Authors: Amanda Hocking
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Occult, #Teen & Young Adult
“Are you coming?” Boden shouted down over the bridge, and I hurriedly pulled on my jeans.
“Yeah! I’ll be right up.”
Everyone was at the top waiting for me when I finally made it up there. When Teddy asked me if I was okay, I couldn’t meet his eyes when I mumbled that I was fine.
I was deliberately leading them into harm’s way, and I knew it. It was one thing to suggest going to the compound when I thought it really might benefit them. It was an entirely different thing to lead them there when I suspected that things had probably gone to hell.
If Blue had turned in the last month or so, it fit with the timeline Tatum had told me earlier. The zombies had begun to really organize and target large populations about a month ago about that time. Or at least that’s when they really started hitting the quarantine.
But Max was all I had in the world. I had no other family or friends or home or possessions. Lazlo and Harlow might be dead for all I know and, in fact, probably were. The only thing I had – the only reason to even live – was my brother Max. Protecting him and taking care of him was the only thing that kept me going, kept me fighting.
And I would do anything to protect him. Even put other people in danger. If it meant I could save Max, then I would do it.
I had to have hope that he was still alive. Like me, he was immune to the zombie virus, so his odds were better than most. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have been ripped apart by a zombie, especially since he was only an eight-year-old boy. But … he still might be alive.
Besides, Boden and Nolita were soldiers. Not only could they handle themselves, but it was their job to protect people. Bishop had a gun, and she was bad ass. Daniels had almost killed both me and Max, so in a way, he kinda owed me.
The only one I really had to feel guilty about was Teddy, but I tried not to think about that. The world was overrun with zombies. There were no guarantees of safety for anyone.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Teddy asked me after we’d walked for a while. He normally kept his conversations with Bishop, but I was walking faster now, almost next to Boden.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said tightly, still refusing to look at him. He’d picked up his pace, moving away from Bishop and walking next to me.
“You just seem a little shaken up after the thing with the zombie,” Teddy went on. “Have you killed a zombie before?”
“Yeah, I’ve killed plenty of zombies. You don’t survive this long without getting a lot of green blood on your hands.”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Teddy looked down at the ground and scratched the stubble on his chin. “It’s been awhile, though, since I’ve had to fight them. I’m sure that’s true for you, too. Is that why you’re upset?”
“I’m not upset,” I insisted.
“Well, if you were, I wouldn’t blame you,” Teddy said. “Nobody would. It never gets easier dealing with all this crap. You’d think it would, but I guess you can never really get used to monsters.”
I didn’t say anything to that, so Teddy continued, “And getting to hide away from it for a while actually probably it made it worse. Especially for you, since you weren’t even interacting with people. Dealing with zombies now must be a real shock.”
“I’m not shocked. I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.
“It has to – ”
“Teddy!” Boden snapped, cutting him off. “She said she was fine. Can you drop it now?”
“Oh, right.” Teddy looked embarrassed and fumbled with the straps of his backpack, then fell back in step with Bishop behind us. “Sorry.”
When we reached the large wooden sign outside of town, it was still light enough to read the familiar slogan written there: “The Best Little Town in the West.” The sign was riddled with bullet holes and splattered with zombie blood.
Already, the death groans were audible. Boden and Nolita drew their guns, and we all moved in close together. We couldn’t see the zombies, but there were plenty of trees and houses to hide them.
“We have to be careful,” I told Boden in a hushed tone. “Last time I was here, there were marauders who shot at us.”
He swore under his breath, then muttered, “Delightful.”
“Marauders?” Nolita asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean be as quiet as possible so we can make it to the compound undetected, and we won’t have any problems,” I said.
Nobody shot at us as we made our way into the town, so that was something. I didn’t see any signs of marauders, but that didn’t mean anything. All the houses had been damaged, lawns were torn up, and the streets were littered with smashed cars and broken furniture, as well as body parts and corpses.
A low rumble came from a tree next to us, and Boden turned toward it, aiming his gun at the monster in the branches. I looked with him and saw that it wasn’t a zombie, but something that made me much happier to see.
“No!” I shouted and pushed Boden before he could shoot her, and his gun went off, shooting emptily in the air.
“What the hell, Remy!” Boden yelled, but I ignored him.
“It’s my cat,” I said, stepping away from the others to see her.
