Chapter Forty-One

Posted: July 27, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Late in the afternoon, while Maddie stood watch, the rain stopped.

     The end came abruptly, as though someone above had turned off a faucet.  One moment water streamed down the glass, obstructing her view, and the next she was staring at a damp, glistening post-storm street.  Weak sunlight pierced the dark clouds that remained overhead, glinting off bits of aluminum and other detritus that littered the road and sidewalks.

     “Hey!  It stopped raining!” Jessie shouted from the other side of the house.  She leaned over the kitchen sink and peered into the backyard.  “Think they’ll get the power up now?”

     Maddie shook her head at her sister’s naivety.  The idea that anyone cared about restoring the lights, at least in their neighborhood, was laughable.  She suspected things would remain dark for a very long time.

     “No.”  Vinnie leaned against the wall, Shawn’s bag at his feet.  “But it’s good that it’s stopped.  That’ll make things easier.”

     “What things?” Jessie asked.  She came to sit on the sofa, a confused look on her face.  “You said you’ve got a plan?  What is it now?”

     I hope it’s better than the last one.  Maddie frowned.  Four days, they’d been here now, and they were no closer to getting the hell out of Dodge.  Whatever it was, she hoped desperately that it involved leaving this house.

     As if reading her thoughts, Vinnie gave her a quick, grim smile.  “I’m going out,” he said.

     “You can’t be serious.”  Hannah raised her eyebrows, incredulous.  “Out where?”

     “Out there.”  He waved his hand at the front window.

     “To do what?” Jessie asked.  “Rain or no rain, the street is still flooded.  We can’t drive anywhere.”

     “True,” Vinnie agreed.  “But I can walk.  And hell,” he said, flashing the first genuine grin Maddie had seen since the night they’d been drunk, “I can swim.”

     “But where?” Jessie asked.  “There’s nobody out there.  We haven’t seen anybody.  Not even when that pole went down.”

     “There’s a station house,” Vinnie said.  “About a mile from here.  Maybe two.”

     “Why bother?” Maddie asked.  “They’re all gone.”

     “We think they left.  We don’t know.”  Vinnie wiped a hand down his face.  “Would they really all leave?”

     “My Joe wouldn’t,” Hannah said.  When they all turned to look at her, she blushed.  “He wasn’t a hero or anything.  But he wasn’t a coward either.  He would have stayed.  To help people.  He was a good man.”  She nodded at Vinnie.  “Like you.”

     Vinnie fidgeted, a flush creeping up his neck.  “Well….it can’t hurt to see.  Even if it’s empty, they’ll have a radio.  I can try to call for help.”

     Maddie chewed her lip.  “You don’t know what’s out there.  How bad it is.”

     He spread his hands.  “Staying here doesn’t do anything.  I thought….it doesn’t matter.  We can’t stay here.”

     He thought Shawn would help us.  Shawn, who had known ways around the city they could only begin to imagine.  All that knowledge, propped up now in the shed with the tangled Christmas lights and spider webs.  Fat lot of good it did him.

     “I’ll go with you,” she said suddenly.

     He looked at her, seeming to weigh what she’d said, then gave her an infinitesimal nod.

     “Me too.”  Jessie leaned forward, eager.  “I want to know.”

     Vinnie shook his head.  “No.  We’ll set things up here, as best we can, before we leave.  It won’t be long.”  He sounded so sure, Maddie almost believed that he knew what he was doing.

     Jessie disagreed.  “I’m not afraid,” she insisted.  “Two people having your back is better.”

     “More people means more worry,” Vinnie argued.  “You stay here and watch.”  He pointed at the ceiling.  “If something happens, that one will need you.”

     “Then leave Maddie here.  I’m better for this.  You know it.”

     “No,” Vinnie said again.  His expression was stone cold, as was his tone.  “I don’t want you.”

     Maddie winced at his choice of words.  Jessie visibly bristled, her hands balling into fists.  Before things could get worse, Hannah interceded.  “You said we’d ‘set things up’,” she said.  “What does that mean?”

     Vinnie got to his feet, pacing as he spoke.  “We should have done it already,” he said.  “Stupid.  I was stupid.”  His agitation set off sympathetic flutters in Maddie’s stomach.  “We’ll block off the back door, and the foot of the stairs.  Top of them too.  Take everything up; you don’t need to come down here, not while we’re gone.”  He swiped at his hair.  “A funnel.  You see?  If something comes in, it’ll have to go up, and there’s only one way.”

