Chapter Thirty One

Posted: July 6, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie crouched in the backseat, knees folded to her chest, and considered their options.

     One: They could obey Vinnie’s orders and leave. The fact that this part of the city was unfamiliar to both of them was a problem, but she thought they could simply follow the flow of traffic and come out where they wanted to be. Where else were all of these people heading, if not the nearest bridge and barricade? They no doubt held the same hope that she did: the quarantine had to be broken. Surely they were letting people out.

     Two: They could wait. He’d said to leave after twenty minutes, but that might not have been enough time. Especially if he’d run into trouble a couple of floors below the twentieth, where the screaming had been. Or with Caleb. Suppose they drove away just a moment before he came back? Could she really strand him here? He’d saved her life. Even leaving aside everything else, there was that.

     She considered the possibility that he might not come back – ever – and dismissed it immediately. He’d been slowed, or hemmed in maybe, but he hadn’t been caught out. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did.

     He was still alive.

     Which brought her to option three.

     Twisting in her seat, she peered at the front of Vinnie’s building. Sunlight glared off of the lobby’s glass doors, making it impossible to get a clear view of the inside, but it looked empty. The back staircase surely was; they’d been the only ones to use it. Maddie didn’t relish the idea of going up and down all of those stairs again, but…

     Jessie won’t like it. She turned appraising eyes on her sister, who still sat peeping around the passenger seat. She was talking – had been for a while, Maddie realized – but now she stopped, waiting. She won’t like it. But fuck her. A cold calm dropped over her, and she knew she’d made her choice.

     Moving quickly, she darted between the seats and grabbed for the car keys. Jessie reached out, snatching at Maddie’s arm, half a second too late. When she realized that she’d missed, her pretty face contorted into a snarl.

     “I’ll be right back,” Maddie said, aware even as she spoke that it was pointless; they had, after all, heard the same thing from Vinnie. “You’ll be fi-”

     Jessie’s hand whipped back, a blind swat that nonetheless succeeded in cracking Maddie across the face. She reeled back, clutching the keys protectively to her chest. A hot trail of pain flared across her cheek; when Jessie’s nails came back for another rake, Maddie ducked.

     “Quit it!” she screamed.

     Jessie ignored her. She started to scramble between the seats, clearly meaning to launch herself into the back. Maddie brought her feet up, hesitated for a moment, then pistoned her legs out. The kick caught Jessie squarely in the chest; she flew back into the dash, then collapsed awkwardly into her seat.

     If Maddie had hoped for a reprieve, she was disappointed – Jessie’s arm came swinging around the seat back again, hand scrabbling for the keys. Cringing against the rear of her own seat, Maddie found herself wishing, absurdly, for her mother. Grace Stryker had never physically put an end to a squabble between her girls; she’d never had to. Her nervous fretting and tears had always been enough to make them stop, either out of guilt or a desire to shut her up.

     No. Not both of us. Maddie kicked her sister’s seat, bouncing her back before she managed to land another blow. I always stopped. She always got in one last dirty shot.

     Well, Mommy wasn’t here now, and she couldn’t wait for her idiot sister to exhaust herself. The clock’s power had died when she’d removed the keys, but she saw the minutes slipping past just the same. If she was going, it had to be now.

     Gritting her teeth, Maddie leaned forward. Jessie’s nails tore at her face again, opening a new seam along her left temple, but that was all right – it was the last hit she would score. Maddie twisted to the side, her back up against the door, and shoved her arm through the narrow space between the front seat and the inside of the car. It was a tight squeeze – her bicep screamed at the pressure – but Maddie ignored the pain, and the gibbering part of her that insisted she was stuck, stuck, her arm was never coming free! She pressed on, and her grasping fingers found what they wanted: the long, loose locks of Jessie’s hair.

     She twirled her hand, wrapping the strands quickly around her fist, and gave a terrific yank. Jessie jerked back, howling. She tried to flail away, her hands batting at the back of her head, and Maddie yanked again, slipping her arm back through the gap as she did. Jessie’s head twisted; her temple hit the car’s window with a dull thud.

