I get up and grab my gun, raising it in readiness. The few steps from the living room to the foot of the stairs feel like miles, every footfall sounds like an avalanche. I glance down the corridor to the kitchen, where English Rob is still opening cupboards. He sees me by the front door and, with mock indignation all over on his face, holds up the head of the infected I left in the oven. Normally, we’d laugh. I guess it’s at that point now. But instead I shake my head and indicate upstairs. Without a word, he puts the head down, picks up his bag and moves quickly into the dining room, silencing the others. I hadn’t realised how loud they were being until the sound stops completely. The only noise now comes from upstairs. Kate’s head sticks out from behind the dining room door but I wave her back inside. I’ll handle this.
I make my way upstairs, the stairs creaking under me. The footsteps have stopped but the memory of the sound lingers on and something about it bothers me. We’re prepared for an encounter with the infected but I don’t think that’s what I heard. The footsteps were light, quick. Human. Living.
I reach the top of the stairs. Even for someone used to it, the stench of death up here is overwhelming. Someone’s turned. Recently too.
I look down at the floor and all the signs of activity are there, my own footprints from the day before overlaid with new ones. Two sets, one big, one small. I crouch down on the top stair. The bigger prints are incomplete or stretched out, like someone tried to put their foot down and it slipped away. One foot has dragged uselessly behind the other. The smaller ones are staggered, close together, much clearer in the dust, as if a greater weight was placed upon them. One supporting the other. The idea forming in my head isn’t a pleasant one and suddenly I wish it was Kate up here instead of me; at the very least, someone who might be able to deal with what I’m expecting to find.
I move up onto the landing and see where the footsteps I heard before have left their mark. Scampering feet running to the banister, looking down, running back into one of the bedrooms. The prints lead me to a half open door, a crack of light shining through onto the dimmed landing. Gun in hand, I gently push it open and, with a resigned sigh, see the little girl sitting on the dusty floor, beside the grimacing corpse of her mother, tied to the bed with bloodied sheets.
I call Kate up from downstairs and, ignoring the kid, dump my gun on the dresser and walk around the bed to give her mom the once over. She’s still warm. Her jeans are torn, revealing the chunk taken from her leg. I examine the wound. I half want to unwind the bandage from my own and compare it, but I can feel the girl’s eyes on me and I’ve already been enough of an insensitive bitch about the whole thing.
The infection has crept halfway up the leg and the smell is close to unbearable. The skin is broken and pussy, a mixture of green and black, the limb swollen and stiff. I count my lucky stars it’s my arm I’m going to lose, because not being able to shoot is a hell of a lot better than not being able to run away. I glance up at her face. Her eyes are closed. Probably the kid’s doing. Most ones on the turn don’t just shut their eyes and go quietly. Nice touch, though, kid, even if the rest of your mom’s body is contorted in pain.
“We don’t have long,”
I hadn’t even heard Kate come in the room, but she’s there, trying to coax the kid out from beside the bed. Her words are directed at me, a seriousness that she wouldn’t bother trying to use on a scared child. I nod, then crouch down to check the bonds. They’re tied tightly, each limb secured to a corner of the bed. Knots these good, this kid must have been a girl scout once. And then, as Kate reaches her hand out to the girl, I realise something. This kid isn’t scared. She’s waiting.
“Kate,” I walk round to the other side of the bed and gently pull her away from the child. “Kate, leave her alone,”
Kate, still crouched down, looks up at me, raising her eyebrows. It’s a look that clearly says I asked her to be here. A look that asks if I know what I’m doing because, damn it, she’s got four of these little bastards and if anyone can get this kid out of this room and to safety, it’s probably not me. I can only shrug in response. Her kids haven’t been through what this kid has, and I hope to God they never do, but I have. And I know how this scene is supposed to play out.
Kate gets up but doesn’t leave. She hovers by the doorway, half watching me and the kid, half waiting for the inevitable to happen to the mother. She was right when she said we didn’t have much time.
I pick up my gun from the dresser and crouch down in front of the girl. I offer it to her. She tilts her little head to the side and stares at me for a moment. Her eyes are gunmetal blue and she squints slightly. Hyperopia. Farsighted. Better make sure she doesn’t miss. After a moment or two, she finally shakes her head. Never taking her eyes off me for a moment, she slides her hand under the bed and pulls out an ancient looking revolver. It’s like something out of a Western and, clasped in her tiny hands, it’s a wonder she can lift the thing. But lift it she does and together we stand up and turn to face the body of her mother.
I take a few steps back towards Kate, who glares at me. But Kate doesn’t understand. Kate’s done an incredible job, keeping her family together throughout all of this. Shielding her kids from the worst of it. They’re the reason she straps on a gun and heads out beyond the Wall. And they’re the reason any one of us would take a bite before we let Kate go down. But not everyone has a Kate. Or maybe they did and now they’re gone. And a few of us had to do the job ourselves. I wonder if Kate’s kids realise how lucky they are. The way this little girl is raising that gun, I’d say she’s anything but. Either that, or this last week has been a pretty fucking steep learning curve for her.
There’s movement on the bed. The eyes the little girl had closed blink open. Once, twice, then a glassy eyed stare as the mother begins to survey the room. The head is about the only part it can move now, but once she realises she’s cornered, she begins to thrash against the bonds. The kid doesn’t flinch, not for a moment. Kate thinks she’s frozen in fear and tries to get past me into the room and it takes all my strength to hold her back.
“We have to let her do-” I’m cut off by the report of the gun. The infected mother collapses onto the bed, a mass of blood and brains spattered against the window that looks out onto the street. She dies a second time, with her head turned towards her daughter.
I finally let Kate back into the room. She rushes towards the little girl and tugs the gun from her hand, wrapping her arms around child, who remains unresponsive. I’m weakened by the struggle with Kate and lean against the wall to catch my breath. English Rob and Marco thunder up the stairs and push past me. The scene stops them dead in their tracks. They look from Kate and the little girl to the corpse on the bed and then to me. I shrug and reach forward to grab my gun from the dresser.
As I stagger from the room, I hear the sound of English Rob’s knife being pulled from the sheath he wears around his belt. It's only then that the little girl starts screaming.
Turns out not everyone takes the head. Must just be us.