The return trip back was quiet and not a single person stayed behind in the Town at Chris’ request. They had lost two members tonight, Charlie had begged to die after Rachel had, and Chris had been weighed down with the grief and regret that killing two people had brought even if they had asked for it.
“What was back there? That made you want to leave so quickly?” Cheyenne asked him quietly, but the group was so silent that they could all hear every word spoken.
“There-” Chris faltered, and Isabelle who had accompanied him in the back was quick to inform them when it seemed that Chris couldn’t.
“They kept infected back there, but they kept them caged like animals, and they kept people back there. Those who were healthy. For testing. They were in so much pain, so much that they couldn’t even scream and they were dying but not because of the disease. They were dying because of those people.”
Gwen shuddered. With the sudden disease, the world of crime had disappeared. People stopped murdering in cold blood once they had realised that people were dying off or getting infected too quickly and that they were only speeding up the defeat of the world.
“That’s sick.” James said quietly.
“It’s…” Cheyenne grasped for the right word to say. “I thought that maybe people had just given up on being cruel to others. People should have given up hurting people. Isn’t the disease doing enough of that?”
“Maybe they were testing for a cure too? I mean, he was a doctor and I’m willing to bet some of the others were too.” Leigh said, shrugging when they glanced at her. “Doctors have to swear an oath to help people right?”
“I guess, but they were in cages. Why would they be kept in cages?”
No one had a good answer to that.
It was beginning to get dark by the time they had gotten back to the camp, quiet and solemn.
“Go get some food.” Chris told the group. “I’ll go inform Victor that we’re all back and then we’ll decide what to do from there.”
There weren’t any arguments and the group slowly trekked towards where they usually ate their food. There wasn’t much left over, but it seemed that no one really had an appetite anyway. Witnessing death did that to you.
“Do you really think that Doctor Liam was trying to help those people?” Someone whispered, though they all heard it. “I mean, I saw those people, and it didn’t look like they were being helped. They looked…” She trailed off, and another picked up her sentence.
“They looked broken.”
“I could lie to you all and say that I’m sure that Liam is a good man, but I don’t know if that’s true.” Cheyenne said. “But, if we do go back, we’ll be on our guard.”
“There was something about him that didn’t seem right.” Kel said. “He didn’t seem like the kind of man that you would leave a young child with.” He said next to a muscled man who he had become fast friends with once he had been offered a cigarette. Though Gwen didn’t exact condone the habit, she was pleased to see that Kel seemed to more himself now.
“He looked like the people from the City do.” Ariana said. “Like he cared about the people under his care, but didn’t care about who he had to hurt to keep them safe.”
Chris joined the group at that point, looking even more worn down and tired. He sat down next to Cheyenne, and smiled the slightest bit when she nudged his shoulder. She grabbed his hand and gave it a comforting squeeze and Gwen - though not overly surprised at the development - wondered how long they had been together.
She realised now that in the time she was gone that the world didn’t just stop. It had kept going without her there, and she hated that. Hated how uninvolved she was in her friends life. She didn’t know anything about them anymore. Was James in a relationship? Had he been in once since she’d been gone or had he not bothered? She hated that she didn’t know Cheyenne better, and that she didn’t know how their relationship had started. She wished that she had been around to see all of it happen.
“So what’s the plan?” Isiah asked. “Do we go back and hope for the best?”
“We’ll send some scouts into the town and see if they can find any information on these people.” Chris said. “And once we think it’s safe, we go back to the hospital and we try to get the resources that we found today. Those things could help even if we can’t use the hospital.”
“And then what?” One of the men asked. “Say we find something but we need access to the lab in the hospital, do we go to the Doctor Batshit and ask him if we can borrow his lab? What if he says no?”
“Then we take the lab by force.” James said quietly. “If we need the lab, we’ll get it.”
“But that’s best case scenario.” Someone else said. “What about worst case scenario?”
“We hope for the best.”
Sleep didn’t come easy that night and when it did, it was fitful. By the time Gwen had managed to get a small amount of sleep, it was time for her to get up.
Cheyenne was the first person she saw upon walking out of the tent, the rest of the camp strangely empty. Feeling trepidation, Gwen walked over to the girl. “Where is everyone?” She asked.