     She went slack, dazed from the blow, but Maddie kept her grip on the hank of hair, pulling it back toward her until Jessie’s head bumped up against the seat. She gave it one more vicious tug before letting go.

     They sat, the silence broken only by the sound of their harsh breathing, until Jessie finally spoke.

     “Ow.”

     “Yeah.” Maddie touched her stinging face and winced. “Tell me about it.”

     When Jessie made no reply, Maddie sighed. She leaned forward and gave her sister a pat on the head, gently, solicitous in that way only siblings can be about wounds they themselves have inflicted. “There’s some Tylenol in my purse,” she said. “No water, but you’re used to swallowing nasty shit.”

     There was no returning volley. She sighed again and gave it up; let the other girl sulk. She turned her attention instead to the building, the lobby doors, and tried once more to discern if there was anyone – any thing – inside. She was as uncertain as she’d been the first time; after squinting and peering, she gave that up too, and knew she was in for another very long climb.

     “I’ll be right back,” she said again. Shoving the keys down into her pocket, she put a hand on the door handle and waited. For what? An encouraging word? “Good luck, sis, I love you?” Fat chance. Shaking her head, she climbed out of the car. “Lock the doors,” she instructed. She hesitated, then added, “And stay low. If one of them comes by, it’s probably better if it doesn’t see you.”

     At that Jessie twitched, but still said nothing. Fine. Let her be.

     Maddie walked away quickly, anxious to get off the open sidewalk and around the side of the building. She had to weave around and between the crowd that still spilled down the street, but they paid her no mind, intent as they were on reaching their goal: the bridge, the barricades, freedom. When she reached the mouth of the alley she turned back, just once, and was gratified by what she saw – Jessie still slouched in her seat, sullen and angry as any thwarted teenager, but she’d slouched low, and that was good. Maddie wasn’t sure that she would be okay – she hoped Jessie would be – but she’d made her choice now. Time to see it through.

     Squaring her shoulders, she set off down the alley at a slow jog. She skirted around the decayed railing, careful of the sharp edges, then stopped a few steps beyond it. Going in empty-handed – was that such a great idea? She didn’t even have the gun, empty as it had been; at least she could have used it as a bludgeon, before she’d taken it apart like a fool.

     Her eyes roved over the junk piled around her, hoping to find something with heft. After a moment, she found herself staring at the old fire escape.

     Tetanus, she reminded herself. Blood poisoning. Lockjaw.

     Zombies, came the reply.

     She grabbed one of the railing’s spokes, positioning herself away from the deadly sharp edge, and pulled. Rust sloughed off, turning her hands a dusky red-orange. The metal squealed as she twisted, fighting to yank the spoke loose from its moor. Sweat dripped into her eyes, and her wrist pulsed with pain, but she finally managed to wrench the thing free. When it came, she stumbled back, barely stopping herself from falling into a pile of ill-smelling garbage. She gave the metal rod an experimental swing, then nodded, satisfied. It was fairly light, and wouldn’t do too much damage when it came to whacking, but the jagged points on the end were something. Better than nothing, at least.

     Duly armed, she trotted down the rest of the alley. At the corner, she paused to take a quick peek around before heading toward the stairwell door. The area back here still smelled terribly, but it was empty. Even, she saw, of bodies. Where the young mother had fallen and been trampled, all that remained was a single battered espadrille, lying on its side.

     Well. At least someone helped her.

     Holding the rod at her side, Maddie opened the door and slipped inside. The stairwell, too, was empty. She moved carefully anyway, not sure if the dead were capable of subterfuge, not terribly interested in finding out too late. The sound of her shoes on the metal steps seemed impossibly loud, a dinner bell rung again and again as she climbed.

     She was six floors up when there was a crash from far above. A little scream escaped before she could stop it; the rod slipped in her hands. She caught it before it could clang its way back down the stairs and held it out in front of her, like a sword. The line of it wavered, and she realized she was shaking. Not just her hands – her whole body shook, tremors of fear that went right down to her toes.

     The stairwell filled with echoing thunder. It took her a minute to recognize what it was: footsteps. Someone was running, racing down the stairs toward her. More than one someone, she was pretty sure. Her mind conjured up a horde of dead, stumbling and slavering their way down the stairs, heading straight for her. She moaned. The rod in her hands felt as useful as a splintered toothpick.

