Chapter 54: Unfinished Business
He woke spitting and coughing up water. He jerked up to his hands and knees and heaved violently for several minutes. When he was done and his breath was coming more or less regularly again, he collapsed and rolled over onto his back. For a long time he simply lay there, breathing and blinking back the dizziness, trying to remember who and where he was.
For some reason he didn’t quite understand, the world kept spinning around him whenever he opened his eyes. The motion just made him feel like being sick again, so he mostly kept his eyes closed. Slowly he could feel the throbbing ease in his temples and his breath finally slow to a reasonable pace. There was something cool and comforting about lying there like that, in the mud, and he felt like keeping his eyes closed and just letting himself drift back off to sleep.
But he was cold, and whenever the wind blew he shivered uncontrollably. He realized he was soaking wet, as though he had just been swimming. He opened his eyes and looked down at his body and saw that he was, indeed, wet from head to toe. He suddenly felt very sick and rolled onto his side just in time to cough up some more water that had somehow managed to escape the first expulsion.
His mind was clearing now, and through the hum of noise buzzing in his ears, he could make out one sound that stuck out from all the others. It was a sick, wet sound, like two muddy blobs being regularly slapped against each other.
He looked up, and saw some hideous, horrifying creature stumbling toward him.
He let out a yell of surprise and started to scramble away. Barely had he started moving, however, when he completely lost his balance and tumbled along the ground until he dropped, rather unceremoniously, into a stream of flowing water. He kicked and thrashed for a moment until he realized that the water was not that deep, and the current was not that fast.
Letting his feet sink to the streambed floor, he pushed himself up and out of the water. The coldness of the stream burned in his eyes and through his body, waking him up still more and relieving some of the remaining grogginess. The creature – a zombie, he now realized – was still staggering in his direction. It was all the more determined now, but its limbs were sticking in the muddy bank and it kept being pulled down more and more every time it tried to take a step.
Eli crossed to the far side of the stream, figuring that even if the zombie made it to the stream, it would never be able to cross the flowing water.
For a moment he knelt there on all fours and tried to get his bearings. He tried his best to pull up his last memory before the blackout, to see if he could remember anything about a stream or a clearing, but nothing came to him. He remembered… he vaguely remembered standing at a cliff, looking at… something. What was it? And what had happened next?
His eyes settled on a plume of dark grey smoke rising out of the trees in the distance. Suddenly, it clicked into place. There had been a car crash. He had been in a car, and something had happened. He… he must have been thrown from the vehicle. That explained his aching limbs and his throbbing head. He looked down at himself, and realized he was trailing blood in his wake. He had cuts all over one of his arms, a nasty looking gash on the other, his shirt and pants were torn, and blood trickled out from under his clothing. His right side was in particular pain, and he probably had sever bruising along his abdomen there. Maybe even a broken rib.
Despite his traumatic condition, all told he was actually quite lucky. A car wreck forceful enough to fling him from the vehicle and deposit him in a nearby river could easily have been fatal.
There was the sound of a splash behind him, and Eli looked back to see the zombie had collapsed face first into the stream. The noise had been enough to shake away still more of the shock. Pushing through the pain, he rose and followed the stream back into the woods, toward the rising smoke.
It didn’t take very long to reach the crash site. The vehicle had rolled down the side of a hill and was leaning almost completely sideways, and was held in place hanging over the stream by a small cluster of trees. One of the windows on the side was open, and this triggered a quick flash of memories in Eli. He had been sitting there, just on the other side of that window, when the SUV had come to a rest against the trees. He had come to long enough to try to escape out the window.
Clearly he had made it, at least, far enough to have fallen into the stream and then let it wash him away until he had ended up on a muddy embankment a short distance away.
The vehicle was on fire. Though it wasn’t really clear what had started the fire, clearly the fire had burned long enough to have ignited the spare gas canisters inside the vehicle. There was now little left of the SUV beyond a smoldering heap.
Eli dropped to his knees, as memories of his companions, his friends, came rushing back to him. Where they even now inside the vehicle? Were they all, like the car itself, now just burned out skeletons of the people he had known? Were they gone forever? Gabriel? Aliyah? Jay?
