Chapter 32 .

Darren

Something shifted next to me causing me to wake up.  I kept my eyes closed as my mom got up. The side of me that had been snuggled next to her was suddenly cold.  Little Marcos whined. I opened my eyes just slightly and saw the small child shivering now that my mom was no longer next to him.  Juan’s arm was around him, but that wasn’t helping at the moment. Both children remained asleep. I put on my glasses. I slid closer to them and threw an arm around both of them.  Juan snuggled into me and relaxed. But my back was cold now. I looked over my shoulder to Richard. He blinked at me a moment before he stood up and went to help my mom get the fire going again.  I pulled the sleeping bag up further on Marcos.

Maria got up from the other end of our huddled line and started to get cans of soup.  I lifted my head up slightly so I could look at Lily. She was asleep, her arms wrapped around Mackenzie.  Victory was next to Mackenzie. Her arm was hooked with Mackenzie’s as they slept. Hunter was between Victory and Arthur.  Molly was stretched out over Arthur and Hunter. Grant’s dad was next to Arthur sound asleep. Grant slept next to him. Monica was up walking the perimeter of the camp as it had been her watch.  I was pretty sure it was supposed to be Grant’s watch too. We didn’t do single watches and I remembered him saying last night that he would take watch with Monica.

Molly was awake and watching hungrily as Maria opened the cans of soup.

“Molly,” I whispered.  Her head swung my way and her tail started to gently thump against Arthur.  I indicated for her to come to me. She carefully got off Arthur and made her way to me.  I scooted out of the way and indicated for her to lie down in the spot I had just occupied.  She did and put her head on Marcos’s chest to keep him warm.

I got up and made my way to Richard.  He was holding the pan while Maria poured the soup into it.

“Let’s go to the bathroom,” I whispered quietly to him.  

He nodded.  I waited for him as he put the soup over the fire and then we went off into the woods.  I hadn’t heard any zombie groaning that morning, but I listened carefully and was watchful.  Even if zombies weren’t around that didn’t mean that those other men weren’t. We separated a little and relieved ourselves.

I looked around just to be sure no one else followed us before I said, “You know how I have a crush on Lily?”

“Yeah.  Did you confess?  What did she say?”

“I didn’t exactly confess, but she knows.”

“So what did she say?”  

We could have headed back, but I leaned back against a cold, leafless tree.

I sighed as the hollow spot in the bottom of my heart began to spread.  “She has a crush on Hunter.”

“Oh,” Richard said.  “But isn’t he gay?”

“Yeah, but you can’t always tell your heart who to love.”

“That’s true,” Richard said.  “I have a crush on Monica, but she’s with Grant.  I can’t figure out why.”

“Since when do you have a crush on Monica?” 

“Since she shot that guy,” Richard said.  “But I think I also might have a crush on Maria.”

“Really?”

He nodded.  “When she threw the boiling soup in that other guy’s face.”

Thinking about Richard’s favorite female characters in film, books and video games, he always did have a certain type.

“Hunter has a crush on me,” I said.

“Why?” he said as if he couldn’t believe it was possible for anyone to have a crush on me.  “I mean, he’s so cool and you’re . . .” His voice trailed off.

“Not,” I finished for him.  “I know. Do you think if I can make myself be cooler, Lily might start to like me?”

“I don’t think it works like that,” Richard said.  “And even if it did then Hunter will be left out. Did the three of you discuss this together?”

“Hunter said we should all just remain friends.”

“Then maybe that’s what you should do,” Richard said.  “Now is probably not the time for romance anyway. We’ve got to find a safe place to shelter permanently after we get Hunter’s and Lily’s siblings.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“And I really hope my parents made it to the diner and are safe somehow.”

I patted his shoulder.  I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to not know if my family was okay.  My mom was with me and my step dad was dead. All our other friends had died at that stupid party at Monica’s house.

We headed back.  Hunter, all three of the boys, Grant and his dad passed us on the way.  Marcos held Hunter’s hand. When we got back to camp, Lily was watching over the soup.  Victoria and Mackenzie were off to the side a little and Victoria was demonstrating to Mackenzie how to hold a bow.

“I want to learn too,” Richard said and made his way to the two girls.  Victory was more than happy to show him.

I sat next to Lily near the fire.  She smiled at me and my heart beat rapidly against my ribs.  This would be so much easier if she felt the same way about me as I did about her.

“How did you sleep?” she asked me.

“Okay.  I’m getting used to sleeping on the ground.  How about you?”

“I slept fine,” she said.  She stirred the soup. “Do you want to get out the rest of the spoons.  I went to one of the packs with the camping supplies and took out as many of the spoons as we had.  We didn’t have enough for everyone, but we got used to sharing.

My mom and the rest of the girls came back into the camp moments before Hunter and the rest of them did.

“Good timing,” Lily announced.  “Let’s eat.”

We all gathered around the soup.  We passed the pan around and each took a bite.  This process continued over and over until there was just enough left for Molly.  My mom put the pan on the ground and patted Molly’s head as she lapped up the soup eagerly.

“Let’s break camp,” Grant’s dad said.

“Actually,” Hunter said, “I was hoping we could spend some time learning how to use ranged weapons.  Victory and I can teach how to use the bow and arrow and Lily and Monica can teach how to use the gun.  I don’t think we should fire the guns though. We don’t want to draw any zombies or unwanted humans with the sound.”

We rolled up the sleeping bags, washed the pan and utensils we used and put out the fire.  As a group, we washed our faces and brushed our teeth. It didn’t take us long to finish packing and then we divided up into two groups.  One to learn about guns and the other to learn about the bows. My mom, Maria, Richard, Grant and his dad went to Lily and Monica to learn how to shoot guns.  

Richard said earlier he was interested in learning the bow and arrow.  I noticed how his eyes lit up when Monica’s name was mentioned to teach about the gun.  And Maria was in that group so both of his crushes were there.

I wanted to be in the same group as Lily.  For a brief moment, I let myself imagine her behind me holding my arms like you see in movies to help me aim the gun.  But guns frightened me. I went to Hunter’s group. I was the oldest one there besides Hunter. The others were Victory, Mackenzie, Arthur and Juan.  Little Marcos kept tugging on Victory’s pants legs insisting she teach him too even though she was helping Arthur and Juan at the moment.

“All right,” Victory said to Marcos.  She gave him one of the bows. She didn’t give him an arrow.  “Practice pulling back on the string.”

Marcos mimicked the movements of Arthur and Juan as Victory went back to instructing them.

“Nock the arrow,” Hunter said to me as he stood beside and slightly behind me.  “Pull the string back. Your elbows should be like this.” He moved further behind me and readjusted my elbows with a light touch.

“Maybe I should learn how to use the gun,” I said.

He backed away.  “If you’re uncomfortable with me teaching you,” he said quietly, “I can get Victory to teach you.  Vicky,” he called out to his sister.

“No,” I said and grabbed his forearm as he moved to switch places with his little sister.  “That wasn’t what I meant.”

“What do you want?” Victory asked him.

“Nevermind,” Hunter said.  Then to me in a quieter voice he said, “What did you mean then?”

“I didn’t think you were trying to feel me up or anything,” I said quietly and it just felt really weird to say.  “It’s just that only kids are learning here.”

“Oh,” Hunter said and his face lightened and he breathed slightly easier.  “I think it’s a good idea for everyone to learn both the guns and the bows eventually.  You’ll get your chance to learn it and they,” he nodded his head to the group with the guns, “will learn the bow.”

“Okay,” I said.  I lifted the bow with the arrow again and drew back the string.  “Are my elbows okay now?”

“Yeah,” he said.  We spent almost an hour learning the weapons before we decided to load up the bikes and move on.

“No,” Marcos complained when Victory tried to take the bow away.

She bent so she was eye level to the small boy.  “I’ll just take it when we are riding the bikes. You can have it back later.”

“But I need one if the bad guys come,” he said in his small voice.

“I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this,” my mom said as she came up to them.  “I do think it might be good for him to have some kind of weapon in case we come upon zombies and he is in a situation where none of us can help him.”

“But he’s only three,” Juan said.  “He’s going to hurt himself.”

“Am not,” Marcos said.

“That’s why I hesitated,” my mom said.  “Marcos, if I give you this knife.” She pulled out a large pocket knife.  “Will you promise to only use it if we come across zombies or those bad men and none of us can help you?”

“Yes,” he said and tried to take it from her grasp, but she pulled it away.  

“I mean it Marcos.  Don’t take the blade out at all unless none of us can help you and you need to kill a zombie or those men.  If I see you take it out at any other time, I’m going to take it away from you. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said.  This time he didn’t impatiently reach for it.  My mom handed it to him. He held it reverently and stared down at it.

“Do you know where to stab the zombies?” my mom asked him.

“In the head and don’t let them bite me.”

“Right,” she said.  “What about the bad men?  Where do you stab them?”

“In the head,” he said.

My mom smiled and patted his head.  “That’s right,” she said. “Stab as hard as you can.  In the eye is probably the best spot to stab them okay?”

Marcos nodded.

My mom faced the rest of us and said, “The next exit is a super store.  I think we should stop there for more supplies.”

“I can just take a small group of us again,” Hunter said.

“No,” my mom said.  “What if those men come back while we are split?  I think it’s best if we stick together.”

“But what about the zombies?” Hunter said as he looked at Marcos.  It would be difficult to outrun zombies with the little three year old with us, even if we were on bikes.  

“The only thing at this exit is the super store.  I’m hoping not too many people were there on Halloween night and there might have already been people that went through there for supplies that cleared out whatever zombies might be there.  We can pick up more bikes, more food, more toiletries, a change of clothes and whatever else we might need.”

“All right,” Hunter relented.

We paired up on the bikes and headed out to the next exit.

Chapter 31

Lily

“Let’s stop here for the night,” Darren’s mom said.  We parked our bikes and got off. I thought my legs were tired after that first night with the zombies, but after riding the bike all day, my legs felt like mush.  I collapsed to the cold ground and tilted my head to look up beyond the boughs of the trees. The reddish sky peeked through the boughs. The sun was setting. The wind rustled the tree branches.  The tops of the trees especially moved erratically.  

Mackenzie sat next to me and placed her head on my shoulder.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t peddle the bike more,” she said.

My sweet sister.  It felt so good to be reunited with her.  I tilted my head so my cheek was on the top of her head.  Her hair tickled and pricked my cheek but I reveled in that moment.  She was alive. I was alive. Neither of us were zombies. We were with a mostly good group of people who would watch out for each other.  Except for Grant or his dad.

“You don’t need to be sorry,” I said.  “I’m too heavy to expect you to be able to peddle both of us.”

“You’re not fat or anything,” she said.  I smiled at her trying to console me. I wasn’t upset though.  I wasn’t fat, but I wasn’t model thin either and that was okay with me.

“I’m really tall though,” I said, “and that can add weight and make it awkward for you.  Don’t worry about it. It’s good for me to build up this muscle. Especially if are going to survive this zombie apocalypse.  My arms and legs ached so much after that first night, but I was able to build up muscle to help me fight off the zombies that come our way.”

Maria came and collapsed on the other side of me.  She curled an arm around mine. “Life is so crazy now,” she said.  “How did this even start? We’re supposed to be safe at home right now.  Or maybe at a football game? Is it friday? I’ve completely lost track.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Victory walked along our new campsite gathering firewood.  She was looking under pine trees trying to find the driest sticks and branches.  Juan and Arthur were helping her. Arthur kept glancing at Mackenzie. He might have had a crush on my sister.  Or maybe he was just concerned. It had been a harrowing past several days.