     Let it be fast. Please, god, let it be fast. She could feel her bladder, hot and heavy. She wondered what it would be like, when it was over. Would she be aware? Would some part of her still exist, when her twisted body sat back up and lumbered away? All of me, she prayed fiercely. Let them take all of me. The thunder came closer, pounding in her ears. She set her feet and brought the rod up, the sharp edges ready. And let me take one with me first. Just one.

     She screamed when the first one came around the bend in the stairs, a high, undulating scream of rage and terror. She saw it stumble back, catching its heel on the step behind it; it floundered, wheeling for purchase, and fell back into the one behind it.

     “Fuck!”

     Maddie had time to realize he was screaming back at her – not it, he – but it wasn’t enough. Her body, already set on its kamikaze mission, surged forward, the rod jabbing up and out. If he hadn’t tripped, she would have impaled him, driven on by an instinct that wholly ignored what her eyes and ears were now trying to tell her.

     Die! that reptilian brain screamed. Fucking die!

     Lucky for him, he did trip; he fell back, the one behind him did too, and the point of her weapon missed by bare inches. She drew back to go again and he kicked out with one heavy boot; the rod spun out of her hands, and now it did go off clanging, down a few steps to the landing below.

     “What the fuck?”

     Maddie’s arms dropped to her sides as she gaped at him. “Vinnie?”

     Vinnie climbed carefully to his feet, anger and admiration at war on his face. “You almost killed me,” he growled at her.

     She didn’t even think to apologize. Instead she launched herself up the steps between them. He tottered under the collision, grabbing the railing to keep from falling. She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “I thought you were hurt,” she breathed in his ear.

     “Got held up,” he snapped. But his arm crept around her in a half-hug. She smiled against his shoulder.

     “My fault, I’m afraid.”

     Maddie looked up, surprised to find that the voice belonged to a woman. She stood on the landing above them, a small carry-on bag in her hand. In the other she clutched a rolling pin. Maddie took in this unlikely weapon and restrained the urge to giggle. Honeybunch.

     Vinnie reddened under her speculative gaze. “I went back for him,” he said, jerking a thumb at Caleb. The blank look on the kid’s face hadn’t changed much, but he bore Vinnie’s baseball bat in his hands; clearly he’d been cajoled into some semblance of normalcy. “I thought one more wouldn’t hurt.”

     “He was quite chivalrous,” the other woman said. She came down the steps toward them. “Even waited while I packed my pictures.” Shifting the pin so it was tucked under her arm, she held out her hand. “Hannah, dear.”

     Maddie took it, bemused. Packed her pictures? She tried to imagine Vinnie waiting patiently for that, and found that she couldn’t. “Madelyn,” she replied. “Or Maddie. Whatever.”

     “We can do this later,” Vinnie said, no sign of that patience now. “We have to go.”

     “Traffic is bad,” Maddie warned him. She led the way back down, grabbing her rod as they passed. “Lots of people are heading to the bridge, I think.”

     “You should be there already.” Maddie heard the frustration in his tone, and ignored it. He grabbed her elbow, forcing her to look at him. “I told you to leave.”

     “Well I didn’t.” She shook him off, angry. “If I had, what would you do? Walk to the bridge?”

     “If I had to.” Something seemed to occur to him, and he frowned. “Where’s your sister?”

     “In the car.” She saw the look on his face. “I have the keys,” she assured him. She glanced at Caleb over her shoulder. “Fool me once.”

     She held them out, and when he took them there was a small smile on his face. Admiration had now won out over his other feelings; she could see that. Not bad for an Uptown Girl, she thought smugly.

     When they reached the door, Maddie stayed in the lead, puffed up with her own daring. She’d been ready to face down an unknown horde of zombies, to fight to her death and destroy some in the process. Her meager spoke had become a mighty sword; she felt ready for anything.

     “Let me check-” Vinnie said, starting to move in front of her. Before he could finish, Maddie whipped open the door.

     Pride, as quickly as it had come, flowed away like water.

     Standing on the other side, its mouth yawning open, tottered a corpse in one tattered, blood-stained espadrille.

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