Chapter 36: Of Greetings and Goodbyes
When he woke up the next morning, Eli was surprised to find everyone already up and preparing to leave. In all honesty, after his final speech the night before, he had expected everyone to change their minds and let him go alone. Instead, they were the ones waiting on him.
They were all gathered around the last of the SUVs in the parking lot. Paul spread out a military map on the trunk of Eli’s car and pointed out some locations to Eli.
“This right here,” he said, indicating one small square that was supposed to be a building, “is the facility where they were keeping the captured vampire before the blackout. Now, I don’t know the specific orders for the facility, so they may have had some kind of evacuation plan where they moved him to a more secure facility, but… I kind of doubt that they did. This place was already pretty secure. So in all likelihood, he’ll still be there.”
Eli rubbed his brow. “That’s… that’s on the other side of Arkansas.”
“Sure is,” Paul agreed. “What, you thought this was going to be easy?”
Eli shook his head. “No. No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“Actually, Arkansas is the easy part. Here,” Paul tapped another part of the map, “is where the cave was that they found the creatures.”
Eli blinked. “Virginia?”
“If you fail to find our patient zero, the captured vampire, then this is the only guaranteed fallback. Any creatures still here should all have the same infection in their blood.”
Eli was shaking his head. “After what we saw in that video, you think I’m going to risk taking my team in there?”
Paul shrugged. “It depends.
“On how serious you are about stopping this.”
Eli scowled at the snide remark but in the end he knew Paul was right, so he said nothing more.
Next, Lisa approached him while loading a clip into a pistol and checking the weapon. “They told me you don’t know how to use one of these.”
“I got the basic idea,” Eli replied. “Point and shoot.”
“Yeah. Apparently there was an armory on the base this whole time. Paul showed us where it was, so we want everyone in the party to take a firearm, just in case. I thought you’d do better with a shotgun. They’re more of a spray and pray type weapon for an amateur like you, but then I thought you might be too much of a wuss for one. Besides, we don’t have very many, and they’re awfully bulky to have to carry. Especially since you got those.” She motioned vaguely in the direction of his baseball bats with the barrel of the gun.
“So instead, you’re getting this. It’s a standard Sig Sauer handgun. Here, take it.” She handed the gun to him and then proceeded to point to several pieces on it, one by one. “This is the clip release. It’s important to keep this separate from the safety, which is here. You mix those up in a firefight, and you’re as good as dead.”
She walked him through a few more parts of the gun and then some tips on how to fire it, reiterating the importance of aiming for the head with zombies.
“Just, try not to need it,” she ended. “Ammo is gonna be in very short supply, and the noise will probably draw more zombies to you than you’ll be able to get rid of by using it.”
“Got it,” Eli said.
He stashed the weapon away and turned to face everyone. A few people had come to see them off, but mostly it was just the group that had agreed to go with him. The most notable appearance was that of Marshall, who was busy having a quiet, but clearly heated, conversation with Amber. Eli imagined that he was trying to convince her not to go.
After a time, he finally threw up his hands in defeat and stomped away. Seeing Eli, he turned and headed in the younger man’s direction. He jabbed a finger in Eli’s chest and said, “You better be extra damn careful out there, or I swear to God I will hunt you down and take you out myself.”
Eli shrugged as nonchalant as he could manage. “They can all take care of themselves. You can rest assured every one of us has the primary goal of simply staying alive.”
Marshall grunted, not particularly satisfied with that answer, but he decided not to push it any further. He motioned to the remaining SUV. “There’s enough of you that you’re not really going to be able to take your car. You’ll need that.”
“You sure? I hate to take your last one.”
“Just leave us your keys. Now that the town should be mostly cleared out, we can probably find some more vehicles to provide a better wall for the gate.”
Eli frowned, hesitating. Logically, he knew there was no point in guarding his car from the others, but that didn’t stop him from feeling uncomfortable about handing over the keys. The group did have another car now, and a cop car to boot, but that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t ever need his car, too.
Eli pulled the key from his pocket and held it up, but when Marshall reached for it he pulled back. “Only… only as a last resort,” he relented finally, handing over the key.
Marshall leaned in close to Eli, his eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’ll do my part if you do yours.”
Eli swallowed, and his glance shifted to Amber. She was busy talking to Lisa, likely receiving much the same talk about firearms, though he knew the young woman was certainly capable with a gun. Amber reached up with a golden hand and pushed a stray lock of blond hair out of her face. Eli could feel his chest grow cold and empty, as though something had sucked away all his insides.
