By the time I get back to the Last Drop, I’m feeling the strain. I check my watch. Another day of this and then I’ll be onto the hunger. Energy will begin to build again, as I eat everything I can find, desperately trying to avoid the one thing I’m going to need to eat eventually. Best if I’m on the outside by then.
Like most of us, Tom leaves the door open. It’s only really Elise who locks up when she’s not there. There’s a few inside, Frank amongst them. He’s the only one that looks up as I enter, twisting his body round from his position slumped over the bar to glance behind him. He doesn’t say a word, returning sullenly to his drink.
I squint through the darkness, shadows haunting the place even in the light of day, trying to study the faces of the few drinkers left within. I hadn’t even realised Emma was amongst them and now they’re down to four and Frank is the only one I recognise straight away and that’s only because he’s such a fucking asshole.
“Tom’s not here,” A voice pipes up from a booth in the corner. I walk towards it. Irene. “He’s out seeing to one of us,”
“That’s the one. The girl with the kid,” Irene nods solemnly, sipping at a creamy looking liqueur. The bottle sits on the table next to her. “How long you got, dearie?”
The mix of whiskey and cream is strong. It was never a drink I could stomach. But I slide into the seat opposite her and hold out my arm. I pull aside the bandage and all other scents are forgotten. In the dim light, I can’t see the bite itself but I’ve been looking at the black veins protruding from my forearm all day and the smell tells the story well enough. I push the bandage back into place.
“A few days then,” Irene says, reaching for the bottle. She tilts it towards me but I shake my head. I’m already dropping. Alcohol will only make it worse. She shrugs and tops up her glass. “I’m about to hit the hunger myself,”
“What about the others?”
“Well, let’s see,” She takes a sip and scans the room, her old eyes taking in the three other occupants. “Tate’s due soon,” She doesn’t bother to lower her voice. “He got bit with Lyla, you remember that?” I nod, but she’s already carrying on with the story. “Course, she stayed the other side of the wall. Dealt with the matter herself,” If Tate can hear her, and he probably can, he doesn’t let on. But it’s true what Irene’s saying.
They’d crept out one night, a romantic tryst Tate had tried to spin as an after dark foray for supplies. We didn’t push for the truth. Romance in the truest sense of the word was pretty thin on the ground these days. People sort of just fell together. There was something to be said about getting your kicks on the other side of the wall, maybe, but we weren’t going to be the ones to say it. Tate was hazy on the details, but they’d been caught by surprise. One infected turned into two, turned into a group of six or seven hanging around the house they’d been in. They’d taken them out and maybe it was the adrenalin or the speed at which it happened, but both of them only felt the bites when the last one was lying on the ground. It was then that Lyla had shot herself and Tate had come back to the wall with no supplies, but with a deadly limp and her head in a bag for his troubles. Credit to him, he’d still played by at least one rule.
I look over at him now, hunched over the bar, a few seats down from Frank. There’s no drink in front of him, instead an empty plate, covered in the bloody, sloppy remnants of whatever Tom thought best to serve this particular brand of customer, sits before him. Tate slides a finger through the mess. He’s hit the hunger. Recently too.
“What about her?” I jerk my head towards the final non-identified patron. She sits in a darkened corner and, though everyone is isolated, the feeling of exile that surrounds her is more self-imposed than that of the others. At least we know each other’s names. “I don’t recognise her,”
Irene shrugs her ancient shoulders. “Came across the river a couple of days ago,”
“It’s true,” She takes a sip of her drink and smiles at her glass. “Never thought I’d taste this stuff again. You did good stocking this bar, Mimi,”
“Thanks, Irene,” I appreciate the compliment, but press for more information. “But, I never heard of anyone new coming to town,”
“Well of course not. No one knows about her. ‘Cept us,”
“You kept it secret?”
“Oh no, honey,” Irene smiles. “We just don’t get many visitors down this way,”
It was a fair point. The only reason I ever made it this far down the river was to drop off supplies or to attend yet another funeral. None of us were really in the habit of stopping off for a quick beer and a chat. Things were bound to slip through the cracks. But things like this? “But Tom, he would’ve...”
“Now that’s a man with secrets,” Irene says. “Go on. Talk to her. You don’t have to sit here, humouring an old woman, y’know,” I get up to go, but she grips my arm suddenly, with a strength that belies both her age and her closeness to the end. “Say hello to my sister for me, would you?” I nod and she releases me. “Still holing herself up in that damn gun shop?”
My eyes drop to the bandage around her neck. To the spot, a few inches below my bite where the old woman’s fingers gripped my arm. No one’s told them. Was anyone planning on telling them? Shit. Shit, shit, shit. I sit back down.
“Irene...” I try to force the words out. She reaches forward and wraps her hands around mine.
“What is it, honey?”
