Chapter Thirty-Eight

Posted: January 19, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
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     They argued, very briefly, over the right course of action.  The merit of waiting until after dark, when they’d be less likely to be seen hauling around a dead body, was weighed against the risk that the moldering corpse on the doorstep would draw others’ attention.  In the end, it was Vinnie who spurred them to act immediately; none of them wanted him to come back downstairs and feel compelled to participate in the removal of his friend.  He’d done enough already.

     Once things were decided, Jessie smoothly took charge, a shift Maddie was only too happy to allow.  She’d slept through the aftermath of the Summer debacle; Jessie, on the other hand, had worked beside Vinnie to clean up that mess, making her uniquely, albeit grotesquely, suited to the task at hand.

     “Run upstairs and find sheets,” Jessie told Hannah.  “A lot of them.  There’s a closet in the master bathroom.”  She cocked her head, listening to Caleb’s continued screaming from the bedroom upstairs.  “And shut him up.”

     Hannah rushed off, taking the stairs two at a time.  “Grab my shoes!” Maddie called after her.  She didn’t relish the thought of going outside barefoot under the best of times, and it certainly wasn’t appropriate now.

     When Hannah returned, arms full of sheets, Jessie continued.  “We’ll need to wrap him,” she explained.  “That’s what we did with Summer.  He’ll be heavy, and…gross.”  She shuddered.  “Using the sheets will keep us clean, and make it easier to move him.”

     “Move him where?” Maddie asked.

     Jessie chewed the inside of her cheek, thinking.  “There’s probably an alley behind the garden.”  She shook her head.  “Who knows what’s out there, though.  And getting him down the street and around will take too long.”

     “We could drag him through the house,” Hannah suggested.  “Take him out through the gate.”

     Jessie nodded.  “Through the house is good,” she agreed.  “But I don’t want to open the gate.”

     They stood in silence for a moment, lost in thought.

     “There’s a shed,” Maddie finally offered.  She felt terrible suggesting it – a rundown garden shed was no place to bury a person – but there seemed to be no other options.  It’s better than Summer got, she told herself.

     Jessie smiled, clearly pleased.  “Good!  Safe, and private.”  She nodded, decided.  “Okay.  Let’s go.”

     They surveyed the street carefully first, checking to be sure that no one had appeared in the time it had taken for them to get a plan together.  Maddie was surprised when they saw nothing; if there were people holed up in the houses around them, they apparently weren’t the type to venture out and investigate gun shots.  On the other hand, no dead had been drawn by the sound of the shots either.  That was good.  Hopefully they could get this job done before any stumbled down the road and decided they’d found a dinner buffet.

     The task was far worse than Maddie had imagined.  Rain continued to pour down, soaking them the moment they stepped onto the porch; the sheets sagged and flopped around their knees when they tried to shake them out, and water ran into their eyes.  They struggled with the wet blankets, and then with the dead body, which proved much heavier than any of them had anticipated.

     They tried lifting him by the feet, intending to shift him onto the sheets they’d placed on the pavement, bottom half first, then the top.  A good plan, had they not forgotten one thing: his prosthetic leg.  Jessie grabbed it and tugged, grunting with effort, and the whole thing flew off in her hands; she stumbled backwards into the porch stairs and landed hard on her side, cursing.  Maddie felt a crazed laugh bubble in her throat and clamped down on it quickly.

     “Fuck!”  Jessie got back on her feet, wincing, and threw the leg down on the sheet.  “Let’s roll him.”

They did, working together and using his clothes as the leverage they needed to get him up and over.  Maddie averted her eyes from the back of his head, grateful that the rain had already washed away much of the blood but disinclined nonetheless to get a good look at the damage Vinnie’s little gun had caused.  She thought again of Summer, and struggled to keep her stomach under control.  Don’t puke, she told herself sternly.  Just breathe.

     Jessie started to wrap the sheet around him.

     “Wait!”

     She looked up, annoyed.  “What?”

     Maddie reached down and grabbed the pack on Shawn’s back, a rough canvas bag that had seen better days.  “We should take this.”  When Jessie rolled her eyes and moved to cover him again, Maddie warded her off.  “Vinnie might want it,” she said.

     Wiping streaming water from her face, Maddie bent down and worked to move the bag’s straps down Shawn’s arms.  Jessie helped, tugging his arms around so Maddie could get the bag off.

