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A Soldier's Heart

By Diana Palmatary

Action / Romance

Introduction

If anyone had told me that I would be fighting for my life outside of the Iraqi War, I would've just assumed that they were being ridiculous and moved on. Not even in my wildest dreams would I have believed that, one day, I would be fending off the dead. Sure, I enjoyed the occasional zombie movie, but I never believed that corpses would actually start rising from their graves outside of a Hollywood set.

Then there was the outbreak.

Now, I was on my own in a new world full of creatures that wanted to eat me, wandering from town to town, searching for supplies to keep myself alive.

Originally, I had been with a group of five others. We had been camped outside of Winder, Georgia in an abandoned farmhouse. It had been a pretty good set up. There had been a pure water source, plenty of food, decent shelter… But then the walkers came and we were overrun.

Walkers—that was what my group had come to call those who succumbed to the disease. It seemed to make everyone feel a bit more comfortable rather than calling them "zombies." I felt that it was an appropriate name. After the disease burned you out, your body would rise and return to walk the Earth once more. I had seen it happen a few times. It looked like a horrible way to go, right up there next to being ripped apart.

It was a few months after the start of this epidemic, and a few weeks after my last group's fall, before I met another survivor.

I had been resting on the roof an abandoned 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle, reading The Raven for what had to be the sixteenth time over the span of one month. Edgar Allan Poe was one of my favorite authors of all time, the other being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I had always had a thing for mysteries, even since I was little. I grew up wanting to be in law enforcement, but, instead, I ended up in the U.S. Military. Who knew?

"Hello?"

My head snapped up at the sound of a voice.

A man was approaching from up the road.

I did a quick assessment of him, noting his apparent age, height, and build. I also noted that he was wearing a Sheriff's Deputy uniform, complete with patrol hat. Not that it made me any less wary of him.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," the man apologized, raising his hands to show that he meant no harm. "I was just wonderin' if you needed a ride somewhere."

I didn't answer. Instead, I simply closed my book and tucked it into the pocket of my army cargo pants, all the while keeping my eyes trained on this man. I hadn't met many people after my group went down, but I had met enough before to know to be cautious of people, even those who appear harmless—especially those who appear harmless.

"My name's Rick," the man offered. "Rick Grimes. I'm not gonna hurt you."

"I know," I replied confidently.

While the man watched, equally as cautious, I grabbed the Barnet Jackal crossbow next to me. I had found it on an excavation through an Academy Sports and Outdoors. So far, it was my favorite weapon. It was silent, so I didn't have to worry about making too much noise and drawing walkers to me. Also, the scope was more than accurate. First time I tried it out, I managed to take down a walker from two hundred yards.

I scooted to the edge of the roof of the car and dropped down onto the asphalt. "Where did you come from?" I asked as I took a few steps closer to the man.

"Up the road a ways," he said. "I'm headin' up to Atlanta to look for my family."

I nodded in acknowledgment and shifted anxiously on my feet. I didn't quite know what to do, being presented with another living human after all this time. But I couldn't blame that entirely on the world having gone to shit. I had never been the sociable type. That was one of the reasons why I ended up in the army instead of in law enforcement, I supposed.

"Anyone else with you?" Rick inquired warily.

"No," I assured him, "not for a while now."

"Well, if you've got nowhere else to go, you're welcome to ride with me up to Atlanta."

I hesitated. After everything I had seen thus far, I wasn't too keen on joining up with another survivor. You could never quite tell who was trustworthy and who would just as easily kill you for your equipment as they would kill a walker. Not to mention that I had been avoiding the larger cities since the start of this apocalypse. It stood to reason that places with larger populations would have the most walkers.

But, then again, this Rick character didn't seem to pose much of a threat. He just had this look in his eye that almost made me think of him as someone innocent.

And the CDC was in Atlanta. If there was even a fraction of the government left, they would be protecting it at all costs.

I glanced up and down the road, making sure that the man was truly alone. I didn't want to put my trust in him and then suddenly find myself being the target of an ambush. Not that I thought this man would do something like that. But it was better to be safe than sorry.

"All right," I finally agreed. "Just let me grab my pack."

Rick nodded and watched as I disappeared behind the car.

I reappeared a few seconds later with a military pack hanging off one shoulder.

I followed him down the road to where a patrol car was parked. He went around to the driver’s side and stood outside of the car, waiting for me to get in before sliding in himself.

Yeah, he was definitely innocent.

"How long has it been since you ate?" I asked once we were on the move.

"A couple days, I guess," he said. "Why?"

I pulled my pack up into my lap and started rummaging through one of the side pockets. After a moment, I produced a bag of Jack Link's organic beef jerky. I tore it open, so that Rick wouldn't have to take both hands off of the wheel, and offered it to him.

Rick glanced over and laughed in delight. "Where did you get these?" he asked, fishing a cut from the bag.

"I managed to amass a pretty decent amount of food, rummaging through abandoned cars and supermarkets," I explained. "Some of the first things I grabbed were foods high in protein. I figured, if I was going to be fighting, I would need it."

"Well, thank you for sharin' what food you have, Miss…" He trailed off, realizing that he didn't know my name.

"Miller. Caterina Miller. You can just call me Cat."

"Thank you, Cat."

I nodded.

A silence fell while Rick tore into the jerky. It wasn't exactly uncomfortable, but it did set me on edge. I might have decided that I had nothing to fear from Rick, but I still knew next to nothing about him. All I did know was that he appeared to have been a Sheriff's Deputy and that he was on his way to Atlanta to find his family, whom he had somehow gotten separated from.

"What's your family like?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"My family?" Rick repeated, surprised by my sudden question. "Well, they're…they're wonderful. That's the only way I know to describe 'em. My wife, Lori, she…" His voice faded again.

I looked over and saw the pain on his face. I surmised that not knowing the fate of his family was taking its toll.

"I'm sure your family is fine," I said.

"I sure hope so," he said, his voice thick with emotion. He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat awkwardly, obviously not comfortable being seen in a vulnerable state by someone that he had only just met. "What about you?" he asked, trying to shift the attention away from himself. "Where's your family?"

I hesitated, not sure if I should answer him or just change the subject. I never was one to talk about personal stuff. I had been "aloof" for as long as I could remember. It was hard for me to talk to my own brother about a lot of things most of the time. When he wanted to know something, he often had to drag it out of me.

I leaned back into the headrest with a sigh. "I haven't seen them in a little over a year," I relented, deciding that it would be hypocritical to brush him off when he had responded so openly about his own family. Still, that didn't mean that I had to tell him everything. "I've been out of the country. I got back just a couple of days before this happened." I made a vague gesture out of the window.

"That must've been horrible," Rick acknowledged.

I shrugged. "I'm used to carnage."

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