounded with long, thin strips of bedsheets. He began to braid three strands together at a time, with the hope that it would add strength to the material. He didn’t know what Lenore weighed, though he imagined she had withered away to practically nothing by the looks of her. His contraption would still need to hold the weight of a human for a significant amount of time, light as she might be.
There had been an episode of Mythbusters where they tested myths about breaking out of jail and scaling the side of the prison with a rope made of bedsheets. He had seen it, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember which method of making the rope from the bedsheets had worked the best. He only remembered that only one of them had worked at all, which did not instill him with the highest vote of confidence in his own ability to create a rope. But he had time, and he had a practically unlimited supply of raw material, so he planned to over engineer the thing and hope for the best.
His recollection of knot tying variations from his time as a boy scout long ago was hazy at best, but as he worked the different techniques slowly came back to him, until he was fairly confident that at least the knots in his contraption would not come undone.
The rope came together in pieces, and by sunset he still had a ways to go, but he was at least proud of his accomplishment thus far.
He had learned to block out the noise of visitors by the time William went pounding on his door. It was not even his door anymore, he thought with bitter irony. It was a door taken from another apartment to replace his destroyed one, one destroyed by the call of the man knocking on the replacement. It was hard to say how long William stood out in the hallway, knocking repeatedly and insistently, before Nathan finally became aware of the noise.
Nathan barely had the strength to get out of bed. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten or changed his clothes. Fortunately, one tended to be immune to their own scent. He didn’t bother trying to get up as he yelled hoarsely for his unwelcomed visitor to simply let him be.
“I’m afraid that’s not an option this time, Nathan,” a gruff voice responded. Blinking, a sleepy fog slowly lifted from his mind. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen William, and he couldn’t recall a single time William had ever made a house call, especially not to Nathan and Hayley.
“I have nothing to say to you murders,” Nathan spat towards the door, the words scratching his dry throat.
“Well then you can simply listen to what I have to say.” William countered.
Grudgingly, Nathan started the slow process of lifting his aching bones from the bed. His entire body hurt from the grief that consumed him and the nightmares that plagued the little sleep he could manage. He used to dream of his future with Hayley. Of all the different ways in which he could make things right between them once again. He wanted to find that happiness they’d basked in not so long ago.
Now, all he could see was her lifeless body when he closed his eyes. The look of pure adrenaline on that bitch’s face when she sliced through his wife’s head with a machete like some kind of animal. When he woke, he no longer worried about how he could right his wrongs. He simply woke in a rage, and the need for retribution consumed him.
“Nathan,” William called impatiently from the hallway.
Nathan did not bother with a response as he dragged his tired legs across the studio to the hallway. They had fixed his front door and cleaned his floor. They had even cleaned up the barricade in front of the closet door. But they would never be able to mend his heart. He wouldn’t be able to either.
“The fuck you want?” Nathan asked as he yanked open the door.
“Just to talk, nothing more,” William promised. Nathan eyed him, studying his stance and his appearance. They had told him they only wanted to help Hayley, and he was still painfully aware of how that had ended.
“You’ll understand if I don’t invite you in,” Nathan told him bluntly.
William waved off even the suggestion, “It’s not necessary. What I have to say will be brief.” When Nathan made no move to make further objections, William began. “As you may or may not have heard since you did not attend the group meeting, we have exhausted our supplies in the building. We are forming a plan to ensure our continued survival but as such, all those who plan to use the resources are being asked to contribute in obtaining them.”
William’s words were clear to Nathan. Even after what they had done to him, they expected him to help them. It was not enough that they had taken the life of his beloved; they wanted him to risk his life now as well. Nathan could barely suppress his laugh of hysteria at the thought.
“I will not beat around the bush,” William charged on. “If you would like to continue to use our water and eat our food and use our supplies, isolation will no longer be an option. You will need to contribute in whatever capacity is deemed necessary. And you will need to join in the group discussions from now until the situation has improved. We are a small group, and we have limited intelligence of what we will be facing when we leave this building for the first time in months. The more heads we have brainstorming, the higher our chance of success. And I don’t have to tell you what will happen if we do not succeed.”
“And if I decide I do not want to put my future in the hands of murders?” Nathan asked, disdain dripping from the words.
“Then you can find a way to survive by yourself.” William placed his hand on the door frame as he leaned slightly in. Nathan fought the urge to slam the replacement door on his hand. Though William had been the only one not present for the ordeal, Nathan had no doubt who had likely made the final decision to take his Hayley away.
“You have been dealt a difficult hand,” William acknowledged. “And no one would blame you for giving up. I’m sure we’ve all thought about it at least once. But we do not have the luxury to carry you while you wallow in your woes. In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve all lost those closest to us. You were fortunate to have her as long as you did.”
Nathan stood rooted in place, unable to accept the audacity of William’s words. Had he dared call Nathan fortunate? Nathan shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve heard what you had to say. You can leave now.”
“Just make sure you understood it. Really understood it, Nathan.” William didn’t seem to feel the need to press on for further conversation. At least he showed Nathan that small respect. Nathan slammed the door in his face, making sure to engage the dead bolt before returning to his bed.
He hadn’t touched the duffel bag stashed on the top shelf in the closet since he had arrived back stateside. He had cleaned all his gear before his deployment back to the States for leave, and he liked to keep the two parts of his life as separate as possible.
They were merging ever quickly, he realized, as he stretched to grab the cloth handle of the duffel. Its contents shifted, and he eased his pull. Though everything was safely disassembled, he hated the thought of something getting scratched because he couldn’t spare an extra second to be more careful.
