Chapter Twenty Six
With a heavy heart, Gwen exited the cell. She grabbed James’ arm, and gave him a watery smile. He visibly swallowed and with a sad look towards the couple, he sighed and walked away.
Eight people were alive, out of the seventeen they had come in with, which was better than what Gwen had been expecting, but she couldn’t help but wish that all seventeen people were leaving with them.
“So what’s the plan?” Nick asked, pale and swaying on the spot but he still looked as though he was ready to take on the entire world head-on. If there was anyone that Gwen would want to follow to the very edge of the world, it would be him. His determination never seemed to falter in any situation.
“We get you out of here, and then you run.” Lukas told them, and the group broke into quiet chatter. There was a suspicious tone to the murmurs, but she knew that they would follow Lukas anyway, whether they trusted him or not. James tensed next to her.
“We can’t go back to camp.” He said quietly, and the group fell silent. “If we do, we risk the people at the camp’s lives. None of us are healthy, god knows what’s wrong with us, and we could be contagious. This isn’t just the infection anymore; this is some new thing that was created by sick humans.”
“Liam will also want a group to follow after you.” Lukas told them. “Don’t risk your camp by leading them right to it.”
“Where do we go?” Ariana asked. “Staying here isn’t safe, and the camp isn’t an option, and the City has to still be looking for us, there’s no doubt about that. If they find us...”
“There might be more towns close by.” Gwen said. “I’ve been to places like this before, and there are always towns scattered around.”
“And what if they have people there like they do here? There’s no way any of us could escape them.” Kel argued. “Half of us probably won’t even make it there.”
There was a silent agreement, and Lukas sighed. “Figure it out later. We need to get moving, now. We’ve already wasted enough time.”
It was true. Any moment now and the rest of the other group would come up here. They would see the dead guards, and then they’d have no chance, not even if they tried to make a break for it. They were unevenly matched, in both numbers and strength. As James had said, none of them were healthy anymore. No repeats of what she had done would happen, no matter their determination.
“Let’s go.” Lukas said, not giving any of them time to argue with him. He was already out the door and they had no other choice except to follow after him. Despite all the arguments, no one wanted to stay behind in what could very well be ninth circle of hell.
So they left the cells behind, and Gwen felt uneasy at the thought of leaving so many people behind, especially with the knowledge that some of them could’ve made it out. Cheyenne could’ve definitely made it out if she had wanted, but instead she was staying behind.
Staying behind with the best friend that Gwen was leaving behind again.
But she didn’t have time to feel regret, though she felt as though there was a wave of sadness looming over her that was ready to crash on top of her in a breath-taking blow. Chris would die, this would be the last time that she would ever see him, and her heart broke and broke and broke.
And then James grabbed her hand, squeezing it. “We’ll be okay.” He said to her. “We’ll make it through this, for him.”
Lukas led them past the bodies of the guards and towards the corridor where Gwen had first met him. “We need weapons.” Nick said. “We’re defenceless without.”
“They’re in a storage room. I can take a few of you to go get them, but the rest of you will have to get out of here.”
“How many people do you need?” Zeke asked, his voice hoarse.
“Probably three. I’d rather the healthiest ones to come with me.”
“We’ll go.” Kel said, “Ariana and I are both somewhat healthy.”
“I’ll go too.” A girl said, stepping forward. Her hair was the colour of dark nights streaked with the colour of blood. Her pale skin was decorated with bruises, as though she had taken several beatings, but she looked otherwise healthy.
“Alright. The rest of you, go down the stairs to the first floor and go through the front entrance. There’s a building across the street that you’ll be able to get into, you’ll know the one when you see it. Don’t stop until you’re there, not even if one of you gets injured.”
It was sick that the world had come to this, that it had become a race and anyone who fell behind lost. Except, losing in this race wasn’t simply losing, it was dying.
The four separated away from the group, veering to the left while the rest of them went straight towards the stairs. It was unspoken, but they all agreed to be as quick and as quiet as they possibly could. There was no talking, and no one stepped too hard in fear that someone would hear.
There was a moment of panic when they reached the third floor, the sound of footsteps echoed up the stairs towards them. They froze and shared panicked looks. “What do we do?” One of the males hissed. Gwen couldn’t remember his name for the life of her and figured that it wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t get past the approaching person.
“I have a knife.” She whispered, and Nick turned to her holding his hand out. She handed him the knife, and the man gestured for them to stay where they were. He quickly descended the next set of stairs and there was a panicked cry from the person who had been coming up, though it was cut off with a gurgle.
