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We Call Them Zombies

By Maris McKay All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Horror

We Call Them Zombies

We holed up outside a town somewhere up north, hoping they wouldn't follow us into the cold. Still, we had to come out an' look for food. The town's only store is one with a gas station outside. A scrawny dog runs out the door as we come near. Inside, it smells like rotten bananas in a dusty attic.

I pick up a Pop-Tart an' peel it open with my teeth. That's when I see one of them walk past the window.

Brad sees it at the same time an' shouts, “zombies,” even though we know that's not what they are. It looks toward us, an' Brad shoots it in the head. Five more run up like from nowhere, then Frank an' Tonio start shooting. The rest of us dive for cover behind the candy racks. Crouched behind the Skittles, I start shooting even though I don't want to. It would be easier to kill them if they'd been dead already, like zombies are supposed to be, but they aren't.

They keep coming. Shoot one in the leg, an' they don't seem to feel it. Gotta hit them in the head, or lots of times in the chest if you want to slow them. The more they get hurt, the harder they fight. That's partly why we call them zombies even though they aren't after our brains – at least, most aren't – an' they can speak if you have a mind to converse. Most of us don't.

They keep coming, more and more of them like they're endless. The girl next to me drops down dead, her head a mess of blood. Some kid we picked up near Vancouver goes down next, trying to breath through a shot-up neck. A gunshot scatters milk duds, sour patch kids, and starburst across the room.

Frank's saying we can't hold them off any longer when he gets shot through the chest. I stand up from my cover an' send my last three rounds into the one that shot him. I crouch down again just in time for a shotgun blast to miss my head. I look at Brad, an' it looks like he's about run out of shots, too.

I hear a shout, then a scrambling noise. Peeking between the shelves, I see someone new has arrived. There's two big scars across his gray face. He speaks, and they stop shooting. One points toward us and looks like he's arguing. The newcomer punches his nose, and no one else says a word. A moment later, the scarred man shouts, “Throw out your guns and we'll let you live.”

This seems an odd proposition coming from a zombie, but as there's only nine of us left an' probably that many bullets, we give up. Even Tonio throws down that big rifle he likes so much. They swarm in though the broken windows and take our weapons. When one grabs my pistol, the skin on the back of his hand splits open. He hardly bleeds – his flesh is dry an' gray like his skin.

The scarred leader walks over to Brad. He's got curly black hair an' big shoulders in a black motorcycle jacket. He holds a metal arrow to Brad's neck like it's a knife. “I want to know where you're from and have you got any supplies.”

Brad spits at him. We haven't got enough to make it worth hiding, but Brad wouldn't give it up. He thinks that makes him strong, an' fit to be a leader. I say, “There's a shelter just outside town. It's where we been holed up.”

“Why ain't you there now?” one who looks like his ears have rotten off asks.

“Looking for food.”

“Us too.” He grins, an' I can see that what teeth haven't fallen out have been filed to points. I know they don't usually eat us, but it still sends chill down my spine.

The leader tells one of them to go back “for the others.” I see Brad's shoulders slump a bit learning that there's more of them.

We return to our shelter as prisoners. I think this was once a park or camp of some kind, since where we slept the past few nights is an enclosed shelter large enough for a party. It's got a fire place an', what's better, cut wood. There's a kitchen, too, but it's mostly empty of food.

They push us toward a corner by some tables. “Sit,” the one without ears orders. Their leader stalks around the room, his heavy boots rattling floor boards. Two others go into the kitchen. I hear a pan or something hit the kitchen floor, then yelling. Sounds like someone got their head slammed into a counter. The others act like they don't hear a thing.

Their leader stops checking the place an' heads toward us. “You have a leader?” he asks. When he talks, the scars on his face widen.

Brad stands up an' puts his hands on his hips. “That's me.”

I roll my eyes. He can't wait to start bragging, now that Frank's not here to stop him taking charge.

The gray-skinned man looked at the rest of us. “Who's really in charge?”

Brad says, “Hey,” an' takes a step forward like he's issuing a challenge. The scarred man reaches out a gloved hand, grabs the front of Brad's shirt, slams his head into a table, an' shoves him back against the wall. Brad groans, an' lifts a hand to try an' stop the blood coming out his nose. I catch Tonio's eye, an' he goes to help Brad.

