Authors: Britten Thorne
We ran on the road all the way out of the forest, dodging the herd's wanderers, stopping for none of them. I led the way for as long as I could, listening to Adam's heavy footfalls behind me, his muttered curses.
Don't think about our lost food. Don't think about the canteens. Just go. Go!
I finally slowed and stopped when we emerged from the woods at an intersection. I don't know how long we'd run, but my breathing was labored, my side in pain. A gutted, abandoned gas station sat at one corner. Rusty cars littered the road.
Behind us, I could just make out the sound of snapping branches, rustling leaves.
"They're still coming," I gasped. It was like trying to outrun a storm. You could move faster for a time, but it was inevitable. It was going to catch up.
His face looked pained, but he wasn't breathing as hard as I was. "We've got to put more distance between us and them," he said. He gripped my shoulders. "Can you keep going?" I nodded. "We've got to push hard. Pretend there's a string attached to my back and I'm pulling you along. Focus on it. And don't stop."
Marathon strategy. Was he been a runner in his old life?
I didn't have time to speculate. He set a steady pace, and I did as he said - I concentrated on his back.
We passed through an area of a town that must have once been some upscale boutiques, but was now just burned out brick storefronts. Our feet kicked up clouds of ashes. We ran past road exits that led to a highway. We passed broken down, burnt out cars, and overturned trucks, and empty parking lots.
That winged devil on his jacket mocked me for miles. When my breathing hitched and stuttered, he laughed at my weakness. When my legs burned, he relished my pain. I locked in on its grinning little face and imagined it dragging me along. I couldn't stop because it wouldn't let me stop. I couldn't fall because it would keep right on dragging me on the ground.
And when sweat poured into my eyes, when I could only see the blur of his shape, it didn't matter. The face was stamped on my mind. I knew just where it was, and it still dragged me on.
My body would give out eventually on its own, I knew, but I refused to think about it. My legs were on fire; then they felt numbed for a time, then were on fire again. My throat was dry as dust as I sucked in air. I could feel myself starting to slow, no matter how hard I fought it. The devil mocked me still.
We must be far enough. They must have found something else to chase by now.
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Delirious with fear and exhaustion, I saw something else in the devil's mocking gaze. A challenge. I had my knives.
I wouldn't be out here in the middle of this if it wasn't for him. This is his fault.
I could go another way. He's going to get me killed as surely as anything else
Adam stopped when he realized I was no longer directly behind him. His hair was soaked with sweat, his breathing heavy, his face pale. He looked as bad as I felt.
He needs water.
But why should I care?
He read the conflict all over my face. "Stay with me, Josie," he panted. "Neither of us will last long alone out here. I won't make it without you." He let those last words hang in the air. That was part of my problem, and he knew it. I'd started to care.
Stupid, stupid girl
I heard nothing behind us. We'd put some good miles between us and the dead. Even if we hadn't lost them completely, we'd bought ourselves some time. When I finally peeled my eyes away from Adam, I saw that we were passing an abandoned strip mall. It looked pretty torn up, but not burnt out.
"We should look for water." My voice was raspy, still dry after the long run. He reached out a hand and I took it, cursing myself as I did.
We took turns searching the shops - one of us waited outside to listen for the herd. I found a few clean clothes to throw on - the best find being a light jacket, finally, as the nights were getting colder. Adam found some bottled sports drinks hidden beneath an overturned shelf.
Our best bit of luck, though, was when we ventured up to the strip mall's roof and found someone's abandoned stash. It wasn't much - an unopened jar of olives, a can of white beans, magazines, a blanket - but the highlight was a half-full bottle of whiskey.
Adam held it up with reverence. "We're drinking this as soon as we're safe."
I made a grab for it, but he turned away and held it out of reach.
"If we die tomorrow, your last thought I'd gonna be, 'I should have drank that whiskey.'" Nothing had looked as beautiful as that amber liquid in a very long time. My booze stores in the city went largely unused. It wasn't necessary for survival, so in my ghost-like state, I'd rarely bothered. Now, though, it looked like liquid gold. My mouth watered. I didn't even care about the food.
He looked out over the edge of the roof. "Fuck it. Sun's starting to set and we're not running in the dark. This might be the safest spot we'll find tonight."
"Yeah. If we haven't lost them yet, how much of a difference will one more hour make."
He snorted. "How much more can we lose today, anyway?" His face paled as he thought about what he'd said. The thought weighed on both of us - either of us could have lost the other - even though neither of us spoke it. For all my hopes of escape, I didn't want anything to happen to him.
What a twisted mess I'm in.
"First drink?" I asked, attempting a grin. It felt more like a grimace but it was the most cheer I could muster.
His lips twitched in his own attempt at a smile. "Who says I'm sharing?" He turned his back to me and twisted the top off the bottle.
"Oh, hell no!" I dodged around and grabbed his arm, trying to stop him from drinking. I may as well have tried to wrestle an oak tree. His muscles tensed beneath my grip, but he lifted and sipped from the bottle with ease.
He licked his lips with an exaggerated groan of pleasure before finally acknowledging me. "Yeah, I don't trust you not to spill it. Open your mouth."
"Come on. Like a baby bird." I choked; it was almost a laugh. He grinned a real grin. "Come on, little pigeon, open up."
"Ridiculous." I tilted my head back and let him pour a shot's worth into my mouth. I swallowed, savoring the smoky burn as it trickled down my throat.
"God, that's good." I watched him take another swig himself. "That was a pretty puny shot you gave me," I said.
"Yeah? Think you can handle more?" I raised an eyebrow. "Open." This time he held my chin as he spilled the whiskey into my mouth, his rough fingertips gentle against my skin.