Pulling the bag down with one hand, he caught it with both arms. It seemed noticeably heavier than it had felt when he had stowed it up into the closet just a couple of months ago. He wondered how much muscle tone he’d lost since then.
Carrying the bag to the bed, he tossed it onto the perfectly tucked sheets. Old habits died hard, and though he hadn’t washed the sheets in ages he still made the bed every morning when he woke. Just because civilization have abandoned them didn’t mean he had to abandon civilization. The familiar sound of the zipper as he pulled it open soothed him, as did the sight of the polished metal that sat inside.
Seeing them now, he had to admit he had missed his toys. He ran his fingers over the ones on top, pausing to pull out his favorite riffle. Though the bag had felt heavier, the riffle still felt as if it was a simple extension of his arm. He hadn’t had the opportunity to practice since the world had gone to shit, so it was going to be interesting to see how his first couple of rounds went off if he had to shoot it.
Placing the riffle on the bed, he ignored the small pang in his heart as he removed the scope. It was sacrilege, almost, to separate the two parts of the whole. To use the scope without aiming the riffle just wouldn’t feel right. But survival was about adaptation, after all, and he hardly needed the riffle to assess the situation on the first floor.
Removing the scope was the easy part. Figuring out how to deploy the scope to see would be the tricky part, though he did have an idea in mind.
His idea, however, turned out to be fruitless as he quickly came to realize that he had no way to see through the scope when it was lowered to the window on the first floor unless he lowered himself with it. The lens of the scope, however, gave him an idea for an alternative direction.
Gently placing the scope next to the duffel bag on the bed, he moved into the bathroom. Laughing at the thought of the superstition he was about to invoke upon himself, he wrapped a hand towel around his fist. As he punched the mirror, it shattered into dozens of reflective pieces. Tossing the hand towel on top of the toilet seat, he picked out the two largest, squarest fragments he could find. The rest he threw into the small waste bin wedged between the toilet and the sink.
Though he did not realize it, he hummed as his worked, to the tune of The Song of the Marines. As he reached the end of the first verse, he had made his way into the kitchen. After futility checking the small utilities closet, he found the broom wedged inside the corner of the small pantry. It wasn’t as if he had been up to much spring cleaning as of late.
Grabbing the broom by the end of the stick, he lowered it diagonally to the floor before he brought his foot down on the handle just above the plastic casing for the bristles. With a satisfying crunch, the wood splintered, the bottom portion of the broom separating.
Kicking the plastic portion aside in disregard, he continued to hum the chorus as he held the broom handle in one hand and looked through the kitchen drawers with the other. Once he found the duct tape, he edged the drawer shut with his hip and returned to the bedroom.
His humming grew more emphatic as he worked. It was a difficult job to tape the minor shards in such a way they they were both angled at either end of the stick and tightly secured without completely covering the reflective surface. The humming technique was something he had picked up in basic. Much to his surprise, he had found that instead of distracting him, the humming helped him hone his concentration onto a specific target.
It was a rough patchwork job and hardly something to brag about, but as he knelled on top of his bed and held the device down against the floor, he was able to make out the floor under the bed. After a few minor tweaks to the angles of the mirror that required re-taping, he was finally satisfied enough that it would do the job. With a sense of relief, he reattached his favorite scope to the riffle and zipped the duffel back up. Instead of tossing it back up into the closet, however, he placed it on the ground and slid it under the bed gently with his foot. Safer to have it easier to access, he guessed, with the plans they had brewing just over the horizon.
The following day brought another storm. Daniel had been up most of the evening tying together his makeshift rope for lowering Lenore into the elevator shaft. As the rain began to belt against the window, he decided to take a break from the nearly completed rope and get a breath of fresh air. Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, he rummaged through the closet for the cleanest undershirt he had available. Though he had left the window open through the night, the constant exertion he used ripping through the countless number of bed sheets had left him with a sweat pooled shirt.
Showers and baths were a luxury of the past that were simply not sustainable anymore, and it was perhaps one of the aspects he missed the most about a civilized world. Standing in the rain and scrubbing off with an already soiled washcloth did little to remove the sweat and grime from your body, but they did what they could when they were offered the opportunity. If they ever made it to the other end of it all, he was definitely converting to a man who enjoyed baths.
When he reached the rooftop, he hung his towel and cleaner undershirt off the bar of the inside stairwell door. Then he kicked off his shoes and peeled off his socks and added the shoes to the pile, keeping the socks in hand. Most of the group had since given up on wearing shoes, but it was a simple sign of humanity Daniel couldn’t let go of. Part of him hoped that if he held onto the specific aspects that made humans such a unique species, it would keep them from losing their way as the world continued to crumble around them.
As Daniel exited out into the rain, a sense of peace washed over him from the rhythmic sound of the rain colliding with the roof. At least nature had not completely given up, and the simple joy of clean water helped erase the exhaustion from his mind.
He made his way across the roof to the flower pot he had emptied a few weeks back. A small collection of water had already pooled, and Daniel dipped his socks in it, fully submerging them. Pulling them out, he rubbed them together, trying to remove as much of the clung in dirt as possible. They had run out of detergent a while back, and he couldn’t remember the last time he owned anything truly clean.
Setting the socks on one of the loungers, he peeled off his shirt next as it became laden with rain. It took longer to completely soak in the shallow flower pot, but he managed. It also took longer to scrub out, as he had to grab sections of it at a time to rub together. Wringing out the shirt, the sweat stains looked lighter. It was the best he could hope for.
He pondered for a moment before he worked his khaki shorts next. They would take forever to dry, and they were his only pair not darkened by dirt or dust. If he wanted to keep them that way, he would have to wash them as often as possible.
