Chapter 16: New Life
Marshall, Elaine, and Amber quickly took to organizing everyone together for specific jobs. One of the first orders of business was to set aside a plot for a garden where they could grow some fruits and vegetables. They cordoned off an area between the office buildings and the dining area and set a small group of volunteers to work digging up the ground to prepare it for planting. Most of the rest of the day was spent searching through the dining hall, the living spaces, and the generator/water tank area to determine what supplies they had and what they would still need. In the early afternoon they took a break and fixed up some lunch from the food supplies they had found. Everyone stopped by, with the notable exception of Eli. The work continued on after lunch, and then as the sun began to set in the far western skies, they took a second break for dinner. Again, Eli did not show up.
When Jay showed up for some food, Amber took him aside. “Have you seen Eli?”
Jay narrowed his eyebrows in suspicion, eyes searching her face for her true intent, but all he could make out seemed to be honest concern. “No, why?”
“Nobody’s seen him all day,” she answered honestly.
Jay mulled over several responses before settling on the truth. “Last I saw him he was headed for the office buildings. Might still be there. If nothing else, it’s certainly the easiest place to go unnoticed here.”
Amber nodded her head as she considered that reasoning. Thanking Jay, she turned and headed out of the dining hall. She looked across the empty stretch between her and the buildings, and considered whether she should be doing this at all. It was hardly her place to be concerned about this kid, but somehow she felt unable to stop.
It did not take her very long to find him once she was actually searching. Once inside she decided not to even bother with the labs and offices, but immediately made her way to the first building and the top floor. Sure enough, there was Eli, sitting on a table, his feet in a chair, arms across his knees, staring out the large wall of windows. She stopped for a moment and watched him. He did not seem to notice her presence, so she came over and sat beside him. He started in surprise, but relaxed when he saw who it was. The expression on his face did not exactly change, though.
“Hey,” he greeted, his voice barely a whisper. She nodded back in response, deciding it best to not really say anything for the moment. Turning, she looked out the window, to where he had been looking just moments before. The sight of Texas in the late evening sun was actually quite breathtaking. The sky was awash in purples, pinks, blues, and oranges, the colors cascading as they fell over the tops of the trees. Clouds puffed up and faded into nothing here and there across the sky, adding to the almost surreal effect of the view. In the light of the recent horror that had overrun the world, it seemed impossible to believe such beauty could still exist. It was almost as if nature itself was trying to be ironic.
Distantly she was aware that Eli had yet to take his eyes off her. She turned and gave him an impatient look. He quickly turned away, embarrassed.
“I guess I owe everyone an apology,” he said after a moment. She still said nothing. Eli looked up and out the window, trying his best not to start staring at her again. He could feel his chest growing tight, but swallowed hard and tried to ignore it. “It’s just… you all have had a full month to get used to this situation. I haven’t. I haven’t really had any time. For the past seventy two hours or however long I’ve just tried to shut my brain down and run on autopilot. Just all reactions, no deep thoughts or fully conscious decisions. I think I was afraid that if I stopped, if I got the chance, I would just break down and give up.”
He fell silent for a long moment. “My family’s dead,” he said at last. He turned and looked at Amber, and could see the concern in her eyes. For the first time she noticed he was holding his cell phone in his hands, twirling it around absently. “I don’t have any confirmation, of course. But surely someone I knew would have checked on me after it became clear what was happening.” He hit a button on the phone and the screen lit up, and he waved it half-heartedly. “But there’s nothing. Not a single message. Not a text, not a call. Which means they probably all died too early on to be concerned about me. Which means that the only people with any connection to me left alive in this world is our little group of survivors. And given the choice, if there were no zombies, if we weren’t fighting for our lives, I wouldn’t be friends with any of you. I would probably have done all I could to avoid each and every one of you. But here I am. Here we all are.” He stopped and let his head droop into his hands.
Amber put a reassuring hand upon his shoulder. “You never know what happened,” she said. “The first time I came across a zombie, it scared the hell out of me so badly I dropped my phone and it slid down a gutter. I haven’t seen it since, and I haven’t seen anyone I know since. I haven’t heard from any of them either. I had the chance to call some people, but I couldn’t remember any numbers. I got so used to storing numbers on my phone, I couldn’t remember anyone’s actual number.”
Despite himself, Eli let out a little chuckle. “I’ve always been good with numbers. I remember each and every one. Might be why I was in IT in the first place. But I don’t have to remember. They’re all right here. And I dialed each and every one. Not one response.”
“The phone lines are probably all down by now,” Amber replied. “It’s been about a month with no upkeep. And think about this: if a group as large as ours managed to survive, then surely there must be many more like us all over the place. Right? You never know who made it and who didn’t. There’s no reason to give up now, because maybe one day you’ll see your family again.”
