There is a void in my chest that feels like it should be painful or nauseating but it isn’t. It is just a dark, bottomless hole. I think that is where my dad used to live. Its edges are raw and bleeding, but there is nothing I can do to fix it. Nothing can make it better or make it go away. I have heard that time heals all wounds. I honestly hope it’s true.

All day yesterday, River wouldn’t let me out of his sight. My mom is practically in a coma on her bed. And I feel like I am lost in the middle of a desert with no map, no water, and no compass.

River made me sit at the breakfast table and eat one of the bread muffins. It sat like a brick of rotten wood in my stomach, complete with maggots. As I forced myself to swallow the bits of bread, Abby came into the dining hall. The moment she saw us, she came running.

River caught her before she could leap on me. “Abby, we need to let Cleo have some time, ok. You can’t jump on her right now.” She started to pout and tear up. “But you know what?” He continued, watching her face. She shook her head. “I bet that she would like a hug. Can you give her a nice big hug?”

She gave him a solemn look before nodding. He let her on the floor and she immediately came over to me, pressed her head to my chest and tied her hands around my neck. I wrapped an arm around her and pulled her into my lap, pressing my face to her hair. To my surprise, tears started sliding out of the edges of my eyes and again I relived the sequence of realizing my dad was dead.

She pulled back and looked at me, her own eyes glittering with unshed tears. I stared into those pale brown eyes and wondered again what she had seen. Then she leaned forward and kissed my cheek. She sat back and gave me solemn eyes.

I pushed her hair back. “You’re my angel, Abby.” I whispered. She hugged me again before she slid from my lap to sit in her chair. Juanita set a tray in front of her before she sat down at our table.

“How are you feeling?” She asked quietly.

I shook my head, knowing that I was going to hear that a lot throughout the day. “I-.” I stopped and closed my mouth. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the truth either.

“It will take time,” River said for me. Juanita nodded.

“Would you like to help me in the laundry, today?” She asked Abby. Abby’s head shot up to look at me and River. She tilted her head to the side, her eyes unfocused for a second before she nodded.

River’s hand cupped mine causing me to look down at the mess I was making. I apparently had been picking at the muffin without realizing it. Crumbs littered my lap and the floor. “Eat it, Cleo. You need to eat.” He said gently before removing his hand.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mel sit down at our table. “How’s your mom doing?” He asked.

After a moment of waiting, River said, “she’s going to be fine, given what’s happened.”

“I hope you’ve learned your lesson.” Mel stated. I was on my feet, the remnants of the muffin clutched in my hand like I would throw it at him. Several people in the tables around us were staring at Mel as if seeing him for the first time. River and Juanita were also standing. Abby was staring open mouthed at Mel.

Juanita trembled visibly as she grabbed Abby’s tray. “Come on, angelita,” she said holding her hand out to Abby, “Let us find another table.” Abby took her hand and they both made their way to the opposite end of the room.

I dropped the muffin on the table and strode outside, River right behind me. On the porch, I stopped, staring at the gravel of the parking lot. It was drenched with rain. The snow had melted off after several days of clear weather, but it had rained the night before. River slid his arms around me, crossing them over my chest. My hands went up to cover his and he rested his chin on my head.

“It will be alright.” He said softly. For a second, I thought he was talking about the pain of my dad’s death, but then he added, “Mel will get what’s coming to him. I promise.”

“How did you do it?”

“Do what?”

I swallowed the tears that sprang to my eyes. “You watched your family die and turn. How did you keep going?”

He was quiet so long that I thought he wouldn’t answer. Finally, he took a deep breath. “At first, I thought about letting myself be attacked.” A stone of ice filled my stomach. His arms tightened around me. “I want to tell you the truth, Cleo. I think you deserve it.” I nodded, feeling his chin dig into my scalp. “I was just about to do it when I heard Abby screaming.”

I turned around to face him, his arms loosening enough to let me do so. I stared up into his face, my heart beating painfully against my ribs. “You were going to do it?”