Monica came over to us and crouched low in front of my sister.  “You have more don’t you?” she asked quietly so no one else could hear.  It kind of sounded like a drug deal, but I knew that wasn’t what was happening.  I had no idea what was happening.

“Yeah,” my sister said equally quiet.  “But we’re really going to need to get more soon.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

They both looked at me, but didn’t answer.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” Marcos announced in his small child voice.  He tugged on Richard’s hand as he said it.

“All right,” Richard said easily and picked up the three year old up in his arms.  He started heading off, but not before he motioned for Darren to go with them.  

“That’s a good idea,” Darren’s mom said. 

“Us too,” Monica said, but she didn’t say it loudly.  She mainly said it to Mackenzie. Mackenzie nodded and stood.  I missed her warmth by my side.

Juan and Arthur went with Richard, Darren and Marcos.

“We’ll go with you,” Maria said to Monica and Mackenzie.  She tugged my arm until I stood up.

Victory, Darren’s mom and Hunter started to build the fire while Grant and his dad went off into the woods in the general direction Darren and the others went.

Maria and I followed Monica and Mackenzie in the opposite direction from where the boys went.

“Are you going to tell me what you were talking about?” I asked.  “What does my sister have that you need?”

My sister rummaged in her pack and handed Monica sanitary pads.

“Oh,” I said.  “I didn’t even think about that.  It’s a good thing you think ahead,” I said to Mackenzie.  Mackenzie smiled proudly at the praise. I brushed her dirty bangs out of her eyes.  How long had it been since anyone of us had a shower? We used the water, to wash our face and brush our teeth in the morning and at night, but we should probably find another solution other than our drinking water.  We probably needed to get more water sooner rather than later too.

We separated a little, but were still close enough we could help each other out if we were in danger.  We finished and started on our way back, but I grabbed Maria’s arm. “Can we talk a minute before we go back?” I asked.  It was clear I meant only me and Maria. Both Mackenzie and Monica frowned. Monica recovered quickly and gave a fake smile that told me she was hurt at being excluded.  

It wasn’t like we had been friends before all this happened.  We knew of each other. We said hello in the halls, maybe had a few casual conversations, but nothing like friends.

Mackenzie didn’t bother to hide the fact that she was hurt.  “Why?” she asked. “You can talk to her but not me?”

“It’s okay,” Monica said.  Her voice was not quite the same as usual, but she was trying to not let it bother her.  “It’s not like we are really friends. You saved Grant and me from that house full of zombies and I appreciate that.  You saved my life.” She took a step away from us, but paused. “I just don’t have any family left alive and all my friends are dead.  I thought we were friends now.”

I sighed.  “It’s not like that.  Okay, you two can stay too, but you have to promise not to say anything to anyone else.  Kenzie, you can’t even tell Vicky and Monica you can’t tell Grant or his dad.” I wasn’t sure I could trust Monica, but so far she had helped us fight off zombies, she had shot one of those men that had threatened the group and helped out in general.  

“I promise,” she said.  “I can keep secrets. Ask, Tanya.  Oh. Nevermind. She’s dead. For a moment it felt like we were back in highschool.”  

“And I won’t tell Vicky,” Mackenzie said.  

We sat down among the brush and foliage.

“So,” I said, “you know how I have a crush on Hunter?”

“Yes,” Mackenzie said.  She rolled her eyes.

Maria nodded, but Monica said, “I didn’t know you had a crush on Hunter.  Isn’t he gay?”

“That’s just a rumor,” Maria said.

“It’s not just a rumor,” I said.  “He confirmed it. He’s gay.”

Monica reached over and patted my leg gently.  She was nice. Why was she dating Grant? I almost asked that out loud, but that would have to wait.  I wanted to talk about my issue first.

“Oh,” Maria said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Did you confess to him and he turned you down?” Monica asked.

“Not exactly,” I said.  I looked at each of them in the eye.  “This really has to stay between us. It isn’t just about me, but I’m not sure what to do or how I’m supposed to be handling this.”  All three of them nodded. “I asked him directly if he was gay and he said he was. Then I asked him if he has a crush on Darren.”

All of their eyes went wide.

“Darren?” Monica asked.  “The Darren that is traveling with us right now?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What did he say?” Maria asked.

“He said yes.”

“What made you ask specifically about Darren?” Mackenzie asked.

“Just when the three of us were alone together, I noticed how Hunter would look at Darren.  How he would protect him.”

“He protects you too,” Mackenzie offered helpfully even though it wasn’t helpful.

“He does like he would with his sisters,” I said.  “Not the same way as he does with Darren.”

“I see why you wanted to keep it secret,” Monica said.  “Don’t worry, we won’t let Darren find out.”

“Darren knows,” I said.  “There is more.” They waited patiently for me as I took in a deep breath.  “It turns out Darren has a crush on me. But I can’t get rid of my crush on Hunter even knowing he is gay.  What do I do?”

“The three of you talked about all this while you were out there?” Maria asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Just briefly. Darren asked what we should do and Hunter said nothing.  He said he should just remain the friends we are. But it hurts. It hurts watching Hunter look at Darren the way I want him to look at me.  And if I’m hurting like this, then Darren is hurting too by the way I look at Hunter and Hunter hurts by the way Darren looks at me. Is there really nothing we can do?”

“Threesome,” Monica immediately said.  Maria gasped shocked.

“What’s that?” Mackenzie asked.

“Nothing,” Maria quickly said, “because that is inappropriate.”

“Who says?” Monica said.  “We don’t live in the same world we did a few weeks ago and even then, if you’re consenting adults, who’s to say it’s inappropriate?”

“They’re not adults though,” Maria pointed out.

“Maybe seventeen is the new adult age,” Monica said.  “Maybe it’s sixteen. It can be whatever we want it to be.  In case you hadn’t noticed, the world is in ruins. We can set up our own civilization however we want to.”

“I guess that’s true,” Maria said hesitantly.

“What’s a threesome?” Mackenzie asked again.

“It means all three of them can love each other,” Monica said.  “They don’t have to pair off.”

“Oh,” Mackenzie said.  “That sounds like a great solution.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I said.  “I’m not going to say it’s wrong in this new world or whatever, but it just doesn’t feel right for me, Hunter and Darren.  I can’t even picture it.”

“Okay,” Monica said.  “Maybe it’s like Hunter says and nothing needs to change or be done about it.  Maybe once we meet up with your brother and Hunter’s sister and start our own civilization someone new will come along that you can fall in love with.  Maybe there will be someone new for each of you.”

I nodded.  “That would make sense.  Thanks, Moni.” I didn’t mean to shorten her name like that.  It just came out, but her smile seemed to light up the quickly darkening woods so I assumed that meant she liked it.

“Since we are revealing secrets,” Monica said.  “Don’t you guys think Richard is kind of cute?”

“Richard?” Maria asked in disbelief.  “The Richard traveling with us who is overweight and was wearing a Jedi costume when we rescued him from that room?”

“What’s wrong with his weight?” Monica asked offended.  “He has fought of zombies and stood in front of us to protect us when those men showed up.  And it’s so sweet how he takes care of Marcos as if he was his own son.”

“I didn’t mean anything by his weight,” Maria said.  “I’m just surprised. I thought your type was someone built like Grant.”

Monica shrugged.  “I don’t really have a type I think.”

“So are you going to dump Grant and go for Richard?” I asked because I would be all for that.  Maybe we could kick Grant and his dad out of the group then. No. We wouldn’t do that unless they did something truly horrible.  Putting them out on their own would be like a death sentence with how cowardly they both were.

“No,” Monica said.

“Maybe a threesome,” Maria teased her.

And Monica blushed as her eyes got distant.  “I just imagined it,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind it, but I don’t think either of them would like that.”

“No,” Mackenzie, Maria and I said at the same time.  Then we laughed.  

I didn’t see or hear her, but suddenly Molly was in the middle of us spinning and licking each of our faces.  I reached up and patted her soft back.

“What are you girls laughing about?” Darren’s mom asked as she and Victory came walking up to us.

“It’s a secret,” Mackenzie said.

“You’re keeping secrets from me?” Victory asked.  She was clearly offended.

Mackenzie sprang to her feet and went to console Victory.  “I can tell her Monica has a crush on Richard can’t I?” she asked us.

“Kenzie!” I scolded.

“Sorry,” she said.  “It just came out. I didn’t mean to say it.”  Why had I told her anything? She wasn’t known for keeping secrets.

“You have a crush on Richard?” Victory asked.  “But you’re dating Grant.”

“Yeah,” Darren’s mom said, “I’m all for you breaking up with Grant and going for Richard instead.”

“I didn’t say I have a crush on him,” Monica said.  We all stood. “I just said he was cute.”

“I don’t see the difference,” Victory said.

“Me neither,” Mackenzie said.

“We came out here because it has been awhile since you left the camp and we were starting to get worried,” Darren’s mom said.  “We also have to go to the bathroom.”

“We’ll go back to the camp now,” I said.  Darren’s mom and Victory continued on their way.  Molly followed them. The rest of us went back to the camp.

Chapter 30 .

Mackenzie

It was freezing even with Victory on one side of me and Arthur on the other and the two little boys in front of us with Molly trying to spread herself over all of us.  We had sleeping bags and blankets wrapped around us, but the blankets had got wet in the slush. At least with the sunlight, it was warming up slightly. The previous night had been miserable.  None of us except for Juan and Marcos got any sleep. And I had been scared those men would come back to find us no matter how many times Victory reassured me that they weren’t.

“Are you going to go look for my sister now?” I asked Richard.  He paced back and forth underneath the trees.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Stop pacing,” Grant’s dad said.  “You’re driving me crazy.” Richard ignored him.  Grant, his dad and Monica sat huddled together. They had sleeping bags wrapped around them too.  

Maria and Darren’s mom had gathered sticks and were trying to start a fire, but everything was wet and the fire wasn’t catching.  We had cold soup for breakfast. The cold soup didn’t taste good, but I ate it because I was starving. Molly didn’t seem to mind it.  She thought it was delicious by the way her tail wagged when we gave her some.

“But you said yesterday you would go look for them if they didn’t return,” I said.  “You and Maria.”

“That was before we knew about those other men,” Richard said.  “I’m afraid if we leave to find Lily, Hunter and Darren that those men will come back.”

“But how is my sister going to find us?”  I stood up, but regretted it when the cold washed over me.  I sat back down between Victory and Arthur and wrapped the sleeping bag around me.  Marcos cuddled up to my legs. I patted his head with my gloved hand.

“They’ll find us,” Victory said.  All of us looked at her, but she didn’t speak anymore.

“Face it,” Grant’s dad said, “the chances of them finding us are slim.  We should move on. It’s dangerous to stay in one place too long. Those men might find us, or the zombies.  At the very least, if we get moving it will warm up our bodies a little bit.”

“It won’t be hard for them to find us,” Victory said.  “We are following the freeway to the diner. They know that.”

“Fine,” Grant’s dad said.  “Then what are we waiting for?  Let’s get moving to the diner. They’ll catch up to us.”

Victory narrowed her eyes at him, but he didn’t seem to care.  I didn’t like all this conflict.