Cheyenne gave her a kind smile and tilted her head to the side. “Follow me.” She said, her voice light, and she giggled like a small child.
Gwen felt rather confused but followed after Cheyenne. She was forced to stop when Cheyenne turned around, giggling again. “What’s going on?”
Cheyenne didn’t answer, merely grabbed Gwen and spun her around. “Look!” She exclaimed, clapping excitedly.
Gwen felt her stomach revolt. “What?-” She asked, shaking her head and rubbing at her eyes. “What happened?” Her voice raised a pitch, and she ran over to someone, grabbing their wrist and feeling for a pulse. There wasn’t one.
Gwen knelt down to the next person, and again there was no pulse. Again, and again she checked for pulses, quickly getting hysterical when she found all of her friends. “What happened?” Gwen cried, and Cheyenne laughed again, like a child playing a game.
“You killed them all Gwen!”
“No! I didn’t- I wouldn’t-”
“But you did!” Cheyenne said, the happiness was gone in an instant, and Cheyenne became angry. “They’re dead! Because of you!”
“I didn’t do this!” Gwen cried. “This is just a mistake.” She sobbed.
“A mistake? All these people are dead because of you.” Cheyenne’s voice went scarily calm. “You killed Ryan, so what would stop you from murdering all these people?”
“This is all your fault.”
And then the next words made her blood turn cold, they were still spoken by Cheyenne, but the voice wasn’t hers.
“You’re a monster.”
The voice was Ryan’s.
Gwen jerked awake with a cry, sitting upright. She breathed hard, choking slightly on her tears.
“Gwen?” A sleepy voice asked, scaring her. She turned to see Riley rubbing at his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” She said, and her voice shook far too much to be believable. “Everything is okay.”
Riley gave her a glance before sighing. “If you say so.” He glanced towards his watch and stretched. “We should be getting up now anyway.”
She nodded, still struggling to compose herself. Her hands trembled when she pushed back the blanket, and she could feel Riley watch her every move.
“Are you alright?” He asked.
“I will be.”
Riley nodded, and gave her a worried glance. “Listen, I’m sorry about the other night. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“It’s fine. I deserved it.” Gwen stood and started to unzip the tent, pausing when Riley said her name. She turned to look at him, and he offered her a smile that looked too sad for her liking.
“If you need someone to talk to, we are here for you. We’ve all lost someone.”
“Thanks, Riley but I think I’ll be okay.” She continued unzipping the tent and stepped out, automatically looking around at the people. There were a lot more people than there had been in her dream and she felt reassured by that. She saw Cheyenne a little ways away, but despite the fact that she knew it had only been a dream, she wasn’t brave enough to approach her.
“Gwen.” Hayden called, greeting her with a smile. “Chris was looking for you. He’s by the water.”
“Thanks Hayden.” She started to make her way towards the water before turning back towards him. “Do you know why?”
“Nah, but he looked pretty serious.”
Shit. “Okay.” Chris won’t yell at me, at least. She tried to reassure herself. He’ll just be real quiet and make me feel terrible, but at least he won’t yell.
She made her way towards the water, watching Chris stand at the edge of the water. “Hayden said you wanted me.”
“Yeah.” He turned to face her. He didn’t look angry, just more subdued. “Zeke should be back today.”
“Are you going to be able to tell him?” Chris asked.
She hesitated. On one hand, she felt like she should be the one to tell him as soon as possible, but on the other she was absolutely terrified of telling him.
“You have to, Gwen.” He told her. “You can’t just expect for someone else to tell him. He deserves to hear it from you.”
“I know.” She said, biting her lip. “But I just don’t know how he’ll take it.”
“He’s going to take it hard.” Chris told her grimly. “He’s spent every waking moment looking for Ryan, and he’ll be crushed when he hears the news, especially when he finds out he went with you, and you returned without him.” She flinched like his words had physically struck her. “But he needs to know.”
“I know.” She repeated.
“And I also wanted to tell you that we’ll be going out again in a few days. You can stay behind, it’s not necessary for you to come, but you’re welcome to if you want to.”
“Yeah, I want to.”
“Zeke will probably be coming too.” He informed her. “If there’s going to be problems between you, I don’t want you there.”
“About what you said the other day, no hard feelings, alright?”