One of the girls – I'm not sure how she survived this long, except Frank liked her – starts crying. I pat her shoulder an' whisper for her to hush before I look back at the not-quite-a-zombie. He's looking at me, too.

“You're their leader,” he says.

“Sometimes.” Frank would lead if there was battle, but if something needed thinking, they generally looked to me.

His forehead wrinkles, an' the scar that went from his jaw across his nose to his eye puckers at one side. He's looking at me in puzzlement. I'm not terrible tall or strong, an' I don't look imposing in my quilted purple jacket, an' skirt long enough to reach the laces of combat boots I took from a blown-up airbase. The skirt was mostly for an extra layer of warmth over my pants, but it was also useful to throw people off. People don't generally think a woman who dresses like that is much danger.

More gray-skinned people start coming in. Some with bandages on heads an' limbs. Women as well as men, an' children. I stare at the children. I knew the sickness affected youngsters, but we'd been on the run so long I hadn't seen any for nearly a year. But what was even more surprising than the children was when a man without gray skin or scars came through the door carrying one of the sick children.

My mouth drops open, an' the one who'd been talking to me sees my surprise. “Sometimes not the whole family gets sick,” he says. “Least not at the same time.”

He walks toward the door an' shakes the not-sick man's hand. The man greets him by name – calls him Colton – an' the girl throws her arms around his neck.

Brad spits blood across the floor, an' pushes Tonio away as he sits up. “How can he stand to touch 'em?” he asks about the healthy guy. His nose is starting to swell an' looks broken.

I shake my head, mostly 'cause I didn't think like him, but he can take it as agreement if he likes. I motion for him to quiet as one of the newcomers walks toward us.

His skin isn't as dark as the others an' the few scars he has aren't deep. He must have got sick in the last week or two.

“I'm a doctor,” he says. “Want me to look at your nose?”

“Screw you.”

The doctor looks at him with a look I know. It was saying, “I can help you but you're too stupid to understand, so I'll just leave you alone.” I'd seen it plenty of times, an' I'd felt myself using it, too. It puzzles me. We assumed it spread by touch, but that didn't make much sense with a healthy man carrying a sick girl, an' a sick doctor offering to help Brad. 'Course, I'd not be too surprised if he was trying to get Brad sick.

The papers I carry under my jacket rustle against my back. If this one is a doctor, maybe he would listen to what I had to say. The healthy doctors I talked to sure hadn't wanted to help.

Across the room, Colton's giving out orders. Some to carry wood in, some to check out the loft upstairs. Some of the women, the three who still look healthy, go to the kitchen. I stand slowly, waiting to see how they react. No one takes notice, nor stops me when I walk to the kitchen.

“Can I help?” I ask the three women who were starting to search the cupboards.

They look at me suspicious-like. “Why?” one asks.

I shrug. “I want to eat, so I might as well help.” I'm hoping they would start talking and explain this whole family thing. From what we knew, they didn't travel in groups because they fought each other so much.

I show them where the last of the food is, but I don't learn much. The one woman has a husband an' kids with the sickness. One learned she's a carrier after her whole family died or got the gray-skin. The other's got an older brother with the sickness, an' no one else to take care of her. I ask if she's scared of getting it too, an' she says they're all really careful around her. Been with them nigh three months an' no sign of getting sick.

By the time we bring the food out, people have settled on the floor. Some have tin bowls or plates they carry about their person, others get ones from the kitchen. I hesitate a moment, then help the women serve food. Seems I'll gain nothing by letting them see I'm scared to walk among them.

It's a bad move, though, 'cause it gives Brad an excuse to be stupid. He watches me for a while, then grabs the arm of one of the healthy girl-children. “Why aren't you helping instead?” he says. “Do something useful.”

One of the gray-skinned women, tall an' with shoulder's broad as a man, pushed the person near her out of the way and stomped across the room to pull the girl away. She hefts a butcher knife in one hand. I set the pot of soup I was carrying on the floor an' run across the room. The woman looks like she's about to take Brad's head off when I step between them.

