Better off Undead

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Chapter 7: Reunions and Reminders

With new bandages around her wound and some painkillers running through her system, Nancy was beginning to look much better by the time they arrived at the abandoned hotel. Color had returned to her face and her head had cleared enough that she was able to participate coherently in conversations. Not that there were many words being exchanged between the members of the group. They all felt beaten and tired, perhaps also even scared or horrified. Just a couple weeks ago, the situation they actually found themselves in at this moment would have been possible only in their worst nightmares.

For Eli, it was even worse. Only a couple hours earlier he was living his life as normal: hanging out in his apartment, playing video games and watching movies to pass the time, waiting for something worthwhile to happen. Now he was trapped in a landscape of the undead, running across town with a group of total strangers, whose names he still did not know, just hoping that every minute that passed would not prove to be his last. It was a lot to bear.

Darkness had more or less fallen on the world around them. Some sunlight still cracked through the clouds along the horizon, still managed to dissipate with some effect across the sky and prevent them from sitting in total black, but night was as good as upon them. This being the case, the dark managed to hide the various vehicles remaining in the group’s caravan from the eyes of the vehicles five occupants in their position just outside of the parking lot.

“Did they make it?”

Eli’s voiced exploded like dynamite on the silence of the car’s interior. No one wanted to ask that question. No one wanted to think that they had been cut off completely, that there was no going back and no reconnecting with humanity. Despite that, Eli almost couldn’t stop himself. The reality was bursting out from inside of him, uncontainable and uncontrollable.

“If they’re not here, they probably headed on to that military base they were talking about,” Amber replied meekly, uncertain of exactly who she was trying to reassure.

The two exchanged glances, but said nothing more. After a moment, Eli eased the vehicle forward, sliding into the parking lot for a better view. The vehicles were clearly not out the front side of the building, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Rounding a corner, he let out a sigh of relief.

There, spread out across the side of the building, were the various SUVs of the caravan.

“Oh thank God,” Amber muttered.

They parked the car and quickly climbed out, eager to enter the safety of the building, eager for the day to be done. Amber helped Nancy out of the car and allowed the older woman to lean on her as they walked, as she was still somewhat unsteady.

Eli had his pack on his back and a bat at the ready in his left hand, and he twirled it nervously as he moved. Each step he took was purposeful and quick. He made sure to keep ahead of the group as they made their way back toward the front doors of the hotel, his eyes darting left and right, alert for any sign of movement or impending danger. So concerned was he about the dangers that might be out in the night, that he was unaware of the guns pointed at him until he passed through the front doors and heard the click of a gun’s safety being removed.

He froze in place for what seemed like an eternity, as that horrible sound echoed endlessly through his mind. Ever so slowly he raised his hands in surrender, and then, just as slowly, he turned around. Two men with rifles and a woman with a handgun were standing there, faces hard set and business ends of their weapons pointed directly at Eli.

“I come in peace?” Eli squeaked, unsure of what exactly to say.

Amber rolled her eyes, something she seemed to be doing a lot of when he spoke. “You can put the guns down, he’s with me,” she added, waving her hand dismissively in his direction. Despite her ringing endorsement, none of the group moved a hair. Amber’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “Seriously, guys, it’s okay.”

“Where’s Mac?” one of the men asked.

“Where’s Robert?” the woman demanded, almost before the man had finished his question. Then, almost as if an afterthought, she added: “And Ryan. Where’s Ryan?”

“They chose to stay behind,” Amber responded.

“Like hell they did,” the woman snapped, turning her gun on Amber. The younger girl’s eyes went wide, and she raised her hands up, palms open, in a nonthreatening manner.

“It’s true!” she protested. “There was an accident. Rob was hurt, and Ryan didn’t want to leave him. And Mac chose to stay behind to help them both. Eli got his own car so he could bring us here.”

“Actually, I think it was Ryan who was hurt and Rob who didn’t to want leave him,” Eli interjected. Amber shot him an annoyed glance, but Eli simply smiled and shrugged. He didn’t actually know, or even really care, he just didn’t want it to seem like he was clueless as to what was going on. Also, given the woman’s earlier outburst, he figured she could take news of Ryan being hurt much easier than Robert being hurt, for whatever reason.

The man who had spoken first was staring at the bandage on Nancy’s head, and his frown was slowly deepening, as if his mouth was threatening to eventually fall off his face completely. With a grunt he lowered his weapon and nodded his head at the bandage. “Well, we better get that looked at,” he said gruffly.

