Beth goes home. A little human interaction goes a long way and she says I need to sleep. She also says I’m not to go back to the bar. I don’t go to bed but I don’t go to the bar either.
I try to wipe some of the grime from my body using baby wipes but without running water, keeping clean has become a futile task. There’s a constant musk of body odour wherever you go and whoever you’re with, smudges of dirt on everyone’s faces, nails blackened and filthy. Like everything else, you learn to deal with it. The wipes are just to freshen up, to make you feel like you can face the day. The illusion of cleanliness. It almost works too. I change my clothes, the logic being that if I distance myself from everything to do with yesterday, then maybe yesterday didn’t happen. I don’t touch the bandage on my arm, though. I can pretend it didn’t happen all I want but if I take that bandage off and I look at the rotted flesh and smell my impending death, I’ll probably go right back to The Last Drop and this time no one’s bringing me home. I’ll spend the next six and a half days dead drunk and I’ll go to my grave with Beth mad at me and everyone else pitying me, just like they do the others who gave up on this losing battle.
For curiosity’s sake, though, I check the edges of the bandage. The skin is starting to blacken, veins turning inky and spreading up my arm. The infection is progressing just as it should. I throw on a jacket but roll the sleeves up to my elbows. Rule of the town. No one’s going to hate you for getting bitten but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to know about it.
The revolver is still sitting on my bedside table. I pick it up and tuck it into the back of my jeans. Just in case.
I make my way back to the main gate. I’m hoping Russell will have a job for me, something to pass the time. I’m still running a fever, but it’s more uncomfortable than incapacitating and I’ve not started throwing up just yet. I pass a few people on the street. All eyes flick to my bandaged arm but not a single opportunity to wish me “Good morning!” is missed. I’m still walking around, I’m still doing my job, I’m not dead yet.
I’m a scavenger. I work beyond the boundaries of the safe zone, looking for supplies to bring back. Scavengers work as part of a team, usually four, with two people keeping a look out while the others search for anything useful. With our dwindling numbers, we’d been working in twos and, even though it was forbidden, eventually we starting going it alone. It isn’t that dangerous, not too many infected around, but when you compare the risks we run against the amount of stuff we bring back, the ends really don’t justify the means. But I’ve got nothing to lose now and since the infected consider me one of them, I might be able to make myself useful.
Russell is off watch but that doesn’t mean he’s off duty. Ex-military, he fell in with us a couple of months back, after we had a nasty run in with other survivors a few towns over. Some people never learned to share their toys. Russell cuts a pretty imposing figure, standing on the wall, armed to the teeth, directing the few of us he has left. But aside from that, he’s one of the most decent people I’ve ever met and, if his awkward gesture at the barricade last night was anything to go by, one on a growing list of people who might actually miss me when I’m gone. And I don’t think it’s just because I’m damned good at my job. I find him outside his house, midway through an argument with Gene over, as usual, medical supplies.
“All I’m saying is that it’s out there. What Mimi brought us last night-”
“Gene, I’m not putting anyone else in danger,” Russell, in his slow measured tones, cut the doctor off. “Mimi got bit bringing those supplies in. I won’t lose another,”
“If you don’t send someone out, we’re going to lose a lot more than a scavenger, Russell,”
Gene’s threat is still hanging in the air when I interrupt. They’re quite a pair, Gene and Russell. The dark skinned little doctor, glasses falling down a crooked nose and a scruffy shock of greying hair and the huge soldier, bronzed by days of tramping through infected countryside, somehow maintaining a perfectly groomed head of blonde hair and accompanying moustache. In the old days, it might never have worked but somehow here, at the end of it all, they make quite the formidable team. Between the two of them, they’ve figured out ways to save us. But, as we slowly starve, tensions are beginning to show and, what’s more, I’ve got a feeling I’m on my way to becoming a pretty testy subject myself.