     “Happy?” she asked, huffing.

     Maddie nodded.  She ran up the stairs and dropped the bag in the foyer, wincing at the heavy clunk it made when it hit the floor.  Hope that wasn’t breakable.

     She never knew how long it took them to get him up the stairs and inside, through the house, and back into the garden.  It felt like hours.  Before long, the muscles in her shoulders were screaming in pain; her thighs shook with each step and her ears rang, filled with the hum of over-exertion.  The others, she saw, weren’t doing much better – Hannah’s face was beet red by the time they were done, and Jessie’s eyes held a wild, faraway look, like she’d checked out of what they were doing some time ago and didn’t know how to come back.  The ground in the garden was soft and wet, sucking at their shoes as they trudged from the back door to the shed, slowing them down and miring the whole enterprise in thick, black mud.  When the wind picked up, wrenching the shed door from Maddie’s hand and sending it slamming into the metal side of the shed with a loud bang, she sobbed.  She wanted to be done.

     Finally, it was.  They wrestled him into an empty spot in the shed and left him there, propped against a box labeled “X-Mas Lites” and a snow shovel with a broken handle.  The sheet covering Shawn’s face had fallen down in the process, revealing one glassy eye that seemed to stare at Maddie as she moved around him; whispering an apology, she flipped the corner back over and backed out quickly, slamming the shed door behind her.

     Re-entering the house, Maddie felt the intense urge to change out of her clothes.  They were wet and dirty, which certainly contributed to her sense of discomfort.  But more than that, she was acutely aware that she was wearing one of Shawn’s t-shirts, swiped from his drawer when she’d run out of clean clothes.  The feel of the damp cotton as it clung to her back made her skin crawl.

     Hannah must have sensed her unease.  “Go get changed,” she said kindly.  “Both of you.  I’ll go up when you’re done.”

     Smiling gratefully, Maddie grabbed a lantern from the kitchen table and headed up the stairs, not bothering to wait for her sister.  She felt foolish for needing the light – she’d grown used to moving through the house in the dark over the last few days, and it wasn’t quite evening outside yet anyway – but she couldn’t bring herself to go upstairs without it.  The air inside seemed heavier than it had earlier, as if the house knew that its owner was gone.  She’d thought it had seemed sad when they’d first arrived.  Now it felt darkly depressed.

     She hesitated outside the bedroom door, even debated knocking, for politeness’ sake.  She didn’t want to bother Vinnie, nor answer any questions he might have about what they’d been doing – their trip through the house had not been silent, and she could only imagine what he’d been picturing, sitting up here alone in the dark.

     “Vinnie?” she called softly as she entered.

     She lifted the lantern, regretting that she’d grabbed one of the crappy blue lights instead of a regular one; it did little to dispel the deep shadows in the bedroom.  She saw the shape of him, perched on the edge of the bed, seemingly staring at the wall in front of him.  As far as she could tell, he still wore his wet clothes.

     “Just give me a minute,” she said.  She changed quickly, draping her jeans over the bedpost to dry; the shirt she threw in the corner, not caring when it would be suitable to wear as she had no intention of putting it on again, ever.  She slipped into the first clean clothes she could find, sweatpants and a sweater, a combination that looked ridiculous but was at least warm and dry.  She cast surreptitious glances in Vinnie’s direction, but his gaze remained fixed on the wall.

     Once she was dressed, she went to him, not sure what to do but unable to leave him sitting there in his still-wet clothes.  The light from the lantern gave his face a cold, bruised appearance; his eyes were dark holes.  Swallowing hard, she reached out to touch him.

     “Vinnie,” she said.  “You need to change.”

     When he grabbed her, she jumped; his fingers were icy and damp, digging into her forearm.  Slowly, he leaned forward, tilting toward her until his forehead rested on her chest.  He moved deliberately, giving her time to shift away, but she remained still, allowing him to pillow his face against her.  He did not melt, or sigh; it occurred to her, as he sat there stiff and awkward, that he was unused to seeking out or receiving comfort.  Her heart flooded with sympathy.