“They’re, they’re leaving,”
“Oh,” There’s a sharp intake of breath, then Irene relaxes and gently pats my hands. “Well, good for them. High time they all moved on,”
“There’s a mob in the town. It’s for their own safety. We lost Marco the other day,” My words are coming faster than I can control them, a reflex action as I try to justify the fact that everyone here just got a little more isolated and a little more alone. “I’m sure she’ll come to see you,”
“She won’t,” Frank looks up from the bar. I’d almost forgotten he was there, or at least I’d managed to ignore him, as much as anyone can ignore a poisonous atmosphere emanating from one corner of the room. “Christ Almighty, girl, face the facts. They’d leave us here without so much as a bye or leave. And we wouldn’t even know they were gone, not till we ran out there with our eyes bleedin’, foamin’ at the mouth, lookin’ for somethin’ to eat and findin’ nothin’,”
“They wouldn’t do that,”
“Maybe not for you,” Tate’s voice shakes, a trembling that gives away how weak and hungry he feels, despite the plate of rotting meat he’s just devoured.
“So do something about it,” I say, looking around the room. “Give them a reason to miss you. Be useful,”
“Useful how?” A new voice enters the conversation, one I don’t recognise. The woman in the corner booth. The one from across the river.
I get up and walk over to her table. “Where are you from?”
“Across the river,” She sits back in the shadows, as if trying to hide her features from me, but before they swallow her up, I see dark skin and tight, black curls. “Before that, Lyon,”
“You’re French?” Frank’s voice carries across the room as he squirms in his seat to get a better look at the visitor.
“Your geography skills are impeccable,” A hand reaches out from the darkness and picks up her glass. “I was teaching at a university here when it happened,” The glass is returned to the table, emptied of its contents.
“How long you got?” I ask, indicating the chair opposite her.
She nods her approval and I sit down. It’s easier to see her now, and, despite her allowing me to sit with her, her expression isn’t overly friendly.
“A day or so. The emptiness has passed,”
I assume she’s talking about the hunger, which means Hell Hour is probably fast approaching. Roughly the same as Frank.
“What brought you here?”
She finally sits forward, moving into the dim light. The glass is back between her fingers. “I was thirsty,”
I bite back an exasperated sigh and get to my feet. I turn to address the whole bar, just as Tom returns from the cemetery. He nods at me as he enters, resuming his place behind the bar.
“They’re going to need supplies when they leave. I want to help them get some,”
“So go scavenge with them. Or you afraid another one will throw himself in front of an infected for you?”
I ignore Frank and continue on. “I was thinking we could make our own team. Head out for a couple of days, get what we can, bring it back,”
“The infected don’t attack their own kind,” Tate nods to himself. “We’d be safe out there,”
“Yeah, that's all well and good but I'd like to know what’s in it for me,” Frank leans back against the bar and stares at me.
“You’re already dead Frank. You don’t need to get anything out of it,” The old warning tone is in Tom’s voice as he polishes a glass.
I stare back at Frank for a moment, then reach back and close my fingers around the gun tucked into my waistband. I pull it out and he eyes it greedily, a flash of longing lighting up his dead eyes.
“They didn’t give you a gun, did they Frank?”
“Didn’t deserve it, they said,” he mumbles, almost as if to himself.
I figure he means Russell, but whoever refused Frank this last, small mercy was right. Ending it before the infection ends us a privilege, not a right, a luxury many of us didn’t have before the safe zone. And when you get bit because you hoarded food beyond the wall, you don’t get rewarded when the time comes. Which means I’m about to break the rules.
“You’ll be hitting Hell Hour soon,”
“So?” He never takes his eyes off the gun.
“So you’ll be faster. Stronger,” More useful, I think to myself. “Come beyond the wall, Frank. Help me help them. And I promise you, when the time comes I will put a bullet right between your eyes, and saw your head off myself,”
He finally tears his gaze away from the weapon and stares at me. “You could do it now,”
“You’re not worth the effort. Not yet,” I dare you to be, Frank, I dare you.
“You think you’re going to get a better offer, Frank?” Irene’s voice cuts across the room. She chuckles to herself. “I sure don’t,”
I make a show of putting the gun away, tucking in back into my jeans. Frank turns back to the bar, downs his the contents of his glass, and slams the empty vessel on the bar.
“I’ll do it,”
“Me too,” Tate says, pushing his plate away from him. “And I want the same deal. Put me down before I turn,”
“Done,” I’m not surprised Tate wants in. Maybe he thinks he can shake what happened to Lyla. Can’t blame him for trying.
“I doubt I’d be much help,” Irene says, pouring herself another glass of Irish cream.
“You can help me pack up the bar,” Tom says. “When I told Mimi she could take whatever she needed, I didn’t think she’d be taking my customers. I better keep at least one of you around to help me out,”
I smile gratefully at him and then turn to Irene. “I’ll make sure Elise stops by, too,”
“You do that, honey,”
I walk back over to the corner where the newcomer still sits, her glass refilled with an amber liquid. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You don’t know us. We don’t know you. I can’t ask you to help,”
“But you’re going to anyway, aren’t you?”
I don’t say anything, watching as she takes a sip of the drink in front of her.
“You’re the girl that brought the alcohol, aren’t you?”
“Do you know how hard it is to find brandy of this quality? Even before all this happened?”
I don’t. Of course I don’t. I don’t raid liquor stores for their highest quality product and I certainly don’t drink brandy.
She takes another sip and a slow smile spreads across her lips. “I will help you,” She holds out her free hand and I reach forward to shake it. “Elodie,”
“Mimi. And, thank you, Elodie,”
She smiles again. “Well, like I said. I was very thirsty,”
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