“If I want you defending me,” I says, “I'll ask.”

The woman lowers her knife an' watches us.

Brad glares. “Maybe you're forgetting what they've done to our families. How they killed Frank.”

I hit him as hard as I can on the side of his face, which isn't near as hard as someone with the bulking up an' aggression that comes with getting sick, but hard enough to stagger him back. I'd never hit him before – Frank was bigger than Brad so he was the one who got the job of controlling him.

Brad shakes his head like he can't believe it. I half expect him to come at me, but he lowers his voice. “Frank died 'cause of you an' you didn't bat one eye. You're one a cold bitch. Zombie lover.” He spits on the floor an' turns his back.

I'm not sure if I want to hit him again or cry, so I walk across the room an' out the nearest door, slamming it shut. A guard with a long scar on his bare arm raises his gun, but I walk past like I don't care if he shoots me.

There's a large, flat rock resting in the ground a short ways off an' I start pacing across it. On one side, the soil's gone so you can hang your feet over the edge. Frank an' I'd sat there last night when we were talking about a doctor we'd been looking for. I'd heard he was working on a cure, but the hospital had been gutted when we got there an' no one knew if he was alive.

“Is the info you got really that important?” Frank asked.

“Could be. I don't understand most of it,” I'd lied, “but from what that guy in Oregon said, I think so.” He'd been the fifth healthy doctor I'd tried to talk with. The disease wasn't doing what it had been designed for, he'd said, so they had to figure out something else that would work. Unlike the others, he'd admitted what I had could be helpful if they were hunting a cure. “But we're not trying to cure it,” he'd said. “We're trying to make the problem go away.”

Thinking of it, I kick a loose piece of rock so it flies into the dark. I sat on the stone an' let my shoulders slump. I wish I was as cold as Brad thinks I am. Frank was my last friend. He'd saved my life by teaching me to shoot. Don't I know his death is on my head? an' that he's not the only one?

A heavy boot scuffs rock behind me. I look over my shoulder. It's Colton. He sits, just far enough away that I don't feel crowded.

“Why'd you hit him?”

“'Cause you took my gun away an' I couldn't shoot him.”

He chuckles. It's a dry, raspy sound. I look at him in the last bits of sunset. He looks like he might be near 35, though it's hard to tell after the sickness comes on. The smaller of the scars on his face, the one running across his chin an' one corner of his lips, is real deep. Both scars look like they had help from a blade for the skin to split like that.

“Never seen you living in groups like this,” I says.

The scars on his face gape open as his brows pull together in anger. “I know what you all think, calling us zombies and such. But we're not. We're still people.”

“Sorry – didn't mean ... I know what was done to you.”

He suddenly grips my arm. “How can you know that?”

My eyes widen an' I stare at his hand. He lets go. “I apologize – I scared you. It doesn't spread by touch. Needs fluids – blood, spit, pus, and stuff. Doc found that out.”

It made sense, and I felt less nervous. “I worked at NorthAmiMeds.”

He looks angry again. “Doing what?” he says.

“Nothing important. Not important enough to know what they were doing until it was too late.” I shifted my seat an' looked away. “I stole files an' tried to take them to the news, but it didn't work. I should have tried Internet first, but I thought it'd reach more and it'd be harder for NorthAmi to shut me up. By that time, things had already gone bad.”

He looks at the moon thoughtful-like. “What kind of files?”

“Messages about the program, names of the people who worked on it, one file on the sickness itself.”

“Any of them say why?” His jaw clenches so hard the sides of his scar stretch tight.

My voice goes low. There's a long explanation, but it all boils down to, “They wanted to kill people they didn't like.”

He shakes his head, tangled black hair waving around his head. “It's always like that. Hitler tried it when he gassed Jews nearly two hundred years ago. Before that, some in America tried it with birth-control for black people. In the way back people did it too, but they were more honest. They'd come at you with guns or swords and at least you could fight back. People should have the right to try and kill those who are killing them.”

I wasn't expecting a speech on history. “You educated?” I ask.

“I was a historian once.” He laughs again. “I was smaller and better looking once, too.”