     “Ssshh,” she whispered.  Carefully, she ran the fingers of her loose hand through his hair, stroking his head until she felt his grip on her other arm relax.  “I’m sorry,” she told him quietly.  “I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”

     After a few minutes, she felt him let go; he sagged against her as the tension drained away from his body.  She let him rest for a moment longer, then coaxed him into sitting up straight so she could tug at the hem of his wet shirt.  “Come on,” she encouraged.  “Let’s get you dry.”

     He complied wordlessly, lifting his arms as she pulled the shirt over his head and then standing so she could undo his belt.  She remembered when he’d helped her the same way, after Summer had died, and the memory imbued her with renewed tenderness.  This is worse, she thought sadly.  Seeing Vinnie like this, limp and defeated, made her ache.

     She moved to find him new clothes, and he grabbed her again, gentler this time but still insistent.  His hands shook as they fumbled at the buttons of her sweater; one went spiraling off into the darkness, popped from its thread when he gave a frustrated tug.  She covered his hands with her own, trying to stop him.

     “This isn’t a good idea,” she said.

     He lifted his face to hers.  Even in the poor light of the lantern, she could see the shiny track of tears that coursed down his left cheek.

     “Please,” he said hoarsely.  His fingers clenched at her shirt.  “Please.”

     Maddie hesitated, but only for a moment.  She knew she was right – this was no doubt a terrible idea, especially after she’d spent days distancing herself for the sake of her own heart.  But the need in his voice ignited her own.  They both needed to forget, if only for a little while.

     Taking a deep breath, she undid her sweater.

     His lips, like his hands, were cold on her skin; she shivered when he kissed her chest.  His tongue, on the other hand, was warm; he dragged it across her breasts, tracing the line of each cup of her bra, leaving behind a trail of heat that raced straight through her body.  When he pulled the fabric down, to lap at her nipples, she clutched his hair and moaned.

     Moving slowly, he kissed his way down the length of her torso, stopping in places to lick and nip.  His fingers danced around her waist, stroking the soft, sensitive skin of her belly.  He started to drag her pants down from around her hips, and she stopped him again.  She ached at the thought of having his mouth on her – god knew she’d thought about it enough since the last time – but it didn’t seem entirely fair.  Instead, she pushed against his chest until he fell back onto the bed, and dropped to her knees.

     He tried valiantly to control her movements, tangling his fingers into her hair and pushing her down, but she refused to be rushed; each time she felt pressure on the back of her head she paused, waiting until he released her before accepting more of him into her mouth.  He groaned in frustration and thrashed on the bed.  She waited until he was still, then raked her nails down the inside of his thighs.  He pulsed against her tongue, and she did it again.

     “Harder,” he gasped.

     She complied, and was rewarded with a deep, satisfied moan.  She stroked her fingers along the same path that she’d scratched, hoping she hadn’t left marks on his skin.  Like the others.

     The reminder brought her up short.  She sat back, releasing him abruptly, and swiped the back of her hand across her mouth.  Vinnie didn’t notice the change in her demeanor; that, or he pretended not to.  He sat up swiftly, cupped her face in his hands and leaned down, kissing her hard.  Her mouth opened automatically under his.  When his tongue swept across hers, she wondered if he could taste himself, a thought that made her clit throb.

     He gripped her shoulders and pulled her to feet.  Her pants were gone before she could blink, tossed across the room, and then he helped her onto his lap.  She balanced her knees on either side of him while his hand slipped down between them, finding her wet and more than ready.  His fingers plunged inside her, and she gasped.

     “Madelyn,” he moaned, burrowing his face between her breasts.  “Oh baby…oh god…Madelyn.”

     She grasped his shoulders and arched her back, urging him deeper.  She saw herself as if from a distance: naked from the waist down, torn sweater hanging open, breasts exposed and trussed high by the bra she still wore.  For just a moment she was embarrassed to be here again, preparing to fuck this man when she wasn’t sure they even liked each other all that much.

     Then his hands were on her hips, guiding her down onto him, and she forgot about everything but the way he felt inside of her.  He gripped her firmly and nipped at her neck.  “Ride,” he growled in her ear.

     Obeying that order, she found, required no thought at all.

 

 

     She waited again until he’d fallen asleep, then dressed in the dark.  It occurred to her, as she searched for her sweats, that they’d slept together twice now, and both times she’d been the one to slip away after, like someone escaping a bad one-night stand.  After the fight they’d had about him being uncaring, she felt hypocritical and guilty – though not guilty enough to get back in the bed.

