Chapter 57: Cold and Dark
“No. No, no. No no no. No no no no no. No. No! NO! No no no no nononononononono no no no no. No! Nnnnnnnnnnooooo! Noooooooo! No! Nooo. No! No! No! No! NO!”
“Eli,” said Amber calmly.
“No! No no no no NO!” shouted Eli. He was stomping around the corridor, occasionally even pounding his head with his palms in time to his protests.
“Eli,” Amber tried again. “It’s okay.”
Suddenly he dropped to his knees and slid back over to her. “Okay?” He asked, voice frantic. “Okay? It’s okay? You mean that’s not what I think it is?”
Amber opened her mouth to respond, but hesitated.
She sighed. “Eli, please. Calm down.”
“Calm down? Calm down? How can I calm down Amber? You’re gonna become… a… a… zombie.”
She shook her head. “No I’m not.”
“You’re not?” His voice went extra high, and his features perked up.
She nodded at the gun that he still held in his hand even though he had completely forgotten about it. “Because you’re gonna shoot me with that thing,” she said.
To her surprise, and – to no lesser extent – to Eli’s, he found himself laughing hysterically. “Shoot you?” he asked. “Shoot you? Are you crazy? I’m not gonna shoot you.”
She grabbed his weapon hand and pulled the barrel of the gun to face her. “Please, Eli. I need you to do this one thing for me. Please. I don’t want to be one of them, but I don’t seem to be able to… to do the deed myself. So I need you to do it.”
Eli was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. “No. Nah-uh. No way. There is no way in HELL that I am putting a bullet through your head. Forget it.”
“Eli, please.” She was pleading now, her voice wavering, her eyes full of tears. “Please Eli. I can’t bear the thought of being one of them. Please.”
He tried to pry his hand away, which proved significantly more difficult than he expected. Finally he managed to break free and took a couple steps back. He stared incredulously at Amber, his mouth hanging open.
“How… how can you even ask that of me? You know how I feel about you!”
Amber shook her head as frantically as she could manage without it causing too much pain. “But I don’t feel that way toward you Eli. And I never will. I especially won’t if you let me become a damn zombie! I won’t even be able to feel for you then.”
“I… I can’t,” Eli stuttered backing away.
“Eli!” Amber cried desperately.
“Look,” he said pleadingly, “It’s almost over, anyway. What if I’m right, and I kill the vampire king, and then everyone is restored to normal? How am I supposed to live with myself when I know I could have saved you, but instead I put a bullet through your skull?”
Amber’s lips pulled back in a sneer. “And what if you’re wrong, Eli? What if killing this ‘vampire king’ doesn’t restore anything? What if there is no magical cure like you seem to think? Or what if you fail? What then, Eli? What if the vampires kill you? Or turn you? Or a zombie bites you, too? What then? You just condemn me to an eternity of wandering the earth as a zombie? I don’t want that Eli! I’m not willing to risk it! Now you take that gun, you put it to my head, and you pull that damn trigger!”
Eli stood there for a long moment, watching her, his bottom lip quavering like he was about to cry. For that entire stretch of time, he was back inside of a crypt filled with the dead, standing over the body of a young girl who had been bitten by a zombie. He could see her pale skin, the sweat pouring down her face, the blood seeping between the fingers she held against her neck wound. The ballpeen hammer in his hand, raised, poised, to strike her dead…
“I…” he croaked. He took a step back, and could feel the well of tears beginning to overflow, one by one. “I can’t. I… I just can’t.”
“I just killed Michael!”
Eli stopped in mid turn, but didn’t look back at her.
Amber watched him for a long moment. It was her last card to play, and she didn’t want to play it if she didn’t have to, but she didn’t know what else to do at this point. She couldn’t let him leave.
“I… I thought you said you didn’t know a Michael,” Eli said quietly, still not looking back at her. “That it was just a slip of the tongue.”
Amber bit her lip. She felt like breaking down, but that would probably just convince him even further not to kill her.
“Okay, I lied,” she admitted. “I just… I just didn’t want to explain. I thought he was dead, I just wanted to forget him. But he wasn’t dead. He was… he was a vampire. He was here, and I just killed him.”
