Chapter 26: Homecoming
For once in his life, Eli felt like a hero. Not just any hero, either. He felt like a soldier returning from the most dangerous mission of his career with unexpected success. Not only had he managed to succeed, he had managed to achieve objectives no one had even anticipated would be possible. So it was that when he entered the gates of the compound he was greeted by many happy faces and excited pats of affection and appreciation. Even Amber greeted him warmly, for Amber. This involved decking him across the chin, full force.
“I owed you that,” she explained simply. He nodded his head in agreement and averted his eyes from the big black and blue welt on the side of her face. “If you ever try something like that again I’ll kill you myself,” she added, wagging her finger in his face for emphasis. Then, unexpectedly, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him warmly. “But I’m still glad you came back alive,” she whispered in his ear before letting him go. Eli could only stare at her in shock. She turned and very quickly walked away.
The reason for the celebration was not just because he had come back alive. He doubted really if more than a couple of them would have even cared if he had come back at all. It was not even that he had managed to bring with him all the supplies that they had gathered but lost when they had been captured. It was because he had brought Mac and Robert back with him.
There probably would have been even more celebration if Ryan had also come, but apparently he had been killed when the SUV had been overturned back at the apartment complex. Rob had wanted to stay with his brother, but Mac explained that though it took some convincing and shooting down a fairly large number of zombies, he had been able to drag the elder brother away from his deceased sibling. “It’s the kin’a stuff that happens when the world’s gone tuh shit,” Mac would finish simply as the story was told, not interested in saying much else about his experiences away from the group.
Robert would continue on, however, recounting how much of the time had been spent hopping from shelter to shelter, gathering food and ammunition where they could find it. They had even spent one night sleeping in a tree, using some rope they had found to tie themselves to the branches so they would not accidently fall out while they slept. Most of their journey they had been forced to spend on foot. Between that and not having a map to guide them, they had gotten off course and ended up further south than they had intended, finding themselves unexpectedly in the same town as Eli.
Here they had been relatively stopped in their progress. Between leaving the apartment complex and arriving in this town, they had run into relatively few zombies. Mostly they found themselves dealing with the occasional straggler, but never large groups like they had seen at the apartment complex. Not until they got to the town.
At that point they were forced into a dilemma. They needed food and ammunition to keep going, and maybe a map if they could find one, and the town was their first chance for such a resupply that they had come across in a while. However, the high volume of zombies in the town had certainly made the prospect of going in seem more like suicide than salvation. After watching the town for only a little while, though, they noticed that the zombies seemed to be generally moving in one direction: north. So they decided that if they mostly kept behind the zombies, moving quickly and quietly, drawing as little attention to themselves as they could, then they might just be able to get what they needed without getting into any real danger.
This plan worked fairly well for them, until they heard the sound of scuffling coming from a block or two away. They knew it had to be other survivors, so they followed the sounds. This came easiest when Eli was shouting and pounding on the front door to the police station. They followed him down the alley to the back of the station, where they soon saved his life. From there, it was a simple matter of quickly clearing out the police station. Though their guns were loud and drew the attention of a number of nearby zombies, between the three of them they were quickly able to pack up a car and drive away.
From there, it was a simple matter of navigating back to the base. The roads were not particularly clogged with zombies, except here and there. Eli did have some trouble remembering exactly what roads they needed to take, but once they were on the outskirts of town it was a simple matter of pointing the car in the right direction and just going.
Eli had already heard all of this on the short drive out to the base, and continued hearing Robert’s account over and over again for most of the rest of that night as the man went from person to person, group to group. It was certainly understandable for Rob to be excited about reuniting with the only people left he could consider his family. That understanding did little to stop Eli from very quickly growing very sick of hearing the same story again and again.
“It’s not even that exciting of a story,” He said to Jay, at some point around his fifth or sixth beer. Jay smiled and nodded his agreement, but as all bits of the conversation before this point had occurred only in Eli’s head, he had absolutely no idea what the young man was going on about. “I mean, when you think about it,” Eli continued, “most of it’s just walking, really. Who wants to hear a story with that much walking? I mean, maybe if they did something cool, like kill a talking zombie. Like we did.”
“You mean, like we did,” Jay corrected, motioning to himself. “All you did was get captured and tied down to a chair.”
Eli’s eyes narrowed dangerously and he threw his empty beer can at Jay. Despite the other man being only a couple feet away, the beer can missed tragically, flying off to land on the ground harmlessly away from everyone else. Eli did not seem to notice or care, and perhaps even had already forgotten that he had thrown the can in the first place. He burped loudly and reached for another can. “This shit is good. I can’t believe I never drank much before.”
After a couple more beers, he decided he wanted to confront Kira about her prediction.
