Gene and I get ready to leave. He adds the last few supplies, almost as an afterthought. Better to be safe than sorry. We pay no attention to the sounds coming from upstairs, though we’re relieved when Kate manages to stifle the screams of the little girl and subdue them into muffled sobs. Gene checks his watch.
“Shame there’s no time for a burial,”
I glance at him, then shrug and go back to packing up our things. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. But Gene’s suggestion has shaken me a little.
Back in the room, I hadn’t thought of the kid’s mother as an ‘it’, like any of the other infected. And even as she’d strained against her bonds, trying to get at her daughter, not to comfort but to kill, it had still been a ‘she’. The only time the infected get that sort of treatment is when they’re one of our own and even so, we don’t really let it get to the point where they start trying to eat us. Maybe it’s just because that’s exactly what I’m up against that I let it happen, that I let myself see one of them as anything close to being one of us. Or maybe it was the kid. Shooting her own mother. Just like I had to. I sling a backpack over my shoulder. Whatever. A moment of weakness. It’s not going to happen again.
The others make their way downstairs and Gene and I go out to meet them. Kate won’t even look at me and I can hardly blame her. Gene hands out the bags and, with Marco taking the lead, we file out of the house. I’m the last. Or at least, I think I am. I turn around and the girl is still here, sitting on the stairs, the old gun on her lap. She’s staring at the floor a few feet in front of her, a small rucksack by her side. I don’t know what’s in there but I’m prepared to bet it’s not medical supplies.
She doesn’t reply. I look back through the open door and the others have already crossed the street. English Rob catches my eye and gestures furiously at me to follow them but I don’t make any attempt to leave just yet.
“You been bit?”
The kid shakes her head, but still doesn’t remove her gaze from the ground.
“You going to tell me your name?”
Another head shake.
“Okay,” I shrug. “But then I’ll just have to make one up and you probably won’t like it,”
She finally looks up. I’m not expecting any hint of a smile so I’m not disappointed when all I get is a narrowing of the eyes and the word “Kim,” spat in my direction.
I turn back to the open door. “Well, Kim, if you’re coming, get a move on,”
“And if I’m not coming?”
It’s the most anyone’s heard her say all day. And she wasted it on a stupid question like that. I shrug, say nothing and leave number 17 to catch up with the others.
She waits until I’m across the street before she follows.
She knows it was a stupid question, but I understand why she asked it. The same way I understood what exactly she was waiting for in that bedroom. It gets to a point where you get sick of the bullshit. When it stops being about ‘getting through this’ and starts simply being about surviving as long as you can. This isn’t going to end well for anyone so we might as well stop pretending like it will. No one will get through ‘this’. You can only keep fighting until ‘this’ gets you. I didn’t need to tell her that if she went it alone she’d die. She already knew that. She just needed someone not to tell her that if she came with us she’d live.
When I catch up with the others, Kate’s still furious with me, but I see her face soften slightly when she glances over my shoulder and sees Kim padding quietly along behind. Now’s probably not the time to tell her that whatever pep talk she tried on the kid hadn’t worked and that it took the prospect of dying later rather than sooner to get her moving. No, best let that sleeping dog lie. For now, we just have to get back to the wall.
We move quickly through the streets, finally reaching the one that leads down to the wall. But instead of relief, a sudden sense of unease settles over our little group. Marco, a few yards up ahead, about to turn the corner and head down to the safe zone, has frozen. This isn’t like before, when he tensed up, knowing that that infected had seen him in the doorway to the bakery. This is something else entirely. This is pure fear.
Gene, unable to fully grasp the situation, glances at his watch and clucks impatiently. “What’s the hold up?”
I could punch him, but then I remember he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t come this side of the wall. And when we’re this close to home, it’s easy to assume that the trip’s over. I reign in my anger and nod to English Rob, who heads up to investigate.
He’s back a moment later, his face ashen. “The mob,”
Hovering down by the wall, the mass of hungry infected we thought we’d successfully avoided is blocking our way back. No wonder Marco looks so scared. I spit out a few choice curse words under my breath and though she doesn’t vocalise them, it’s clear Kate’s doing the same in her head. Gene looks ready to bolt, but English Rob puts a hand against his shoulder and presses him against the wall.
“Keep it together, Doc,” English Rob looks at me and Kate. “What do we do?”
I glance towards Marco, still keeping watch despite the fact that every time he sticks his head around the corner, he shits his pants a little. I shrug. “Wait it out, maybe? They’ll move along eventually,”
Kate shakes her head. “And if they don’t? Mimi, what if they got the scent?”
