Sunlight poured in through the hole in the sorry excuse for a roof. Donovan and Jasper were coated in dust and old shingles. “Ow...” Jasper whined. He lifted himself up from the pile of debris, and said, “You guys okay?”
Donovan grunted, nodding as he stood. “I’m fine, but I’m starting to see where Vicky was coming from, the houses in my neighborhood probably could use some TLC.” He brushed the dirt from his legs and turned to Marion. He hadn’t known the woman for long, but he felt like it was strange that now of all times she chose to be silent. He saw an expression of shock painted on her face but she wasn’t looking at him, she was looking at the splintered shaft of wood piercing through her calf.
“No,” She finally said in a small and frightened voice. “No, I’m most definitely not okay.”
“Oh no!” Donovan knelt down to hold Marion’s hand. “It’s not so bad,” he said, putting a hand on her face and directing her eyes to meet his.
“Okay. We can deal with this.” Jasper moved to Marion’s other side. “Do you think you can stand?”
Jasper and Donovan both took one of Marion’s arms around their shoulders and tried pulling her to her feet but she screamed and began to sob.
“Did you hear that?” Jasper asked, watching the stairs that led down to the rest of the house.
“Hear what?” Donovan asked, busying himself with Marion.
Marion’s face twisted into a poisonous glare. “That was me, jackass!”
“No, the other scream.” Jasper moved slowly toward the stairs, lifting his gun in the air.
“No, Mommy, no!”
Donovan definitely heard the little girl’s voice that time. He gently lowered Marion back to the floor and gripped his crowbar. Jasper flew down the stairs and Donovan followed. They found themselves in a dark kitchen with heavy curtains that prevented any natural light from coming into the room. Donovan wasn’t surprised when he found himself greeted by the stench of rotting flesh.
“Mommy, nooo!” The young girl screamed again and they burst into the hallway. A dead woman was scratching at a closed door and she turned to look at the newcomers. Her long blond hair looked like it had been tied up in a bun when she died. Now it was falling loose and stained varying shades of red and brown. She reached her hands toward them and Jasper aimed the rifle at her head. The deafening roar of the weapon filled the hallway after a brief flash of muzzle flare. The woman slumped to the carpeted floor with a smoking bullet hole in her skull, blood and brains coating the wall behind her.
After the gunshot, the girl behind the door screamed and then started crying in loud, desperate sobs.
“Hello?” Donovan asked, knocking quietly on the door. “Little girl?”
“Who’s thewe?” She sounded terrified and her speech impediment rounded the r from ‘there’ which made her sound even more pathetic. Donovan’s chest clenched with sadness at the thought of someone so young living through such an ordeal. Instantly he was compelled to help her get away from this hell house.
“My name’s Donovan. I live next door. What’s your name?”
There was a moment of silence before the door creaked open to reveal the sunken face of a starving young girl, hiding in a narrow bathroom. Her green eyes poked out from under matted golden curls as she tilted her head to look at him. “Cynthia,” she said.
“Cynthia.” Donovan repeated her name, bending over to make eye contact. There were heavy, dark circles hung under her eyes and her cheeks looked pale and hollow. “Is there anybody else home?”
Her lip quivered and tears flowed again from her eyes as an angry moan came from one of the other bedrooms. Donovan saw Jasper turn quickly from the scene and he moved down the hall towards the sound. He tried the closest door to him but found nothing. When he opened the second door, however, he pulled back, looking down the hall at Donovan with wide eyes.
“I’ll be right back, okay?” Donovan left Cynthia in the bathroom and peered in through the door Jasper had just opened. It seemed like a little boy’s room. Toys were strewn about the floor and the walls were painted a pale blue that reminded Donovan of his own childhood room.
Then he noticed what Jasper had.
Lying on the bed was a young boy. Well, he was once a boy. He seemed to have chewed off one of his hands at the wrist but the other was tied to his headboard. The boy reached for Jasper and Donovan with his gnawed off stump of an arm and Jasper raised his gun again.