I could feel the alcohol going to my head more quickly than I'd anticipated. It warmed my blood, and warmed my feelings towards him. I found myself examining his face once again, considering how handsome he was, imagining running my fingers across the stubble on his jaw. "We should eat something," I said. "Can we build a fire up here?"
He rummaged through his pockets. "Can opener, spoon, pocket knife, matches. All I've got." He took another short sip from the bottle. "Lend me a knife?" I narrowed my eyes. "For wood. For a fire. Here." He handed me his can opener and winked. "Get dinner started. I'll chop some logs."
I passed him a knife. "Be careful." It slipped out before I could stop it.
I guess I'm not thinking of him as my captor anymore.
I didn't know how to feel about that.
He didn't miss the change, but he wisely didn't comment. Instead, he held up the bottle in a "cheers" gesture and took it with him back towards to door to the stairs.
It was good that he left - I needed some space.
I opened the single can and waited with my thoughts. We'd have to ration - the jar we would save for the next day.
I watched him over the ledge of the roof. He crossed the small parking lot to a patch of trees. It was more "decorative landscaping" than "forest," but it would give us enough wood to burn for the night. He hacked away at some thinner branches with my knife, biceps bulging as he worked. I don't know how he did it. I was still exhausted after our desperate run from the woods.
He was gathering the branches he'd chopped into a pile when I heard it. It was nothing more than a soft susurration; a breath on the wind. But I knew that sound. It was the dead's quiet approach. And now, with the sun setting, they'd be faster, stronger. Without the light on their half-blind eyes, the heat on their rotten skin, they moved with more focus, more purpose. And this herd hadn't lost our trail.
"Adam!" I hissed. He was too far. And he wasn't rushing, he hadn't heard them yet. I raised my voice, "Adam!"
He looked up. I gestured wildly, indicating that he should hurry and get back up on the roof.
And then they appeared. A couple at first, shambling at him, coming out from both sides of the building. I watched in horror as he gathered up his armload of sticks and ran. They'd cut him off, block his path to the door of he wasn't fast enough. I covered my mouth to hold back a scream. More and more of the corpses appeared, trailing after the first wave.
He ran, leaving a trail of sticks behind him. I could tell even from where I was that he was tired. His steps were unsteady, his face pale. The dead lurched towards him with outstretched arms. And then he was out of my line of sight - too close to the building for me to see unless I bodily dangled over the ledge.
Please make it through the door, please make it…
I clenched my fists, clenched my jaw. What if he hadn't made it? What if they tore him apart, or made him one of them? I was helpless to do anything. He'd kept his gun on him, we'd lost the other. What could I do?
I felt the panic rising in my gut and tried to stamp it down, but my head swam, my thoughts were disjointed. I wanted to scream. I couldn't move.
He stumbled through the door with a bang. The few sticks he'd managed to hold onto fell with a clatter as he slammed the door shut behind him. "Motherfuckers," he mumbled.
I crashed into him and wrapped my arms around him tight. My overloaded, exhausted brain was finally quiet. All that mattered was that he was alive. I clung to him in silence, standing on my toes and pressing my cheek to his neck.
His arms hesitantly found their way around my back. A shudder ran through me, and he stroked the back of my neck. "Shh," he said, "We'll get out of this. Don't panic just yet.”
The dead weren't good with doors and stairs - they'd simply swarm around the building until we tried to get out or they found something else to chase. We were safe on the roof, but we were trapped.
That wasn't what I was thinking about, though. "I thought they had you." The tension in his body changed. I sank into him as he held me tight, rested his own cheek against my head.
I soaked in his warmth and his strength and God, it felt good. Too good. Dangerous. He kissed my forehead and called me "little pigeon," and I wanted to cry. My fears and doubts were whirring and clicking back into place, but what did they matter? We weren't getting out of this alive.
I broke our embrace when I heard his stomach grumble. "Dinner's ready." He built a small fire with the sticks and magazines and we sat next to each other on the blanket.
That was a change. Normally I sat on the opposite side of the fire. Now we sat with our knees touching, passing the can and his spoon back and forth.
He placed the whiskey bottle on his other side. "I knew there was a reason I was so happy to see you," I joked. I watched the fire's reflection dance in the delicious amber liquid.
The delicious, flammable amber liquid. I sat up straight. "What if we Molotov our way out of here?"
He looked down at the bottle himself. "We don’t have the ingredients for that. But we could use it to light some of them on fire." He stood and walked to the roof's edge to look over, and I followed a moment later. The dead swarmed around the entrance and around the building. There was no way to tell if they were inside on the bottom floor or if they crowded any of the other exits.
"Risky," he said. "We could end up setting the whole building on fire. Or maybe it won't be enough. They'll overrun us anyway. I've only got four bullets..." He sighed. "But it might be our best chance."
"Maybe we'll wait until they start to disperse a little? We have enough to drink for what, two days?"
"Yeah, but who knows how long it'll take to find more once we do get out of here. We can't waste time."
The herd below us was obviously agitated. The corpses lurched into each other, and into the trees, and the building itself. They moved more quickly than they had on the road, too. More aggressively.
"When the sun's up, then," I said, and Adam nodded.
"Sold. One last swig and we save the rest." We should have saved as much of it as we could, but I could read my thought echoed on his face -
. He retrieved the bottle and pressed it into my hands. "Ladies first, this time." Leaning with my ass against the ledge, I took a long, slow sip as he watched. When it was his turn, he stepped closer as he drank, crowding me against the concrete barrier.
Goddamn, the whiskey went straight to my head.
, my body urged. With death so close and so likely, what else was there to be afraid of? My hands acted with their own will, pulling him closer as he set the bottle down on the ledge off to our side.