Once the shorts were done, he stretched them out on the lounger as well. They would dry when the rain stopped, and he would collect them later. As he stood in the rain, he decided to do something he had never done before. He moved to the ledge of the building and leaned, stretching to look down at the street below.
He had heard the constant shuffle of feet and the soft moans that came from the ground, of course, but he had never bothered to really take in the sight. Not after what happened to his brother. He could hardly stand the thought of the infected lurking just outside the building.
But it would be days, less than a week he imagined, before the harsh reality was once more thrust squarely in their faces. He had already made the decision to volunteer to be part of the scavenging group, though he hadn’t told the others yet. Thus it only felt appropriate that he should prepare himself for what was to come next.
He had faced a lot of things in his twenty-eight years, but nothing had settled so deep into his mind before. The sounds of the infected on the streets, the knowledge that they roamed out there continually day after day kept him awake at night, wondering where the government went. Where the military was. He couldn’t stomach the thought that they were the only ones left. Or rather, the only ones left breathing.
“Daniel,” a voice called out in surprise.
He hadn’t heard the stairwell door open, but there stood Lenore, staring directly at him. He was probably a sight to see, he had to admit. Though the small group had learned to live together and work together, they hardly ever found each other on the roof in their underwear, staring off into oblivion.
“Thought I’d take advantage of the rain,” he said as he leaned his head back, blinking against the raindrops that splashed into his eyes. “Couldn’t remember the last time I cleaned off.”
Lenore offered a small smile. “Great minds think alike.” She hesitated as she unbuttoned her blouse, but her hands worked quickly once she gathered her strength.
Modesty had no place at the end of the world.
“Here,” he extended a hand toward her as he pulled away from the ledge. “I’ll help wash it if you’d like. Two sets of hands work quicker than one.”
She handed over the top as she unbuttoned the sole button of her jeans and then worked the zipper. “This is not an insult by any means on your laundering ability,” she assured him as she stepped out of her pants.
“I hadn’t even thought to assume so until just now,” he replied honestly.
“It’s just hard to feel clean anymore.” She moved to stand next to him, and he was painfully aware that her underwear and her bra did not match. He tried to shake the thought from his mind as he worked on scrubbing the underarms of the shirt.
“It’s hard to feel anything anymore,” he told her. “Apart from the depressing thoughts we’d rather not feel.”
“Can we… maybe not talk about that?” she asked.
“Downer Daniel. My apologizes.”
“I just… during a rainstorm is the only time I ever feel like it’s worth having hope anymore, you know? I don’t want to ruin that. Especially since the aspect of plunging into the dark, disgusting elevator shaft has currently consumed my every waking thought.”
“Sebastian offered to get what we need,” he reminded her, moving to stretch out her blouse on the lounger next to his clothes. “There is no shame in changing your mind.”
She seemed hesitant to burst what symbolic happy bubble the rain might have afforded her. “There is a lot of shame in being a coward. And I know he doesn’t understand why I need to do this, but I do. Just because I can’t properly explain it to him doesn’t mean I can just change my mind.”
“Changing your mind would in no way make you a coward,” he told her, sitting down on the edge of the lounger. She finished with her jeans, spreading them out beside him before she pulled the other lounger a tad closer and sat down.
Facing him, she pushed the already drenched hair from her face. “Why does everyone feel the need to talk me out of it? Do I really seem that weak to everyone? If Anna had been the one to volunteer, no one would have questioned her for a second.”
“But you aren’t Anna.” In another time, she would have been beautiful perched on the edge of the lounger in her undergarments. He could almost picture what she had looked like in a bathing suit a year ago, sprawled out on a towel at the beach, reading some pretentious novel he’d never heard of.
She barely even looked like a skeleton now. Skin clinging to bones was all that remained. Everyone’s body mass had started to deteriorate since they walled off the building, but it was the most noticeable on Lenore, and it was painfully clear to him now. The urgency in their need to find another source of food was never more apparent.
“No, I’m not. I’m glad I’m not her. But if she can be treated with the kind of respect y’all have given her, I don’t think it’s unfair for me to expect the same.” A bit of western had escaped from her then. She didn’t carry an accent, but he had heard it in her words. He wondered if she was from Texas.
“It isn’t a lack of respect, Lenore. It’s more just an understanding of the reality of our situation.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she snapped.
“It means it looks like your legs can barely support you. You look like you haven’t slept in days, and you don’t have an ounce of fat on you. You don’t have the build that the rest of us have. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” she asked tersely. Perhaps he should have worded it differently as she was clearly offended, and that statement had only driven the stake home.
He laughed aloud at himself. It wouldn’t matter how he worded it, he was bound to upset her sooner or later. “Can we not fight? For once?” he asked, if not begged. “I understand how we got to this point, I do, but surely there has to be a way to get past this space that we’re stuck in.”
“This is my penitence, Daniel. Going down the elevator shaft, that’s my way to try to live with myself after what happened to Hayley.
“I can’t bring her back, but I can do something to help make sure it doesn’t happen to the rest of us. That we don’t lose any more to this twisted disease.”
“Nobody blames you for what happened to Hayley.”
“Oh, that’s bullshit. You blame me, Daniel. I know I made the right decision, and even I still can’t live with it. Nathan blames me too. He blames all of us.”
“Nathan’s lost his mind,” he retorted.
“That doesn’t make him wrong.”
“You want to do this? Then do it, Lenore. But don’t do it out of some twisted sense of guilt. Do it because you want to, because you think it is the way to help us survive. You’ve got to put this Hayley thing behind you, or it’ll tear you apart.”
“Have you put it behind you?” she asked, catching him off guard.
Of course he hadn’t. But it was different for Lenore. She hadn’t lost Sebastian to the infected in the sweeps. She didn’t know, first hand, what seeing a loved one infected and hacked apart could do to your heart.