The other two followed his lead, though the woman clearly the more hesitant of them to do so. She scowled at Eli as he passed her, but he just smiled and shrugged at her. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to upset her, but probably there was nothing he would be able to do about it.

They were led deeper into the building, past the darkened check-in counter to a broad, wide-open lobby. From the lobby they were able to look up all the way to the glass roof of the building, and see the hallways lining each side on each floor, though with no electricity, no moon, and only a handful of those electric lanterns Amber had wanted them to collect, the upper floors were swallowed up by darkness and simply seemed to disappear.

“Eerie,” Eli commented, glancing about the place.

“Amber!” A jovial voice called from across the room. They turned to see Marshall waving at them. The big man hurried across the room to them, a smile on his face. He clasped Amber on the shoulder affectionately, and said, “It’s good to see you again.” He turned and held his hand out to Eli, “And you, too…” His voice faded out and he paused for a long moment, his smile flashing into a frown for a fraction of a second before returning to his face. “Say, what was your name again?”

“Eli,” he responded simply, unenthusiastically shaking the bigger man’s hand and deciding not to dwell on the fact that this was the first time anyone who wasn’t a twelve year old girl had actually asked him what his name was.

“Well, good on you, Eli.” Marshall responded, finishing the handshake and giving the younger man a firm slap on the shoulder. “If it wasn’t for your plan, we might none of us be here right now.”

“Not that great of a plan,” Eli mumbled, rubbing his shoulder where it had been hit. “We still lost a car. Should have just rammed the damn gate.”

Marshall’s eyes went wide at this news. “We lost a car?”

“And Mac, Rob, and Ryan,” Amber added.

The big man took in the news with a deep intake of breath, as if he could breathe it all in and let his entire body process the information. Letting out a sigh, he shook his head sadly. “I never should have told them to wait,” he said.

“Yeah,” Eli said absently, staring off into the distance. Suddenly, the actual words clicked in his head and he turned back to Marshall with a jolt. “Wait, what? You told them to wait?” Marshall nodded his affirmation, and a growl issued forth unintentionally from the back of Eli’s throat. “You told them to wait? Who gave you the right to make that call? That totally went against my plan.”

Amber and Marshall gave the young man surprised looks, and across the room various eyes were beginning to turn in the direction of the suddenly heated conversation.

“There’s no need for pointing fingers,” Amber began, but Eli cut her off.

“There’s every reason for pointing fingers!” As if to lend credence to his words, Eli jabbed a finger at the bigger man’s stomach. “If you had just followed my plan, we wouldn’t be one car and three men short. But you just had to go making your changes, didn’t you? Couldn’t just accept my ideas wholesale, could you?”

“Eli, calm down,” Amber hissed. She grabbed him by the shoulder and pushed him back a few steps. Keeping her voice low, she continued to chastise him. “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re all in this together, and we’re all just trying to do the best we can. It’s not like you knew your plan was going to work so well. Marshall just did what he thought was right to help you, you ungrateful little jerk. So why don’t you just keep your mouth shut?”

Despite her last sentence, Eli opened his mouth to make a counter argument, but then he noticed Marshall’s face. The big man actually looked deeply hurt. It dawned on him that these people had probably been together for some time by this point. Friendships had probably been made, close ties to the other survivors, like men in the trenches of a war. They hardly needed him reminding them of what they lost.

“Fine,” he snapped, shrugging off Amber’s hand from his shoulder. It was difficult to shake the bubbling anger that had grown up inside of him. With a scowl he turned and stomped away to the far side of the lobby. He found a chair and collapsed into it. Looking up, he saw Amber consoling Marshall, a sight that turned his stomach. He stood up and angled his chair in a new direction, away from the couple, then threw himself back down on it.

Nearby, in two very similar armchairs, sat a young couple holding hands and watching him with amused looks on their faces. “What?” Eli snapped when he noticed them.

The male chuckled and leaned forward. “Bad day?” he asked, the amusement showing clear in his voice as well.

Eli steeled his jaw, but then ever so slowly nodded his head. He had to admit it: this was a whopper of a bad day. If this wasn’t a bad day, not much could be.

His stomach growled and he realized he was starving. He had eaten practically nothing all day, even though on a normal day he’d easily have been on his third meal by now, with maybe a couple of snacks thrown in there somewhere as well. His annoyance and dismay with the electric company that had prevented him from eating had only moved along into a very long line of disasters that left him exhausted mentally and physically.