She offered him a relieved smile. “Alright.”
“Good. Now let’s go see if we can snag some food before everyone else tries to.”
Zeke made an appearance at midday, looking tired and older than Gwen ever remembered. “Nothing.” He said at the questioning glances. His eyes scanned the room, falling on her, and they lit up the slightest bit.
“Gwen?” He asked, and she clamped down on any rising panic.
“Hey Zeke.” She said, offering him a smile. She couldn’t help but wince at the slight shake in her voice. “Mind if we go talk?”
It was better to get it done now, she knew that, but that didn’t mean that she wished that she could wait a few hours to brace herself.
“Okay?” There was a suspicious note in his voice even as he followed her away from the campsite. She sat down on the grass after she deemed it a safe distance away from people who were far too nosey and gestured for Zeke to sit as well. Once he did, Gwen took a deep breath.
“You can stop looking for Ryan.” She told him quietly.
“You found him?”
Gwen hesitated, unsure of what to say. “Why don’t I start from the beginning?” At his nod, she started, and she told him everything. She didn’t cut parts out, not even the kisses, because Zeke deserved to know everything. She told him the full version, told him every single little detail, and by the time she had fallen into silence, tears had beaded in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry.” She told him quietly, but he didn’t answer. His breathing hitched, and even without looking up she knew that he was crying.
“He’s gone?” He asked, sounding far too much like a young child who had just been told that Daddy wasn’t coming back.
“Yeah.” She said, her voice shaking. She bravely reached out, grabbing his hand and squeezing it. He didn’t squeeze back, but he didn’t drop her hand or push her away so she considered it a victory.
“It’s all my fault, and I’m so sorry. I would die in his place if that meant that he could still be alive here today.”
“It’s not your fault.” He said quietly. “Ryan always wanted to help everyone, always wanted to save everyone. It’s just sucks that he couldn’t save himself in the end.” Tears ran down his face in rivers, and he swallowed back a sob. “He wouldn’t have been able to live happy if he had known that he had sent you off on his own and he’d never be able to kill someone.”
“He killed Jared.”
“That was different. Jared was sick and he was a risk. He wasn’t you.”
“What’s so special about me? I was a risk too. I’m still a risk.”
“You’re young.” He told her.
“And? We’re all young.”
Zeke looked away from her, suddenly finding interest in the grass. “Ryan and I, when all this shit started we saw some things that are hard to forget and before we came here there had been this girl who would have probably been about your age. We had been alone and she sneaked up on us. She attacked us and tried to kill us. She had a shank in her hand and she had grabbed me. She had been about to kill me.” He laughed, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “And Ryan had shoved her but she just wouldn’t let go, so he did the only thing that he could think of, and threw a punch. It was only supposed to stun her, but the force behind it killed her instead. She had just been a girl, and no matter how much I tried to tell him that it was okay, that he had saved me, he couldn’t let it go.”
“So that’s why he wouldn’t kill me?”
“Stupid, I know. But he still carried that guilt around.”
“I’m sorry.” She said again, but he shook his head.
“Don’t be. It was his choice.” Don’t be.
“Those were Ryan’s last words.” She said suddenly, her voice catching. “Don’t be. That’s the last thing he said to me.”
Zeke laughed again, the same laugh as before and scrubbed at his face. “Of course they were.”
They fell silent, and a few minutes later, Zeke spoke again.
“I wish I’d been there.”
“When he’d died?”
“No. I wish I’d been there when he made that stupid choice to go to the City with you, so I could’ve knocked him out and dragged him back to camp.”
“I wish you had been too.”
“Too late for wishing now though.” He said, sighing. “Now all we can do is hope that he’s having a better time now.”
Gwen nodded her agreement and they sat there through-out the rest of the afternoon, sitting in silence and very rarely breaking it. No one came down towards them, and she appreciated it.
“We should get back.” Gwen said softly once the sun had begun to set. “They’ll be wondering where we’ve been.”
Zeke nodded, and he stood, pulling her up with the hand he still held in hers. Instead of walking back though, he tugged her around to look at the sunset. They stood there, watching as the sun slowly descended and in the last few seconds of sunset, she heard Zeke whisper.
“Farewell, my brother. I only hope that the life following this one is easier.”