Chapter Forty-Two

Posted: August 9, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The world fell away as Maddie raced down the street, until only two things remained sharply in focus: the peculiar slapping sound her sneakers made as she pounded across the water-soaked pavement, and a single thought, repeated in time to her steps.

     Don’t. Slap. Lead. Slap. Them. Slap. Back. Slap.

     She reached the corner, Vinnie by her side.  Instead of turning to cross the street and heading back toward the safety of the house, they both fled across the intersection, maintaining their straight-ahead course.  Why Vinnie did it, Maddie couldn’t guess.  For herself, all she could picture was her sister – her silly, stupid sister, who could carry a dead man with deliberate calm but still considered sneaking a smoke in the bathroom an act of defiance and daring.  Whatever her faults, Maddie knew she could never lead a horde of hungry undead back to her baby sister’s doorstep.  Not if she ever expected to look their mother in the eye again.

     As if hearing her thoughts, her phone buzzed again.  She glanced down, surprised to see that she still held it, clenched tightly in her fist.  Drop the stick, hold on to the phone.  That’s great.  The screen was lit, a beacon in the dark, showing the little bubble that indicated she’d received a text.  She brought it up automatically, an action born out of long habit, and scanned the words.

     Then read them again.

     She slowed to a trot, struggling to comprehend the message on her screen.  Vinnie pulled ahead of her, disappearing into the darkness, his progress away from her marked by a series of metal chuck sounds every few feet.  She was only vaguely aware of what he was doing.  Everything disappeared in the wake of the roar that filled her ears – her own heartbeat, pounding relentlessly.

     Don’t pass out.  Keep running.  Don’t pass out.

     “Hump!” Vinnie called back.

     Maddie’s head snapped up.  For a moment she thought she would pass out; white spots danced across her eyes, obscuring the shadows ahead of her.  It took a few seconds to realize she’d destroyed her fragile night vision by staring at her phone’s backlit screen.  She flipped the phone around, trying to use the meager display light to guide her way.

     She was almost on top of it before she saw it: a mailbox, tipped over in her path.  She leapt without thinking, one foot coming down on the center; she felt the metal buckle, the bong vibrating up to her hip.  Jump, she thought, and then she was down on the other side.  She chanced a glance back over her shoulder, but it was useless; if the horde still followed, she wasn’t able to see them.  Concentrating hard, she tried to listen for signs of their presence, pinpoint how far away they were.  All she could hear was the ragged rasp of her own breathing and the repeated chuck, chuck, chuck that signaled Vinnie’s failure to find an unlocked door among the storefronts they passed.

     Please, she prayed.  Her thighs burned; every breath felt like fire, searing her lungs.  Please, please, please.

     The tinkle of bells rang out ahead of her.  She was so bent on pleading for a break that she missed it when it came; it took her a few moments to realize that Vinnie had disappeared, and she was jogging along alone.

     “Maddie!”

     She turned back, disoriented and unsteady.  Her phone’s display had clicked off, leaving her blind.

     “Maddie, here!  Hurry!”

     She stumbled toward the sound of his voice.  A hand reached through the darkness and grabbed her arm, yanking her sideways before she could scream.  Vinnie crushed her against his side and pulled the door closed behind her, the bells on the handle jingling madly.

     “Get down,” he said.  She crouched by the door, bells in her hair, and gasped for breath.  There was a click, and the penlight in Vinnie’s hand switched on, sweeping over the small interior of the store.  Maddie saw metal and glass reflected in the light’s small beam; a row of portals along the back wall, like the windows of a ship, and another row of squat metal boxes in the center of the room.  The sight of the washing machines made her back itch; even while her thighs trembled and threatened to throw her back on her ass, she couldn’t help wishing for a tub full of sudsy water and a clean shirt.

     The light revealed a tipped over basket on top of one washer, half full of clothes that spilled over the edge and onto the floor, but no people.  They were alone.

