The meeting takes place at Russell’s.
It's a good turn out. The remaining scavengers, our three record keepers who track all our supplies, old Elise, Gene and his small team... even Tom has left the bar to join us. But meetings like this always put everyone on edge; Beth’s face when she left for home, dragging a reluctant Kim behind her, was evidence enough. And true enough, Russell only gathers together the big guns like this when things are getting serious. And holding it straight after Marco’s funeral? Alarm bells are going to be ringing all over town.
We file into what former homeowners’ would have designated the dining room, but the only real sign of its former moniker is the huge table in the middle of the room. The walls are covered in painstakingly hand drawn maps of the town, with our safe zone marked out, bordered by the river where we just said goodbye to a friend. Spread across the table are more maps, plans and drawings and everywhere, Russell’s famous lists can be seen. Lists of names, living and dead, lists of weapons, lists of supplies, lists of supplies we wish we had. English Rob nicknamed the room ‘Control’, a hangover from Russell’s military days, but we know it’s no laughing matter; this place has helped keep us safe. But being called in here means only one thing. We are no longer safe. Control has let us down.
We range around the room, hovering by the walls. As Elise walks by to take the only chair in the room, she presses something into my hands. I look down. It’s the handgun. I’d forgotten all about it. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be thankful but I stuff it down the back of my waistband anyway and offer a smile that Elise doesn’t return.
Russell looks around at us all and folds his arms across his chest.
“You’re not going to like what I’m going to say,” He sighs, then shrugs. “But after what happened yesterday-”
“What exactly did happen yesterday?” Patricia, one of Gene’s nurses, cuts him off. “I mean, other than you sending out some of best and only four of them making it back?"
“And who's the kid?” Someone else chimes in from the back of the room.
Kate glares at Russell. “You haven’t told them?”
He doesn’t reply. Kate shakes her head and steps forward, leaning on the table.
“Yesterday, we came across a mob. Twenty five, maybe thirty strong. Mimi saw them first, a few streets way, down where we found the medical supplies. We didn’t think anything of it. Mobs come and go all the time,” A few of the other scavengers nod their heads in agreement. “But then, when we got back to the wall, they were there. And there were more. At least another ten,”
“While we’d been looting, they’d been recruiting,” English Rob mutters and I half smile.
“Mimi created a diversion and led them away so we could get back into the safe zone,” Kate nods in my direction. I shift uncomfortably under the looks that come my way, trying to ignore the way they flick from my face, to my bandaged arm, and back again.
"We found the girl with the supplies. Her mother had just changed. We weren't going to leave her there," English Rob adds the last part for effect. We all know that. If Kim hadn't come with, we wouldn't have stayed.
“And Marco?” Patricia pipes up again, fixing her stare on me, but English Rob intercedes again before I can answer.
“Marco insisted on waiting behind for Mimi. They were attacked by a single infected on their way back to the wall,”
“And the two of you couldn’t handle that? I’ve seen you take on three on your own, Mimi,” Patricia is clearly looking for a fight.
“You don’t have to answer that, Mimi,” Russell says, glaring at Patricia. “I saw the whole thing. The infected came out of nowhere, there wasn’t time for either of them to react. It happens,”
It shuts her up for now, but I know she’ll come after someone again. And I can’t exactly blame her. She’s only voicing what any number of people in the room might be thinking. Russell kept the sighting of the mob secret from them. I was allowed out after getting bitten. I was trusted to keep people safe and all I really did was vomit and cry. And what happened? Marco died.
Everyone’s got questions. But Russell’s more interested in the big picture, what’s for the best of the community and so he’ll shoot down anyone that looks like they’re going to cause trouble. But they've got every right to.
“I’m sorry for what happened to Marco,” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. Russell tries to cut me off, but the others urge him to let me speak. I falter, but push on. “I pushed Russell to let me go out yesterday and I shouldn’t have done. The infection takes hold a lot quicker than I realised and I wasn-," Deep breath, kid. "I wasn’t strong or fast enough to save Marco. You’re right, Patricia. A few days ago, this probably wouldn’t have happened. And I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” I’ve said my piece. It won’t silence the critics for long but I’ve said it. I lean back against the wall, partly to help steady myself, and Russell steps back in.
“We should be focusing on the fact that Marco was out there trying to protect Mimi. That he had her back and, once he’d been bitten, she had his too. If we’re going to survive, we have to stick together and support each other. That’s been our way since day one, people. And we can’t start falling apart now. Are we clear on that?” There are a few mutters of assent and Russell continues. “For my part, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the mob sooner. But if this is how you react to the news after the fact, what do you think telling you earlier would have achieved? I didn’t think it was necessary to panic you all, not if there was a chance that they were just passing by,”
“I agree,” English Rob interjects. “We buried a friend today. I wouldn’t have wanted Marco to play second fiddle to this news. He deserves better than that,”
A few others offer a muttered “Hear, hear,”
“And were they?” Gene, silent until now, pipes up. “Just passing by, I mean?” He looks around the room before blurting out his next question. “Do they have our scent?”