“Maybe if we keep going,” Monica said, “we’ll get out of this slush.  It can’t be good for any of us.”

Richard and Maria looked to Darren’s mother.  She stood up and stretched out her back. “I don’t want to leave yet without Darren here,” she said.  “But they do know where we are headed. We can’t stay here.”

“See,” Grant’s dad said.  He stood up and gathered up the sleeping bag.  The rest of us followed his example. Soon we were all packed up and walking further away from where we had left my sister and the others.

We had walked for about a half hour before Marcos said, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

“We should probably all go,” Darren’s mom said.  

“Let’s go,” Richard said and held out his hand to Marcos.  Marcos hopped to his side and took his hand while Juan and Arthur followed.  Molly followed Arthur. Grant and his dad went off on their own, but not that far away from Richard.

Darren’s mom led the rest of us in the opposite direction further in the woods.

“Hey,” Monica said to me.  “I know you packed toothpaste and soap and stuff which I think we’re all grateful for.”  Maria nodded her head. “You might be too young for this still, but did you happen to pack any tampons or pads?”  Monica asked.

“Oh,” Darren’s mom said.

“I packed some because I thought Lily might need some and she never thinks about that sort of thing,” I said.  I rummaged through my backpack and handed her the pads.

“Thank you,” Monica said and hugged me.  “You’re a lifesaver.”

We split up on our own from there, but close enough we could still watch each other’s backs.

“Do you need some pain pills?” Darren’s mom asked Monica as we walked back.  She put her arm around Monica’s shoulders.

“I’m okay right now,” Monica said.

“We have some with the first aid kits if you need some,” Darren’s mom said.

“We should probably save that for when someone really needs it,” Monica said.

“I guess next time someone goes into a town for supplies, one  of us should go with them to pick up these sorts of supplies,” Maria said.  “Especially if Lily is just going to forget about it.”

“And maybe,” I said, “never mind.”

“Maybe what, dear?” Darren’s mom asked.

“It’s silly,” I said.

Darren’s mom patted the top of my head.  “Maybe silly is what we need right now.”

“I was going to say, maybe the next time someone went into town for supplies they could pick up face paint or makeup.  My sister is an expert at it and it’s fun. I kinda miss it even though Halloween wasn’t that long ago.” I didn’t really get to have too much fun with it on Halloween night as that was the night the world changed and my parents died.  I pushed that thought away before I started to cry.

“I think that’s a great idea,” Darren’s mom said, “and some school supplies.”

We all looked at her like she was crazy.  

“Paper, pencils, crayons,” she said.  “Something for Marcos and Juan to do.”

“I miss drawing,” Monica said.

“I wish we could get a flute or a guitar too,” Maria said, “but that would probably attract the zombies.”

“Finally,” Grant’s dad said when we got back.  Juan and Marcos were running around giggling while Arthur chased them with a wide smile on his face.  Molly ran circles around all of them. Her tail wagged excitedly. Arthur stopped and grew serious when he saw me and Victory.  Maybe he thought we wouldn’t want him playing like a little boy. I didn’t mind. In fact, I wanted to join in too, but Grant’s dad would probably say we didn’t have time for that.

Monica and Grant smiled at each other.  Monica went back by his side and he put an arm around her shoulders.  Maria rolled her eyes and turned her back to them.

“Finally?”  Darren’s mom said.  “We went to the bathroom and came back.”

“It took a long time,” Grant’s dad said.

Darren’s mom shook her head, but didn’t say anymore.  She started walking again. Marcos ran to her and took her hand.  Richard took the rear. Victory and I slowed down so we were walking beside him.

“Do you think my sister and the others are alright?” I asked Richard.

He smiled and patted my head.  “I’m sure they are,” he said.

“They are,” Victory said with surety.  

“How can you know for sure?” I asked her because I wanted to believe her more than anything, but they had been gone for a long time.

“I just know,” she said.

That wasn’t the reassurance I was hoping for.  The day warmed and the slush melted. I kept looking back hoping my sister would just pop out of the trees behind us, but that didn’t happen.

Occasionally a zombie would moan somewhere in the distance, but not close by.  Marcos started to sing a song too loudly, but Darren’s mom shushed him. I couldn’t see his face from where I was in the back, but his tiny shoulders drooped sadly.

“We can sing it, Marcos,” Darren’s mom said, “but let’s try to sing it as quietly as we can.”

Marcos perked up and began to sing it with her very softly.  Arthur ended up in the back beside me. Maria stayed in the front so she could help defend the children if zombies or those men showed up.

Victory stopped and turned around to face the trees behind us.  I stopped and looked, but I didn’t see anything. Arthur and Richard stopped too.  Molly gave an excited bark and ran back. Victory ran as fast as she could following Molly. 

Hunter came out of the trees, riding a bike and guiding a second bike alongside him.  My chest filled with relief, but I was still anxious because I didn’t see Lily.

Hunter scrambled off the bike when he saw Victory running to him.  She ran into his arms and he picked her up to hug her close even though she was almost thirteen.

And then Lily came through riding a bike and guiding a second one.

“Lily,” I cried probably louder than I should have.  Everything was right again and the worry I had been holding onto washed away.  I ran to her and wrapped my arms around her.

“Kenzie,” she said into my hair and held me close.

I felt the brush of wind as something rushed by me.  I looked to see Darren’s mom hugging Darren. And then Richard was there hugging both of them.  Maria reached me and Lily and hugged both of us. And then Arthur was there hugging the three of us and Molly was dancing around our feet.  Marcos and Juan were hugging Darren with Darren’s mom.

“You only brought back six bikes?” Grant’s dad asked.

“You’re still here?” Hunter asked.  “There was only three of us. The streets had zombies in them.  How were we supposed to bring back more?”

“We brought coats for everyone,” Darren said.  I was handed a red one. They also had other winter wear and soon we were all snuggled in coats, new socks, boots, gloves, scarves and hoods.  It was almost too warm now.

“What else did you get?” Grant’s dad ask.

“Weapons,” Darren said.  They started rifling through the bags strapped to the back of the bikes.

“Good,” Grant’s dad said.  “I want a gun.”

“You’re not getting a gun,” Hunter said.

Lily handed me a pistol and some ammunition.  I knew how to shoot it. My dad had taken me to the range a few times.  That didn’t mean I was comfortable using it.  

“You don’t get to dictate what I get,” Grant’s dad said.  He got close to Hunter. Really close. Like those standoffs you see in movies when the men are staring each other down.  Hunter didn’t back down from the older man.

“You don’t get a gun,” Hunter reiterated.  He held up a knife. My heart beat rapidly against my chest because I thought he was threatening Grant’s dad.  I wasn’t the only one either because everyone got really quiet. Marcos clung to Darren’s mom’s legs.

“You get a knife,” Hunter said and turned the knife to extend the hilt side to Grant’s dad.  Grant’s dad paused a moment, but took it. Hunter turned back to the packs to distribute the bows and arrows.

Grant’s dad stared at Hunter’s back with his knife still raised.  I froze because it almost seemed like Grant’s dad might stab Hunter in the back.  But Richard watched Grant’s dad carefully and he had his own knife ready in his hand.  Victory had her bow in her hand and was slowly reaching for an arrow as she watched Grant’s dad.  He noted these movements and then put his knife away and turned away from Hunter.

“You all seem alright,” Darren said.

“We are,” Maria said.

“While we were looking for you,” Lily said,  “we overheard some men talking about a group they had come across.  We thought it might be you. One of them said he had soup thrown at his face and one of them had been shot and the third one had been bitten by a dog.”  Lily looked down at Molly.

“That was us,” Maria said.  Her voice went cold. “I threw soup in his face when he grabbed me.”

“And I shot one of them,” Monica said.

I shuddered as I remembered the previous night’s events.  It made me sick to my stomach to think about.

“And Molly bit one,” Arthur said proudly.  He patted her head. Her tail thumped happily.

“The one who was shot turned into a zombie,” Hunter said.

“Was he bit by a zombie then?” Richard asked.

“We couldn’t get close enough to tell, but he must have been,” Hunter said.  “When we came upon them, they had rejoined a larger group of men. One of those men shot the zombie.  He seemed like the leader. They were only supposed to spy on us not confront us. We need to move faster away from here if we can.  I don’t want them to catch up with us.”

“The good thing is,” Lily said, “they don’t know that we now have additional weapons.”

“We can’t all ride those bikes,” Grant’s dad said.

“We might be able to if we double and maybe triple up,” Hunter said.  “We can pack them up with our supplies. 

We paired off to ride the bikes.  Grant’s dad driving with Arthur. I didn’t like that.  I worried about Arthur’s safety. Darren and Darren’s mom drove Marcos.  Richard and Maria took a bike with Juan riding with them. Grant and Monica took the fourth one.  Hunter and Victory took the fifth and Lily and I took the last bike.

Hunter and Victory led the way to the diner.  I clung to my sister’s back glad that we were all together again.  The only thing that would make it better was if Tanner and Grace were with us too.

Chapter 29 .

Lily

Darren and I both took a step towards the red slush.  Hunter grabbed both of our wrists and shook his head. Darren pointed fervently at the red.  Hunter shook his head and started to pull us back to where we left our bikes.

But I had to know if that was my sister’s blood or Maria’s or anyone else’s in our group.  I refused to let him pull me back.

Hunter frowned in frustration before he held up one finger and then put both his hands together in front of him in prayer style.  He motioned back to the direction where we left our bikes and held up one finger again. He took a step backwards towards the bikes while Darren and I watched him.  He took a second step back.

Darren and I followed him.  When he saw that we were both following, he turned and walked forward back to the bikes.

As soon as we got back to the bikes, Darren whispered, “We have to follow that blood trail.  What if someone in our group is hurt? What if it is my mom or one of your sisters? Or Richard or Maria or anybody?”

“This is going to sound weird,” Hunter said, “but you know how sometimes twins have a connection like one will know if the other one is hurt.  I have that with my sisters even though we’re not twins. It’s stronger with Victory than it is with Grace.”

“So you know it’s not Victory that is hurt?” I asked.

“Not that exactly,” he said.  “I can’t tell if she’s hurt or not.  I can tell that she isn’t in that direction.  She’s that way.” He pointed in the direction to the diner.  “Both of my sisters are that way.”

“How far away?” Darren asked.

Hunter shook his head.  “I can’t tell distances.  Just that she is that way.”

“Hunter,” I said.  “Even if she is that way, it doesn’t mean the others are.  Our party could have easily been split when the zombies came.  We need to follow that blood trail to be sure. I need to know Mackenzie is safe.”

“I agree with Lily,” Darren said.  “There wasn’t any sign of blood going in the direction Victory is in so we can assume she is safe, but we have no idea about the others.  The only thing we know is that there is a blood trail that goes off that way.” He waved his hand in a vague direction of where the blood trail was.  “If someone is hurt and we can help them, we need to. Like Lily said, what if it is her sister or my mom or either of those little boys? Once we find them, then we head to where Victory is.”

Hunter sighed, tilted his head to the sky and closed his eyes.  “Fine,” he said. “But let’s hide the bikes and our supplies first.”  

We took the bikes into the woods.  I took out a pistol and ammunition from the bag I had collected from the weapons store.  We might need it. I loaded the gun and tucked it away in a holster I had also got at the weapon store.  I still had my ax and would use that first. The gun was only for a last resort. It would be loud and we didn’t need to draw anymore zombies to us.  

