Chapter 24: Shut up in a Sepulcher
Eli’s blood ran cold at the sound of the voice. He swallowed and rose back to his feet, preparing to flee if he needed.
“Hello?” he called back into the darkness.
A lamp switched on at the far end of the crypt, and Eli could just make out the vague outline of a shape sitting against the far wall.
“Who are you?” The woman demanded.
“N-nobody,” he stuttered in response. “Just… just trying to hide from the zombies.”
“Are you bit?”
Eli blinked, a little surprised by the question. “No. Why? Are you?”
There was silence for a long moment. “You should leave.”
“Fine. Fine. That’s… that’s fine. Just… do you mind if I sit and catch my breath for a moment?”
Once again the woman was quiet, and after a moment Eli could just make out a faint, “Whatever.”
Eli collapsed back to the ground, too tired to keep on his feet. “Thanks,” he said absently.
They sat in silence for a time. Eli stared at his new roommate while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. She seemed to be holding her right hand over the left side of her neck as if trying to stem blood flow, but it was still too dark to be sure.
“Are you hurt?” Eli asked.
“Okay.” Eli let it drop.
“What’s your name?” she asked sometime later.
“Eli,” he replied. “What’s yours?”
“Nice to meet you, Sara. How long have you been down here?”
“How the hell should I know?”
Eli shrugged, having to consent the point, and left it at that. It occurred to him that she was probably the owner of the crashed vehicle he had seen just moments earlier. As he had already somewhat guessed, she must have been trying to run from zombies, crashed into the gate, and then had the same idea he did for how to hide away from them. But if the zombies had stuck around after chasing her in here, then most likely she’d only been in here for a day or two, or approximately the time since they had killed the talking zombie. At least, if his observations about their behavior was accurate.
“It’s been a really long time, okay?” she snapped, apparently taking his silence as further prompting. It occurred to him that she probably had been unable to see his shrug, or make out his expression, shrouded in darkness as he was.
“Okay,” responded Eli, trying to calm her. He tried to change the subject. “Does… anyone know that you’re down here?”
Sara paused, and she seemed to be swallowing down something big. Like emotion. “There’s no one to know,” she replied quietly.
Eli felt stupid for not being able to think of anything else to say. His mind had gone empty, as dark and barren as the mausoleum he now found himself in. He could feel words slowly clawing their way back from infinity, but it was several minutes before he had a more lucid response. “Well, we have a bunch of people at a place nearby. You could come with me. We’ll keep you-”
Eli was so surprised by her cutting him off mid-sentence that he sputtered idiotically, a verbal equivalent to tripping over his own feet. “What? Why?” he demanded. “Are you hurt? I think there’s a nurse back at my camp. He might be able to-”
“I just can’t,” she interrupted again. “You should probably leave now.”
Eli stared disbelievingly at the silhouette across the room from him. “Yeah,” he said finally, “Okay. I’ll go.”
He rose and opened the door, and then immediately closed it again without taking a step.
“What? What is it?” Sara demanded, her voice audibly quaking with fear. Eli heard the scrape of something metallic against the concrete floor.
“There’s zombies right outside,” he said in the loudest whisper he dared to use. “I don’t think they’ve noticed us yet but I don’t want them to get the chance.”
Sara sighed and seemed to relax a little. “Fine. Whatever. You can stay, I guess. For a little while.”
“Gee, thanks,” sneered Eli as he sat back down.
“I don’t suppose you have any water on you?”
“No, sorry. I did, but the zombies took it.”
“Yeah… I know how that sounds. Or at least, I do now that I’ve said it out loud. They just… they were trying to grab me and they grabbed my bag and… it was just too dangerous at that time to try and get it back. When I go back for it, I can swing back here and bring you some.”
Sara looked away. “It’s probably not important,” she said.
Eli didn’t need a picture painted for him. He could feel the wind go out of him as the realization dawned. “You were bit,” he said.
Sara didn’t respond, but she didn’t need to.
“Don’t be. Nothing you can do about it.”
“Maybe it’s okay. I mean, when’s the last time you’ve seen somebody turn from a bite? Maybe you won’t turn.”
He could feel her angry, doubtful glare more than see it. “Have you not seen anyone bitten?”
Eli frowned. “Actually, no,” he admitted.
“Where the hell have you been? Living under a rock?”