I laugh. I'm not quite as scared of him since he started talking. An' it's getting too dark to see his brittle, gray skin.

“I want you to show the doc your files. He's trying to find a cure, but said he needs to learn about the original disease.”

I agree. It was what I'd been taking the files around for. Then I ask a question that's been bugging me for a couple hours now. “Why didn't you just kill us?”

“Didn't even want to fight you – just looking for a place to spend the night. But when you started shooting, there was nothing we could do. If I'd been there when it started, I probably wouldn't have stopped it. Once you get sick, you always want to fight. And it just keeps getting worse. You ever seen someone who's had it for months? Right before it kills him?”

I shake my head.

“His skin starts to break open worse than before, and ooze. Then the same thing happens inside his skull and he goes crazy. We had to start shooting them to keep them from hurting those who aren't sick yet. A few shots in the head puts them down okay. I had to do that to my brother.” He takes the metal arrow from his belt and lets it rest across his palm. “He was an archer. Won medals for it before the sickness.” Shaking his head, he stands. “We'll let you go tomorrow. Now let's go talk to the doc.”

I follow him back inside the shelter. Brad looks up as we come in, an' his face is meaner than I've ever seen it. Colton goes back past the kitchen to a smaller room. The doctor is there, sitting at a desk holding a vial up to a half-burned candle.

“Doc, she's got some papers from NorthAmiMeds.”

He almost drops what he's holding. “What kind of files?”

For answer, I unbutton my jacket an' shuck it so I can get at the thin backpack where I kept the papers. It's cold, an' I put the jacket back on as soon as I give him the pack. He opens it like I'd handed him a box of chocolate, an' starts though the papers. Colton's feet shuffle against the floor restless-like.

The doc just glances at the first files with messages an' such, but his eyes get big at the one about the sickness. He hold up a sheaf of papers. “You know what this is? It's the genetic code for the virus.” All the pages are printed both sides with strings of letters going on an' on. He holds up more papers. “And this is records of their research, their findings, but it's only the most important stuff. This is is everything we'd need to re-create it ourselves. Maybe find out how to stop it.”

Colton's eyes shift to me. “How'd you know which files to pick?”

I shrug. “Lucky, I guess.”

He looks back to the doc, who's scribbling in a notebook an' glancing between pages of the file. “Follow me.”

I go out in the hall with him an' he closes the doc's door. There's two of the gray-skinned men in the hall. Colton glares at them an' jerks his head toward the larger room. They leave, an' he asks, “Lucky enough to get the exact files needed to study the virus? and records of the messages that prove who worked on the virus so they could be brought to justice? Who are you, really?”

I try to look small an' helpless. “I told you, I'm nobody.”

His arm hits me in the chest an' shoves me against the wall. His other hand slams the wall by my ear so hard I feel plaster jump it into my hair. “You're lying,” he says.

I'm scared now, mostly that he'll spit when talking an' get me sick, but also that he'll get mad enough to out-right kill me. “You're hurtin' me,” I say.

He knocks me against the wall again. “I will if you don't answer me.”

I shut my eyes an' say what I hadn't even told Frank. “My name's Ann Randall.”

Nothing happens. I peek my eyes open. He's just staring. I look at the hand near my head, an' it's turned into a fist. “You gonna kill me?” I ask.

“Randall? Like Kupert Randall, the head of NorthAmi?” I nod, an' he says, “You're related to him?” Shadows darken the scars on his face.

“His daughter.” I start talking fast, “I was a scientist there, but working on a different project. He didn't tell me about the disease – I got suspicious an' tracked down what was going on. When I found out, I asked him to stop. He got so angry that I gathered those files an' did just what I told you. But he got to the news first, telling them my mind had cracked from stress.”

He steps away. “The way you talk – this act – it's all to hide who you are?”

I slip back into my adopted slouch. “I like myself better this way. People don't see me.”

Turning, he stares at a wall. “What'll you do now?”

“Try an' keep Brad from getting the others killed. Pray your doctor finds the cure I'm not good enough to figure out.”

“Could you help him? If you stayed?”

I tilt my head an' watch at his shoulders. “You really aren't going to kill me?”