Eli leaned over and threw up again.
The throbbing in his head seemed to be getting worse, and the dizziness kept coming and going. It could have been the blood loss making him feel sick. Or perhaps he was coming down with a cold. Or maybe even, while he had been sleeping, a zombie had bitten him and now he was experiencing the change. Just like…
Just like Sara had.
He could see her. Her skin a sickly shade of green, her face dirty, grimy. Lying in a pool of her own sick, blood seeping from a wound in her head that he had delivered, from her own hammer…
He slammed his eyes shut and tried not to think of it, but he couldn’t stop. His breath began to grow rapid and short. He was panicking. He couldn’t escape the vision of her dead body. He opened his eyes and thrashed about, as if trying to grab onto something, anything, that would help him forget the image that was threatening to overwhelm him. He took several steps, practically blindly, lost his footing, and stumbled down a hill.
He came to a rest at the bottom, pushed up against a log. Water was pouring down his face and a strange noise seemed to be bubbling up from inside of him. It took him a strangely long moment to realize he was crying.
The noise echoed through the empty air, and he jerked up, suddenly hyper aware, glancing around through eyes wet with tears, but he could see nothing. He did his best to wipe away the tears and then looked again. That’s when he saw her.
He blinked, horrified, shocked. He wiped his eyes again before looking once more, but she was still there.
She was some distance away, looking at him from around the side of a thick tree. She was not as he had last seen her, nor even as he had first seen her – already three-fourths of the way to being a zombie. She was clean. Whole. She seemed to almost glow with a refulgent, angelic light.
He ran toward her, forgetting that he had been up against a log, and tripped. He landed face first in the dirt, pain searing through his body, but somehow he pushed past it and scrambled back to his feet.
She was gone.
“No!” he cried, desperately, and stumbled on to where he had last seen her. He reached the tree and grabbed onto it to steady himself as he rounded it. There was nothing. No sign existed whatsoever to even indicate she had ever been there.
Was he going crazy?
There was a tingle on the back of his neck, the eerie sensation that he was being watched. He spun around in time to catch a glimpse of something moving through the trees somewhere further in the forest.
“Wait!” he called, and hurried off in this new direction. He reached the area where he thought he had seen movement and there was nothing. Then once more he thought he caught another glimpse of Sara watching him from around a far off tree, and once again he took off after her.
“Sara, wait!” he cried, his voice burning from thirst and exhaustion. “Please, wait! I… I have to tell you something!” He stumbled and dropped to his knees, and crawled for a short distance on all fours. When he rose he saw movement from yet another direction. He followed it onward. “I have to tell you something,” he said again. “I have to tell you…”
He tripped over an unseen root and tumbled over a log down a long hill. This time no tree broke his fall and he rolled until he reached the bottom, rolled some more, and finally came to a stop in some small grotto.
For a long time he simply lay there, feeling sick and dizzy, and trying to let the spinning in his brain come to a stop. His entire body ached from head to toe, and for not the first time since all this madness had started, he felt like just lying there until he died.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the air. “I have to tell you, I’m sorry.”
Despite the nearly overwhelming apathy gripping him and telling him to just keep laying there, for some reason he found himself pushing himself up to his hands and knees. A few moments later, he was back on his feet and stumbling out of the grotto and back into the woods.
He didn’t know where he was going anymore. He mostly just staggered onward. A few times he thought he saw Sara and turned in that direction. Other times, just a small bit of movement pulled his attention and he stumbled that way instead.
Finally, he could take it no longer. The weariness wrapped around him like a blanket, weighing him down, and he collapsed to his knees. He sat there, breathing heavily, sweat pouring down his forehead, until his vision finally stopped swimming.
Glancing about, he noticed a small cave opening in the rocks off to his right.
His breath caught in his throat, and he glanced all around. The area… the area looked familiar, but he wasn’t sure exactly why. It took him a minute to place it.
Somehow, some way, his random, drunken, fumbling through the woods, following the imaginary ghost of a girl he had killed, had led him here. The cave. The very cave where the video Paul had shown them took place. The veritable final destination of his entire journey.
With a herculean effort, he pushed himself to his feet and stepped into the cave.