Archive for December, 2013

I still didn’t understand it. Mel had to know that I wanted to go on the runs, I thought I made it clear before. Maybe it slipped his mind.

My mom wasn’t too happy about it, though. Neither were River or Abby. Since the fight, Gabriel and River weren’t put on the same teams. Gabriel was going, so River couldn’t. However, Mr. Jackson and his son Andrew were on the team and made the typical promises of keeping me safe. As if I am some kind of two year old disobedient kid. Well, ok, I admit to being disobedient.

We went straight through Wild Horse, where I lived, and on to River Forge. There we pulled into the parking lot of Golden Harvest Foods. I looked around at the deserted streets and was reminded of the movies I watched.

Trash bags sitting in the driveways of nearby houses were ripped open and litter lined the streets. Cars were sitting open everywhere, including inside houses, left where they stood as people ran away trying to dodge the apocalypse. One car had driven right into the grocery store. Bricks and other debris cluttered the asphalt around the end of the car that was still visible.

When I started to get out of the truck, Mr. Jackson leaned against it, pushing it shut. The door clicked with his pressure alone. I frowned at him through the glass that separated us. He signaled me to roll down the window. “Stay here. We can’t watch out for you while we work.” I opened my mouth to refuse when he slid his hand into the window and dropped a pistol into my lap. “Pretend you’re the lookout and we are robbing the place.”

Then everyone was gone. I watched as the last man slid into the store and sat back. Didn’t they have someone to watch their way out? That bothered me. Movement out of the corner of my eye had my heart in my throat. A zombie was headed for the store. I shifted so I could look around again and spotted several more were moving toward us. More were being stopped by fences around the houses, and other obstacles, but they wouldn’t be held long. When I turned around, the first zombie I spotted had changed direction.

It was on the other side of the door, staring at me. It didn’t look like one of the gray skinned zombies in movies or even the blood covered and damaged zombies I managed to run into. This one looked more human than any I had seen so far. The only sign that it was a zombie was the wide staring eyes and jaw hanging open. Otherwise, it looked like a man in every day clothing.

It didn’t blink. In a way, it was almost like it was waiting for something. I sat frozen, staring at the slack face. But I was more than aware that more zombies were moving toward the store. I needed to warn the men inside the building. If I did anything, the one staring right at me would do what it could to get into the truck.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a handful of zombies pile up around the end of the car sticking through the hole in the building. I couldn’t hold off any longer. I leaned back, slamming my hand on the horn and keeping it there. But when I moved, I heard something thump into the floorboard. The gun. I kept my eyes out the windshield, hoping that I wouldn’t need it. The zombies starting to work their way into the store stopped. It was the strangest thing. They just froze, then they turned as one and staggered toward the truck.

I was still leaning on the horn when a hand clamped around my ankle. I screamed, trying to kick my leg free. The passenger door was sitting open and the strangely normal looking zombie was bending over my calf. I pulled my other foot nearly to my stomach before thrusting it into the zombie’s face. Its nose spurted dark red blood as the head reared back from the blow. I felt a moment of elation before it bent forward again. I shoved the bottom of my shoe into its mouth and its teeth clamped onto the tread.

Another zombie was already leaning into the car. It tried to climb over its brother. But as it did, it slid between the normal looking zombie and the passenger seat. It wasn’t trapped though. It shimmied forward, like a cat squeezing through a hole that looked too small for it. Three fingers of what remained of its hand dug into my jeans. I screamed again as the fingers pinched the skin under the fabric. It dove for my leg. Thinking quickly, I shoved my right hand against its leathery forehead and locked my elbow. The angle was bad and the zombie was stronger than it looked. Tears of pain leaked out of the corners of my eyes, but I couldn’t let go. Letting go meant it would bite.

The sound of gunfire almost stopped my struggling. Then I remembered the mass of zombies headed toward the car. I didn’t know if I would be able to stay alive long enough for someone to get to me.

I released the horn and stretched my hand into the floor board, my fingers searching. I felt something brush my fingertips. But I couldn’t quite reach it. And I couldn’t shift without releasing the second zombie. Another clattering of gunshots caught my ears just before blood and clumps of darker things sprayed over the windshield.

My foot was still stuck in the one zombie’s mouth. I shoved hard against it and my fingers finally hooked the gun grip. I pulled at it, then slid my fingers around it. But I never fired a gun with my left hand. I took a deep breath and aimed anyway. The sound of gunfire lit the ringing in my ears but the bullet went wide, opening a tiny hole in the roof of the cab just above the passenger door.

Then another zombie joined the first two. It literally leaped onto the backs of the ones already in the car and scrambled to climb over them. I screamed again and pulled the trigger again, aiming for the face of the newest zombie. The bullet barely scraped the side of its face. I was gearing to shoot again when a hand appeared, jerking it from the backs of the other two.

More hands appeared, pulling the other two zombies from the cab. The hands clinging to me refused to let go. When my back hit the asphalt, two things happened. My breath vanished in a painful shove. And my right hand slipped from the forehead of the second zombie. It reared and lunged, mouth hanging wide. I jerked my head to the side so I wouldn’t have to see it. A spray of cool liquid and gravel erupted over me just before I heard the gunshot.

Another shot sounded and fingers pried the hand from my ankle. I looked around to see several of the supply men gathered around me. Most of them were facing away. Looking down at myself, I saw that I was caked in thick blood.

I wasn’t even aware of crying until Gabriel pulled me off the ground and against his chest. His arms clamped around me, fingers digging through my clothing. He was trembling. No, it wasn’t him. It was me. I let him hold me for a moment, just reveling in the fact that I was alive. Then I took a shaky breath as another battery of gunshots sounded and pushed him away.

“Here.” Andrew handed me a handkerchief.

I took it and wiped the gunk out of my face. I didn’t taste anything, but I spit several times for good measure. “Man, that was disgusting.” I groaned, thankful that my voice was steady. “Ok, who shot the thing into my face?”

Mr. Jackson grabbed my upper arms and peered into my face. “Were you bitten?”

“What?”

He shook me hard enough that a muscle in my neck felt like a breaking guitar string. “Were you bitten?” He almost shouted.

“No. Knock it off!” I pushed him back, clamping a hand over my stiff neck. “God. What’s wrong with you?”

“You weren’t supposed to be hurt.” Andrew swung himself into the bed of the truck and started taking the bags.

“I’m not hurt, see?” I pointed out, then did a pirouette for good measure. What I needed was to take a moment and just breathe, but I wasn’t about to tell them that.

“Good. Come on guys, help us load up.” Andrew called. “We still have some shamblers coming in.”

Mr. Jackson and Gabriel shot me glances before joining him in the bed of the truck. “Tell us what happened while we work.” Gabriel suggested hauling a bag into the truck. I shrugged, going around the truck to help lift the bags. Lifting one up, Gabriel took it from me. Apparently, he didn’t think I was going to tell them, so he prompted, “So, what happened?”

“They came from everywhere.”

“And they attacked the truck?” Mr. Jackson asked taking the next bag from me.

“No.” I said, struggling with the next bag. My ribs complained but not enough for me to stop. The sound of gunshots caused me to jump and I pulled the muscle in my neck again. Looking around I saw that other men were standing in a ring around us, taking any zombies that came close.

“So they didn’t attack the truck?” Mr. Jackson asked, watching me return to my struggle with the bag.

“No. They were heading for the store. But one was right outside the truck, watching me, I think.”

“Watching you?” Gabriel asked as he took another bag.

I finally hefted the bag I was working on onto the edge of the bed. Mr. Jackson grabbed it as it slid from my fingers. “Yeah.” I leaned against the bed as another battery of shots went off. “I honked the horn.”

They were silent a few moments. “Did you know they would come back to the truck when you did that?” Mr. Jackson asked, leaning down to look at me. I nodded. “Of all the stupid-.”

“She saved our lives.” Gabriel said simply, leaping down from the bed of the truck. “We need to start leaving someone to watch our exit.”

“One thing I will tell you,” Mr. Jackson said quietly, “Mel has no clue about you. And I think I am starting to.”

Gabriel stepped up beside me. “You did good.”

“If you start calling me ‘Pig’ or ‘Babe,’ I am going to kick you,” I warned. Gabriel laughed.

“Well, we have a problem.” Mr. Jackson said. “We have more bags inside, but we came out when we heard the horn and left them there.”

Andrew joined his father. “What are you thinking?”

“Go somewhere else and get more supplies. Hope they wander off when we come back. If not, come back tomorrow.”

“What about leading them off?” I asked.

“Too dangerous.”

“How much stuff do you have in there?” I shifted away from Gabriel. He lifted an eyebrow but didn’t push it.

“Three more bags. But that place is the lottery.” Andrew told me. He frowned at Gabriel who shrugged.

I looked at the car sitting in the hole of the store. “I think I have an idea.” I offered, straightening, “But I don’t know if it will work.”

“What is it?” Mr. Jackson’s eyes narrowed as his brow wrinkled.

I peered around studying the zombies. “Hear me out before you say anything.” I glanced at him and he nodded. “Ok. I can take the other truck and lead the zombies off on a goose chase.” When he opened his mouth, I stomped my foot and continued. “One of the guys can pull the car out of the wall. It doesn’t look like the wall will come down. Look,” I pointed at it, “The car is almost all the way in there and there is a gap between the wall and the car now.

“Take the other truck and back it into the hole. Then load it up with whatever you can. I will come back after a bit and we can switch trucks.” I finished talking and looked up at the men who stared at me with wide eyes.

I waited for them to think it over while I crossed my fingers. If I could get one of the cars, I could check the place my dad worked. The glint in Mr. Jackson’s eyes gave me the feeling he knew what I was planning.

“That’s actually a good idea.” Andrew was the first to say it. I didn’t bother to hide the huge smile that broke out over my face.

“Only one problem,” Gabriel said, and my heart sank. “I heard that you don’t know how to drive a stick.” My stomach vanished.

I sighed. “No.”

I could almost feel Gabriel’s gaze like a physical touch. “I will go with you.”

Mr. Jackson nodded. “Ok, then. Sounds good.” He let out a piercing whistle that made me flinch. The other men drew back, still forming a circle around us and Mr. Jackson told them the plan.

A few minutes later, the car was pulling out of the hole and one of the trucks took its place. Two men stood in front of it, while Gabriel and I got into the other. I checked out the dashboard and found exactly what I wanted. Dropping the blind in front of Gabriel produced a sparse selection of CDs. I snagged one and inserted it into the CD player. Music started and I turned the volume up till it couldn’t go any higher.

The cab around us began to rattle with the sounds of the speakers. Gabriel and I both rolled our windows down and pulled slowly out of the parking lot. True to our expectations, the zombies started following us. We stopped in the middle of the road, letting the zombies swarm us. As they drew up to the truck, we rolled up the windows but left them open enough that sound still bounced off the buildings around us. With the windows partially closed, the music sounded even louder to me.

Then Gabriel pulled up, running over several in our path, to stop a few feet ahead. The zombies staggered after us.

“You gonna tell me what this is about?” He shouted over the music.

“I wanted to help get the supplies.”

He turned cool sky blue eyes on me, his eyebrows drawing together. “And my real name is Elvis Presley.” Then he did the worst impression of the king I ever heard, “Thank you, thank you very much.” Though, to give him credit, it was probably distorted from having to shout to be heard.

I laughed. “Well, nice to meet you Mr. Presley.” I yelled, sticking out my hand after Gabriel pulled forward again.

He smiled, but it faded. “Tell me, Cleo.” He shifted forward again. “It’s your father, isn’t it?” Something must have shown on my face, because he nodded. “Thought so.”

“Please-.” I started.

“I think we have a lot of the zombies. It’s time to lead them off.” He bellowed, shifting into gear and pulling away from the mass banging on the back of the truck. I sank into my seat and stared out the window, past the zombies. “Good. They’re following us. So,” Gabriel tapped my shoulder, “where to?”

“Are you kidding?” I looked at him trying to ignore the fact that I wanted to hit him.

“No, I’m not. But you have to promise me something.”

I didn’t trust him. “What do you want me to promise?”

“Don’t get out of the truck. No matter what you see. Don’t even open your door.” My chest suddenly felt light, like a bubble was growing inside and spreading until my entire body was tingling. I would see my dad again.

“But there is something else.” His voice dragged me from my thoughts. “You have to realize that he may already be gone. Maybe he fled, or was rescued, or…” He let the comment slide. “Now. Where do we go?”

“He works just up the road. Over the bridge and to the left, there’s a building there. It’s the corporate headquarters for Golden Harvest Foods. They have an inter-state distribution campaign dad was working on.” I wanted to bounce in my seat. Wait until mom finds out, I thought, already imagining the look on her face when she saw him. And he’s going to love Abby. That thought brought more images of us as a family again, bringing Abby into the fold and caring for her.

“Whoa, hold up.” Gabriel stopped the truck and grabbed both sides of my face. “Are you listening to me, Cleo?” He shook me slightly.

“Yeah,” I pushed his hands away. “No need to be so grabby.”

“We may not see him. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, I hear you.” But I knew my dad would be there. He would wait for us, or try to come to us. Since he never came to the house and the people on the supply runs hadn’t rescued him, it meant he was still at work. I was sure of it.

“Ok, we need to lead this group away, then we can go check.” He returned to the steering wheel and pulled away from the crowd. “By the way, you never said how the zombies got into the car.”

I frowned. “I think it opened the door.”

“What did?”

“Remember that zombie that just stared at me? The one that looked human?” When he nodded, I continued, “I was looking toward the store and pushing the horn and suddenly it grabbed me. You guys pulled me right out of the cab, and I don’t remember going through the window.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows at me. “I thought maybe you opened the door to warn us and they jumped in after you, so you hit the horn instead.” He frowned, lines forming on his forehead and around his mouth as he thought. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I am so going to open my door when a zombie is standing right outside it. Maybe I will even invite it home so we can watch some movies together. Go dancing. Or-I know, I can have a picnic with it under the stars.” I rolled my eyes. “No, I did not open the door. I swear I didn’t.”

“Could you have kicked the door open?”

“The door only opens if you pull the handle, remember? Kicking it won’t make it open.”

“But you opened the door to get out of the truck before we went into the store.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it, trying to think. Yeah, he was right, I had. But then Mr. Jackson leaned against it. Did I hear it click? It was hard to think over the music. After a moment, I was certain I heard the door click. “Yeah, but Mr. Jackson closed it before you guys left.” My throat was getting sore from all the shouting. “Why is this bothering you so much?”

“Do you think it’s possible for mutations in zombies?” It wasn’t until he looked at me that I realized he was serious.

“I wouldn’t think so.”

“But everything mutates in order to survive. What if, just for instance, this whole thing started as an air born genetic weapon? By now, it’s not going to be air born. That is, if it was in the first place.” I finally turned down the music so I could hear him.

“But what if it was injected into the body?” I asked.

“Then a bite could spread it, but the virus would have to be extremely sophisticated.” He cleared his throat. “Thanks. I don’t think what we know about zombies from movies can really apply to real life. Those were fictional, this is real.”

“Look at what they got right though.” I pointed out. “Shooting in the head, biting, shambling.”

“But other than a couple movies, animals didn’t convert to zombies. And even then, only dogs were claimed to have the… whatever it is.”

“They focus on dogs, I think, because of all the domesticated animals, they were the most dangerous. Can you imagine a lion, tiger, or leopard contracting the virus?” I shuddered.

“We’re getting off subject. I’m saying, what if your zombie was another kind?”

I frowned at him, then looked out the back window at the zombies still trooping behind us. “You mean they could be evolving?”

“Not all of them, but some?” He asked in return. “It could be possible.”

I settled into my seat and thought about it. “Did you notice that there are no cats?”

“What?”

“No cats. Felines. The domesticated opposite of dogs.”

“I know what cats are. I was asking what you meant.”

“I haven’t seen any cats. I think I remember a skunk, a couple dogs, and a deer. But no cats.” I frowned and looked over at the zombies behind us. “See, look. There’s a raccoon.” It was in front of the human zombies, along with three dogs, and two deer. The animal zombies’ motor function seemed to be better than their human counterparts, but not by much.

Gabriel shifted to look out the rear view mirror. “Now that you mention it, did you notice any cats around a week before it started in Wild Horse?”

I glanced at him. “I didn’t think about it. I don’t normally notice cats.”

“With a name like Cleopatra, I would figure you to be a cat lover.”

“I am. My mom is allergic to cats, so I’ve never had one. Always wanted one though.”

He nodded. “We had one. It disappeared about a week before everything happened. And some of the neighbors mentioned the same thing with their cats. We thought someone was stealing cats in our neighborhood. But maybe it’s related.”

“Could they have known?”

“If they did, where did they go?”

I stopped watching the zombies behind us. “Do you think we could check on my dad now?”

Gabriel checked the rearview mirrors. Then he took a deep breath and shifted into third gear. “Yeah, let’s do this.”

The car sped up, the motor revving beneath my feet and my heart followed suit. In a short time, we were over the bridge and pulling into the parking lot of the building where my dad worked. Several cars were there, including my father’s.

“Look,” I grabbed Gabriel’s arm, “that’s my dad’s car!” I bounced in my seat. “He’s still here!”

Gabriel didn’t say anything, just pulled in beside the car so we could look into the windows. There wasn’t anything inside the car that we could see.

“Honk the horn. Let him know we’re here.” I commanded, sitting forward eagerly to examine the building in front of us.

It looked like a manufactured home, only it was three stories and about four times as wide. I remembered from visits that the main doors led to a hallway. The hallway went to the center of the building, which was open and contained three large fish tanks, chairs along most of the walls, and tables with other chairs spaced around the floor. The stairs to the other floors were there too. A huge sky light allowed natural light into the building, though the offices didn’t have the same luxury. Most offices had windows. Only the call center on the top floor didn’t.

After the horn sounded, we sat and waited. I was sitting on the edge of the seat, my hands braced on the dashboard in front of me and my head practically against the glass. It seemed like an hour before I noticed movement. My heart lurched into my throat as a man stumbled into view.

I thought he was excited about being saved. But then he straightened up and my heart began a slow drop back into its place. Several more zombies filed out behind him. Gabriel put the car in reverse when I saw a familiar head.

My dad’s boss stumbled through the group around him, his leg barely functioning because of the gaping hole in his thigh. Blood seeped down from a cut on his forehead, his pale face stretched as he opened his mouth in anticipation.

Tears burned in my eyes at the sight of him. Then the entire world exploded as my dad stepped out from behind him. Other than the jerking movement, glazed expression, and pale skin, my dad looked normal. His shirt was crumpled and there were stains on it. He was always so picky about his shirts, he ironed them himself. The fact that it was crumpled should have told me the truth, but I ignored the warnings going off in my head.

Someone kept saying “no” over and over. I opened my mouth to tell Gabriel to shut up, only it was already open and another “no” slipped out. I couldn’t look at Gabriel. I couldn’t turn my head, or my eyes from my dad’s body.

The truck was moving backwards. Gabriel turned and pulled us back onto the road, heading for the store. “No!” I screamed, turning around in my seat to look for my dad. “No! We have to go back. It’s not real. He’s just pretending so they won’t get him.”

“Cleo. Your dad is dead.” Gabriel grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. “I’m sorry.”

“No. You’re wrong! He’s just pretending! We have to go back!”

“Cleo, did you look at the window behind him?” Gabriel asked softly, not removing his hand.

I took a deep breath and looked at him. “What has that got to do with anything?”

He mimicked my breath. “His back was gone. It’s amazing he’s even walking.”

“What?”

“Cleo, his back was completely gone, it was nothing but a cavity. You could see his spine, his ribs… He’s dead.”

“No!” I jerked away from him. “Don’t say that. Don’t you ever say that!” I was screaming again. “Turn around!”

“I can’t Cleo. I’m sorry.”

In one movement, I jerked around and opened the door. Then I was rolling on the pavement, my breath knocked from my lungs. But it didn’t matter. I struggled to my feet, ignoring the pavement burns on my arms and face and started running back to the building. Something tackled me from behind. I screamed, lashing at the weight pressing into my legs. It grabbed my arm and jerked it back, the pressure moving from my legs to the small of my back. Something tightened around my wrist.

Heads jerked steadily into view and I spotted my dad.

“Dad! I’m here!” I shouted. A hand clamped over my mouth.

“Damnit, Cleo. Shut up.” Gabriel hissed in my ear. He removed his hand to grab my free one and jerked it behind my back to join the first. A second later, I was hauled to my feet by my hands. I cried out as my shoulders caught on fire. “Cleo. Damn. Damn.” He jerked me back to the truck and shoved me inside before climbing in himself.

“Dad!” I screamed again, just before Gabriel closed the door.

Suddenly he was leaning over me, staring into my eyes. “What the hell is wrong with you? You can see it for yourself.” He jerked me upright in the seat and turned me to face the cluster of zombies that were finally reaching the back of the truck. “Watch.”

Then his gun was aimed out the window. I lunged at him. “Stop! He’s just pretending!” I cried.

Gabriel pushed me back, steadied himself and pulled the trigger. I turned wide eyes on my father as a hole appeared in his chest. He fell back and I screamed again.

But… he got up. His upper body first, then he swung his arms around. And he stood up. He shuffled toward the truck, the zombies around him converging and shielding him from view.

My mouth hung open, ready for another scream, but I couldn’t scream any more. My dad was dead.

I shuddered and my body sank into the seat. Gabriel was there, brushing my hair out of my face. “I’m sorry, Cleo.” He whispered. I just looked at him. “You would never have forgiven me if I hadn’t proven it to you. Hell, you may not forgive me for this either.” He tucked my hair behind my ear. “I will untie you later. We will both have hell to pay for this and I won’t take any chances that you will do this again.”

He settled into his own seat, shifted the car into gear and guided the truck back to the store. I couldn’t see over the dashboard and I didn’t shift so I could. But I felt when we plowed through the group of zombies we had led away from the store. It almost felt like trying to flow through a snowdrift and a field with potholes at the same time.

I couldn’t seem to think about anything besides my dad. The fact that he got up, even after a bullet had taken a nice sized chunk out of his chest.

When the truck pulled to a stop, Gabriel leaned over me again. “Hold on. I’ll pull you out your door in a minute.” He slid out his door and vanished.

I could hear people talking, then Mr. Jackson peered at me from the open door of the cab. “What the hell were you thinking?” He shouted. I was certain he was yelling at me, but I didn’t care.

“Sir, I think she’s in shock.” Gabriel’s voice stated. “She saw her father.”

Mr. Jackson whirled on Gabriel. “What?”

“He’s a zombie, Mr. Jackson.” I watched Mr. Jackson’s face fall. “She thought he was pretending to be one, hadn’t seen the wound in his back. I shot him in the chest to prove-.”

Mr. Jackson grabbed Gabriel’s shirt. “You did what?” His voice was like ice and deadly quiet.

Mr. Jackson wasn’t a small man. Neither was Gabriel, for that matter. But Mr. Jackson dwarfed the teenager. Mr. Jackson was built like a very tall brick. It had always struck me funny when I saw him and his wife together before everything happened. He was so big, not fat or even overweight, but bulky, and so tall. He always made the tiny woman look even smaller by comparison.

Gabriel didn’t react. “I shot him in the chest.”

“Why in the hell would you do that? Especially in front of her?” Mr. Jackson growled.

“Because she wouldn’t believe me. She even jumped out of the truck.” He paused for a moment, to let it sink in then added, almost as an afterthought, “while it was moving.”

“Oh, hell.” Mr. Jackson shoved him back. “Leave her in the truck. You, Stevie? Pull this into place and stay with her. I am taking the other truck.” Another man, who I assumed was Stevie, climbed into the truck, barely glancing at me. “Gabriel, you help the others. And as far as I am concerned, you will not join a supply run for the rest of my life.” Mr. Jackson’s voice drifted away and I heard another door open a moment before the other truck started.

“Are you alright?” Stevie asked. The images of my dad being shot were still playing over in my mind. I could barely see Stevie through the images. He reached out to touch me and suddenly I sat up. He jerked back startled.

“Stay away from me.” I whispered. I saw the other truck pull out from the building. I scrambled to put my back against the door as Stevie started maneuvering our truck into position.

After he was done, he turned the engine off and shifted to watch me. I didn’t look away from him. But as I did, his green eyes bled to sky blue and his red-blond hair faded to blond. Gabriel sat across from me checking his gun. In a moment, he was going to open the back window of the cab and point it at my dad. “No!” I screamed, launching myself at Gabriel. He shoved me back hard enough that my head hit the window of the door behind me. Pain flared through my brain, clearing my vision.

“Holy shit.” Stevie dropped out the driver’s side of the truck. “She’s crazy!” He stood just outside the driver’s door.

Gabriel appeared beside him and I focused my attention on the face with the blue eyes. “What happened?” He asked.

The other man shook his head. “She just freaked out, lunged at me.”

“Go help the others, I’ll stay with her.” Gabriel’s cool blue eyes turned on me and I saw him pull the trigger again. The hole reappeared in my father’s chest, just before he fell back.

“But Mr. Jackson-.” The man started and I jumped, jerked from the images in my mind.

