Chapter Forty-Three

Posted: August 24, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Thrown, she thought, by the force of the blast, Maddie spun from her place at the foot of the stairs and fell to the pavement.  She landed hard on her hands and knees, an impact her still-healing wrist was none too happy about.  Freezing water splashed her face.  She drew breath to cry out – and found it cut off, as the heavy weight of falling debris settled over her back and neck.

This is it, she thought.  The realization was strangely peaceful.  She only wished she’d been able to see her mother one last time.

She closed her eyes and braced herself, waiting for the blast of heat from the explosion to scorch her skin, or another piece of debris to finish the job of crushing her.  Instead, she felt panicked breathing against the side of her face, quick puffs of air that whistled in her ear.  Not debris, she realized, shifting under the weight.  Vinnie.  He’d ripped her from the stairs and was now shielding her body.

“Vinnie,” she gasped.  “I can’t breathe.”

Vinnie didn’t move, except to tighten his grip on her.  When nothing fell, and no flames came to destroy them, she wriggled in his grip.  “We’re okay!  Let me go!”

Nothing.

She threw an elbow, hitting him in the stomach.  She doubted that it hurt – the man was like a damn rock – but it startled him into releasing her.  She sat back on her heels, wincing at the pain in her knees and scraped palms.  Collecting himself, Vinnie got to his feet, then offered her a hand up.

She started to thank him, but the words caught in her throat.  In the distance, the sky glowed fierce and red, cut through with pillars of roiling black smoke.  Maddie raised a hand, instinctively shielding her eyes from the glare, though in truth it was too far away to be necessary.

“What is it?” she asked, awed.

“Havers,” Vinnie said hoarsely.  “They blew up the bridge.”

More like the whole damn waterfront.  Maddie glanced at him, surprised by his tone – he sounded shocked, disbelieving, as though he’d expected better.  She couldn’t say that she’d expected such an action, but now that it had happened she thought it seemed about right.

A babble of voices began to fill the air, as houses Maddie had thought were abandoned began to disgorge their residents.  People emerged in a daze, pointing and staring at the fire that raged on the horizon.  Behind her and up the street, a woman caught her first glimpse of the blazing false dawn and screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

Maddie turned, a sense of tightness creeping down the length of her back.  The woman kept screaming, high and hysterical, and Maddie realized she did not sound afraid.

No.  She sounded hurt.

Vinnie grabbed her hand, squeezing so tightly she felt her knuckles grind.  The woman, still screaming, was stumbling down the sidewalk, waving her arms in a panicked flurry.  Two others ranged alongside her, grabbing and pulling until they stopped her in her tracks and hauled her down to the ground.  Her cries reached a pitch that made Maddie wince – and then stopped.

“Oh god.”  Maddie stared in sick fascination as the others remained hunched over the woman’s body, their actions mercifully blurred by distance and darkness.  She didn’t need to see, however, to know what they were doing.  “Oh dear god.”

“Maddie.”  Vinnie tugged on her hand.  “Inside.”

Maddie nodded, eager to comply, but nonetheless remained rooted in place.  She saw now, very clearly, that the living were not the only ones who had been drawn out by the sound of the explosion.  The undead were among them, a shambling addition to the gaping crowd.  Another fell on a man across the street, ripping into his arm before he could pull away, and the screaming began anew.

“Madelyn!” Vinnie shouted, hauling on her arm.  “Inside!  Now!”

A specter loomed out of the shadows in front of her, a walking ghost with a gaping mouth, and Maddie was finally galvanized into action.  She leapt up the stairs and threw herself against the door, jiggling the knob desperately.  It refused to turn, though her panicked mind couldn’t make sense of why.

“It’s locked, it’s locked, it’s locked,” Vinnie yelled at her, trying to push her away.  The keys jingled in his hand, a call back to sanity, and she moved aside, giving him room to unlock the door.  The dead woman at the foot of the stairs had been joined already by four others; their unified snarling seemed to echo in the foyer as Vinnie burst through the door, Maddie hot on his heels.

“Don’t shoot!” Maddie screamed as they entered.  “It’s us, don’t shoot!”

If the others heard her, they heard too late – a boom filled the house.  Vinnie dropped to the floor, the bullet blowing through the front door just above where he’d been standing.  Cursing, he kicked the door closed.  Maddie scrambled past him, going up and over the sofa that still blocked the foot of the stairs.

“Wait!”  Vinnie reached out, grabbing hold of her pant leg.  She wrenched herself free, kicking out at him when he tried to grab her again.  “Not that way, Madelyn!”

Maddie barreled upward, heedless of his warning.  Part of her understood why he objected – funnel or no funnel, upstairs they’d be trapped, with no easy exit.  The animal part of her brain rejected this notion, however; instinct pushed her up the stairs, seeking higher ground.