“All clear.” Nick called quietly up to them, and they hurried to catch up to him. There was the body of a woman lying on the stairs, her blood staining the white floor and the blade of the knife. She had to be in her late thirties, if not mid-forties, Gwen judged by the moonlight colour that streaked through her hair with age. She stepped over the body, wondering who the woman was before all this. Did she have children? A husband?
She shook her head. She didn’t have the time to dwell over things like that. The woman was dead, and that was that. It didn’t matter who she was.
They continued down the stairs with no further issues and finally they reached the first floor. It felt surreal, their exit was so close. They would be free of this prison in a matter of moments.
They ran through the door, and Gwen almost collapsed with the feeling of fresh air on her skin. It had been so long since she had felt something this natural. The only thing that kept her going was that she knew if she collapsed now, she wouldn’t get back up.
“We’re close.” James told her, his hand still holding hers. He pulled on her hand, forcing her into a run. They were forced to stop for a moment, while Nick fumbled with the door on the building. It was unlocked, the handle twisting in his hand, but the door stubbornly wouldn’t budge.
“Shit. Do you think that Lukas guy set us up?” Someone asked.
“No.” Nick said, and threw his shoulder into the door. It moved the slightest bit, and with a grunt, he forced his entire weight into the door. It swung open and he stumbled ungracefully with the sudden movement. He took a moment to gather his bearings, and entered the building, waiting for everyone else to come inside before turning to close it.
“Don’t.” James said. “We had that much trouble with the door. They don’t need it too.”
“So we’re just going to sit here with the door wide open?” Zeke asked. “What if those people realise that we’re gone. This is the first place they’re gonna look if they see the door open. We might as well put up a neon sign saying ‘ESCAPEES ARE WAITING HERE FOR WEAPONS’.”
“He has a point.” Gwen said quietly as she reached for Zeke. She took his hand in her free one, and offered a comforting squeeze. There was a moment where she thought that he would shake her off, but he eventually squeezed back. His grip was tight, relaying his stress to her.
“I don’t want to be trapped in here if the door sticks again.” The male from before argued. “It’ll be a hell of a lot harder to get out.”
“Check if there’s another door?” Someone suggested.
It was such a simple suggestion, and Gwen almost laughed to think that none of them had thought of it.
They moved as a group through the building, and their search came up with two more doors that were fully functional.
Nick closed the door and leaned against it, exhaustion marring his face. “We’re not going to get far if we keep going on this way.” He said.
“To be fair, we are all stressed.” The same person who suggested checking for more doors suggested. “I just happen to keep my head on straight in these situations.”
“God, I’m glad you’re here Dave.” James mumbled. “We’d be lost without you.”
Dave flashed him a bright smile. “I know. That’s why I’m here with you lot and not back at the camp around a nice warm fire. You need someone to keep you lot from dying from the stupidest things.”
“I miss the camp.” The male from before said, and Gwen really needed to learn his name soon. “The dogs especially.”
“It’d be nice to have the dogs here.” Zeke said. “They’d be helpful in this situation.”
“We might be lucky and find a stray along the way.” Nick said. “We seem to have a habit of picking up strays, animals and humans alike.”
“You were a stray at one point.” Zeke reminded him, a small smile pulling at the corner of his lips. “I think you nearly gave James a heart-attack too.”
“I wasn’t scared.” James said, sounding exasperated. “I was just startled to see him standing there when he wasn’t there moments before.”
“I think you squealed.” Nick said. “And for the record, I was probably standing there for a few minutes.”
“I did not squeal.” James said indignantly. “That was just a shocked battle cry.”
“Sure.” Nick said, closing his eyes and yawning. “I could sleep for a year.” He mumbled, and there were sounds of agreement.
“I wish they would hurry up.” The man said. “What could be taking them?”
“Don’t worry so much, Oliver.” Zeke said, and Gwen silently recorded that to memory. “There are a lot of weapons. They’ll be okay.” Though there was a note of doubt in his voice.
“I hope so.” Gwen said quietly. “I don’t want to stay here for much longer.”
There were small sounds of agreement. They all knew that this place wasn’t safe, not even in the slightest. When hiding away from the people who resided in the hospital, it maybe wasn’t the best idea to stay in the building directly across from the hospital, though hide and seek logic told Gwen that sometimes the most obvious hiding places were the best ones.
“Do you think they’ve found a cure?” Dave asked quietly. “They stopped testing on us after a while.”
“I’d hate the see the cure in the hands of those people.” Nick muttered quietly.
“Maybe we grew too unhealthy for them to test on us.” Zeke said, though he sounded uncertain. “I mean, we’re all somewhat healthy here, but maybe they were worried they’d end up killing us. From too much strain or something.”