Russell’s reluctance to reply says it all. The only sound in the room comes from Elise, who sums up the group’s feelings with an “Oh, fuck,” before silence reigns.
It was always a risk, setting up our own safe zone, trying in vain to create a little community to keep ourselves secure and retain some semblance of human society. And for a while, it worked. We were in control of the situation and we were on our way to creating something akin to normalcy. Time was, we could have probably taken on a mob that size and won. But our numbers have dropped, the safe zone is now too big to maintain and that mob has our scent. Suddenly Russell’s plan becomes apparent. It’s time to go.
“They were back out there this morning,” Russell says, turning to look at one of his maps. “They disappeared for a few hours, but a few lingered. I think they were trying to lure us out, make us think it was safe. But then they showed up again, en mass,”
“Are they that smart?” someone asks from the back of the room. Someone who has clearly not been on the wrong side of the wall lately.
“They’re smart enough to form mobs made up of their strongest and fastest. They’re smart enough to locate food sources. They’re smarter than you give them credit for,” Russell snaps.
“Then they’re more dangerous than we give them credit for too,” Kate says. She’s staring at the table, looking over some of Russell’s lists. She picks one up and holds it out so everyone can see. A list of names, about a third of which have been scored out with red pen. A few more have been marked with blue. There’s me, with a blue line. Mirah Nadar. Infected. On my way to a red line. Kate scrunches the paper up into a ball and throws it onto the table. “No more red lines,”
“And no more blue,” I add, as English Rob grips my shoulder and squeezes. I reach up and place my hand over his. It’s a welcome gesture of reassurance after seeing how easily my name could be crossed out with a marker, especially as it was Russell who did the crossing out. Russell who made my list of People That Might Miss Me When I’m Gone.
“So what do we do?” Gene asks, looking at Russell.
“We leave. Find somewhere new. Somewhere smaller, easier to defend. Somewhere with a water supply we can rely on. Somewhere safer,”
Russell’s plan comes across as pretty simple. Pack up and go. But the logistics of moving more than fifty people quickly and quietly out of town and to a new, safer home, all the while avoiding a mob of infected, aren’t going to be so easy to finalise. But he wants us out and he wants us out now. And if anyone can organise this, it’s Russell.
A few people wait to start the process but I’m losing steam again so I start to file out with the rest. Kate falls into step beside me and, in silence, we begin the walk back home. We reach Kate’s house, where Beth and Kim have been trying to entertain the four Naylor kids while we were off trying to work out how to save them. I hover by the door, hands shoved into pockets. I’m expecting Kate to just leave me here, go inside and fetch Beth, but she hesitates, one hand on the doorknob.
“I thought Kim would want to stay with kids her own age,”
“Makes sense,” I shrug.
“Yeah,” Kate turns and stares at me. “Yeah, you’d think that. She doesn’t,”
It dawns on me what Kate’s saying. “You can’t be serious. I’m infected, Kate. I’m dying,”
“I told her that. But it didn’t put her off,” Kate gives a sad smile. “You read her better and faster than I could. You knew what she had to do and you knew how to get her to come with us,”
“Yeah, well, not everyone managed to keep their family together, Kate,” The words are spat with more venom than I intended, but if Kate takes offence, she doesn’t show it.
“Look, we both know it’s not long term...”
“She shot her mom yesterday, Kate. I don’t think putting her in the same situation with me is going to help much,”
“That girl doesn’t want or need another mother. Childhood is a luxury some kids can’t have these days and unfortunately, after what happened with her mom, she’s now one of them,” A noise from above distracts Kate and she glances up to see faces in one of the bedroom windows. Two of her own. She sighs. “If I thought keeping her with me would get some of that back, would make her a kid again, I swear to you, I would make her stay with me. But I don’t. I really don’t. And besides,” She pushes open the door to her house and greets the children waiting behind it with an indulgent smile. “I think it might be good for you,”
Beth comes out from the living room, Kim following close behind, her little backpack already slung over her shoulders. They walk by me and I see that Kim is clutching Beth’s hand. I realise that I’ve already lost this battle. I sigh. “Well, I guess it’d be nice to have at least one person who would definitely shoot me when this week is over,”
Kate smiles and disappears into her house with her brood. I know it’s not what she meant but that doesn’t mean I think this is any less of a shitty idea. I join Beth and Kim, waiting a few paces away in the middle of the street. They’re talking. Animated. As much as anyone can be these days.
I kinda thought our lot was all sad smiles and waiting for The End. I thought we’d given up. Second that infected bit me, I know I had. Funny thing about that meeting was that it turned out we hadn’t. The mob is coming. But we’re not going to sit around and wait for them to come. We’ve not given up yet. Well. The others haven’t.
“Alright,” I say, as Beth and Kim turn to me. “Any idea where we can get you some glasses?”