“I’m sorry!” Jessie shrieked when Maddie reached the landing.  She grabbed Maddie’s hand, helping her to squeeze through the small space left by the dresser barricade.  “Are you okay?  Did I shoot you?!”

“I’m fine,” Maddie assured her.  “We’re fine.”

“No thanks to you,” Vinnie growled.  He shoved them both aside and went down the hall, toward the master bedroom.  Maddie followed, shrugging her sister off when she tried to intervene.  In the bedroom, Vinnie headed immediately for the window, sweeping aside a lamp that blocked his way; it hit the wall with a crash, the lightbulb shattering.  From the doorway, Jessie shrieked again.

“Shut up,” Maddie warned her.  She moved to stand beside Vinnie; together, they ripped aside the curtains and peered down at the street.

“Oh.”  Reaching out, she grabbed Vinnie’s arm, digging her nails into his flesh to keep from screaming.  “Oh my god.”

The number of undead at the doorstep had already increased, and more were coming; they flowed out of the shadows, drawn by the noise and promise of meat.  Maddie thought of ants swarming over a crumb, leaving scent trails behind for the ones who came after.  Except these were not ants.  And their goal was not crumbs.

“We don’t have enough,” Vinnie said.

“Enough what?” she asked.

He looked at her solemnly.  “Bullets.”

Downstairs, glass broke.

Maddie jumped.  “Time to go,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady.

“Go where?  We’re stuck here now!”

“No.”  Maddie shook her head, inspired.  “We’re not.”  She shoved him toward the door.  “Get the others into the back bedroom.”  When he started to protest, she shoved him again.  “Go!”

He went, hollering for Jessie.  Maddie turned to the bed, where Caleb cowered.  “Get up.”  She yanked the sheets down before he could respond and grabbed his arm.  “Can you walk?”

“Not much choice, is there?” the kid snapped.  He took a step and hissed, then shook himself.  “It’s not that bad.  I don’t know if I can run, though.”

Maddie hauled him out of the room, taking some of his weight.  “One way to find out.”

The others waited in the bedroom, huddled around the bed.  Once inside, Maddie slammed the door and locked it, another barrier between them and the monsters.  She didn’t expect it to hold for very long – but then, she didn’t expect to still be there when they broke through.

“Here,” she said, guiding Caleb over and into Jessie’s care.  She turned to Vinnie, who stared back at her; the dim light of the lantern made it impossible to read his expression.  “Well?” he asked.

Swiping a hand across her face – how odd it was, to be sweating, when so recently she’d been freezing to death – she crossed the room to the window.  “Help me,” she said, pulling up on the window sash.  Vinnie complied, moving to assist her in securing the window and removing the screen.  She leaned out into the night, fingers crossed that the assumption she’d made would prove correct.  “Yes!” she cried when she saw it.

“What?” Vinnie asked, trying to see around her.  “What is it?”

“The porch,” she said, turning back to the others.  “The roof over it, actually.”

After a moment, Vinnie grinned.  “Brilliant.”

“What?” Jessie demanded, slow to catch on.  “What about the roof?”

“It’s our way out,” Maddie explained.

“I’m not jumping off of the roof!”

“You won’t have to,” Vinnie cut in.  “I’ll go first, make sure the yard is clear.  It should be – they’re at the front door, they won’t go to the back.  Then I’ll help the rest of you down.  It’s not far,” he added quickly.  “Just a couple of feet, once you swing yourself down.  We can go out through the gate in the back.”

“And then where?” Hannah asked.

Maddie chewed her lip, thinking.  Where could they go?  The station house had been a bust; they couldn’t very well head there.

Vinnie surprised her by suggesting that very thing.  “They won’t still be there,” he insisted.  “The noise of the explosion will have drawn them away.”

“Who won’t be there?” Jessie demanded to know.  “And what the hell blew up?  What did you guys do?”

“Later,” Maddie told her.  “There’s no time.”  As if to punctuate her point, there was a loud crash from downstairs.  “You go,” she said to Vinnie.  “Hurry.”

He needed no more persuading.  Grunting with effort, he swung his leg up over the windowsill and climbed out.  She watched his progress as he crept across the porch roof; he slipped twice, just a little, and then he was gone, down over the edge and into the yard.

“The shingles are wet,” she said over her shoulder, warning the others.  “You’ll have to move slowly, or you’ll fall.”

“Great,” Jessie muttered.  She helped Caleb to sit on the edge of the bed, then brandished the shotgun she held.  “What about this?  How am I supposed to carry it out there and not break my neck?”

“Just hand it down to him before you jump down,” Maddie snapped.  “Or would you rather stay here and wait for them to find you?”

Jessie continued to grumble but Maddie ignored her, focusing instead on the yard.  After what felt like an eternity, Vinnie re-emerged from the shadows by the gate and trotted back toward the roof, waving a hand over his head.

“Okay,” Maddie said.  She closed her eyes for just a moment, then turned to the others.  “Hannah, you first.”