Darren collected some knives from the bag he had got from the weapon store and Hunter grabbed a bow and several arrows as well as a quiver.  The rest of the items we left on the bikes. We pushed the bikes into an area with thick bushes, pines and foliage. Then we fluffed up the boughs of the pines and the bushes and foliage to make it look like it had never been disturbed.  Hunter led the way back to where our old camp had been. We skirted around it to avoid the groaning zombies inside.

Hunter found the blood trail beyond the camp and we followed it.  The slush began to melt away as the day went on and the sun was higher in the sky.  I was worried we would lose the trail once the slush was all melted. Some of the foliage had been smashed down as if something or someone had been dragged over it.

My heart began to beat a little more rapidly.  If one of our group had been hurt badly enough that they had to be dragged away, maybe they were dead already or a zombie.  I pushed that thought away because I wasn’t sure I could handle it if Mackenzie was a zombie. The thought of it made me sick to my stomach.  It made my fingers tingle and my brain go numb.

The sounds of the zombies retreated behind us.  The trail led us over the empty freeway and further into the woods on the other side.  I was beginning to think this was a mistake. Our group wouldn’t venture over the freeway would they?  Maybe they would if they were being chased by zombies. I briefly wondered if the blood wasn’t one of our group members, but maybe a zombie itself.  Except from what I had seen, zombies didn’t bleed like normal people did because they were already dead. And zombies didn’t run away from other zombies.  They would chase people, but if that had been the case, the rest of the zombies would have chased after the people too so it must have been a person that had been hurt.

We continued on through the woods on the other side.  Hunter stopped beside us and tilted his head slightly.

“What . . .?”  Darren began, but Hunter held up a finger to his lips and Darren instantly went quiet.

I strained my ears listening, but I didn’t hear anything.

“Idiots,” a voice said.  I froze thinking we had been discovered by a stranger, but quickly realized the voice was too far away to be addressing us.

Hunter quietly crept forward.  Darren and I followed him.

A zombie groan made us freeze.  It was somewhere ahead of us.

“Why did you bring him back?” the same voice that had said idiots earlier spoke again.

We continued forward using the trees for cover.

“He’s our brother,” another man said.

The zombie moaned again.  It was just up ahead now. Hunter crouched low to the ground first and motioned for me and Darren to follow.  We did. Through the tree branches and foliage I could see a group of men and one zombie tied to a tree. The zombie’s shirt around his abdomen was covered with blood.  It had dripped and spilled down his pants and shoes. That was probably where all the blood had come from. He probably hadn’t been a zombie when the blood trail had first been made.  It was probably only after he had been tied to the tree that he became a zombie.

“He’s not your brother,” the first man said.  He pointed a gun directly at the zombie’s head.  A gun shot rang out through the woods and the zombie slumped dead in its ropes.

“Why did you do that?” one of the men asked.

The man who had just shot the zombie rolled his eyes.  “Tell me how a simple scouting mission ends up with one of you as a zombie?” he directed his question to the two men standing in front of him.  One of the men’s face was horribly red with growing blisters. The other man had a bloody bandage wrapped around his wrist.

The other men around them were interested in the conversation, but didn’t interfere.  I counted eleven of them, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more somewhere else. I didn’t see any of our group members.  That was a relief, but it also meant we had made the wrong decision based on my idea. We should have just followed Hunter’s lead and gone to where Victory was.

“That bitch shot him,” the man with the bandage around his wrist said.

“And the other one did this to me,” the one with the red, blistered face pointed to his face.

“You weren’t supposed to confront them,” the man with the gun said.  “You were just supposed to get their numbers and report back. Now they know we are out here.”

“No,” the man with the bandaged wrist said, “they think it’s just us.  They don’t know about the rest of you. We can still get them. Kill the men and take the women as ours.”

I grabbed Hunter’s leg in our crouched positions.  They had been in our camp. That meant they were talking about our group this way.  They were talking about my sister this way. My fingers dug into the thick material of his pants.  His hand came over mine and squeezed. I didn’t realize at first that Darren had grasped my forearm of my other arm until Hunter looked over at him.  These men were talking about Hunter’s sister and Darren’s mom this way too. And they so easily spoke of killing Richard, Grant and Grant’s dad. I didn’t like Grant or his dad, but that didn’t mean I wanted them to die.  And what was their intention with the three boys. Did they consider them part of the men that should be killed?

“So how many men?” the man with the gun asked.

“Three men, three boys and five women,” the man with the blistered face said.  They didn’t really just count my twelve year old sister and Hunter’s twelve year old sister as women did they?  I wanted to kill them.

“And a dog,” the man with the bandaged wrist said.

“And where are they now?” the man with the gun asked.

The other two men looked at each other.  “They ran off.”

“You let them get away after they did this to your brother?  After you let them know you exist?” The man pointed to the dead zombie with his gun and shook his head.  “Idiots.”

“You weren’t there,” the man with the bandaged wrist said.  “The zombies were coming. The one girl threw hot soup in his face,” he indicated the man with the blistered face.  “The dog bit me. The other girl shot our brother.” Which girl shot them? Probably Monica as she had the gun. So which girl threw hot soup?  She had to have been close to him for his face to look that bad. And Molly. It was good to know we could count on her. It was strange, but I was proud of a dog.  

“It started to snow or rain or whatever the hell that was,” the man went on, “and then lightning struck right in front of us.”

Hunter did a sharp intake.

“Lightning right in front of you?  I didn’t see any lightning last night or heard any thunder.  You better find them again or at the very least, another group just as profitable and when you do, don’t confront them, just come tell the rest of us.  Idiots.” The man with the gun walked away.

Hunter nodded back in the direction we had come from.  We quietly retreated. We made our way back through the woods, over the freeway, skirted around our old camp until we got back to our bikes.  They were safely hidden away where we left them.

“I never should have gone into that stupid RU in place,” Darren said as we retrieved the bikes.  “If I hadn’t, we would have been back at the camp with them when all that happened.”

“Actually,” Hunter said, “maybe it’s for the best.  Those men don’t know the three of us exist. As of right now they are underestimating our group.  They don’t know we have more weapons now or bicycles. Let’s get back to the others and get away from here as fast as we can.”

I was all for that.  I couldn’t wait to see Mackenzie and be back on the trail to get to Tanner and Grace.

Chapter 28 .

Lily

It was cold as we stepped out into the morning light.  There was a thin layer of slush all around us. It was cold enough that the slush wouldn’t melt, but not cold enough for it to turn into ice.  Darren and I immediately pulled our jackets around us tighter. I slid my gloved hands up and down my arms in an effort to get warm. Our breath came out in little puffs in the cold air.  Hunter seemed unbothered by it.

The streets were quiet except for the occasional moan in the distance.  The sky was a clear blue except for a few sparse clouds drifting away. I hoped my sister didn’t freeze in this weather.  They had been out in it all night, not sheltered like we had been.

“We should get some winter wear somewhere,” Darren said as he hugged himself.  “And enough for everyone back at camp.”

“And I still think we should get some bikes,” Lily said, “even if we can’t get enough for everyone.  We can pack more on the bikes.”

“Okay,” Darren agreed, “since we are already here,” he waved to the bike store.  “Although, I don’t like being this close to…that other place.” He purposefully turned his back to the sign that said RU in?

The glass door had been knocked off the hinges of the bicycle shop.  Shards of glass were splattered everywhere. Bikes were knocked over and it was clear that some were missing from their displays.  While we looked at the bikes, I said, “Did you know who those people were, Hunter?”

“No,” he said.  He crouched low inspecting the wheels on one of the bikes.  “Why?”

“You seemed to know what to say to them – how to protect me and Darren.”

He stood up and went to the next bike, but both myself and Darren were watching him.  “It was instinct,” he said.  

Darren and I exchanged a glance.

“Let’s get these ones,” Hunter said and began to pull bikes from the racks.  “We should also get some bike repair supplies while we are here.” He pointed to an area across the store.  I left Hunter and Darren as they retrieved the bikes. I grabbed a duffle bag from a display stand and began to fill it with supplies – an air pump, extra bike chains, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, duct tape, zip ties and anything else I thought we might need.  I also put in some extra water bottles and some trail mixes. The bag was heavy when I was done.

When I got back to Darren and Hunter, they were tying their packs with the weapons we had gathered the day before to the bikes.  Hunter took the heavy duffle bag from me and began to tie it on one of the bikes. I began to tie down the bag I had with the guns and ammunition.

We took the bikes one at a time out to the empty street until all six bikes that Hunter had selected were on the street.  We could each ride a bike, use one hand to steer it and the other to guide an extra bike.

“Do you know where we can get coats?” Darren asked quietly.

“We passed a place on our way here,” Hunter said.  “Let’s go.”

He led the way back behind the weapon store.  It wasn’t easy to ride the bikes through the slush and grass.  It was slow going. My muscles tired quickly, but I kept going.  There were less zombies along the streets than the previous day. I wasn’t sure why that was.  Maybe because of the slush – except the few we had seen didn’t seem bothered by it. Maybe because Hunter and I had killed some on the weapon store.  Maybe other people killed some too. Or maybe they were drawn elsewhere.

Hunter stopped behind one of the buildings.  We got off the bikes and leaned them up against the building.  Hunter tried to open the back door, but it was locked.  

“Let’s go around to the front,” Darren said.

“What if someone steals our bikes while we’re gone?”

It wasn’t that far from the bike store and we could always go back, but we had already strapped our supplies to them.  We had spent so much time away from our group. I was worried about Mackenzie. It was dangerous for them to stay in one place for too long.  The zombies had more chances of coming upon them the more they stayed in one spot.

“You two stay here,” Hunter said.  “I will go in through the front and let you in.”

“By yourself?”  I asked. “You need to take one of us with you so you can watch each others backs.  There might be zombies in there.”

“But what if whoever is left out here encounters zombies?” he asked.  “You’ll need to watch each others backs.”

“This is an open space where we can run away from zombies,” I said.  “Inside you might be cornered. You need to take one of us.”

“I’ll go with you,” Darren volunteered.  

And I remembered how Hunter reacted when he had to hold Darren back earlier.  I wasn’t sure before if the rumors about Hunter being gay were true. I did know that he never looked at me the way I wanted him to.  He never looked at me the way he had looked at Darren not too long ago. I wasn’t 100% sure, but I was pretty sure. And it hurt. A lot.  More than I was willing to admit.

Hunter looked between me and Darren before he sighed and said, “Fine, but Lily, at the first sign of trouble, run.”

I nodded.  They rounded the building together and I was alone with the bikes.  I leaned back against the wall. I already knew Hunter wouldn’t look at me the way I wanted him to.  It was better to let my feelings go. It was better to focus on getting back to Mackenzie and then getting to the diner where we could reunite with Tanner.  But feelings were not so easy to change even if I knew Hunter couldn’t love me. Stinging tears moistened my eyes. I blinked them away.

I turned my focus to listening for any sounds coming from inside the building or outside it.  It was quiet. I gripped the handle of my ax tighter. There was a metallic click and then the door beside me opened.  Darren opened the door. He came out and started to pull in a bike.

“Where’s Hunter?” I asked.

“He’s looking at the coats in the kids section.  There are four kids in our group who will need them.  You should go look in the women’s section. I’ll finish pulling in these bikes and then go to the men’s section.”

