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

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Comments
  1. cb says:

    The plot thickens …

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