The scent. It’s the risk we took in building our little civilisation behind the wall. Same way we can smell the infected, it’s pretty safe to assume that they can smell us too. The stench of life. And the closer you get to the wall, the stronger it must get. We don’t notice it, probably because our own nostrils are too blocked up with the smell of death, but the infected do. And usually, it doesn’t matter. One infected ambling down to the wall is an easy shot for whoever’s on duty that day. But we’ve never had a mob this close to us before. Never had a mob pick up the scent. I hope to God that Kate’s wrong.
“We could take them on,” English Rob says, though only half heartedly. No one really considers it. It’d take all of us to really provide an incentive for them to move away from the wall, especially if they’ve caught the scent. And it’s a suicide mission for everyone except me, because I’m the only one the mob wouldn’t run down. Fair enough, you’ve got to consider the greater good sometimes, but there's a rather large proportion of good divided between our backpacks right now too.
“Make some noise,” A small voice pipes up from nowhere. We all turn and look down at Kim, clutching her bag against her chest. The outline of the gun strains against the fabric. No one says anything, but that seems to encourage her to go on. “Someone could go a few streets away. Shoot their gun. Kick over some trash cans. Draw them away,”
Gene is the first to react. He manages a weak smile and pats Kim on the shoulder. “Smart kid,”
“It’s an option,” English Rob agrees and Kate nods her approval.
“I better get going then, hadn’t I?” I slide the traps of the backpack off my shoulders and hold it out to Kate. She doesn’t take it. I offer it to English Rob, but he just turns away, his fingers drumming an almost imperceptible tune on the hilt of the knife tucked away in its sheath. Neither of them want to feel complicit in this. Russell will probably kill them himself when he finds out. But it’s clear to everyone that I have to go. I’m the one least at risk of being attacked and even if I hadn’t already been bitten, it’s not in the nature of a mob to come after a lone traveller. Chances are, once they realise it’s just little old me with a gun and a few trash can lids to bang together, they’ll be on their way and the others will be back in the safe zone. I just have to make sure I’ve led them far enough that the scent of the encampment beyond the wall doesn’t lure them back here.
That being said, it’s still a fight to get Gene to finally take the bag from my hands. He pulls it toward him and wraps his arms around it, hugging it close to his body. He’s getting scared again. And rightly so.
There are no goodbyes or well wishes. Everyone simply melts away and finds a place to hide. And, if I’m being honest, being alone again feels pretty good.
I walk past the street and take a quick look at the mob as I pass. Jesus Christ, there’s a lot of them. More than before. No wonder Marco nearly shat his pants. I’ve got to get them the fuck away from the wall and fast. I start scouting about for a likely venue to stage my show. I need to be near enough so that they can hear me, but far enough away so that the others have time to get past and get home. I’m expendable so I guess anything beyond that is a bonus.
A few streets away, on the corner of Third, I find a likely looking spot. A corner apartment block, with windows that, if I lean out, should let me see right down to the wall and let whatever’s down by the wall see me too. I move as quickly and as quietly as I can towards the building. No sense in dragging any infected into this just yet. A quick shove of the downstairs door and I’m inside.
I take a second to catch my breath, dropping down onto the stairs directly opposite the door. To my left, the ground floor apartment door is open and , glancing through, I can see all the telltale signs of a hasty exit. Belongings scattered everywhere, cupboards opened and ransacked. I’m feeling nauseous again, but I left my water in my backpack so I have to settle for taking a few deep breaths and choking down whatever my body decides to bring up. It isn’t much, but it burns like hell and I feel rough as sin when I finally start dragging myself up the stairs.
I never imagined the infection would set in this quickly, that after just a few short hours I’d feel like this. I could easily crawl into bed right now and sleep until I turned. I wouldn’t be the first to choose that route, either. And let’s be honest, no one’s about to walk into this building and wonder who’s been sleeping in their beds. But I promised Russell I’d get them home.
“Suck it up, buttercup,” I say out loud, pushing myself to take another few steps.
I veto the first two apartments. Not high enough to give me time to get away. By the time I reach the apartment on the third floor, I’ve finally gotten my second wind. My fever’s still raging but I’m used to that by now. Fevers only break when the infection passes and this infection doesn’t pass for anyone.
Inside the apartment, I check the fire escape, hanging out the window and climbing out onto the metal staircase that I’m relying on to save my ass once the time comes to get the hell out of there. It’s not ideal, I’ll have to run past the open mouth of the street that the mob will be hoping to corner me in, but it’s the best I can do and the fact that the window was open when I got in bodes well. Someone obviously used it to get out last time. Hopefully the same rules apply to me.
