Turns out the sofa pulls out into a bed. Who knew? Well, Beth, apparently.
The next day, Gene comes round with a pair of glasses. We know better than to ask where he got them from. They’re not quite perfect and we have to cut the arms down to size so they’ll fit, but Kim can just about see again and, as the only thing I can think to do is prepare her for the great escape, that’s the important thing.
We walk down to the river, towards The Last Drop. Another one of Tom’s customers, Greg, turned last night. Six days. Either the infection’s gotten stronger or we’re just giving up faster. I sort of hope it’s the latter. Not because I particularly plan on going down fighting, but because if it gets much worse than this, I probably won’t last tonight, let alone the next four days.
“The music’s loud,” Kim says, as we approach the bar.
“I’ve never heard this song before,” She tilts her head to the side and listens. “I like it,”
I look down at her and then back towards the bar, listening too. Little white flowers will never waken you, not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you. “I don’t know... it’s pretty fucking sad,”
It’s her turn to shrug. “Do you know who sings it?”
“Why? Were you planning on downloading it when we got home?” I push open the door to the bar and wave her inside. “Not sure we’ve got enough bandwidth left this month, kid,
I let the door swing shut behind us. I’m not exactly sure what Tom’s policy on minors is but a ten year old that comes complete with her own gun and an appreciation for Billie Holiday can probably go down as an exception to the rule. Whatever his official ruling on the matter, Tom doesn’t seem to care right now. He nods at us as we enter and I give Kim a nudge in the direction of the jukebox. Might as well foster good taste. She pays no attention to the four remaining drunks, but a couple turn their heads in her direction as she passes by, then glance over at me.
“Beth getting too old for you, Mimi?”
I turn round to see who made the comment, squinting into the dim light. A wise guy called Frank, with about a day and a half left. The kind of guy no one is going to be sad to see go, but also the kind of guy no one’s willing to help along the way. The kind of guy who deserved exactly what he got when he tried to stash food and supplies out beyond the wall.
“If you want me to finish you off early, Frank, you have to ask nicely,”
Frank gives a low chuckle. “How long you got left?”
“Longer than you,”
Frank drains his drink and slams the glass down on the table. “More fool you if you think that’s a good thing,” He gets to his feet and stumbles towards me. His breath smells like death and bad liquor. I waft away the stench and lean towards Tom.
“We gotta get you some better product,”
Tom says nothing, continuing to polish the glass in his hand. Frank looks me up and down as I lean against the bar.
“You don’t look so healthy,”
“Funny, I feel fine,” There it is again. The lie I’ve been spitting out for the last couple of days. But I’ve never willed it to be true more than now.
Frank lunges forward and grabs my ass with a lecherous grin. “Yeah, you know you’re right. You do feel fine,”
I try to push him away from me but he’s heavier than me and I was clearly lying about not feeling like shit. I hear the sound of glass against wood behind me. Tom has put the glass down. If money meant a damn thing anymore, I'd bet on his hand being beneath the bar, wrapped around his gun. Frank better watch his step. He does. He lets go of my ass and presses a hand to my forehead instead, his face close to mine.
“Oh no, but here? Here, not so much,”
He finally lets me go and takes a step back and I can sense Tom relaxing behind me. I try to hide the sigh of relief that forces its way out of my mouth. But it’s a little harder to disguise the sound of a gun being cocked, especially when I’m not expecting it to come from somewhere behind Frank.
“You should leave Mimi alone,” a small voice says, straining to be heard over the jukebox.
That’s the thing about a little girl with a big gun. Even these days, it gets everyone’s attention. You know she won't use it. But what if she does?
“Kim, it’s all good,” I look Frank up and down as I say it and give what I hope looks like a nonchalant shrug. “He’s not worth it,”
“He’s been bit?” she asks, peering out from behind the hammer.
“We’ve all been bit,” one of the drunks calls out from his darkened corner of the room, following it with a gravelly cackle. “When you’re done with him, kid, how about you put a bullet in me, too?”
“Yes, Kim, Frank’s been bit. Everyone here has. Except you and Tom,”
“But you don’t want me to shoot him?”
“No, I don’t,”
“I do,” Frank puts in.
“Don’t make me cut you off, Frank,” Tom’s deep growl emanates from the gloom of the bar and Frank, after throwing a vicious glare my way, finally backs off and sits back down.