     Hannah’s face had gone white.  “If something comes in,” she echoed, her voice trembling.

     “If,” Vinnie stressed.  “It won’t.  They won’t.  But if.”

     He seemed to sense that he was frightening them; he stopped pacing and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.  When he opened them again, Maddie saw the same hard look she’d seen before – the soldier’s look.  The agitation was gone, replaced by cold efficiency.  He’d been languishing here, with nothing to do; he wasn’t a man built for sitting and waiting.  Maddie guessed that Shawn’s death had shocked him out of the stupor he’d been in since they’d arrived.

     “Come on,” he said, his voice clipped.  “Let’s move.”

     They scattered.  As Maddie brushed past him he grabbed her elbow, stopping her.  “Are you sure about this?”

     Her gaze moved from his face to his hand, staring until he released his grip on her arm.  “No.”  She glanced out the kitchen window, noting that the light was already fading outside.  “Not at all.”  She set her chin.  “But I want to go home.”

     He nodded sharply.  “Fine.  Be ready.  We’ll go at dark.”

 

***

 

     They worked quickly, following Vinnie’s directions.  Using thumbtacks she’d found in a kitchen drawer, Maddie covered the rear glass door with a sheet, then moved the small table and chairs to stand in front of it, blocking off the entrance.  Vinnie slipped outside before she set the last chair, trudging across the flooded backyard to double-check the lock on the gate.  She watched, heart in her throat, when he paused on his way past the shed.  He raised a hand toward the knob on the shed’s door, hesitating, then let it drop.  She let out the breath she’d been holding with a sigh.

     With the back door as secure as it was going to get, they moved on.  A dresser was hauled out of the little girls’ room and positioned at the top of the stairs; the leather couch took its place at the foot, leaving long gouge marks in the already-scarred wood floor as it was dragged from its spot in the living room and shoved, with much huffing and swearing, into the foyer.  Maddie stood by the front door, waiting, while Vinnie gave final instructions to Jessie and Hannah.  Their faces were grim smears in the growing darkness.

     Finally, the time came.  Vinnie clambered over the sofa, dropping onto the seat with a sigh.  “Here,” he said, holding out his hand.  Maddie took the proffered gun without comment, stuffing it into the back of her jeans.  Her left rear pocket bulged with the spare magazine he’d given her; the right held her cell phone, half-charged and set to silent.  She gripped her iron rod in sweaty hands.  She knew it wasn’t the most useful weapon in the world, but the weight of it offered comfort in a way the cold, hard metal pressed against her back never could.

     They slipped out the front door in silence, locking it behind them.  The jingle of keys set Maddie’s fried nerves further on edge; she glanced around uneasily as they made their way down the front porch stairs, certain the quiet tinkle was as loud as a dinner bell.  The street was empty, as far as she could see – which wasn’t far.  She’d known it would be dark, but hadn’t considered how dark; it was eerie to be outside with no street lights, no headlights, and no glow in the windows of the houses they passed.

     Like everyone is already dead.  She shivered.

     “Let’s go,” Vinnie said quietly.

     Maddie followed him down the street, trying to move through the water on the sidewalk without splashing.  Within seconds her shoes and socks were soaked through; the cold bit deep, gnawing into her feet and up her calves.  A damp wind blew hair free of her ponytail and across her face.  She tugged the sleeves of her hoodie down, glad that Vinnie had suggested they dress warmly.  They each wore black sweatshirts they’d filched from Shawn’s closet, Maddie swimming in hers; the hem reached her knees.  Vinnie’s, by contrast, stretched uncomfortably across his shoulders and back, a size or two too small.  He’d insisted that it didn’t matter; a little discomfort was fine, so long as they didn’t stand out during their trek.  Maddie wondered now if it in even mattered – as far as she could tell, there was no one to see them.

     Yet.  She clenched her rod, eyes darting, trying to cover every direction at once.  No one yet.

     The first intersection was the hardest to cross; the water came up past their ankles.  They ventured across as quickly and carefully as possible, aware there might be debris lurking under the surface, waiting to trip them up.  Maddie held her breath the whole way, feeling exposed and vulnerable.  Now she understood why he’d wanted to go at night; it was hard to see – she wished like hell they could use a flashlight – but that meant it was also harder to see them, even when they moved out in the open like this.

     A block down, she was forced to hand the rod over, as first Vinnie and then she climbed up and over a pile of debris that blocked their way.  The same happened a few blocks later.  The second time she slipped, losing her footing on a patch of water that had mixed with something oily.  Breath hissed through her teeth as she caught her knee on a garbage can, the metal clang echoing down the street.