He looked steadily into my eyes for a moment before he pulled me to his chest and squeezed. “Yeah. I was going to. But when I heard her screaming… I couldn’t do anything. She didn’t deserve what I was choosing to do.” He stepped back and looked at my face. “Protecting her was my first priority. I thought that if I could find someone to watch her then I could go back to my family.” The hair on my arms rose and my face suddenly felt cool. He cupped my cheek, forcing me to look at him even though I wanted to look somewhere else, anywhere else. It was as if the hole in my chest was growing bigger.

“I didn’t, Cleo.” He said softly. “Look at me. I’m right here.” He brushed my hair away from my eyes. “I said I wanted to, not that I did. Ok?” I swallowed and nodded. He smiled slightly. “Then I met you. As stupid as it is, I met you and I had to help you, too.” I stepped back, my heart beat so hard that my ribs ached.

“You make it sound like I held a gun to your head.” I whispered.

“No, Cleo. Never.” He trailed his fingers down my arms to capture my hands. “I haven’t thought about it since. Not about leaving you or Abby. And I never once thought of either of you as a job or something you were forcing me to take care of. I wanted to. I wanted to be there for the both of you.”

I sighed and felt a cold tear slip slowly down my cheek. He pulled me to him again and hugged me. “Does it get better?”

“A little. But it hasn’t been very long for me.” He stepped away from me but kept my hand in his and pulled me down the steps. “There are times when I think about my family and it feels like the world goes dark.” He looked at me. “But never around you or Abby, or even your mom.” He squeezed my fingers. “My parents would have liked all of you.”

I nodded. “I wish there was a way to make it go away.”

“The pain?”


“Listen, Cleo. I don’t think you can really compare what happened to me and my reaction to it with what has happened to you.” He turned so he was walking backwards in front of me. “What happened to you is something that you will always remember.”

“The same goes for you.” I pointed out.

“Yes, but with you, you didn’t know what happened to your dad. You still had hope. I watched it happen right in front of me. When you finally saw your dad, you had no clue. You truly believed-.” I stopped. But he had already broken off what he was about to say. “I’m sorry. I wish that there was a better way to get you to realize the truth, Cleo. But in the end,” he grabbed my chin and forced me to look at him, “I think I would have done the same thing. Gabriel did what he thought would save your life.”

“I know.” I whispered. He studied my face for a moment before letting my chin go.

“Let’s go check on your mom.” We started walking toward the cabin.

“With what we have been through… what we’ve seen… Do you think Abby went through something similar?”

“I think that it’s entirely likely. She’s extremely young. If she went through what I did, she wouldn’t understand it. I had movies and books to prepare me, even though I thought they were purely fiction. She had nothing to prepare her.”

His comment made me think of what Gabriel and I talked about. “There was something else.” I said stopping, my mind wrapping around what Gabriel and I talked about.

River’s eyebrows rose. “Something else?”

“Yeah. I forgot about it.” I closed my eyes, picturing the zombie outside the passenger door in the parking lot of Golden Harvest. “There was a weird zombie, before everything happened with my dad. It opened the door of the truck.” I explained as quickly as I could what I remembered.

“Well, it’s weird. But I don’t think I’m following.”

“Gabriel brought up an idea that may need to be considered.” I said, then explained what I remembered of our conversation, even the stuff about the cats.

By the time I was finished, River was looking toward the restaurant, his eyes narrowed. “I think you’re right. I think we need to tell others. We should try to find Gabriel first. He may be better able to explain what he meant.”

“I didn’t see him in the dining hall.”

“I didn’t either.” He looked at me. “Tell you what, go check on your mom and meet me in the dining hall in twenty minutes.”

“I don’t have a watch.”

He snorted. “Ok. Count to one thousand.” He kissed my cheek before he took off at a run. I stared after him, my mouth hanging open. It wasn’t until he vanished around the corner of the restaurant that I remembered to close my mouth. I ran my fingers over the spot he kissed. It was still warm.

My mom was sitting up when I stepped into the cabin. She looked up at me, her eyes swollen almost to the point of closing. When she held her arms out to me, I didn’t take long to drop into them. She held me tightly, but she didn’t shake or cry like I half expected her to.

“My baby girl.” She whispered holding me away from her. “It’s just us now. You, me, and Abby.”

“River and Gabriel, too, mom.” I added. She stiffened at Gabriel’s name.