Eli managed a meek little half smile at the words, recognizing that at the least she was trying to cheer him up, which was a lot better than he had done with her in the past. He tossed his useless cell phone onto the next table and straightened. “Well, at least I learned one thing,” he said.
Ambers eyebrows bunched in confusion. “What’s that?” she asked.
“All those years spent sitting on my butt in front of a computer has made me pretty used to sitting around doing nothing. So apparently I’d make a pretty good guard. Guess I can be useful here after all.”
Amber let out a brief laugh and patted Eli on the shoulder. “Well, I’ll be sure to let Marshall know.” Suddenly, something made her choke, and she began coughing. Eli watched for a moment, alarmed, unsure of whether or not he should be doing something to help. Amber stood up from the table and backed away a couple steps. “In the meantime,” she said, when she got a moment between coughs, “you should really look into making use of the dorm showers.”
Eli’s hurt expression only made things worse, and she burst out laughing, but this only combined with the coughing and before long her face was turning purple from lack of air. He tried to fight it, but soon he was laughing as well. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered if they had just been driven insane by the world. In that moment it certainly did seem a distinct possibility.
Once they were able to catch their breaths they left the room. They had to make their way tentatively as, with night having fallen outside and only one small flashlight to share between them, the inside of the building was pitch black. Once outside again they went their separate ways, each back to their assigned dormitory wing. Eli took Amber up on her advice and took a warm shower. With all that had been going on, it had never actually entered his mind just how dirty and disgusting he really was. The shower was an immense relief, and he emerged from it feeling like he had been reborn. Jay had allowed him to borrow some clothes so he was not forced to put back on the same ragged pants and shirt he had been wearing for the past three days. Then with that, he went to bed and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
The next day went much the same as the previous one had, but without any big fights in the dining hall. The garden really began to develop over the course of the day, and a finalized list was developed detailing exactly what supplies were available. The work continued much the same as the next few days passed, and slowly tensions in the group began to ease as one by one they grew comfortable with the fact that, for once, an attack might actually not have been coming.
Yet as most of the group became more relaxed, Marshall could feel a concern growing like a cancer inside his stomach. He knew more intimately than the rest the actual state of their supplies, and knew that before long they were going to have to go into a town and gather more for themselves. He discussed with Paul about the location of the nearest town, and fortunately he was able to provide a map Marshall could study to help prepare them for the trip. He figured they could last a few weeks without a supply run, maybe even over a month, but the sooner they did it, the less desperate they would be during it. There was also the matter of the garden, which they really were not equipped to develop, maintain, and upkeep. They barely had seeds to plant, let alone tools to work the soil, and they had absolutely no fertilizer of any sort. He also knew that they couldn’t survive indefinitely on this base without ever leaving. Eventually, they would have to make more trips. They might as well start now and get used to the idea.
Over the course of the days, Eli had a great deal of difficulty fitting in anywhere. Encouraged by the way Amber had acted toward him on that second night, he at first tried following to whatever activity she was engaged in, to see if he would be able to help out there, and maybe get further opportunity to talk with her. This proved a futile effort, though, as most of what she did was helping to organize the others into specific tasks, and he found himself unwilling to give any orders.
He usually ended up being told to do something he had no experience with, such as attempting to clean clothes by hand, or gardening. This Jay picked up right away, saying he had worked on a garden with his mother growing up and so mostly already knew what he was doing. Eli did not have any past experience growing anything, except once in kindergarten when he had grown a bean stalk in a plastic bag. That knowledge did not really apply to the effort of tilling soil and planting seeds in actual dirt. He decided gardening was not for him, either.
So instead he spent most of his days up on the third floor of the office building, looking out to the tree line or the road for any sign of movement. There was never any, and despite his claims of being accustomed to sitting around all day doing nothing, he had to admit to himself that even slowly clicking through various web pages, blogs, and news feeds he had never cared about was at least a lot more of something to do than this. After a couple days, he went searching through the offices, and found paper and some pencils and pens which he promptly appropriated for his own use. He began bringing these with him to the third floor and would spend much of the day drawing or writing whatever came to mind. Not that he was much of an artist, or even a writer, for that matter, but it gave him enough of something to do to pass the time.
