I’m first out, keen to avoid any last minute ‘bring them home, kid’ pep talks from Russell. English Rob brings up the rear, we four scavengers forming a protective barrier around Gene. The wall cuts through an intersection, blocking off the roads to the left and right. This layout means that there’s only one way down to the safe zone and, mercifully, it looks deserted. We begin to make our way up the street, checking doorways and alcoves for infected. All clear. It’s not surprising really. The infected tend to stay out of our way. They seem to have figured out that they can’t breach the walls, though that wasn’t for a lack of trying in the early days. And while I’m not a hundred percent sure they remember what a gun is, I think they might have some idea what one can do, particularly when it’s right up against your head.
We move quickly and quietly through the streets. I lead the way. No one bothers to ask where I’m headed, but I can tell that Kate, at least, is taking careful notice of the route. Better to just pay attention to your surroundings than ask stupid questions that might draw an unwanted audience. I stop at the intersection of Maplin and Third, a sad looking former bakers to my left, a long since looted electrical store on my right and, across the street, a predictably empty drug store.
“We cleared that place out months ago,” English Rob mutters unnecessarily in my ear, his gaze flitting between the two empty streets. I’d glare at him, but that would mean taking my eye off the thing that’s caught my attention. The reason why we’ve stopped. The tail end of a mob is directly ahead of us, where Maplin turns off into Fourth. Exactly where we needed to go.
To put not too fine a point on it, mobs are the fucking worst. They go by various names, depending on where you are, but whether you know them as hoardes, platoons or armies, it all amounts to the same thing: a fuck ton of infected moving together as one big completely unassailable pile of disaster. Unless you’ve got a tank, you don’t go up against a mob. I’ve got to rethink the route. And fast.
I nudge English Rob, nodding in the direction of the mob, and, cursing under his breath, he sees the last few stragglers too. The others haven’t noticed it yet. Kate is a few paces up Third, Marco looking back the way we came. Gene is backed against the bakers. He’s not looking too good. I don’t want to know what seeing the mob would do to an already pretty sombre mood.
“What’s the hold up?” Kate doesn’t lower her M4 for a moment, her eyes still fixed on the empty street to our left. “Mimi?”
“Inside,” I hiss the order and, as one, we back up towards the bakery. Gene fumbles with the door but it’s locked. Kate uses the butt of her carbine to smash the window so she can unlock it from the outside. We don’t wait to see if anyone, or anything, heard the sound of breaking glass. Marco takes up position by the door, while Kate and English Rob check the rest of the store. Everything’s clear. Gene hovers by my shoulder as I pull a map from my back pocket and open it, leaning it against the glass display cabinet that still houses a few mouldy looking cakes. Clearly this area was abandoned long before being fussy about what you ate was a thing of the past.
I trace a few possible routes with my finger. The problem with a mob is that they’re mighty unpredictable. Mobs are usually formed of only the strongest, fastest and, though it’s a relative concept, smartest infected. The weak are left to die. Not entirely dissimilar to our own situation. Mobs roam the streets, hunting as a pack. A loner won’t attract their attention. Not enough, causes all kinds of trouble within their bizarre little community. But a team of five? Practically a walking buffet. More than enough to go around, even once they take me off the menu.
Gene still doesn’t know what the problem is, though I think Marco and Kate have figured it out. They’ve been on the wrong side of the wall enough times by now. English Rob looks over my shoulder at the map.
“How fucked are we?”
I shrug. “Everything is on Fourth,”
“I could head up to the next intersection. Wait for them to move onto the next street,”
“That could take a while. You know how slow they can be,” I check my watch. A few spots of dried blood from my bite dot the screen. I hadn’t even noticed. I scratch them away. “And we don’t have much longer,”
I could go. I could hand over my guns and leave the bakery and walk up the street and stroll right past the mob and grab everything and be back here in minutes. I’m willing to be that the same idea is running through English Rob’s head but we both know how much shit I’d be in with Russell if I did. And, as little attention as the mob would pay to me, a few trips back and forth would eventually raise suspicions and it only takes one of them to know where you are.
One of them already does.
We hear the sound of Marco cocking his gun. The message couldn’t be any clearer than if he’d come right out and said that there was something outside. English Rob grabs Gene by the scruff of his neck and hauls him round behind the bakery counter. I hiss at Marco to come too, but he’s frozen to the spot.
“It’s already seen me,”
I drop to my knees, below the level of the window that runs around the shop front. Stupid stupid stupid decision. Picking a place like this to think things over. So preoccupied with the mob that we didn’t even think about any infected that might be going solo. I crawl quickly round to join English Rob and Gene. Kate is still out back, keeping watch. English Rob raises an eyebrow in question. I shake my head. No one says anything. All in all, things aren’t going so well.