“Well, I’m not dead,” he declared triumphantly.
“That’s true,” Marshall agreed, a confused look plastered on his face. He gave a quick glance around at those near him to see if anyone else had any better idea than he did what Eli was going on about. To his relief, none of them seemed to.
A similarly confused look spread across Eli’s face and he eyed the older man with distrust, as if Marshall had been pulling some trick on him.
“Why the hell am I talking to you?” he demanded. He spun around in a circle a couple times before finally spying the person he actually wanted to talk to and made his way unsteadily across the next couple of tables to Kira. The redhead was sitting at a table by herself, politely smiling and nodding whenever someone came up to her to say something, but otherwise not really participating in the celebrations.
Eli sat down across from her and opened his mouth to speak. He promptly shut it again. Reaching out he grabbed her arms and shoulders several times, each time giving a squeeze or two as if trying to make sure his senses were not cheating him. Apparently satisfied that she was real, he finally spoke.
“So I’m not dead,” he said simply.
“Yes,” she agreed, nodding her head and smiling politely once more. She drew her arms out of his reach and looked away from him. “That’s good,” she added.
“You said I would die,” he continued, swaying back and forth a little as he spoke. “But I didn’t die. Why did you think I would die?”
“I… I didn’t think you would die,” Kira answered haltingly. She began to fidget uncomfortably, her fingers tapping nervously at her cup and her eyes darting from side to side, looking for an escape. “I was just scared. That’s all.”
Eli nodded his head, but his expression did not change. He sat in silence for a long moment, his eyes staring holes into her head. “No,” he declared at last, “You weren’t scared. Or you were. Or, I mean…” His voice trailed off as his brain tried to make sense of exactly what it was he meant. “I mean, you weren’t just scared. You were more than scared. You were sure. You said if I went, I would die. If I went,” he repeated, putting so much emphasis on the “if” that it almost became two syllables. “That’s certainty. You were certain. You were a certain… person.”
He did not realize it, but his voice had been steadily rising during the course of the conversation. People around them were beginning to notice. Daniel walked over to Eli and put a hand on his shoulder. “That’s enough, Eli,” he said. “Leave her alone now.”
Eli shrugged off the hand angrily. “No! I want to know!” He pointed an accusing finger at Kira. “I want to know what you know. How did you know? Why were you so certain? You knew we were going to come across that… that thing! Didn’t you?”
“No! I… I was just scared. That’s all, I swear!” Kira seemed close to tears now, unsure how to respond to the enraged affront. If Eli had been more sober, he probably would have noticed her confusion, particularly at the mention of “that thing.” But he wasn’t, and he didn’t.
Eli had stood up at some point, but he didn’t even know when. He jabbed his finger at her several more times as he spoke. “You knew! You knew it all, didn’t you? You knew about the monster. Did you know about the girl?”
“What?” Kira’s voice was a mere squeak.
Eli slammed his hand on the table. “Did you know about the girl?”
Kira shook her head, completely confused and desperate to escape at this point.
By now both Daniel and Matthew had locked arms around Eli’s and were pulling him forcibly away from the horrified woman. “Seriously, Eli, cut it out!” One of them was shouting, but he could hardly tell which in his condition.
“No! NO!” He screamed and struggled, thrashing about until he had managed to free both his arms. Silence fell and all eyes turned to him. He looked thoroughly crazy in that moment. He hadn’t cleaned up since returning, so he was dirty, covered in blood, his hair in shambles and his shoulders rising and falling as he stood there, hunched over, breathing heavily. He raised his finger and again pointed it at Kira. “She knows something!” he accused, eyes swinging across the faces around him one by one. “And she won’t tell us about it. I’m not crazy, you just won’t listen to me. You never listen to me. None of you!”
“Eli, that’s enough,” Daniel began, reaching out to place a steadying hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” He shrieked, shrinking back from the movement. Turning, he glanced around again at all the gathered faces. “Aw, to hell with all you people!” he snapped, and stormed from the room. Nobody followed him.
Somehow he made his way back to the dormitories and to his bed. Someone had made it while he was gone, and it looked utterly ridiculous with its properly tucked in and folded sheets and comforter against the backdrop of the chaotic new world. Eli could not find it in himself to tolerate this blasphemy. He tore the sheets free, flinging them about the bed wildly. After a minute or two of this he collapsed to the ground. His breath came in labored gasps and his eyes were too blurred by drink and anger to even see straight. He leaned his head back against the bed and closed his eyes. For a time, he tried to remember a world without zombies, without prescient redheads, without disturbing, well-spoken monsters with plans of setting up human meat fast food burger chains, and without young women who he was talking with one moment, and bashing in their brains with a hammer the next.
He did not have much success.