“I didn’t think so,” she finally answered for him when he couldn’t find the words. “And I think that’s why we’re always going to fight. Because neither one of us can let it go.” She left her clothes as she stood and moved to the water basins.
He thought about offering to help, but he knew it would only upset her more. She wanted to assert her independence, to prove to the group that she was an asset and not just a liability. He couldn’t blame her. He left his clothes to dry once the storm passed on, moving back into the stairwell to grab his towel to pat dry.
As he shoved his damp feet into his significantly worn out shoes, his eyes came level with the fire hose, curled around the metal wheel. Sudden clarity broke through his tired mind. It was a simple way to strengthen the rope, to ensure her safety as she descended into the unknown. And if he worked quickly and enlisted Davidson’s help, they’d have it done in time for the evening meeting.
No one said a word as they all crowded into the narrow hallway, though they hardly needed to. Their movements expressed their feelings as everyone found a place to stand. William stood in the center of the hallway, facing the rest of them. Positioning himself directly next to the elevator, he made the importance of the evening known, as did the pile of rope neatly coiled at the base of the elevator doors.
Nathan stood as far away from the rest of them as possible, though remaining close enough that his presence still pleased William. Or, at least, served not to anger him. What Anna wouldn’t have given to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. From the look on Nathan’s face, however, it was clear that he was joining them under duress. Anna doubted he would be of much use to the rest of them. She certainly wouldn’t trust him to have her back if they ran into an infected on the scavenge mission. If anything, she would expect him to throw her at one.
Sebastian stood next to her. She doubted he would say much, as he was clearly still fuming over his sister’s insistence to be the one to descend into the darkness. Anna had to admit, she had to give Lenore at least a little respect for volunteering. The girl certainly didn’t look like she had any guts, but she must have hidden them somewhere in her frail frame this entire time.
Anna held the position directly to William’s right. It did not escape her that she had inadvertently positioned herself as his figurative right hand man. She had been a pawn of his; she could admit it. It was a realization she faced now that she saw Nathan and the aftermath of her actions. He barely looked like he was getting by, coping with the entire ordeal. She was half surprised he hadn’t jumped out the window yet. It seemed like the way he would chose to go; it almost seemed pointless for him to still put up a fight. One look at him and it was clear he had nothing left to live for.
Daniel and Davidson waited on either side of Lenore. All three leaned against the wall, as if needing the extra support. It wasn’t jealousy that Anna felt when she looked at the way the two had seemed to naturally gravitate toward Lenore. It wasn’t disgust either. Not really. She couldn’t place the mixed feelings the sight rallied inside her, which was a first for Anna.
“Now that we’re all here,” William started, his booming voice piercing through the silence, “perhaps we can get started.” It was worded as a question, but delivered as a command. Every word he spoke, he treated as final. It would be interesting to see how he adapted to group gatherings, especially since they hadn’t had one for a while. It also did not escape her that most of them probably hadn’t seen William in weeks. The commander turned recluse. Would he even still be able to rally his troops?
“We got the harness and the rope finished,” Daniel started off, stating the obvious. All seven heads turned to look at the pile on the ground. “We also managed to snag a few unused large trash bags and some cleaning gloves to keep you as clean as possible.” He directed the final part of his sentence to Lenore.
She give a single nod to acknowledge she heard. Anna noticed what remained of Lenore’s fingernails were jagged and chewed short. Maybe she didn’t have the balls to go through with it after all. And the elevator shaft would be the easy part. All the infected down there were already dead.
Davidson cleared his throat, probably fighting a nervous tickle. He didn’t appear to be one for public speaking. Especially not in front of William. “I checked out the first floor, and it is still in surprisingly good shape. There isn’t a window directly above the front doors, so I couldn’t see what they looked like, but I was able to look through one of the smaller windows. I watched for about an hour and I didn’t see any signs of infected inside.”
“So what’s the plan?” William asked, his arms crossed against his chest. Though they had hardly had anything to eat in weeks, his muscles bulged under the tightness of his shirt. Anna wondered if perhaps he had been hording some supplies for himself, while the rest of them suffered together. She wouldn’t put it past him.
“We hit the closest market,” Anna spoke up when the rest of them remained silent. They had gone over the rough details of the plan, and they all knew it. If no one else would say it, then she would. “We send two, three people tops. The rest hang back to offer support from the building and make sure they get safely back inside without compromising our space to the infected.”
“And we send the runners covered in infected intestines,” Lenore pitched in, “with the hope that it will help mask our unique human smell. Even though we still aren’t entirely sure how the infection spreads,” she added with clear displeasure.
“Where are we at with obtaining said intestines?” William inquired.
“We’re ready for retrieval,” Daniel spoke up, turning once more to face Lenore. “Davidson and I were going to get you harnessed in after the meeting, if you’re ready.”
It was almost as if the two held a silent conversation in the way they stared at each other. Anna clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as they all waited.
“Of course,” Lenore’s terse reply finally came.
“Perfect,” William declared. “So who do we send? And when do they go?”
The collective group remained silent as they all surveyed their fellow survivors. How did one decide such a fate, especially when no one had any realistic hope for true results? Anna had pondered the very question for the past two days, but hadn’t thought of a simple solution. They could, of course, ask for volunteers, but she doubted anyone wanted to be put on the spot. Even she wasn’t sure she wanted to put herself at such a risk. Especially if she got stuck with the likes of Nathan and Lenore. It would be as suicide mission with no backup.
“We draw straws,” Sebastian suggested. It was a tried and true method and offered as much fairness as possible. Though was it really fair to leave their survival up to chance? Could they trust the weaker of their group to continue on, much less return, if they faced danger on the run? Anna didn’t like the odds. Without a suggestion of her own though, she kept her opinion to herself.