Ripley leaped out of the tree and raced toward me, her ears poised happily. She almost knocked me down when she reached me and threw her paws around me in an awkward bear hug. Then she walked around me, rubbing her head against me, reminding me very much of the housecat she wasn’t.
The lioness was much bigger than when I’d seen her last. She was growing fat on a zombie diet. I ran my fingers through her course fur, and I actually couldn’t recall a time in recent memory that I was happier. Ripley rarely let me pet her, but she seemed just as happy to see me as I was to see her.
“I remember the lion,” Nolita said. “She was at the quarantine for a while before she escaped. I didn’t think she was friendly.”
“She’s not usually this friendly,” I admitted, scratching her behind the ears. “But she’s pretty tame.”
Nolita reached out and tentatively petted her back. Ripley let her and nuzzled her head into my stomach. It hurt, but I didn’t complain.
“I don’t mean to cut your reunion short, but we really ought to find shelter before dark,” Boden said. “Where is the compound?”
“Over that way. I think.” I pointed to the left. “It’s on this side of town. I know that much for sure.”
“Great.” He stepped to the side and gestured for me to go. “You lead the way.”
It had been so long since I’d been here, and it’d only been once. We’d left in a hurry in a car, so my directions weren’t the best. We wandered through the town, with Ripley staying close by. She actually walked at my side most of the time, stopping when she heard a noise and raising her ears.
We could hear the zombies, but we avoided them. A small pack of four zombies went by us down the street, and we hid in the living room of a rather decimated house. Ripley watched them from the front steps while we hid, and eventually the zombies passed by without noticing us.
But I’d seen them as I peered through the broken glass of the windows. One of them was wearing a marauder uniform – the black camo with a helmet. The zombies had gotten much worse since the last time I’d been here.
After the zombies passed us, we left the house, and we only had to round one more block before we found the compound. As soon as I caught sight of it, my heart froze in my chest.
The three white pillars in front were unmistakable. They were also the only things that were standing. The rest of the building had burned to the ground, collapsed in a pile of black rubble.
But that wasn’t where they really hid out anyway. It was underneath the house, in a tunnel through a cellar door.
“No, no, no,” I whispered and shook my head.
“This is it?” Nolita asked, staring at the same mess I was.
“No.” I shook my head and raced around to the back of it.
The doors were still in place, although they were charred black. The bush that had been hiding them was completely gone, burned down to a tiny stump. I threw open the doors, praying they were still down there, but the house had collapsed onto the stairs.
“No.” I repeated, as if that would somehow make it true.
I started digging at the rubble, the bricks and broken boards that blocked the path into the basement. Ripley had climbed onto a part of the wall nearby, and she watched me curiously as I tried to clear out the steps.
“Remy,” Boden said, and when I didn’t answer him, he grabbed my arm. “This is it, isn’t it?”
“No.” I let out a shaky breath. “I mean, it was. But …”
“If there were any survivors, they moved,” Bishop said. “This isn’t a safe place anymore.”
“It’s just like I said.” Nolita glared at me and Boden. “I said this place would be crawling with zombies, and we wouldn’t find anything here.”
“We have like eight bullets left, Nolita,” Boden pointed out. “And almost no food. It was worth a shot.”
She shook her head and pursed her lips but said nothing more on the subject.
“It’s getting dark, and we’re exposed,” Bishop said. “We need to find a place to stay for the night.”
“But …” I looked back at the rubble, swallowing a lump in my throat.
“We’re finding camp,” Boden said firmly and turned to walk away.
Daniels lingered behind with me, staring at the rubble, while the others began the search for a safe-ish place to hide.
“If your brother survived, he isn’t down there,” Daniels said softly. “And if your brother’s anything like you, he’s a survivor.”
“I know,” I said.
“Come on.” Daniels took a step back from me. “We’ll rest for the night, and in the daylight, we can start looking for where he moved to.”
The death groans were getting louder and more frequent, and I knew I’d better hurry and follow him. Boden simply chose the nearest house, and after clearing it, we all went upstairs. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture, so he turned a box spring on its side and used that to block the steps.
“We’re not eating tonight,” Boden told us. “No light. No food. No sound. We will take turns keeping watch all night. The rest of you, just get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch.”