     Instead, she crept from the bedroom as quietly as possible, shut the door behind her, and headed back downstairs.  She’d come to a decision as she lay in the dark, waiting for Vinnie’s breathing to deepen and slow.  She hoped that her sister was still in the mood to lead for a little while longer.

     It was time for Maddie to learn everything she could about the guns.

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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.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

Posted: December 21, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Twenty-Two

     Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

     Maddie wasn’t sure where she’d first heard the idiom that filled her head, drowning out everything else. Perhaps from her mother; it sounded like the kind of pithy advice Grace was fond of giving, guilt-laden bullshit masquerading as wisdom. Wherever it had come from, it plagued her now, playing on repeat as she tried in vain to sleep, to eat, to keep watch when her turn came and pretend she was fine when forced to sit with the others.

     Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

     Clad in jeans and a stranger’s stolen t-shirt, she sat on the stairs and cradled her aching head. The foyer’s tile floor was cold beneath her bare feet; the hard wood of the riser had long ago caused her ass to grow numb. Gloom permeated the house; what little light had managed to penetrate the shadowy interior when they’d first arrived was gone now, blocked by the heavy clouds that blanketed the sky.

     Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

     Outside, the rain fell.

     The storm had been raging for three days. The wind came and went, sometimes howling, sometimes dropping away to nothing, but the rain was a constant torrent. It pounded the roof, filling every moment of the days and nights with a perpetual tap-tap-tap that Maddie feared would drive her insane. It coursed down the windows, obscuring the view; a few hours of peering through the blurred panes inevitably left her with a headache, pain she nursed until her time at the helm came again. Her eyes felt permanently strained, every blink filled with grit and ground glass. The inability to sleep wasn’t helping.

     Massaging her temples, she tried to remember why she’d thought a storm would help them, what had made her think Mother Nature would be on their side. She’d forgotten, when sending out her savage prayer, that they were alone now; whatever damage the storm wreaked on the city, there would be no one to come and clean it up, to rescue them, to help restore order and repair what was broken.

     Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

     The pole had fallen on the second day, weakened after hours of battering winds. It had crashed through the roof of the house across the street, smashing through shingles and wood like a knife through butter. They’d watched from the window, anxious to see if anyone emerged from the shattered wreck, but no one had. Maddie had pushed for someone to go and check, to make sure no one was stuck inside and hurt; Vinnie had disagreed strenuously. The river that coursed down what had once been the road had put an end to the argument before it gained any real traction – crossing the street with any semblance of safety was impossible. If there were people inside, they were on their own.

     The power remained out, and with it, the water and heat. They filled buckets with rainwater to keep the toilet operational, and washed their hands in a separate container of ice-cold water. Maddie considered the unglamorous reality of the end of the world, and wished she could punch everyone in Hollywood right in the face.

     Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

     Maddie was repentant.

     This was the state in which Hannah found her.

     The older woman paused at the foot of the stairs, stymied in her ascent by Maddie’s obvious misery. Maddie kept her eyes fixed firmly on the floor, hoping that if she ignored the woman she would go away; she wasn’t in the mood to discuss her problems, and she suspected Hannah would find them trivial anyway. Hell, she knew she was being ridiculous, an acknowledgement that did nothing to stop the flow of her thoughts.

     For a moment it seemed as though another of her prayers would be answered, as the other woman finally moved past her and up the stairs. Maddie breathed a sigh of relief – which hitched in her chest when Hannah stopped, turned and came back down, settling on the step behind her.

     “What’s the matter, dear?”

     “Nothing,” Maddie mumbled. “It doesn’t matter.”

     “It’s clearly not nothing,” Hannah insisted. “You’ve been sitting here for hours. Moping. It’s annoying.” When Maddie remained silent, the other woman huffed. “Spill it.”

     Maddie told her.

     Hannah laughed, though not for the reason Maddie had expected. “Where on earth did you hear that?”

     “I don’t know. My mom, I think. Why?”

     The older woman chuckled again. “’Marry in haste, repent at leisure.’ That’s the saying. She taught it to you wrong.”