He looks back at me. “I told you I'm not a monster. Now I'll prove it. That, and I believe you this time. So, will you help us find a cure? I'm not saying it will be safe. We try our best to keep the healthy ones healthy, but –”

I cut him off. “I'll stay.” I laugh a little. “I never expected to live through this anyhow. I'd rather die trying to do something than from getting shot or turning gray while I'm off somewhere I can't do any good.”

He nods. For a moment, he meets my eyes. Then he turns an' goes back into the large room.

Colton had Brad an' the others blindfolded an' led a half-hour north of us before we leave the next morning. He takes us south an' east. The doc, name of Gideon, tells me Colton is heading for Vancouver. They mostly stay out of the towns, he says, to avoid others driven mad by the virus, but now we need a research hospital an' St. Paul's is the closest.

We travel fast, even with the children. It's only us healthy ones that have a hard time keeping up. The others hardly sleep an' they don't seem to tire, though they get hungry fast. It takes us only three days to get to Vancouver.There's cars sitting in the roads, like they just stopped an' the drivers ran off. Windows are broke, car roofs are smashed in with foot marks where someone jumped on them. I pass one that looks like it has bite marks in the metal. One of the kids whose been sick about a month climbs up on top a bus, then jumps an' catches a stop light. He swings back an' forth, laughing.

The hospital is red brick with white around the windows. There's a white cross laying outside the front of the building, an' a broken off base for it on the roof.

“There'll be restaurants and groceries around,” Colton says. “See if anything's left and bring it back here.”

I follow Gideon inside an' gag the minute I step in the door. There's a nurse sprawled over the check-in counter with his neck broke. His face is black an' swollen with rotting. Gideon starts shaking his head an' muttering.

We find more bodies every room we check. Some in hospital beds, like they were just left when the city got overrun. Equipment's smashed all over the place, but there's enough left for us to set up a lab.

Less than a week later, we've taken over the hospital as our home. Colton organizes groups to scour the city for food an' such. They bring back some to join us, an' other times they bring back weapons or clothes they take off the dead. Some has fresh blood on it, but we don't talk about that.

I help Gideon when I can. Mostly I donate blood when he needs to compare healthy with sick, an' play the part of assistant. Thing I miss most is running water. We wash our hands in rubbing alcohol to avoid contaminating Gideon's work. There's a whole closet full of the stuff.

One morning, Colton brings us some medicines an' such found in a Walmart pharmacy about nine kilometers away. Gideon starts looking through the stuff. All the sudden, he throws a handful of antibiotics on the floor. Glass shatters an' plastic rolls on the tile.

“If only it was a bacteria,” he says for the third time today. Knocking over a rolling cart, he stomps out of the room. I'm not surprised. Last couple days, he started breaking things on purpose when he gets mad.

I grab a dust pan an' broom I found a couple days back an' start sweeping. Colton asks, “He's getting worse, isn't he?”

“Yea.” The broom makes a whispering sound an' the glass shards scrape on the floor.

“I wish I wanted to kiss you,” Colton says.

I look up, an' raise an eyebrow. “When we get this cure done, maybe I'll let you.”

He rests a gloved fist on the table an' looks out a window. “I look at you and I think, she's a smart, beautiful woman. But I'm more than likely to pick up that knife there and stab you.”

I check that the door's open with nothing between me an' it before I decide it's safe to continue the conversation. “How long have you been sick?”

“Near five months. I've seen a man crazy enough to kill his own kid in less time than that.” He looks at me. “You could finish that cure tomorrow, and it wouldn't help me.”

Part of me wishes I could hug him, an' the other part wants to leave fast as I can.

“It's not just a virus,” Gideon shouts as he runs into the room. “They designed it to be, but virus don't cause outward changes, except for things like warts.” He starts pawing through my files again.

I didn't think that made any sense. “But it's spreading like a virus. The swelling in the brain is worse than, but kinda like, encephalitis. It kills like a virus.”

“Well, I suppose technically it is a virus. One of their geneticist must have gotten clever with retroviruses and got one to leave its genetic information in the host cell. It's mutating, and that's where the transformations are coming from.” He fixes his eyes on a rack of test tubes. “I need to do an autopsy.”