“She’s going to hurt someone else, or herself. I can handle it, and frankly, I probably deserve it.” Gabriel glanced at the other man. “I would rather it be me than someone else paying for what I’ve done.”

The man nodded and vanished from my vision. Gabriel climbed into the truck, his eyes still on me. “Cleo?”

A quiet voice whispered, “Why?” and I realized it was me.

“You… You would have done anything to get to your father.” He swallowed. “I didn’t kill him, Cleo. He was already dead.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to stop the images from replaying again in my head. “You shot him.” I whispered.

“And he got up.”

“He got up.” I shook my head. “You shot him and he got up.” Suddenly, I was crying. “You shot him and he got up. Why did he get up?”

Gabriel pulled me to him and wrapped his arms around me. “It’s ok, Cleo.” He whispered brushing my hair out of my face. “It’s ok.”

“It’s not ok. You shot him and he got up. It’s not ok.” I turned into him and let myself go.

I don’t know how long we sat like that. But after a while, Gabriel pushed me into my seat and locked the seatbelt. Someone was talking to him through the window, but I was crying too hard to hear the words.

A pit had opened up in my stomach, sucking out every happy or light thought and every good feeling I ever felt. I may not have gotten along with my dad, but I loved him. Suddenly I was so tired, but it wasn’t the physical kind. It was deeper inside. Like a voice that begged me to just give up fighting and told me that everything I had ever done didn’t matter. That I failed. That I had done something so terrible, I deserved what was happening.

The door on my side opened and Gabriel reached around me to unbuckle my seatbelt. He pulled me from the truck, turned me away from him and released my hands.

“What the hell?” I heard River snarl. I lifted my head, rubbing my wrists, and looked around. He, Abby, my mom, and Mel were standing on the porch of the dining hall. River was striding down the steps toward me and Gabriel when Mr. Jackson stepped in front of him and placed a hand on his chest.

“Hold on, there.” Mr. Jackson started. “You need to know-.”

I ran around Mr. Jackson and threw myself into River’s arms. He caught me easily, his grip tightening around my shoulders. “What did they do to you?” River asked.

“Now, son.” Mr. Jackson’s voice deepened. “There is something I need to tell you and her mom. In private.”

I felt River nod. “Abby, why don’t you go find Tori and see if you can play with Boots for a while?” After a moment, he added, “Cleo’s going to be fine. This is between grown-ups. Go find Boots.”

I heard my mom say something, but it was too quiet to hear over my own tears.

We reached the cabin and I was fighting to gain control. What my mom needed to hear shouldn’t come from someone else. I broke away from River, but held onto his scent like it was a lifeline.

Inside, Mr. Jackson started to talk, but I cut him off by clearing my throat. I looked at mom and fought not to break down again. She needed to hear it from me. Not someone else.

We went to River Forge to get supplies.” My voice wavered so badly it was hard to understand, but when my mom’s face crumpled, I knew she did. “I wanted… We stopped at Golden Harvest and came up with a plan to…” I stopped and coughed, trying to stop my voice from shaking so bad. “I was going to lead the zombies away, but I couldn’t drive a stick. Gabriel helped and he figured out… I wanted to go get dad.” River’s hand tightened around my shoulders when I said Gabriel’s name, but then there was a horrible moan. My mom sank to the floor like someone had taken all the bones from her body.

River turned me to face him and bent down to peer at me. “What happened?”

I shuddered and tried to look over my shoulder at my mom but he rocked me enough to get me to focus on him. He repeated his question. The whole scene replayed itself in my mind.

Mr. Jackson finally had to be the one to tell them everything. My mom started sobbing as he explained what Gabriel had noticed, but I was too blind to see. When Mr. Jackson told them what Gabriel did, my mom fell dead silent and River went rigid beside me. All the while, I was seeing it all over again in my head.

Juanita appeared and settled my mom, who finally started crying again, into bed. River moved us, so that he was leaning against the headboard of my bed, me curled onto his chest. I stopped crying but I felt like I was slipping down a dark tube to insanity. My mind wouldn’t stop replaying what happened.

I don’t think I fell asleep. But if I did, then I just dreamed everything over again. After light hit the window, River handed me my journal and the pen.

Abby never came back last night, but I think Mr. Jackson took her. I’m not sure what I expected for my first supply run, but I now wish I never left the compound. People say it’s worse to not know. I think that in a way, they are right. It’s better to know than to always wonder. To always think that they were waiting for you to find them. Or that they needed your help. But, I don’t think that those thoughts work in the world I find myself in now. I would have rather found my dad dead on the side of the road than walking around as a zombie.

I understand what Gabriel did. I’m not mad at him. He’s right. I would have kept trying to get out of the truck. He saved my life. I just wish that he had spared another bullet to make sure my dad stayed dead. I don’t want to think about him walking around now. Maybe killing someone else’s parents or kids.

I need to let Gabriel know that I’m not mad.

Go Back to Day 13 – or – Go to Day 15

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Breakfast was a solemn affair. None of us really spoke, mostly because I think that everyone expected one of us to seriously mess up. Three guesses who.

Once finished, I stacked Abby’s and my trays and carried them to the bins. Mel came with us, his tray left on the table. He led the way out the doors of the restaurant. I knew that if I looked back at the table, I would see everyone staring at me. So I didn’t.

Mel stopped almost directly in front of me, but I already had a plan. I pulled my notebook and pen out as we walked through the doors, then grabbed Abby’s hand in my other. So when Mel turned around, my hands were full. I raised an eyebrow at him, almost daring him to say something. He didn’t. Just turned and led the way down the hill.

“I thought we would do this somewhere around here.” I pointed out.

“We’re going for a ride.” He responded, not looking at me.

I shook my head and stopped walking, Abby automatically stopped beside me. “I don’t think so. I have other stuff to do and this shouldn’t take long.”

“You haven’t been cleared by your mom or the doctor to do any work.”

“I can do light stuff.”

“Working the stables without permission?”

“I didn’t know I needed permission. Tori was fine with it anyway.”

Suddenly, Mel was right in front of me. He didn’t look angry, but then when I tried to read him, I was mostly wrong. “Tori doesn’t run this place. I do. And without guard, you do not leave the main area. If anything gets through the defenses, they may head to the barns.”

I frowned. “What about the girls in the stable? They don’t have a guard.”

He straightened up and looked toward the stable. “They don’t need one.”

“Neither do I.”

“Until I say otherwise, you do.”

“Wait. You want me to go riding right now. Without a guard.” I was glaring at him, but I couldn’t stop it. Abby’s hand tightened in mine and I suddenly knew that she had been sent as my chaperone. A five year old chaperone. Well, why not? The world has already gone south. I glanced down at her to see her solemn eyes fixed on Mel. I tightened my hand.

Mel didn’t seem to notice our interaction. “You will have me.”

“Should you be going around without a guard?” I asked, shifting my weight. “I mean, you are kinda the leader.”

Suddenly he burst out laughing. I stared at him in surprise. “You are a stubborn little hellcat, aren’t you?” He wiped his hands on the legs of his pants. “Let me ask you, what would you do if one of those things came up to you right now?”

“Well, first I would have advanced warning. They won’t just pop up right in front of me or run at me. Since I have no weapons, I would call for help and start looking for something to use to hit it with.”

“There are no weapons in the stable. What if you-?”

I shook my head, interrupting him. “Actually, there are. There may not be any guns, but there are a lot of weapons. Rakes, pitchforks… I even saw an axe, machete, and scythe in there.”

He looked surprised for a moment, then blanked his face out. “You saying you would let one of those things get close enough to use one of those…weapons against it?”

“Yeah. If I had to.” I shrugged. “If I had a gun, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“You are not to go to the barn without an escort.” He said after a moment. “And that is final.”

I was clutching the notebook hard enough that a corner was digging into the skin below my broken ribs, sending sparks of pain through my torso. I released Abby’s hand long enough to shift the book. “Then I am not going riding without an armed guard.”

He frowned at me. “I am armed.”

“What happens if more than one zombie is coming at you?” I asked, trying to look innocent.

His frown deepened. “Are we going to do the interview or not?”

“Not if we are going riding without an armed guard.”

“No one else can ride the horses.” I knew a lie when I heard one. Well, unless it was one of his rules. So I shifted my tactics.

“Then why have them?”

“I rescued them.” He shrugged.

“You will rescue horses but not people?” I asked, my frustration straining my voice.

“We rescue people.”

“Only if they are in close towns and only if they are on the main streets.” I pointed out.

“I’m not willing to risk men to go looking for stray survivors.”

“What if people volunteered?”

He sighed. “Even then. We could lose supplies and people if they were overwhelmed.” He turned and started walking again. “Enough of this, we are going riding. I will show you the defenses.”

I stayed where I was. After a moment, he realized that we weren’t behind him and came back. “An armed guard?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he stopped in front of us.

“I’m not willing to risk Abby or myself.”

“Leave her here. I am fully capable of protecting you.”

“She’s my responsibility. I am not leaving her behind.”

“She isn’t even yours.” He snapped.

“It doesn’t matter. I consider her mine.” I snapped back.

He fell silent and I waited for him to speak first. Finally, he rubbed his forehead. “Who do you suggest?”

“Huh?” I asked, confused.

“As an armed guard.”

My first thought was River. But I dismissed the idea. River would have gotten involved if he had been with us the last few minutes. Gabriel would be the same way, so that left him out. Given Mel’s penchant for women, that ruled out any female I would have considered. That left Mr. Jackson. I wasn’t sure if he could ride, but it was the best I had. “Mr. Jackson.” I said, then another person popped into my mind. “Or Andrew.”

Mel thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Fair.” He passed by me and disappeared into the door of the restaurant.

I sagged in relief. It was a minor battle, but I won. At least with someone else there, I would feel better. Plus, they would be able to help keep me out of trouble. Something that I knew everyone wanted.

After a moment, Mel reappeared with Mr. Jackson in tow. Mr. Jackson caught sight of me and said something to Mel. He gave me a tiny thumbs up that I was certain Mel wasn’t supposed to notice. It made me smile.

Together, we made our way down to the stables.

Tori greeted me when we walked up to the stable, handing me the reins to a tall horse that I knew I would have problems mounting. “Hi, Cleo. This is Melody.”

“More like a mountain.” I pointed out to Tori who laughed. Melody may have been the mellowest horse on the property, but she was still huge. At first look, she was pure black with a small white star right between the eyes. But on closer inspection, she had a golden brown undercoat.

Even more surprising was the pony they scrounged up for Abby, who squealed in delight as Tori lifted her into the kids’ saddle. And Tori obviously planned for everything, handing me a long lead that connected to the pony.

Mel mounted a golden brown gelding that was even larger than Melody. Looking down at Abby on her tiny pony made me wonder if the larger horses would outstrip it.

Tori surveyed the group, her eyes landing on Mr. Jackson. “One more?” When we all nodded, she jogged back into the stable shouting orders.

“What do you think, Abby?” I asked. The girl squealed again and kicked the poor pony’s sides. The pony just stood there, looking calmly straight ahead. “Abby, don’t do that. The pony won’t like it.”

“What’s the plan, boss?” Mr. Jackson asked.

“Just around the fields.” Mel said, obviously not happy with having someone else along.

“I thought you wanted to show me the defenses?” I asked.

“You turned it down in favor of an armed guard.” Mel replied without looking at me. I have to admit that since he mentioned it, I was curious about it. I sighed, but I wasn’t about to go into another small battle over something as stupid as the stations at either end of the shelf. Especially with Mr. Jackson there.

Tori led a brown horse out of the stable, fully saddled. It had a white face and two white stockings on one side. “This is Denver.” She told Mr. Jackson. “He always shies to the left.”

It didn’t take Mr. Jackson long to swing himself into the saddle. The horse pranced left as Mr. Jackson’s weight settled on it.

Tori walked by the pony and patted its side. “You be good to Boots, now. He’s a good little man and he will take really good care of you. But not if you keep kicking him.” She told Abby. I turned and really looked at the pony. It didn’t have boots, or stockings. It was a light gray with darker gray splatters covering his entire coat.

“Why Boots?” I couldn’t help asking.

“When he was found, he was mired in the banks of the river. After we pulled him out, he looked like he was wearing boots.” Tori told me. She came up to Melody’s side. “Take it easy and don’t push it with Mel. As far as I am concerned, you are more than welcome here whenever you want.” She patted my leg, whispered, “Good luck,” and wandered back to the stable to do her work.

It was so cold, steam was rising off the ground itself. It sliced through the fabric of my sweater and shirt like they weren’t even there. I think that the only thing keeping my teeth from chattering was the heat radiating from the horse beneath me.

After a while, Mel started talking. “At first, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t hear much, just some conversations here and there when I came to visit the motel. Then Donny called me and said that the supply truck never arrived.” I thought ahead and had my notebook open in front of me, but I wasn’t writing. The horse’s gait wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t have been able to write if I wanted to. But when Mel glanced back at me, I was pretending to. If he had really paid attention, he would have realized the cap was still on the pen. “Donny is, was, the restaurant manager. We needed some meat for the restaurant and he knew I had a butcher shop in Hills.

“It wasn’t until I pulled into town that I noticed something was wrong. I didn’t really think about it though. I just pulled into the store and ignored the cars abandoned in the road. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it. I guess I was worried about River’s Inn.” He broke off for a moment. “I went into the store but the power was out. It was hard to see so it wasn’t until I was right on top of them that I saw the zombies. One was eating the meat from the display, the other was gnawing on the man who ran the shop. I don’t know where the cashier was, but I didn’t want to either.

“I got out there as fast as I could, but slipped on something before hitting the door and fell through it.” He stopped and looked at a point just beyond the horse’s ears. For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t continue, but then he started talking again. “They came through the doors after me, but… I got to my feet and ran for the truck. I didn’t wait around for them to get to me, but as I was pulling out, more of those things were coming at me. I headed for home.

“I guess there was an accident after we, I, reached the shop. There were cars stopped in the middle of the road and a semi had rolled onto its side blocking the traffic in either direction. There was a family on the side of the road, fighting off a zombie.” He finally looked at me, “I didn’t leave them. I couldn’t. I drove the truck over the zombie and they jumped into the bed of the truck.”

He slowed his horse down until he was level with me. “I didn’t know what else to do, so we came here.” He waved his arm around the motel lands. “I figured that it would be the safest place. The people were ok for the most part when we got here. Only one zombie was wandering around from an accident farther up the road. We took it out and started setting up sentries at either end of the shelf.

“After that, I knew we wouldn’t have enough supplies to last us so we started going into nearby towns. The first two days, we brought in a handful of survivors each trip. Another family joined us, but they wanted to search for their remaining family so we gave them a car and a handful of weapons. We haven’t seen them since.” He shrugged. “That’s basically it.”

I stopped pretending to write and looked at him. “The supply runs… what happens once the towns nearby run out?”

“We go farther out.”

I pretended to jot it down then glanced at Abby. “What about searching the houses in the nearby towns?”

“I told you I won’t risk my men for rescue missions.”

“Not rescue, though I think we would benefit from having more people here. But supplies. The houses would have food, clothing, blankets… the cars would have fuel, or we could bring the cars back.” I pointed out, thinking. Mr. Jackson nodded in agreement, but Mel reined his horse to a stop.

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked, halting Melody.

“I won’t ask the men to commit suicide.” Mel stated, staring at me.

“Fine. What if we drain all the closest towns of supplies?” I asked, returning his stare with one of my own. “Are we going to continue spreading out? That would be just as dangerous as searching the houses.”

Mel shook his head, urging the gelding toward Melody and me. “You really are stubborn.” He said as our horses nickered at each other. “I said no.”

I turned Melody toward the stable. “Fine, then.” Melody was quick into a slow trot, but Boots was almost at a gallop. Abby squealed in surprise, clinging to the pony’s mane. It took everything in me to slow Melody to a walk again. “Sorry, Abby.”

She giggled, apparently not bothered. She threw a happy smile up at me. I glanced over my shoulder to see where Mr. Jackson and Mel were. Their horses were trudging slowly after us.

Suddenly, curiosity stole through me. “Abby, do me a favor.” Her happy smile faltered and faded. “Stay here and wait for Mr. Jackson.” She shook her head. “I promise, everything will be fine. He can take you to River or mom. I will be back as soon as I can.” I dropped the lead.

Boots instantly stopped walking. Abby tried to kick the sides of the pony to get him to move, but he stood there. I watched her for a moment, to make sure the tiny horse wouldn’t run, then kicked Melody’s flanks.

Melody sprang forward and suddenly I was jerking around in the saddle, my hair whipping out behind me. It took several minutes to find a rhythm that was comfortable, matching my movements to the thudding of her hooves. Once I found it, the feeling of her running beneath me was overwhelming. I wanted to throw my arms out, laughing in the freedom of imagined flight.

Remembering my curiosity, I pulled the reins to the left, forcing her to the road. Then her hoofs clattered against the pavement. There we sped along the road, the only sounds hitting my ears were the tapping of her hooves and the wind slapping around me.

It wasn’t long before we reached the end of the shelf, where one edge of the road dropped to the water and the other butted by a cliff face. I slowed Melody to a canter, then a trot, and finally a walk. There were two cars parked in the middle of the road, their noses almost touching. Two men were leaning against one of the cars, talking and smoking. A third spotted me and leveled a rifle, I assumed, aimed at my head.

I reached down and patted her frothy neck. “I don’t think a zombie would ride a horse, just for you to know.” I called out.

The man with the rifle lifted the muzzle to the sky. “I wasn’t told anyone would be coming out this way.” He said as I drew closer.

“I just wanted to see…” I looked further down the road, but it was empty. “Is it the same way back there?” I waved a hand behind me.

He looked in the direction I indicated and nodded. “We don’t want the road completely blocked or we wouldn’t be able to get out.”

Melody pranced slightly, her breath coming in huffs. “You should be careful about running her like that.” Another man stepped forward to grab Melody’s bridle under her chin. “She probably hasn’t been ridden in a while.”

I focused my attention on him. “I’m Cleo.”

All three men were suddenly staring at me. The one with the rifle stepped forward and held out a hand. “I’m Mac, that’s Jim, and he’s Bud.”

I examined each in turn. Jim was probably the heaviest person I had seen at the compound besides Mel. He wasn’t exactly pudgy though. Muscles bulged in every visible area of skin. Jim could have made the cover of bad-guys monthly, or maybe tough guy monthly. He also had the distinctive look of a Neanderthal. Heavy brow, sunken eyes, jutting jaw, the works.

Mac was African-American, though his skin was more mocha coffee than black. Gray littered his close cut black hair. An earring glinted in his right ear and a thick chain dangled around his neck.

Bud was the shortest of the group. Looking at him, I had a feeling I would be taller than him. Being five foot four doesn’t make me very tall in anyone’s book, but if he reached five foot I would eat a tree. Bud was younger than the others, but still older than me. Maybe Andrew’s age.

Looking at them, I realized that I had never seen them at the compound. “Do you guys ever go up to the Inn?”

The clatter of hooves behind me had me cringing in my saddle. The men around me moved to look around Melody.

“Not supposed to be here, huh?” Jim said, still holding Melody’s bridle. I shook my head. “Warning to the wise, don’t piss Mel off.” He stepped back releasing her as Mr. Jackson and Mel drew up next to me.

I looked behind them, but didn’t see Abby anywhere. “Before you freak out,” Mr. Jackson started, “Abby is with Tori, learning how to brush Boots down.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Mel growled, stopping his horse next to Melody. His leg brushed mine and I resisted the urge to move Melody away.

“You were the one to bring up the-.”

“Cleo.” Mr. Jackson barked. I winced.

“You know.” Mel said, his voice cold. “I think it is time that you were reminded of what it was like to be out there. Maybe then you’d be a little more grateful.”

Ice spread over my skin. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Jackson’s face pale. “No, I was just curi-.”

“You wanted to see what you’re missing.” Mel’s hand raised. I sank into the saddle, certain he would strike me. A second later the reins were jerked from my hands. “Take her.” He snapped holding the reins out to Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson did, turning Melody. “Get her out of here. I don’t want to see her for the rest of the day.”

Mr. Jackson led me back down the road, but once we were out of sight, he handed the reins back to me. “Of all the stupid, pig-headed… I shouldn’t be giving those back.” He grumbled from his seat next to me.

“I didn’t think-.” I started, the familiar sensation of tears stinging at the corner of my eyes.

“That’s right.” Mr. Jackson snapped. “You didn’t think. You never do.” The harsh comments felt like a whip tail slashing at my skin. “You became curious and to hell with everyone else.”

“I didn’t mean-.” I tried again, trying to ignore the tears that raced down my cheeks.

Mr. Jackson finally turned black eyes on me. “If you were my daughter, I would bend you over my knee. Do you realize what you have done, now? What you have done to Abby? Your mom?”

I thought my chest would collapse. Everything inside me was sucked into an invisible vacuum.

We rode the horses back to the stable in silence. Tori took one look at me and her face hardened. She didn’t say anything to me, just led Melody away. She stopped next to Mr. Jackson and said something to him before taking the reins of his horse and leading both into the stable.

Mr. Jackson didn’t wait or check to see if I was following. He had to know I was there though. “There is one thing you need to know.” Mr. Jackson said as we walked up the hill. “Mel’s wife was in the car with him when he went to the butcher shop.”

“What?” The information startled me from my sinking depression.

“She was killed by the zombies. When he came out of the shop, he tripped. She came to help him and they grabbed her. That’s why they didn’t attack him when he fell.” He turned to head for the cabins.

I stopped where I stood and stared after him. I couldn’t help but wonder what else Mel had lied about as I stood there. Mr. Jackson didn’t seem to mind the fact that I stopped, vanishing into one of the farther cabins.

I glanced at the restaurant but knew I wouldn’t go there or to my cabin. I wasn’t about to get yelled at more for my stupidity. I couldn’t change the fact that I was being thrown from the compound. I would be lucky if Abby was allowed to stay. Finally I made my way into the thick copse of trees near the cabins. When I couldn’t see the cabins, I sank down next to the trunk of a tree and stared at nothing until it was almost too dark to see.

I staggered back through the copse, tripping a few times over branches or rocks I couldn’t see. But once in view of the cabins, I stopped. I couldn’t go back there. I knew I earned the words they would speak, but I didn’t want to see the looks on their faces. Anger I could handle, but I wouldn’t handle it if they looked at me with pity.

I ended up at the stable. After standing outside for a while, I knew no one but the horses were inside. I slipped into the shadowy mouth of the stable and made my way to the nearest stall, unable to remember what horse was inside. I let myself into it, ignoring the started snorts and whinnies of the horses in the stalls around me.

I sat down to one side of the gate and prayed.

A while later, people came into the stable with flashlights. They called my name as they worked their way through, shining the lights into the stalls as they walked past. I stiffened, but didn’t answer, the board behind me creaking with my movement.

“Cleo?” One of the voices called, the light flashing over the walls.

“That was probably one of the horses.” Another voice stated. The group finished their search of the barn and left. I relaxed slightly, sure that someone would come back any second.

They were kicking me out, why would they look for me? I wondered. Whiskers brushed my face and the horse I shared the stall with snorted at me. I jumped, startled. The board behind me creaked again.

I held my breath, trying to listen for the sounds of someone coming back, as the horse brushed the top of my head and lapped at my hair. Was that a footstep? Chills raised the hair on my skin. The horse’s head jerked up as something grabbed the gate. There was a shuffling sound and something thudded into the stall next to us.

I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out. The horse backed away shouting an alarmed whinny. Something brushed my arm and I launched to my feet.

“Calm down.” River’s voice hissed, a hand snapping around my wrist. “Cause any more noise and they will come back.”

The horse whinnied again, prancing in the back of the stall. “You scared the horse.” I whispered back, not sure if I was relieved or angry. I pulled my arm from his hand and stepped away. It took a little work to reach the horse, since I couldn’t see it. Cloud cover took away whatever ambient light there would have been to see by.

Once I settled the horse down, I turned back to where I thought River was. “What are you doing here?”

“Get over here and be quiet.” River whisper-snapped. I sighed and stumbled to the place his voice came from. Again, he grabbed my arms, this time to guide me down to sit next to him. “Why are you hiding?”

“You don’t know?”

He grumbled something. “Everyone knows what you did, Cleo. What I want to know is why you are hiding?”

“I’m getting kicked out, tomorrow.” I whispered.

He snorted. “Actually, you’re not.” His arm draped over my shoulders. The heat that radiated from it reminded me how cold I was and I shivered. It took a moment for what he said to actually register.

“What?”

“You’re not being kicked out.” He repeated, rubbing my arms through my sweater. “That’s the reason you hid?”

“No.” I shifted. “I didn’t want to… everyone is mad at me.” I couldn’t get what Mel said out of my mind. “But he said that I needed to be reminded of what’s out there.”

“No offense, but I agree with him.” River said softly, pulling me tighter against him. “I can’t say no one is mad at you, you pissed a lot of people off. Why do you have to push everything, Cleo?”

“I don’t-.”

He gripped my chin and forced me to look at him, only I couldn’t see anything in the blackness of the stable. “Cleo, you can’t keep acting on your whims. You have other people to think about as well.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“You mean punishment?” He hadn’t released my chin, but his grip loosened. I nodded. “You’re going on a supply run. He thinks that seeing what needs to be done and fighting off a few zombies will pull you together.”