“Don’t say his name around me.”

“I know you’re angry, but you need to listen to me. If Gabriel-,” she started to pull away, but I locked my arms around her shoulders, keeping her in place. “If Gabriel didn’t do what he did, I would be dead now.”

That got her attention. “What?”

“Mr. Jackson told you most of it. He either left out some parts, or he didn’t know. I thought dad was pretending to be a zombie. I thought that he was staying alive because he pretended. Gabriel saw dad’s back in the reflection of a window and said that there was a hole there, but I didn’t listen. I would have bet my life that dad was alive.

“And to prove that bet… When Gabriel wouldn’t stop the truck, or turn around, I jumped out. The car was still moving.” I was reliving the events again. “I am lucky the truck wasn’t moving faster and that I didn’t knock myself out or I would be dead, and maybe Gabriel, too. Gabriel grabbed me and tied my hands so I wouldn’t jump out of the car again.

“But I thought it was dad, mom. I would have sworn on it. I didn’t understand why Gabriel was leaving him behind. And I… guess I got a little wild. Gabriel had no choice. If he hadn’t, I would have hated him for leaving dad there. Or worse, I would have tried to get out of the compound, maybe even to the point of getting kicked out.”

She let out a deep breath. “Oh God, baby.” She whispered. She hugged me again.

“River would have done the same thing.” I told her. She pulled back. “And if it was Abby, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it for her, if it meant saving her life.”

Tears were flowing out of her eyes again, but she nodded. My eyes were almost painfully dry. She cupped my cheek and smiled weakly. “Don’t ever do that again.”

I nodded before remembering what River told me. “There is something else, too. I need to go to the restaurant. Did you want to come or would you rather stay here for a while longer?”

Her face turned serious. “I’ll go.”

The moment we entered the restaurant, I saw Gabriel. I turned to my mom, squeezed her hand, and said, “I need to talk to him for a minute. I’ll be right back, ok?”

She spotted him, too. Her eyes narrowed but she nodded. “Just realize that I am not ok with what he did. Let me have some time to come to terms with it.”

I agreed, but felt bad for Gabriel. He saw me when I started walking toward him. His eyes widened and he looked around like he was looking for the nearest exit. For a moment, the memory of him shooting my dad swept through my mind.

“Gabriel,” I called when he turned away. He stiffened, but didn’t move. I touched his shoulder and he turned to me, his face blank. “Thank you.” The words were caught in my throat. “I understand. I do.”

His shoulders slumped. “Cleo, if there had been any other-.”

“I know. You saved my life.” I gripped his forearm. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I wish-.” I stopped, hugged him, and ran back to my mom’s side. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but it didn’t matter.

“What’s all this about?” Mel asked staring pointedly at River.

I sighed. “There was something that I thought you should know.” I said, sliding my arm through my mom’s. “Before… when the guys went into the store to get supplies, there was a zombie standing outside my window.”

“So, they do that.” Someone from the other side of the room scoffed. I didn’t bother to look for the owner of the voice. Instead, I focused on Mr. Jackson, who I felt would be the most likely to understand what it could mean.

“That’s the thing. They don’t. When they scent, or spot, or hear you, they come after you. They don’t just stand in place staring at you.”

“What if it thought it heard you?” A woman’s voice this time. “But it wasn’t sure. They don’t seem to be able to see.”

“I honestly hadn’t thought about that. But this zombie didn’t have the glazed eyes that I’ve seen on almost every zombie I met.” I pointed out. “I mean it was staring and didn’t blink, but the eyes weren’t covered in that film.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” Mel said, bracing his elbows on the back of the chair in front of him.

“Maybe not, but we need to be aware of the possibility.” I shot him a look. “This zombie didn’t look or act anything like the others. Its skin wasn’t pale and it wasn’t bloody. It just looked like an ordinary guy out around town.”

“Still not seeing what the commotion is.” The scoffing man again.

“Fine, the short of it then. It opened the car door.” It was suddenly so quiet, I was sure I could hear a leaf drop on the roof.

“That is not something to joke about.” Scoffing man’s voice said after a moment.