“Have you checked the entire store to make sure it’s clear?” I asked.  I helped to pull in the bikes.

“Yes,” he said.  “We killed two zombies.  It sounds like there is one in the back office, but the door is locked so we just left it there.”

I nodded and headed in.  He could pull in the last few bikes.  The lights were off, but the large windows at the front of the store and the smaller windows high on the walls everywhere else provided enough light that I easily found my way to the women’s section. 

The women’s section and child’s section were directly next to each.  Hunter was at the edge of the aisle looking at preteen girl’s coats. He had two coats draped over his arms that would fit the two little boys.  I went to the same aisle, but browsed the women’s coats. I pulled off a pink one that would fit Maria.

“Hunter,” I said.

“What?” he asked.  He pulled off a white, puffy coat and slung it over the boys coats draped over his arm.

“Can I ask if that rumor about you being gay is true?”

He stopped and looked at me.  I avoided his gaze as I pulled a gray coat from the rack that I thought would fit Darren’s mom.

“Will it change things if it is?”

I finally looked at him.  “No,” I said. I would still have my crush on him that I couldn’t seem to get rid of.  He would still be my friend. He would still be my companion in this zombie apocalypse.

“It’s true,” he said.  He turned back to the coats and pulled a red one from the rack.  “Do you think this will fit Mackenzie?”

“Yes,” I said.  I grabbed a light blue coat for Monica.  “Can I ask you another question?”

“Might as well,” he said.

I grabbed a green coat for me in my size before I turned to Hunter.  “Do you have a crush on Darren?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.  “It doesn’t matter though.  He has a crush on you.”

I wasn’t sure how to take this news.  I had never thought of Darren that way.  I wasn’t sure I could. “But I have a crush on you,” I said equally quiet.

“I know,” he said.

There was a noise to my left.  I looked with my hand already on the handle of my ax, but it wasn’t a zombie or a stranger.  It was Darren. Had he heard our conversation? I hadn’t meant him to. I had only wanted it to be a conversation between me and Hunter.

There was a long silence.  “I was going to the men’s section he said,” and pointed a hand beyond the two of us where the men’s section was.  “I didn’t mean to hear.”

I looked at Hunter worried he would be mad at me for revealing his crush to his crush.  Hunter’s eyes were only for Darren, waiting for judgement or hate or disgust or something.

“So . . .,” Darren said, “if we all have unrequited crushes on each other, what are we supposed to do?”

“Nothing,” Hunter said.  “We just remain the friends we already are.  What else can we be?”

Darren nodded at that.  “Okay,” he said. “I’m just going to start getting coats for the men.”  He walked in between me and Hunter and continued down the aisle.

“It doesn’t bother you that I like you?” Hunter asked Darren.

Darren turned back around to face us.  “It surprises me,” he said. “But it’s flattering.  You’re really cool. I don’t know why you would like me.  Does it bother you,” he said to me, “that I like you?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m sorry I don’t feel the same.”

Darren shrugged sadly.  “It’s okay. I know you know how it feels.  We all do. If you two are done getting your coats, you can help me get the coats for the rest of the group.”

It didn’t take us long to get coats for Richard, Grant, Grant’s dad – I still didn’t know his name, but I didn’t like him so I wasn’t even curious – Hunter and Darren.  Hunter of course chose a black coat. We grabbed thicker gloves for everyone and scarves, ski masks, snow boots, and thick socks. We loaded them to the bikes and continued on our way along the back of the buildings.  

We were able to avoid any zombies we saw from a distance and made our way back to the ramp to the freeway.  There were zombies groaning as we neared the camp. We froze. My heart went numb. My sister. Then my body tingled as my only thought was to save my sister.  Hunter grabbed my bike handle as I tried to speed passed them. He brought a finger to his lips urging me to be silent. Then he slowly, carefully got off his bike, lowered the kickstand on it and the other bike he had guided and then motioned for us to do the same.

Darren and I immediately complied.  Hunter led the way silently through the woods towards our camp.  He had his hunter’s knife in his hand. Darren had his kitchen knife in his and I had my ax out and ready.

We stopped when we saw the zombies shuffling ahead of us through the trees.  The zombies hadn’t spot us yet. Hunter motioned for Darren and I to stay put.  Then he took a step forward. I grabbed his wrist and shook my head when he looked back at us.  I motioned for all of us to stay together. Hunter shook his head. Darren reiterated my movements that we should all stay together.  Hunter sighed and led the way closer. We didn’t get too close, just close enough to see that none of the zombies were our group.

Darren gasped and pointed to the ground across the camp.  Mixed with the slush was red. Blood?

Chapter 27 .

Darren

Everything was a pleasant haze as I woke up.  I blinked my eyes open and knew I had to have more of that delicious drink.

“Are you okay?” Hunter asked.  He and Lily hovered over me. My wonderful new friends.  Hunter was so cool and Lily was beautiful. If only they could have noticed me while we were still in school.  We could have all been friends then. Lily’s bright eyes looked down at me with concern. Maybe she would be my girlfriend if I asked.  I giggled. It was too soon for that.

Hunter and Lily looked at each other.  “Is he drunk?” Lily asked. “I didn’t smell anything in that drink.”

Oh yeah.  The drink.  Honey and strawberries.  I needed more. I sat up and looked around.  I was on a sleeping bag in a room with a bunch of other sleeping bags and a few sleeping people.  There wasn’t anyone in here passing around the drinks though.

“I’m not sure,” Hunter said.

“I’m not drunk,” I said.  “You guys are funny.”

I could see a bean bag and candle through a small opening in a black curtain.  I began to crawl to the opening. Hunter grabbed the back of my shirt.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

I pointed.  “To get a drink.”

“No,” Hunter said.  “You’ve had too much to drink.”

“He’s been asleep for a long time,” Lily said.  “I thought he would be fine when he woke up.”

“Me too,” Hunter said.

“The others must be worried about us,” Lily said.  “I hope they don’t come looking for us. We need to get out of here and get back to them.”

“I agree,” Hunter said.  “Darren! Stop moving!”

I was trying to crawl to the opening despite his firm grip on my shirt.  Maybe I could slip out of it. I started to squirm and shift. The shirt lifted up along my back and stomach.  Now I just needed to stretch out my arms and off it would come.

His arms wrapped around my bare skin and pulled me to him.  I tried to get away. I pushed. I pulled. I squirmed. I tried to crawl away, but it didn’t matter what I did, because he was stronger than me.

“Darren!  Stop!” There was something in Hunter’s voice this time that made me pause and look at him.  His face was red, but I couldn’t tell if he was actually angry or not. I looked at beautiful Lily.  Her eyes shifted between me and Hunter figuring something out, but I didn’t know what. Hunter tugged my shirt back down when I stopped.

“I need to go back out there,” I said to get them to understand.  “I need more of that drink. I’m hungry.”

“If you’re hungry,” Lily said, “then you need food not that drink.  Here.” She pulled her pack around and took out some jerky. She offered it to me, but the sight of it made me sick to my stomach.  I didn’t want to refuse anything from her. Not her, but I was going to throw up if I kept looking at it.  

I pushed it gently away.  “Not that,” I said. “The drink.  I need the drink.”

Hunter collapsed to the floor as if my words had just sapped all his energy.  He rolled his eyes and sighed heavily.

“Darren,” Lily said.  She reached out and touched my arm.  My breath caught in the back of my throat.  It wasn’t skin on skin contact, because I had long sleeves on, but still this beautiful young woman was touching me.  Maybe there was hope for the two of us yet. “Are you listening to yourself?” she asked me.

That confused me.  Of course I was listening to myself.

The curtains opened and the woman with the long black hair walked in followed by a very tall, muscled man.  He might have been a bodybuilder before the zombie apocalypse happened.

“You’re awake,” she stated.  Lily and Hunter scooted so they sat in front of me.  The woman smiled, but it was strained, not the welcoming smile I had first been greeted with.  My friends were making her angry. Why couldn’t they just relax? These people were going to help us.  And the drink was really delicious.

“Can I have more to drink?” I asked.

Hunter’s and Lily’s heads swiveled to me looking at me in disbelief, but I couldn’t fathom what the problem was.  It was a delicious, yummy, delectable drink.

“Of course,” the woman said and her smile this time was genuine.

“No!” Lily and Hunter said at the same time.  I liked them, but I was beginning to hate them at the same time.  

“Lily, Hun . . .”  Hunter covered my mouth as if he didn’t want me to say his name.  I grabbed his wrist and removed his hand. “These nice people said they were going to help us.  Stop being rude to them.”

“How?” Lily asked me.

“What?” I asked.

“How are they going to help us?” she asked.  “Have they told you specifics because so far I’ve only seen them give you a drink that made you drunk and tired.”

“I’m not drunk,” I said, but she did have a point.  “How are you going to help us?” I asked the woman. The younger woman came in with a drink.  She smiled kindly at me and tried to hand me the drink. I reached out eagerly for it, but Hunter snatched it out of her hands and scowled at me.  “Relax,” I said to him and patted his shoulder.

I blinked at the woman with the long black hair waiting for her to answer how they were going to help.  She smiled, but it was strained again. “We can of course give you supplies if that’s what you want, but wouldn’t it be better to bring your group back here?  We could give them shelter and protection and all the food they would need.”

I nodded in agreement.  “And the drink,” I said. 

Her smile turned genuine now.  “Of course. We have plenty of that.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said.  “Lily, Hun . . .” Hunter covered my mouth again.  He took his hand away when I nodded that I wouldn’t say his name.  “Why don’t you two go get the rest of our group and bring them back here to safety?” I said.

“Darren,” Lily said, “you shouldn’t trust these people so easily.”

“They’re not going to hurt us,” I said.  I tried to reach for the cup in Hunter’s hand, but he lifted it up and away from me.  I hated being short.

“May I please have some privacy to speak with my friend?” Hunter demanded more than asked the woman.  Her eyes narrowed to slits and her lips pinched tight.  

The two stared at each other for a long moment before the woman said, “I don’t think that is a good idea.  You can speak to him with us here.”

They were being weird.  I just wanted a drink. Lily’s head swiveled worriedly between the woman and Hunter.

“In that case,” Hunter said, “I will go out there and start knocking down candles.  I will drag as many people out of here and onto the zombie infested streets as I can.  I will spit in the drinks you are passing around to people.”

“You think you can do all that before we stop you?” the woman asked.

“Do you want to see how much destruction I can cause before you can stop me?” he asked.  “Are you willing to risk that instead of just letting me talk to what is mine?”

I had forgotten.  The three of us had all said we were each others and I even got to hug Lily.  Hunter had been between us, but that didn’t really matter since I got to put my arms over hers.

I scooted between Lily and Hunter and put an arm around each of their shoulders.  “Ours,” I said. …I did sound a little drunk. Was their alcohol in that drink? But I was a minor.  They wouldn’t serve minors alcohol.

“Fine,” the woman said.  She got up and signaled for her companions to follow her.  When it was just us and the others who were sleeping soundly around us, Hunter turned so he was facing me directly.

He paused before he said to Lily, “Would you please go over there and make sure no one comes in.”  He indicated the curtains. Lily frowned, looked from Hunter to me and back again before she made her way over to the curtains.  She sat down sideways so she could still see us and the opening in the curtains. Hunter signaled for her to turn all the way around.  She sighed, but did as she was asked.