No one objected, and it appeared the matter was simply settled with his suggestion. Anna sucked her left cheek in and began to chew on it as she stood and waited. Then, Lenore spoke up, “We can draw straws, but we all know Davidson has to stay.”
It wasn’t the objection Anna had hoped to hear, but it was at least a start. “And just why is that?” William asked.
“Aerial support,” Davidson replied, with a bit of a wicked grin. None of them knew what he really meant with his cryptic replies such as this one, but they knew it was probably something that would come in handy in situations like the one they found themselves in. To emphasize his point, Davidson held a hand up, index finger and thumb extended, winking one eye shut as he pretended to aim a riffle.
“Do you have the necessary equipment?” William questioned.
“I have the bare necessities I need to scrape by, but if you have something else,” something hidden from the rest of us, Anna read through the lines, “then I would be more than happy to take a look at it.”
“Stop by my apartment tomorrow,” William told him. “We’ll see what we can find. Maybe we can find some ground support for the runners to take to help protect themselves.” Just by the way he said it, Anna knew there was no way in hell William would be making the trip. She didn’t know how he would justify not putting his hat in the ring with the rest of them, but she couldn’t wait to find out.
“We can draw straws,” Daniel pitched in, “but regardless of the outcome, I’m going.”
Everyone turned to look at him. If Davidson hadn’t been needed to cover the group from the roof, she would have expected such a claim from him. But from Daniel? It was not something she saw coming. It just went to prove how little they knew about each other, even after all the time they had spent in such tight confines.
“No one seems to object, so it’s settled,” declared William. As if anyone would object. Objections would have flown, to be sure, if he had declared he wouldn’t go. But a volunteer meant everyone else had a less likely chance of having to do ground support. Anna still didn’t know if she liked the randomness left, no matter how fair it was, but she doubted anyone else would volunteer to join him.
No one did. “So we will take tomorrow to gather what supplies we have. Then the day after, in the afternoon when the sun will afford us the best advantage of seeing any of the infected, the team will set off.”
“I’ll pull together some packs with some essentials for the team,” Sebastian offered. Anna tossed in that she would help.
“Morning would be better,” Davidson commented. “Or late afternoon. When the buildings block out the overhead light. With the sun in the sky above us, I’m going to be dealing with glare and potential obscured sight.”
William did not like having to listen to another’s input, but he took it in stride that evening. “Very well then. We will reconvene tomorrow evening to sort through our supplies, select our group, and make sure we have everything we need to be prepared and safe. And then we will decide on morning or evening depending on where we are at tomorrow evening.”
They all nodded in agreement. They hardly knew what to expect, so precise input was unlikely. When William asked if there were any questions and no one spoke up, he brought the meeting to a close. Always a man in need of the last word. Anna hesitated as she watched Lenore, Sebastian, Davidson, and Daniel move to the pile of makeshift rope in front of the elevator. She almost offered to help, but it looked like they already had more help than was needed.
Lenore attempted to conceal her nervous twitching. If the others noticed, they didn’t comment. Sebastian had brought her a Bass Pro Shop rain suit they had collected into their storage from one of the apartments that they scavenged. It had been a coincidence, really, since it wasn’t an object he usually would have snagged on their shopping runs. After all, none of them had thought ahead to the time when they would have to leave the building and brave the natural elements again.
“Just in case,” Sebastian said as he handed over the PVC material. It crinkled loudly as the material rubbed against itself in folds. “We don’t know how the infection spreads, so the more skin you have covered up, the less we have to worry about the unthinkable.”
“And if it’s airborne?” Lenore asked as she stepped into the elastic stretch waist pants. It was her biggest fear, the one she tossed over and over in her head throughout the night as she laid awake in fear.
“Then we all would have died already,” Davidson assured her. It was hardly reassuring, but he did have a point. They had shared the same small space with Hayley for who knew how long, and none of them were showing any visible signs of symptoms, not even Nathan.
Lenore’s fingers fumbled uselessly as she slipped on the jacket top and tried in vain to engage the zipper. Davidson moved to stand before her, stilling her hands as he took over the simple task. As the zipper reached the top, he gave it a final tug of reassurance. She reached out, her hand finding his arm. He returned the gesture, giving her arm a gentle squeeze.
“You okay?” he asked. She nodded her reply. “You sure?” She nodded once more. “It’ll be smooth sailing, chica,” he promised her. “And we’re going to have you covered up here. We won’t let anything happen to you. Scout’s honor.”
“You were never a boy scout,” Lenore laughed. Intentional or not, he had managed to lighten the mood, for which she was eternally grateful.
“I never specified what kind of scout,” he said as he winked and clicked his tongue. “Hoorah.”
“Ready?” Daniel asked. Sebastian stood patiently, waiting by the elevator doors. Sucking in a deep breath, Lenore nodded. She was far from ready, but they could wait all evening and she wouldn’t be any closer. The plastic suit was warming her quickly, and the less amount of time she had to spend in it, the better. It wasn’t as if she would be able to take a bath once she finished.
Lenore held on to Daniel’s shoulders for support as he leaned down to position the harness they had made. When he looked up at her to signal it was good to go, she stepped in one foot at a time. He pulled it up, patiently as it snagged on the extra material of the rain suit. “Relax,” he told her as she tensed while his hands brushed against her legs.
“How about you guys focus on what you need to do, and stop telling me what I need to do?” she suggested with an undertone of malice. Her nerves were already beyond wrecked, and the close proximity to Daniel was not helping matters any. Especially not when she recalled the image of him on the roof, clad only in his boxers. It was something she tried hard not to focus on but that popped up regardless.