“Why don’t you come forward, if you’re going to keep shouting out comments, Mr. Buchannan?” Mr. Jackson stated. The crowd parted and a man easily as old as Mel stepped forward. He walked with a heavy limp to his right side. He stared at me with vivid blue eyes that stood out from pale skin and white hair.

“You imagined the whole thing. You weren’t in your right mind.” He stated bluntly staring at me.

I met him face on. “This was before my father.” I said.

“And you remember this so easily after the trauma?” Mr. Buchannan asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Actually, I knew about it before the incident.” Gabriel stepped forward to stand next to me. “We were discussing it before… well before.”

“Did you see it?” Mel seemed completely happy to let Mr. Buchannan voice his doubts. I shot him a look before turning my attention back to the argumentative old man.

Gabriel never looked away. “No.”

“So how do you know that she’s telling the truth?”

“My daughter does not make up stories, sir.” My mom clapped her hand over mine.

“So what are you saying?” Mr. Jackson asked, cutting Mr. Buchannan off.

“What if it thought? Or remembered?” Gabriel asked the silent room.

“Preposterous!” Mr. Buchannan snapped, thumping his cane on the floor.

“Look,” I narrowed my eyes at him, “until a few days ago, we didn’t even know zombies existed. How do we know what they are capable of?”

“None of the zombies I have seen have been able to turn a doorknob, nonetheless open a car door.” Mel stated, moving to stand next to Mr. Buchannan. The line was being drawn and the table between our two parties was the divider. “How do we know you didn’t open the door?”

“What?” I asked. “I’m just gonna open a door and let zombies get at me?”

“You have shown a certain level of instability so far.” Mel reminded me. “Rushing off to the guard posts. Risking your and Mr. Wilson’s lives just to check on your father.”

I stared at him, my mouth hanging open. “Is that what you think? That I’m insane?” I asked.

“You have done little in the terms of self preservation-.” Mel started.

“Except survive for several days alone.” River interrupted. “Which is more than most of you can lay claim to.”

Mel’s face boiled red. “Which can’t be proven.”

“What do you think I did, Mel?” I asked my own anger showing through my tone. My mom pulled at my hand and I forced myself to relax my fingers. “There was no one waiting for me anywhere. I was sent home from school-.”

“Why?” Mr. Buchannan asked, as if he expected me to say something along the lines of causing problems.

“I watched my teacher drop dead right in front of me. So did the rest of my class.” I said as coldly as I could.

Mr. Jackson came over to me. He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. “Tell me exactly what happened.” I did, meeting him gaze for gaze. “I don’t think she’s lying, Mr. Melburn.” He said after a few minutes. “I remember pushing the door closed and hearing it click before I gave her a weapon.”

Mel blustered. “Are you telling me that a sixteen year old girl pushed a truck horn, knowing that zombies would come after her-.” He broke off. “That zombie could have been attracted to the noise. And she could have kicked the door open on accident.”

“Most cars require you to pull a handle in order to open the door.” I stated.

“I have seen her protect Abby and we all know what she did for the kids.” River stated. “Frankly, if she didn’t try to save the men in the store, I wouldn’t have believed it.” He was focused on what Mel had started to say.

“I am sorry, but I am not likely to listen to a girl barely out of diapers.” Mr. Buchannan snapped. “She has been nothing but trouble since she arrived here.”

“There is something else.” Gabriel said, ignoring the old man. “Has anyone else suddenly lost their cats before everything started?”

Several people shifted uncomfortably. “Oh, now we’re worrying about cats?” Mr. Buchannan asked, feigning shock. “Fluffy ran away did he?”

“Shut up!” I barked. “You are an idiot if you’re not seeing the connections here. All we know about zombies has come from fiction. We don’t know what they are really like. We have no clue what they are capable of. Or what the writers got right. It is entirely possible that the zombies could be somehow mutating or evolving. The fact that the cats started vanishing is something we need to think about seriously. It could mean something.”

“Yeah. The zombies ate them.” Mr. Buchannan supplied.

“No. I have seen raccoons, skunks, dogs, deer… animals. I have seen animals in amongst all the humans. The two nights I stayed in that tree I had a great view of what was gathering below me. Trust me when I say I never saw one cat amongst them.” I was seriously getting tired of the old man.