He was not always alone, either. Following Marshall’s wishes of having guards posted inside the building, occasionally two or three of the others would be up there with him, though at times they seemed pretty satisfied to let him work alone. He did not talk to the others much, which was perfectly fine with them, but they usually ended up talking to each other, and sometimes he would sit and listen to their conversations. For some reason, the mere presence of other voices seemed to have a calming and soothing effect. Before the apocalypse, he had intentionally cut people out of his lives, going whole weeks, sometimes even months, with barely any human interaction of any sort, but now that most of humanity was either dead or turned into nightmarish monsters, he supposed he might actually be missing them. Perhaps it was like the saying went: you never know how important something is to you until it’s gone. You never really want it until you cannot have it.
After a few nights, it came to be Amber’s turn to go on guard duty. She and Tisha both joined him up on the third floor. When they arrived, he had been absently doodling on a sheet of paper. When he noticed them, his face turned beet red and he quickly hid away his stack of papers. To his relief, it did not seem as if either of the girls noticed him doing this. They simply waved to each other, and then stepped into different rooms to get separate views of the surrounding area.
Eli could feel his heart began to beat faster and his chest tighten. He tried to sit still and not stare at the doorway Amber had disappeared into, but found both tasks quite beyond his level of control. So he stood up and began to pace, hoping that the activity would help calm him down. Distantly he knew he was being ridiculous, but his body did not seem to care about the facts. All it cared about was that Amber was mere feet away from him, in a room by herself, for the first time since they last talked. This was his chance to make a move, if only he could find the courage somewhere inside himself.
This is insane, he thought to himself. I’m living in a world of zombies, I’ve thrown myself at giant hordes of them more than once, but I’m afraid to face one petite blond woman.
He stopped pacing, only realizing once he did so that he had still been doing it, and took a deep breath. If he procrastinated any longer, he would probably just spend the rest of the night procrastinating. It was now or never, he decided. Time to cowboy up or wuss out, and he sure as Hell was not going to wuss out. With quick, determined steps he crossed the room and entered through the doorway into Amber’s room. She was standing at the window, staring out at the fading twilight. In the dim, purple pink glow of the late evening, she seemed even more beautiful. She seemed radiant, refulgent even, as though she was the one glowing and not the sun and moon outside. He opened his mouth to greet her, but no sounds came out, and after several seconds he realized that he was, in fact, going to wuss out.
He turned to leave, but something alerted her to his presence. “Hey, what’s up?” she said, her voice soft and calming, like a gentle nocturne flowing from the sweetest piano. He froze halfway through his turn, unable to finish leaving, but just as unable to turn back and face her. As the seconds drew on into eternity, he realized how awkward he must be making her feel, and his worries suddenly melted away and he relaxed.
“Nothing, really” he responded at last, turning to face her. She still stood by the window, but her gaze was on him. Her eyes looked wet, like they were holding back tears, just two deep, beautifully blue pools waiting for him. Without further prompting he crossed the room to her, making sure to still leave a few feet between them in the hopes that she would choose to close that gap herself. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she responded quickly, turning away from him.
“Okay,” Eli said simply, and fell silent. For a long moment they just stood there in the dark room, neither of them talking, until Amber began to grow annoyed.
She turned back to face Eli, anger showing through in her expression now. “Is there something you want?” she snapped.
Eli held up his hands defensively. “I just thought we could talk,” he answered meekly. Whatever reserve he had managed to draw his confidence from was quickly draining, and it was all he could do to keep himself from simply bolting for the nearest exit and never looking back.
She scoffed and crossed her arms, turning back to the view out the window. She shook her head slowly, almost absently, but said nothing more. Eli waited for a long moment, allowing her to decide whether or not she was going to speak. Their world seemed to have come full circle. Just days ago, in this very building, looking out on much the same view, she had been there for him. And now he could be there for her. Now he could do something to really endear himself to her.
“Tell me,” he prompted. She shoot a laser sharp look at his reflection, but did not turn to face him completely. “Amber…” he began, reaching over to place a hand on her shoulder.
To his surprise she backed away, knocking his hand back and away from her. “Like you’re who I want to talk to!” she barked. The words hurt far more than her actions had, and Eli’s face contorted into an expression of shock and pain, looking as though she had slapped him. She shook her head and turned back to the window. “Just go, okay?”
A million words rolled through Eli’s brain, but they only clogged the passageways and made it impossible for any of them to get through, so all he managed to say was, “I know I’m not Marshall…”
“No, you’re not,” she agreed. She paused and bit her lower lip. “Not that it would matter if you were,” she added, muttering mostly to herself. “He only wants to listen to Elaine.”
“Well he’s just a big muscular jerk, anyway. He’s got power going to his head. He’s used to having his pick of things, of getting whatever he wants whenever he wants. And if you keep going back to him, he’s going to keep being that way. You shouldn’t let him get away with that. He doesn’t deserve you. There’s people on this base that actually care how you feel.”
