“So,” I said, “I’m going, Tanner, Grace and Hunter are going. Dr. Higgins is going. Darren and Gunnor are going and Richard and Monica want to go. Maria, that would make you the only one our age staying here. Are you okay with that?”
We all sat in the living room. Once Monica had made it clear that she wanted to go, Richard quickly volunteered to go as well. Arthur said he wanted to go, but we told him he had to stay. He had insisted he was old enough to go since he was ten, but that was too young to go back out in the zombie infested world when he didn’t have to.
“I’ll miss you,” Maria said, “but yes, I’m okay with it. I’m supposed to stay here.” She put an arm around Victory’s and Mackenzie’s shoulders. She sat between them on the couch. “These two will keep me company.”
“Yes,” Mackenzie. “Don’t worry about her. We’ll be her friends.”
Neither Gunnor nor Jin were in the room, but I had come to learn that didn’t mean they weren’t listening.
“Are you sure you want to go?” Richard asked Monica and not for the first time. It wasn’t because he was trying to get out of going, it was because he was genuinely concerned for her. I hoped they became a couple. They were cute together and I already knew Monica had a crush on him.
“I’m going,” Monica said. “I’m better than all of you with a gun except for maybe Lily.”
“I prefer my ax anyway,” I said. “I won’t use my gun unless I have to.”
“Your coat got torn at the shoulder though,” Mackenzie said. “What if a zombie bites you there again? You won’t have the same protection you had before.”
“We can trade coats,” Maria said. “We’re the same size. My coat should fit you.”
“But then you’ll be without the protection in that area,” Monica said.
“I’m not going back out there though,” Maria said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be safe,” I pointed out. “Anything could happen. What if Gunnor’s and Jin’s brood come looking for them and you’re forced to go back out there to get away from them?”
Maria thought about it for a moment and then said, “Well, Jin and Gunnor obviously have clothes. Maybe they have a coat I could wear or at the very least, maybe I could repair the hole.”
“She’ll be fine,” Mrs. Smith said. “We’ll all be fine. You don’t need to worry about us.”
“Excellent,” Jin said as he walked into the room with Gunnor. “Then it’s all decided. You’ll leave first thing in the morning. Get prepared and say your goodbyes tonight. We’ll give you some privacy.” He left the room. Gunnor smirked at Hunter who frowned in returned. Then Gunnor turned and left.
The room was silent. Even little Marcos stopped running around the room and stared at us.
“At least we’ll get to sleep under a warm roof one last time before we go back out there,” Tanner said to Grace. She smiled at him and entwined her fingers with his.
“I hope Camila and the others are alright,” she said quietly.
“I’m sure they are,” Tanner said, but it sounded like he was trying to convince himself too.
“You can sleep with us tonight,” Victory said to Grace. She left the couch to sit on the arm of the loveseat next to Grace.
Grace smiled at her and took her hand with her free hand. “Okay,” she said.
“Who is going to sleep in our room with us while you’re gone?” Juan asked Hunter.
“I will,” Dr. Patel said. “I can sleep on the floor between your beds.”
“I’ll stay in there tonight too,” Dr. Higgins said.
“Then where will Hunter sleep?” Juan asked.
“With those two,” Dr. Patel pointed to Richard and Darren. “Tanner can stay with them too.”
Hunter and Darren exchanged a glance. Hunter quickly looked at his feet. Darren looked at me. His cheeks turned a slight pink as he blushed. He quickly looked at his hands. I looked at Hunter again. I wanted him to look at me, but he didn’t. What a mess the three of us were.
“I guess we should pack and make sure we have everything we need.”
It didn’t take long for those of us who were going to assess what we were going to take and what we were going to leave behind. We didn’t need to pack anything as we hadn’t unpacked anything. It was mostly just rearranging packs for those of us staying versus those of us who were going.
All of us stayed up later than we should have talking in the living room. Marcos fell asleep curled up in Richard’s lap. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to those we were leaving behind and neither was anyone else. Gunnor and Jin said they could stay in contact with each other and that helped ease my mind greatly, but I still didn’t want to leave my sister out of my sight. She was safer here than back out there.
When we finally all moved to go to our rooms, Maria pulled me aside.
“Be careful out there, Lily,” she said.
Tears welled up in her brown eyes. “And thank you for coming for me. Thank you for saving me.” A tear spilled onto her cheek.
Stinging tears welled up in my own eyes.
“Thanks for trying to save my mom,” she choked out. Tears streamed down both our cheeks now. I pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry about your parents,” she whispered.
I buried a sob into her shoulder and she held me closer. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save your mom,” I said, “or my parents or Anna.”
She sobbed when I mentioned our other best friend’s name.
“They should all be here with us,” I said.
“Ideally, we should all be back home,” she paused to catch her breath, but when she spoke again her voice sounded stronger. “We should be going to school during the day, preparing for college, safe in our beds knowing our parents are home and watching over us, but that isn’t available to us anymore. We have a new reality we need to get used to.”
I nodded and pulled away from the hug. We wiped away each other’s tears.
“If you can save others out there, do it. Send them our way and we’ll welcome them here. Just make sure they aren’t people like those men we encountered in the woods or Grant and his dad.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’ll do great,” she said. “And don’t worry about Mackenzie. I’ll look after her as if she were my own little sister.” That eased the knot in my chest. “And I’m learning magic so I can fireball anyone that tries anything. And I’ll keep practicing with the bow and arrow and gun. I won’t get complacent.”