Waving toward the corridor, I say, “There's plenty of bodies.” Just that morning I'd found two more in a stairwell, looking like they strangled each other. I slid up the handrails to get past without touching them.

“No, I need a fresh one. Someone who's been sick a while, but wasn't killed in a way that destroyed brain tissue.”

Colton was standing there silent, an' now he walks out of the room. He's smiling in a grim way that makes me feel creepy.

Gideon was still talking. “We need an anti-retroviral therapy like they have for HIV. If we can lower the number of viruses in a patient, we can at least slow changes, reduce symptoms.”

I shake my head. “It took a team of scientists more than five years to develop that treatment in a fully-equipped lab.”

“Well, we'll just have to work more quickly. Run out and find someone who can fuel that generator.”

I track down one of Colton's men in the early stages of being sick an' tell him Gideon wants them to try an' start the generator in the hospital basement. By the time I get back, Colton is returning. He drops a body on an exam table. It's head flops loosely from a broken neck, but there's no bullet holes or stab wounds. Colton picks up a towel an' wipes his gloves. The white towel turns reddish-brown. I wondered how many people he fought before he was able to kill one that would give Gideon a useful corpse.

I leave Gideon with his autopsy an' go down to the cafeteria. The girl I met in the kitchen that first day is sitting on the floor crying. I know what's wrong as soon as I see her brother has his arm around her shoulder. He wouldn't be so close if she was still healthy. I sneak past them.

The hospital kitchen is deserted, unusual because there's actually food today. Dim light comes in through a window an' a pile of cans casts a long shadow across the counter. I sit by the cans, my feet dangling over the edge an' the metal counter cooling my seat.

There's a chance Gideon might find something, but he's not a virologist, so I don't have my hopes up. Maybe I made a mistake coming with Colton, especially since he's sicker than I thought. When he snaps, which one of his men will shoot him in the head an' lead the others? Will that one be able to control them like Colton does? Will those of us who are healthy still be safe?

The lights flicker an' come on. One of the appliances beeps as it get power, an' the refrigerator begins to hum. A moment later a voice comes over the hospital loudspeaker. “This is your captain speaking. The good doc said let there be light, so there was. We don't have much fuel though, so if you could turn everything off now he'd thank you.”

I smile to myself. At least someone's sense of humor survived. Sliding off the counter, I go around an' unplugged the empty refrigerators an' the microwave, then turned out the lights. I left the stove plugged in, hoping there'd be enough in the generator to make a warm dinner tonight.

Sitting on the counter again, I rest my chin in my hands. I'll stay. There's few enough places to go, an' I'm not sure Colton would let me leave. I'm gonna need a gun, though. I'll not stay here any longer without a way to defend myself.

That in mind, I head out the back door, an' nearly bump into one of the sick men on on guard outside. He's a big man wearing no shirt so you can see the scars on his gray chest. I think his name' Kadir.

“Where you going?” he rasps.

“None of your business.”

I try to step around him, an' he rests the but on his rifle on my chest.

“If it were up to me,” he says, “You'd not be here. You got no right to be healthy.”

“Then I'm glad you're not in charge,” I say.

“I will be. Colton's about to snap.” He taps his head. “I can see it. Then I'll take over, an' I'm gonna infect those of you I can use, an' kill the rest. Not sure which I'll do with you.”

Not wanting to give him an excuse to try either, I lowered my head submissive-like an' return to the kitchen. As the door closes, I hear him laughing. I shiver. Yes, I need a gun.

I find a small revolver by the body of someone who was sick an' shot himself. It's lightweight, a .38 caliber. A gun that small, it'd take at least two shots in the head to bring an angry zombie down, an' this gun only has six. At least no one knows I got it. I find a box of cartridges, an' make sure it's loaded.

About two weeks pass. People start giving Colton more space. He nearly took a guy's head off the other day for grabbing a salt shaker first.

Gideon thinks he's found something, but I don't understand what. I think his mind is starting to go – half the time what he says makes no sense. I hope his thinking is clearer than his speaking. When I look over his notes, some do look promising. He just needs more time – time that I'm not sure the sickness will give him.