“We’ve got to kill him.”
“No, we don’t!” Donovan said. He approached the zombie boy and its moan tapered off as it stared up at Donovan’s green eyes. “He’s tied up,” Donovan said with a twinge of desperation in his voice. “What if these people aren’t actually dead? What if they’re just sick? We could leave him here until there’s a cure.”
“Yes we do have to kill him. There’s no cure for this!” Jasper aimed his gun and didn’t look at his partner as he spoke. “Besides, he’s already gotten one arm free. Once he gets the other one free, what then? He’ll find a way out of this house and join the hordes outside.”
Donovan stared at the zombie for a moment. He wanted to comfort the pitiful creature. He felt his hand reach out and graze the thing’s cold, rubbery cheek. The zombie pulled back from his hand at first, but then leaned into it like a hurt puppy seeking comfort. It looked at him and its vacant stare seemed to struggle to gain focus. There was something there, hidden deep under the zombie-boy’s hunger, something that seemed eager to please.
“Step back, Donovan.”
Donovan remained still for a second then moved aside, turning his head away as the gunshot silenced the zombie’s moans. He fought down his tears and turned to look at Jasper, tilting his head so that his ear was pointed toward the door. “I think I still hear one,” he said.
Jasper and Donovan slipped back into the hallway and looked at the last closed door. Donovan turned the knob and Jasper pushed it open with his gun. Instantly they knew they had discovered the primary source of the smell of decay. Donovan had to hold his arm over his nose as he looked into the room. His insides churned and he thought he was going to throw up. Dried blood was smeared all over the walls like a crude, room-sized finger-painting. Chunks of rotting organs and limbs littered the floor. Lying helplessly in the middle of it was the moaning zombie they heard - or at least part of it. All that remained of this particular re-animated body was a head, neck, shoulder and arm. Yet it still rolled around, groaning and gnashing its jaws.
Donovan looked at Jasper and said, “how can these things survive like this?”
“Like I’ve been telling you, they’re already dead,” Jasper said flatly. He aimed the rifle at the zombie’s head. “How many times do you need to see it before you believe it?”
Donovan walked away as Jasper pulled the trigger again. Cynthia was sobbing in the bathroom and he found her covering her ears with her hands as she rocked back and forth on the edge of the tub, her blanket still wrapped around her shoulders.
“Cynthia,” Donovan said, moving closer to her. “I’m so sorry.” He squatted down and put his arm around her, she instantly grabbed hold of his body and wouldn’t let go. She shook with silent sobs as he gripped her almost as desperately. There was a moment of silence before Jasper spoke up.
“Let’s go,” he said, passing the bathroom to get back to the attic. “Marion’s still waiting.”
Jasper led the way back up to the attic. Donovan trailed closely behind with Cynthia in his arms.
“Who’s she?” Marion asked, gritting her teeth against the pain in her leg.
“This is Cynthia,” Donovan explained. He opened up the dormer window on the far end of the attic and helped the girl onto the roof. “She’s coming with us.” And that was it, Donovan had spoken and neither of the others seemed to have an argument against him.
“What should we do about that?” Jasper asked, pointing at the piece of wood that still punctured Marion’s calf.
“I don’t know,” Donovan said, searching the attic for a bandage.
“Should we pull it out?”
“What?” Marion shook her head, “No friggin’ way! Can’t you just wrap it up until we can see a real doctor?”
“Of course!” Donovan said, pretending to pull a notebook out of his pocket. “How about we pencil you in to see the doc sometime next week? He’s a little busy now, what with the dead coming back to life and trying to eat everyone, but I’m sure he can find time for you.”
“Oh, ha ha.” She placed one arm around each of their shoulders as they lifted her out the window.
“You’we cwanky,” Cynthia said to Marion in her sad little voice as she climbed onto the roof.
