Chapter 34 .

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I watched Grace as she slept.  Her black and teal hair tumbled all around her.  Her beautiful face was calm and peaceful. There was a small smile at the corner of her lips.  I hoped she dreamed of me.

It was strange.  We had been friends since we were little.  Me and her and the other group of kids from our neighborhood.  And then she turned thirteen and everything changed. She dyed strands of her hair the teal color it still was.  She had kept up that unique hair color ever since then. She stopped hanging around us. She stopped talking to us.  I tried to talk to her when it first happened. I tried going over to her house to see her because even then I had a crush on her, but she would never speak to me.  Not through middle school or high school. She was on the archery team, but she wouldn’t even speak with them. She would go and practice or go win tournaments, but she didn’t socialize.

Since she kept to herself, I hadn’t known what college she was going to or if she even planned to go.  I was shocked the first time I saw her in the cafeteria at my university. And she wasn’t alone. She was chatting and laughing with Camila.  She was socializing in a way I had never seen before. Being at the university had freed her from whatever hidden shackles she had put on herself.

I looked across the camp to where Camila sat alert and scanning the woods as the others slept.  It was cold. Our breaths made little white puffs in the air. Both Camila and I had blankets wrapped around us as well as the coats we had picked up earlier in the day.

Everyone who slept snuggled close together underneath the sleeping bags to keep warm.  I was on watch, but I sat directly next to Grace. I reached out and gently touched one of her teal strands.

That first day I saw her in the cafeteria, she had seemed as shocked as I was.  But she was different than middle school and high school. She greeted me warmly and invited me to sit with her and Camila.  From that moment on, we had lunch together everyday. It wasn’t long until we started to have dinners together too. And then one day she casually held my hand.  I had kissed her and our relationship officially began. She hadn’t told her family yet and I hadn’t told mine. I was quiet because it seemed like she wanted to keep it secret.  I didn’t know why. Once we met up with our families, we would tell them everything. She never did give me a good reason why she stopped talking to me when she turned thirteen. She changed the subject whenever I brought it up and I let her.

Earlier in the day – or yesterday as it was now early morning the next day-, after we had left Dr. Smith and the girl at that weird RU in? place, we had found a super store.  We ran into a few zombies which we had killed, but not many. We were lucky and we knew we were lucky. We stocked up on supplies, got our new bikes and headed out to the diner.

The sky subtly began to lighten.  If it had been the spring or summer, we might begin to hear birds, but it wasn’t.  It was eerily quiet this early in the morning.

It was colder and colder with each passing day.  Once we joined up with our families, we should find a safe, warm place to stay for the winter.  I knew Camila and Connor wanted to go look for their families too, but it would be difficult to travel through the snow.  

Camila smiled at me from across the camp as I played with my girlfriend’s hair.  I stopped embarrassed that I had been caught. A low moan sounded nearby. Camila and I froze.  A second moan greeted it. There was shuffling in the foliage behind the trees beyond Camila. Her knife was out in an instant.

I shook Grace’s shoulder.  I put my finger to my lips to indicate for her to be quiet when her brown eyes fluttered open.  Camila stood and backed up a little. She nudged Dr. Patel’s foot with her own. He opened his eyes and blinked questioningly at her, but as soon as he saw her standing ready with the knife in hand, he woke Dr. Higgins.  Grace woke Todd who in turn woke Connor. By the time the first zombie shambled his way into our camp, we were all ready. The zombie groaned loudly when she saw us. A groan extremely close by answered. Two more groans answered a little further away.  

Spit dripped from the zombie’s torn, bloody lip.  The pupils of her eyes glowed that eerie green. Dr. Higgins stepped forward and stabbed the charging zombie in the temple.  She collapsed to her feet as the second zombie broke through the trees. It was an old woman zombie with a hunched back and a large chunk taken out of her shoulder.  She resembled Dr. Smith and I had to remind myself that Dr. Smith was safe – maybe safe – in that creepy RU in? place we had left her at earlier.  

The zombie’s hands were stretched out to me.  Her lips open wide in preparation to take a bite.  Her feet shuffled along the forest floor as she rushed me.  I stepped forward with my bat and swung with all my strength.  There was a loud crack that made my stomach turn before the zombie collapsed dead at my feet.