I listened in startled silence. “That’s my punishment?”

River shifted, his breath fanning my face. “Yeah.”

A rush of relief slipped over me, causing me to sag into him. “I thought-.” I whimpered, starting to cry again.

“I know.” He held me tighter. “But you had everyone scared. We need to get back to the cabins.”

“Are they gonna yell at me?” I asked through my tears.

He laughed softly. “Definitely.” He used his hands to wipe my tears away. “But you know you need to take it. You deserve whatever they hand you.”

I shuddered. “I was so stupid.”

He was silent for a moment. “Not stupid, Cleo. Never stupid. But curiosity killed the cat. Try not to be the cat.”

We sat still for a moment and I had the distinct impression he was thinking something. Then suddenly he was on his feet and pulling me off the ground. I stopped him from climbing the gate and unlocked it after searching a few minutes for the string attached to the latch.

He made me go to the restaurant first, where everyone turned to stare at me with worried faces. Mel was leaning over a crudely drawn map of what looked like all the land of the shelf. My mom was the first person to reach me, wrapping her arms around me and sobbing into my shoulder. “Cleo, I swear.” She groaned. “You are going to end up killing me.”

Abby appeared from nowhere to cling to my legs, her face a mask of tears. When my mom stepped back, I picked Abby up and hugged her.

Gabriel stepped up next to River and I heard him ask, “Where’d you find her?”

River responded before I could do more than stiffen. “She was down by the river.”

I glanced over my shoulder at him. Why hadn’t he told them where I really was? But I wasn’t about to complain. It left the stable as a potential hiding place if I pissed people off again.

I stood around for the usual lectures of responsibility, scaring everyone, and a new lecture about zombies and my remains being found, or having to shoot me if I became a zombie. I was also told that I needed to be up early in the morning to join a run, though I wasn’t allowed a weapon.

Then we went to bed. I couldn’t help feeling a little excited that I would finally be able to get out  of the compound so it took me a while to fall asleep. It didn’t even bother me that Mel posted a guard outside my cabin.

After I finally fell asleep, I had a dream. I don’t want to call it weird because after everything I had gone through, it was pretty normal.

In the dream I was sliding down a cliff. All the sudden, I would stop, clinging to a rock until my arms and legs shook. Then I would be sliding down again. I could feel the rock digging into my fingers, my arms, my chest. Dust filled my nose and clung, making it hard to breathe.

As I fell, my fingernails would break from trying to cling to any surface I could. Eventually, my shoes came off and the rocks were slicing through my clothing. I could feel blood seeping out of various cuts on my body.

It seemed to take hours to slide down the cliff. Maybe even days. Then I was close to the bottom and zombies were gathered below me, arms reaching. A couple would throw their curious shrieks into the air.

I clung to my last perch, knowing if I slid from this one, they would get me. I look down to see my blood dripping onto the things below me. The blood only seemed to agitate them.

I sat up in bed, my heart in my throat and the feeling of hands brushing the bottoms of my feet.

Go Back to Day 12 – or – Go to Day 14

I almost didn’t leave the cabin yesterday. My mom took Abby to join the other kids. I guess she felt that I needed to be alone. It was kind of a mixture though. I left the cabin because I wanted company, but when I would be around people, I wanted the solitude of the cabin.

I finally resolved the issue by sneaking down to the stables. The same four girls from before were working. The eldest of them approached me as I stood waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.

“Is there something you need?” She asked, squinting at me through her glasses. Her eyes widened as she recognized me. “You’re Cleo? The girl that-.”

“Yeah.” I mumbled staring at the floor. I knew what she would say: “The girl who caused two guys to fight.”

She cleared her throat. “I hate to be interrupted. I was going to say, the girl who helped the kids.”

I peered up at her through my mess of hair. “Oh.”

“My name’s Tori.” She added. “Now, what can I help you with?”

“I just wanted…” I waved my hand toward the stalls. Her eyes never left my face.

She kind of reminded me of a scarecrow. She was scrawny. Not thin, but definitely scrawny. I couldn’t give even an estimated age. Straw colored, and textured, hair spewed in every direction from beneath the brim of her straw hat. Her eyes were dominated by the glasses, making her eye color hard to determine. The only thing she was missing was the shaft of wheat hanging from her mouth.

“Well,” she said, her voice thoughtful, “if you’re gonna stay here, you need to work. Know anything about horses?”

That surprised me. “My ribs-.”

“I know, I know. I spoke to your mother, yesterday. But there is plenty to do and we can use all the help we can get. Horses take a lot of work.”

I nodded, feeling a spark of interest. “Alright. What can I do?”

She finally looked away from me. “Well, you can start with Pete and Repete.”

“Pete-.”

“And Repete. Yes. I know the hilarity of the names. But you will see why in a moment.” She leveled me with her glassy stare. Then she was off, striding in a gait that had me jogging to keep up. She stopped at one of the stalls, unlatched the door, then went to the neighboring stall. “Stay there.” She said, unlatching the other stall. “Now, open the door and grab Pete’s bridle.”

I pulled on the door, ignoring the flare of pain as my muscles strained. The door was heavier than it looked. I stepped into the stall of a brown horse with a white face and white reaching well above what I considered its knees. It looked at me with calm brown eyes.

Butterflies were suddenly moving around in my stomach as I stepped closer. “Come on, girl. The horse isn’t gonna bite.”

I stroked the horse’s nose, latching my hand to the bridle under his chin. It snorted. For a moment, I thought it was laughing at me.

Leading Pete into the hall was easy. He just calmly walked behind me, following the pressure of my hand on his bridle. Tori threw open the other stall door and stepped back. Another horse, a dark brown and white paint with a black mane and tail stepped through and immediately got into line behind Pete.

“Now,” Tori said, walking up to us. “We’re gonna take them to the stall at the far end and give them a good brushing.”

She led the way, showed me how to latch the horses to the links in the far stall. It was large enough to easily set four horses into it comfortably.

“These two always have to be done together. If one is taken anywhere the other throws a fit. So.” She handed me a strange metal looking thing. “Take this and start currying. I will tackle Repete.”

She watched me for a moment, before clicking her tongue. “No.” She placed her hand around mine. “Like this.” She moved my hands in small circles over the horse’s side, going against the lay of the fur. “With a curry, you are trying to loosen the dirt and fur. Don’t push too hard, but don’t be too light about it either. After we curry we will brush.” She stepped back and watched me. After a second, she nodded. “Good.”

I never thought grooming a horse could be so much work. After using the curry, Tori handed me a dandy brush and showed me how to use it. Done with the dandy, she handed me a soft bristled brush. Next we used a giant comb to work through the mane and tail. But we weren’t done. After brushing, we used damp sponges to wipe around the nose, mouth, and eyes. Finally, Tori showed me how to clean the hooves.

While we worked, I found myself telling Tori about everything. She was a perfect sympathetic listener. I even told her about my journal. As far as I knew, the only people who knew about it were Abby and River. Gabriel had gotten a glimpse of it, but I didn’t think he understood what he saw. My mom didn’t even know.

“Actually, making a log of what’s happening isn’t a bad idea.” Tori surprised me by saying. “Have you thought about interviewing various survivors for their stories? Or maybe going out on supply runs or hunting trips to see how other aspects of the camp work?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I thought about it.” I shrugged. “I doubt that they would let me go anywhere, though. They have some weird ideas about women here.”

She laughed. “Yeah, that’s true. But at least you can try to talk to other people. Get their stories.” She gave me a piercing look over the back of the Repete. “I am sure people would like to leave something as a kind of record behind. Just in case.”

After Pete and Repete, we worked through four more horses before Tori let me handle horses on my own. But I was only able to do three more before the dinner bell rang.

Tori helped me finish with the last horse and replace it in its stall. “You did good.” She said, smacking me on the back while I closed the door to Melody’s stall.

“Thanks.” I said, but it didn’t seem to be enough. “For letting me-.”

Tori grinned a gap-toothed smile at me. “Hey, from what I hear, you needed it. Feel free to come back whenever. We can work on cleaning the tack, next time.”

I groaned and she smacked me on the back again causing me to grin at her before she went striding off to do something else.

I stepped out of the stable and had to stop. The world seemed so bright after the darkness I spent the day in.

“Cleo.” River was leaning against the side of the building. I hesitated when I saw him, for moment thinking about running up to the dining hall. But after what I put him, them, through, it didn’t seem fair.

He straightened and walked over to me. His movement was awkward and stiff, not the flowing grace that I was accustomed to. He had a nice cut on his forehead above his right eye and the eye itself was almost swallowed in a swath of black. A bruise marked his jaw on the other side of his face. He also had a split upper lip.

“Are you ok?” He asked drawing up with me.

I swallowed, staring at the damage I caused. “I’m sorry.”

His eyebrows started to lift and he winced. “For this?” He let out a coughing laugh. “Ah, that guy was asking for it. Besides, you should see him.”

I honestly didn’t want to. River cupped my cheek, looking intently into my eyes. It would have been nice if I wasn’t so distracted by the huge black eye, which was turning an unhealthy shade of green around the edges.

“Are you alright?” He asked again, his voice going soft. The pad of his thumb brushed my cheekbone.

I shook my head and stepped back, breaking the contact. “How can you ask me that? After-.” I hugged myself and stepped back again.

“Cleo, this wasn’t your fault.” River sighed, letting his arm fall to his side.

“Would you have fought him if I wasn’t there?” I asked him, staring at the ground.

I almost didn’t catch his shrug. “Probably. He’s a jerk. He deserves to be knocked down a peg or two.”

I frowned. “You don’t even know him.”

“No, but I know his type.”

“Everyone knows everyone’s type, but it doesn’t define who they are, does it?”

He considered me for a moment. “I guess not.”

I turned and started to walk toward the dining hall. I heard his footsteps behind me. I didn’t want to say it, but there was another problem I had with the fight, and it was one that I had nothing to do with. “You realize that you did that right in front of Abby?” The footsteps stopped and I found myself stopping, too. I wanted to kick myself. The fight was my fault. Getting upset at him about Abby wasn’t fair. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, you’re right. I didn’t think. I just saw you fighting with him…” He stepped up to me. “I was already a little upset before the fight.”

“Why?”

From the look on his face, I thought he wasn’t going to answer. But when I made to continue up the hill, he said, “I saw how uncomfortable you were in those… clothes. And it never even entered my mind to help you get better ones.” He shook his head. “I was more worried about what you would say and do to Melburn.”

“You were right to be. Worried, I mean. If you hadn’t… I probably would have said something stupid.”

River shook his head. “That’s really not the point, Cleo.” He started to reach for me but dropped his arm. “I was jealous that Gabriel was able to take care of you.”

“River, you helped me and Abby at the store.” Something else popped into my mind. “Do you think clothes are more important than being kicked out?”

River rocked back on his feet. “I guess not.” He said after a moment. My stomach gurgled and I blushed. He frowned at me. “How long has it been since you ate? And don’t give me yesterday, because I know you didn’t eat yesterday.”

I started walking again, not bothering to answer. Truth was, I had no clue.

Getting my tray in the dinner hall made me wish for the simple dinners my family and I had at home. Though, lately, my dad was absent from most of them. But then again, Anubis had been happy to take his place.

Thinking about Anubis made my stomach clench. I missed him. When I would get frustrated at home, he would always join me in my walks. It didn’t matter if we went to one of the parks or traipsed up the hill at the end of my street. He was just happy to do whatever I wanted.

“Penny for your thoughts?” A tray slid in next to mine. I looked up expecting River, only it was Gabriel instead. I stared at him long enough to know that River bore the lion’s share of the fight. The only mark on Gabriel’s face was a dark bruise on one cheekbone.

“Nothing worth interest.” I said before taking another bite of my sandwich. My mom caught my attention and lifted both eyebrows as River slid in next to Abby across from me.

The tension in the room instantly amplified, even though neither boy even looked at the other. I finished my sandwich as quickly as I could. I wasn’t ready or eager for them to break out into another fight, but I found myself still sitting at the table a few minutes later.

Someone braced themselves on the back of my chair and I started. Mel leaned forward enough that I could smell he had recently smoked a cigarette, probably another necessity. “Can I speak with you?”

“Um. Actually, I am kinda eating dinner with my family.” I knew everyone was looking at me, but I only met my mom’s eyes. She was the one who didn’t want me anywhere near him, and though I agreed, she should say something. All she did was blink.

“It will only take a moment.” He prodded.

I bit my lip. A glance at River told me he was engrossed in his tray. Gabriel was looking at a point somewhere across the dining room. Abby was looking over my shoulder at Mel with obvious dislike.

“Can you just say it here?” I wondered aloud. I did not want to go anywhere with Mel alone again. He may have been apologizing for his treatment of Abby, but he was still creepy.

“Alright.” He stopped for a moment. “I have heard that you like to write.”

I looked over my shoulder at the Santa look-alike. “Yeah.”

“I also heard that you are interested in interviewing people for their stories.”

“Yeah.” I said and nodded again. “I would also like to go out, see how the rest of the camp works.”

He frowned. “Go out?”

“On supply runs.”

He shook his head. “No, you would be a liability.”

I thought about it a moment. “I’m a pretty good shot, ask River.”

“No.”

“I could train with the guys.”

“No.”

I stood up and turned to face him, my hands on my hips. “You can’t really tell me no, you know. I have free will.” I heard the noise level in the room drop and my mom’s intake of breath.

“As long as you live here, you will abide by my rules.”

Suddenly, I was angry. “And if I want to leave?”

I heard two chairs scrape back on the floor and my mom’s panicked voice, “she doesn’t mean it.”

“Cleo.” River snapped at me.

Gabriel’s hand clamped over my wrists as he hissed, “What are you doing? Don’t be an idiot.”

But I kept my eyes on Mel, unable to back down. He stared right back at me, his eyes hard. Instinctively, I had the feeling of staring into the eyes of a predator. The feeling that whatever I did next would decide whether I was attacked or left alone flooded through me.

“No.”

I gritted my teeth. “You don’t-.” Gabriel jerked on my arm and I staggered, almost landing in his lap.

“Shut up.” His hand tightened around my wrist hard enough that I fought not to gasp.

“She doesn’t mean it. She’s just had a rough couple of days.” The panic in my mom’s voice caused it to raise several octaves.

It wasn’t until River leaned over my table to hiss in my ear, “think of Abby,” that I finally let it go.

“Fine. Interviews.” I tried to pull my wrist out of Gabriel’s grip, but his fingers tightened again. I had a feeling that there would be a bruise in the morning.

Mel straightened. It was easy to tell he wasn’t happy, but he was willing to overlook it. “Then I will see you in the morning.”

“Huh?” Two voices chorused along with my own.

“I will submit to an interview.”

I thought quickly. My first instinct was to turn him down, but if I was going to do this and do it seriously, then I would need his approval. If I turned him down, he might not give it.

“Abby.” River hissed in my ear so quietly that it sounded like a sigh.

“Abby is having some trouble with the other kids,” I said, catching on instantly, “so I am watching her for a while. I hope you don’t mind.” I felt relief flood through my chest as I spoke. I continued to make sure he couldn’t refuse, “so, we will see you tomorrow morning. After breakfast might be best.”

Gabriel released my hand as if he could sense what I was going to do. I grabbed my tray, stepped around Mel, and rushed to the bins. Then I was out the door. All before Mel could respond.

At the cabin, I sagged in relief, resting my forehead against the cool door.

“Cleo,” Mr. Jackson said, startling a quick yelp from me, “you are playing with fire. I don’t think it would be a good idea to interview Melburn.” He leaned against the side of the cabin and stared at me.

“What am I supposed to do? Turn him down? That could be just as bad as interviewing him.” I pointed out.

Mr. Jackson sighed. “Look, be careful. Something glinted in his hand as he held it out to me. “At least take this.”

It was a short black knife. When I didn’t take it, Mr. Jackson grumbled, finally taking one of my hands and putting the knife in it.

“Be careful.” He said again before walking away.

I stared at the knife in my hands. What did he expect me to do, kill Mel? I sighed. A knife that small wouldn’t do anything anyway. I let myself into the cabin, still staring at the knife.

It wasn’t until I heard my mom talking that I finally shoved the knife under the mattress as far as my arm would push it. I straightened up with a jerk as she, Abby, River, and Gabriel came into the room.

I was certain I looked guilty of something, but they didn’t seem to notice.

“Why are you so determined to screw everything up?” Gabriel demanded, stopping right in front of me. “Are you trying to get-?”

“Back off.” River growled from the other side of my bed.

“Boys.” My mom warned. “I will not have you fighting in here. Gabriel, step back.”

“Thanks,” I muttered to her.

“Don’t thank me yet. I have to say that I agree with Gabriel. What do you think you are doing?” Her hands were on her hips as she glared at me.

I stared at each of them in turn, finally melting on my bed to stare at my hands. “What do you want from me? I’m trying. But you are all acting like I sought him out, trying to get in his face. It’s not my fault he keeps coming to me.”

“That isn’t what is bothering us, Cleo.” My mom said gently, moving around Gabriel to sit on the edge of her bed. “It’s that you keep challenging him.”

“And now you have to see him in the morning.” Gabriel added.

For once, I didn’t have to reply to that. River did it for me. “What did you expect her to do, Gabrielle?” He twanged out Gabriel’s name again.

“River.” My mom snapped.

“Did you expect her to say no? To walk away?” River continued as if my mom hadn’t said anything.

“And going to that interview is a good thing? Alone?” Gabriel snapped back. They were glaring at each other over the bed.

“She won’t be.” River replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

“A little mute girl isn’t going to be much help.” Gabriel mimicked River’s movement.

“That’s enough, you two.” She glared at one then the other in turn. “Cleo can conduct the interview in plain view of people.”

“God!” I stood up. “I am not a kid. Stop treating me like one.” I bolted out of the cabin, sliding on the icy stoop. As soon as I hit the gravel, I started running. I pushed myself until I felt like my side would split apart. When I finally stopped, I was standing outside the stables.

I stayed there for a long time before going back to the cabin. My mom was still up, sitting at the table. She looked up when I came in, but wisely didn’t say anything.

I climbed into bed with Abby and tried to go to sleep. I heard when my mom finally did, but it wasn’t until dawn’s light showed through the windows that I finally slid into the realm of dreams. And they were disturbing.

It felt like only minutes went by when my mom shook me awake. I didn’t bother hiding my journal today. It is what I will be using to interview Mel. If I can figure out how to do an interview, anyway.

I am not looking forward to this.

Go Back to Day 11 – or – Go to Day 13 

Problems are piling up and there is no way to be rid of them. There are no solutions. Definitely none that would make everyone happy.

After writing my journal entry, my mom took Abby and me to get our showers. Turns out, there’s a schedule for that and it’s a once a week thing. I know. Believe me, I know.  And it’s not the worst part.

The worst part is the shower is basically a bucket brigade. We form a line from the showers to the pool, dip a bucket in and hand it forward down the chain. Then the buckets get dumped on you. By the time the water reaches you down the line, it’s cooled down until it’s just barely warm. You have to wash your hair and your body pretty fast, mostly because the door is open and it’s freezing. Several more buckets are poured over you until the shampoo is rinsed from your hair. You dry off as fast as humanly possible and throw on the clothes set out for you. Once dressed, you go to the back of the line to help while everyone else showered.

Having thick hair that reached mid-back was something I had once been proud of. But it didn’t afford me the extra towel I needed to dry it. I won’t even go into the fact that the towels were a joke to begin with. So, by the time I rejoined the line my hair was still soaked and I was starting to freeze.

On top of the cruelty of the shower, someone apparently thought I wasn’t cold enough. They set out a billowy floor length skirt and a huge knit sweater for me. The sweater was so big that my shoulders could slip through the neck. I ended up having to pull the sweater into place every few seconds for most of the morning. With my still dripping hair, the clothes offered even less comfort than they would have.

I went to breakfast fighting with the stupid sweater. My mood was dropping pretty fast and Abby was crying from the shock of the so-called shower. I grabbed a tray for Abby, snagging one of the bread muffins for myself, and carried it to our table.

Abby was too upset to eat. Finally, River showed up and gave her the sweater he was wearing. Once she started to warm up, her sobs lessened to sniffs. I gave him a grateful look as I sagged back into my chair. I was hungry, but as I stared at the muffin in front of me, I realized I would die for eggs, or pancakes, or hash browns. Or something that tasted a little better than bread.

When the tray slid in next to me, I thought it would be my mom at best and at worst, Gabriel. I was wrong. And it was even worse than Gabriel.

Mel settled into the chair next to me. He looked me over and smiled. “I chose them myself.”

I had a strong suspicion that he meant the clothes. I didn’t even want to wonder why he would be picking out clothes for me, or how he got them into the bathroom. I concentrated on not chewing him out for the absurdity of a skirt in winter. Not to mention the fact that I hated skirts of all kinds. Dresses were a push, but skirts were an absolute no-no. I didn’t have either in my closet at home.

I tried for a more diplomatic tone. “Actually, I prefer jeans.”

He stared at me for a moment. “Well, you look good.” He turned and started eating.

I looked over Abby’s head at River, who met my gaze and raised his eyebrows.

Then Mel cleared his throat. “Hey, uh, about yesterday.” I turned cool eyes on him and he winced. “I’m sorry. It didn’t come out right.”

I honestly couldn’t say if there was a way it would have come out right. When I didn’t say anything his forehead wrinkled. Realizing he was intending an apology, I shrugged.

I didn’t want to say anything. As soon as Abby finished eating, I helped her from her chair and grabbed her tray. My muffin still sat on the table, but I ignored it as I led Abby toward the bins.

River was quick to join us, but before we were even halfway across the dining hall to the bins, Mel caught up to us.

“If you have time, I would like to show you something.” He grunted.

How in the world was I supposed to avoid someone who seemed determined to have me rip him apart? River tilted his head at me and took the tray from my hands.

The look was obviously meant as a warning. I could almost hear River’s voice in my head saying, “don’t cause trouble.” I sighed.

I am not an actor. I was never in the school plays. It was a fight to even smile with Mel standing in the same building as me. But somehow I managed. I smiled and said, “ok.”

He dropped his tray in the tubs then led the way out of the building. I followed him down past the rings where the men were gathered for combat lessons. Grudgingly, I admitted that he had a good idea to set up areas for training, even if it was sexist.

Past the rings, he slowed down. I tried to stay behind him, but finally, he stopped and I had no choice but to catch up with him. He grabbed my hand and slid it through his arm like he had on his tour.

“I think that you will enjoy this.” He huffed, sounding winded. “I asked your mom about what you were interested in and when she mentioned this, I couldn’t resist.”

I frowned trying to run through the things I liked in my mind. It didn’t take much. We were headed for the stable. The sounds of the horses’ cries were clear and somehow stirred a level of both excitement and calm in me. I tried to fight the growing interest as we went through the main doors.

Inside, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. Then I saw them. Horses.

Four women were working in various areas. The moment they saw us they stopped. “Go on about your business.” Mel said in a dismissive tone. I shot him a dark look that he didn’t notice and started muttering sorry to each of the girls as I passed them.

He guided me from one end of the stables to the other. There were fourteen horses total. Only a few stuck their necks out over the stall doors so I could stroke the warm muzzles.

“Abby would love this.” I whispered to one horse as I stroked the white blaze between its eyes. The look it gave me reminded me so much of the brown-haired little girl that my heart squeezed in my chest.

“I’m sure she would.” Mel laughed. “Do you like them?”

I had forgotten he was there. The horse sensed my emotions and threw its head with a loud snort before retreating into its stall. I thought about it for a moment before deciding that the truth wouldn’t hurt. “They are beautiful.”

He moved to stand beside me, clicking his tongue. The horse returned, bumping the top of my head with its nose. A surprised laugh escaped my lips as I stepped back.

Mel reached up and scratched the horse between the ears before looking at me. “Which one do you like best?”

I looked around the stable and sighed. “All of them.”

He laughed again. “Now, I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

He thought about that for a minute. “Have you ever been riding?”

“Yeah, a very long time ago.”

“Well, choose a horse and we can go for a ride.”

My heart was suddenly in my throat, stammering an excited drum roll. I tried to fight it, but it was like trying to stop a snowball from rolling down a mountain side.

I did manage to step back. “I can’t.”

Mel actually looked shocked. “Why not?”

“I have chores to do.”

His forehead wrinkled in confusion. “You shouldn’t have gotten your work schedule yet. Your mom said it would be about six weeks before your ribs healed.”

I kept my eyes on the horse. “I can do small stuff. Dishes. And stuff.”

“If this is about yester-.”

“No.” I snapped it out, then remembered the warnings the night before. “I just want to help where I can. I can’t just sit around all day.”

“Going for a ride is not just sitting around.”

“Thank you for your offer. But I must get going.” It was as diplomatic as I could get. I turned and ran from the stable.

I was almost to the dining hall when I ran headlong into someone. Warm hands clamped around my arms to stop me from falling.

“Whoa. What’s the hurry?” Gabriel asked after righting me. “Is the stable on fire?” He was looking over the top of my head.