She swung from side to side a little on one foot, her head lowered. She turned her head in his direction and looked up at him, and for a moment Eli could have sworn those blue eyes went on forever. It felt like his heart stopped in his chest, like the entire world froze around them and all that remained was the endless depths of those glacial blue eyes locked upon him. Her voice, when it came out, was not so much spoken as it was purred, like the distant rumbling of thunder, or an earthquake that threatened to shake his very foundations. “People… like you?” she suggested. She moved closer to him, not so much stepping as gliding. The movements were completely imperceptible to Eli. He could tell that she was growing closer only by the increased depth of her gaze that kept his own locked in place.
“Yeah,” he said, the word falling out of him and flopping pathetically to the floor. Even the mere act of speaking seemed suddenly impossible, his mouth barely able to form the correct shapes. “People like me.”
He never saw it coming. All he knew was that suddenly he was on the floor, holding his face where there was an inexplicable eruption of pain. Slowly the past several seconds came flooding back to him. He could see a table capsized onto its side in front of him, and realized he had fallen over it as he toppled backwards… toppled backwards from a blow to the face. Amber had held nothing back. Without any warning whatsoever she had punched him full force right on his cheek.
“What the…what the hell?” he demanded, trying to rise to his feet, but the spinning of the room made it far too difficult of a task.
“You think just because I’m nice to you once I’m supposed to get naked and bend over for you? You think that’s how this works? What am I supposed to fall in love with you just because I lack better options?”
“Well it’s not exactly like you have many!” Eli spat. Amber’s eyes went wide with shock, and only then did Eli realize what he had said. He wanted to take it back, but it was already too late.
“Okay, right.” Her voice was mocking and venomous, thick with fangs tearing at his heart and mind. “So having limited options means I should fall for the first willing participant? Give me a break. If anything, the limited number of choices means I should be even more picky than before. Because let’s face it, if everything, even love, is mostly just about survival at this point, then I have to choose a mate with the most useful traits. And what do you have? You’re a self-righteous brat. You’re lazy. You’re aimless. You have no sense of leadership and no interest in helping out where it really counts. On top of that, you’re a bit of an ass. So tell me again in exactly what way you’re better than Marshall.”
Rage covered Eli’s face and a fire filled his eyes as he stared at her feet, but he said nothing. He had nothing he could say. Despite all the protests building up inside of him, he knew that in the end, she was right. Marshall was exactly what this world needed: a leader, a hero, a planner, a worker. He was none of those things. He had spent far too many years trying to avoid being a cog in the machine to change his stripes now. He pushed himself to his knees and crawled over to the nearest wall. He sat against it and stared into the darkness, away from her, and tried to hold back the tears. At the very least, he still could keep her from seeing him cry.
At some point she left. He took no note of this when it happened, but when he finally pulled his gaze away from the corner of the room he realized that he was alone. He put his head in his hands, but he no longer felt like crying. Now he really just felt like dying. In reality he had known, pretty much from the first moment he had realized that his neighbor was a zombie, that his family and friends were all dead. In reality he knew that humanity was gone, and the world was now a walking graveyard. In reality he knew that really, truth be told, he had nothing to actually live for. Nothing except Amber, who had just made it clear – in absolutely no uncertain terms – that she would never, ever, be interested him, even if he was the last man alive. Which, really, he was not all that far off from being.
Vaguely he became aware someone else was in the room. Purely instinctual survival kicked in, causing him to start, and he clicked on his flashlight to see who it was. Standing there, just inside the doorway, her hands on her hips, was Tisha. She stared down at him with an expression that seemed to be a mix between disappointment and pity.
Eli clicked the flashlight back off and let it drop from his fingers. “What do you want?” he asked, his voice bitter and cold.
Without a word she crossed the room and knelt down beside him. In the dim light of the early night she studied him, rubbing her thumb along the already darkening bruise on his face. He winced at the touch, but studied her face with an equal amount of curiosity.
“She’s wrong, you know,” Tisha said, her voice little more than a whisper. He could feel her breath beating rhythmically across his face, and suddenly could feel the nervousness returning in full force back up into his chest.
“A-about w-what?” he stammered.
“It isn’t about survival. It isn’t about picking the perfect mate. It’s about doing what feels right. That’s all we have left.”
Eli looked deep into her eyes. Before this moment, he had barely noticed her, as she was probably fully aware. In fact, he could not be sure he even had her name right. Yet with her here, standing before him like this, she seemed like a Goddess of beauty and power, and when she smiled, he couldn’t help but smile back.
She kissed him, long and passionately, and did not back down or let go. They slid to the floor, and let the darkness take them.