Gene is the first to react to my presence. It’s clear everyone was expecting me to do as everyone before me seems to have done. Waste my week in The Last Drop. He spouts some surprised nonsense about it being good to see me up and about. He asks about my wound. He moves forward as if to examine it, but I take a step back and shake my head. No sense in telling me what I already know.
“The rain helped,”
I don’t remember the last time I ate. I certainly don’t feel hungry. Is that good or bad? What’s the right answer to give? “Gene, we all know I’m dying. You can dispense with your diagnosis,” Avoid the question. Nice move.
“I can’t let you work in your condition,” Russell pre-empts my request.
My condition? My fucking condition? In all honesty, I’m floored. Not because he’s refused me but because the word ‘condition’ is so patronising that I could punch him. This is no time to be delicate, we passed that point long ago.
“I feel fine,” I almost growl the words. “I still have a long way to go,”
Russell shakes his head and we go into stalemate. I’m adamant I want to help and he’s just as adamant that I need to sit this one out. But I’ve got an ace up my sleeve.
“If you don’t let me go, I won’t tell you where I got the medicine,”
Gene’s face lights up. “You mean there’s more?”
I never got sick before it all happened. I can’t even remember the last time I had a cold. So I guess that when everything started going to shit, my priorities were food, water and having a safe place to sleep. It’s not like that for other people. There are things they need that aren’t so easy to find. Medicine is one of those things. You realise pretty quickly that the right pills are the difference between a full team and half of one. If one person is sick, you’ve got to leave another to take care of them. Sometimes people die and it’s not because they got bit but because they got sick and there was nothing you could do. It happened a couple of times along the way with our group, like that time one of the Marshall kids ate something with peanuts in it, some candy bar he’d found on the ground after days without food, and there he was, dying, because Epipens weren’t exactly easy to come by. There were even times we just had to leave someone behind, to let them die alone. These are the things you don’t think about, not unless you’ve thought about them all your life.
And of course, once you get the bright idea that maybe finding a few medical supplies might not be a bad idea, every other band of survivors has the same plan. We’re all chasing each other, not wanting to admit that the looters beat us all to the punch. Drug stores and the medication aisles in supermarkets went first. The hospitals held out a little longer, barricading themselves in, but even they were cleared out eventually. Ambulances were tipped over and raided in the street, people snatching morphine and IVs, moving dying people out the way to get at them. And here I am, with my little gold mine. Maybe I should feel bad for threatening to withhold the location. Maybe I do. And there’s no way I’ll die without telling them, they know that. But I’m pissed off now and the longer I hold out, the more people will struggle. “It’s your call, Russ,”
“Russell,” There’s a pleading tone in Gene’s voice. “What she brought back yesterday... it made a difference,”
Russell rubs his forehead. That’s his compromise gesture. His ‘alright, you’ve won this round, but I’ve got a couple of punches left in me’ move. He’s going to let me go but it’s going to be on his terms.
“Alright,” He steps down from the porch than runs around his house. Giving up the higher ground. “You can go. But you’re going to play by my rules, so listen up. Number one, I’m picking the rest of the team. And believe me, young lady, you are going as part of a team. Number two, Gene goes too. And he is your responsibility,”
It’s hard to tell who’s more pissed off. Me or Gene. Gene never wanted to go outside the wall and who can blame him? And I don’t want to be saddled with protecting someone who wouldn’t last five minutes out there alone. But we’ve both rubbed Russell up the wrong way this morning and, as always, he’s got his reasons.
“Before both of you start arguing with me, we all know that it was a fluke that you found those meds, Mimi. If there’s as big a stash as you say, I don’t want to waste time bringing back things we don’t need. I need someone out there who knows what they’re looking for,”
I’m about to tell him to write me a God damn list, but he cuts me off.