I roll my shoulders an' try to relax. This time of day, the cafeteria is full of those wanting to eat dinner. I'd rather wait 'till there's fewer of them, but then there'd be no food left.

I know something is off the minute I step in the room. They're too restless. I brush my hand near by waist casual-like to feel the revolver under my coat. I step between the tables, moving toward the kitchen. Conversation buzzes but I don't hear individual words in the noise.

I get half of a dried-out tortilla an' a scoop of cold baked beans. I'm trying to watch everyone at once. My spine's all tingles. Finally, something sticks out in the confusion. Colton is pacing along the wall, back an' forth in front of the windows close by where I'm standing. The only seats open are near him. I'm still hungry, but all a sudden I don't feel like eating.

Stepping backward, I try not to catch his eye. The closest door is the kitchen, an' my first thought is to go there, but someone at this end of the table gets up an' blocks my way. He plants his feet in the aisle an' leans his hands on the table. With the chair pushed out behind him, I can't get by without looking like I'm running.

Colton's footsteps get faster. His breathing makes low growling noises. I shift my plate to my left hand, an' lean against the wall as if it were my plan all along. I scoop up beans in the tortillia an' watch him out of the corner of my eye. I glance at my plate for a second. When I look back, he's flipping a knife an' catching it as he paces. It's not the arrow he usually carries, but a short, double-sided blade.

I wipe bean juice off on my jacket. As I move, Colton's eye lights on me. In a moment, he's right in front of me. He grabs the plate out of my hands an' throws it across the room so hard a woman falls out of her seat when it hits her.

I plant my left hand on a window sill an' my shoulder against the wall. All I hear is the breath rasping in an' out of his body. The scar nearest his eye spits wider as his face twists up in a scowl. He takes one step closer, an' quick as thought I plant my feet against his chest. I kick, but it doesn't move him a bit. He grins, an' skin on his cheek splits open.

Breath catches in my throat. My right hand closes on my revolver. Before I can get it out of my waist band, he's stabbing the knife into my leg. I feel the blade hit bone in my shin. I yelp, an' my feet drop. The leg he cut hits the ground an' gives out. I drop to the floor an' he falls into the window. I hear glass crack.

I grab for the revolver again. He pounces like a cat, landing on me with his hands by my shoulders an' his knees on either side of my hips. I look into his eyes an' it isn't Colton looking back.

I shoot him in the head. Twice.

His weight knocks my breath out as he falls on me. I wonder for a moment if he'll still kill me 'cause I can't breath, but his weight shifts just enough for me to push him off. I scramble to my feet.

Colton's infected blood covers my face. I taste it in my mouth. I feel it drip off my chin. For a moment, there is no sound. They all stare at me, all of us knowing I'm one of them now, but not yet knowing what that means.

Kadir stands up. “I claim Colton's place. I am your leader now.”

I think for just a split-second about him being in charge, an' my hand lifts by itself. I shoot him.

One. Two. Three gunshots echo in the cafeteria.

I step from a chair onto the table. “No. I lead you. We will keep on like we did with Colton – the way he'd want us to. We'll help the doc finish his work.” I look at Colton's body. It's a much darker gray an' more beat-up than when we'd first met. My chest feels tight. “We'll help him finish so we never have to do this again.” Pointing to two men, I say, “Take them outside.”

No one moves to obey. I only have one shot left, but I hope they haven't noticed. Most of them don't know squat about guns. I fire it into the ceiling. “Move.” They move.

People go back to their meals. I step off the table an' leave the room, tying not to limp. The sound of heavy bodies draggin' across the floor is in my ears. I make it around a corner of the hall before the tortilla an' beans come up.

I lean my head against the cold wall, breathing hard. I shot Colton. My stomach retches again, but there is nothing more to puke out. I'd have thought shooting Kadir would sit better with me, but I retch again when I think of him.

I can't have anyone see me like this. I straighten. Where my head leaned against the wall is a streak of dark blood. I take a deep breath an' move toward the stairs. All the water we have's for drinking, so the only thing I can wash this with is Gideon's rubbing alcohol. He could help me bandage my leg, too. It doesn’t matter any more if he touches me.

I'm gonna need a better gun.

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