He pulled the harness taut, the material pulling against her crouch, far rougher than necessary as he caught her eyes. In return, she tightened her grip on his shoulders. If only she still had fingernails left to dig into his skin.
As he tightened the knots on one side of his homemade contraption, Davidson stepped forward to help with the other. She could feel the body heat radiating off both of them, even through the oven that was the rain suit. As they finished, Davidson pulled away. Daniel moved back to stand before her, double checking the harness one more time. “It’s fine,” Lenore finally insisted. Though her nerves were ebbing away, they were being quickly replaced with impatience.
“You’d think she would thank us,” Daniel said to the others as he stood up and moved away.
“I’ll thank you when I get back up here. Assuming the rope holds.”
“It’ll hold,” he promised.
“Right then.” She tried not to be obvious as she turned her gaze towards the elevators. “Seb, if you’ll do the honors.”
As her brother pulled back the heavy metal doors, Lenore tried not to gag from the smell that quickly entered the hallway. She took small comfort in the fact that Davidson and Daniel immediately turned their heads away as well.
Tucking her head into the inside of her elbow, Lenore coughed into the rain suit and breathed in the smell of the PVC. If she had eaten anything in the past twenty-four hours, she would have been seeing it again for an encore. “I can do this,” Sebastian offered once more, but Lenore shook her head from behind her arm. She didn’t try to talk, afraid it would only lead to inhaling more of the putrid smell.
Davidson stepped up, grabbing hold of the rope. Sitting down, he paused to gag over his shoulder before he braced his feet against the parted doors. With one foot positioned on each door, he bent his knees, sliding closer to the opening and the smell as he positioned himself to lower her down. “Oh, shit,” he moaned as the smell overtook them. “Come on,” he chocked out. Lenore figured the comment was directed towards her. The faster they got this over with, the better for all of them.
She moved to stand by his leg. Daniel handed her the gloves and the trash bags. “Some of the bodies should already be in bags,” Sebastian told her. Though initially affected as much as the rest of them, he seemed to have recovered remarkably quick. “Aim for those, as they are already in sizable pieces we can easily use. They will be easier for you to lift and carry as well.”
Lenore tried not to dwell on the fact that they were talking about rotting human corpses. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Don’t put the gloves on until you get down there,” Davidson advised as she moved to do precisely so. “It’ll make it a lot harder to grip the rope.”
She didn’t ask why she would need to hold on to the rope if they were going to be lowering her down. Tucking the gloves into the waistband of her pants, she looked at Davidson expectantly. “Here,” Daniel said as he moved towards them. He held out a flashlight to her, which none of the others had even thought about.
“Thank you,” she told him sincerely, clutching it tightly in her hand. He held on a moment longer before he released it from his grip.
“Daniel, if you can take the slack,” Davidson instructed, motioning with his head for Lenore to move before him. The space between him and the open doors left little room to stand. Lenore balanced herself against him as she awkwardly lifted one leg and then the other over his bent leg and his arm. As she moved closer, Davidson collected the slack in the rope.
“I’m going to lower you down slowly. We aren’t in any hurry,” he told her. She could read between the lines. He didn’t want her to rush and panic, and make an easily avoidable mistake. “Keep the flashlight aimed below you and keep us appraised of your progress. We only need to lower you to the top of the collection, not into it.”
The few hours of sleep she had managed over the last two nights had always ended abruptly as she had woken, screaming, from descending into a pile of writhing, moaning bodies. Lenore forced another deep, shaky breath, nodding to assure herself more than anyone else.
“You ever swim?” Davidson asked.
Another nod in reply.
“Lower yourself as if you’re doing a backstroke off the block,” he told her. It took a moment for her to understand what he meant. Ever so slowly, she squatted in front of him, dropping to her knees, her feet hanging out over the empty elevator shaft. She paused to close her eyes for a moment before she continued.
“Sebastian, grab on behind Daniel,” Davidson instructed as his arm muscles flexed as the rope slowly took on Lenore’s weight. Tucking the flashlight between her chin and her neck, Lenore slowly let her lower body drop into the shaft. Her arms shook as she clung to the edge of the floor, waiting for Davidson’s word.
“Ready?” he asked. His eyes caught hers, and she could only stare. Unable to nod, and afraid to open her mouth in case she dropped the flashlight, she let out a squeak of agreement.
“Alright, let’s do this. Slowly guys,” Davidson reminded them as they fed her rope one handful at a time.
As soon as she cleared the floor, she fumbled to grab the flashlight. Cranking it as quickly as possible, she held it to her face and squinted as she searched for the power button. The soft, bluish toned glow that emitted cast her in a warm glow of relief.
When she pointed the flashlight down, she almost dropped it. “Fuck,” she cried out, her feet scrambling against the wall of the shaft. “Oh fuck,” she said again as she closed her eyes, clinging the flashlight against the rope at her chest. She felt her downward progress still.
“Lenore?” Davidson’s voice reverberated down the shaft. “Talk to us.”
Her lower jaw shook at she opened her mouth to speak. “Five floors,” she yelled up, quickly counting the number of sets of doors she saw until the top of the pile.
“Are you okay?” Davidson shouted.
It was a matter of perspective, really. She certainly didn’t feel fine, but she wasn’t physically harmed either. “Just keep lowering me,” she managed to shout back.
It was the longest span of time in her life. For the majority, if she had her eyes open they were glued parallel to the ground. Her stomach continued to heave as the smell worsened.
“Stop!” she screamed at the top of her lungs as she felt her boot make contact with something. “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!” she repeated, just to make sure they heard. She only stopped yelling when the rope ground to a halt. She pulled her legs up towards her body, though the motion sent her off balance. As her side smacked into the wall, she aimed the flashlight down to take stock of what she had to work with.