“I promise.” he said softly to Marshall. “Her above all else.”
Marshall’s expression didn’t change, but he snatched the key from Eli’s hand and walked away without another word.
As the big man moved away, he passed Daniel and Daina, who were arguing as they neared the group. Eli moved to intercept them and held up a hand, halting their progress.
“Guys, what’s going on?”
“I’m coming with you,” Daina explained.
“No, you’re not,” Daniel ordered.
“You don’t own me!”
“You’re just being irrational!”
“You’re just being an asshole!”
“Woah,” Eli interjected, placing himself physically between the two. “What the hell is going on?”
“Nothing,” Daniel snapped at Eli. “She’s just upset with me and so she wants to leave.”
“Upset?” Daina echoed in disbelief.
“Once she calms down,” Daniel continued, his voice rising in volume to speak over her, “she’ll realize this is a mistake.”
“Upset?” Daina said again. “You think I’m upset? I’ll show you upset!”
“Okay, woah, okay!” Eli waved his arms frantically. “That’s enough. I’m not a couple’s councilor. Whatever the hell is wrong between you two, fix it on your own time. It doesn’t belong on the road.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Daniel said.
“Oh really? Nothing? So you haven’t been flirting with that red head girl?”
“Kira?” Eli asked. “Daniel, you dog.”
“What? No! Of course I haven’t, don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’ve seen you! You fawn over her like she’s some goddess. You don’t even treat me that well! And I…” she raised her hand and tugged off her engagement ring so she could thrust it in his face, “I’m supposed to be engaged to you!”
“You’re being ridiculous! I don’t have feelings for Kira!”
At this point, they both resumed shouting at the same time, both continuously raising their own voice to be heard over the other. There was a lot of stomping and finger pointing. Eli rubbed his brow in annoyance as he waited for them to finish, but it just continued on with surprisingly little diminution.
Amber stepped over next to Eli and eyed the pair with confusion. “What’s going on?”
“Daina thinks Daniel is falling for Kira and so she wants to leave with us,” Eli explained, pointing to each person as he mentioned them. “Daniel thinks Daina is being ridiculous and is going to seriously regret leaving the moment she comes to her senses.”
“I see,” said Amber. Stepping forward she placed herself between the arguing couple and pushed them apart. “That’s enough!” she demanded, loud enough to silence the both of them.
Amber turned to Daniel first, her gaze cold enough to make ice. “Daniel, Daina is a grown woman and can make her own damn decisions. You don’t own her. You can’t tell her what she can and can’t do.”
“Thank you!” Daina exclaimed triumphantly.
Amber spun on the other woman, her gaze just as cold and solemn. “And you, Daina. You have to realize that if you go with us, you are probably not coming back. Ever. That means never seeing Daniel again. And while right now that may sound best to you…” her voice trailed off as she reached down for Daina’s hand. She lifted it up and, in a somewhat ironic reversal of Daina’s own movements only moments before, shoved the engagement ring in the woman’s face. “You made a promise to try and make this work between the two of you. So you better be damn sure that there are no other options for your relationship.”
She turned away from the group and started back toward the SUV. “Whatever you decide, do it quickly. We’re burning daylight.”
Daniel looked pleadingly at Daina. “Don’t go,” he said.
Daina stared at the ring for a long time, and then her jaw hardened and she clenched it into her fist. “You made the decision for us,” she said, and she tossed the ring into his chest. She turned and stormed away toward the SUV.
“Daina!” Daniel protested, turning to follow her. Eli stepped up in front of him, blocking his path. “Hey,” he protested, “move!”
“Look,” Eli said placidly, “like Amber was saying, she can make her own decisions. If you really cared about her, you would offer to go with her.”
“Are you crazy? That would be like signing my own death certificate.”
“And if she really cared about you,” Eli continued, unfazed, “she would offer to stay at that point.”
Eli let that sink in, and then followed the rest of the group to the SUV. He climbed on in and everyone quickly followed suit. Amber and Daina were the last two still outside. They turned to look for Daniel, but he was still standing where Eli had left him. Amber gave Daina a quick hug and then climbed into the vehicle.
Daina remained outside, staring in Daniel’s direction but not looking at him. Neither of them made a move toward the other. Finally she climbed inside and sat down next to Eli. She slammed shut the door, and it closed with the sound of finality.
Without another word, Aliyah started the car, and they drove out of the gates and into the end.