There’s a number of ways a situation like this could go down and as Marco stands his ground and the infected shuffles towards him, I go over them in my head. There has to be something we can do. If he runs, he could get away. Or it could catch him. They’re pretty fast when they want to be. Or he could run right into the mob. He could shoot. But what if he misses? And what if the mob hears the shot? I peer over the counter top. Marco’s still there, ready to fire. The infected is only a few yards away. It’s hesitating. It’s seen the gun. So they do remember. Or, at least, they’ve learned. Neither option is particularly comforting. I look Marco up and down. I can’t see a knife. No melee weapon of any description. I bite back a curse and duck my head back down. How could the boy who lived his life inside games depicting this exact fucking situation have forgotten something like that? I’m about to ask English Rob if Marco has a suppressor on his gun when a loud crack answers the question for me. Stupid fucking kid.
English Rob slams a hand over Gene’s mouth to stifle the yell of surprise we all know is coming. Kate knows better than to come running in. We all wait in silence to hear the thud of a body hitting the ground. It comes. And then we wait a moment longer. Have to be sure it’s the right body. Golden rule of scavenging. If they take you, don’t scream. You’re only putting the others in danger if you do. If that’s the way this encounter’s gone, Marco’s at least stuck by that rule. We hear footsteps. Good, solid, one foot in front of the other footsteps. It’s evidence enough. I stick my head up and Marco stops and waves me over. Leaving English Rob to deal with a whimpering Gene, I get up and go to help him shift the body.
Marco tucks the gun into the back of his jeans as we walk the few paces outside the baker’s to where the infected fell. I look up and down the street for any sign of the mob. Still clear. But that doesn’t mean the mob’s not on its way. Marco sees me surveying our surroundings and with a sigh grabs one of the body’s legs. “Just spare me the lecture, okay, Mimi?”
“I’m sure you’d rather it was me than Kate. Or Russell,” I pick up the other leg and together we begin dragging the corpse inside, a trail of blood marking our path. English Rob pushes past us with a couple of the water bottles and empties them out into the street, washing away the trail. For someone who’s known for cracking jokes, the look on his face suggests maybe he’ll be the one giving Marco a dressing down. But he doesn’t. He keeps his mouth shut and takes up position, a good few feet further into the dark recesses of the bakery than Marco had, his gun’s suppressor very firmly in place and a knife hanging at his belt. The gesture is clear.
We haul the body round behind the counter, ignoring Gene who recoils into the corner. Kate finally reappears. She takes out a knife and holds it out to Marco, glaring at him. He takes it, meekly, while I examine the bullet wound. It’s a good shot, clean through the brain, right out the other side. But, safety first. I step back and let Marco finish the job.
One of the things we discovered pretty quickly was that shooting one of the infected down, same as you’d shoot the average person, y’know, if you did that kind of thing, didn’t always work. You can put as many bullets in as you like, but unless the head is about a foot away from the body, you’re going to have trouble. That sort of stuff really pisses Marco off. Something about mixing genres. This is a zombie movie, not a vampire one, he says. Destroying the brain should be enough, we shouldn’t have to fuck around decapitating corpses. He starts grumbling about it now, as we get to work hacking the infected’s head from its shoulders. It. It’s always an ‘it’, but any idiot can look at the body and see it was a ‘she’ once. She might even have been pretty, but the scarred, sallow face, the vacant grey eyes, the oozing gunshot wound and the spattered brains that decorate the street behind her don’t really help with any appeal she might have had. Best to ignore it. Those last vestiges of humanness. Shake it off. Back to work. Safety first. Let’s get this head sawn off.
Marco begins sawing through the neck. The infected already smell pretty disgusting, not least because personal hygiene isn’t part of their daily routines anymore, but once you open them up and start dealing with the innards... well, it’s unpleasant to say the least. Gene’s holding up okay, but the smell is clearly getting to him. He’s just a standard doctor, not a surgeon or a scientist. Great for the little bits and pieces we need to keep going, but this whole sawing body parts off of corpses thing is a little outside his jurisdiction. He takes out a dirty handkerchief and holds it to his nose, leaning over as Marco and his knife get closer to the bone. It’s a slow job, but it has to be done. I’ve seen infected bounce back from better shots than this. That’s why Kate leans heavily on the body, while I keep a hand either side of the head. It’s a risky spot but if this one starts jerking around, as they’ve been known to do, someone’s got to be in control of the head. The infection is spread through saliva. A graze from those teeth, even after you’ve taken the infected down, could still work a number on you. Better me this end than anyone else. What’s the worst that could happen? I get bitten again?
