Chapter 3: Survivors
She looked to be about his age, maybe slightly older, putting her somewhere in her early to mid-twenties. There didn’t seem to be much to indicate her specific age, it was more just a feeling Eli had that she was somehow a few years older than him. Maybe it was the cold, hard look in her deep, brown eyes, a look that seemed to say those eyes had far more experience than someone his age should have.
Her hair was a dark blond, almost brown but not quite. Despite its deep color, it still maintained hints of glowing golden flashes flowing like the spray of a waterfall down to her round shoulders where some of it bundled up in small pools but most of it came to a dead stop. She wore black, ankle-high boots that led straight up into tight, dark grey jean pants that showed off her figure quite nicely. A dark blue top with a white undershirt poking through the angular v-neck completed the outfit. Her slender, well-tanned arms stretched forth from the short sleeves, angling out to form a sort of triangle before her body, out to where the hands met, wrapped around the handle of a small, black pistol.
The pistol was aimed straight at him.
Eli smiled sheepishly and raised his hands into the air in a mock surrender. “Don’t shoot,” he joked, but the straight, solemn expression on her face did not change in the slightest. The silence stretched on and he dropped his hands and the smile quickly faded away from his face. An uneasy feeling settled over him, and he became certain that she actually would shoot him.
“Were you bitten?” she demanded, her voice firm and steady. Her body barely moved as she spoke, her eyes and weapon remaining perfectly fixed on him.
“What?” He asked, blinking.
“Were… you… bitten,” she repeated, slower, with great emphasis on each individual word. “It’s not a difficult question.”
“I- no.” he stammered, standing up. “I wasn’t bitten. One of them tried to chew through my shoe, but that’s it.”
“How did you get here?” she continued, her voice still icy and unwelcoming.
“Here?” he echoed, eyes furrowing in confusion. He motioned back toward the pool area. “Through there,” he answered simply.
She suddenly lowered the gun, frustration growling in the back of her throat as she said, “No, I mean-“
“Amber!” a voice called out, cutting off her sentence.
A figure came running out from a nearby hallway, surprising them both as they turned in the direction of the call. It was another young woman, probably around the same age as the first, with dark, almost ebony skin. Her outfit was simple: slimming navy blue jeans and a slightly baggy white shirt with some weird, unspecific design flashing across it in black. Her hair was short, composed mostly of a series of dreadlocks held back from her face by a bright green headband. Eli noted with a faint curiosity that neither of them was wearing any jewelry beyond this newcomer with earrings and a septum piercing.
“We have to go!” the newcomer was saying, stopping just short of the first girl, whose name was apparently Amber. “They’ve forced the gate. The place is filling up with them.”
“The who did what now?” Eli demanded, now thoroughly confused. This had started as a weird day, and it was just getting weirder seemingly by the second.
“Who the hell are you?” the new girl demanded, seeming to take note of him for the first time.
“I just found him, Tisha. He was being attacked by the one on the ground. He says he hasn’t been bit.” Amber explained dismissively.
“Fine, then he can come with us,” the new girl responded, immediately turning back in the direction she had come.
“Wait, what?” Eli responded, somewhat taken aback by the speed everything was suddenly moving. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“Fine by me,” Amber said, turning to follow her friend. “Stay here and get eaten.” With that she ran off in the direction of the nearby hallway.
Eli sighed, uncertain of what was going on or what he should be doing, but a feeling deep inside the pit of his stomach told him he wanted to go wherever this girl was going. So, before he let himself think too much about it, he followed after her.
They hurried past the first building, down the slight twists in the path through the center of the complex, and down the hallway of a second building before emerging at a part of the parking lot empty of the creatures. Several SUVs waited there, quickly being loaded up with people and bags of supplies. Amber ran up to one of the people loading supplies, a middle-aged man with arm muscle’s the size of Eli’s head, which bulged and strained ominously as he worked tossing bags into the back of the vehicle.
