Chapter Thirty-Seven

Posted: January 11, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie pressed her face to the door, trying in vain to bring the figure outside further into focus. Her hands, slick with sweat, slid down the wood each time she braced herself against it; she wiped them on her jeans, over and over again, but it made no difference. She shook her head, to clear her vision, and looked again.

     The man still stood at the foot of the stairs.

     A dozen questions swirled through her mind. What was he doing? What did he want? Why did he stand there, head lolling on his chest, stuck in the rain like a child’s run-down toy? He made no attempt to climb the steps and reach the door; she wondered, not for the first time, if he was even capable of doing so. She worried that he would draw others.

     Her thoughts bounced off of each other, ping-pong balls of fear and confusion, but always they circled back to the same question. One she tried repeatedly to shy away from, that would not be ignored.

     How in the hell did he get back here?

     She didn’t know how long he’d been gone; the house had been dark and abandoned when they’d arrived, dresser drawers cleaned out, the door locked behind him. She had no way of knowing how far he’d made it before he’d been….changed, or what had done it to him – if he’d been sick, or set upon by others as he’d tried to make his way out of the city. She didn’t know, and in many ways, it didn’t matter.

     What mattered was that he had come home.

     Maybe it isn’t Shawn.

     She seized on the idea with a fierce sense of relief. It was hard to tell, through the distortion of the peephole and the waver of the rain, what the man outside looked like; she could make out his build, and the cracked remains of his false leg, but not the details of his face. Not that it would have made a difference if she could: she’d never met the man, and he’d done a damn fine job of purging his house of anything that might have born his image. He could be anyone.

     Behind her, Vinnie cried into his hands, and she felt the lifeline of hope slip out of her grasp. The question came back again – How in the hell did he get back here? – and behind it came the horror, the baggage she didn’t want to carry. The truth she didn’t want to acknowledge, or consider.

     If Shawn could make his way home, perhaps they all could. Somewhere, deep inside, they knew how to do it. The dead remembered.

     An image of Jack loomed large in her mind, Jack as he’d been in those final moments: hateful, mad, frenzied with rage and the infection that had grown inside of him. She imagined him climbing off the cold table in the hospital’s morgue, shuffling his way down the dark corridors, driven by hunger, yes, the way they all were, but by something else too – the promise of home. Where would he go? To his mother? To Holly? Or would he trudge, slack-jawed and mindless, over the miles and back to the place that they’d shared for the better part of a decade? Did he stand, even now, at the door to their building, unable to open it, to enter and go up, some part of him knowing this was where he belonged while the rest of him rotted away?

     She felt the hot tears fill up her eyes, and blinked them furiously away.

     “What is he doing?” Jessie stood at her shoulder, whispering in her ear.

     Maddie shook her head. “I don’t know.”

     “Is he trying to get in?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “What are we going to do?”

     Maddie turned to glare at her. “I. Don’t. Know.”

     “Oh for god’s sake.” Jessie slipped away, disappearing into the shadowy living room. When she re-emerged, she cradled a shotgun in her arms. “Get out of the way.”

     “What the hell are you doing?!” Maddie gaped at her. “You can’t use that.”

     “Yes.” She shifted the gun in her hands, gripped the handle, and pumped. “I can.”

     Maddie held her hands out, trying to keep her sister away from the door. “You can’t shoot that thing. You’ll hurt yourself.”

     Jessie huffed. “I’ve been learning.” She jerked her head at Vinnie, who did not raise his eyes. “He’s been teaching me. I haven’t fired it yet, but I know how to do it.” She gave Maddie a withering look. “You’d know how, too, if you’d bother to listen.”

     Maddie winced at the reproach, forced to acknowledge that her sister was right. Vinnie had been talking non-stop about guns, using his downtime when he wasn’t on watch to explain to the others what each weapon was, what ammo they used, how to load and unload, switch off the safeties and chamber a round. Uncomfortable around firearms, and not ready to admit that she’d have to use one against anyone, Maddie had tuned most of his lessons out.

     Jessie, it appeared, had not.

     Maddie still didn’t like it. “You can’t just go out there and shoot him,” she argued. “What if you miss?”

     Jessie laughed. “He’s standing right there.”

     “He might move once the door opens.”

     “Then I’ll shoot him again.”

     “And waste all the bullets? Make all that noise? You never think, I swear to god-”

     “Stop.” Vinnie’s voice was tired and raw, quiet enough that both women ignored him.

     “I never think?! You don’t even know how to load the damn thing! You want to go out there with your stick and hit him?”

     “At least that wouldn’t draw a bunch more of them down on us!”

     “Stop.”

     “Besides,” Maddie continued, “He might not even be dead.”

     Now Jessie really laughed. “You’re so fucking stupid. Of course he’s dead. He’s just standing there, I mean Jesus, Madelyn, look at him-”

     “Stop.”

     They both stopped. Vinnie got to his feet, his face wiped of expression, and crossed the foyer in two large strides. Shouldering Maddie out of the way, he yanked the door open and stepped outside. The gun he always carried was in his hand, quicker than Maddie thought possible. He stopped at the top of the stairs, looking down.

     “I’m sorry,” he said.

     He fired twice, pop-pop, hitting his friend square in the face. Shawn flew back, landing on the sidewalk with a thud; even inside, Maddie heard the crack his skull made as it hit the pavement. The echo of gunfire reverberated down the empty street.

     Vinnie turned back and re-entered the house, kicking the door shut with his foot before stomping his way up the stairs. Hannah passed him on the way, drawn down by the sound of the shots. Upstairs, Caleb screamed.

     Speechless, Maddie looked to the others, meeting first her sister’s eyes, then Hannah’s. Both women stared back at her, everyone flinching when the bedroom door slammed above them.

     “Well,” Jessie finally said. She set the shotgun down and brought her hands together in a single brisk clap. “Guess we’re on clean-up.”

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