Hunter turned a little more so his back was fully to Lily.  Then he grabbed my knees and slid me along the sleeping bag so I was still directly in front of him.

“Darren,” he said to me.

“Yes?”

He put his hand on my shoulders and leaned in close to me.  “Darren,” he said again, “you need to snap out of this. Lily and I need you so we can all make it back.  Our siblings and friends need you. Your friend, Richard, remember? And your mother.”

“But these people said they can help.”

“They can’t help, Darren.”  He got even closer. His voice took on a commanding quality that held my full attention.  His gray eyes bore into mine like storm clouds overhead. I couldn’t ignore him even if I had wanted to.  I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t close off my ears.

“You can’t rely on anyone, but me, Lily, our siblings, Richard and your mother.  Understand? No one else. And most importantly you need to take care of yourself.  You need to rely on yourself to be able to take care of the rest of us. We need to have each other’s backs.  You don’t want anymore of their drink. You need food and water to survive. We have that. These people in this place are wrong.  Do you understand?”

I blinked as his eyes went back to brown.  My mind was cleared of a fog. I looked around processing where I was for the first time.  It was weird. I didn’t know these people. Why had I trusted them so easily? They hadn’t come to rescue me from that house like Lily and Hunter had.  These people hadn’t gone into Grant’s house with me to save my mother. It was Lily and Hunter who had always been with me. And Richard and my mother and everyone else…well maybe not Grant and his dad.

“You’re right,” I said.  Hunter let out a great breath I hadn’t realized he was holding.  “Let’s go,” I said. The craving for the drink was completely gone now.  I was only hungry. “Lily,” I said. She turned to us. “Can I have some of that jerky now?”

She smiled and said, “Of course,” she moved to retrieve it from her backpack.

Wait…had Hunter’s eyes been gray?  It wasn’t the first time I had thought his eyes had been gray.  It must have been my imagination though because eyes didn’t just change color in that way.

I quickly devoured the jerky Lily handed me.  I looked around for my pack while I ate. It was next to the sleeping bag I had been sleeping on.  I searched through it quickly to make sure everything was still there. It was. I drank my water. It was refreshing.  It wet my dry mouth and soothed my throat. It was just what I needed.

“Ready?” Hunter asked me.  I nodded. He looked to Lily and she nodded.  “Let’s get out of here.”

I was more than ready to comply.  This place had felt welcoming before – like home.  Now it was foreign. I didn’t want to be here anymore.  Hunter led the way into the room with the beanbags and candles.  Lily and I stayed close behind him.

“Would you like that drink now?” the woman with the black hair asked.  She had seemed friendly before, but now there was something menacing about her.  Why had I trusted a stranger?

“We’re going to leave now,” Hunter said.  He grabbed both my wrist and Lily’s wrist and tugged us to the door.

“But we can help you,” the woman said to me as she stepped in front of Hunter.

“We can help ourselves,” I said.  “Thanks for letting us sleep here.  We’ve really got to get back to our group now.  There are people waiting for us.”

The woman frowned.  It caused my heart to jump because she was suddenly terrifying.  Lily brought her ax out in front of her. When I saw that, I took out my knife.  I didn’t think we could fight our way through all these people, but if Lily was going to try I was going to try with her.

The woman’s eyes bored into Hunter’s for several long agonizing moments before she gave the fakest smile I had ever seen on anyone.  She stepped aside and let us go to the door.

“Don’t let us catch you here ever again,” the woman said as Hunter pushed the door open.  “Next time we won’t be so cordial.”

Interlude 3

The In

“Everything is going as planned,” the underling informed them.  “Phase 2 was a complete success.”

“As expected,” the Mistress said.  “How are the clubs going?”

“A few of the clubs have had unexpected and unwanted guests, but nothing that we can’t handle.  Nothing that has interfered with the clubs. The clubs attract more and more everyday. Some are useless.  Some are useful. We grow more powerful.”

“Good,” the Mistress said.  “Has anyone approached us yet for negotiations?”

“No,” the underling said.  “Most don’t realize how powerful we’ve become.  They still think we are hiding away, obeying the government laws.”

The others laughed.  “Good,” the Mistress said.  “They won’t realize how strong we’ve become until it is too late to stop us.”

Chapter 26 .

Tanner

“Stay away from the windows,” Todd whispered.  He grabbed Camila’s forearm and pulled her away from the nearest window.  Groaning came from just outside the window, outside the door and from upstairs.  Zombie fists pounded on the door behind me and Grace. Footsteps came from the floor above us.  A moment later and the loud footsteps and groaning were on the stairs.  

Five zombies – three adults and two children – came rushing down the stairs, tripping over each other in their rush to get to us.  The children were still in tattered Halloween costumes. Grace lifted her bow and arrow and shot the charging adult male zombie in the head.  He tumbled to the ground. The two adult zombies behind him – a man and woman – tripped over him. The children zombies ran around them.

The little girl we had rescued from the car, cried and hid behind Camila.  The zombies pounding on the door behind us grew louder. Pounding started on the windows.  Dr. Higgins stabbed the zombie boy in the head. Dr. Patel stabbed the zombie girl. I looked away.  It was too difficult seeing small children like that even if they were zombies. 

Todd and I stepped up between the professors to take care of the two adult zombies that were groaning and shambling to their feet.  Todd plunged his knife in the back of the zombie man’s head. I swung my bat hard into the zombie woman’s skull. She crumpled to the ground at my feet.

Glass shattered nearby and a zombie started to climb in through the nearby window.  Grace quickly stepped up and stabbed it in the temple with her screwdriver. She left the zombie where it was halfway through the window and then quickly closed the curtains.  The rest of us went through the room quickly closing all the curtains.

“She’s not breathing,” the little girl from the girl screamed.  She was on her knees next to the couch and her sister. She shook her sister’s shoulders and screamed, “She’s not breathing!”

“Shhh,” several of us shushed her and Camila covered the little girl’s mouth with her hand for emphasis.  The little girl had tears streaming down her face. She pointed at her sister urgently, but didn’t talk anymore.

The zombie groans outside picked up again.  There were a few loud knocks on the door, but not as many as before.  Dr. Patel rushed to the older girl on the couch. He bent low with his ear over the girl’s nose and mouth.  He put a finger up to her nose, then he put two fingers on the girls neck to feel for a pulse. He felt around in different spots and then shook his head.  “There isn’t a heartbeat,” he whispered.

The younger girl started wailing.  Camila hugged her into her shoulder to muffle her sobs.

Dr. Patel waved Grace over by his side.  She immediately complied. He started doing chest compressions.  After he had done a few, he paused and indicated for Grace to breathe into the girl’s mouth.  Grace held the girl’s nose, tilted the head slightly back, dropped the jaw and breathed into her mouth.  They repeated this process for several long moments. Nothing happened. The girl didn’t move. Her heartbeat didn’t return miraculously.  She didn’t start breathing.

The zombies quieted outside during this process.  I hoped that meant they were leaving, but didn’t dare open a curtain to check.

Dr. Patel finally broke away from the older girl and shook his head.  The younger girl clung to Camila and cried, but at least her cries were silent now.  Camila stroked her hair and rocked the girl that was Mackenzie’s age back and forth.

“But it was only a broken leg,” Connor whispered.  I put a hand on his shoulder. He was pale and wrung his hands together tightly.  I hoped he didn’t blame himself. He had done what he could to save her.

Dr. Patel shook his head.  His voice was quiet when he answered.  “She might have had internal bleeding somewhere.  Even if there was internal bleeding around the break in the leg, it could cause a blood clot or other complications.  It would be difficult to determine internal bleeding without taking her to the hospital and I doubt hospitals are up and running right now.”

Dr. Patel reached over and patted the younger girl on top of her head, “What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Hailey,” the girl managed to get out.

Dr. Patel nodded.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “We’ll take care of you. We won’t let anything happen to you.”

The girl’s bottom lip quivered.  She reached out and took her dead sister’s hand.  I really hoped both of my sisters were all right and that they had found our parents.  As if knowing my thoughts, Grace took my hand in hers and squeezed it.

Dr. Higgins tapped me on the shoulder.  Todd stood beside him. Dr. Higgins indicated with a slight nod of his head that I should follow him.  I brought Grace with me still hand in hand. We found the kitchen and began to look for supplies. Dr. Higgins and Todd went to look for supplies further in the house.

Grace and I took out all the canned and dried food and set them out on the counters.  We found matches and candles, took out the can opener and some silverware, some pans we would be able to use over a fire.  Todd and Dr. Higgins came back with some backpacks, camping supplies and more blankets.

We regrouped back in the living room with the others.  Dr. Smith and Camila both hugged Hailey while they sat on the floor next to the couch.  Connor still looked shook up. Dr. Patel sat next to Connor with a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“There is a back door,” Dr. Higgins whispered.  We didn’t hear any more groans outside. “The back looks clear.  I think we should find another way out of the town than the way we came in.  I’m sure that area is going to be crowded with zombies still.”

Dr. Patel nodded, “Let’s go,” he whispered in reply.

Dr. Higgins led the way to the back door.  It was silent outside. He opened the door, stuck his head out and looked in both directions before he led the way.  We went as silently as we could along the grass in the back and to the grass in the next house over. The only sounds were our feet in the grass, an occasional groan and the shuffling steps of zombies on nearby streets.

We paused when we reached the next street.  There were a few zombies down the street, but they had their backs turned to us.  We ran across the street as quietly as we could as a group. We went the next few blocks in a similar fashion until we reached a street with local businesses.  There were no zombies meandering on this street.

Dr. Higgins pointed to the camping supplies shop.  We started to head towards it when Grace grabbed my forearm and stopped me.

“What is it?” I whispered.  The others stopped with us.

Grace swallowed hard and pointed a little further down the street.  There was a cafe, but the words RU in? Had been spray painted over the cafe sign.  Black curtains had been drawn all along the windows.

“We should go there,” Dr. Smith said.

“No,” Grace said.  “We should avoid it at all costs.”

“I saw someone spray painting that when we were trying to leave town,” Hailey said.  “Maybe they are people who can help us.”

“We don’t need help,” Grace said.  Everyone but me looked at her like she was crazy.

“Don’t you get weird vibes from it?” Grace asked everyone, but mostly me.

“It does feel ominous,” I said.

“You just think that way because we’re in an apocalypse,” Camila said.  “But I’m getting good vibes from it.”

“Me too,” Dr. Smith and Hailey said at the time.

“I think we should check it out,” Dr. Patel said.

“I agree,” Connor said.

Dr. Higgins shrugged.  “I don’t feel one way or the other about it.  It wouldn’t hurt to check it out.”

“If everyone is voting,” Todd said timidly, “I think we should check it out too.”

Grace’s face fell and she closed her eyes tightly.

“We’ll stay close by the door,” I leaned in to whisper to her and only her.  “If we need to escape, we can do it quickly.”

She took in a deep breath and then nodded.

We stepped quietly to the cafe, always aware of our surroundings and watching for any zombies that might be lurking nearby.  We didn’t see or hear any.

The door wasn’t locked when Dr. Smith opened it.  She went inside followed closely by Hailey and then the others.  Grace and I were the last to enter.