The man, seeming to take note of Eli’s rumbling stomach, reached into his pack and pulled out some bread, some jerky, and a bottle of water. “Here,” he said, offering them to the younger man, “I know it’s not much but it’s something.”

Eli tried to fight off the scowl that the site of the food made his face want to make. It certainly wasn’t what he would have chosen to eat, but he had to admit almost anything sounded appealing right about then. He accepted the food with a nod and a meek, “Thanks.” Without any further invitation he tore into the food, desperate for the nourishment.

“I’m Daina,” the woman said, finally speaking up. “This is Daniel,” she added, motioning to the man who had given Eli the food.

Eli swallowed and paused for a moment, eyeing the couple. “Daina and Daniel?” he asked, quizzically, a slight note of disdain in his voice. He stuffed some bread into his mouth before he said anything else, not trusting himself to avoid obvious statements.

Daina smiled warmly, not seeming to take note of Eli’s tone. She turned toward Daniel and placed her free hand on top of his hand. She met his gaze, eyes glowing with love. “We’re engaged,” she stated, as if it explained everything.

“Oh?” Eli prompted politely in between bites. He didn’t want to insult them, but it did strike him as odd that they would bother with such a thing during what seemed to be the apocalypse. Besides, who would there be around to marry them?

Daniel dropped his gaze, a slight hint of a frown twitching along the corners of his mouth. He quickly raised his head back up, this time gazing at Eli, his face stonily solemn. “We were to be married only a few weeks after the outbreak,” he explained. “Our wedding would have been this past Saturday.”

Suddenly, the air seemed to grow very stale, and Eli felt extremely uncomfortable. “Oh,” he said again, eyes darting back and forth as if searching for more astute words to say. His eyes settled on a tall, dark man standing across the room and having what seemed to be a rather pleasant conversation with the three people who had held guns to Eli when he’d first entered. The man was notable because of his clothing: black slacks and a short sleeved black shirt with a small, white strip along the front of the collar. Eli motioned to the man with his head. “There’s a preacher over there. Maybe he could marry you,” he suggested.

The couple both looked, but only for a second. Daina smiled at Eli. “That’s Gabe,” she explained. “He offered to do just that when he learned of our… situation.” At this last word she turned to look at her fiancée, as if seeking verification, but he did not seem to notice. After a moment she continued. “It was a sweet gesture, but…” she broke off again, sighing with frustration.

Daniel patted her calmly on the hand and offered her a brief smile. “We were hoping to find some of our families out there somewhere. We’d like them to be there when we got married.”

“Right,” Eli said, dragging the word out along the ‘I’ and increasing the number of syllables to around four or five. Daniel eyed the younger man with a dangerous look, but Eli said nothing more. He might not have too much experience with women, but Eli knew a stall when he heard one. Daniel was clearly having some doubts, doubts he didn’t want Daina to know about. Maybe, Eli thought to himself, they have doubts over the annoying alliteration of their names. He didn’t voice any of his thoughts aloud. Instead, he smiled as pleasantly as he could and said simply, “What a romantic notion.”

Daina smiled weakly, clearly more aware than Daniel hoped, but neither of them were willing to face the reality. It would be easy, Eli realized, to chalk their doubts up to the horrible situation they found themselves in now. The end of the world could likely put a strain on any relationship. As for himself, he was now wishing very hard he had chosen somewhere else to sit. It seemed a little too late to back out now. Instead, he decided to turn the topic of conversation away from the couple and focus on something else.

Scooting forward in his seat a little, he again motioned at the preacher. “You said his name was Gabe, right?” The couple nodded, almost in unison. “Who are the people he’s talking to?”

The two followed his gaze and took stock of the small group standing just a few feet away, huddled together in close conversation. “That’s Kelly,” Daniel said, nodding his head at the woman. She was an older woman, probably late 40s, of medium height and build with ragged, dirty blond hair. She looked tired and fretful, the strange level of concern she’d had for Robert probably eating constantly away at her. “She used to be a teacher, I think” Daniel was saying. “We found her in a bar. She said she was looking for her husband and brother. They went out drinking one night and she never saw them again.”

“Scary,” Eli muttered, mostly to himself. Then, more loudly, “Do you know why she’s so worried about Robert?”

“Robert?” Daniel echoed, his head furrowing in contemplation. “As in, Ryan and Robert? No, can’t say that I do.”