     Maddie rolled her eyes. Hearing the corrected phrase confirmed Grace as the source; her mother was constantly re-working phrases and stories to better fit her agenda, which usually involved trying to get her recalcitrant daughters to fall in line. Maddie and her sister had spent years believing that Cain and Abel had had a falling out over a toy they were supposed to share.

     “Why are you worrying about something like that, anyway?” Hannah asked, reaching out to squeeze Maddie’s knee. “You didn’t cause any of this.”

     Maddie slumped. Her head down, she gestured helplessly toward the front door, and the water rushing down the tempered-glass windows on either side. “I prayed for rain.”

     “Oh.” Hannah was quiet for a moment. “I see. I thought….well, never mind.” She withdrew her hand. “That’s stupid.”

     She stood before Maddie could respond, resuming her trek up the stairs without a second glance. Maddie dropped her head back into her hands; she knew exactly which “sin” the older woman expected her to show remorse over, and it wasn’t one she was prepared to take responsibility for. Yet. The kid could still make a miraculous recovery. Maddie wasn’t entirely convinced he wasn’t faking his limited mobility so that the others would continue to wait on him.

     Before she could slide much further into another funk, the sound of her name caught her attention.

     “-ated him, you know? I think she was just jealous.”

     Jessie’s voice carried through the doorway between the foyer and the living room; Maddie couldn’t see her, but she could easily picture her sister, sprawled on the sofa, yammering at Vinnie while the poor man tried to do his duty and run out the clock on his turn at the window.

     “But anyway, we broke up when he quit drinking because hello. Like I was going to date some AA loser.” Jessie took a breath. “What about you? What kind of girls do you date?”

     Maddie stared intently, waiting to hear what Vinnie would say. He must have felt her gaze; his eyes darted in her direction, shutter-speed quick, before skipping away. He cleared his throat. “I, uh…I don’t date.”

     Jessie laughed. Maddie flinched, at the volume of her sister’s asinine giggling and the confirmation of exactly what she’d feared – she’d grown attached to a guy who made it a habit not to form attachments.

     Perfect. Fucking. Perfect.

     She stood, wincing as feeling returned to areas of her body that had grown cold and numb after sitting for so long. Forgetting all the rules they’d established about keeping things quiet inside, so as not to attract the unwanted attention of any passing dead, she stomped her way up the stairs and into the bedroom, where she threw herself down on the bed. The bed she’d slept in alone since that first night, always careful to stay out of the room when Vinnie was in it; she knew, even if her body and heart didn’t, that continuing down that path was a terrible idea.

     She hadn’t expected him to follow her – his time on watch wasn’t up for another few hours – but he did anyway. Even with her eyes closed, she was aware of him in the doorway, where he stood, watching her.

     “What’s wrong with you?” he finally asked.

     “Forget it,” she snapped.

     “Nope.” He entered a few steps, stopping at the foot of the bed. “Are you mad?”

     She laughed, a high, hysterical laugh, utterly without humor. “Oh no. Of course not. Why would I be mad?”

     “I don’t know. But you are.”

     “I’m not,” she argued, embarrassed at how petulant she sounded but unable to stop herself. “I’ve just realized what a bad idea it was to sleep with you.”

     It was Vinnie’s turn to laugh. “Oh really? Was it bad for you?”

     She blushed. “That’s not what I meant.”

     “Then what do you mean?”

     Exasperated, she rolled over and opened her eyes. “Do you meet anyone that you don’t fuck?”

     He raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t fuck your sister.”

     “Gross.”

     “Well I didn’t.” He sat on the edge of the bed, hands settled on his knees. “Why do you care who I’ve slept with?” He paused. “It’s not like I was engaged.”

     She sat up, gasping. “That’s not fair.”

     “No?” His jaw twitched as he clenched it. “You don’t hear me asking questions about your past, Madeline. Because I don’t give a shit.”

     “That is the problem.” She drew her knees up to her chest, putting more space between them. “My past is gone; there’s no one left to think about. He’s dead. Whoever you’ve dated is out there, right now. In this. And you don’t ‘give a shit’.”

     Silence stretched between them until finally, he sighed. “Yes. They are. They were nice girls – well, most of them were – and I hope they’re okay. But unless you’re suggesting that we caravan around the city, picking up every woman I’ve fucked and cramming her into the backseat with you, I don’t know what the hell you want me to do.”

     She thought about it. “I want you to care.”