“Where to this time, Marshall?” she asked, her voice seeming to lose the impatience it had contained moments earlier. Instead it had an understanding, almost eager quality to it, or at least so it seemed to Eli. He scowled inwardly at this, but said nothing.
“Devin said there’s a military installation just a couple dozen miles west of town,” the large man – Marshall – responded, his voice as deep and imposing as his upper body strength. “He says that’s where he was headed originally. There should be plenty of supplies and fortification there.”
“Devin?” Amber responded simply.
“The new guy,” he explained, ceasing his loading work. “He came to this morning. Had a lot to say.”
“I guess so,” she answered. “And good thing, too. We can’t keep calling him new guy. We got a new one of those now.” She turned a little and patted Eli, who had been standing next to her the whole conversation, roughly on the shoulder. “Found him wandering around like a little lost puppy.”
“Great,” the man grunted, and returned to work with the last couple of bags, “just what we need: more useless survivors.”
“Survivors?” Eli echoed, his voice somewhat shrill. “What do you mean? What the hell happened here?”
The world seemed to come to a stop. Without looking, Eli new that all work had stopped and every single pair of eyes within earshot had turned towards him. Heat danced across the tips of his ears, which were no doubt turning a deep red, but he tried his best to ignore it and not move his gaze from the big man.
“Are you serious?” Marshall asked after a pause that seemed to last forever.
“There’s no time for this!” someone off to the side said. They turned to see an older man, probably in his sixties, heading quickly for the driver’s side door of one of the fully loaded SUVs. “We have to get going, and I mean now!”
“He’s right,” agreed the big man standing before Eli. He finished tossing in the last of the bags. “There’ll be plenty of time to talk once we’re safe. You two can get into Mac’s car. There should be a couple open seats in there.” He motioned over to the car furthest away, and then paused a second as his eyes turned toward Amber. He quickly looked sheepishly away. “Mine’s full, sorry.”
“It’s no thang,” Amber responded, awkwardly. She was beginning to look rather sheepish herself. Eli rolled his eyes with annoyance.
“I have my own car,” he interjected. “I’ll take that, thank you.”
The big man looked at him with momentary surprise, then shrugged. “Where’s your car?”
Eli motioned back in the direction they had come. “Over by the front gate.” The man laughed, followed by the girl who Amber had called “Tisha,” who had come around the side of one of the nearby SUVs. Eli’s eyes narrowed, a look that no doubt appeared threatening to no one. “What?” he demanded.
“They’re coming through in droves at the front gate,” Tisha explained, shaking her head. “Your car is a lost cause.”
“Your mom’s a lost cause,” Eli responded angrily, then instantly regretted it. “I-I’m sorry,” he quickly stammered. “I got too used to saying that to idiots in LoL.”
“Priorities, people!” Amber said, snapping her fingers in the space between Tisha and Eli, an action which seemed to snap everyone there out of a momentary state of shock. “Inbound flesh eating monsters. Let’s get moving!”
“Right!” The big man agreed, and he and Tisha quickly turned towards their respective cars and climbed in. Amber grabbed Eli by the shirt collar and half-dragged him across the parking lot to the last car. She pushed him in, and he climbed up, quickly looking around for two seats near each other, but finding to his disappointment that there was only one seat in the back row, and one seat in the middle.
“Hurry up,” Amber demanded, shoving him forward. He quickly stepped around to the back and sat down. Amber climbed up and sat down in front of him. Someone slammed the door shut, and then they were moving.
In a sudden, embarrassing moment, Eli realized he must have chosen the kids section of the caravan. To his right was a young girl, probably a preteen at most, and to his left a boy whom Eli would guess to be a freshman in high school.
“Hi, I’m Mandy,” the girl said cheerfully, apparently somewhat oblivious to the nature of the world around them. She held a hand out to him and smiled wide.
“Uh…I’m Eli,” he replied, taking her hand and giving it a gentle shake before quickly letting go again. He’d always felt the most awkward around children. They never seemed to make any sense to him. It was like they were living in their own world and just occasionally peering into reality.