The light glinted off the bloodshot iris of a face she didn’t recognize. While the vast majority of the top layer was discarded trash and sealed tight Hefty bags, this body had been tossed down completely attached. Lenore fought down the scream rising in her throat as she slowly tested her balance as she leaned her lower half down, testing what her hands could reach.
“There are dozens of black trash bags, Seb!” Lenore yelled as she moved the flashlight under her chin and scrambled to pull on her gloves.
“We only need one,” she heard him shout down. A shadow cast on the light that streamed in from above. Lenore risked a glance up to see Sebastian looking down at her.
“How do I know which one to pick?” It had been so foolish for her to volunteer to do this. Anna or Sebastian would have already been done by now. They knew what was down here because they had put it there.
“Just grab any of them and tear a very small hole in the bottom corner. If it leaks out blood, then it’s part of a body and we can use it. Just make sure you cover up the tear you make with the bag you took down with you, or the body will be useless to us before you reach the floor again.”
“For the love of God, will you please stop saying body?” she yelled. Moving the flashlight to her left hand, she held it against the rope as she gripped it firmly, afraid she might slip out of her harness if she leaned too far forward. Her right arm extended out, making a grab for the closest bag she could see without the ability to acutely aim the flashlight.
A simple tear in the corner was much easier said than done as she battled to get a grip of the flashlight, the rope, and the bag all at once. Once she had made the rip, she had to maneuver everything to point the flashlight at the tear to see the outcome. As she did, she felt something trickle down the leg of her PVC suit. “Blood!” she yelled back, quickly rearranging the flashlight to grab the empty bag she carried. “Definitely blood. Not yet!” she yelled as she felt Davidson start to immediately pull her back up. She almost dropped the flashlight from the sudden jerk of movement, which then took her twice as long to encase the bag she’s picked up with the empty one she’d carried down.
“Okay!” she finally yelled up once she sat securely in her harness. She held the bag with screaming arms, leaning forward against the rope so that the weight of the body would not tip her backwards out of the harness. “This dude is heavy, if you don’t mind putting a little urgency in it this time!”
Her ascent quickened noticeably at that remark. By the time the top of her head was level with the floor, she thought she might have dislocated one or both of her shoulders. Her arms screamed, but she refused to let go of the bag. Positioned with her back to the hallway, she felt a tug as one of the guys scrambled to catch her under her armpits and pull her in. Another grabbed the bag from her hands as soon as they could reach.
As soon as they had pulled her onto the floor, she collapsed against whichever unlucky gentleman had pulled her in. “Easy,” he murmured close to her ear, arm catching her. Dropping the flashlight to the floor, she turned around and hugged whoever it was. It was not a pulse of adrenaline that coursed through her during the entire ordeal. It was a foreboding sense of dread and terror. As her feet found purchase on solid ground, it seeped out from her body. She sagged against him in relief.
“You okay?” he asked. Daniel. She could feel him looking her over, searching for any sign of injury.
“Fine,” she mumbled against his chest. She wasn’t ready to stand on her own feet just yet. One more minute, she promised herself as she clung to his arms for support.
“You did good,” Sebastian commented as she felt him squeeze her shoulder. “You did great,” he amended.
She felt hands at her waist, working to remove the harness. She made no effort to help as she tried to calm her breathing. Then hands were pulling the harness away, followed swiftly by the pants of the rain suit.
“Come on,” Daniel urged softly as he pushed her gently away. He helped her unzip the jacket and tug it off her shoulders, discarding it to the pile on the floor.
“Oh fuck,” Sebastian said just as they turned to face him. His face had gone pale.
“What?” Lenore asked, her heart sinking. Just the thought of having to make the trip again made her want to vomit.
“It’s Hayley,” he said. It took a moment for understanding to sink in. Of all the infected bodies they’d dumped in the sweep, she’d unknowingly grabbed Hayley’s. She turned away from Daniel just in time to heave up what little water was left in her body.
He only had to knock once before William opened the door. Though they had arranged to meet up to go over supplies, William looked hesitant to let Davidson in now that he had arrived. After William opened the door and motioned Davidson in, he understood why.
“It appears I’m not the only one who’s been keeping secrets,” Davidson commented dryly with a nod of his head towards the neatly piled stash that took up both the coffee table and the couch. “Dare I even ask where you acquired all of it from?” Davidson asked.
“Some from my personal stash,” William said. “Most returned from sweeps. I instructed Anna and Sebastian to bring all weapons they found here for safe keeping. Didn’t want anyone trying to settle any disagreements their own way.”
Davidson felt like commenting that William had done just that when he realized where Anna had gotten the machete from, but he kept the comment to himself. Best not to upset the man that had a small arsenal in his apartment. He partly wondered why Anna and Sebastian had agreed to William’s suggestion in the first place. It wasn’t wise to be passing out guns and machetes to the entire gang, but it certainly didn’t seem responsible to hand them all over to a guy they hardly knew either. Perhaps a conversation worth having with the duo down the road, but it didn’t matter in the present.
“They collected ammo too,” Davidson noticed as he moved into the living room to take stock of the stash. “Christ,” he said under his breath as he saw the bullet proof vests stacked neatly on top of each other on the corner of the coach. “I shudder to think why anyone would have those for personal use.”
“It’s New York City,” William answered with a shrug. Davidson guessed he was right, never having lived in the city for any extended period of time. But still. When he had gotten off the subway station and was walking through this part of town before it had all gone south, he hadn’t thought to be bulletproof vest level worried about his safety.