Maddie helped the older woman up and over the window ledge.  Her journey across the porch roof was agonizingly slow; Maddie held her breath, certain that the dead would begin pounding on the bedroom door at any moment.  Finally, Hannah dropped from sight, then re-appeared in the yard.

Thank god.  With shaking hands, she waved Jessie over to the window.  “Be careful,” she said quietly as the younger woman swung out onto the roof.  Jessie grunted, and moved away.

“You’re next,” she told Caleb as Jessie neared the edge of the roof.

“No.”

Maddie whirled on him, instantly angry.  “Do not do this to us again,” she growled.  “I will leave you here.”

Caleb put up a placating hand.  “It’s not that.  But you should go next.”  He gave her a small smile.  “Ladies first.”

Maddie rolled her eyes.  Fuck it.  If he wanted to play the chivalrous knight instead of taking his ass out the window, she wasn’t going to argue with him.  Instead, she took a deep breath, ducked her head, and headed out onto the roof.

Vinnie was wrong.  It’s very high.

Maddie crouched just beneath the window, suddenly unsure of this plan she’d concocted.  The expanse of shingles between her and the roof’s edge seemed to stretch for miles, glistening meanly in the moonlight.  One wrong move and she’d go careening down over the side, a fall that would surely break something.

You can do this, she told herself sternly.  Three people already have.  A thud from inside the house made her jump again.  Surely falling is better than the alternative.

With that in mind, she crept forward carefully, moving on her hands and knees so her shoes couldn’t betray her and slip.  At the edge she turned around and lay flat on her belly, maneuvering until her feet, then her calves were below the roof line.  Gathering her courage, she lowered herself the rest of the way down.  The action was smooth – until her palms slipped on the metal edge, and she thought she would fall.  Then Vinnie’s hands were on her, guiding and supporting, and she let go.

“Good job,” he whispered as he lowered her to the ground.  She leaned against him for a moment, catching her breath, and felt him press a kiss to her temple.  “The gate,” he said in her ear.  “Go.”

She ran, joining her sister and Hannah at the fence.  She thought for a moment that Caleb wouldn’t emerge – that he’d lied to her, again, and would stay behind to die.  Then his head and shoulders appeared in the open window, and she let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she muttered, dancing from one foot to the other.

“You didn’t race across yourself,” Jessie whispered, annoyed.

“Ssh,” Hannah admonished.  “Look, there he is.”

The kid had moved quickly across the width of the roof – faster than any of the others had moved – and now indeed, there he was, preparing to lower himself over the edge.  Maddie balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to run.  Caleb dropped.

And let out a horrific scream.

Distance and darkness made it impossible to tell for sure what had happened.  Perhaps his hands had slipped, as hers had, on the wet metal edge; perhaps he’d let go before Vinnie was ready to catch him.  Whatever the cause, he landed hard, and his injured knee collapsed out from beneath him.  He crumpled at Vinnie’s feet, clutching his leg and wailing.

“Oh Jesus.”  Hannah brought her gun up, the barrel trembling.  “They’ll hear him!”

Vinnie seemed to realize the same thing; moving quickly, he scooped Caleb up and hauled him bodily across the yard, ignoring the kid’s screams of pain as his knee jostled along.  Once at the gate, he handed the kid off to Hannah, who staggered under Caleb’s weight before finding her footing.  “Hush,” she told him sternly.  “Hush now.”

Caleb hushed, though not without obvious effort.  Maddie eyed him warily; it was a long trek back to the station house, and they couldn’t afford to coddle him and move carefully.  He was going to scream again, of that there was no doubt.  She just hoped he wouldn’t bring a horde down on top of them when he did it.

“Here.”  Vinnie reached down and ripped off a part of his shirt, then held out the piece of balled up fabric.  “Stick this in your mouth.”  He leaned close as he pressed it into Caleb’s hand.  “Hold on to it,” he said, his voice full of quiet menace.  “If you spit it out, I’ll shoot you myself.”

Wisely, Caleb said nothing, choosing instead to clamp the fabric between his teeth without argument.  When Hannah moved forward toward the gate, he moaned, but the sound was sufficiently muffled.

They moved as one, slipping through the gate and into the alley as quietly as possible.  The alley was much narrower than Maddie had anticipated; two people could walk side-by-side, but just barely.  Another funnel.  She gripped her handgun with sweat-slicked hands, praying fervently that there would be no reason to use it.  The way ahead, at least, appeared to be clear.

“Are you sure about this?” she whispered.  “We don’t even know if it’s safe.”

Vinnie shrugged.  “You have a better idea?”

She did not.  Nonetheless, her discomfort grew as they weaved their way back toward the station house, stopping half a dozen times to allow an undead straggler to pass.  She was so sure that the way would be blocked, that the horde would still be milling about before the entrance, that when it was finally in view and the sidewalk proved to be empty she had a hard time believing her eyes.

They were one block to safety when Jessie started to scream.

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