“She was always with them,” Daina interjected. Her eyes lit up brightly, as if excited at the realization that she might know something pertinent, but then a specter of doubt crossed her face and the light began to twinkle off and back on again. “Like, always. I mean, she clung to the two of them like her life depended on it. I’m surprised they even ended up in different cars. I think she knew them or something. You know, before the outbreak. Maybe?” She shrugged her punctuation on the last word, all the enthusiasm now gone from her face.

Eli offered a meek smile and sighed. “Well, it’s hardly important,” he said dismissively. “What about the others?” he added, motioning back at the group with his head.

“The first one’s Matthew,” Daniel answered. Matthew was a tall man, easily six feet, probably more. He hovered over the other three, taller even than the preacher who was himself a rather tall man. Matthew was bigger, though, built like a boxer, with a broad chest and broad arms and legs like tree trunks planted firmly into the ground. “Matthew’s married to Kelsey. That’s her over there.” As he said this he motioned to a woman across the room, back behind Eli. He turned and looked. She was sitting by herself, eating something directly from a can. She was a fairly attractive, young woman, with shoulder length blonde hair and, thick, rectangular glasses. Eli figured she couldn’t be more than a decade older than him, which would probably put her just a few years younger than Matthew.

“The other one’s Stephan,” Daniel was saying. Stephan was an older man, probably late middle aged from the looks of him. He seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face and clearly evident lines traced across his forehead from the seemingly equally permanent squint. He stood a full head shorter than Matthew, but his angry countenance and the sawed-off shotgun he casually rested on his right shoulder still gave him a rather intimidating appearance. Daniel bit his lower lip and then shook his head, his eyes distant and thoughtful. “I don’t know much about him. He was the last one to join us. Well, besides you and the army guy, anyway.”

“Devin,” Daina said, matter-of-factly.

Daniel shot her a quizzical look. “What?”

“The army guy,” she clarified. “I think they said his name was Devin.”

“Oh,” Daniel said simply.

Eli turned to look for a person he could describe as “the army guy,” but didn’t see anyone who particularly stood out as that description more than anyone else. There were only five more people in the room, however: a woman who looked around forty who was talking to Amber and Marshall; the woman Amber had called Tisha, who was sitting at a table eating dinner across from the old man he had seen at the apartment complex, the one who had hurried them along; and two Asians who were talking in hushed but angry sounding tones. Thirteen people was hardly enough to fill up four SUVs, or, as it had become, three SUVs and one car. Nancy and her two children had disappeared down a hallway some time ago, but even sixteen people seemed somewhat small for that many vehicles. Probably there were a number who had gone off into side rooms, possibly to sleep or at the very least, to be alone for a time.

“Are the, uh, two Asians a… couple?” Eli asked unsteadily, motioning in their direction.

To his surprise, Daniel actually burst out laughing. As he did, the male Asian stepped away from the other and began crossing the room, back in their direction. “Hey, Jay,” Daniel called to him when he had drawn fairly close. “The new guy wants to know if you and Mi-Cha are a couple.”

Jay’s face went red and he muttered something that sounded like a curse under his breath. “Yeah,” he snapped, angrily, “’cuz just because we’re both Asian, that means we’re a couple, right?”

“And you were just talking to her really close,” Eli answered back, defensively.

“Oh right, and anybody who talks closely to someone must clearly be dating them. I mean,” his voice trailed off as he glanced around, looking for an example. His eyes settled on Tisha and the old man she was eating across from. “I mean, clearly, they’re a couple, too, right?”

Eli gave the pair a thoughtful look and shrugged. “Hey, it’s the end of the world. Who am I to judge?”

Jay’s eyes widened in surprise at the remark, and despite himself he chuckled. “Yeah,” he said absently, as if still rolling the comment over in his mind. “Fair point,” he concluded, then turned and hurried off in the direction he had originally been heading before they interrupted him.

Daniel let out a short laugh and shook his head. “Well, I guess you got him there.” He turned to look back at Eli to continue their conversation, but stopped suddenly when he saw the young man. Despite how he’d seemed a moment earlier, now Eli looked withdrawn, his eyes cast down toward the ground but seeming to stare off into space.

After a moment, Eli scooted forward in his chair and looked directly at Daniel. “How did it happen, exactly?” he asked.

Daniel’s brow furrowed, not sure what to make of the question. He cast a glance at Daina, but she simply shrugged, no more sure what to say than he was. “How did… what happen?” he finally said.

“You know… ‘it.’” Eli said by way of clarification. “The outbreak, or whatever you called it. How did it happen? How did the world end?”

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