“More like inside a cave,” he muttered, but if she thought anything was weird about the statement she gave no indication.
“The bite always, ALWAYS turns you. No exceptions.”
“Statistically speaking, there has to be some exceptions. There’s always someone with natural immunity to any disease.”
“Natural diseases, sure. But not if it was bioengineered to get past natural immunities.”
“You think zombie-ism was bioengineered? By who?”
“By the government. Who else?”
“Why would the government turn its own people into zombies?”
“Why wouldn’t they, Eli? If that really is your name. It’s the government. This is the kind of shit they do.”
“Wow,” said Eli, rubbing his brow. “Just… wow. I hate the government as much as the next man but wow. Is paranoid delusion a symptom of the zombie virus?”
Sara sighed. “No. I’m just… tired. And hungry. And feverish. And mad at the world.”
“Understandable,” Eli replied.
“Is it?” she responded, doubtfully.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Is anything understandable anymore? Seems like the world exists now just to create insanity.”
“I guess I can’t argue with that.”
A thought occurred to Eli, one he felt logically it would be better not to ask, but before he could stop himself he blurted out, “Did you run into that talking zombie?”
Sara made a face. “Talking zombie? What the hell are you talking about?”
Eli hesitated. If she had to ask, then she definitely didn’t know. “Uh… it’s just… this one zombie. He was trapped on a fence and moaning a lot. It was like he was talking, is all.”
She gave him a long, hard, almost suspicious look. “I… must have missed that,” she said slowly. “Sorry.”
Eli waved his hand dismissively. He figured his new companion probably had enough on her mind without discussing the nightmare he had just experienced.
With that, they fell silent again. After several minutes, Sara called to him. “Eli? Can you come here?”
“Why?” he asked, probably unnecessarily suspicious.
“Please,” was her only response.
He pushed himself up to his feet and crossed the room to her. He stopped just outside of arms reach.
With her hand that wasn’t clenched around what he could now visibly tell was the zombie bite on her neck she lifted up a ballpeen hammer and held it out to him.
“What’s this?” he asked, not reaching for the weapon.
“When I die, and I come back as one of those… things… can you end me?”
Eli’s eyes went wide. “What? Are you serious?”
She lowered the hammer and fumbled around in the dark until she found a handgun. She held that up. “I ran out of bullets getting here, otherwise I would have already ended it myself. Somehow, I just couldn’t bring myself to commit suicide with a ballpeen hammer. And honestly, I don’t think I want to live through someone using it to bash my brains in, either. So unless you have a gun, please, just… stick around until I’m one of those things, and then finish me off.”
Again she held the hammer up and this time Eli took it, though somewhat hesitantly. “Are you… sure?”
“Yes,” she responded, matter-of-factly.
Eli twirled the hammer in his hand, still uncertain. “I, I don’t know…”
“Please, Eli. I don’t want to be one of those creatures. I just want it to end. I don’t think I have long. I can feel the disease eating away at me. My fever is growing. Just, please, stick around a little while and then… then end it.”
Eli nodded. “’Kay…” he squeaked, barely able to get the word out.
“Thank you,” Sara said, and relief seemed to sweep over her. She closed her eyes and turned her head away from him.
Eli returned to his spot by the door and waited.
After a time, he realized he had drifted off to sleep again. He seemed to be doing that every time he sat still for more than a few moments. These past few days had to have been the most exhausting of his entire life, and no doubt that was taking its toll on his body.
He looked over to Sara. For a moment he was sure she had completed her turn. Her skin was a sickly green, her eyes were so sunken they looked like miniature black holes, and she was shaking and moaning repeatedly. After a moment, however, he realized she was whispering something. He rose and cautiously approached her.
“Sara?” he called softly to her. There was no response. “Sara,” he called a little louder, reaching out to touch her on her shoulder.
Suddenly she sat bolt upright and grabbed him by the arms, pulling him closer to her. Eli fought back, trying to pry free of her grasp with one hand and holding her back by her chest with the other in a desperate attempt to keep her out of biting range. But she wasn’t gone yet.
“Are you real?” she asked, her voice soft, whispery. “Are you real? Are you real?” She just kept repeating the phrase over and over. Her eyes glared at him, but they were unfocused and kept darting this way and that as she spoke. She shook him as she repeated her question, but he couldn’t tell if the movement was intentional or not.