As soon as Marco gets to the last few sinews, I give the head a pull and finish the job. The snapping sound as the skin pulls apart seems extraordinarily loud, but maybe we’re still on edge after Marco fired the trigger and, in our minds at least, every infected for a thousand yards jerked their heads in our direction. I get up, holding the head by the hair, trying not to slip on the mess Marco’s made on the bakery floor. He did a pretty shitty job but then no one thought to bring an axe, so I can’t exactly blame him.
I walk out the front of the bakery, past English Rob, still maintaining a vigilant watch. I can hear the others dragging the body out the back. There’s no need for such distance between the head and the rest of the corpse but the shop suddenly feels a lot smaller than it did before and, out in slightly fresher air, away from the claustrophobic, tense atmosphere inside the bakery, I breathe a sigh of relief that the situation hadn’t been much worse. There’s a trash can on the opposite side of the street. It’s been overturned and the garbage is strewn everywhere. It smells pretty bad but compared to what I’m carrying, it’s barely noticeable. I cross over and put the head on the sidewalk then bend down to pick the can up. I look around for the lid and find it a few yards away. I grab it and walk back. I pick the head back up and drop it into the trash can.
I’m not sure why I’m going to all this trouble. Anyone else would just throw the head as far away as they could and leave it at that. A few days ago, I would have too. In fact, a few days ago, that’s exactly what I did. Maybe it’s a small concession to the part of them that’s still human. Maybe, for the ones we encounter out here beyond the safe zone, it’s the nearest thing they’ll get to an actual burial. Or maybe it’s just a karma thing. Maybe I’d rather someone put my head in a trashcan, instead of leaving it to rot out in the open street. Whatever the reason, I pause for a moment, then put the lid on the trash can and consign those staring grey eyes to the darkness within.
Back in the bakery, everyone’s on edge. If the others didn’t know about the mob, they sure as hell do now and while I’ve been getting all sentimental, they’ve been brainstorming. English Rob’s plan wins through. He’s halfway out the door, on his way up to where Third crosses Devon, when I move to head back inside. He stops.
“Donovan turned last night,”
“I know,” Of course I know. I was there.
“Only took five days,”
I don’t say anything at first. I don’t think I’m supposed to. And, even if I was, what could I say? That Donovan was clearly a one off? That that will never happen to me? I eventually say the only thing I can think of. About the only thing I’ve really been saying for the last day. “I feel fine,”
“Of course you do,” He nods and claps me on the shoulder. It’s nothing like when Russell did it yesterday. This is no mark of solidarity, no awkward gesture of friendship. This is more for his benefit than mine. She’s still here. She’s still human. She’s still real. Talk to her. Touch her. She’s not gone yet. I don’t know if it works but a second later he lets go. “Of course you do,”
He doesn’t make my list.
As English Rob heads up to the next intersection, the rest of us, once again forming a protective ring around Gene, move on out. English Rob, a distant figure about 300 yards further up Maplin, disappears around the corner, heading up to meet Fourth. Kate, Marco and Gene hover by the empty electrical store. I stick my head out and try to angle it so I can see some of the way down Fourth. From here, it looks clear, but our destination is a little further down and the mob might be too. We wait, weapons poised. Even Gene keeps it together, Kate’s knife clutched in his hand. Marco taps me on the shoulder and points up Third. Two infected amble across the next junction a few hundred yards away. They don’t see us.
After what feels like an age, English Rob reappears. He runs up towards, halting on the other side of the street. He nods and waves us up Maplin. It’s clear. The mob has moved on.
That’s when it hits me. A wave of nausea knocks me for six and, as the others make their way up to where Maplin and Fourth intersect, the world starts spinning and I slam against the wall, trying to keep upright. I hear them padding away, want to hiss at them to step a little lighter but as soon as I open my mouth, the vomiting starts. I try to keep the retching to a minimum but it’s not the sort of sound you can control. I spit out the last of the bile and press a hand to my forehead. My other still clutches my Beretta, which I suppose says something for my dedication. My temperature has hiked up a few more notches and one glance at the watery, yellow vomit tells me that the reason I couldn’t tell Gene the last time I ate was because it had been quite some time ago. Nothing but bile. Stinking, burning bile. The infection suppresses your appetite. Funny how that only makes you hungrier in the end. I lean against the wall, trying to catch my breath, wiping away the last remnants of spew from around my mouth. When I look up, English Rob is there, holding out a bottle of water.
“Small sips, yeah?”
I snatch it from him, too wearied by the convulsive movements of my empty stomach to attempt a grateful smile.
“They found the stash. Gene’s going through it now. I told them you stayed behind to keep an eye on those infected Marco saw,”
This time he gets a smile.
This time he makes it onto my list.