“Let’s hurry and pack,” Dr. Patel said.  He immediately bent to start rolling up the sleeping bags.  I rolled up my blanket and the sleeping bag Grace had used. Grace had her bow and arrow ready in case anything else entered the camp.  The rest of us scrambled to pack everything onto our bikes. 

The two zombie moans sounded closer.

“Let’s go,” I said to Grace.  Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins were already on their bikes.  Camila got on hers.

Connor had his bike by the handles and was about to swing his leg over the seat when a child zombie charged him from the woods.  Connor froze. His body went stiff, his eyes went wide, his gloved hands tightened around the handlebars and his legs went rigid.

“Grace,” I called out.  I wanted her to take care of the little girl zombie charging Connor, but just as I said her name a large, male zombie stumbled out of the woods in front of us.  His right foot was missing, but that didn’t stop him from lopsidedly charging my girlfriend. Grace didn’t hesitate as she pulled back on the string of her bow and let loose the arrow.  It embedded itself in the zombie’s eye and he fell forward dead.

Connor screamed.  I turned and ran to him as the zombie child bit into the coat sleeve of his forearm.  Connor was finally able to move in his desperation. He grabbed the zombie girl’s head and pulled her off him by the hair while he continued to scream.  Todd was there in an instant. He stabbed the zombie girl in the back of the head and dropped her to the ground when she went limp. She still had tufts of Connor’s coat in between her teeth.  Todd grabbed Connor’s arm.

“I’m going to die!” Connor yelled out in despair.

“I don’t think it bit you,” Todd said.

“What?” Connor blinked with tears in his eyes.

I reached them as Todd said, “Take off your coat.”  Connor tore his coat off as fast as he could. It didn’t look like the sweater Connor wore underneath it had been torn.  Todd lifted the sleeve to Connor’s elbow. Connor collapsed next to the dead zombie girl.

“I’m not bitten,” he said.  A small smile touched the corner of his lips as he ran his hand over his unblemished arm.  “I’m not bitten,” he said again.

“Okay, not bitten,” Dr. Higgins said.  “We’ve got to get going. Your screaming was bound to get attention.”

“Right,” Connor said with tears of relief on his cheeks.  Todd extended a hand and Connor took it. When Connor was back on his feet, he wiped the tears from his cheeks.

We all got on our bikes and Dr. Patel led the way on.  The route was more difficult in the woods, but we didn’t want to ride directly on the freeway.  It would have been faster on the freeway, but it would have been easier for zombies to spot us.

After traveling for an hour, we stopped to eat.  We didn’t make a fire. We ate beef jerky and trail mix and continued on our way.  In the early afternoon – it was hard to know exactly what time of day since we couldn’t check our phones for the time anymore – we stopped again.  We hadn’t heard any zombie groans for a few hours. We ate cereal without milk and ate some dried fruit. We headed out once again.

It was dusk when we heard the next zombie groan.  It wasn’t a groan of urgency. It was just a low groan they sometimes made when they roamed aimlessly.  We slowed our bikes. A second zombie groaned. It was higher pitched, but with that same aimlessness. The groans had come from the freeway.  We stopped and looked at each other as a third groan drifted our way.

“How close are we to the diner?” Dr. Higgins whispered.

“Close,” I whispered back.  “We might be here.”

“Let’s leave our bikes and creep closer for a better look,” Dr. Higgins said quietly.

“Someone should stay with the bikes,” Connor whispered.  “You know, just in case someone tries to steal them.”

Dr. Higgins nodded.  “Okay, then you can stay with them.”

“By myself?” Connor asked in a high pitched tone.

“I’ll stay with you,” Dr. Patel said.

“Me too,” Camila volunteered.

Dr. Higgins waved a hand for me to lead the way.  I took Grace’s hand in mind as we crept through the foliage.  Dr. Higgins and Todd followed us. We came to the treeline, but didn’t go beyond it.  We stood behind the tree trunks as we peeked out.

The diner was across the freeway a little further down, but we could see it from that distance.  The freeway was filled with zombies, not just a few, but hundreds. And many of them milled about the diner.  I didn’t see any possible way to meet my family there.

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