Chapter Thirty Two

Posted: July 20, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     For a moment, Maddie thought the woman on the other side of the door was fine.  The look of surprise on her face was so normal, so perfectly human, that it overrode the truth of her condition.

     Oh, Maddie thought, reaching out.  She must be looking for her baby.

     Then Hannah screamed, and the illusion of normalcy was shattered.  Maddie saw the marks on the other woman’s face, abrasions from the gravel when she’d been trampled; she saw the crooked bend of the broken nose, and the peculiar bulge of the woman’s eyes, damage that contributed to the expression of wide-eyed surprise.  In the seconds it took to understand her mistake, Maddie realized two things: the thing in front of her was snarling.

     And she was still reaching out to comfort it.

     They leaned in toward each other, two women about to embrace.  Maddie brought her left hand up, intending to ward the other off with her rod, and was horrified to realize it had dropped from her numb fingers.  Now both of her hands were reaching for the creature, empty and defenseless.  Before she could reverse direction, they came together.

     The woman’s breath, hot and rank with the smell of death, blew across Maddie’s face.  Blood and spit spattered her cheeks; Maddie clamped her eyes and mouth shut and held her breath.  She felt fabric in her hands.  Bracing herself, she flattened her palms against the other’s chest and shoved.

     Had the thing been steady on its feet, it likely wouldn’t have worked; Maddie had the fleeting impression of trying to push against a solid brick wall, despite the other woman’s lesser size and weight.  The missing shoe, however, and the absurd height of the one remaining, affected the creature’s balance.  It swayed, then stumbled back.  Maddie cracked an eye open, saw what had happened, and pressed her advantage.  Another hard shove knocked the thing down on its ass.

     It started to scramble forward immediately, snapping and growling like an angry dog.  Maddie tried to move back, meaning to close the door between them, and found herself blocked, then crowded forward again.  She screamed, fear mingled with outrage, and kicked out.  The creature’s head snapped to the side, then swung back around, barely deterred.

     Before she could draw back to kick again, Maddie was shunted to the side.  She bounced off the edge of the doorway and spun out into the alley.  The thing followed her, moving away from the door and the others who huddled just inside it.  As she scrambled to back away, Maddie had a pretty good idea of who had shoved her out to die.

     You miserable motherf-

     “Hey!”

     Maddie looked up, saw the gun in Vinnie’s hand, and dove to the side.  The dead woman swung again to follow, scrabbling on her hands and knees.  She was still scuttling forward, jaw dripping with saliva, when the side of her head exploded in a gout of blood.

     Too late, Maddie clapped her hands to her ears.  The roar of the gunshot echoed between the buildings, filling the alley with thunder.  Kicking, she dug her heels against the ground, pushing herself back and away from the body that had collapsed in front of her.  A few more feet, she knew, and it would have been on her.

     A moment later, Vinnie loomed over her, blocking her view of the dead woman.  She took the hand he offered and let him pull her up.

     “You dropped this.”  He held out the iron rod.

     She took it wordlessly.  He turned away and went to the body.  She flinched when he kicked it, half expecting the woman to rear up, but the corpse remained still.

     “Are you all right, dear?”

     Hannah had ventured out through the door.  She gave the body a nervous glance, then took Maddie by the shoulders.

     “Are you okay?” she asked again.

     Maddie started to nod, then realized she didn’t actually know.  “I don’t think she got me – I didn’t feel anything – but…”

     “Let’s have a look.”  The older woman gave her arms and hands a brisk once-over.  Maddie saw no marks or scratches, and neither did Hannah, who gave her a reassuring smile.  “All clear.”  She touched Maddie’s cheek.  “Although this blood-”

     “It doesn’t work that way,” Vinnie cut in.  “At least, I don’t think it does.  You need a bite or a scratch.”  He gave Maddie a dark look.  “We have some experience.”

     Maddie remembered the way Summer’s blood had splashed over her, and Webber’s before that, and shuddered.

     “Who was she?”

     Maddie startled at the voice.  Caleb had crept toward them, so quiet she hadn’t noticed him.  Slinking like a rat.

     She didn’t know what she meant to do until it was done.  The length of iron caught him across the back, knocking him off balance; he stumbled forward, nearly tripping over the body before righting himself.  The bat fell from his hands.  She hit him again, lower this time, and he went down on one knee.  Maddie raised the rod high, prepared to smash it down on the back of his hanging coward’s head.

     “Stop!”

     Vinnie grabbed her from behind, wrapping his hands around her wrists and halting her downward stroke.  Maddie hissed, twisting against him, until his grip tightened.  Pain flared in her wrist, and the rod dropped, missing Caleb’s head by a mere inch before clattering to the ground.  Thwarted, she kicked out, knocking him forward onto his hands when her foot connected with his ass.

     “He pushed me!”  Maddie twisted again, struggling to get free.  “He pushed me at her!”

     “No he didn’t!” Vinnie shouted.  He forced her arms down.

     “Yes he did!  He wants me dead and he tried, he pushed me!”

     Caleb said nothing.  He crawled away from her, head still down, not raising his eyes to meet hers.  Vinnie spun her away and crushed her against his chest, endeavoring to keep her still.

     “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”  He squeezed again, and she felt the air leave her lungs in a rush.  The pressure around her ribcage was intense; she stopped moving, as much from fear that he would crack her ribs as from lack of air.  After a long, agonizing minute, Vinnie eased his grip.

     “He pushed me,” she whispered.