“No.” I struggled to catch my breath around the throbbing ache in my side. Realizing his hands were still on my arms, I stepped back. “Sorry about that.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?” He asked, peering into my face. “You look like death warmed over.”

“That’s really flattering.” I snapped, stepping around him.

“Hey, hey.” He caught up to me and matched my stride. “What’s going on?”

I threw my hands up in frustration. “Stop asking me that. Everyone needs to stop asking me that.” The frustration in my voice turned it almost into a whine. I stopped and turned to face him. “I don’t get half of what’s going on and everyone seems to think I do.”

He held his hands up in submission. “Ok. You don’t know what’s going on.” He said softly. “But something is bothering you.”

I let out a deep breath and looked back toward the stables. “How am I supposed to stay away from someone who won’t leave me alone?”

“You mean… Melburn?” Gabriel asked.

“Can you think of someone else I would like to kick?”

He gave a startled laugh. “I didn’t know you wanted to kick him. What happened?”

“My mom told him I liked horses.”

Gabriel frowned. “Why would he need to know that?”

“I think maybe he was trying for a peace offering or something.” I shivered and rubbed my arms through the sweater.

“You do realize it’s nearly zero degrees here, right?”

I sighed. “He also chose these clothes for me.”

Gabriel’s eyebrows shot up. “What?” I gave him a dark look and started walking toward the dining hall again. “Hold up.” He caught my arm to stop me. “I-.” He let go of me when I glared at him and raked his hand through his hair. Suddenly, his face brightened. “Want some jeans?”

I stopped glaring at him. “Well, yeah.”

“Come on, then.” He grabbed my hand and dragged me after him at a jog. In the gift shop, there were stacks of items, including clothing. Someone thought ahead enough to separate the stacks into men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing.

Gabriel went to the door and looked outside. “You’re going to want to hurry.” He hissed. “We’re not supposed to be in here.”

I didn’t wait to be told twice. But finding clothes that fit was an issue. I kept one eye on Gabriel as I lifted my skirt and started trying pants. “Don’t look.” I whispered back. “But why aren’t we allowed to have these in the cabins?”

“I think it’s partially because of control. But maybe they want to make sure that as more people come here, there will be enough for everyone.”

“Why not get more clothes?”

“We aren’t supposed to leave the main streets. That way we can get in and out in a hurry. And there aren’t very many clothing shops on the main streets.”

I let that sink in as I buttoned up a pair that actually fit me. They were a little high on the ankle, but I wasn’t about to complain. I jerked the skirt off and threw it into a garbage can behind the counter.

“Have you been on any supply runs?” I asked as I started weeding through the clothing for a shirt.

“Yeah.”

“With River?”

He hesitated. “Yeah.”

I found a shirt that was more my style. Long sleeves, high neck, and a light aqua color. “Why don’t you two get along?” I couldn’t help asking as I fought to get the sweater off. The sweater joined the skirt in the garbage. I found a sweater pretty quick compared to locating a shirt and pants. The downside is that it was black.

I slid the shoes back on and went over to him. “Well?”

He looked at my face before looking me over. “Looks good.” Heat flared in my face.

“That’s not what I meant.”

He smiled. “Let’s go.”

Then we were back outside and walking around the building. I took a deep breath and winced as my muscles jumped in protest. “You’re not going to answer me, are you?”

“If you need me to answer that, then you must not be very smart.” The words stung. I stopped walking with him, turned and went back to my cabin.

I dropped in on the children later that day to find another woman in Maggie’s place. She too expressed her thanks for what I did. It was uncomfortable to know that everyone knew what happened between me and Cruella. My life was once so much more bearable. Now, I felt like I was a miniature celebrity.

Abby was in the corner, playing with a doll again. I watched her for a while and what I saw started to really bother me. She didn’t do anything with the doll other than, every once in a while, move an arm or leg, or play with its hair. Then it would sit in her lap and she would just stare at it.

And none of the other children went near her. At one point, a girl a little older than Abby approached, but it was only to grab another toy and go back to the main group.

“That’s Abby?” The woman asked, stepping up next to me. I think her name was Anne.

“Yeah.”

“Maggie told me she was the same way yesterday.”

The woman looked worried. Her eyes were mostly focused on Abby, but every once in a while, she would look at the other kids. “What about the other kids?”

“They seem fine. But they leave her alone. I think they get the feeling she wants to be alone.”

I nodded, looking at the other children. They would throw glances toward Abby, but nothing more than that. “Has there been any thought to continuing their school work?”

Anne shook her head. “Not that I know of. I don’t think anyone’s thought about it, really. But most of them are in different classes anyway, so it would be pretty hard.”

“Maybe.” I admitted. I knew that if a run could be made to the schools, we could get supplies to continue their education. Even if the apocalypse lasted forever, they needed to learn. Especially about what life had once been like. “Do you know if there are any teachers here?”

“One of the men used to teach third grade.”

My heart sank. If the teacher was a man, he was expected to continue training and go on supply runs. “The way things are won’t continue to work for much longer.” I muttered.

“Tell me about it.” Anne sighed.

We stood together for a few minutes longer. Then two of the kids started arguing and Anne went to find out what was wrong. I considered Abby for a moment longer before making my way to her.

“Hi, Abby.” I sat down against the wall in front of her. She put the doll down and moved to climb into my lap but I stopped her. “Why aren’t you playing with the other kids?”

She glanced at the other kids and shrugged.

“Is it because they have parents?” I asked, brushing her hair back with my fingers. Her eyes widened and ever so slowly she nodded.

“We may not be your parents, Abby. But we are here for you.” I told her. “River, Meredith, and me. Even Gabriel. You can come to us with anything.” I hoped I wasn’t promising too much when I added Gabriel to the list, but I felt like it was the right thing to do.

To my utter surprise, she burst into tears. I scrambled to pull her into my lap and tried soothing her. The other children started throwing fearful looks in my direction, as if I would make them cry too.

It was awkward but I was able to claim my feet and carried Abby out of the room. Outside, I sat us down on the steps and tried to calm her down, but it was like trying to build a dam with two sticks. Finally, I settled in and waited for her to cry herself out.

It was almost dinner time when her tears finally stopped. I continued to hold her even after the dinner bell rang. The children erupted from the motel and ran to join their families in the parking lot before going into the dining hall.

It was a while longer before I noticed River walking with a group of other men. When he saw us, he broke away from them and sat down next to us.

“What happened?”

“I…” I shrugged. “She won’t play with the other kids.”

“Didn’t she do the same thing yesterday?”

“Yeah, but it’s not really…” I looked down at the head in my arms and sighed. “I guess she could stay with me until she wants to be with the other kids.”

She shifted and looked up at me. I wasn’t surprised to see the silent pleading in her eyes, but it bothered me.

River ruffled her hair. “That might be a good idea.” He considered me for a moment. “You changed clothes.”

Abby shifted again so that she could see what I was wearing. “Yeah, Gabriel helped me.”

River’s mouth tightened into a thin line. After a second, he said, “here, I’ll take her,” and offered his arms to her. She gazed at him intently before scrambling from my lap and into his. “Maybe she just needs to-.” Suddenly, he was up and twirling her around in the air.

She squealed but it was quickly broken by yaps of laughter. I found myself laughing, too, as I watched them.

“Please be careful, River.”

“What’s going on?” Gabriel asked, strolling toward us from the dining hall.

“Abby won’t play with the other kids.”

“Why?” He asked stopping to stand next to me.

I shrugged. “I think it’s because she won’t talk.”

“We don’t know what happened to her, it might take a while before she can, if she ever does.”

“Try telling that to the other kids.” I studied him for a moment, remembering what I told Abby in the play room. “I told her that she could come to us with anything.” He frowned at me. “I mean…” I hesitated. “Abby was sitting away from the kids, playing by herself. Same as yesterday. And I told her that she could come to River, my mom, myself or you with anything.”

His eyes widened for a second. “She did this yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded. “Can you find out why?”

I shrugged thinking. “I’m trying. But since she won’t actually tell me, it’s pretty hard.” I thought about it for a moment as River changed from twirling to throwing her into the air. “I asked if she didn’t like the other kids because they had parents and she nodded.”

Gabriel eyes narrowed. He turned to me with a hard expression. “First of all, you have as much tact as an elephant in a window store.” I jerked back feeling like I had been struck. “Don’t take me wrong, but you tend to say whatever comes into your mind. Think about it. You asked a child who you, yourself, said may have watched her parents die, whether she didn’t like the other kids because they had parents.” My gut twisted as he spoke.

“No offense, but you have just about as much tact.” I snapped. I started to run toward the cabin, not willing to disturb River and Abby.

“Oh, no you don’t.” He grabbed my arm and jerked me back to face him. “Why is it when someone around here pisses you off, you stand up for yourself and yet, when I say something that gets you upset you turn and run?”

I shoved against his chest. “Knock it off.”

“Answer me, or listen to me. But don’t run away just because you don’t like what you hear.”

“Let me go.” I squirmed, trying to break his grip.

“Ok. So you’ll listen then. You need to learn some tact. Didn’t you hear what Mr. Jackson said last night? Keep your head down. You won’t stay out of trouble as long as you keep popping off at the mouth.”

I slapped him. I didn’t mean to do it. The look on his face told me he was just as surprised as I was. Before I could apologize, the back of my sweatshirt was gripped and I was jerked off my feet to stumble several feet back.

Then River was standing between me and Gabriel. “You heard her.”

“Stay out of it, River.” Gabriel snapped, saying River almost like it was a curse.

“Stay away from her, Gabrielle.” I flinched at the intentional mispronunciation of Gabriel’s name.

“Guys, come on.” I started, stepping forward.

I don’t know who threw the first punch. It was very likely that they both struck out at the same moment. Either way, they were both on the ground and struggling. After a few seconds, it was obvious that Gabriel was the better fighter, but it was just as obvious that River didn’t know when to quit.

Someone was screaming. The burning in my throat told me who was doing it. But I couldn’t stop.

At some point, blood began to flow. I couldn’t tell who the bleeder was any more than I had been able to tell who started fighting.

Then people were flowing around us. Mr. Jackson and Andrew waded right into the middle of it. Before they were able to separate the fighters, Andrew ended up with a bloody nose and the beginnings of a black eye.

I started to back away from the gathered crowd, but stumbled over something clutching to my legs. Abby. The realization sucked the breath out of me. She had seen the whole thing.

Then my mom and Juanita were there. Juanita pulled Abby into her arms as my mom turned me away from the glaring combatants.

They took us to the cabin, where my mom sat me down on the edge of the bed. She rifled through the drawers until she found pills and a water bottle.

“I’m not hurt.” I managed to croak around my hoarse throat.

“You will be.” She waited until I swallowed the pills and sipped from the bottle before she sat down next to me. “What happened?”

I told her. As I spoke, I registered that I sounded dead. My voice was hollow. “I don’t understand. What is wrong with them?” The comment ended in something close to a wail. I felt something warm slide down my cheek and wiped at it. It was a tear.

For the second time in as many days, I didn’t eat dinner. I curled up on my side and stayed that way.

Why did this bother me and zombies didn’t? Easy. Because this was my fault.

Go Back to Day 10 – or – Go to Day 12

I prefer living with the zombies.

I think I am starting to understand why my mom doesn’t want me to be around Mel. There should be a rule about people like him not being able to look like jolly ole Saint Nick. Did you know he hates kids? Wait, of course you don’t. I didn’t know so how could you? Well, the guy hates kids. Now you know. So do I.

I am so frustrated I barely slept last night. Oh man, yesterday was the worst day of my life.

First, Gabriel and River decide to play tug-o-war and I’m the freaking rope. I take back my thoughts that it would be thrilling to have two guys waging some kind of war over you. Girls, you have been warned. Then, Mel… Well, I better start after I finished writing yesterday morning.

I just finished writing when someone knocked on the door. Thinking it was River, I practically bounded out of bed. I didn’t think of closing my journal. Abby sat up in surprise to watch me.

We slept in our clothes, but there wasn’t exactly a surplus of clothes for either of us. I didn’t know where spare clothes were kept and hadn’t thought to ask the day before. Both Abby’s and my hair were rats’ nests but I didn’t care. Until I opened the door.

It wasn’t River. It was Gabriel.

I must have looked like a fish with my mouth hanging open like that. But I was shocked. I mean, I was kinda thinking it would be cool if both Gabriel and River were both interested in me. And there he was, standing there.

The first logical thought that came into my head was that it must have been a mistake. He was looking for someone else and came to my cabin by accident.

But then he said “hey” and smiled at me. My face instantly rivaled the heat of the bonfire the night before.

“Hi.” I replied intelligently. I glanced back at Abby to see that she was just as surprised as I was.

“Can I come in?”

I pulled the door closer to me, almost closing it. “Why?” It came out sounding suspicious.

He laughed. “I just wanted to come by and see how things were going for you.”

I frowned at him. “Everything’s fine.”

“Come on, Cleo. I won’t bite.”

I sighed and stepped aside, holding the door open for him. He came inside and glanced around the room. I hated it. The room, I mean. It was so barren. There were no items that identified who the place belonged to. If it weren’t for Abby still sitting in bed and my journal next to her, I wouldn’t have thought it was mine.

“So.” He said. He moved to sit on the foot of the disorderly bed when he spotted my journal. In an instant, he was around the bed, reaching for it. “What’s this?” I took a step forward, my mouth opening to stop him.

Abby has to be one of the most wonderful, intelligent, talented, and charming kids on this entire planet. She snatched the journal before he could touch it and clutched it to her chest. Then she scrambled awkwardly out of bed and stumbled over to me.

Gabriel’s eyebrows shot up as he looked between the two of us. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

My face flushed again. “It’s just a journal.” I said, holding my hand out for it. Abby gave it to me with a small smile. I rubbed her head. “Thanks.”

“Yours?”

“I don’t know if Abby knows how to write yet.” I admitted. Then something popped into my head. “Do you know if they have a school set up for the older kids?”

He shrugged and sat down. “I don’t think anyone’s thought of it. Right now, everything’s about getting supplies.”

I walked around him, aware that Abby was following close enough to be a miniature shadow in human shape, and shoved my journal into the nightstand drawer. When I turned back to him, I saw his eyes locked on the nightstand. “It’s just a log of what happened. It’s kinda stupid, but I feel like people should know. You know, in case we survive this. Or, in case…” I couldn’t finish it out loud. In case someone found this compound after we were gone.

He lifted his sky blue eyes and regarded me for a minute. “That’s actually not a bad idea.” He stood up and stepped closer to me. I started to step back but remembered Abby pressed against the backs of my legs. “Maybe you should start, I don’t know, interviewing others. Get some of the stories from here, what these people went through.”

“I am not good with… talking to people.”

“You have to stop hiding, Cleo. You have a good mind and some good ideas.” A small thrill went through me. But I stamped it out. He doesn’t know me, how would he know if I was smart or not.

Someone knocked on the door. My heart dropped into my stomach, knowing who was standing outside. I walked around Gabriel and opened the door. And for the second time that morning, surprise choked me. Mel was standing on the cabin’s stoop, cowboy hat in hand. He had taken the time to clip his hair and beard since the night before.

Almost perfectly repeating Gabriel, he said “hey.”

“Hey, Mel.” Gabriel sat back down on the foot of the bed. Mel’s eyebrows rose as he looked past me toward the teenager.

“Oh. You’re busy.” He stepped back. “I just wanted to,” he hesitated, his eyes catching Abby clutching to my legs. “Thank you for what you did yesterday. You know, with the kids.”

River appeared behind him, looking at me with curiosity plainly written on his face.

I gave him a grateful smile before replying to Mel. “No problem. I didn’t want Abby to keep getting punished. She just doesn’t talk.” Realizing my mouth was moving, I closed it.

Something told me that Mel thought my smile was for him, instead of the dark haired boy behind him. “Yes, well. Would you like company for breakfast?” Mel asked.

Suddenly the room was extremely cold. I fought to keep from shuddering. There was no way I was going to have dinner with a guy that may have looked like Santa, but reminded me of an eel. Not to mention the fact that he could have been my grandfather. At that thought, I did shudder.

I could feel when Gabriel moved up behind me. “I was going to ask her the same thing.” He commented.

I thought the floor was going to vanish beneath my feet. It was too weird. I looked over Mel’s head at River, who looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“Uh.” I started, sounding like a frog. I cleared my throat. “Actually, Abby and I already have plans.” I grabbed her hand and stepped out of the cabin, around Mel, and up to River. “Get me out of here.” I hissed. My cheeks felt numb with cold. River nodded to the men behind me and grabbed my free hand.

The movement surprised me. His hand was warm but not hot or too moist. It wasn’t too dry either. He squeezed my fingers. “I think we are having cereal.” He commented tugging lightly at me.

I started walking with him, the men behind me completely forgotten.

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Most of the people around us were silently eating food or sipping at cups of coffee, still bleary eyed. And most of them were men.

“What was that all about?” River asked quietly, picking through a muffin. They tasted more like bread than muffins, even though they were obviously supposed to be muffins. I didn’t bother with cereal for myself, but made sure Abby had both.

“Honestly, I am starting to get tired of people asking me that.” I grumbled without looking at him. “I have no clue what’s going on with any of you.”

River sat back in his chair. I could feel his eyes on me as I popped another piece of muffin into my mouth.

“Any of- Cleo, am I doing something wrong?”

I looked up at him. “Tell me what’s going on between you and Gabriel, and I will tell you if you’re doing something wrong.”

His face shuttered, growing blank. “I don’t like him.”

“That’s obvious.” I went back to my muffin.

“I have met guys like him all my life, Cleo. They are the popular guys. The guys who think they deserve everything that is handed to them on a silver platter without any amount of effort.” He sighed and leaned forward. Bracing his elbows on the table, he settled his chin in his hands. “I like you, Cleo.”

I stiffened, my mouth going dry. “You don’t know me.”

“I know that you write. I know that you are a caring person. A strong person. I know that you survived for days on your own, most of that time without anything to protect you. I think that it shows you are not only strong, but smart and creative. I see you with Abby and know that you would protect her until the end of time. And that tells me that you are extremely loyal.” His eyes fell on the girl sitting beside me. “She knows it, too. And I think she would do the same for you.” His comment made me think of the journal. I looked down at her and smiled, brushing her hair away from her face. She continued eating without looking at either of us.

“I may not know your favorite animal, your favorite color, or food, or flower, or movie. I don’t know your favorite band, or what your favorite holiday is. But I think I know the most important things about you, the rest is pretty trivial.” He added before leaning back.

I was blushing. I could feel the heat spreading from my throat to my face and finally ending at my ears.

He grabbed his muffin and started eating again. I don’t know what he expected me to say. I never saw myself that way. “Thanks.” I finally muttered. But I couldn’t say the words back to him. I like you didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. He made me feel stronger when he was around. Sure, I liked him. But, other than what he told me about his family, I didn’t know him.

“I have to go on another supply run.” He said, breaking the silence.

I lifted my head and looked at him. “Are they daily or something?”

He nodded. “Yeah. But it’s starting to bother me. We don’t really go for anything more than stores.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned his chair on its back legs. “We only aim for things like liquids, packaged foods, and canned goods. Sometimes we go for other things, like toilet paper.” I could see that it really did bother him, but I wasn’t getting it. “We should be getting other things. Medicine. Clothing. Blankets.” He suddenly smiled and added, “pens and paper.”

“I noticed that they get beer.”

He nodded. “I don’t see it as a necessity.” He shrugged.

I considered what he said as we finished eating. “After a while, supplies are going to run out, even with the daily supply runs.” I said, toying with the fork on my tray. “And we are going to run out of room sooner or later. I mean, if we keep rescuing people.”

“That’s the other things. We don’t.” River said softly.

“What?”

He sighed. “Maybe it’s just because I’ve been on the one run. But they didn’t go any further into the towns than the stores.”

I thought about my father. Then about myself and River before we met up at the store. “What if people are holed up in their homes? Or if they are stuck in buildings that you guys aren’t searching?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

We took our trays to the tubs and walked Abby to the room for the kids. I recognized the woman from the day before. She was the one who told me the kids were safe.

The moment she saw me, her face brightened into a broad smile. She came to us and hugged me tight enough that it caused my ribs to start burning. “Oh, sorry. I forgot.” She blushed, putting a hand to my injured side. “I just wanted to thank you. I had no idea. I mean, Richard didn’t say anything to me about it.” She continued on and I tuned her out.

She wasn’t much older than me. Maybe early twenties. Her hair was the same shade as mine, a rich dark brown that could have been considered dark chocolate. Her eyes were a cross between gray and brown and set a little wide over a thin nose and mouth. She was almost too thin in general. But her personality was almost overpowering. She was one of those happy-go-lucky people who wanted to be friends with everyone they came in contact with. I hadn’t noticed this side of her when she was washing laundry, but then I hadn’t really been paying attention.

She held her hand out to me, looking expectant.

“I’m sorry. I spaced off for a moment.”

She laughed. “I’m Maggie. I know you’re Cleo.” We shook hands and she turned to River. “And you’re River.” They shook, River’s expression revealing his confusion. “Oh, we have little more to do around here than gossip.”

“How do you like it here?” I asked, looking for Abby amongst the heads of the kids. She was sitting in the far corner with a doll.

Maggie’s smile faltered for a second. “It’s safe. There’s food. And other people. That’s all I can ask for Richard and me.” She indicated a little red-headed kid who looked to be around seven or eight years old.

“Where’s his father?” River asked.

She blushed a furious red. “Oh, he’s probably dead.” She said completely without remorse. Our shock must have shown on our faces because she smiled and added, “I was living in Washington when I met him. We got together just before my parents and I moved out here. Then I found out I was pregnant. I was able to let him know, but he wouldn’t claim Richard as his and refused to talk to me.” She shrugged. “Guys have it easy. They just point and shoot.” She elbowed my uninjured side lightly. “It’s us girls who have to put up with the consequences.”

Then she eyed us. “Is she yours?”

I spluttered and River coughed a strange laugh. “Uh. No. Actually, we don’t know whose she is. We think her parents are…” I let the sentence drop.

She blushed again. “Oh, sorry, I just thought that… well, you are awfully protective of her. I just assumed-.”

“I don’t think either of us is old enough for kids.” River interrupted.

She sized him up for a moment. “You’d be surprised.” Then she surveyed her charges before she brightened again. “There’s a bulletin board out there,” she waved a hand toward the parking lot, “that everyone uses to post missing family members. That way if the supply trips rescue someone, they are able to find out who they belong to.”

I stared at her. That was one thing that Mel’s little tour didn’t include. “Where is it?”

Maggie looked at me and laughed. “Just outside the restaurant doors.”

I didn’t say anything, just turned and ran from the room. I reached the board and wished that I hadn’t run. My side felt like it was split open and it was hard to breathe. Hearing footsteps on the gravel behind me, I turned to see River walking casually toward me.

“You shouldn’t-.” He started when he reached me.

“Run. I know. I just…” I turned my attention to the board. It was filled with papers. Some were tiny slips, others were full pages. I started scanning through them before I realized that River was leaning on a post behind me.

“Aren’t you going to look?”

He shook his head, his face growing pale. “I have no one left.”

Then I remembered. He watched his family die in front of him. “I-I’m sorry.” I stammered, suddenly feeling like the words couldn’t portray exactly how bad I felt for reminding him.

He lifted one shoulder and let it drop. I wanted to do something. Hug him maybe. But before I could decide what I would do, a man came jogging up to us.

“It’s time to go, Raven.” The man said.

“River.” River corrected. “I will be back soon.” He added to me before trotting down the steps. The two men headed down the driveway.

“Be careful.” I shouted after them. River’s hand shot up, but he didn’t look back.

I watched them climb into the beds of the two trucks waiting for them. Then the trucks pulled down into the road and vanished from sight.

Sighing, I turned back to the board. The papers contained names, ages, and basic descriptions. After a while, I found an Abigail, but it was for a woman in her thirties. Another Abigail was for an even older woman. The last Abigail was a seven year old, but the girl was blond with blue eyes.

While I was looking at the list, I also scanned to see if my father’s name was there. It was, hidden under several other pieces of paper. Under his name, age and description was my info, but it was crossed out. I recognized my mom’s fluid writing. And the dots on the paper that showed she was crying when she wrote out our information.

Suddenly, I wanted to see her. It took a while, but I finally found her in the kitchens. She and several other women were working on the next meal, dinner, and washing dishes from breakfast. Looking around, I saw two other teen girls, but I didn’t recognize them.

Everyone looked tired and drawn. Even my mom, whose arms were up to the elbows in dishwater. She would wash a dish, hand it to the girl next to her, who would rinse it off using a ladle and bucket of water. The girl would then stack them on a drain board which was almost overflowing.

It took me a few more minutes to find a towel and join them. Grabbing a dish at a time, I started drying.

We worked in silence for a while, before I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “Mom, what happened to you? How did you get here?”

The rinse girl, maybe a year older than me, looked up at me. She didn’t say anything, but watched me long enough that the hairs on my arms lifted. Then she went back to rinsing.

“Cleo, I don’t-.”

“Mom. I can handle it.” I quickly told her what happened to me as I worked. When I finished, I looked up to see her watching me with a strange look on her face. “What?”