“Do you really think they’d be the kind of people who would worry about our wellbeing?” James asked. There was silence following his question, and no one had to answer.
“Did they test on you, Gwen? We heard screams...” Zeke asked, and Gwen bit her lip. Just the memory of the testing of the cure was painful. As if reminded, her muscles and joints began to ache, like she was some old man having run a marathon.
“Yeah.” She whispered. She went to say more, to tell them that she was okay, or that the testing had been like hell, but she had made it through it, that it had been torturous, but it was over now, but the words glued themselves to her throat and refused to leave her mouth.
“Bastards.” James growled under his breath.
“I hope that’s not us you’re talking about.” Ariana’s voice said, causing the group to whirl towards the back of the room. She held a bag in her hand and the other three stood behind her, likewise carrying similar bags. “Also, you should’ve kept an eye on the other doors; we got in without you lot even noticing.”
“What’d you get?” Nick asked ignoring the comment, though Gwen knew that he felt stupid. They all felt stupid, telling from the looks on their faces. What if it had been someone unfriendly? They had all let their guard down, expecting that anyone would just go in by the front door.
“Whatever we could grab.” Kel said. “We got most of our equipment, and Leah stole some of theirs, and compromised some of what we couldn’t take.” There was a slight fond tone in Kel’s voice when he spoke of Leah not in a yearning way that would be heard in a love-sick teenager’s voice, but more in a ‘I’m-proud-because-that’s-what-I-would-do’ way.
“We got guns.” Lukas said. “Enough for all of you, but not much ammo. There’s only what’s already in the guns, but they’re all fully loaded.” He sounded regretful.
“That’s great.” James said. “Thank you. It’s a lot more than we had.”
Ariana began to unzip the bag, starting to explain what they had collected. “There are some decent knives in here too. Some are really expensive collector’s pieces too.” She set it on the ground. “Take whatever you want.”
Gwen hung at the back of the group, watching as they forced their way towards the bags and squabbled over the knives and guns like young children.
“Don’t you want anything?” Kel asked, coming to stand next to her. She shook her head.
“No. Lukas gave me a knife earlier, and I don’t know how to use a gun.”
“I’d teach you if we weren’t, well you know.” He shrugged, and then offered her a slight grin. “I found a carton of cigarettes in the storage room.”
“Those things’ kill you.” She told him with a teasing tone to her voice. Her mood felt much lighter now that they were no longer in the hospital. Despite the guilt she felt, she pushed the thoughts of those whom they had left behind away.
“We’ll just add them to the list, though I think they’re a very low threat. They’d probably rank at the very bottom, just before cows.”
“A cow once tried to eat my hand.”
Gwen couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay, sure. If you say so.”
“I do say so.”
“As much as I hate to break up your conversation about cows.” Lukas said dryly. “But we need to get going.”
“You’re coming with us?” James asked.
“For a little while.” Lukas said. “I can’t go back in the hospital, but I can’t stay with you lot for too long.”
Lukas gave them a wry grin. “I’ve got my reasons kid. I’m also not young anymore, and nowhere near as... spritely as you people will be. I won’t be able to keep up.”
“We should leave.” Leah said. “Before they notice we’re gone.”
“How long will it take for them to realise we’re gone?” Dave asked.
“Not long.” Lukas said. “If they haven’t already. Go through the back door, and then to the right.”
They were quick to follow his directions, falling into a group formation. “Walk quickly.” Lukas told them. “But don’t run just yet. Save your energy.”
“Don’t have much of that left.” Nick said, huffing slightly.
“What I wouldn’t do for a good night’s sleep.” Oliver said wistfully. “And a decent home cooked meal, none of the canned stuff we ate back at camp.”
“I’d kill for a glass of milk.” Lukas said, and smirked at the looks he got. “What?”
“To be honest, I’d do anything to have all the things I had back at home. The food, warmth, comfort.” Leigh said and sighed the slightest bit. “I miss my cat.”
The group fell into companionable silence, no one having much more to say on that matter. Reminiscing left a bitter taste in Gwen’s taste, she hated to do it. She didn’t want to be reminded of the things that had been ripped away from her. They hurt to remember, because even if the infection magically stopped existing, she’d still never have any of those things back.
They hadn’t gotten very far by the time there was shouting from the direction of the hospital. It wasn’t easy to decipher, but Gwen knew without needing their words that they had realised they’d gone missing.
It meant that they were running again, except they were cornered. The City would still be out for their blood and now the group from the hospital would without a doubt want their heads. One wrong turn would take them into the hands of one enemy or another.
They had to run.
Gwen was sick of running and a small part of her hoped that maybe, just maybe, that they would just stop running.