For safety, we all slept in one room. There was no bed, just a wooden floor covered in garbage. Bishop and Teddy cleared away as much of the garbage as they could, pushing it all to one side of the room, and we all lay down in the middle.
I didn’t lie down for long, though. I couldn’t sleep. Not after what I’d seen. The compound was destroyed. Blue was a zombie. I had no idea where Max could be.
I gave up on sleep pretty quickly and went out to take over Boden’s post for him. He’d climbed out a broken window and was sitting on the roof in front of it. The moon was full above us, and he had a clear view of the street and area around us.
“You want to come and sleep?” I whispered, leaning out the window.
“No. You sleep.” He sat cross-legged with the gun lying across his lap and didn’t look back at me.
“I can’t sleep.” I climbed out through the window and slid down the roof so I was sitting next to him. “There’s no reason in us both missing sleep.”
“I’m not tired yet, either.”
Ripley had spotted me on the roof, and she stood on the sidewalk below us, swishing her tail and looking confused.
“Where’d you get that cat anyway?” Boden asked.
“Found her.” I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. “I think she used to be in a Vegas show or somebody’s pet or something.”
She paced the sidewalk in front of us, trying to figure out how to get up to where I was. She grunted a few times and kept swishing her tail.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” Boden said.
I chewed the inside of my cheek, refusing to let myself cry over this. I could still find him. I couldn’t give up hope and get upset so soon.
“I’m sorry about leading you here for nothing,” I said finally.
“What I told Nolita was true. It was worth the risk.” He paused. “We won’t last that long unless we find more supplies.”
Neither of us said anything after that. There wasn’t anything to talk about, except how imminent our demise might be, and that didn’t sound like fun.
Ripley eventually gave up trying to get up on the roof and just lay down on the sidewalk. I didn’t see anyone around, and other than the death groans, I didn’t hear anything.
That was until I heard someone calling the lion.
“Ripley?” The voice was soft and small, barely above a whisper.
Ripley heard it, though. She lifted her head and looked around. Then the call came again, and I swore I knew the voice.
I stood up. My heart was nearly pounding out of my chest, and then I saw a small figure emerge from the bushes across the street. I’m not sure how he got there without me seeing him, except that he was awfully sneaky, and it was a dark night.
But as soon as I saw him, I knew.
“Max!” I shouted, completely forgetting about the zombies and how quiet we needed to be.
He lifted his head, his eyes wide, and I couldn’t stop myself. I ran and jumped off the roof. I landed on the grass, falling to my back with a painful thud. I’d just gotten to my knees when Max made it to me. He’d run from across the street.
I grabbed his arms, almost forcefully, and I pushed his hair back from his face, inspecting him. He looked so much better than when I’d seen him last. Even an apocalyptic diet was better than the care he’d been getting in a quarantine. His face was dirty, his thick brown hair was a little long, but he was alive.
I wrapped my arms around and hugged him fiercely, probably painfully, but he hugged me back just as hard.
“Remy,” Boden said from the roof. His voice was quiet but his tone was plaintive, and I understood why.
My yelling had attracted zombies. I could see the jerky movements of three zombies as they walked down the street toward us, and when I looked around, there was movement in the shadows beside the house.
Then I heard that howl, the ones the zombies made to alert the others they’d found fresh meat. We were going to be surrounded within seconds.
I got to my feet and grabbed Max’s hand, meaning to drag him inside the house. I’m not sure how long we’d really last in there, but it was better than being on the street.
“No,” Max said and wouldn’t let me pull him. “This way, Remy.”
I wanted to argue with him, but he’d obviously survived here for a while. He probably knew better than I did where to go.
As he yanked me away, I looked back over my shoulder at Boden. “Don’t make a sound. We’ll lead them away. Don’t shoot or draw attention to yourself.”
Boden did as he was told, standing on the roof of the house, and watching as my little brother led me away.
Max was really fast, and I pushed myself to keep up with him. Once the zombies started giving chase, Ripley took after us, too. Max ducked and darted around things, taking the most complicated path to lose the zombies. They were fast, but they weren’t smart.
We eventually made it onto Main Street. It was the same street where my friend Lia had been killed, so I tried not to look around. Her body was probably still here, rotten and half-eaten on the road.