I was surprised to see that all the tables and chairs had been removed.  It was dark inside except for the candles that were spread throughout the room giving off a pleasant aroma.  Beanbags were spread out over the floor. Some were occupied by people. Other people walked around serving drinks to those in the beanbags.  

“Welcome,” a man said with a pleasant voice as we entered.  “Find a seat. You are safe here. You don’t need to worry about anything.”  He ushered Dr. Smith carefully into one of the beanbags. “Get her a drink,” he said to a young woman.  The woman nodded and went off to get a drink.

“Please,” the man said to the rest of us, “find a seat.  Take a rest.” His face and pleasant voice faltered when he saw Grace.

“Am I welcome too?” she asked.  There was a challenge in her voice I hadn’t heard before.

“Do you want to be welcomed?” the man asked in a flat voice.

“We should leave,” Grace said.  “Now.” She snatched up a drink that had been meant for Camila and gave it back to the young man who had tried to hand it to Camila.

“Hey,” Camila complained, “it’s okay to relax for a moment.”

“It won’t be for a moment,” Grace said.  “Look. Already all of you are too comfortable.”

Dr. Smith took a sip of the drink that was handed to her.  Her face relaxed into a smile. “Delicious,” she muttered. Hailey sat in the beanbag next to Dr. Smith.  She quickly drank from the cup that was handed to her. She smiled for the first time and sunk into the beanbag.

“Don’t drink that!”  Grace snatched another cup from Todd.  He looked up at her confused from his beanbag.  Grace turned to me with desperate eyes and said, “Help me.”

I snatched the cups away from Dr. Higgins and Dr. Patel as she took the cup away from Connor.

“If you keep this up I will have to ask you to leave,” the man said to Grace.

“I’m fine leaving.  We’ll all leave.”

“I’m too old and tired,” Dr. Smith said.  “Just leave me here.” She took another drink.

“What’s the problem if we stay and relax for a moment?” Connor asked.

“My brother and sister are out there alone,” Grace said.  She snatched away another cup as it was handed to Connor. “They need me.  I thought all of you were going to help me reunite with them. And Tanner’s family.”

That made all of them pause for a moment except for Hailey who took another drink.

“You’re right,” Dr. Higgins said.  He stood back up and turned to the man who had first greeted us.  “Thank you for your hospitality,” he said, “but we really should be going.”

The others stood up with the exception of Dr. Smith and Hailey.

“Of course,” the man said with a fake smile and narrowed eyes directed at my girlfriend.  I stood in front of her to get his eyes off her. This place, these people, didn’t feel right.

“I’m going to stay here,” Dr. Smith said.

“Me too,” Hailey jumped in.

“But,” Grace started, but Dr. Smith interrupted her.

“I’m too old.  I’m slowing you down.  My body aches everywhere.  I can’t keep this up.”

“I’ll stay with her,” Hailey said.  “I don’t want to go back out there. It’s scary and all of my family are dead.”

“I think they’re right,” Dr. Patel said.  He hugged Dr. Smith and so did Dr. Higgins before they headed to the door.  The others followed, but I stayed where I was as I watched Grace. She bit her bottom lip and then went and crouched in front of Hailey.  

“If you ever feel like you are not yourself, leave this place,” she implored the girl.  “Leave immediately, please.”

Hailey nodded, but she was already drinking her next cup.  Grace and I followed the others to the door. My girlfriend looked one last time at Dr. Smith and Hailey.  There was a pained expression on her face, but she came with me when I tugged gently on her hand.

Chapter 25 .

Tanner

There were smears of blood along the asphalt and along the vehicles as we made our way back to the nearest town.  I pretended I didn’t notice the severed fingers near the tires of a car. I wasn’t sure if the others saw them and just pretended not to or if the others really didn’t see them.  Tension was in the air as we watched our surroundings for any sign of the zombies. We were silent except for our footsteps. We paused when we came upon the off ramp.  

There had been an accident here.  Several cars were smashed together.  Some of them still had bodies inside.  We didn’t get too close, but since the bodies were still and there were no zombie groans, I figured they were truly dead and not undead.  Until there was tapping on one of the car windows. In one of the backseats of a heavily damaged car were two girls. They looked similar in age to Mackenzie and it tore at my heart.  The older one – she seemed slightly older than Mackenzie, but younger than Lily – had dried blood on her forehead. The younger one who I guessed was Mackenzie’s age, had a large, bloody scrape on her chin.  There were unmoving bodies in the passenger’s and driver’s seat in the front. The girls were both crying as they tapped on the window. The driver’s side of the car was completely smashed against another car.  The girls couldn’t get out that way. And the back door on the passenger side was bent inwards as if another car had hit it. There was a rolled over SUV not too far away. Maybe it had hit their car and rolled away, or maybe it had hit their door in the process of rolling away.

I didn’t realize I moved towards them until Connor grabbed my forearm.  “Where are you going?”

“Shh,” several of those around us shushed him.

There was a zombie groan somewhere in the distance.  It was greeted by several others. They were all at a distance, but it was only a matter of time until they would arrive here to investigate the talking.

I pointed to the girls in the car.  We had to hurry and get them out. Connor released my arm and whispered, “Hurry.”

I sprinted to the car and tried the door handle.  It wouldn’t open. I tried the front passenger door.  I figured it was better for them to crawl over their dead mother than remain in that backseat.  However, the front door wouldn’t open either. Their brown eyes stared up at me by the glass, hopeful, imploring me to help them.  I motioned for them to scoot back and held up my bat. They scooted to the other side. I readied the bat and swung as hard as I could.  The glass shattered and broke inwards. A hole formed in the glass, but not big enough for the girls to fit through and the shards still sticking up would be dangerous for them.  I hit the glass again and got rid of the shards sticking out. There were zombie groans all around us now and getting closer.

“Hurry,” Camila urged.

Grace and Todd were directly behind me now ready to help.

“Come on,” I said and waved to the girl that looked to be Mackenzie’s age.  She reached for me and I carefully helped her out of the car window with Todd and Grace’s help.

Grace took her hand when she was out and on her feet.  Together they went to stand next to Camila, but the little girl watched anxiously from that distance as I pulled her older sister out of the car.  The older sister’s dark skin had an ashen sheen to it.

Her leg hit the car frame and she screamed.  Several zombies groaned loudly in reply. It was only then that I noticed her leg was twisted.  Broken. I waved Connor over because honestly, he hadn’t been much help against the zombies yet.  I trusted anyone else to defend us against the zombies over him. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help, he had just frozen every time.

“Carry her on your back,” I said.  “Her leg is broken.”  

Connor turned his back and crouched slightly.  I helped her get on his back just as a zombie came into view from further up the freeway.  He groaned loudly as if to alert other zombies. And other zombies answered him. He rushed us.  Grace swung her bow off her back, cocked an arrow and let it fly. It embedded directly into the zombie’s forehead.

I had completely forgotten she had the bow and arrow which was strange because that was her thing.  I was a terrible boyfriend.

“Let’s go,”she urged and waved me forward.  Connor sprinted back to the group with the girl on her back.  She let out little whimpers as she bounced up and down with Connor’s movement.  I ran beside Connor and placed a hand on the girl’s back to help steady her. That seemed to help a little.

Two zombies ran toward us coming from further down the offramp we were on.  Dr. Higgins used his bow and arrow on the first one, but he missed the head and it landed in the shoulder.  Dr. Patel had been running beside Dr. Higgins with Dr. Smith on his back, but as the two zombies got closer, he slowed down slightly to be behind Dr. Higgins.  Todd stepped forward and tried to use his bow and arrow, but he also missed. It skidded along the asphalt behind the zombie. Both men drew their knives as we all continued to run down the offramp.  More zombies came from the freeway behind us and charged down the off ramp. Grace shot another one in the head with an arrow.

The first zombie in front stretched his claw like fingers towards Todd.  Todd sidestepped at the last moment and kicked his leg out in front of the zombie.  The zombie fell on its face. The zombie didn’t bother to break it’s fall so his cheek and chin were scraped badly.  He didn’t notice the wounds as he started to rise. Todd jumped on his back, pinning his shoulders to the ground with his knees and brought the knife down into the back of the skull using both of his hands.  It buried down to the hilt.

The second zombie in front of us ran into Dr. Higgins.  Dr. Higgins stuffed his knife directly upwards into the zombie’s open mouth.  He retracted his knife just as Todd pulled his out of the skull. The rest of us ran around them.  They quickly followed and Dr. Higgins sped passed us to be in the front once again.

Grace shot another arrow behind us.  Another zombie fell to the road as the arrow went straight in her head.

Two more zombies came at us from the front.  Zombie groans surrounded us. It sent the hairs on the back of my neck straight up.  Dr. Higgins didn’t hesitate as he sidestepped the first zombie and buried the bloody knife in the temple.  It was Camila this time who killed the next zombie by rushing up to the charging zombie, kicked hard at her knee so she stumbled and then grabbed the zombie’s hair to tilt the head up and bury her knife in the zombie’s eye.

The girl Mackenzie’s age ran alongside Connor.  She kept looking up at her sister with a clear expression of worry.  She stumbled a few times, but since I was behind Connor to help steady the girl on his back, I could also help the younger girl when she stumbled to keep her on her feet.

We came to the end of the off ramp and onto the first street.  There was a car accident here too, but more concerning were the several zombies in the streets.  They were already groaning, but as soon as we came into their view, their guttural groans got louder.  The crowd of them rushed us. Dr. Higgins veered off the street and onto the grass. We as a group followed him.  Grace let loose several more arrows in the zombies chasing us, but it was starting to slow her down and she was already at the back.  I removed my hand momentarily from the girl on Connor’s back to tug at Grace to follow along quicker.

Grace frowned, but she lowered her bow and focused on running.  I couldn’t afford to lose her. Things weren’t looking too good for any of us right now.  The girl’s arms around Connor’s neck loosened and fell to her sides. She started to fall backwards as her eyes closed, but I held her upright with my hand.  She must have fainted from the pain of her broken leg being bounced around.  

The younger sister noticed her sister’s limp form and she started sobbing.  The audible sounds mingled with the zombie groans.

Camila took the girl’s hand.  “It’s going to be okay,” she whispered as she pulled the little girl with her.  “It’s going to be okay,” but now it sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than the girl.

Dr. Patel with Dr. Smith fell back next to me.  Dr. Smith placed her hand next to mine on the limp girl’s back.  “Go help the others fend off the zombies,” Dr. Smith said. “I’ll steady the girl.”

I nodded and released my hand from the girl’s back.  I gripped my bat with both hands. As if knowing what we had just discussed, a zombie came out from the right and lunged towards Dr. Patel and Dr. Smith.  I swung my bat hard at it’s head. My hands vibrated with the impact and I heard the skull break. The zombie fell to the ground tripping the next one. It allowed our group a small distance between us and the zombies, but that small gap was quickly being filled as more zombies saw us from side streets and chased after us.

We ran and ran along the streets, in front of buildings, across new streets.  Dr. Patel and Connor were quickly tiring.

I glanced at Grace.  She shot of another arrow, but at least this time she was aware of her own speed and made sure not to slow down.  Her brown eyes met mine and I knew she was contemplating the same thing I was. I didn’t want to abandon our friends, the professors, or the girls, but we had made an agreement that we and our families came first above everything else.  Maybe it was time to veer away from the main group. I was confident we could survive if it was just me and Grace.