“Well, you’re probably going to notice that a lot more people are cranky now.” Marion turned to Donovan as if to ask for help. She clearly had very limited experience with children. Donovan just shrugged and watched the interaction with a grin as Jasper disappeared back into the house--perhaps to find something to use as a bandage.
“Why?” Cynthia asked, cocking her head to one side.
“Because...” Marion looked back at the girl with a hesitant, and maybe even a little disgusted, expression. “Well, life is harder now.”
“Because everything’s changed.”
“Because... because there are monsters.”
“I DON’T KNOW!” Marion finally snapped.
“You’we cwanky,” Cynthia repeated and peered over the edge of the roof. She caught sight of the zombies and her breathing grew heavier. Her eyes opened wide and she turned back to her cranky new friend, burying her little face into Marion’s shirt. Marion initially looked like she wanted to pull away but instead she held up her arms and looked down at the girl.
Donovan could see that Marion wanted nothing more than to have Cynthia leave her alone, but this little girl was special some how. Donovan had felt it too, that over whelming urge to protect her. Maybe it was just because the world had so dramatically changed. No child should be left alone like this and Donovan suspected Marion knew that. He watched as she slowly lowered her arms and wrapped them gently around the girl.
“Aw, Marion, you made a new friend!” Jasper grinned as he climbed onto the roof with several long strips of cotton fabric in his hands. “Meanwhile, I cut up a sheet for bandages. Look at both of us being productive.” He waved a handful of cotton rags with a grin. “They’re not much, but they’ll have to do for now.” After wrapping Marion’s leg, Jasper led the way towards the next house.
It took quite a while to climb across the roofs to the house on the corner. Jasper would climb across to the next roof first, then Donovan would pass Cynthia over to him and they would need to help the injured Marion across before Donovan could finally follow. It was a lot more work then they’d planned for, but Donovan couldn’t help but notice how much better he felt since waking up on the floor of his dirty attic. Despite a lack of food and having just recovered from a three-day coma, he felt rejuvenated. He thought briefly about discussing it with Jasper, but decided it wasn’t quite the time.
They noticed as they passed through the house on the corner that it looked ransacked. The closets were left open and some of the drawers had been emptied. Either the people who lived there left in a hurry or someone had been scavenging. Donovan stepped over to the kitchen counter and gently touched the handle of a carving knife that had been put there. He didn’t understand why, but it seemed to make him think of Vicky. It was almost as if he could see her standing there, in that very spot, holding the knife that was now in his hand. As he watched the image of Vicky in his mind, not a memory but also not quite a hallucination, she turned the knife over and over, considering its worth as a weapon. With a feeling he couldn’t quite explain, he knew without a doubt that she was alive and that they would see each other again.
“Okay, well, we should get going,” Jasper said, peeking out the front door. “Looks quiet out there for now.”
Donovan squatted in front of Cynthia and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Cynthia, I need you to listen to me. We’re going to go outside.” She inhaled sharply and Donovan felt her brewing panic as clearly as he had seen the ghost of Vicky only moments ago. “It’s okay, we’ll protect you,” Donovan said with a smile. “You just need to stay close okay? No matter how scared you get you can’t run away.”
“It’s okay,” she said and her voice rang like tiny bells in Donovan’s ears. “I have my blankie. Daddy told me it pwotects me from monstews.”
Donovan couldn’t help but smile. In this new world it was refreshing to hear someone think that staying safe was as simple as wrapping their blankie around their shoulders.
“Okay, let’s go then,” Marion said as she draped her arms over Jasper and Donovan’s shoulders once more and they headed outside.
They quickly hobbled towards the cars that jammed the street, hoping to avoid being noticed by any zombies that may be around. One that was trapped in a small compact car slammed its body against the window. Its mouth opened and closed against the glass and Donovan was reminded of one of those algae eater fish that cling to the sides of aquariums. Cynthia gasped, but she put a hand over her mouth to avoid screaming. Donovan put his own hand on her head to comfort her and they started on their way towards the building in the distance with the flashing red beacon.