The rest of the apartment is a bit of a goldmine. Open plan, so lots of room to move around. Plenty of things for me to smash and throw around and use to make as much noise as possible. I’m going to need it all. There’s every chance that if I take even a minute’s breather from throwing shit out of the window, they’ll lose interest and amble back to the wall. I have to make it abundantly clear that this is where the party is. The pièce de résistance is a huge aquarium sitting at the back of the living room, right by the window I’m planning on leaning out of to attract the mob’s attention. The water is stagnant and green, but I can see dark shapes floating in the accumulated scum. It’s not just the infected who get left behind. The aquarium blocks my immediate view from the living room window, so I head into the bedroom and lean out from there. I can see the mob, a few streets away, still milling around and blocking the path to the wall. Alright. Let’s do this.
The aquarium is my opening gambit. It’s a shame to let it go so early but it’s guaranteed to make the biggest impression and it’ll free up the living room window. It’s a big job, too, so the more energy I have to get it done, the better. Putting my gun to one side, I tip out the stinking water and dead fish first, pushing the heavy tank onto its side. I can hear the litres of foul liquid hitting the street below and I can imagine a few heads turning in this direction already. The tank goes next, a little lighter without its contents. I slide it across the window ledge and, with a hefty shove, send it over the edge. I watch it fall for a moment, then, before it hits the ground, lean out a little further to gauge the reaction of the mob.
The tank smashes into pieces with a deafening crash when it hits the pavement, glass flying everywhere. A ripple of interest goes through the mob, as infected begin to look in the direction of the noise. I fumble around for my gun and then perch myself on the window ledge, watching the mob as a couple of members start to lead the way towards me. I unscrew the suppressor and loose a few rounds off into the street. The sound of the shots echo for a second or two and manage to rouse the curiosity of several more infected until, finally, the whole damn bunch of them is on the move. I slide off the window ledge and get ready for phase two. I have their attention. Now I just need to keep it.
Kitchen first. Cupboard doors are opened and plates, cups, glasses, cutlery, pots and pan are all flung out of the open window. Soaring through the air and smashing onto the street below with an oddly satisfying collection of bangs, crashes and clangs. A few more rounds let off for good measure. The stools from the breakfast bar are used to break the glass in the windows and then out they go too. Hell, I’m almost starting to enjoy myself. After all this time, creeping around, trying to keep under the infected’s radars, to be given the chance to make as much God damn noise as possible is something of a release.
I check up on the mob’s progress. They’re moving quickly now and, behind them, I can see the first of the team make a break for it, English Rob dragging Kim behind him. He makes it to the wall. It’s too far to gauge who’s on patrol but the two figures soon disappear behind it and a wave of relief washes over me. Two down. Three to go.
The quick break in sound hasn’t hampered the mob’s movements but I carry on regardless. Small appliances are the next to go. I try to pick up the TV but it’s too much for me, particularly after the heavy glass of the aquarium, and I settle for pushing it off its stand and hoping the sound will carry into the street. A box of records is found and, one by one, someone’s beloved vinyl collection is smashed on the concrete outside, followed swiftly by the expensive looking metal case. I have to catch my breath again and use the moment to reattach the suppressor to my Beretta. I can’t waste anymore bullets on these fuckers.
Leaning out of the window one last time, I see the mob approaching the corner. A few take the left turn I desperately hoped they would but most move up the street and hover uncertainly under my window. I spit out a few curses and slide back into the room. No short cut home for me, then. I decide to throw a few more things out the window for good measure. Maybe I can irritate a few more into looking for a way in. I start on the bookshelves, launching first hardbacks then, as my strength starts to weaken, paperbacks until, finally, even the short journey from one side of the room to the other becomes too much. I guess a third wind in my condition is too much to ask for so I take that as my cue to leave.
I grab my gun and stumble across the room, my movement slowed half by the infection and half by the mess I’ve made. I can hear movement on the building’s staircase. At least some of the mob is inside. Faster, Mimi. I start to climb out the window onto the fire escape, just as a wave of pain shoots through my arm. I instinctively grab at the bandage wrapped around the wound and the sudden movement causes me to lose balance and crash heavily onto the metal stairs. My gun falls from my hand and down the fire escape, landing with a clang a couple of levels down. My head smacks against a metal railing and I cry out in pain before I can stop myself. Hearing me, the sounds of the mob in the stairwell intensify and I try to haul myself up with my good arm.
My legs feel like jelly. My head is throbbing and I want to throw up. They’re so fucking close. They might not eat me, but they’ll rip me limb from limb. I’ve got them all worked up into a frenzy. But I can’t die here. Not like this. Not now. Not yet.