“What?” He asked, too shocked for the reality to fully sink in. “Of course I’m real. What do you mean?”
“Are you real?” She continued repeating it as though he had said nothing at all.
“Yes, I’m real,” he said when there was a break in her questioning. “Sara, it’s me. It’s Eli. Remember? I’m real.”
Her head turned away, but she kept repeating the question under her breath, and her grip on his arms did not ease up.
“Sara, hey, Sara. Look at me. It’s Eli. I’m real.”
She turned and stared back at him. Her eyes finally focused. “Did I just dream you?”
She let go of him and collapsed against the wall. Her eyes closed and her breath came in heaves. Eli carefully reached out and felt her forehead. He immediately withdrew his hand. She was on fire. Most likely she was delirious with fever.
Eli returned to the crypt’s door and opened it a crack. He peeked out and took as much of a look around as he dared. Reassured by the sight of an empty graveyard visible through the slit, he opened the door wider and stuck his whole head out. The zombies were gone. He decided to step out for some air.
When he returned he had his bag, crowbar, and his shoe once again, and Sara was awake. She looked at him as he entered, and then quickly turned away. Streaks showed through the grime on her face and her eyes were obviously bloodshot even with the fever in them.
He stepped over and knelt beside her. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “I thought you were asleep.” He reached into his sack and pulled out a bottle of water. He helped her drink some down and she nodded her thanks.
“I thought you had left me to die alone,” she whispered barely loud enough for him to hear.
“I know. I’m sorry. Not my intention, I promise.”
He helped her drink some more water until she felt she could take no more. “Here,” he said, setting the bottle down between her legs, “You can hold onto this one.”
Reaching into his bag he pulled out a second bottle and a towel. “Close your eyes,” he instructed. Sara gave him a funny look and didn’t comply. “No, really,” Eli insisted. “Just do it.”
Sara sighed but did as he asked. Eli opened the bottle and poured it over her face, and then used the towel to wipe away the grime.
When he was done he took a step back. “There,” he said, “doesn’t that feel better?”
“Yeah,” she replied, meekly.
Eli reached into his bag and dug around until he found some food. He pulled it out and held it out for her. “Here,” he offered, “you should eat.”
She stared at the bag of chips for a moment and then let out a quiet chuckle.
“What don’t you have in there? Is that some kind of Mary Poppins bag or something?”
Eli laughed. “Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s my hammer space bag.”
“Yeah. Hammer space. It’s a Japanese anime thing, I think. It’s the place anime characters keep all their giant hammers that they seem to pull out of thin air all the time.” He held up her hammer. “And now I even have a hammer for it.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, though she still didn’t sound exactly sure. “Hammer space. I like it.”
That sat in silence for a moment. Eli remembered the bag of chips and offered it to her again, but she pushed them away. “I don’t think you should be wasting food on me,” she said.
“Eat it,” he insisted, “you’ll feel better.”
She frowned. “I don’t suppose you have any Caramellaculas in your magic bag?”
Eli’s eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “I… don’t know what that is,” he admitted.
“Really? Man. They were my boyfriend’s favorite. He loved those things. They’re these little chocolate bars filled with this weird, creamy, gooey caramel. It’s disgusting.”
Eli chuckled. “And yet you want one?”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, what can I say? I never wanted one before the outbreak. But now, when I can’t get one…”
Her voice trailed off and she stared off past Eli. Her eyes seemed to fill with tears and she turned her head away as much as she could manage.
After a time, Eli said, “Should I… should I try and find your boyfriend? Let him know what happened to you?”
“He’s gone,” she said simply, her voice emotionless. “They’re all gone.”
“Oh,” was all Eli could say.
Silence fell between them again. After a time he set the bag of chips down in front of her, and then he returned to his side of the room and waited.
Slowly she fell back asleep. A few hours later she stirred. Eli looked up and watched. Her movements were jerky, stiff, and directionless. She turned her head and her eyes were open, and now a blank, pale yellow. Her mouth opened and closed mechanically, and weird little grunts escaped from time to time. She seemed to take note of him and started trying to rise, pulling herself forward with her arms.
Eli rose and stepped over to her, remaining just out of arms reach.
“I’m sorry, Sara,” he said, and raised his crow bar and her hammer above his head.