“Just.” She shook her head. “You were really lucky.”

I shrugged. “Getting stuck in a tree with only canned food to eat and dropping the only can-opener I had is not something I consider lucky.”

“I think… I may be the one who drew the zombies away, Cleo.” She went back to washing the dishes. “And I think I may have been the one you heard calling your name.”

I studied her for a moment, a plate in my hand. “How is that?”

“Well. We were serving lunch when we noticed that one of the nurses on duty was missing. She was at the desk one moment, gone the next. One of the residents passed away earlier in the day and we were waiting for the ambulance to pick them up. But it bothered everyone that the nurse was missing.

“I went to find her. She collapsed in the bathroom. We had to get the maintenance guy, the one you don’t like, to open the door.” My stomach twisted at the thought of the maintenance guy. He was a total jerk. For some reason, he thought he was better than everyone in the place. One of the days I went to visit my mom at work, I heard him ordering one of the nurses around, telling her how to do her job.

My mom continued with a haunted look marring her face. “She was just lying there. Blood was coming from her nose, so we just assumed she tripped and hit her head on the sink. We took her down to the resident’s room and the resident was missing.” She stopped and scrubbed at the bottom of a pot for a few minutes.

“We couldn’t find the body in the room, so we were starting to look around when people started screaming in the dining room. I don’t think I will ever forget it. We ran down there and the resident, the one who was dead… she had dragged another resident to the floor and was tearing into his stomach.”

She stopped again. This time so long that I thought she wouldn’t continue. Just before I prompted her, she started speaking again. “We barricaded ourselves into one of the resident’s rooms. We tried to stop them, but they just kept moving. Another nurse and I managed to save one of the residents.

“Pure luck would have us in a room that had a door leading outside. We got to Jenny’s truck, loaded Emily inside and left. But then our luck ran out. Just as we were reaching town, the truck ran out of gas. I offered to head into town to get help and started walking. Just as I reached the city limits, I ran into some of the people from here. They helped to get Jenny and Emily, but I wouldn’t leave. I wanted to get you and your father. So they dropped me off in town, told me where to find them if I found you, and left.

“I was almost home when I heard someone crying for help. I thought it was you, but it wasn’t. There was a girl who had been bitten pretty badly. Those things were after her. So I pulled us into a house just down the street from you.

“The woman died. But by then there was a group of zombies around the house and it was getting dark. I decided to stay there. In the morning, the woman was awake and standing over me. It took another day before I could reach the house, and I saw them climbing into our bedroom window. I thought the worst, but I still hoped you were alright.” She finally looked at me. “I was in the garage across the street when I saw you leave the backdoor. I called to you then, but I guess you didn’t hear me.

“I wanted to run after you, but they were everywhere.” She stopped washing dishes and came over to me and dried her hands on the towel I was holding before she cupped my face and looked straight into my eyes. “I wanted to come for you, honey.” Her eyes filled with tears.

“I know, mom.”

She tilted my head so she could kiss my forehead, then hugged me. “I heard the screams. I thought it was you.” She started to shake. “But I couldn’t do anything. It was the worst night of my life. I couldn’t leave the garage until the next night when the zombies around it finally left.

“I found a flashlight in the garage. It was still dark. But I had to know. I followed the path you had taken. I stopped when I saw a crowd of them gathered in the front of the house. I thought you were inside it. I did the stupidest thing. I was so hopeful you were alive. I just started calling for you.

“Those things turned on me and I ran. I knew if you were alive and safe, then I needed to stay alive, too. I was downtown when I ran into a family who were leaving. They just grabbed me from the street.” She stopped and held me at arm’s length. “I didn’t want to leave, but they didn’t give me a choice. I realized as we were leaving town that if I was going to save you, I needed to get help. So I told them where to go and we ended up here.

“I told everyone what happened, but no one… Well, Mr. Jackson believed you were alive. But no one else did. And he couldn’t get anyone to go to town with him to get you. It took him a while to convince them to even go there for supplies.” She shook her head. “The first time they went, they came back with supplies, but no rescues. I admit that I thought the worst.” She pushed a strand of hair behind my ear and gave me a shaky smile. “But then you came on the second trip and were unconscious.”

She hugged me again, kissing my forehead as she did. “Don’t ever scare me like that again.”

I couldn’t help it. I snorted. “I will do my best not to be involved in a zombie apocalypse for the rest of my life.”

She released me and swatted my shoulder. “You’d better not.”

I realized then that everyone in the room had stopped working. Some of the women were watching us. Most were crying. A few were studiously staring at the walls or floor. Looking at them, I felt bad. How many of them have yet to see their families? How many of them never would?

“Sorry.” I whispered.

That one word broke the spell. Everyone went back to work. This time, people were talking quietly amongst themselves.

I worked for a while longer before my side started aching and my mom sent me to our cabin to take my pills. I stayed there for the rest of the day. I was tired enough that I wanted to take a nap, but when I lay down, my mind became active. I could picture what happened to my mom in my mind.

I didn’t realize that I was crying until the bell rang for dinner and I sat up. The air chilled the water on my cheeks. I tried to wipe my face, but I didn’t think it cleaned up all the evidence of my tears.

I ran into River on the way to dinner. He looked as tired as I felt. The moment I saw him, I couldn’t stop myself from going up to him and throwing my arms around his waist. He stiffened at the contact for a moment before he hugged me back.

Then he cupped my chin and forced me to look at him. “Are you ok?”

I nodded. “Where’s Abby?”

“Eating dinner with your mom.” He draped his arm over my shoulders as we went into the dining hall. Gabriel and Mel were both at the table with Abby and my mom.

River noticed them, too, but didn’t say anything. We grabbed our trays and sat down next to Abby. She surveyed us with solemn eyes before returning to her own plate.

“How old is she?” Mel asked loudly.

“She’s five.” I replied.

“She’s not yours.” It was a statement. He was staring at Abby openly, a slight curl to his mouth. She was sitting stiff in her chair, her eyes focused on her plate.

I glanced at River and he shrugged. “No, she’s not.”

“Why is she with you, then?” The way he said the words struck me wrong and I turned to look at him.

“Her name is Abby. And she has no one else.”

He met my gaze and for a moment, I felt like we were having a contest of wills. I felt my mom’s hand on my arm. Just a brief touch, but it caused me to look at her.

“She should be with another family then.” Mel stated, taking a bite of the food in front of him.

“Why?”

That caught him off guard. “What?”

“Why should she be with someone else?”

“She’s not yours.” He said as if that was reason enough.

“In a way, she is.” I replied, ignoring when my mom touched my shoulder again.

Then he said something that turned my blood to ice. “She should have been left where she was.”

River’s chair scraped the floor as he stood up. I automatically reached a hand out and snagged his arm but didn’t look at him. “Why?” My voice was as cold as my skin. My mom grabbed my shoulder, her fingers digging into the flesh through the jacket.

“She’s a drain on resources. She doesn’t contribute and has no one with her who contributes in order for her to stay.” Obviously, Mel wasn’t aware of everyone’s reactions. People from other tables were now staring at us. A few people looked completely shocked. I glanced at Gabriel to see how he was taking it, and his face was hard as rock as he looked at the Santa look-alike.

“We do our share.” River ground out.

Mel finally looked up from his food. His eyes widening as he noticed the faces around him. He must have realized that he was making a mistake because he shrugged. “I was simply curious.” He said.

I hadn’t eaten a bite of food, but suddenly, I didn’t want it. I didn’t grab our trays to put them up. I let go of River, picked Abby up from her chair and strode out of the room, fully aware of all the eyes that were on me. I could feel Abby shaking in my arms and thought about going back to kick Mel in his Santa-like face.

It wasn’t until I reached our cabin that I realized my mom, River, and Gabriel had followed us. River and my mom, I understood. Gabriel, not so much. I let us all inside climbing onto the bed Abby and I shared and just held her.

For once, the two men didn’t seem to be worried about each other. Gabriel sat at the table with my mom while River sat next to me on the bed so he could touch Abby.

I stroked Abby’s hair until her shaking subsided and my anger ebbed. Finally, I looked at my mom. “That guy is insane.”

“I don’t disagree.” She said, surprising me with the anger in her tone.

“Something needs to be done about this.” Gabriel added from his spot before glancing at me. “I have no respect for anyone who’s willing to throw a child out simply because she doesn’t have a family.”

“It’s worse than that.” River agreed. “The fact that he could be so callous about her, and he knew that she may have seen her family…” He stopped and touched her cheek.

There was a slight tap at the door. Gabriel was the one who went to answer it. It was easy to tell that we all thought it would be Mel. My mom and River both stiffened. Gabriel hesitated at the door before sucking in a large breath, somehow appearing to swell before he opened the door. Outside was Mr. Jackson, his wife and his two sons.

I hadn’t thought to seek Alex or Juanita out since seeing Mr. Jackson at the shop. Mr. Jackson ushered his family inside before joining them. Gabriel closed the door behind them.

Juanita was instantly beside River and me, peering intently into Abby’s face. “Such an Angelita.” She murmured reaching out to stroke Abby’s hair. River stood up and went to stand with Mr. Jackson where he leaned against the counter, letting Juanita sit next to me. “May I hold her?” The thick jersey accent made me smile.

“Would that be ok, Abby?” I asked the girl in my arms. She sat up and looked at the tiny Hispanic woman, then slowly nodded before climbing into her open arms.

Juanita started rocking Abby and humming under her breath.

Mr. Jackson cleared his throat. “I am starting to think that there is something wrong with Melburn.”

“We aren’t the only ones, dad.” Alex said.

“Alejandro!” Juanita hissed. “You better not talk like that outside this room.” Then she leveled us all with a stare, still managing to rock Abby and hum around her words. “None of you should.”

Mr. Jackson sighed. “She’s right. But Alex is right, too. People are starting to become unhappy with the way things are run.”

“So are we talking a takeover?” Gabriel asked, leaning against the door.

“No.” Andrew said. “At least, not yet. Melburn isn’t saying things that people really disagree with.”

That sent chills over my skin. “How could people turn away a child?” I wanted to know.

“Because he’s right, she’s a drain on resources.” Andrew replied. As if realizing that I was getting angry, he lifted his hands into the air. “Hey, I don’t think so, myself. But in a way, it’s true. The children can’t contribute to our survival. They can’t go on supply runs or really do chores. All they can do is eat and sleep.”

“Easy, Cleo.” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s not that people don’t want to help the kids, but the fact of the matter is that people are more concerned with themselves and their families.”

“We are putting in our time for Abby.” My mom said softly from her seat. Her hand was wrapped over her forehead like she was getting a headache.

“Actually, you aren’t. Cleo can’t do any major work until her ribs heal. You are working for both her and Abby until she can.” Mr. Jackson said calmly.

“Aren’t there other families with one adult and more than one kid?” I asked.

“Actually… no. Not that I can think of.” Andrew said, running a hand through his hair. “Few kids actually survived.” He looked at me, then at the other boys. “With you three and my brother, there are only nine teenagers here.”

“Nine?” Gabriel asked, surprise lining his voice.

“What about Melburn? Is there anything we can do about him?” River asked, redirecting the topic.

“Until he does something that really upsets people, we can’t. The division of labor bothered some people, but most have gone with it. The comment about Abby-.” Mr. Jackson started.

“Cleo and her mother aren’t the only ones to lay claim to Abby.” River said. “I do, too.”

“And I will.” Gabriel added a second later. Everyone turned to look at him. “I don’t have any family here either. Abby and I are in the same boat.” I mentally added River to the boat, but it still surprised me.

Gabriel met my gaze for a second before I looked away. I suddenly understood. He wasn’t doing it for Abby. The knowledge was both comforting and alarming.

“As I was saying,” Mr. Jackson said, “the comment about Abby may have bothered more people, but again, he’s not saying anything that isn’t true.” He met my gaze. “Frankly, we agree with you, Cleo. But we also understand his point. That’s why we came. You need to be careful.”

“The fact is that Melburn will try to keep your mom around, and maybe these two,” Andrew motioned to River and Gabriel, “but he will make you and Abby leave if he feels that he can.”

Andrew’s words turned my stomach to stone. Mr. Jackson pushed away from the counter and nodded to Juanita, who whispered something to Abby. Abby slid from her lap before climbing from the bed to vanish into the bathroom.

“We have seen him do it before.” Juanita said softly as she stood. “Before there were so many people here.”

Mr. Jackson nodded. “It’s true.” He sighed, leading his family to the cabin door. “Keep your head down, Cleo, boys. Stay out of Melburn’s way and don’t cause trouble.”

The family trooped out the door, leaving us in shocked silence. It wasn’t long before Gabriel and River followed suit.

River stopped at the door to look at me as Abby came back from the bathroom. “Breakfast?”

I stared at him for a moment before nodding. Then he too was gone.

My mom had me take some more pain killers and we all went to bed. I don’t think any of us fell asleep for a while. But I heard when Abby and mom did. Most of the night was spent tossing and turning for me.

I really do prefer zombies to this.

Go Back to Day 9 – or – Go to Day 11

At first glance, this place looks like it may be a haven. It’s beautiful and serene. I remember going there before the apocalypse. Then it was fun. Our class visited and endured a pool party on one occasion. On another, I came with my parents to celebrate their anniversary.

At that time it was just a kind of motel. There is a large building to one side. It has two floors, maybe more, that have rooms like a small apartment complex. The parking lot separates that from the next building. While it is only one floor, it is spread out and used to hold the restaurant and bar. A series of pools and hot tubs, fed by natural hot springs, sit behind it. The gift shop and showers are on the other side of the pool. Another parking lot and then there is a row of seven small cabins.

Across the highway is another series of cabins, as well as places to park RVs, and a large barn complete with fenced pastures. If you stand still, you can hear the horses all the way at the pools.

The main complex is built up against the cliff-face and basically exists on a shelf before it connects with the river. If you go in either direction, northwest or southeast, the land narrows until the cliff and the river are pressed up against the road. On the other side of the river was another cliff face, making the area resemble a canyon.

It should have been a survivor’s dream. There was plenty of room to grow plants, though they would need to be ones that didn’t require sunlight.

But there are some serious problems. First, the lack of light means that it is colder here than it was in town. Second, the winds blow along the river and reduce the temperature even more. Third and probably the worst of the problems is the man who owns the place. I can tell you right now that he is not a guy I can hang around long. I never met him before last night, but he knew my mom and so he was interested in me.

I was embarrassed to leave the room in only my sports bra, but there was no help for it. I was up for at least an hour, probably longer, and my mom never showed up. Neither did Abby or River. And I was getting bored.

So, I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and wrapped my torso in it, using the straps of my bra to hold it in place. The moment I stepped outside, I wished I didn’t. It was so cold that the air in front of me fogged with every breath. I couldn’t resist the absurdity of blowing my breath out to mimic the steam from an old train while I stood there.

That task completed, I decided that I would try to find my mom. It only took me a few minutes to get my bearings. I was in the cabin fourth from the gift shop. I took a step off the porch and found that I had no shoes. No socks either. Though my one foot was wrapped up.

Sighing another puff of steam, I turned back to the door of the cabin.

“Cleo!” My mom called coming out of the gift shop. I waited until she and the man with her reached the cabin before leading them inside. “What were you doing outside?” She asked, hunting around until she found a bottle of pills.

“I’m bored.”

The man sitting in one of the chairs at the table chuckled. “Just like kids, eh Meri.”

I frowned at him. Mom hated nicknames. It was either mom or Meredith. When she didn’t confront him, I turned to her, trying to hide my surprise. She glanced up at my movement, gave me a grim smile, and pulled a bottle of water from a cupboard.

“Here, take these.” She handed the pills and water to me.

“No sleeping pills, right?” I asked studying the pills resting in my palm.

“No. I will only give you those if the pain stops you from sleeping.”

I nodded and took them. “So.” I paused, glancing at the guy from the corner of my eye. “I want to get out of here.”

Meredith sighed. “Well, I will see if we have any shoes somewhere that are in your size.” The man at the table cleared his throat. I could easily see how badly my mom wanted to roll her eyes. “This is Melvin Melburn. He owns The River’s Inn. Mel, this is Cleo.”

“Nice to meet you.” I studied him for a moment. Vaguely, he looked like Santa. Only he wasn’t jolly. He had the same white hair, beard, and roundness that Santa was supposed to have. But his eyes were brown and hard. There was no color on his cheeks and his beard wasn’t well kept.

Just looking at him, I had a bad vibe. I suddenly wanted River there or even Abby. I felt stronger with them around. Right then, I just felt like I was on display.

“How do you like the place?” His voice was deep, scratchy and loud. I could imagine the cabin shaking with the vibration of his voice alone.

“I liked it when I was here last, but that was a while ago. I haven’t really had a chance to look since I was brought here.”

“Oh, right.” All three of us fell silent. I glanced at my mom, trying to figure out what was going on, but she didn’t meet my eyes. “Well… your mom has been a great help around here.”

What was I supposed to say to that? I knew that it was my turn to speak, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. My mom must have sensed my problem because she said, “Everyone has been contributing equally.”

The man smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Instead it sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being on display. I pulled my hair from my face and twisted it at the base of my neck before letting it tumble freely down my back. If there was a clock in the room, I am sure we would have been focused on the clicking it made while counting off the seconds.

Something finally popped into my head. “It was a good idea to set up here.” I said, thinking about the access points.

He brightened. “Well, it was the only thing that I could do when the outbreak hit. I set up a guard station on either end of the shelf so if zombies come along we can pick ‘em off.”

I nodded but my mind went blank again. I mumbled something along the lines of “good thinking” and started picking at the edge of the towel.

“Well Meri, let’s go scrounge up some shoes.” He walked out of the cabin, casually, like he wasn’t in any hurry.

After he left, my mom bent in close to me and hissed, “Stay away from him, Cleo.” Then she too was gone.

When they came back, they had a pair of shoes and a jacket. Mel was still with her. I could feel him watching me as I eagerly put on the shoes. They were a bit tight, pinching my toes, but they fit. The jacket was too small, but I put it on anyway, thankful to have something covering me up.

“Now, let’s go on a tour.” Mel stated. He led the way out of the cabin and once outside, offered me his elbow. “Wouldn’t want you to trip.” He said, wagging his elbow. I really didn’t want to touch him. I couldn’t explain it, but it was like looking at a worm. You could tell that they would be slimy and that slime would stick to you. I knew logically that he wouldn’t be slimy to the touch, but the thought buried itself in my head and wouldn’t let go.

Out of the corner of my eye, my mom nodded. I gritted my teeth and put my hand through the crook of his arm. See, not slimy, I told myself. But I still wanted to pull my hand back and rub it on my jeans.

“Supplies are kept in the gift shop.” He started, once my arm was trapped against his side. And the tour started.

I saw the bar, the restaurant, the gift shop… on and on. We stopped at the pools to see that steam was still rising from them. A group of women were working in one of the pools, washing clothes by hand. Only a couple raised their heads enough to look at us before returning to work. Just watching them made me feel hopeless.

Something was very wrong with the place. No one was luxuriating in the warm water. And so far, the women were the only people we had seen. Mel turned and guided us down the short road and across the street.

There were several rings in place, probably where they used to train horses. Around the outside of each was a group of men. When we came closer, people began to notice us, several stepped aside to give us enough room to stand by the fence of one of the rings. On the other side of the ring, was another group of men, but it looked like they were working with bows and arrows in the field?

Movement right in front of me pulled my attention back. Two guys were in the ring, struggling with each other. One of the men broke the grip of the other and threw him to the center of the ring. The winner straightened and addressed the crowd, but I was too busy watching the other guy.

When he stood up and dusted the snow off his skin, I sagged with relief. “Don’t worry. These are training areas.” Mel confided, leaning closer to breathe the words into my ear. His breath smelled of alcohol and chew. I fought not to show the acids suddenly burning in the back of my throat. “The rings here are for martial arts. The weaponry is farther away. We train with bows and arrows, rifles, handguns, and knives.”

I thought about stepping away from him, just to get away from his breath. But then noticed something that wiped the idea from my mind. “Where are the girls?”

Mel straightened and looked at me in shock. “What?”

“Where are the women? All I see are men.”

His face turned a dirty shade of red. I couldn’t tell if it was from anger or embarrassment. “Well, the women have other things to do.” He said after a moment.

“Like what?” I knew I was pushing it. I could tell just from the way he was looking at me, but suddenly I wanted to. I think I had an idea of what was going on, but I wanted him to say it.

He thought quickly. “Their chores.”

“Why aren’t the men doing theirs?”

“This is their chore.”

I frowned. “Ok, so the men have to fight and stuff. What do the women do?”

“Laundry, cookin’, cleanin’.” As he said each word, I felt my anger starting to rise.

“Do the women learn any of this?”

His face showed surprise at my question. Either he was an idiot or he genuinely thought women were the workhorses of the family. “Why should they?”

“To help protect their family?”

“Cleo.” My mom’s voice was commanding, but I wasn’t about to back down.

“Women should be allowed to train with the men if they want. And the men should be able to help the women with the chores.” I said clearly, making my voice loud enough to be heard over the man in the ring.

I could feel people growing still around me and those closest to us backed up. Mel frowned at me, but I met his gaze and refused to look away. I was challenging him already aware of the fact that he ran the complex. But I was starting to get the impression that owning the land was his sole claim to the title of leader.

Suddenly, he barked out a laugh. He released my hand to clutch at his stomach. Some of the men around us joined in his laughter. Others met my gaze and shook their heads, their eyes giving me a warning.

“I think she’s been out long enough, Mel. I will take her back to her cabin.” My mom said, grabbing my elbow and practically dragging me behind her.

I started to fight her, but it strained my side and I gave up, not wanting to incur the pain that had followed me on my jaunt through town. She only let me go after we crossed the highway. But she rounded on me, putting her hands on her hips, her face set in stern lines.

“Cleo, don’t make him mad.”

“Why? He’s wrong. Treating women-.” I started, instantly as mad at her as I was at him.

“I know, honey. Trust me, I know.” She sighed, dropping her hands from her waist. “Right now, we just need to go along with it. Can you do that?”

“But mom-.”

“He has some old-fashioned ideas of men and women, Cleo. It’s obnoxious and annoying, I know. I also agree with you that the responsibility of chores and protection should be split evenly. But you need to realize that he saved a lot of these people. They feel gratitude for him and follow his words as if they were gospel.” She practically ground the last words out from between her teeth. “Right now, it’s just better if we go along with it.”

She turned and started up the hill to the main compound. “Mom?”

She turned back and leveled me with a glare. “What is going on? You told me to-.”

“Just do as I say and stay away from him.” She almost jogged up the hill away from me.

I started looking for Abby and River, but couldn’t find them. I hadn’t noticed River at the rings and I sincerely hoped he wouldn’t take Abby down there.

When I couldn’t find them, I sat on one of the chairs near the pool. The women were still there working the clothing through the water and my mom had joined them.

I spent some time thinking about what I had seen. But not being able to find either River or Abby was getting to me. “Do you know where River and Abby are?” I asked. Most of the women looked up, startled. My mom shrugged.

“I think River went on a supply trip.” She grunted, working on a pair of jeans. “Abby should be with the other kids.”

I felt my anger flare up again, mostly because it never died. She was our responsibility, not someone else’s. “Where are they?”

“First floor of the motel.” Another woman supplied. “They are safe, you know. Or my Richard wouldn’t be there.”

I nodded but stood up anyway. It never occurred to me to check the big building. I assumed it would be the residence of most of the people.

I stepped into the carpeted hallway and instantly heard the sounds of unhappy children. It didn’t take me long to find the room they were in.

Only two of the children were playing. The rest were sitting with their backs against the wall. Some of them were crying. A woman stood on the other side of the room, her hands on her hips as she regarded the children.

“…and once you obey the rules, you can come play.” She was informing them in a stern tone.

“What did they do?” I asked. She started, turning a glare on me. Abby flung herself from the wall and crashed into my legs, nearly knocking me to the ground. I had a moment to notice that her clothing was different before the woman spoke.

“Who are you?”

“Cleo.” I patted Abby’s head. “What did they do?”

“That is none of your business.” The woman told me in a tone that made it clear she wasn’t to be questioned. “She,” she pointed at Abby, “needs to go back to the wall.”

I was getting the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it had been better living in town with the zombies beating on the doors than to live in a compound of survivors.

“Not until you tell me what she did.” I crossed my arms over my chest and waited.

“They were acting like little heathens.” She finally admitted. “Tearing around, screaming at the top of their lungs as if the zombies were in this room.” I think my mouth fell open. I was in shock, so much so that I almost didn’t hear her next remark. “And she won’t answer any questions.”

I could feel my temper trembling beneath the surface of my skin. What was wrong with her? I wanted to scream at her, but with nearly a dozen eyes watching me, I fought to retain control.

“Have you been around children, much?” My voice was surprisingly calm.

The woman blinked, looking for a moment like a lazy cat. “I worked in children services for seven years this September.”

“Congratulations.” The word slipped out of my mouth before I could think. Her face hardened at the sarcasm. “Have you actually been around children?” I loosed one arm to indicate the kids along the wall.