I looked back at Connor, my roommate since the beginning of the year.  He could be annoying at times and never picked up his clothes. He froze when the zombies attacked us, but he was now courageously carrying a girl on his back that he could easily drop to get away faster.  He didn’t. Even as his panting was heavy and desperate, even as the sweat dripped down his face, he wouldn’t let her go.

Todd sometimes had a difficult time communicating as English was a second language and he was more often shy at times than not, but he stayed with us, fought off the zombies even though he could probably make it alone.

And Camila, she had greeted with Grace with a warm hug the moment they had met.  I knew Grace was safe in the dorms because I knew she had Camila to watch out for her.  They watched out for each other. In high school, Grace didn’t have friends and I didn’t think she ever had a best friend as close as Camila had become.  Camila had come down those stairs to protect me from the zombies when I needed help. And even now, she guided the little girl along with her. She would occasionally kill one of the zombies if it got too close to her and the girl.

I didn’t know the professors well, but they had driven around the dorms to save the students.  Even now they didn’t abandon us. Even now Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins did everything they could to save us.  Dr. Smith even held the girl up on Connor’s back.

But my sisters.  Lily and Mackenzie.  Mom and Dad. And Grace’s siblings, Hunter and Victory, and her parents.  We had to get to them. We had to.

I switched my bat so it was in one hand and took Grace’s free hand in mine.  We were almost to the next street. If we were going to do it, that would be the time.  

Dr. Higgins suddenly veered to the right, ran up the steps to a house and in through the open door.  Everyone followed. I noticed the blood that marked the floor, but we didn’t have time to worry about it.

Grace and I were the last ones inside and Dr. Higgins slammed the door shut as soon as we were inside.  Dr. Patel put Dr. Smith back on her feet and Todd helped Connor put the girl on a couch.

The zombies pounded on the closed door and groaned.  Groans answered from inside the house.

Chapter 24 .

Tanner

We slept on the cabin floor all huddled together.  I held Grace close to me as we slept. That was how I woke with sunlight streaming in through the cabin windows.  The cabin was void of furnishings. It looked like it hadn’t been occupied for quite awhile judging by all the dust and cobwebs.

“I’m hungry,” Camila mumbled as she sat up on the other side of Grace.

Grace nuzzled her face more into my shirt, but didn’t make any move to get up.

“Is there anything in your 24 hour kit to eat?” Connor asked.  He grabbed the backpack by Grace. Grace sprang up and pulled it away from him.

“And something to drink?” Todd asked.  Unlike Connor, his tone was polite and his eyes patient and hopeful as he blinked his brown eyes at Grace.

I sat up cross legged and Grace settled next to me.  She unzipped her pack and began to rummage around. “I do have some water,” she pulled out a large bottle, “but we need to share it so only start with a few swallows.”  She handed the bottle to Camila. The professors gathered around us waiting for their turn as the water was passed around.

“I do have a little bit of food, but not much.  It’s called a 24 hour kit not a kit to save your life in an apocalypse.”  Grace pulled out a bag of jerky, opened it and handed each of us one.

“We’re going to need to get food and water,” Dr. Higgins said.

Dr. Smith stretched her back and mumbled, “My arthritis is killing me.”

Connor stood as he chewed the jerky and went to the door.

“Where are you going?” Dr. Higgins asked.

“To the bathroom, dad,” Connor bit out.  “I was trying to be discreet about it.  Geez.”

“From now on,” Dr. Higgins said, “no one goes anywhere alone.  There has to be at least 2 of you so one can watch out for the other.  This is no longer a safe world.”

“Was it ever a safe world?” Dr. Patel mumbled.

“Todd, come with me,” Connor said.

Todd stood and went to the door.  I went with them. I made sure I had my bat.  Connor opened the door a crack and peeked outside before he opened it a little wider.  I didn’t think there were any zombies out there. There weren’t any zombie groans.

“I saw an outhouse in the front,” Dr. Patel offered.

“Oh,” Grace said.  “I have tissues if you need it.”  She tossed a small packet of tissues across the room to me.  I caught it and nodded my thanks.

I followed Todd and Connor out and closed the door behind us.  We scanned the area as we walked to the outside. It was quiet.  It was colder than it had been the previous day, but maybe that was just because it was morning.  There were a few clouds overhead, but none of them covered the sun at the moment.  

Connor hesitated with his hand on the handle.  He let go and turned back to me and Todd. “I’m just going to pee in the bushes,” he said.  We followed him as he walked into the woods enough he wouldn’t be seen from a cabin window.

Todd and I scanned the woods as Connor relieved himself.  All was quiet as he went, and then Todd and then myself.

We walked back to the cabin to see the women standing out front.  Dr. Smith was huddled between Grace and Camila.

“Where is Dr. Higgins and Dr. Patel?” I asked because the cabin door was open behind them and I could see it was empty.

“They went into the woods to relieve themselves too,” Dr. Smith said.  “You boys didn’t try the outhouse?”

“I’m not going in there,” Connor said definitively.

“Well, I am,” she said.  Camila and Grace walked with her to the outhouse.

“Tissues?” Dr. Smith said to me before she entered.

“Oh, right.”  I almost tossed it, but remembered last minute that she had been complaining of arthritis so I walked the short distance and handed them to her politely.

“I hope our siblings found our parents,” Grace said to me.

“Alive,” I added.

“Yes,” she said.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket to try and call again, but it was dead.

Dr. Patel and Dr. Higgins stepped out from the woods and rejoined Connor and Todd.  

“We should go back to the edge of the woods to check the freeway,” Dr. Higgins said.  “If the zombies are gone we should retrieve our cars and be on our way.”

“Our cars might be boxed in,” Grace said.  “We might have to take other cars.”

Dr. Higgins nodded.  “This is true,” he said.

Dr. Smith came out of the outhouse and handed the tissues to Camila who went inside.  I had never been in an outhouse and it really wasn’t an experience I wanted.

“I left my backpack in the cabin,” Grace said to me.  “Why don’t you get it so we can be ready to go when I come back out.”

I nodded.  Camilla came out of the outhouse and handed Grace the tissues as she went inside.  I went back to the cabin and retrieved her backpack. I looked around quickly just in case we had missed something useful, but the place was bare.

I stepped out and rejoined the others.  When Grace came out, she took her backpack from me and put the tissues back in it.  She strapped the backpack onto her back. I noticed Camila had Grace’s purse.

“Why don’t you carry your purse and I’ll carry your backpack,” I said and started to reach for her backpack.

“You carry my purse,” she said to me.

“Fine,” I said.  Camila handed me the purse and I put the strap over my shoulder.  “But then I’ll have the screwdriver you’ve been using to kill zombies.”  I could see it clearly at the top of her purse.

Grace blinked up at me with her beautiful eyes.  “Fine,” she sighed. “You carry my backpack and I’ll carry the purse.”  She slipped out of the backpack straps and handed it to me as I handed her the purse.  She opened it and ran her fingers along the screwdriver’s handle almost lovingly. That thing had saved our lives.

The professors – mostly Dr. Higgins – led us back through the woods.  We ignored the dead zombie by the side of the cabin. I hoped Dr. Higgins knew where he was going because everything looked the same to me.

We traveled mostly in silence because we knew zombies had chased us into the woods the previous night and we had only killed one of them.  There had been a scream so maybe the other students had killed the zombies. Or maybe they were now zombies. All the more reason for us to be quiet and not draw any zombie attention.

We reached the edge of the treeline.  Not too far away was the freeway. It wasn’t the exact spot we had left it however.  I couldn’t see our cars – didn’t know if we should go forward or backwards to get to our cars, but Dr. Higgins started to move back along the freeway.  The freeway was eerily devoid of humans or zombies. All was silent. Empty cars and trucks lined the backup freeway. All the vehicles were turned off, but I would have assumed some at least would have been running by the urgency people scrambled out of their cars the previous night.

Dr. Higgins led us closer and closer to the freeway.  The closer we got the emptier it seemed. I spotted his truck before I spotted Grace’s car.  My first inclination was to rush to the cars, but Dr. Higgins in front of us kept the pace careful and slow.  We followed him. I held my bat tightly in both hands just in case. My legs were tense ready to sprint back to the woods at a moment’s notice.

Dr. Higgins carefully led us over the concrete barrier.  Dr. Patel helped Dr. Smith over. The professors went to the truck while the rest of us went to Grace’s car.  Grace sat in the driver’s side and climbed in. I wasn’t sure why we bothered, we were boxed in by other cars.  We’d have to move some – probably the ones behind us – to get out. Grace tried to start the car, but nothing happened.  It didn’t even make a noise like it was trying to start. There was just the click of the key in the ignition.

The professors exited the truck. Dr. Higgins dug around behind his driver’s seat and came back out with two bottles of water and a blanket.  We all got out of the car as they came to us.

“Truck won’t start,” Dr. Higgins said quietly.  He and Dr. Patel both scanned the area to make sure there weren’t zombies about.

“My car won’t start either,” Grace said.

“Do you have anything useful in it?  Like a blanket or something?” Dr. Higgins asked.

“I do have a blanket in the back and I think I have some water.”  She popped the trunk and I went to the back with her to retrieve the items.  She had a case of unopened water bottles, a blanket and a tarp. We dispersed the water bottles between us and took the blanket and tarp.  She also had a lug wrench we took and she grabbed a flashlight from her glove compartment. She patted the hood of her car affectionately before she left it.

Dr. Higgins led us further back on the freeway.  It made me antsy because my family was in the opposite direction, but we needed an available car or transportation of some sort to get us to the diner.

We traveled slowly as we checked the cars we passed for anything useful.  We gathered more water bottles, a bag of chips, several bags of halloween candy and another bag of jerky.  We gathered a few more blankets and flashlights along the way as well.  

When we came to a spot where there was no concrete barrier, we each tried a car at the edge of the freeway hoping to just drive alongside the freeway to get out of there.  There were several cars and trucks with the keys left in them. The owners had obviously been in a hurry to get away from the zombies. None of the vehicles worked. At first, I thought it was just coincidence, but the more vehicles we tried the less coincidence was a possibility.

“What happened?” Todd finally asked.  “Why won’t they start?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Camila added.

“Maybe it was the green light,” Dr. Smith said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Connor said.  “How could a green light cause all the cars to stop?”

“How could a green light cause zombies,” Dr. Patel countered.

We all stood in the heavy silence.

“So now what?” I asked.  “We have to get to the diner.  Our families will be there.” I indicated myself and Grace with a wave of my hand.

Dr. Higgins sighed heavily.  “We need to go into a nearby town,” he said.  “There is a freeway exit not far from here if we backtrack a little.  It will be dangerous. I’m sure we’ll encounter zombies, but we need more food.”

“And maybe we’ll find bicycles or something to use,” Dr. Patel said.

I liked that idea.  I could get to my family faster.

“What about my family?” Camila asked.

“And mine,” Connor said.

“We already know where mine and Grace’s will be,” I said.  “We’ll reunite with our families and then help you find yours.  Wouldn’t it be better to stick together?”

I took their silence as agreement.

“Okay,” Dr. Higgins said.  “We go into town then.”

I wasn’t a religious man, but at that moment I prayed to God that my sisters and parents were all right.  But even as I said my silent prayer, my heart sank and there was a terrible pit in my stomach. I clasped Grace’s warm hand desperately in mine.  There was nothing I could do for my family at the moment but get to the diner.