“Come on, Mimi. Come on...” I say, wrapping my arms around the railing. “Come ON,” If I can get to my feet and get to the mouth of the stairs, it doesn’t matter if I fucking fall the rest of the way. I just have to get to the stairs. With a roar of agony, I finally manage to stand. My legs are still wobbly but I force them to move towards the stairs. I take my first steps down, just as the front running infected burst into the room. It’s the push I need. Between the mob frothing at the mouth and breaking my neck attempting to run down these stairs, I’ll take my chances on the stairs. I start running.
I’m beyond caring how much noise I make. I just have to get to ground level and then I can worry about how to disappear. My feet clatter on the stairs and I slam into railings. I’m fighting back another urge to vomit when I come across my gun and the relief at the sight of it helps bite the bile back. I snatch it up and run down the last flight of stairs into the alley behind the building. I chance a look up at the apartment and see an infected sticking its head out, sniffing the air, trying to catch my scent. I only hope I smell enough like them that they’ll think better of following me.
There’s no way I’m going to trust that the infected that were hanging out under my window have followed the others inside so I head in the opposite direction, away from the street that will lead me straight home. I hang a left at the top of the alley, keeping an eye out for any stray infected that might have been lured in unintentionally by my little song and dance. Solo infected might steer clear of the mob but the buffet I was promising probably sounded too good to ignore.
Glancing back down Third as I hurry across the intersection, there’s a few of the mob still hovering about outside. I tighten my grip on my gun and keep moving. I can’t head straight back, not if there’s a chance they could pick up my scent, so I take a few detours, cutting through stores that open onto tight alleyways and smashing glass here and there to confuse their sense of direction. It’s a method I’ve used before, though never against a mob.
I finally reach the corner that leads down to the wall and I stop at the top, steadying myself against the building and staring down at home. It’s so close but Jesus Christ, it feels like miles. I look back over my shoulder and the road behind is clear. The mob has completely moved on. I grin, despite myself. Not a bad effort on my part. I’m about to start heading back when I hear someone call my name.
I turn round and Marco is there, hovering on the other side of the street. I glance around quickly, hoping no infected was around to hear, and then wave him over to me.
“What the fuck are you still doing here?”
“Waiting for you, what do you think?”
“Jesus Christ, Marco, are you insane? There’s a mob out there-” My rage is cut drastically short as I lose the last of my energy and all but collapse. Marco catches me before I hit the ground and I wrap my arm around his neck and try to stay on my feet. He has Kate’s M4 and he exchanges weapons with me so I can use the rifle as a second crutch. We begin the slow trudge down to the wall.
The infected comes out of nowhere.
One minute the street is empty and the next, it’s there. We hear the running feet too late and as we turn, it’s upon us, knocking us both to the ground and sinking its teeth into Marco’s neck. I’m trapped underneath the two of them, trying to pull the rifle out from beneath me, but the combined weight is too much and I can barely move. The infected pulls away, taking half of Marco’s throat with it and blood gushes from the wound. The movement of the infected relieves enough pressure for me to struggle out from underneath Marco, who, to my horror, is still alive. I scramble away, dragging the rifle with me and manage to haul myself into a sitting position. Marco gives a gurgled scream as the infected launches itself at him again, tearing at the skin and eating him alive.
I do the only thing I can. I switch to auto pilot.
The first shot I take puts an end to Marco’s suffering. The second zips straight through one side of the infected’s head and out the other.
I drop the rifle and crawl on hands and knees over to the bodies. I push the infected’s corpse off of Marco’s bloodied body and sit down beside it, pulling the knife from the inside of my boot. I start sawing through the neck, staring at Marco as I do what has become second nature by now. I feel the infected’s neck start to give way beneath my hands and, as I separate the head from the body, I give in. Covered in blood and clutching the infected’s head, I start to cry.
When someone finally comes down from the safe zone to get me, a necessary precaution I can't blame them for, the blood has dried, a flaky layer on my skin. I can feel it cracking when I move my hands, turn my head, even when my face twitches. My eyes are red from crying, a rawness that's only exacerbated by the fever, and the head still rests in my lap. I don’t even register who it is that takes the head from me and tosses it away. I don’t know and I don’t care. Marco is dead. He’s dead because he waited for me. Waited for someone who was dead anyway. I might as well have killed him myself. I try not to remind myself that, technically, I did. I fail.
I’m hauled to my feet and I walk silently beside my guide, Kate's carbine slung over his shoulder and his own weapon primed and ready, just in case. I’m a few paces away when I hear Russell’s voice.
“Better take his head too. Just in case,”
I try to turn back to stop them but I’m held back and can only manage an angry scream and after a futile struggle against arms much stronger than my own, the fever gets the better of me and I collapse again. I see Russell and English Rob crouching down beside Marco and then the glint of the knife, my knife, and then everything goes black.
One hundred and fifty one hours to go.