     “No.”  Vinnie let her go and stepped back, waiting for her to turn and face him before he continued.  “He didn’t.  I did.”

     She took a step toward him, fists raised.  “What the fuck?  Why?”

     Vinnie put his own hands up, keeping her back.  “You were in the way.  I couldn’t shoot her with you in front of her.”

     Maddie contemplated the wisdom in that.  Shoving her out into the alley had been dangerous, but surely less so than trying to accomplish a head shot with her in the way.  Still…  “She could have grabbed me,” she said, full of disgust.  “You’re lucky she didn’t.”

     “You’re lucky,” he corrected.  “You’re the one who opened the door.  I told you to wait.”

     “The alley was empty!”  She clenched her fists again, not sure who she was angrier at, him or herself.  “There was nothing here!  I don’t even know where she came from!”

     “If you open a door, you should be ready.  You dropped your stick.”

     “Oh fuck you,” Maddie said, turning away from him.  “You’re the one who practically ran right into the end of it.”

     Vinnie had no answer to that.  Maddie watched balefully as Hannah helped the kid to his feet, murmuring something to him as she straightened his shirt and put the bat back in his hands.  When she caught Maddie’s eye, her face was full of reproach.  Maddie braced herself for whatever harsh words the woman was going to unleash – from her expression, there were quite a few waiting to come out – but Vinnie put an end to it before it began.

     “Let’s go,” he said curtly.  “There might be more of them around.”

     Maddie glanced around nervously.  She didn’t think there were more; if they were attracted to sound, she and the others had made more than enough, such that any dead in the vicinity would surely already be converging.  If sound is what attracts them.  She didn’t know for sure that it did; it was guesswork, all of it, and if the guesses were wrong…

     She hurried to the side of the building, following closely on Vinnie’s heels.  Hannah lagged behind, helping the kid to limp along; the hit to his knee had been hard, and he seemed unable to walk on his own.  Maddie felt a flush of guilt, then turned her gaze resolutely away.

     They made their way down the side alley and out onto the front walk.  The crowds moving past the building hadn’t thinned much; weaving through them, Maddie thought it was possible that everyone in this part of the city was out on the street now.

     As they came up on the car, it appeared to be empty, and Maddie felt a whisper of fear.  She hadn’t been gone long, surely no more than half an hour, and she didn’t really believe that her sister would leave the relative safety of the locked doors in order to check on her.  Nonetheless, she was relieved when Jessie’s head popped up above the windshield; she’d reclined her seat, having apparently taken Maddie’s warning to stay hidden seriously.

     “Twenty minutes my ass!”  Her shrill complaining started as soon as the doors were opened.  Vinnie ignored her, sliding into the driver’s seat and adjusting its position so the others could climb into the back.  Hannah took the middle, helping Caleb to ease into the seat behind Vinnie.  Maddie squeezed herself in behind her ill-tempered sister; once the door was shut, she found herself squashed up against it.

     “What the hell happened?” Jessie demanded.  She twisted in her seat to glare at Maddie.  “What’s on your face?  I didn’t do that!  That’s not my fault!”

     “There was a….problem.”  Maddie found that the word zombie still caught in her throat.

     “And him?  He’s walking funny.”

     Caleb didn’t answer her, and nobody else bothered to explain.  Vinnie started the car and slipped out into traffic, taking his place behind a cab that was crawling along at an even ten miles an hour.

     “We could walk to the bridge faster than this,” Maddie said.

     “Maybe.”  Vinnie drummed the wheel with his fingers, already tense and irritated.  “But this way there are doors between us and them.”

     Maddie sighed and sat back.  Now that they were moving away from the building, however slowly that movement might be, she felt the tension leaving her body.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes, she thought.  Once we get to the bridge, everything will be fine.

     Hannah chose that moment to ruin everything.  “Wait, is that your plan?  To cross the bridge?”  When Vinnie nodded, she laughed, a sad chuckle that made the hair on Maddie’s arms rise.  “You won’t get across.  They’re barricaded.”

     “Yes, but…”  She looked at the older woman, confused.  “They’re opening them.  They can’t leave us here.”

     Hannah shook her head.  “That’s not what the radio said.”

     “What?!”  Jessie twisted again, turning her attention to the newcomer.  “What do you mean?”

     “They’re maintaining the quarantine.”

     Maddie was struck numb with horror.  “They can’t do that!”

     “Well they are.”  Hannah looked at her, and Maddie saw that she wasn’t kidding.  “We’re stuck here, child.”

     Vinnie reached out and snapped on the radio.  After a few stations full of static he found one that was broadcasting the news.  They sat in rapt silence, listening to the announcers confirm everything Hannah had just said.  The bridges remained closed; the barricades were in full effect.  Citizens were advised to remain in their homes, while the city’s police and the National Guard attempted to get the “situation” under control.  Maddie recalled the mass exodus they’d seen earlier that morning – dozens of police cars, driving like hell to get out of the city.  Under control.  Yeah right.

     When the message started to repeat, Maddie realized they were listening to a recording.  There were no live news broadcasts, not on any of the channels Vinnie managed to call up.  No music either; no morning DJs, filling the airwaves with their inane chatter and call-in contests.  Just the recorded messages, and static.  She remembered that the television had been static too – stuttering snow, instead of the news that had been airing before they’d ventured down to the basement.

     They cut it all off.  Maddie’s eyes sought out Vinnie’s in the rearview mirror; when they met, she saw her own understanding mirrored in his face.  They cut it off, and fast.

     That could only mean one thing.

     They were on their own.

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