Her eyes narrowed. “I have been around them enough.”

I felt my body mimic the tremble of my anger and took a deep breath. “I will take over.” There. Still calm. Very measured, but calm.

“I was told to be in charge of these kids.”

“And I am telling you that you need to leave.” My voice dropped, becoming a rumble in my chest more than anything else. “You need to stay away from these kids.” The two kids who had continued to play stopped. They backed up to join those against the wall.

“How dare you?” The woman spat. “You little-.” She stopped herself, seeing the intense faces staring at us.

“How dare I? Kids play. They are loud. They are obnoxious. They can practically climb walls. You should be grateful that they can play at all. Abby here probably watched her family die or be killed at the hands of zombies. Instead of letting them forget what has happened, even for a minute, you have terrorized them. So I am asking you to leave.” I kept my eyes on her trying to stay in control of the anger that was building since I started noticing the sexism and idiocy of the compound. My face felt like it was made of cold stone.

Her own face slowly become pale until it was almost translucent. Her eyes were wide by the time I finished and I knew she was starting to realize her mistake, but I drove it home. “I will not allow someone as cold as you to watch Abby or any of these kids. I don’t care if I have to fight the entire compound to do so, but you will never come around them again.”

I was shaking and I knew Abby could feel it. But her presence, her tiny body pressed against my leg both comforted and soothed me. I turned to the kids. “Come on guys. Grab a toy and let’s go outside. Make sure to grab your jackets.”

Instant pandemonium ensued as kids rushed to grab a toy, stopped to grab their coats, and flooded out the door. “Wait outside for me!” I shouted after them. Abby released my leg, but unlike the others, avoided going for a toy. I snagged her hand, probably clenching it too tightly for her comfort. But she only gave me her solemn brown gaze.

I turned, gave the woman my best glare, and strode out of the room, following the sound of children’s voices. As we walked down the hall, I took a better look at Abby. She was wearing a small T-shirt and jeans. The jeans were too short for her legs. She still wore the same dress shoes as before. She also wore a sweater. I had a feeling my mom was the one who made her change clothes and found them for her and silently sent my thanks to her as we stepped outside.

I spent the rest of the day with the kids. After about an hour, I thought I would pass out from pain, but I wasn’t about to risk them being terrorized any longer by Cruella DeVille. No, that wasn’t her real name. But she definitely fit the personality that I saw.

My mom came after I organized a rousing game of hide-and-go-seek. Seeing her, I knelt down and met Abby’s gaze. “I need you to be the ref for a moment. If anyone gets hurt or anything, I want you to come get me. I will be right here, ok?” She nodded, her eyes shining and a smile pulling at her mouth. As soon as I straightened, she raced off to follow the seeker.

Meredith laughed, watching the brown-haired girl. “I heard you were causing some problems.” She handed me pills and a water bottle. I took them without a hint of hesitation.

“Thanks. Whose idea was it to put heathen lady in charge of them?” I asked before taking another drink of water to ease the dryness in my throat.

“Mel’s.” My stomach plummeted. After her warnings, and I still went against the regime. “Oh, don’t look so worried. She told Mel first. He saw you playing with the kids and told her to join the women in the kitchen.”

We watched as the seeker found another child. Laughing when the kid tried to get away without being seen. “We could hear them laughing while we were doing the laundry. Several of us have been coming and keeping an eye on things.” She turned her gaze on me. “I never realized how good with kids you are.”

I felt like she wrapped me in the softest warmest blanket in the world. A sappy smile lit my face as I looked at her. “Thanks.”

She studied me for a moment. “Dinner is almost ready, but I want you to let someone else handle the kids for the next few days. You look like you are about to faint.”

I sighed. “As long as they aren’t like Cruella.”

My mom’s eyebrows rose. “Cruella?”

“The woman who was watching the kids.”

“Oh.” She fought to keep the smile off her face. “You would figure that a woman who had been in children services would at least understand children.”

“What did she say anyway?”

My mom shook her head. “I think that she knew you were right. She told us that the kids were loud and out of control. You came in and reminded her what they went through then left with the kids. I don’t think it matters, though, Cleo. It was obvious that you were acting with the children’s best interest. Just watching you for a few minutes would tell anyone with a brain that.”

A bell started ringing somewhere on the compound. “Dinner.” She said.

“Come on, kids!” I shouted then winced. “Dinner!”

“Cleo.” My mom’s voice carried the reprimand. I smiled apologetically at her as Abby rushed toward us. The other kids were in hot pursuit. I counted heads just to be sure they were all there and we followed my mom into the restaurant.

Dinner was boisterous. The dining hall was apparently built to hold over 150 people. The adults made up a little more than thirty heads. With the kids, the number was closer to fifty. I found myself looking at the survivors and felt a strong sense of pride. The fact that so many somehow managed to survive the last few weeks was more than I hoped. Especially when, a few days ago, I thought I was completely alone.

Everything was served buffet style. More than half of it was unidentifiable. After dishing Abby and myself up, I surveyed the room until I spotted my mom. It wasn’t until I set our trays down that I realized Mel was at the same table. He nodded at me and I responded in kind, suddenly wishing we were sitting elsewhere.

We were just starting to eat when another tray slid into our table. To my surprise, Gabriel sat across from me.

“Hey.” He said. I was back in the hallways of our school and he was passing by me again.

A thrill shot through me, but I tried to stay nonchalant. “Hey.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister.” He commented after a few minutes.

“This is Abby.” I said. “Abby, this is Gabriel.” Abby raised her eyes from her plate long enough to give him a look before going back to work. I smiled at her and stroked her hair. “She’s not my sister.” I added to Gabriel.

“Oh. Right. She and that guy were with you in the truck.” I frowned at him. Why did he ask me if he already knew? It didn’t help that he called River ‘that guy.’

“What?” Gabriel asked. I shook my head and went back to eating.

Another tray slid onto our table and River sat down. Great, I thought, that’s all I need. River started eating, but his movements were slow.

“What happened?” I asked, glad for the interruption.

River looked up at me and blinked as if just realizing I was there. “We went on a supply run.” I stared at him, waiting for him to continue. He met my gaze and a small smile tugged at the edges of his mouth. “It took a long time. Everything is fine. Thank you.”

I felt myself smile in return. We went back to eating for a few moments before I looked up to see Gabriel looking back and forth between River and I. It wasn’t a friendly look. I took a moment to study them while they were sitting side-by-side.

Gabriel Wilson was light to River’s dark. Gabriel had sandy blond hair kept just a shade over too long, pale skin that never seemed to darken, and sky blue eyes. I studied his face comparing it to River’s. Both had thin eyebrows and pronounced cheek boness. River’s were higher up, giving him an almost exotic look. Gabriel’s were positioned so his face would always have a rounded look. River’s face was all hard angles. Gabriel’s contained soft edges.

River was taller than Gabriel and thinner, more wiry. Gabriel was built for sports, thick shoulders narrow waist. Both had muscles. River had body language that signaled what he felt, while Gabriel appeared like a blank slate.

It was almost like comparing day and night. They had some similarities, but those were few and far between.

“How did you survive?” I asked, hoping to get Gabriel to focus on me. River sat back to look at the boy next to him. He continued to eat, but I could feel the tension that was building between the two of them.

Gabriel shrugged as if he wasn’t aware of it. “I was at work when it really got going. I just stayed there.”

“What about your dad?”

Another shrug. “I don’t know. I tried my whole family, the police station, and a handful of other places I thought they would be. No one answered.”

I frowned. Something told me he wasn’t telling me the truth. It wasn’t my business if he decided not to tell me, but it was a little frustrating. I caught the satisfied look that flashed through River’s face.

Abby finished her plate and was watching the boys with avid interest. My mom was finished, too, but she was talking to a woman on her other side.

I tapped my mom’s shoulder. When she turned to look at me, I asked, “Where do I put the dishes?”

“Oh, let me show you.” We dumped our dishes, but then she grabbed my elbow and led us out the nearest door. “Now, is there something you need to tell me?”

I gaped at her. “What?”

“Those boys in there. They were almost at each others’ throats.”

“I have no clue what’s going on between them.”

Meredith frowned, watching my face. “Are you sure?”

I rolled my eyes. “I was totally dating Gabriel, along with his… I don’t know, fifteen other girlfriends at school. And when River came along, I started dating him, too. They both found out about it because I told them while I was unconscious in the bed of the truck on the way here and now they are going to duel for my hand.” Her eyes narrowed. “Mom, I have no clue.”

“Do you like them?”

I blushed and glanced at Abby. “I like River, I guess. But I don’t really know Gabriel. Can you like someone if you don’t know them?”

She nodded. “I liked your father before I met him.” Then her face crumpled.

I hugged her. “We’ll find him.” I whispered into her ear.

There was a bonfire being set up in the parking lot between the restaurant and the motel. Once it was lit, people gathered outside to talk. It wasn’t long before I spotted Mel with a group of men. In a spur of the moment action that I would probably regret, I went over to him.

“Have you gone to River Forge, yet?” I asked the moment I was in range. Mel gave me a blank look. “My dad’s there. I wanted to see if you have gone there yet and if you rescued anyone.”

“Cleo-.” Mr. Jackson started.

“Look, I know you all are busy with supply runs and all that. I get that. But we should check out more towns and see if anyone’s alive. Rescue them if we can.”

My mom appeared at my side. “Cleo, don’t hassle them.”

Mel’s face looked like it was about to explode. “I will think about it.” But there was a certain level of anger tainting his words.

I frowned but allowed my mom to pull me from the group. Once we were out of earshot, she leaned in and hissed, “I told you to stay away from him.”

“Mom. What if dad is out there? What if he’s waiting for us?”

“I will figure something out. But until then, leave him alone.” She strode off a wave of anger following in her wake.

River joined me shortly after that. We didn’t say anything. After a while, he started telling Abby stories and I listened.

Every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of Gabriel. He was talking with some of the men on the other side of the fire. More often than not, when I saw him, he would be looking back at us Was I hoping he was interested in me? I didn’t think so. But I also couldn’t deny that when I thought about it, the idea thrilled me. Going from the school wallflower to being noticed by the school jock was a major boost of confidence.

But as I thought about it, I knew what I told my mom was true. I didn’t know very much about him. River was open and honest, even if a bit rude. Gabriel hid things. I didn’t know if it was because he thought I couldn’t handle it or what. Even that thought irritated me. Obviously I could handle it. I survived for several days alone before I met with River and Abby.

To get my mind off of those thoughts, I glanced at Mel to see him looking toward us, too. A can of beer in his hand. Supply runs. Yeah, beer was obviously a necessity. Just as I thought it, a guy came over with two cans of beer in his hands. He held one out to River. River waved him away, his focus obviously on Abby.

I started looking around and realized that most of the men were drinking beer. Even teen guys like Gabriel had a beer in hand. But I also noticed that the women didn’t have anything. No surprise there.

I went back to listening to River’s stories. He was in the middle of telling a story that sounded very similar to Cinderella and I found myself smiling as I listened.

Something brushed my arm, then nudged it. I sat up with a yelp then blushed furiously when I realized I had fallen asleep.

River was holding Abby in his arms.  “Come on. Bed time.”

He carried Abby to the cabin with me staggering along behind him. He waited for me to climb into the bed before he settled Abby in next to me. When he was done, he went back to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“Shh.” He came back and sat on the edge of the bed. “They assigned me to a room with some other guys.”

“Why?”

“I guess it’s a rule. Your mom fought to have me stay here last night. But it was a one night deal.”

I sat up and yawned. “I don’t think that’s cool.”

He shrugged. “It’s the way it is. I will come see you in the morning. We can have breakfast together, ok?”

I nodded, but I didn’t want him to leave. I felt safer with him in the cabin and I told him so.

“It will be fine, I promise. Your mom is in here, too.” He chuckled. “You are acting like I expect Abby to.”

I sighed. “Alright. Breakfast, though.” He nodded and left.

I was out the moment my head hit the pillow.

Since I woke up this morning, it seems like the world became so much more complicated than it was before the zombies. I don’t know what is going on between Gabriel and River. To be honest, part of me hopes that they are having some kind of mental war over me. I can’t help it. Any girl who says that they don’t wish something like that to happen to them would be lying. It’s thrilling to think that two guys are willing to fight for you.

The rest of me is just flat uncomfortable with it. Like most girls, I wanted to have a date for the dance and have it be amazingly romantic. But at the same time, I knew that guys seemed to get in the way. And I was desperate not to become a mom before college. After college maybe, but definitely not before.

Now there is no college. There is no future in screenwriting because there are no movies. And I am responsible for a child. My worst nightmare came true and I am finding out that it’s not a nightmare at all.

She’s watching me now. I have to admit that I really like her. I don’t know if it’s maternal instinct or what, but she makes me stronger, too. Like I can face anything. And I will, to keep her safe. At the same time, she feels like she doesn’t belong just to me. She belongs to River, too. Probably more so.

Looking at that last paragraph, it sounds like I am talking about a pet. But that doesn’t cover the half of it. I don’t know if I can explain it… maybe because I don’t really understand it myself.

But there are some things that still bother me. Why does my mom keep warning me to stay away from Mel? Something tells me that his little tour wasn’t something he normally does. I think I will take my mom’s advice. The guy is just plain creepy.

Speaking of my mom, I don’t know if she came in last night, but she’s not here and her bed is already made. There were a pile of pills and a bottle of water sitting on the table, so I am pretty sure she already went to work with the other women. Or maybe there are people here that my mom has been nursing. I haven’t seen the doctor, yet either.

River’s here. Time for breakfast.

Go Back to Day 8 – or – Go to Day 10

I have to admit that making me practice with a gun was probably the best idea River ever had. Though it wasn’t for the obvious reasons.

I flinched at the flare of light on the paper I was writing on. My headache sent an ominous pound in my temples as I glanced at the source of the light. River’s head was a dark blob floating past the bar of light that had once been a gritty window.

“Come here.”

I scribbled another note onto the paper before dropping the pen and getting to my feet. The world shifted beneath my feet, moving like gentle ocean waves. A wave of dizziness coupled with nausea swept over me. My ribs mimicked the pounding of my headache.

When the world stabilized and the feelings faded, I went to him. I drew level with River when an arm shot through the broken window causing us both to jump. After the initial shock, River ignored the hand as it groped about.

He held a gun out to me and after I accepted it, leaned against the wall crossing his arms over his chest. “Go ahead.” He nodded toward the waving arm.

“You sure this is a good idea?” I asked. “I mean, we don’t have a lot of ammunition. Shouldn’t we save it, just in case?”

River frowned as he thought about it. “The way I figure it is that we are going to waste bullets anyway if we don’t build your skills.” He hesitated, his face going completely blank when he added, “and we really only need to save three if anything else happens.” The words sent ice through my veins.

After a few seconds, he pushed away from the wall. “Well?”

I shook my head, trying to clear thoughts of zombies breaking into the room and charging toward us. I could see in my mind’s eye being forced to either shoot Abby or watch River do so, and fought the intense clench of my stomach.

“Cleo?” Now his face was concerned. He reached toward me. I stepped back, away from him and forced myself to nod.

“Ok.” I lifted the gun and pointed it at the hand. Then I froze. I knew I was forgetting something. When it hit me, I started searching to find the safety button.

“Good.” River commented. He leaned against the wall again to watch.

“What about our ears?” I asked. He shrugged.

I looked over my shoulder at Abby, who stopped whatever she was doing to the piece of paper in front of me and was watching with wide eyes. “We need to do something. Especially for Abby.”

I could see that he was getting impatient, but he nodded. Then he pulled his shirt off. It was something I wasn’t expecting so I just stood there and gaped as he walked over and held it out to her. “Push this really hard against your ears and keep it there.” He told her.

She considered it for a moment before she sat up. She took it from him and balled it around her head, pushing it against her ears.

River took his place, waving a hand at the arm still searching the gap of the window. I took a stance and feeling distinctly like an idiot I aimed through the window. But all I could see was the arm. I hesitated before lowering the gun.

“Am I supposed to shoot the arm?”

“What do you think?” I found myself staring at his chest rather than his face. Heat filled my cheeks and suddenly I wanted to look anywhere but at him. So I focused on the arm again.

“It seems like a waste of a bullet. But it’s in the way.”

“Are you stalling?” He asked, narrowing his eyes at me. My stomach shifted.

“I just am not comfortable shooting.” I admitted.

“Cleo, there may come a time when you won’t have a choice. It will be kill or be killed. Being squeamish about it and putting it off isn’t going to change the fact that those things out there are going to try to kill you if they get the chance.”

He was right. I knew he was right. I knew that those things out there weren’t human. But they looked human. They looked like people I recognized, even if most of them were people I only saw in passing. I took a deep breath, wincing as my ribs and head sent off reminder throbs.

“Ok.” I mumbled. “But still, I think it’s a waste of a bullet to shoot the hand. That won’t stop it.”

He thought about it a minute. Then sighed and looked around. He stepped away from the wall and grabbed a pipe near the manager’s office, returned and smacked the arm with it. The arm continued to search, as if it hadn’t felt the contact of the pipe.

River stared at it in surprise. “Well, they don’t show that in the movies.” He looked at me. “I guess shoot it anyway, see if it reacts.”

He stepped back. I gave him a look. I was already bothered about shooting people to kill them. Now I was supposed to shoot one to see if it hurt?

“It’s already dead.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Damn it, Cleo.” He wrested the gun from me, pointed it and pulled the trigger. My ears rang with the sound as it bounced off the walls around me. Then I noticed something wrong. When I shot River yesterday, it was almost like I had hit him with a red paintball. The blood appeared instantly. When the bullet struck the zombie, you could see the hole the bullet left behind, but there was no blood. And still the zombie searched with its hand, apparently unable to feel pain.

Curiosity overrode us and we stepped forward in unison to inspect the wound. The wound on the zombies arm was strange. Even if I hadn’t been the one who shot the thing a second before, it was easy to tell that it was fresh. Maybe I had seen too many movies, and the memory of River’s wound was still fresh in my mind, but the hole in the zombie’s arm was just wrong.

It should have become irritated or something, but there was nothing. No blood flow. No skin reaction that we could see. I could actually see into the hole, even though it was so small, and make out some muscles.

Below the arm, in the garage door, I could see a hole. The bullet must have gone right through the zombie’s hand and into the garage door behind it.

The zombie must have felt something because it sent out a shriek that was followed by… I almost want to say a chorus, but it was more horrible than that. I jumped back and cried out myself.

River shook his head. He held the gun out to me. “Try shooting further up the arm.”

I took it, but hesitated. I was still uncomfortable with what we were doing. However, the zombie didn’t seem to feel it. Taking a shuttering breath, ignoring the sharp pain in my side, I backed up, aimed, and pulled the trigger. My aim was for a point where I thought the shoulder was but the bullet went wide. A hole appeared several inches above the window.

River frowned at me, opened his mouth to say something and the arm slowly slid from the window. I wasn’t sure, given the ringing in my ears, but I thought I heard the zombie’s body hit the ground outside. River’s eyebrows shot up into his forehead. He shot a quick look out the window. When he turned back a faint smile tugged at his mouth. It didn’t reach his eyes.

“Have you been toying with me?” He asked. His voice sounded like it came from the end of a long hallway.

“What?”

“I thought you said you never shot a gun before.”

I nodded. “I haven’t.”

“Then you must be a natural.” He glanced out the window again just as something hit against the garage door. “That was impossible. You got its head. A little high, but definitely a head shot.”

More zombies started beating against the garage. Another window broke out. “I don’t think this was a good idea.”

“Yeah… maybe not.” River admitted as another arm appeared through the newly broken window. “It’s too late now. We may need to try and clear some of these off.” He had to shout at that point because of the thunder of bangs against the door and the shrieks of the zombies outside.

I took a deep breath, wincing as the muscles around my ribs jerked. I could see a couple heads from where I stood so I took aim and shot.

Before I knew it, the clip was empty. I could dimly hear more gunshots going off and spotted River at the other window using one of the rifles to shoot through the hole. I glanced back at Abby, suddenly remembering her. She was watching us, her face pale and cheeks glistening with tears.

River’s rifle ran out of bullets. “We need to reload.” He shouted several times before I understood what he said. My ears felt like someone had shoved a mixture of cotton and clay into the canal. He showed me how to replace bullets in the magazine that ejected from the handle of my gun. After he handed the gun back butt first, he showed me how to load the rifle.

We both went back to work.

I don’t know how long we did that. Shot through the windows until our bullets ran dry, reloaded, and then continued to shoot until the bullets ran out again. The last time I went to reload I found five bullets. The rest of the ammo for the gun was gone. I sagged next to the bag and realized that my arms were both throbbing and shaking. River slid down to the floor next to me.

He pointed to the gun and drew a finger across his neck. He was out of ammo, too. I nodded. Abby climbed into my lap and tangled her hands into my hair while she buried her head into my shoulder. I stroked her head, ignoring the arms still waving about through the windows. We had other guns and more ammo but I was exhausted. Even petting Abby’s head felt like I was trying to move a truck load of bricks. Those bricks were my arm.

I let my head fall onto River’s shoulder and closed my eyes. It was probably the stupidest move I could have made, but at that moment, my mind was mercifully blank. I didn’t think about the past, what was happening right then, or what could happen in a few moments.

It wasn’t much later that I was shaken awake. Someone was holding Abby. I could see her screaming and trying to kick or hit the man holding her arm. River snapped awake beside me, launching away from the wall and striking the man in front of him. The move almost sent me sprawling, except another man was in front of me. He caught me, but let go after resting me against the wall again. A second later, River was face-first on the floor near us, a man driving his knee into River’s back.

The door to the shop was sitting open, light illuminating the grit filled corners. The light was so bright that my eyes watered and pain beat in time with my heartbeat in my head. My hearing hadn’t cleared in the slightest.

There was a group of about five men standing with us in the room. They were dressed in ragged but normal clothes. Each of them held guns. One man was armed with a crossbow. Abby finally broke free of the man who held her and launched herself into me. The pressure of her movement made me cry out.

As I fought to reclaim my breath, I noticed the man kneeling in front of me holding the gun that I had been using in one of his hands.

Abby’s captor stepped forward, intent I was sure, to reclaim her, but the man in front of me held up a hand. Apparently, this sent a signal through the group. Two men broke off and went through the door to the store, which I didn’t realize was hanging open. The man who came forward stopped and stepped back. And the guy whose knee was in River, shifted back and stood up.

River got to his feet in a jerk of motion. He looked like he was going to go after the men again, but stopped when one of the men waved his gun and aimed it at River.

My vision was steadily clearing. The man in front of me was studying me. I could see his mouth move, but no sound reached my ears. Something about the man was familiar. I squinted to dull out the blinding light in order to see his face more clearly. As soon as I did, I recognized him. His face had been scratched, but the short gray hair, rounded face, thick eyebrows and mustache definitely belonged to the man down the street from my house. “Mr. Jackson?” My voice was incredibly garbled. He turned back to me and nodded, talking again. “I can’t hear you.” I told him.

Alan Jackson had been my parents go to guy for just about everything. If the car broke down, they called Mr. Jackson. If the yard needed maintenance, Mr. Jackson would be out there. Any type of handyman work and it wouldn’t take them long to call him. I had known him from about a year after we moved into town, when I was in the second grade. Just seeing him alive and well released something in my chest. We weren’t alone.

I looked up at River and saw him watching me. I forced myself to smile and nod, remembering that he didn’t know anyone in town. Mr. Jackson stood up and held a hand out to me, I think, to help me up. River stepped between us before I could react.

I couldn’t see the look that passed between him and Mr. Jackson, but Mr. Jackson stepped back and nodded. Another man tapped Mr. Jackson’s shoulder and said something to him. I recognized the second man as Mr. Jackson’s twenty-some-odd year old son, Andrew.

Mr. Jackson often brought Alex and Andrew with him to our place. Sometimes even Mrs. Jackson, a tiny Hispanic woman, full of good humor and capable of making tamales that would make your mouth water a river, would come along to visit me or my mom.

I wanted to ask Mr. Jackson where Alex and Juanita were, but realized I was afraid of the answer. Alex was my age and we shared a lot of the same classes. And Juanita who was so obviously Hispanic but spoke with a Jersey accent. The only Spanish she ever used around me was to call her son Alejandro. I didn’t want to know if something happened to them.

Steeping in the memories seeing the two men awoke in me. I almost didn’t notice when River tapped Abby on the shoulder, trying to get her attention. Her grip was tight enough that I could feel the tremble that tormented her small frame. I pulled my head back to look at her face. Her eyes were squeezed shut, as if that would make the men go away. I tapped her cheek. She opened her eyes and blinked at me. I smiled and her body relaxed.  She still wouldn’t let River take her, but I was able to get her off my lap, and with River’s help get to my feet.

The world spun quickly around me. It felt like someone lit a firework in my side, the pain blooming and spreading throughout my torso. An answering explosion went off in my head. My legs didn’t want to support my weight. River caught me as I started to collapse.

It was almost like having a pillow pressed to my face. The air was suddenly dense and hot, while my body felt like it was being soaked in ice. I could see River’s face, but I couldn’t focus on it. I felt when River lifted my shirt, then his fevered hands as he worked to get the bandage from my side. More pain flared in my side, easing away my vision into darkness again.