By now, the cars had rounded the corner and pulled up to the exit gate, which stubbornly remained closed despite their proximity. Eli’s eyes widened as a feeling grew inside of him like his stomach had dropped out of him.
“The power’s out,” he said quietly. The three people in the seat row in front of him all turned around to stare at him.
“What?” one of them demanded, glowering at him.
“I live here,” Eli answered, suddenly growing more bold. He moved forward in his seat a little. “The only reason I left my apartment today was because the power had gone out. And if it went out in my apartment, it must be because it’s gone out in every apartment. And the gate is tied into the apartment complex’s power. And so…” his voice trailed off.
“The gate won’t open without power,” Amber finished. She turned around quickly and leaned forward to the man driving the car. “Mac, did you hear all that?”
The man, Mac, apparently, nodded his head. “I heard it,” he replied, then cursed and pounded the steering wheel. “Wait here!” He said, and quickly climbed out of the car. Through the windshield they could see him hurrying over to one of the other cars, and a quick, shouted conversation ensued.
“We’re going to have to try the entrance,” Eli said.
Amber turned back around to face him, eyes narrowing with annoyance. “Are you dense?” she barked. “Haven’t you been listening? The entrance is overrun. We can’t go that way.”
Eli was shaking her head before she had finished speaking. “It’s the only way. Trust me, I know this place. There’s only two ways out: the entrance and the exit, and the exit isn’t going to work for us. We can’t drive through the gate. We’d risk doing too much damage to the cars.”
He was silent for a moment, gears whirring at intense speed inside his brain. The plan formed almost more quickly than he could comprehend it. He knew what he had to do.
Suddenly he was up and on his feet, headed toward the side door. “What are you doing?” Amber demanded as he pulled open the door and dropped out of the vehicle. “Are you crazy?”
Without stopping to think he hurried over to the car where Mac was having his frantic conversation with Marshall. When he noticed Eli approaching he growled angrily. “What the hell are you doing here? I told you to wait in the car.”
“We have to go out the front,” Eli said, ignoring the other man. “It’s the only way.”
“The front?” the big man responded, his voice dry. “You’re serious? That’s where they’re coming from. We’d never get through there.”
“Well we’re certainly not getting through here,” Eli shot back. “We might be able to force the gate, but it would probably take too long. And if we tried to bust it open with a car we’d probably just damage the car. I’m guessing we don’t want to risk losing any of the vehicles.” Eli could tell this comment hit home. Judging from how full the cars were, it was likely they hadn’t found too many working cars, and those they had found were just enough for the number of people in the group. If they lost one of the cars, that group would probably have to continue on foot.
“Tisha, or whatever her name is,” he went on, “said the front gate had been forced. That means it’s open already. That means we can go through it,” he concluded triumphantly.
“If we go through the front we’ll have to drive through the creatures,” Amber, who had apparently followed him, pointed out. “And running into or over one of them could cause us to lose a car as well.”
Eli shook his head, “No, see, it’s simply a matter of leading the creatures away.” Three pairs of eyes exchanged confused glances. Eli sighed and rolled his eyes. “Look, I just led a big group of them away from my apartment and lost them by simply going through one of the interior gates. It’s not hard. They don’t move that fast and they follow blindly. It’s a simple matter of having them follow someone away from the front entrance until it’s clear enough for everyone else to simply drive on through.”
Marshall frowned. “And who do you suppose is crazy and suicidal enough to do the distraction and get left behind?”
“I’ll do it,” Mac said suddenly, before anyone else had the chance to speak up. His grey eyes were hazy and unfocused, as if he was staring into the distance far past the car and people before him.
“What? No. Don’t be stupid,” Eli snapped. “I’ll do it.”
“You?” the big man almost laughed the word.
“Yes, me,” he barked back angrily. “Like I said, I have a car, and it’s over by the entrance. After I lose my posse I can get in it and follow you guys out through the gate. All I need you to do is drive me over near the entrance. When we get close enough, I’ll get out and clear the way.”