     Vinnie continued to search, checking under the folding table along the far wall and behind the small register in the corner.  As the beam of the flashlight moved back and forth across the floor, Maddie felt fear leaving her, washing away in a wave of anger.  He’d brought the flashlight so they could search for a radio, or a walkie, something that would connect them to people who could help.  Instead he was using it to investigate discarded dryer sheets and lost quarters, determining the safety of a goddamn laundromat.

     When he’d made his way back to her, clicking the light off, she snapped.  “What the hell, man?” she hissed at him.

     He crouched beside her, peering through the front window.  “What?”

     “Seriously?”  She shoved his shoulder, felt him teeter beside her before he found his balance again.  “Now what the hell are we supposed to do?”

     “Wait,” he said.  She ground her teeth.  He must have sensed her frustration; when he spoke again, his tone was equally as angry.  “You’re the one who answered your fucking phone.”

     “You’re the one who thought it was a good idea to get closer to the z-” She tripped over the word, not able to get it out.  “-Things.  Creeping down the street like some idiot commando.  What the fuck were you doing?”

     The question seemed to take the wind out of his sails; she sensed rather than saw his body sag in defeat.  He sighed.  “I don’t know,” he admitted.

     She shook her head.  “We should have gone back.  Just turned around and gone right back.”

     “I know.”  He slid down to sit on the floor, resting his back against the wall.  “I just…I thought I saw something.”

     She considered the way he’d been watching the crowd, and the thought she’d had, that he’d seemed hypnotized.  She’d tried to see whatever he saw, but there hadn’t been time.  “What was it?” she asked, genuinely curious.

     “I’m not sure it was anything.”  When she waited, clearly not accepting that as a complete answer, he sighed again.  “There were no lights, right?”  She made a noise of agreement.  “Okay.  Nothing to draw them to that spot.  So what were they doing?”

     She closed her eyes, trying to conjure up what little she’d been able to see.  “They were just…there,” she said finally.  “Milling around.”

     “Right.  Milling.  How many, do you think?”

     She shrugged, forgetting that he couldn’t see her.  “I don’t know.  Twenty?”

     “I thought thirty,” he said.  “But sure, maybe twenty.  A lot, anyway.  Just moving in circles, walking into the wall or the door, I’m not sure which, it was too far away.  Waiting.”

     “For what?”

     “I don’t know!”  He slapped his knee, frustrated.  “I thought I could see it – that the answer was right there – but I couldn’t.  I don’t know.”

     Maddie eased herself down onto the floor beside him, moving slowly to keep the bells from tangling in her hair, or worse, tinkling again.  She took his hand, gripping it hard.  They sat that way, in the dark, until the cold had seeped through the seat of her jeans and spread, meeting with the chill that had worked its way up from her wet shoes and pants.

     Finally, Vinnie spoke again.  “It was your mom?”

     She swallowed hard.  “Yeah.”

     “What did she say?”

     Maddie tightened her other hand around her phone, afraid he would ask to see it.  “I couldn’t hear her,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry.  It’s not a lie.  Not really.  “Just a lot of static.”

     “Hmm.”  He squeezed her hand, a sympathetic gesture that amplified her guilt.  “I’m sorry.  Maybe she’ll call back.”

     Doubt it.  She moved away from him before she slipped up and said something out loud.  On her hands and knees, crawling, she felt her way through the dark, able to see well enough now that she avoided banging her head on a machine that loomed out of the blackness.

     “Where are you going?” Vinnie whispered, sounding alarmed.

     “I want one of those shirts,” she whispered back.  “In the basket.  Don’t worry.”

     He let her go, turning instead to look out the window again.  She scuttled around the row of machines, snagging a shirt off the floor on her way by, and then knelt on the far side, safely out of sight.  Numb fingers hit the button on her phone that brought the screen back to life, lighting up the text message that still waited.

     Sickk here. Not safe. Staay away.

     I should tell him.  She stared at the words, as appalled by the errors as by the message itself; her mother never sent anything without checking three times for perfection.  She could see Grace typing it out, her hands shaking, tears blurring her vision.  Sickk here.  Who?  Her father?  Grace herself?  Both of them?