When I woke up, I was laying in a bed, covers tucked up to my chin. For a moment, I wondered if it had all been a dream. Most of me seriously wished that it had been. But when I looked around, that hope vanished.

I wasn’t in my room at home. The room around me seemed to be made of logs. Another bed was sitting near the bed I was on and someone was sleeping on it. There were a row of counters along one side of the room, complete with a sink and a mini-fridge. A table sat in the corner near a door that I assumed led to the bathroom. Another door on the opposite wall was more decorative, which suggested that it led outside or to a hall or something.

It was while I was looking around that I realized part of my body was completely numb. I moved my arms, then my legs to see if they were still functioning. My chest and abdomen felt like they were missing completely from my body.

“Cleo?” A warm hand pressed against my forehead. The voice sounded so familiar though weak like trying to hear through a thick wall. I was dreaming. It was the only answer.

I turned my head to look at my mom. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face. She looked thinner than when I saw her last. Hollows stood out beneath sharply accented cheekbones. Rings around her gray eyes hinted at lack of sleep. Lines littered the edges of her mouth suggesting that she had worried too much.

I was sure that if I was dreaming, I would have seen her as she appeared in my memory. This woman in front of me was definitely my mom, but looked like she had been through hell.

Then her scent hit me and chased away any doubts of her identity. There was always something distinct about the way my mom smelled. It wasn’t perfume, but a natural scent that reminded me of happy summer days and, for some reason, cookies.

Tears burned my eyes. “Mom?”

“Yes, honey.” She cupped my face and kissed my forehead. “I thought…” She couldn’t finish. We both cried for a few moments. A weight settled on my other side and hope expanded in my chest. I turned to look at my dad. Only it wasn’t him. It was River. The hope withered and died in my chest.

I may not have agreed with my dad, or even got along with him. But I missed him. My tears turned from happy to sad and I cried harder.

Abby climbed onto the bed next to him and started to reach for me. My mom put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“What happened?” I asked when I could finally speak.

“You passed out.” River stated simply.

“I kinda figured that.”

“One of your ribs punctured a lung.” My body was instantly tight and cold. “We were lucky to get to you when we did.” My mom added, pushing my hair out of my face and tucking it behind my ear. “We were able to patch you up, so you will be fine.” She tilted her head and studied my face. “How did it happen?”

I swallowed hard, memories flooding my mind. “I was dodging two zombies and landed on the corner of the turtle tank.”

She winced. “I always told your father that having that thing next to the door would kill someone someday.”

I studied her face for a moment. “I didn’t know you could do surgery.”

“A doctor was rescued. Turns out he was training to be a surgeon, only a few weeks away from graduation.” She shook her head. “That is probably the best luck we have had. But he’s… Cleo, when you meet him, don’t judge him. The boys that rescued him said he was sitting with a gun in his hands, his wife and kids dead around him. They think he killed them and panicked before killing himself. A murder suicide pact.”

The way she said it made my stomach sink, remembering River saying we needed to save three bullets. “I’m sorry.”

She patted my cheek before getting off the bed. A moment later, she returned a small handful of pills in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. “You may want to thank River, Cleo.” She said handing the items to me. “When he worked on you, he helped prevent the infection from spreading.” I took my pills trying to remember the days since River and Abby appeared. “He told me everything. I am glad you survived but amazed that you did. With climbing trees, shooting guns, and everything else that happened… The way your ribs were broken and the nick in your lung, you shouldn’t have lasted as long as you did.”

For some reason, it was almost like she was talking about someone else. Some of the words just didn’t make sense others didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. I met River’s eyes over the edge of the bottle as I took another sip of water.

Something in his eyes caught my attention. “What else happened?”

“We rescued someone else as we were leaving town. They know you.” The edges of his lips dropped, revealing a frown. “His name is Gabriel Wilson?”

My stomach was sucked from my body. I didn’t really expect anyone to survive and now there was a small group of people who had. And one of them was the guy I liked since second grade. After several minutes, I felt like I wanted to hit myself. It didn’t matter if he was alive. He never noticed me before, why should he now.

Besides, I knew I was starting to really like River. He may be strange, at least to me. But he was calm in emergencies and apparently hadn’t left my side since we were rescued. I slid my hand into his and smiled slightly. A flicker of surprise lit his face for a moment and he tightened his fingers around mine.

“Cleo.” My mom. I looked at her in time to see her giving River an appraising look. She turned warm gray eyes on me. “You cannot over exert yourself. I imagine that you will be up and moving around as early as tomorrow. But I want you to rest as much as you can. And you need to lay on that side. The pressure will help keep the ribs in place.” She paused, looking up at River. “The fact that you knew to bind her ribs was excellent. But for future reference, don’t do it again. Binding the ribs in that way, especially with them floating as they were in Cleo, can cause the lung beneath them to collapse.” River’s fingers twitched and he pulled his hand free.

“Mom. We did the best we could.” I pointed out.

“I know. And I think the both… the three of you did an excellent job,” she gave a quick smile to Abby, “but I want you to know this in case anything else should happen.” She pulled back from the bed. “Now, Cleo, I want you to get some rest. I know you well enough to know that the moment you are able you will be romping around and getting into trouble.” I hated when she talked about me like I was still two years old, but I smiled like an idiot, happy that she was alive. “So let’s go, kids. We have work to do.”

“What work?”

“You will find out soon enough. This… compound is not like what we are used to. All of us have specific duties we are required to do.” A flicker of frustration or anger passed over her face. Then she was smiling again. She turned to Abby. “Come on, Sweetie.”

Abby frowned at her, then laid down over my legs. My mom shook her head, meeting River’s eyes. “If you can get her to come along…?”

“Yes, Mrs. Stevens.” The respectful tone River used surprised me. I looked sharply at him and watched as patches of color warmed his cheeks. He leaned over to the end table between the two beds and opened the drawer. He pulled my notebook, paper sticking out from its cover, and a pen out and handed them to me. “Figured you would want these.”

Then he picked Abby up, though it was obvious that she didn’t want to go, and they all trooped from the room.

I still can’t believe it. My mom is alive.

And at the same time, I am scared. What if dad isn’t?

Then I wonder about River. He is almost… bipolar. He can be crude and rude, but I feel better with him around. The respect he showed my mom came out naturally, as if he were raised to be respectful. But it seemed to be from a different time, almost. I had never heard anyone call my mom ‘Mrs. Stevens’ except Mr. Jackson. But Mr. Jackson was really old fashioned. Everyone called him Mr. Jackson, even though we all knew his first name. That’s just the way it was.

And then there’s Gabriel. I can’t help being curious about how he survived, apparently alone. I doubt that him being around would change anything. But I find myself wanting to see him.

I like River. But I still had a crush on Gabriel. Is that weird?

Maybe that will change once I see him.

I fell asleep writing. I feel better than I have in days. You would be surprised the things you miss when you are sleeping in trees, bench seats, and on floors. The bed feels like heaven, but I am bored sitting in bed. I think I am gonna go take a look around. I have some questions anyway.

Go Back to Day 7 – or – Go to Day 9

 

Abby rolled over, yawned and opened her light brown eyes to look at me.

 

“Morning.” I grinned at her. “Do I look as bad as you guys?” I asked, studying Abby’s tangled mess of hair.

 

River gave me a weird look, “If we look as bad as you, no one is going to believe we’re human.” He shot to his feet and out of my reach when I tried to smack him.

 

“Very funny.” I said, closing my journal and shoving the pen into the spine. I threw the tarp off of Abby and I and got to my feet. Instantly a wave of dizziness swept over me. My ribs sent scorching waves of pain through my torso and my lungs felt like a huge band was tightening around them. River reached out a hand to steady me and I grabbed his arm, thankful for the help.

 

When I was able to stand on my own, River stepped farther out of reach, like he didn’t trust me not to hit him if I was close enough. The sad part is that it was exactly what I intended to do when I first stood up. Sadly, my ribs took any thought of play out of my mind. “We should get ready.” He said watching me for a moment longer before he went to the front windows and peered outside.

 

I helped Abby to her feet and we folded the tarp then took it, and my journal, and put them into the bags. I toyed with changing into the spare clothes still in my bag, but quickly decided against it. It felt wrong for me to change while they were unable to.

 

“You don’t want to look out front.” River commented, coming to join us.

 

“Why?” I asked, trying to shove the tarp into my backpack. Pain kept flaring up in my lungs as I struggled. I straightened up, frustrated at my aching ribs.

 

“Looks like a couple zombies had a fight or something.” He stepped around me, taking the tarp from my hands. The moment our skin touched, static electricity jumped between us. I jerked my hand away to rub the afflicted fingers. He gave me another look before stooping to work on the backpack.

 

“We should eat before we leave.” I pointed out. Other than the donut when I was writing in my journal, I hadn’t eaten anything and Abby was probably hungry. River nodded, sliding the tarp into the bag easily. I stooped long enough to fish around in the bags until I found a package of jerky and another package of donuts, acutely aware that River was watching my every move. I considered making a comment but realized he was probably just watching in case I had more problems with bending over.

 

“I think the truck is a stick.” I commented. I gave Abby a powdered donut and watched her bite into it.

 

“Mm.” River grunted accepting a proffered donut.

 

I rubbed my burning eyes. “I don’t know how to drive one.” I added, taking a donut for myself.

 

He glanced at me. “Do you have your license?”

 

I choked on the donut. “I doubt very seriously that I need a license to drive, especially now. Who’s gonna check?”

 

His face broke into a smile, the first I saw on him and it was startling. His smile brightened his face, the even white teeth standing in contrast with his skin. It was probably a better smile than Gabriel’s had been. And that’s saying something.

 

“I guess not.” He shook his head before looking outside again. “Can you drive at all?”

 

My face burned and I focused on helping Abby open a water bottle. “No.”

 

He grunted again as he stood up. Grabbing another donut and a stick of jerky he went to look out the windows again. “There are about eight out there that I can see.” Sunlight filtered in the window, highlighting his silhouette. I heard myself gasp and quickly went about handing Abby another donut. She accepted the donut after she gave me a confused look.

 

“I’m a girl. When you get old enough you will understand.” I muttered out of the edge of my mouth.

 

She shook her head and started eating her donut. River stepped up to the table, grabbed a couple more donuts and sticks of jerky before stepping back. “I’m going to check the windows in the garage.” He started to enter the shop but hesitated in the doorway.

 

“Oh, come on. I am not an invalid and I doubt very seriously that zombies are gonna come charging in here in the few seconds you look out the windows back there.” I groaned.

 

“Knock on wood.” He vanished into the darkness of the shop.

 

I waited until I was sure he was out of hearing before rapping my knuckles on the back of the bench seat. Abby jerked and I patted her shoulder.

 

“I heard that.” He called softly. I grinned.

 

Abby and I finished our breakfast and cleaned off the table. “Are you gonna eat?”

 

“Later. We should try to get out of here.” River appeared beside me, startling me. “I can’t see out those windows and I really didn’t want to open the door to look around until just before we move.”

 

I tossed the wrappers into the nearby garbage can. “Can you drive a stick shift?” He nodded. “Are we really going to be able to carry everything you packed?” I leaned my hip against the table top. Abby vanished into the shop to use the makeshift bathroom. It was really just a bucket, and from the looks of it, it had been used for oil before I confiscated it a few days ago. The only addition since then was the tarp River put up for privacy.

 

“How are you feeling?” He asked looking at me intently. He pressed the wrist of his hand against my forehead. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I was still cold. His wrist somehow felt colder than the air around me. River’s eyes widened.

 

“I think I still have the fever, but I feel better than yesterday.” He considered me for a second longer before pulling his arm away and nodding.

 

“Let’s check the bandage.”

 

I lifted my shirt. The bandage was in better shape than before, but there was some bleed-through. He retrieved the first aid kit and set to work. I bit my tongue to keep from crying out as he cleaned the gash, applied more ointment, and rewrapped my torso.

 

“Foot?” He asked. I slid into the bench seat and let him work on that as well. Then he handed me some more medicine. “You mentioned your mom is a nurse?” I nodded. “Maybe when we go to pick her up, we can get some more supplies. We’re running out and I doubt that your wounds are going to be our last.”

 

He didn’t say what I knew we were both thinking: ‘If she’s alive.’ I don’t think I could have handled it if he did. We already decided that she would be the first person we went for, mostly because of my ribs.

 

Abby reappeared as River worked on my foot. So, once he was done, it was time. I grabbed the backpack and put it on, wincing as the weight contracted muscles in my back and jarred my side. I took two more plastic bags in one hand. The other I held out for Abby when River finished putting a plastic bag on her like a backpack. He grabbed the duffle bag, the other bag, and the last two sacks.

 

He positioned himself at the door, unlocked it, then carefully opened it. I almost expected it to squeal as it swung open. The moment we stepped outside, my eyes began to water from the brightness of sun on snow. I blinked furiously to stop my eyes from blurring so I could look around.

 

There were no zombies between us and the truck, but there were two directly across the street from us, walking around like they were taking a stroll. Across the side street, another zombie shuffled  around the side of a craft shop. I recognized the blond hair of the zombie from the bar.

 

River nodded and we all walked cautiously toward the truck. From where we stood, I could see the blond zombie still walking away from us along the side of the craft store.

 

The passenger side door came open easily and I threw the two bags into the back seat. I pulled the bag from Abby, keeping my eyes on the blond head. I tossed her bag into the back, and then lifted her into the cab of the truck, grunting with the wave of pain and nausea. By that time, River reached the other side of the truck and opened the driver side door with a shriek. We both froze, looking at each other over the seats.

 

The zombies heard us. One of the two zombies on the other side of River let out a shriek that chilled my blood. The blond turned around and sluggishly headed for us.

 

Abby scrambled into the back as I fumbled with the straps of the backpack. I finally got the backpack off and shoved it behind the driver’s seat before launching myself into the cab and slamming the door. River was already climbing into his seat. His door squealed again when he shut it.

 

The truck wouldn’t start. It didn’t do anything more than make a hard clicking sound when he turned the ignition.

 

“Come on. Come on.” He moaned, trying again. I glanced over my seat to look at Abby. She met my gaze with wide brown eyes. Motion pulled my attention out the back windows of the truck. Zombies were oozing from the side streets in ones and twos. Not many yet, but I knew from my time in the tree that it wouldn’t take long for more to come.

 

“We have to get back inside.” I said, trying to keep my voice calm for Abby’s sake.

 

River hit the steering wheel with both hands. “Damn it!”

 

“River. We need to go. Now.” I told him, pushing my door open. The blond zombie was already at the back of the truck, close enough that I could see his staring eyes. I dropped from the cab and jerked the seat forward, reaching for Abby. She practically threw herself into my arms, her foot connecting with my ribs. I doubled over, nearly dropping her as pain roared through me.

 

“Cleo!” River shouted. A handgun, the one I had before, landed on the passenger seat. I put Abby down and grabbed it. Latching onto Abby’s hand, I staggered toward the still open door to the shop.

 

A handful of zombies had stumbled around the side of the building and as they came for us, moved between us and the door. Abby tripped, her hand sliding from mine. I turned to pull her to her feet when the blond zombie grabbed the hem of Abby’s skirt and pulled Abby out of my reach.

 

Another grabbed me from behind and I screamed. I aimed the gun at the woman’s head as she bent it closer to Abby and pulled the trigger.

 

Nothing happened. I screamed again. A hole appeared in the woman’s head, her eye suddenly vanishing in a flash of red. I had a dizzying second to wonder if my voice caused the explosion. There was a snap of sound and the zombie holding me suddenly pulled me back. We both hit the ground. The zombie’s arms fell away from the impact.

 

I scrambled to my feet, grabbed Abby’s arm and dragged her to me. Zombies around us began to drop through a series of sound explosions. Throwing Abby through the door to the garage, I plunged through the gateway. I barely moved to the side to find the door when River charged into the shop. He raised his gun and shot again, the gunshot sounding much louder. The sound hurt my ears, making them ring. I couldn’t cover my ears before he shot again. My eyes finally adjusted and I spotted the door as River shot the gun again.

 

A zombie crumpled just beyond the doorway, but its arm fell through the crack, making it impossible to close the door. Abby was the one who grabbed the limp arm and tossed it back toward the body. I shoved at the door to get it in place.

 

Just before the door met the frame, something struck the door from the other side. I staggered back with the force of it and nearly tripped. The door flew back open and two zombies started to come through. I threw myself at the door, ignoring the eruption of pain in my side. I felt the door hit the zombies, flinging them back, before snapping into place.

 

River landed next to me on the door as Abby’s hand appeared, locking it.

 

“Damn it!” River crowed, turning to punch the door.

 

“River!” I panted. “Abby. Please.” I meant his language. It was a silly thing to worry about with the zombies standing on the other side of the door, but it slid from my mouth. The door shuddered as the zombies started pounding against it.

 

River turned on me, ignoring my admonishment, and jerked the gun from my hand.  “What the hell happened?” He snarled, waving the gun in front of me. His face was contorted with anger.

 

“It didn’t work.” I grunted still leaning against the shaking door. My side felt like it was on fire. My lungs weren’t working right and  spots were appearing in my vision.

 

River did something to the gun before handing it back. “Check the damn safety next time!” He snapped.

 

Then Abby screamed. I jumped, trying to see her through the spots and darkness. Suddenly, River was jerked backwards off his feet.

 

In a flash, the gun in my hand went off. The jerk of the gun startled me even more than the fact that I had fired it.

 

The zombie clinging to River staggered back, still clutching at him. River yelled, seizing his arm. Blood started dripping through the gaps of his fingers. I shot River by accident. Instantly I felt terrible, but I tramped the feeling down and took careful aim before pulling the trigger. The creature’s head rocked back, but the thing still didn’t let go of River. It took two more shots before the head was a mass of blood and bone. Only then did it drop to the ground, pulling River with it.

 

River rolled away from the still body, shouting something at me. I watched his mouth move but I couldn’t hear the words. There was a waterfall echoing in my head. Abby grabbed my pant-leg and I whirled on her. She pointed at the doorway to the store.

 

Oh. I needed to check the store. I moved past River, who was trying to get to his feet, and through the door into the store. The board was still in place. I could see zombies moving past the windows toward the back. None considered the fact that the store was connected to the shop.

 

My arms were shaking with the effort of keeping the gun raised. It may not have been heavy, but I wasn’t used to holding an object out in front of me like that.

 

Something grabbed my shoulder and I screamed before a hand clamped over my mouth. Over the thumb, I saw the zombies at the window shamble to a halt and look around, listening. I could feel something breathing against my ear. My hair lifted with each exhale, tickling the skin at my neck.

 

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize that River was holding me against him. That it had been his hand on my shoulder, his other covering my mouth.

 

And then the image of the zombie’s head being decimated replayed itself in my mind. The zombie had been someone’s brother. Someone’s son. Someone’s friend. Tears burned my eyes before freeing themselves to race down my cheeks. I tasted salt, but I couldn’t say whether it was from my tears or the hand.

 

I dropped the gun and pried the hand from my mouth before doubling over to start retching. Cool hands collected my hair and pulled it away from my face. I could tell River was talking to me, because he was still pressed to me and I could feel the vibrations in his body. But I couldn’t hear. The ringing in my ears was muting everything else.

 

Abby appeared with a package of paper towels when I finished. I sagged to the floor in the door jam and watched them clean up the mess. Neither said anything, but they both kept shooting glances at me or, in the case of River, at the window.

 

When I finally followed his glances, I felt my heart leap in my chest. Arms had appeared through the crack between the frame of the front door and the board. I could see the glass of the windows rattling with the zombies’ attention. River said something to Abby, who looked at him blankly. I realized then that none of us could hear.

 

The mess finally cleaned up, he grabbed Abby’s hand and pulled her after him to get plastic bags and start shoving things into them. It took me a second to remember that the packed bags were still in the truck. I finally pushed myself off the floor to help.

 

We stuffed everything we could into the bags, but before we were even halfway done, River grabbed my arm and jerked me toward the shop. The zombies managed to break one of the windows, but I hadn’t heard it. They were climbing through when we reached the door. River pulled me through behind him and Abby shut the door.

 

Inside the shop, it was almost pitch black. I couldn’t tell if River or Abby locked the door and I still couldn’t hear anything. It was like I was completely numb, or stuck in this weird bubble. I knew my side should be hurting, or my foot, or something, only I couldn’t feel anything. My arms were still shaking, except it was more of an afterthought than anything else.

 

It was hours before I could hear again, and then it came back in stages. River had thought to grab candles, so we had two lit. One next to the makeshift bathroom and one between the three of us.

 

He had me help him with his arm, but there wasn’t much we could do. The first aid kit was in the truck, too. Luckily the bullet only grazed him. I found some paper towels and pressed them against the scrape until it stopped bleeding. “I’m sorry.” His head was tilted away so I doubted that he heard me.

 

The first sound I heard was the zombies beating on both doors. But it was like I was listening to sounds coming from the other side of a long tunnel. River would try to talk to me, but it was too muffled to actually make any sense.

 

Abby climbed into my lap and fell asleep. River moved the body of the zombie to the other side of the car, but it did nothing for the smell. It was a mixture of burnt flesh, blood, a faint hint of rotten meat, and a scent that was somewhat similar to an outhouse.

 

I started noticing a shift in the temperature, too sudden to be anything other than me. It would be warm for a few minutes, then cold for a much longer period.

 

“I’m sorry.” I tried again as he settled next to me. My voice sounded garbled and amplified.

 

“You need to practice shooting.” He replied, almost shouting to be heard. Abby stiffened in my lap. I stroked her hair.

 

“Yeah.” We fell silent.

 

I fell asleep that way, sitting next to him with Abby huddled in my lap. I would wake up every once in a while to realize sound was becoming clearer, but then would blank out again.

 

River checked my ribs and foot again, but since we didn’t have a kit, he left them open to the air. Every breeze caused my ribs to ache thunderously.

 

I had to use paper from the office to write my entry on. My journal is in the truck, too. My hearing has returned for the most part. Everything still sounds a little muffled. I can hear the keening of the zombies and River doesn’t have to shout to be heard.

 

Abby borrowed some paper and started writing something. She won’t show me what it is. Maybe she’s drawing. I can’t remember if kids her age are taught to write. I guess I will find out when she’s done.

 

River just broke one of the windows in the garage door. The windows are small enough that nothing more than a hand can pass through. I guess it’s time to see about practicing shooting. I don’t think it’s a good idea. The last time I shot in here, it made us all deaf. But I guess survival is a little more important than hearing. Do you need to hear to survive?

 

Go Back to Day 6 – or – Go to Day 8

“Hey! Let us in!” In the window next to the door was a face.

I hurried to the door. “Go to the back. I will let you in. And be quiet.” I hissed through the crack between the doorframe and the board. I didn’t wait to see if he would move, but I did stop at the table to grab the gun I set out. I didn’t have time to load it, but he wouldn’t know that. I ran into the shop as he began to bang on the door.

It was getting easier to deal with the pain in my side, but any exertion seemed to make things worse. By the time I reached the door, I was breathing like I ran for blocks instead of from one room to another. Pain thundered awkwardly in my side, spiking as I unlocked the door and pulled it open.

The guy stumbled through, pulling a little girl behind him and started stamping the snow off his shoes. I closed and locked the door, making the gun as visible as possible. He didn’t seem bothered. Probably because after the door was closed, I leaned against it and struggled to breathe. Or he just didn’t notice the gun since he was busy brushing snow off of himself.

“Are you ok?” The guy asked, bending down to dust the snow from the little girl’s legs. I stepped away from the door and almost sat down in the grime of the shop. The guy reacted in time to catch me before I was on the ground, swinging me up into his arms. My breath caught at the suddenness of it.

“No. I’m not ok. Put me down.” I squirmed to make my point. He put me down, but in the same motion, he took the gun.

“You are in no shape to use this.” He said waving the gun in front of me. “Were you bit?”

I glared at him. “No, I wasn’t bit. I cut myself.” My voice was too breathy. “Give me the gun back.”

“No.” He put it in the back of his pants. “Besides, you couldn’t fire the thing with the safety on.”

I rolled my eyes and started to walk carefully into the store.

“How did you cut yourself?”

I showed him my bandaged side and his eyes widened. “Dodging zombies.” He nodded.

“How bad is it?”

“I think I might have a broken rib.” I lead the way back into the store and pointed to the rear. “There is some bottled water in the coolers back there.” I said as I made my way to the table.

I wanted to throw up. My whole body was starting to throb like it was one big wound. My head hurt almost as bad as my ribs. On top of that, I felt like I hadn’t slept in days. While I listened to the guy and little girl move about the store, I rested my head on the cool surface of the table. Maybe a broken rib wasn’t my only problem. What if I was coming down with a cold or the flu on top of everything else?

I heard one of them, the girl, approach the table and stop a short distance away. I rolled my head to the side and opened one eye to peer at her.

Abby

She stared straight back at me with light brown eyes. The eyes were so serious that I straightened up to look at her. Her nose was level with the table top, so she was pretty short. Her face was round, the kind of face people associate with cherubs. There were faint lines in her face that showed she was typically a laughing and happy child, which explained why the serious look seemed unnatural. Her pale brown hair was shorn short. It looked like whoever cut it was trying for a pixie look. Her face was too round for the haircut to look right.