A degree of hesitation still clung to the group, but it was clear from the expression on all of their faces that they were impressed by how well thought out his plan sounded. “Well, I take back the quip about useless survivors,” the big man said, nodding approvingly.
“It just might work,” Mac agreed.
“Of course it’ll work,” Eli scoffed, waving a hand dismissively.
“I’ll go, too,” Amber said suddenly.
The three men turned to look at her, none of them believing what they heard.
“I have a gun,” she explained, nonplussed, “and I know how to use it. Besides, two people stand a better chance than one.”
“It’s too dangerous!” The big man protested.
“For once, I agree with Muscles,” Eli said, patting the big man on his bulky upper arm, which rested on the window sill of his vehicle. “You would just be putting yourself at risk.”
“Please,” she responded, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. “Like you would really stand a chance out there without my help. You almost got taken out by a single one of them.”
“It caught me by surprise,” Eli said, blushing with embarrassment. “It won’t happen again. Besides, you don’t know what my car looks like, and you don’t know this complex the way I do. I’ve been living here for three years. I can’t have you running around out there, going God knows where. I’m not gonna go looking for you, and I don’t want to wait for you in my car wondering whether you’ll show up or not. No, one of us definitely stands a better chance. We can’t have someone waiting on someone else. That just creates more danger.”
“But-“ she started, but Mac interrupted her.
“No, end of discussion,” he barked, grabbing her by the arm. “You’re one of the group, he isn’t. And we’re not risking anyone in the group on this kid’s crazy plan.” He turned toward Eli. “How well do you know the town?”
Eli shrugged. “About as well as anyone, I suppose.”
“There’s a strip center just a block west of here. We’ll wait for you there, but only for a few minutes. Not more. You got it?”
Eli nodded. “I know the place.”
“Good.” Mac pulled out a street map from his pocket and unfolded it. “Just in case you aren’t quick enough, or that place is also overrun, here’s where we’re headed.” His finger traced a path on the map from the strip mall to an almost completely blank portion of the map, a good 100 or so miles outside of town.
With a frown, Eli grabbed Mac’s arm and knelt down to check his watch. It was already mid-afternoon, and they still needed to clear the path and get on the road. Above their heads, dark storm clouds filled the sky, spraying a dull grey color all around them and diminishing the light. Which meant night was going to come extra early.
“That’s a bit far,” Eli responded, his frown deepening. “Are you sure you can make that before it gets dark?”
Mac and Muscles traded uncomfortable glances. “Well, we have to,” Mac replied.
A light came on in Eli’s eyes, and he smiled with excitement. A thought had just occurred to him, a thought that probably never would have been welcome on any normal day. But on this day, on this crazy day, it was an exciting thought.
He motioned to a spot on the map, just outside of town. “There’s a hotel here. It had just closed down about two weeks ago. They were supposed to demolish it, but last I saw, that hadn’t happened yet and I’d venture a guess,” he stopped and waved his hand around in a circle, “that they found themselves with more important matters to worry about.”
“All right,” the big man said, “we’ll try to make it there. Mac, show the others.” Mac nodded and hurried off. The big man turned to Eli. “If we’re not there, we’ll have continued on to our goal. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”
Eli nodded and hurried off back toward Mac’s car, Amber hot on his heels. He stopped just before climbing in, deciding it would be best to let Amber take the back this time. She started to get in, then stopped and turned toward Eli, grabbing his arm. “Hey, don’t make me regret saving you,” she said. A slight smile cracked on his lips, but his eyes narrowed in confusion. “No, really,” she said, firmly, “if I wasted a bullet saving your ass just to have you immediately go and get yourself killed, I’m going to be really pissed.” Without another word she climbed into the truck and made her way to the seat next to Mandy. Eli looked off toward the rest of the group, where Mac was hurriedly giving another driver directions. He let out a sigh and felt his shoulders droop, as though a great weight had come down on his shoulders.
Just what the hell had he gotten himself into?