Max ducked in through a storefront window, shouting the name Stella as he did. I’m not sure what used to be in the building, since everything was destroyed, and there was a huge hole in the ceiling.
As soon as we came in, a rope ladder dropped down through the hole. The zombies were hot on our trail, and Max started scrambling up it before it even hit the ground. I was right on his tail, and I could hear the zombies howling to each other behind me.
Before I’d made it up to the top, Max started trying to pull the ladder up with me on it, and he was fairly strong. A broken board jabbed me in the rib as I climbed up onto the second story, but at least I’d made it up without getting eaten.
Ripley had been following us here, and she made her own way up. She jumped onto the store’s counter below us. Then she just crouched low and leaped up.
Of course, she had to swat away a few zombies before she could jump, and then she barely even made it. Her claws dug in the boards, and she scrambled to get up, but she eventually made it. Based on all the scratches in the wood, I guessed she climbed up here a lot that way.
I stared down through the hole, catching my breath and watching the pack of angry zombies below us, growling and making all kinds of noise.
“They go away eventually,” Max assured me. “Usually in the morning. I don’t think they like the sun very much.”
I sat back and looked around to see where my brother had been hiding out. A few kerosene lanterns were lit, bathing the room in light. It was just one big loft up here, with a wall of windows at the front of the building.
A metal door at the side appeared to be welded shut. I would later find out that it led to a stairway on the outside of the building, and that was the only way up here, other than the hole in the floor.
There were blankets and pillows piled up on the far end. Food and medical supplies were stacked up on top of a small table. Makeshift toys were discarded all over, dolls made out of Coke bottles and pop cans. All of the walls and the floor were covered in crude illustrations, mostly appearing to be things like ponies and flowers.
I presumed the artist was the little girl sitting next to Max, the only other person in the loft. She couldn’t be more than six, with dirty tangles of brown hair hanging around her face, and she clung to the old ragged stuffed bear in her arms.
“Who’s your friend?” I asked, motioning to her.
“This is Stella.” Max scooted toward her and put his arm around her to comfort her. “She’s shy.”
“I don’t blame her.” I stood up and looked around. “You two have been living here? By yourselves?”
“Yeah,” Max nodded. “We’ve been here since the compound burned down.”
“How long ago was that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. A while.”
“What happened?” I walked around the room, looking more closely at the few possessions Max and Stella had managed to accumulate.
“The zombies broke in,” Max said. “They couldn’t hold them off anymore. London told us to escape if we could. Me and Stella made it out just before he lit the building on fire.”
“He burned it down?” I turned back to Max, and he nodded. “With himself in it?”
“It was the only way to stop the zombies,” Max explained.
“What happened to everyone else?” I asked. “What about all the other people there?”
Max frowned, looking sad as he thought about it. “Some of them escaped, I think. Some died in the fire. And the rest are zombies.”
I went back over and knelt down in front of him. I wanted to hug him again, touch him just to prove he was real, but Stella was pressed up against him, her eyes wide and terrified.
“Stella, don’t be scared,” Max said, his voice soft and comforting. “This is my sister, Remy. You know the lion? That’s hers.”
“Ripley?” Stella asked, and she seemed to brighten a little.
Ripley had sprawled out on the floor, licking herself, but she stopped when she heard her name.
“Yep,” Max said. “And anybody that has Ripley can’t be that bad, right?”
Stella seemed to think it over before nodding. Max suggested she go back to bed, and she crawled in the mass of blankets behind her, burying herself in them.
Max and I stayed up a little bit talking, but not much longer. I realized that he’d been taking care of Stella, and that was sweet but also a little strange for me. He was so young, and I always thought of him as my kid brother.
But the world had aged him, making him more mature. He’d been able to create a small safe haven, even here in a zombie-infested town. He was stronger and smarter than I’d given him credit for.
When I fell asleep curled up in the blankets beside him, it was the best I’d slept in a very long time, even with the zombies growling below us. It was the first time in nearly a year that Max and I were really together.
In the morning, Stella attempted to make us breakfast, which amounted to a can of beans in cracked teacups. Max said that he often scavenged for food and for toys that Stella might like, which explained the teacups.
Many of the zombies had moved on in the night, as Max had predicted they would, but they weren’t all gone. That meant I had to find another way to escape. I had to go find Boden and the others so we could join them on their trek north. But only if they’d lived through the night.