He waits with me until I recover, keeping watch over the street. Doing my job. I offer him back the rest of the water but he waves it away. To his credit, he doesn’t say why, but I suddenly realise that, had he responded to my automatic gesture, the group could be losing another in a week’s time. I could kick myself for being so stupid but if English Rob feels the same way, he doesn’t show it. I stow away the half empty bottle and hand him a full, fresh one from my bag. This one he accepts. The list of things we don't know about this disease is about as long as both our arms. But at least we know how not to catch it.
We walk up Maplin and turn onto Fourth. It’s a residential street and that alone is probably why the stash I came across yesterday remained intact for so long. It took people a while to get used to the idea of the houses being empty and the stuff inside being up for grabs. These days we suffer no such compunctions. And these days there’s not many of us left to fight over the leftovers. Every cloud, right? The supplies were squirreled away at number 17 and it’s a miracle I found them at all, ducking in there by chance to escape a couple of infected. The escaping part didn’t go too well, but at least we got something out of it. Like I said, every cloud.
The others have holed up in the dining room of number 17 and Gene, seated at the head of the table, is already hard at work, going through the bags of supplies that Marco and Kate are tipping out onto the table top. Anything he thinks we won’t need is unceremoniously tossed to one side, while anything of value finds its way into a rucksack. Kate motions quickly to us and we hand ours over. They’re filling fast. No one says anything about my absence so either they’ve bought English Rob’s story or they just don’t want to know. Either way I’m glad. English Rob wanders into the kitchen to check for canned foods, while I head into the living room, snatching up a bandage on my way.
The curtains are already drawn, blocking the view of the street outside and hiding us from any infected that might stroll by. I drop down onto the sofa and wave away the clouds of dust that leap up around me. It’s been a while since anyone called this place home. I unwrap the bandage around my arm and examine the bite. Not much worse to look at than yesterday but the smell is more pungent than ever. Won’t be long till people can smell it through the dressings. I pour a little rainwater onto it, a vain attempt at cleaning it out, then wrap it up again. My arm feels heavy and stiff. Just another symptom, another milestone along the way. Soon all I’ll be good for is lifting a glass in The Last Drop to my lips. Every limb gets a little heavier. Every movement a little slower, a little harder to see through. I’m just lucky it’s not my shooting arm that’s going first. Then I’d really be fucked.
There’s an odd shaped gap in the dirt on the wooden floor by the window. The memory of yesterday comes back. That’s where I dropped down and tried to hide when they were chasing me. And there, those dark, dried patches of blood where I shot the first one down. And then the scuff marks from where I scrambled to my feet as the other chased me through the dining room and into the kitchen. English Rob’s probably seen the body by now. I only hope he doesn’t yell out when he finds the head in the oven. Long stripes in the dust show where I dragged the first corpse to the bottom of the staircase. It’s still there, behind the front door, but no one’s mentioned it. Why would they? It’s hardly anything out of the ordinary these days. I left that head upstairs, looking into a mirror. I don’t know why. I suppose it seemed funny at the time. It was that first one that got me. That’s probably why I spent so long arranging the fucker’s head in front of that mirror. Playing around with the beauty products left there by whoever it was that had bailed on number 17. If you think they’re ugly now, you should see what I did to that son of a bitch. That’ll teach you to take a fucking chunk out of my arm.
The memory isn’t that painful. I’m sort of surprised by that. I almost feel like I should be rolling around the dirty floor, kicking and screaming and crying and lamenting my loss. But I was never like that in life so why would I do it in death? I wish I could say I was just being strong, that I was keeping it together for the others, for the people on my ever growing list of People Who Might Miss Me When I’m Gone, but they’re not expecting me to do that and I’m not expecting me to do that and I don’t know anyone else that’s done that so why the hell am I so okay with all of this? Is it because I knew it was always coming? Am I just the first in a long line of people who accept that this is their fate, that this is the way we’re going to go? Are those people in The Last Drop the last ones who will do as they did? Those six... those five... Donovan is dead. I forgot. But is that it? Closing time? Are they going to turn the jukebox off? Or is it just a matter of time before I end up back there? Before I break?
I press the heels of my hands against my eyes until I see spots and stars. Phosphenes. The word appears out of nowhere, something I must have heard in school a lifetime ago. I did alright in school. Not that any of it prepared me for this. The shapes spreading across my darkened vision give me something to focus on and though they don’t quite counter the huge white elephant trumpeting for my attention in the corner of the room, they calm me down enough that I can turn my attention back to the job at hand. Now isn’t the time for a nervous breakdown. Or, rather, to wonder why there hasn’t been one yet. I do, however, retain one troubling idea. With my hands pressed against my face, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that my temperature has reached an all time high.
That’s when I hear the footsteps upstairs.