“Thank you, Maria. I know I can trust you.” We gave each other another quick hug and then we retreated into our respective rooms. Grace, Victory and Mackenzie were already in bed. The bed was large, but there were four of us. I wouldn’t have much room tonight, but that didn’t matter as long as I got to spend it with my sister.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of my sister sobbing. I held her close and stroked her hair.
“I miss mom and dad,” she whispered.
“Me too,” I said. My heart tore into little pieces as I remembered them. I cried along with her. It didn’t take me long to realize that both Victory and Grace were awake and crying too.
Grace’s eyes met mine in the darkness and she said, “Get it all out now. We can’t cry on the road.”
I nodded and held my sister closer. At some point, my sister’s cries stopped and deep breathing replaced it. She had cried herself to sleep. At least I still had her. I wasn’t sure when I fell back asleep, but I woke with sunlight streaming in through the windows. I was the only one in the room. There was a knock on the door. I turned to look at the door just as it opened. Arthur stuck his head. Molly was close behind him.
“Breakfast is ready,” he said.
“Thank you. I’m coming.”
I expected him to leave, but when I stood up, he was still there. “Is there something else?”
“I really want to go with you guys. I’ve been practicing with the bow and arrow and I’m good at it.” It had only been a few days. I didn’t know how good he could be. “And Molly will be a good warning system.”
That was true, but we weren’t about to separate Molly from Arthur and Arthur wasn’t coming.
“No,” I said. “You and Molly need to stay here with the others.”
He frowned, sighed heavily and walked away.
When I got to the kitchen, everyone else was there. A pan of soup was on the table. I didn’t see the vampires. Halfway through eating, they showed up.
“I need to remind you,” Jin said, “that in order for Gunnor and I to communicate with each other, we will need to drink each other’s blood, but before that, we will need human blood.” Mrs. Smith didn’t look at anyone as she put the pan down for Molly to lap up the rest of the soup.
“I’m ready,” Maria said.
“Me too,” Darren said. Hunter wouldn’t look at him. I had a difficult time looking away from Hunter.
“When you are ready, come into the living room,” Jin said. “The rest of you don’t have to be there if you don’t want to, but any of you are welcome to join us.”
I followed Maria and Darren into the living room. I needed to be there just in case something went wrong. I took my ax with me, but left it at my side. Hunter, Tanner and Grace followed me in. No one else came in.
“You’ve gotten good at fighting off my charms,” Gunnor said to Darren, “but in order for this not to hurt you, don’t fight it this time.”
“The wrist,” Hunter blurted. All of us looked at him. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Jin raised one black brow.
“Not the neck,” Hunter clarified. “The wrist.”
“I don’t mind if he bites my neck,” Maria said.
“Me neither,” Darren said.
Hunter swallowed and I could see the pain he hid behind his eyes. I didn’t think the others could see it.
“The wrist, please,” I said.
“Okay,” Maria said. Darren nodded.
Jin and Gunnor focused on Maria and Darren. Maria’s and Darren’s expressions softened almost at the same time, relaxed. I recognized the haze in Darren’s eyes. It was similar to the haze in his eyes when he saw the RU in? signs. Jin and Gunnor were closer to them, but I hadn’t actually seen them step closer. I glanced at Hunter. His brows were slightly furrowed. His hands clenched his pants. If it had been Hunter instead of Darren, I probably would have reacted the same way.
When I turned my attention back to Maria and Darren, Jin and Gunnor reached out slowly, delicately and took the arms of Maria and Darren. Wrists were brought up to lips. The elongated canines of Jin and Gunnor bit into the soft flesh. I flinched, but Maria and Darren didn’t. Their eyes closed. Small smiles touched their lips.
I glanced at Hunter. He looked at his feet. Richard, Monica and Dr. Patel had entered the room at some point, but I wasn’t sure when. None of the others had entered.
When I looked back, Jin and Gunnor withdrew their mouths. Red tongues darted out and licked the holes in Maria’s and Darren’s wrists. The skin knitted back together. Jin and Gunnor stepped back. Maria and Darren blinked. Their eyes focused. Maria’s arm dropped back by her side. Darren rubbed his wrist, but not because it hurt. He seemed fascinated by what just transpired.
Gunnor and Jin faced each other. Each extended a wrist. They each took the extended wrist and bit into it. I wondered if it hurt them since they couldn’t – or at least didn’t – charm each other. I didn’t think they could charm each other, but that was something I had just assumed. I hadn’t actually asked. When they were finished they stepped away from each other.
“Well,” Gunnor said to me and Hunter, “shall we go?”
We said our goodbyes to those remaining behind. Maria and Mackenzie got an extra long hug from me. Tanner hugged Mackenzie even longer. Hunter, Grace and Victory hugged each other in a group hug. Darren and Richard hugged their mothers. Richard had just been reunited with his mom. It couldn’t be easy for him to leave her again. Marcos hugged Richard and told him not to go until Mrs. Smith took him in her arms.
“We’ll be back,” Richard promised him.
“We’ll be back,” I reiterated to Mackenzie because there was no way I would leave her behind permanently. She nodded.
“Then let’s be off,” Gunnor said.
We took our bikes and our packs and followed him back into the cold, zombie infested world. And I now knew there were worse things out there than zombies.