     If you tell, you can’t go home.  Maddie hated that voice, the cringing cowardice in it, but couldn’t ignore the truth of its words.  He won’t take you.  And you have to go.  She’s your mom.

     “Maddie,” Vinnie whisper-called from the other side of the room.

     “Coming,” she hissed back.  Her fingers hovered over the keypad, indecisive and afraid.

     You can’t go home.  If you tell.

     Hating herself, on the verge of tears, Maddie did the only thing she could do.

     She hit delete.

***

 

     Some time later – maybe an hour, maybe two – Vinnie tapped her arm.

     She jumped, her head jerking up off of his shoulder.  She’d only meant to close her eyes for a moment – he was so warm, and the rest of the room had grown steadily colder, such that she’d had to burrow closer to his side to keep the shivering under control.  Guilt had given way to exhaustion, and she’d drifted, not quite free of the shaking in her arms and legs but deep enough that the cold was an annoyance rather than a pain.  Now the pain was back, an icy ache that lanced through her limbs.

     “What?” she moaned, trying to settle back in against him.

     “Wake up,” Vinnie whispered, shaking her a little.  “We should go.”

     She made a noise of displeasure, loathe to move away from his body heat.  “S’cold,” she complained.

     “I know.”  He stretched, his back popping as he moved.  “That’s why we should go.  We can’t sleep here.”  He took her hand, pulling her up in spite of her protests.  She leaned against him heavily, waiting for feeling to return to her feet.  “It’ll be colder outside, but we have to move.”

     Her reluctance to comply told her that he was right; if they stayed here, in wet clothes and with no heat, it wouldn’t end well.  With a grimace of pain, she forced herself to move, stretching her back and legs and flexing her ankles.  Everything hurt; whether that was from sitting on the cold floor for hours, or running a mile for her life, she wasn’t entirely sure.  She knew she’d be lucky to hobble back to the house.

     “Are you sure they’re gone?” she asked, casting a doubtful look out the window.

     “I didn’t see them pass,” he said.  “They might still be back there.”

     “Between us and the house, you mean.”  She fought to keep the tremble out of her voice.

     “Could be.”  He shrugged.  “Or they could have moved along.  Gone back to the station.”  Sensing her fear, he pulled her close, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead.  “We don’t have to go back the exact way we came.  I can get us there.  Okay?”

     She thought it was decidedly not okay, but there wasn’t much else to be done.  They couldn’t stay in the laundromat forever.  Although…  “We could wait until morning,” she said hopefully.

     “If we sleep here, Madelyn, there won’t be a morning.”  He chafed her hands between his, a useless gesture given his own were nearly as frozen.  “It’s too cold.”

     She gave him a reluctant nod.  Holding her hand loosely in his, he opened the door.  She winced when the bells on the handle jingled again – We should have cut those damn things off – but nothing roared out of the darkness at the sound, and so they went out into the street.

     Vinnie was right – he could get them there, and they didn’t have to retrace their steps to do it.  The moon had risen high, breaking through the remaining clouds and providing them with just enough light to see that the way was clear.  Even so, he led her down and across side streets, weaving a path back to Shawn’s house that she knew she’d never be able to replicate.  She stopped trying to figure out where they were in relation to where they were going and merely followed, scanning anxiously for any signs of undead.  Mercifully, there were none.

     Finally, they emerged on the corner of their own block.  The sight of the front stoop filled her with such relief, she found the strength to run, not stopping until she had a hand on the iron railing.  Safe.  We’re safe.

     “See?” Vinnie asked, flashing her a grin.  “Didn’t I tell you?”

     “You did.”  Closing the distance between them, Maddie rose on her toes and pressed her lips to his in a firm, cold kiss.  “Let’s get inside.”

     She had one foot on the steps when the ground rolled beneath her feet, an ever-so-slight wave that left her dizzy and sick.

     “What-?”

     Before she could finish, the sky exploded.

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Comments
  1. I’m so happy you are back to working on this story! I get so excited when it shows up in my email and the story just keeps getting better and better.
    Thank you!

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