As I watch him slink away, I’m suddenly grateful I didn’t make a habit of visiting this place. This is rock bottom, where the only things you can rely on are a too loud jukebox, an out of date beer, and Tom and his rifle when the end comes. I grip the handle of the gun Elise gave me, still tucked into the back of my jeans. No one’s finishing this job but me.
I let the gun go and hold my hand out to Kim. She hesitates, then lowers her weapon. She stuffs it back into her bag as she walks over to me. Her lips move as she passes Frank’s table and, even though he’s retreated into the shadows, I can still see him react. I don’t ask her what she said but by the way Frank’s shrinking ever more into the darkness behind him, I don’t think it was particularly nice. I pat the stool at the bar beside me and she climbs up. The bag lands on the surface in front of her with a loud, metallic thud and, out the corner of my eye, I see Frank flinch. I smile. I might be able to work with this kid.
“Russell says you might have batteries,” I turn to Tom, who has once again picked up his glass and his filthy rag.
“About the only guy in town who does,” he says, reaching under the bar. He pulls out a cardboard shoebox and places it gently on the bar.
“What do you need? No charge,”
“Me or the batteries?” I catch just the glimmer of a smile and open the box to examine a few. “Hey Kim, what size did we need?” She dives into my bag and starts rummaging around inside.
“Double A,” I repeat, pulling out a few and placing them on the counter. I hold out my hand to Kim and she presses the handle of the megaphone we’ve brought with us into my palm.
Tom puts down his glass and fumbles in his pocket, pulling out a quarter. He slides it across to Kim, who eyes it warily. “Why don’t you go pick a song?” I nod and she takes the coin and goes back over to the jukebox. Once she’s safely out of earshot, Tom gives me a grilling. The last thing I expect from him.
“What the fuck are you doing, Mimi?”
I hold up the megaphone. “Gotta work on her shooting. I’m going to use this to call a few infected to the opposite shore,” I open up the handle and insert a few batteries with a shrug. “Fish. Barrel. Kid needs practice,”
“No, I mean what the fuck are you doing? Playing fucking families?”
“You’ve been bitten,”
“Really? No one told me,” I click the back onto the megaphone’s handle and shove it back into my bag. “Look, the situation is pretty fucking far from ideal, I know. But she knows I’ve been bitten. She knows I only have a few days. And I know you guys are gonna have to go without me-”
The realisation had hit me like a ton of bricks at the meeting. There’s no way the others could have avoided seeing it too. And it hurt more than the bruises all over my body and was more uncomfortable than the fever and suddenly the most important thing wasn’t how far the infection has spread, but the fact that when it does come for me, I’ll be alone.
I’m not leaving with the others. I’m staying right here. I can’t go with them, even if they leave before my week is up. I’ll slow them down and then I’ll change and then someone will have to kill me all over again and you can guarantee I’ll take someone down with me because that’s just kind of person I am. Was. The kind of person I was. They have to leave me here. They have to. And I have to stay.
“No, Tom. That’s what’s going to happen. And I’m fine with that.” As fine as I could be, anyway. “But when her mom turned, I was the one that got her out of the house. I’m the reason she’s here. I’ve got to take responsibility for that and if that means hanging out with a ten year old for a couple of days, then so be it,” I pull the strap of my bag onto my shoulder. “She asked to stay with me, Tom. What possible excuse could I have given? I’m too sick to help with the move, I’m too sick to go out past the wall, no one needs me,”
Tom picks up his glass and starts polishing again. The sure sign he’s backing down from the fight. Doesn’t mean I’ve won though. “Didn’t have you pegged as someone who liked to be needed,”
“I don’t like to be needed,” I give a small smile. “I like to be busy,”
Tom raises an eyebrow and, once again, I see the shadow of a smile cross his face. He doesn’t completely believe it and as I call to Kim to get ready to leave and see her standing on her toes, face pressed against the jukebox, I don’t completely believe it either.
She eventually settles on an old Tom Waits track. It’s the liveliest thing I’ve ever heard coming out of these four walls. Judging by the way a couple of Tom’s drunks are reacting, they probably feel the same. One gives Kim a boozy thumbs up as we head for the door. “Good choice, kid,” She smiles, a little awkwardly, and we leave.
The air outside seems fresher, our safe zone somehow bigger after the confines of the dark and dingy Last Drop. I squeeze Kim’s small shoulder. “Billie Holiday,”
“Billie Holiday sang that song,”
That’s the nearest I’ll get to saying thanks. I think, I hope she understands.
Jesus Christ. A ten year old having my back in a bar? Crazy fucking world.