“And in my neighborhood, several cats went missing a week or so before everything happened. We thought it may have been someone stealing cats. But if they aren’t turning up in the zombie ranks, then maybe the cats knew something was happening and fled.” Gabriel added.

Mel suddenly started laughing. “You’re telling me that you two teenage kids think that the zombies are mutating and that cats have something to do with it?” Gabriel and I both nodded. “This is crazier than fiction.”

“That’s my point.” I said. “That’s my point exactly. All we know is based on fiction. What if fiction had some of it right, but not all of it? What if there really is a mutation? Or some way that cats-?”

“Enough.” Mel barked. “I am not going to listen to some kids telling ghost stories. People are already scared of zombies. What are you trying to do? Scare them even more?”

“No.” I said quietly, staring at him. “But we should be prepared. Let’s say we’re right. We need to advance our defenses. Those cars in the road, if those are your ‘posts,’ they won’t work if we have thinking zombies. We need to start working on something better. A wall. We could cut down some of these trees and build walls at both ends of the shelf.”

“And let’s say you’re wrong. Then all the extra work will be for nothing.” Mel slammed his hand on the table. “What you are asking is pure nonsense.”

“No, it’s not. I would rather be wrong, but we would be more defensive in either case.” I said.

“I have heard enough.” Mr. Buchannan snapped. He stomped around the table, cane smacking the floor in frustration, and walked past us.

“Ok, people. We’ve heard enough ghost stories. Dinner will be ready soon.” Mel was closing the discussion. “We can go about our business. Nothing to worry about, people.”

Tears started to pool in the edges of my eyes. “What if we’re right?” I asked again, but Mel ushered people from the dining hall.

He snagged my arm as he was passing and dragged me through the doors with him. Gabriel and River started to come after me but Mel snapped, “Stay here if you know what’s good for you.” Neither boy stopped until I nodded at them. I heard the implied threat and I wasn’t about to risk them on something as stupid as a reprimand. Outside, he pulled me down the road toward the stable until we were clear of everyone before he released me. “What do you think you are doing?” He hissed at me.

“Make you see reason.” I replied, angrily wiping the tears from my face.

“The supply run was supposed to make you value what you have here. Not make you become paranoid and delusional.”

“I am not delusional.”

“Are you listening to yourself?”

“I know exactly what I am saying.” I snapped. “You are delusional if you don’t take this seriously.”

He shook his head. “You are extremely lucky, Cleo, but don’t push it any farther than that. If I didn’t-.” He stopped and my flesh nearly crawled from my body. “Start towing the line, Cleo. Or you will regret it.” He turned and stormed away.

I went back to the cabin, to see my mom and Abby already there. River and Gabriel appeared shortly afterward. No one said anything. When the dinner bell rang, River, my mom, and Abby were the only ones to get up.

“Come on, Cleo.” River said, holding a hand out for me.

I shook my head. “I’m not going in there. Not after he made me out to be some crazy person.”

“Alright.” He sat back down.

“We can eat in here tonight, then.” My mom offered. “Who can help me get trays for everyone?”

River sighed and stood up. “Five trays.” He gave Gabriel a look.

“I’m not hungry.” I said. I turned to lie on my side. “You guys go eat. I think I just want to get some sleep.”

No one agreed with it, but eventually they all left. Once they did, I found the tears that were missing when my mom was crying. Only these tears weren’t for my father, but for the humiliation of ignorance. I cried myself to sleep before anyone returned.

I was woken up this morning, along with Abby and my mom, because Mel was banging on the door. It seems that I have a guard until I’ve “had a chance to think things over and calm down.” Mel’s words, not mine. Though if the guard is supposed to protect me or prevent me from doing something stupid… well, I can tell you my guess.

This morning, I feel like all my energy was sucked out of me. River and Mr. Jackson suggested we go for a ride today. My mom and Abby are supposed to come, too. Apparently, Mel saw it in his heart to let her have a few days off of work detail.

I wish that it was Mel Gabriel shot, instead of my dad. But all I can do is hope that River was right and Mel would get what’s coming to him.

Go Back to Day 14

  1. cb says:

    You are on fire …

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