She wore a dress that was obviously for special occasions. It was a red crushed velvet thing with a skirt that reminded me of a tutu. Long socks reached up to disappear under the skirt and a pair of shiny shoes graced her small feet. The dress was in horrible condition. Its skirt was ragged and stained with dirt and other things that I really didn’t want to think about. Her leggings had, at one point, been white, but were also marred.

She wasn’t wearing a jacket. Her pudgy arms were almost white, the tips of her fingers, dangling at her sides, were tinged with blue. Looking at her mouth, I saw the same blue tint.

She couldn’t have been more than four years old.

“What’s your name?” I asked softly. The guy slid into the bench opposite me, and held out a small bottle of water to her, cap off

“She won’t talk.” He stated simply. She took the bottle without looking away from me. Her eyes widened at the first sip of water, then she was chugging it like a pro. I felt myself smile as I watched her. My next thought took the smile off my face.

She must have seen something really terrible to stop her from talking. Most kids I knew at her age were incapable of keeping their lips together.

“Whoa!” The guy said, pulling the bottle from her hands. “Not so fast. We haven’t had anything to drink in a while, kiddo. We have to take small sips at first.”

Her eyes broke away from me, and focused instead on the bottle the guy held. He twisted the cap onto it and set it on the table between us. His bottle joined hers.

“Well, what’s her name?” I asked, finally looking at him. He was studying me. I straightened and leveled him with my own stare, ignoring the quickening thrum of my heart.

He shrugged, twisting the cap onto the bottle. “I don’t know.”

“Why wouldn’t you know your sister’s name?” I could feel a slight wave of frustration lick at me, but I was too tired to deal with it.

“She isn’t my sister.” He met my gaze as if challenging me. I studied him, thinking about it. They were both white, but that was where the resemblance ended. He was darker than her with black hair, summer bronzed skin, and startling dark blue eyes that stood out in sharp contrast to his face.

River

I shivered. Why did the room feel so cold? “So who are you?”

“River Hughs.” He said. His tone told me more than enough that he liked his name as much as I liked mine. I could just imagine the jokes that came from his.

“Cleopatra Stevens.” I rubbed my burning eyes, trying to think of a way to broach the subject without being rude. Finally, I chose to just ask. “What happened?” His thin eyebrows shot up at my question. “To you.” I added. I frowned, it didn’t sound right. “I mean, what’s your story.”

His face went blank and for a moment, I wondered if I was still messing up the wording. “I tell you mine, you tell me yours.” I nodded my agreement.

“My grandmother lived here.” He said thoughtfully.

“I’m sorry.”

His dark blue eyes met mine and he tilted his head. “Yeah. Well. When the news reports started, my parents thought it was a hoax. You know some wonky virus. They thought it was a way for the government to get us involved in another war.” He took another slow sip of water after handing the smaller bottle to the little girl. “Anyway, they decided to bring us here for a visit. Besides, my grandpa died this year, so my mom didn’t want to leave my grandma alone for the holidays.

“The next day, my grandma started getting sick and the woman next door died.” He started to fidget with his bottle, twisting the cap on then off again, only to repeat the process. The little girl tried to hand her bottle back to him, but he didn’t seem to notice. I took it from her and smiled.

“We took her to the hospital. My grandma could barely move she was coughing so hard. There were so many people there. Everyone was sick. Some worse than my grandma, and more were coming in.

“There was a guy sitting next to us, at least, I thought he was just sitting there. I noticed him, but I wasn’t paying attention to him. My sister was starting to get upset and I was trying to calm her down.

“No ten year old should see what was happening. It would have been better if we just stayed in the car.” His face paled. “The man suddenly lunged at us. He pinned me into the chair, my sister trapped in my lap. If I hadn’t pulled her into my lap, it would have been me.” He put his bottle of water on the table then picked it up again. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

He met my gaze and clenched his jaw. “He bit her before my dad wrestled him off of us. The guy went berserk. He turned on my dad, but my dad knew how to fight. My dad threw him into a wall near this family. The guy just stood up and attacked them, too.

“My parents took us back to my grandma’s house after that. My grandma died a few hours later.”

“I’m sorry.” I said again, not sure what else to day. “If it’s -.”

He shook his head. “We made an agreement. Besides, it’s probably good to talk about it.” His dark eyes stayed on mine. “We called the paramedics and when they came for her body, I overheard them saying that there were twelve deaths in the last few hours. That more people were sick. One mentioned the government was getting involved, but it was too late by then.

“Then my sister was sick. With my grandma, it lasted hours, with Jaz, it lasted days. A fever set in, and literally boiled her blood. It was coming from her eyes, her nose, her ears… She was coughing it up. I didn’t think it was possible for a person to bleed like that.

“I think it was Tuesday morning when she attacked my dad. My mom wanted to go back to the hospital, but dad refused. Even as she tore into him, he refused. I think she bit into the artery that lined his neck or something. There was blood everywhere. He just stopped fighting and dropped. She turned on me, but my mom got in the way, trying to stop her.

“I grabbed the only thing I could find, a stupid umbrella, and started hitting her. Her head split open-.” Suddenly he stopped, carefully breathing through his mouth as if he could still smell the carnage around him. “My mom’s arm was in really bad shape. I made her go to her room while I tried to call the police.  The lines were busy. I dragged the bodies of my dad and sister into the backyard because I didn’t know what else to do. My mom died in her room while I worked.

“After I dragged her outside, I tried to call the police again. In the middle of dialing the power went out and my cell lost service.” He looked at the girl, holding a hand out to her. She accepted it and allowed him to pull her into his lap. “Yesterday, or the day before… I forget. I heard her screaming. She was being chased by this really old lady down the middle of the street. I left the house to help her.

“I caught her up and started back. My dad was standing between me and the house and zombies were coming from all directions. There were fewer coming from the direction of the highway, so I started running.” He tilted his head as he looked at me. “I honestly didn’t think we would make it.

“There’s a park on the other side of the tracks with a restroom.” He pointed in the direction of the park.

I nodded. “Haven Park.”

“We holed up there and waited. I don’t know why the zombies didn’t just smash the door down. Every once in a while, I would open the door and look around. I saw the truck last night and I saw you put up a board in the door after they left. I knew we had to get here if we could.”

I felt my stomach clench. “Did you see what happened to them?”

He nodded. “They got out of town. Headed up toward the mountains, I think.”

“Good.”

“I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t want to be up there in the middle of winter. If it were summer, sure. But food is going to be scarce and there are four of them. No shelter and no food. I doubt they will survive more than a week.”

I felt my expression drop and sighed. “I heard about the news, too. But I thought it was some stunt or something. To gain notoriety for a movie or something.” I told him what happened to me, as simply as I could. “I have some stuff packed up and ready to go. It’s stacked up next to the door in the shop. We will need more if you guys come with me.”

River nodded. “First, let’s just rest. Mind if we get something to eat.”

“It’s not mine.” I pointed out and waved a hand toward the shelves. He slid the girl from his lap and stood up. The moment he moved to start getting food, the little girl climbed back up onto the bench and stared at me. “How about I try and guess your name, would that be ok?” I asked. The girl tilted her head, thinking, before she nodded.

“I doubt you are Cleopatra, like me.” She shook her head.

“Stephanie?” Shake.

“Daphne?” Shake.

We proceeded that way for a while, River piling some jerky, chips, and candy on the table and helping the little girl to open several of the packages. They ate while I continued to guess, my choices in names growing limited, I started with some more bizarre ones (Gertrude, Rabbit, Tornado, Shenandoah, Brat…) until she smiled and started to giggle.

I glanced at River. He was studying me again, his eyes narrow and thoughtful. My cheeks grew warm and I ducked my head, a small smile toying with my mouth. “How old are you?” I asked the girl, just to avoid looking at him. She held up a small hand, all fingers prominently displayed. “Five?” Nod.

“We could always call you Five.” I suggested. She shook her head vigorously. I smiled. “Ok. Let’s try something else.” I turned one of the receipts in front of me over and grabbed a pen that I had been using to translate the stick-like writing. “What I’m gonna do is list off the alphabet and you’re gonna nod when I get to the letters in your name, ok?” She stared at me for a second then nodded.

“A?” Nod. I wrote it down. “Ok, I doubt your name is going to have two A’s to start with, so B?” Another nod. I raised my eyebrow. “Abigail?” I asked. She nodded. “Abigail it is then.” She shook her head. I frowned. “But you just said-.”

“A nickname? Abby?” River asked. She nodded again and smiled.

“Alright. Nice to meet you, Abby. My name is Cleopatra, but I prefer Cleo. Ok?” She nodded.

“No nickname for me, just River.” River sighed.

“You could always try for Ri.” I suggested.

“Knowing my luck, people would start asking me if I was made out of bread.” I smiled at him. “We should gather some more supplies before we think about attempting that truck.”

“We can grab some more bags from behind the counter. The only real bags I found are already filled.” I said. We both got to our feet.

The next thing I knew, I was laying on the ground. The world seemed to swirl around me in a dizzying array of colors before things faded into shapes and faces. Abby was standing beside me and River’s face was upside down above mine. I started to shift when I felt something soft beneath my head.

“Am I sitting on your lap?” I asked stupidly. He nodded, but his face was serious.

“We need to find a doctor.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Could you have a concussion?” His fingers probed the cut on my forehead but it didn’t hurt. The feel of his fingers against my skin sent chills down my back.

“No. I keep getting dizzy and I am having problems breathing. I think it’s my ribs.”

“Let me take a look.”

He helped me sit up, bracing my back against the bench seats of the table. I lifted my shirt again, wincing as he pulled the bandage from my side. The gash was irritated. The skin around it was an angry red and looked swollen. Bruises extended from the red to claim most of the rest of my torso. River’s breath hissed between his teeth.

“It’s not healing well.” He probed it with his fingers as he had done with the cut on my forehead. Despite the flares of pain, the chill in his fingers was almost soothing. “It might be infected.”

“I don’t think it is. But I keep running around, so that doesn’t help.”

“Do you have a first aid kit?”

“Yeah, it’s packed in the bags.”

“Hold on.” He stood up and vanished through the doorway to the shop. Abby crouched down next to me, peering at the cut.

“Sad huh?” She nodded and reached out like she would touch it.

“No, Abby.” River snapped appearing beside us. She jerked her hand back and sat down where she was crouching. Her lower lip stuck out as she pouted.

River set about using the alcohol wipes, ignoring when I gasped. “Stop jerking around.” He growled, opening another package.

My side was pure agony when he was done. A tube of antibacterial ointment appeared in his hands. He applied a generous amount to the cut. Replacing the gauze over the wound, he used the medical tape to wrap my torso. He inspected the cut on my arm and agreed that it didn’t need further treatment. Finally, he started working on my foot. That he cleaned as rigorously as he did my side. After applying band-aids, patches of gauze and ointment, he wrapped my foot with an ace bandage.

“It isn’t as good as a shoe, but it will have to do until we can find you something.” He said, patting the top of my foot. “Abby and I will finish packing supplies. I think we should wait till tomorrow to try the truck out. It’s getting dark and you need to rest.” He reached for something on the table, then handed me two small packages and a bottle of water. One package held two Tylenol tablets, the other contained antibiotics.

I wasn’t sure if I could take them with my stomach roiling. I was also starting to become extremely cold. The breeze from the door hovered along the floor, chilling me to the bone. “We can’t stay here forever.” I took the pills and put them back on the table. “I need to wait a few minutes before I take those.” I added.

“No, we can’t but you are ignoring your body. Besides, Abby and I could do with a good night’s sleep.” They both looked exhausted. Had they slept at all since River rescued Abby?

He bent down in front of me and placed his wrist against my forehead. “You have a fever.” He said after a moment.

“I could have told you that.” I rubbed my irritated eyes. “There isn’t anything that can be done for my fever except rest and we don’t have time for that.”

He nodded. “You’re right. Come on, Abby.”

River did the packing, while Abby held the bag open. As they finished each bag, they added it to the pile in the shop. Darkness was falling when they finished.  River shook me awake, put his hand against my forehead.

“It’s getting worse.” He said.

“Again, nothing we can do.”

“Keep you hydrated and warm.” He started shifting things off the table and took the tarp before vanishing toward the back of the store. “Ok, come on back. You, too, Abby.”

I stood up and waited for the dizzying dots in my vision to dissipate. The tarp was spread out on the floor near the coolers. He had Abby lay down in the middle of it, then helped me to join her. He threw the tarp over us and I shuddered, wishing for my warm bed and pile of blankets. He climbed in behind me and I stiffened.

“You need to get warm, Cleo.” He rumbled. I tried to relax but it was weird to have a guy curl up next to me. It would have been weird even if he slept in the same room. He sighed but scooted closer until he was pressed against my back, then threw an arm over me.

For a while, all I could focus on was his breathing on my neck, even when it steadied out and became rhythmic. Abby fell asleep quickly, followed by River.

It is a weird feeling to sleep next to people, especially people you don’t know. Even worse when one of those people is a cute boy. But, for the first time in days, I was warm and I slept like a rock.

When I woke up, River was gone. Abby was snoring softly in front of me and we were both still wrapped up in the tarp. River must have heard me because he came around one of the isles.

“Hey.” He said quietly, settling down to sit with his back against the coolers. He held out a bottle of water. After sipping on the water, I handed it back. “How did you sleep?”

Instantly, my face felt like it was on fire, remembering how I fell asleep the night before, with his arm draped over my body. “Ok.”

A smile played around his mouth. “Never slept with a guy before?”

My face went supernova. I blustered for a moment before settling on, “have you?”

“Not with a guy, no.” A flash of jealousy shot through me at his words and I looked down. I wanted to hit myself. I barely knew the guy and already I was jealous of other girls.

I sighed. “Anything happen last night?”

The smile finally won dominance of his face, but he went with my topic. “One of the zombies tested your board this morning.” I started to sit up. “Relax. I fixed it so they can’t come in that way.”

“How?”

“The tool box in the shop comes apart.” He shrugged. “I just broke it down, brought it in here, and put it back together in front of the door. It’s heavy enough that they will have some serious trouble if they try to get in again.”

Abby shifted in her sleep and we both fell quiet. After a few seconds, she settled down again. “Can I ask you a favor?” I asked in an almost whisper. He lifted his eyebrow. “There is a notebook in my backpack, can you bring it to me? I really don’t want to wake Abby up.”

He nodded, stood up, and vanished. When he came back he was carrying the notebook, a pen, and some food. He settled down against the coolers again and handed me everything. The food was donuts.

“Journal?”

“Kind of.” I shrugged and ate a donut before shifting so I could write. “I wanted to make a record of what happens, just in case.”

He nodded but didn’t say anything else.

Go Back to Day 5 – or – Go to Day 7

I couldn’t see anything outside the door when I reached it. A slight movement to one side of the door made my breath catch. Was it a zombie? Did they realize I was inside? There was a crash and the door in front of me shattered. A man ducked below the bar handle and staggered inside. He stopped when he saw me. His body stiffened as he gazed at me with a bewildered look.

W stood staring at each other. The sound of a car horn made me skip into the counter. He blinked once and turned to the isles of the small store. He commenced with pulling handfuls of stuff from the shelf and shoving them into a bag.

“Is there anyone else?” I asked him, starting to follow him around the store. He ignored me, continuing to work. “Are there more survivors?” I asked again, letting my voice get louder in the attempt.  He never responded, his focus solely on the items on the shelves.

He stopped at my table and started to reach for the first aid kit. I slid around him and put my hand on it. “Sorry, but I brought this from home.”

He stared at me, his dark eyes looking almost as dull as the eyes on a zombie. Then he snatched the kit from under my hand. The good and bad news was that I forgot to close the kit properly, so bandages and other items went flying from it. He grunted and dropped the empty tin casing before running back outside.

He tossed the filled bag into the bed of the truck. Two kids scrambled to catch it and put it between them as they settled with their backs against the cab. The man slid into the passenger side. A heavy-set woman sat in the driver’s seat. He must have said something to her because her attention switched from him to me.

“Come. You come.” She shouted, indicating the bed of the truck. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized the family was Hispanic. Maybe the guy hadn’t understood me. But then why didn’t he try to talk to me in Spanish?

I stared at the small group and tried to think quickly. I could stay in Wild Horse and hope that my parents came back, or I could go with a bunch of strangers and get away from the zombie infested town.

“Hold on, I have to get my stuff.” I shouted back.

She shook her head. “No. Now.” She waved her hands out the windows.

Through the mist of falling snow, human shaped figures were shambling toward the store and truck. Seeing them I was reminded of the terror I felt when I tried to climb the tree.

It took a second for me to comprehend that the woman was shouting at me.

“Hold on.” I shouted, this time ignoring her protests. I ran back to my table. I started shoving my stuff back into my bags. I caught sight of the gun cabinet that rested on a counter behind the cash register as I staggered back to the door.

The truck’s wheels started spinning audibly on the snow. I reached the door in time to see the woman steer the truck onto the highway.  The truck began to slide across the surface of the gathered snow. The woman was fighting to control it, but the truck wasn’t responding. The engine stuttered into silence.

The zombies gathered around as she worked to get the truck started again. Two zombies started to climb into the bed when the truck finally caught and revved to life. She directed it forward, but it fishtailed with her panic, flinging the two zombies from the bed in the process. One stood back up and lurched after the truck. The other keened, apparently unable to stand up.

The woman plowed right through several more zombies before the truck vanished behind the edge of the animal supply store across the street. The sound of the truck’s engine ebbed into silence.

“No.” I heard myself whisper. “Please, wait.” I stared at the spot where I last saw the Hispanic family, my heart sinking. Part of me wanted to sit and start crying as a wave of hopelessness dulled my senses, dragging at me. I dropped the bags. I knew that the family wouldn’t be back. They wouldn’t risk themselves for a stranger. It was understandable, but it still hurt.

From that angle, I could see most of the zombies wandering toward the highway. But a handful wandered idly around, not seeming to care about the prey that was getting away. One came from the front of the bar next door and angled itself toward the store.

What could I use to block up the broken windows? The door between the store and the shop didn’t look like it would stand up against zombies. Plus in the store, I could have anything I wanted until I figured out what to do. I needed something to block the gaping hole in the door. A board, maybe? In my mind’s eye, I saw the boards in the shop.

I grabbed two of the boards, mentally crossing my fingers and hoping that I wouldn’t pass out from trying to carry the awkward weight. I staggered back to the front door, dragging the boards with me. It was awkward to move with them since they were about two feet taller than me and around a foot wider. Not to mention the fact that there were two of them. It took longer than I wanted and by the time I reached the door my body trembled with the exertion. I felt like a fish out of water, unable to get enough air, but I had to hurry.

The zombie was closer but didn’t seem to have noticed the gaping door. I struggled to catch my breath. I examined the hole and the boards. It didn’t take long to fit one into place using the other board as a brace. It wouldn’t hold up to the zombies, but maybe they wouldn’t notice it.

I stepped back to examine my work. The board wasn’t big enough to cover the entire broken window. There were only a couple inches on either side of the board, allowing me to have a view of the zombie as it moved closer.

The tavern wasn’t that far away, maybe two hundred feet or so from the edge of the bar to the front door of the store. But the zombie was in no hurry. I waited until it drew level with the faux door.

The moment it stepped up to the door, I realized I was being stupid. The zombie would easily tear down the makeshift door if it wanted. I started to look for something to help brace the board in place, but to my surprise, the zombie didn’t stop. It kept moving along the front of the store, then turned and walked toward the shop.

As soon as it was out of sight, I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Pain flared again in my side, making my vision fade. I staggered back to the table and sat down, putting my head between my legs to stop the lightheaded feeling.

While doubled over and struggling through a wave of nausea, I had the feeling I was being watched. I ignored my pain and forced my eyes to focus. The zombie from the bar was back. It stared at me through the dense glass. The sight of the zombie made me freeze, my breathing automatically halting. It pressed its face was pressed against the glass, nose smashed with the pressure. Its mouth hung open. Unlike the female zombie at my house, this one didn’t press its tongue to the glass.

His teeth and chin were stained dark brown with old blood and I could imagine the scent of his foul breath. Even though the idea was in my imagination, my tongue curled and a bitter taste rose in my throat. His eyes were blank, the color of the iris coated in a sheen of white. Were all the zombies blind then?

From the shape of his face, I could tell that he was almost painfully thin. His cheekbones were prominent and the hollows of his cheeks were tinted a dark blue.

He dragged his face along the window. He never seemed to focus on me, instead he reminded me of a small child testing the physical world by taste and touch, but he wasn’t using his hands. It was almost like playing hide-and-seek with a blind person. If you didn’t move, they couldn’t find you. After what seemed like an eternity, she moved off again.

I took a deeper breath and instantly regretted it. My ribs raised their protest at the expansion of my lungs. I hated that I couldn’t seem to get enough air. It was really beginning to bother me.

When I was sure that the zombie was gone, and no others were taking its place, I picked up the contents of my first aid kit and reorganized them into the tin. The store was gradually getting darker, though I could still see by the ambient light. I remembered seeing some candles on one of the shelves, but I wasn’t sure about lighting any, in case it would draw the zombies back.

Pouring out a couple of pain-killer tablets, I started scanning the isles to take stock of what was left. It was pretty apparent after a few minutes that the man hadn’t been paying attention to what he grabbed. Most of the chips were gone, along with a row of candy bars. The jerky was left alone, which I felt was better to have than the chips and candy. I grabbed a stick of jerky to chew on as I perused the rest of the shelves. He grabbed all the flashlights, at least. That left me a propane lantern that might be usable if I kept it on the lowest setting. And found some propane.

It turned out the man managed to grab all but one of the propane tanks. The last one was stored on a shelf below the cash register. It took me a few minutes to cover the table with a tarp I found then I climbed under it and lit the lantern. Turning the lantern on its lowest setting, I crawled back out and resumed my search of the isles.

It wasn’t long before the gun cabinet caught my attention again. It was locked up tight, first by the lock on the door, then again by a bike chain threaded through the triggers and attached to a hook inside. There was a small selection of four rifles, a slightly larger selection of six hand guns, two unthreaded bows, and a stash of ammunition all sitting just out of reach inside the case. I could break the class, I knew, but I didn’t want to risk getting any zombie attention.

Movement near one of the windows attracted my attention for a moment, until I realized it was just a zombie wandering around. Probably the guy from the bar.

I searched around the cash register and the shelves below it, finally finding a box containing a key ring full of keys. Some were labeled as spares, including two that went to the managers’ office in the shop and another that went to the door in the shop that led to the parking lot out back. More than half the keys on the ring had no label.

It took me a few minutes of trial and error to find the key that fit the lock then another search to find the key that fit the padlock. Suddenly the guns were free. I started pulling rifles free of the bike chain and arranging them on the counter. Never having shot a gun, my mom was against it, I stared at the pile trying to decide which guns I would be able to use.

Finally, I decided to keep them all and made several trips carrying the guns and ammo to my table. I searched the store for some bags. There was one on the shelf near the fishing tackle, but it was too small. There was a stack of plastic bags behind the cashier counter. I was grabbing some of those bags when I remembered the keys for the office in the shop. The office didn’t smell any better than the shop. Grit covered everything like dust. Something pierced the soul of my shoed foot. I tried to see what I stepped on, but the floor was covered in oil stains, rust, and grit.

There was a corkboard with four sets of keys dangling from hooks. I laughed as I grabbed the keys. My laughter was short lived. If the cars were at the shop, what would be the chances that I would find one that actually ran? With a sigh, I stuffed the keys into my pockets and started searching the room.

I found another bag, a duffle, filled with car parts and emptied it. A small stack of receipts near an old computer captured my attention. I was sure that if the power hadn’t gone out, I could find out which car outside ran. Most of the receipts were filled out with a handwriting that I could barely read. I piled the papers, the bag, and the keys on the table in the store and set the lantern in the center.

A thump on the glass near the door caused me to jump. The man’s face was pressed up to the glass again. I watched for a few seconds as the zombie moved toward the door. I stood up when fingers appeared in the crack between the door and the board. Just when I thought the zombie would try to pull on the board, the fingers slid back out of sight and the zombie vanished.

I emptied my backpack and filled it with water bottles. I put most of the guns into the duffle bag along with ammo. I left a small handgun out and along with the ammo that matched the sticker on the handle of the gun. Leaving the canned food on the table, I searched the store for food to put in my messenger bag.

When I was done, I stacked the bags in the shop. I settled back at the table and began sifting through the receipts, trying to make sense of what I was reading.

I don’t remember anything after that. I looked out the windows out front. It stopped snowing, but I can’t see any zombies. There are a lot of tracks outside, almost as if an army marched through town.

I am going to try the truck out after I change my bandages. I don’t think the cut on my arm will need another one. Too bad the bathrooms are around the side of the building or I could check the cut on my forehead. But it is so shallow, I doubt it needs anything either.

What I really want right now is a shower. I feel like I have been crawling around on the ground in the shop.

Go Back to Day 4 – or – Go to Day 6