“Well, three vests,” Davidson said as he flipped through them quickly to count for sure. “Sounds like the logical decision would be to send three people, armored up. Though I doubt you are going to want to keep storing the vests in here when they come back covered in human blood guts.”
“They weren’t mine to begin with,” William said, as if it hardly mattered to him at all what they did with the vests.
Davidson looked through the guns collected. Some were far too powerful for people Davidson doubted have ever shot a single round before. Others he couldn’t find ammo for in the stockpile. He finally pulled three of the smaller handguns from the pile. He separated a few boxes of ammo from the rest as well. “Again, I have to say, I’m rather surprised you found all this in just this building alone.”
“People see a stabbing in the news, a murder in the newspaper. The first thing they do is go buy a gun to keep that from happening to them. Granted, I doubt many of these guns have even been used before, but that’s the way it works.”
“So that’s why you have your own?” Davidson asked. It certainly wasn’t why Davidson had his, but he could see the reasoning behind what William said.
“Sure,” William finally said.
“Three vests, three guns, a box of ammo each. Hopefully at least one of the guys going actually knows how to fire a gun. We don’t exactly have time to teach them, or extra ammo to waste.”
“They’ll make do if they have to.”
Hopefully no one would need a gun. Davidson wished to sit on the roof all day, freezing his ass off, staring at nothing but the ground. He didn’t even want to think about all the different ways this quest for supplies could turn sideways.
“I’ve got a couple of long range guns,” William pointed to the ones he had picked out and propped up against the edge of the coffee table, “if you need one to cover them from the roof.”
Davidson shook his head as he gave the three handguns a quick once over to make sure all three worked. “I’m covered.” Something he probably should not have so easily admitted, but it would have become obvious in the next day or two anyway. He just needed to make sure to keep his apartment locked until then.
Satisfied that the guns would do, Davidson turned to William. “Got a bag I can carry them in?” he asked. He hadn’t thought to bring a backpack with him, or even a grocery bag. He hadn’t realized what William had been hiding.
“Perhaps it’s best if I continued to store them here until the group’s ready to go,” William suggested, though it was more of a statement than a question.
Davidson wasn’t surprised by the request, though he was hesitant to agree. While he didn’t distrust William, he didn’t exactly trust him either. The fact that William had amassed such a supply of weapons yet hadn’t bothered to tell them and had told Anna and Sebastian to keep it to themselves spoke volumes of his character. The only reason Davidson finally relented was the fact that he knew William wasn’t going to volunteer to do the run. If by some miracle he got selected, Davidson knew William would find a way to get out of it. He wasn’t going to risk himself, but he would at least put on a show of offering as much support as possible to the others. And that included lending the guns and vests, even if it meant having to admit he had been keeping them secret the entire time.
William held the straws in a closed fist. As Daniel had already volunteered and Davidson already had a role to play, only five straws were included. Three vests. Three guns. Two short straws out of five.
Ever the gentleman, William instructed ladies first to draw their straws. Anna and Lenore glanced at each other for some time before Anna finally stepped up and moved forward. Sebastian thought she was the most fearless of them all, so it was shocking to watch the way she hesitated, her hand hovering over the ends of the straws.
Her inhale of breath as she lowered her hand was audible. So was the exhale as her fingers dropped onto one straw and plucked it from the group. As the first to go, Anna wouldn’t know her fate until a straw of the opposite length was selected. The simple fact hardly seemed to calm her nerves.
As the only other female, his sister went next. After the realization that the body in the bag she had grabbed was Hayley’s, Sebastian wondered if drawing a straw would even be cause to worry for her anymore. As Anna stepped back, her heels pressed against a wall, Lenore stepped forward to take her place in the pecking order. She certainly didn’t show the same signs of nervousness that Anna had displayed before her. Sebastian had to admit, he was stunned by the role reversal. Lenore plucked a straw from William’s extended fist without any fanfare. Stepping over to Anna, they held their straws end to end.
Sebastian saw the length difference immediately. Anna’s straw was a good inch and a half shorter than Lenore’s. Ironically, Anna showed no sign of reaction as her fate was settled.
Now onto the men, William pulled a straw for himself before announcing an order for the men. Sebastian was hardly surprised when William’s straw was the same length as Lenore’s. He started to protest that William would be able to feel the difference in his hand, and that one of the girls should hold the straws for William to pick. But Lenore squeezed his arm as she resumed her position next to him. Warning him. They all realized the truth in William’s cowardly action, but it would serve them all well to let it slide without judgment.
That left only Sebastian and Nathan with one straw remaining. His odds of being on the scavenging team had increased since he had proposed the idea. William nodded his head toward Nathan, signaling for him to draw next. As much as Sebastian hated to even think it, he hoped Nathan got the longer straw. The last thing the group needed was a slightly to moderately unstable guy with a grudge against the group as their last hope for survival.
Fate was just but fate was wicked as Nathan pulled out his straw. Comparing it to William’s, they matched. Sebastian knew what the last straw was. By the way Lenore gripped his arm, he knew she realized it too. It was basic math they could all do in their head. But he stepped forward regardless to pull the last straw from William’s clutch. As he had to drag Lenore on his arm to do so, he held his against hers, just in case there was any doubt.
Daniel, Anna, and Sebastian. The scavenge crew was set.
About the Author
When not found huddled over the keyboard at her desk, plotting out the latest twist in a novel or novella, she may be spotted curled up in her reading nook devouring a young adult novel. Or binge watching Netflix. You can learn more about Lauren at her website
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The end of the world was just the beginning. Tempers flare and tensions rise as circumstances divide Anna, Daniel, Davidson, Lenore, Nathan, Sebastian and William. As resources in the building begin to dwindle, a whole new fear grips the group as they struggle to survive.