“That’s why Gene is going. And you, you’re in charge. If he doesn’t come back, it’s on your head,”
And that’s when it hits me. Why Russell is letting me go out beyond the wall and why he’s so adamant that Gene comes too. Because he thinks I’m going to do something stupid, that I’m going to run off and purposely get myself killed a few days in advance. We’re so used to that round here, to people giving in to fear, taking Elise up on her unspoken offer of an easy way out. Russell doesn’t want that for me. He wants me to go on fighting, right to the end. And making Gene go and making me take responsibility for him is one way of doing that. It’s a damn fucking risky way of doing it but, honestly, thinking back to the Last Drop last night, I can’t blame him for trying.
“Number three,” His voice pulls me back. “You’ve got two hours. You don’t find anything, you come back. Straight back. Is that understood?”
That’s clearly directed at me more than Gene who, I suspect, will be more than eager to get back, but I nod my assent regardless. It occurs to me that the conditions are meaningless, given what’s going to happen to me in what... one hundred and fifty something hours... but, thinking about it, it’s sort of nice to have the rules, to know that they still apply to me, to know that there’s at least one or two people that don’t want to see me completely lose my shit until absolutely necessary. His addition to the list of people who will miss me when I’m gone is official. It’s a pretty exclusive honour and I’m sure it’ll sit nicely next to the military commendations I know he’s got stashed away at home.
We’ve all got them, those last remnants of a life left behind. The little things we can’t get rid of. Like the books I can’t bear to throw out, because someone read and loved them once. Like the buckets outside the empty houses. And like, I suppose, the way we still let the ones who got bit hang around the town until the very end.
Rules established, all that’s left to do is set up and move out. Russell pulls together a team, three more backs for me to watch while we’re on the other side of the wall. Kate, a hard ass mother of four, her kids holed up under Elise’s watchful eye when Mom goes out hunting. Tough as nails, the whole damn bunch of them, not least because Elise taught the kids to shoot. English Rob, so called to differentiate him from American Rob. The distinction isn’t needed anymore, not now American Rob is dead, but some names just stick. He was over here on vacation when everything went to shit and he still cracks jokes about it being the best holiday he ever had. We all still laugh. And then there’s Marco, barely eighteen, but fast as all hell. He treats everything like it’s some sort of video game or TV show, which is good in way, because it means he can be damn resourceful, but stupid too, since there’s no bonus lives or restart button and dragging him back from the brink can be pretty fucking exhausting. It’s Marco’s inclusion that suggests to me more than ever that Russell hasn’t picked these people at random. Kate and her family. English Rob and the way he manages to boost morale with an old joke or two. Marco, a disaster waiting to happen. And Gene, our last doctor. Russell really doesn’t want me taking risks this trip, doesn’t want me and my remaining one hundred and fifty something hours to go fucking things up by getting reckless. Everyone has to come home and if that’s going to happen, I have to come home too. Clever son of a bitch.
We kit ourselves out at Elise’s and it’s with a small smile that she returns my knife to me. I tuck it away into my boot and pick up a Beretta. Elise hands me some rounds of ammunition and a suppressor. Kate’s kids run in from the street outside as I’m attaching the silencer to the barrel of the pistol. She plants a kiss on the head of each of them and sends them packing upstairs to Elise’s apartment. She glances at me and smiles. I don’t know whether the move was orchestrated or not, I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t, but it’s another less than subtle reminder that people are depending on me. In a way it isn’t fair, the way they’re playing this. One momentary lapse of judgement, one night of weakness at The Last Drop and suddenly everyone’s walking on eggshells, waiting for me to trip up, pushing me to do my best when that’s all I’ve ever done. And I know it’s only because they’ve seen it happen so many times before, someone losing their shit and running off into the infested city or suddenly, halfway through the final week, blowing their head off midway through a conversation, but it’s starting to grate on me now. I’m not fucking broken yet.
“Ready to go, Mimi?”
The others hover by the door as I pack up the last few bits of equipment. We make our way over to the wall and Russell hands out bottles of rainwater. No use wasting the fresh stuff on people who might not last the day. There are no handshakes or well wishes as he opens the door in the wall. We realised pretty quickly that that sort of stuff didn’t help. Best to think of it as a normal day.
And off to work we go.