     “Careful,” Vinnie chastised, catching her by the arm and hauling her up.

     “Sorry,” she groused, rubbing her knee.  “How much farther, do you think?”

     He shook his head.  “We’ll cut over up here,” he said.  “See what we can see.”

     They stopped at the corner, waiting and listening before wading across the street.  The cross street was just as quiet and empty as the one they’d left behind.  They traversed it quickly, staying tight against the buildings they passed; in no time they reached the next street, and turned.  Maddie’s eyes had adjusted to the dark by then, and she was able to make out a crowd of bodies several blocks in the distance.  She grabbed his arm.  “What’s that?” she whispered.

     They pressed up against the building side by side, watching.  The group ahead of them seemed to move as one, spilling from the sidewalk into the street and back again.  A low murmur reached their ears; Maddie cocked her head, listening hard.  Were they chanting?

     “Come on,” Vinnie said, his voice so low she barely heard him.  “That’s the station house.”  He moved away from the building, body hunched, and melted into the shadows of a parked car.

     “Vinnie,” she hissed.  The crowd formed and re-formed, little more than shifting shapes in the darkness.  Maddie wasn’t sure what they were doing, but she knew in her gut that it wasn’t good.

     Vinnie didn’t respond, merely waited.  Swallowing her fear, Maddie darted toward the car, crouching down beside him near the rear wheel.  “This is a bad idea,” she whispered, plucking at his sleeve.  “We should go back.”

     He didn’t listen.  Instead he moved forward, crouch-crawling awkwardly toward the car’s front bumper.  He waited a beat, then shuffled quickly until he was beside the next car in line, once again cloaked in shadow.

     Maddie ground her teeth.  Every nerve in her body screamed to retreat, to leave his dumb ass behind and book back to the house.  He could handle himself.  He’s stupid, she told herself.  Don’t be stupid too.

     While she was hesitating, debating what to do, he moved further away from her.  The distance was what decided things for her; the more it grew between them, the more afraid she became that she would find herself alone, armed only with her rod and a gun she was only 75% sure she could fire without hurting herself.  Stupid, she thought again.  This is so, so stupid.

     She shuffled after him.

     They were four cars down the line before he stopped, resting on his haunches.  He peered over the hood, seemingly mesmerized.  Maddie looked over his shoulder, straining to see whatever he saw.  She pressed herself against his back, leaning into him, certain that if she just tried harder, her vision would sharpen and she’d understand…

     The phone in her pocket buzzed.

     They both turned quickly, Maddie choking back a strangled cry.  The sudden swivel knocked her off balance; she fell against the side of the car, smacking her head on the door.  She reached out wildly, trying to grab the curb with her hand and stop her fall – and the metal rod dropped, clattering to the pavement.

     The phone buzzed again.

     She grappled at her pocket, bending a nail back as she yanked the phone free.  Vinnie was hissing at her, cursing up a storm, but she barely heard him.  Her eyes fixed on the glowing screen in her hand, and the little blue icon that told her she had an incoming call.

     Trembling, she brought the phone to her ear.

     “Hello?” she whispered.

     “Ma-ie?”  Her mother’s voice crackled over the line, filling her with a mix of relief and terror.   “-lo?  Mad-, -ere?”

     “Mom?”  Without thinking, she moved away from the car, instinctively seeking a better signal.  “Mom, I can’t hear you.”

     “Stay -ie.  -ith Vin-.  -ather is-, -afe here.  -lo?  Can you -e?”

     “Madelyn.”  Vinnie grabbed her arm, his hand a band of iron.

     She tried to shake him off, pressing the phone tighter to her ear.  “Mom?  Mommy?”

     “Madelyn!”  He hauled her to her feet, dragging her away from the car.  “Come on, come on, hang up, come on!”

     She stumbled as he pulled her away, crashing against him and sending them both reeling into the building wall.  As they spun around, untangling, she glanced over his shoulder – and felt her breath freeze in her throat.

     The crowd up ahead had stopped circling and weaving; whatever had caught their attention up there, it was forgotten.  Now the shapeless mass was moving toward them, covering ground quickly and chanting up a storm.

     No.  Not chanting.  That’s not chanting.  As they moved closer, she heard it for what it really was: growling.

     “Go!” Vinnie screamed in her face.  He shoved her out of his arms.  “Run!”

     She didn’t need to be told twice.  With a last terrified look at the horde of undead, Maddie ran.

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