Eli turned back a little, staring at her with a mix of doubt and pity. She’d take it.
“I… he… he was my boyfriend. When the whole outbreak thing reached our town. I… I told you I dropped my phone down a gutter the first time I saw a zombie. Well, I didn’t know his number, so I couldn’t call him. Couldn’t tell if he was okay. So I went looking for him. Everywhere I could think of. He wasn’t at my apartment. He wasn’t at his apartment. He wasn’t at either of our parents houses. He wasn’t at school or work.
“By this point, I was pretty sure he was dead. So I showed up to my best friend’s house, bawling my eyes out, and there he was. At first, I was too happy to see him to question it. When I did, he just said that he had been attacked by the creatures – we weren’t… we weren’t calling them zombies yet – and that this had been the nearest safe shelter he could think of.
“And like a fool, I believed him. And he continued to act like everything was normal between us. The three of us, me, him, and Shay, my ‘best’ friend, we hunkered down there for a time until the zombies broke down the doors. Then we were on the run for a while.”
She paused and took several deep breaths, as though speaking this much was an immense effort.
“So, anyway. Long story short, we ended up looting this store for supplies. We found this backroom that seemed easily defendable and we decided to hole up there for the night. Well, we were wrong. Zombies broke down the doors, more of them than we could handle. Michael and I got separated from Shay. I said we had no choice, that we had to leave her. He just looked at me with this… this expression of pure disgust and hate, and he said, ‘But I love her.’”
She paused again, her lip quivering with emotion. She turned her away and sucked in a lungful of air. “The last I saw of them,” she continued, her voice soft and shaking, “they were… cowering in each other’s arms as a big group of zombies closed in on them.”
Eli crouched over her a long moment, blinking, and watching her. “Okay,” he said after a time. “So, he was an asshole. I’m not him.”
She finally turned and met his gaze through the tears in her eyes. “But you are. You’re just like him. The same arrogance. The same self-assured cockiness. The same belief that I should spread my legs for you just because you want me to. And yet you go and sleep with Tisha. Oh yeah,” she said, nodding at the surprise in his face at this last point, “I noticed. How stupid do you think I am? Don’t answer that. You definitely think I’m stupid. Just like he did.”
“You had just punched me in the face!” Eli protested. “And she…”
“Don’t you blame her,” Amber sneered. “You’re disgusting. So I was being unreasonable. So what? You think sleeping with her was supposed to somehow convince me to be with you? You can’t claim to have feelings for me and then go sleep with another woman. You didn’t have feelings for me, you were just horny. And you didn’t back off because I punched you. You backed off because you weren’t as horny anymore.”
Eli’s face went dark. He lowered his head. It wasn’t true. The reason he had backed off, it wasn’t because of that. It was...
He couldn’t think about it. It threatened to overwhelm him again, like it had done outside. He rose, turning, and took a couple steps away.
“When… when I was alone out there,” he said quietly, “in the town, I mean. When I was alone, I came upon a crypt and hid in there to escape from some zombies. But someone was already in there. A girl. And she had been bitten. And she asked me to wait until she turned and then kill her. And I did it.”
Amber’s eyes went wide. She opened her mouth to say, “Eli, I didn’t know…” but decided better of it.
Eli turned back to look at her. “And I don’t know why, but I cannot get that image of her out of my head. She haunts me, as real as any ghost. Because I’m supposed to be the man with the answers, the person saving the world. The person breaking the vampire’s curse but I put… a hammer… through her skull. I crushed her skull until she stopped moving and then I crushed it some more. And I maybe could have saved her. I didn’t know then, but I maybe could have saved her by breaking this curse.
“So… so maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t really have feelings for you and maybe I am just a selfish bastard and maybe I don’t deserve to be with you like I want to be with you. I don’t know. But I know that I can’t do that again. I can’t. Not while there’s still a possibility of saving you.”
He was backing away already. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really, truly sorry.”
“Eli!” She called after him as he turned and ran away. “Eli! You get back here! Eli!”
But he was gone.