     Whatever response he may have had to that, Maddie never heard it. The bedroom door flew open and Jessie bustled in, her face flushed with panic and fear.

     “Vinnie! You need to come down. There’s a problem.”

     Vinnie, his eyes locked on Maddie’s, tried to wave her off. “In a minute.”

     “No. Now.” Jessie grabbed his arm. “Someone’s at the door.”

     Vinnie turned on her so quickly, she yelped and took a step back. “Who is it?” he asked urgently. “One of the neighbors?”

     Jessie shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I don’t….I don’t think he’s okay.”

     “Show me.”

     They followed her back down the stairs, careful now to keep their steps as quiet as possible. Vinnie took up position at the door’s peephole, peering through to see who had come to visit.

     And peering.

     And peering.

     Minutes passed, with Vinnie standing stock-still in front of the door, before Maddie finally reached out and touched his shoulder. “What is it?” she whispered. He didn’t answer. Instead he stepped back, giving her access to the door; he continued retreating, until his heels hit the stairs and he sat. Hard.

     Heart in her throat, Maddie moved to look for herself.

     She’d expected to see the visitor’s face looming close to the door; part of her cringed in anticipation, caught once again in the fear that whoever was on the other side could see her too. She held her breath, remembering the way her neighbor had heard her through her apartment door and clawed his way inside, though it quickly became apparent that that wasn’t a problem in this situation. Yet.

     The man stood at the foot of the porch steps. He swayed on his feet, his head down, rainwater streaming from his hair and what remained of his clothes. For a moment she thought he was the same man from the other night, the one she’d mistaken for drunk. Then she realized that no, this man had two arms, where the other had had only one. And the reason for his sway was obvious, once she glanced down.

     The prosthesis that hinged from his left knee was in pieces. How it was able to continue supporting his weight when he shifted to that leg was a mystery, one she quickly realized she had no time to contemplate.

     The sound of muffled cries caused her to turn. Vinnie sat, face in his hands, and sobbed. She stared at him, shocked, until it hit her. She knew who the man outside was.

     Shawn, it seemed, had come home.

All right all right!  Today is officially the last day of the fall semester for me, and I’m ready to jump back into this thing with both feet.  I apologize for up and disappearing again – the last 7 weeks have been taken up with focusing on a creative non-fiction project that very nearly killed me due to the work involved (not least because it saw me trawling through MRA sites, which I do NOT recommend); add in my other classes, my job and my family, who refused to take care of themselves for a few weeks while Mommy had a breakdown, and I’m afraid something had to get pushed to the back burner.  Sorry, my loves.

I’m working away at the next chapter, and expect to have it up on time (whaaaaat?!) this Sunday.  It’s a Christmas miracle!  I intended to write a big long post about Romance today, as part 3 of the Lessons Learned series, but frankly I don’t think I can give it the attention I want to right now so that will hopefully appear next Friday.  Instead I’m going to go mindlessly scroll through Tumblr (where I periodically reblog random shit) and think about wrapping presents.  Because that’s the same thing as actually doing the work to get them wrapped, right?  Of course.

(PS: If you’re on Tumblr, let me know so I can follow you!  And if you have any recommendations for good blogs to follow, throw them at me.)

See you Sunday!

I know, I know, I skipped out on last week’s posts. I had a really good excuse though: my oldest turned 10 last weekend, and it was kind of traumatizing. For me, not for her; I’m pretty sure she had the best damn day of her life, whereas I had to spend several hours inside a small room filled with bounce houses, screaming kids, an arcade where half the games were broken and employees who gave less than a shit about refunding the money we lost inside some of said broken games. I’m glad she had fun, but I still have a horror hangover. So that’s why I wasn’t around. (That and my mom came to visit for the weekend, and she lives in a different state – we only see each other a handful of times a year. Mom wins out over everything, y’all. Sorry.)

At any rate, I’m mostly refreshed and ready to go, so let’s dig in to part 2 of the lessons I’ve learned since starting this project (part 1 can be found here):

Research

I came across a writing tip the other day, wherein the writer addressed the issue of research in writing, and what to do when one hits a wall in terms of knowledge: interrupt the flow to do the research, or skip over it and come back later? The tip was to insert the word “elephant” into the manuscript and keep going, so that one could simply run a search on the document after everything was finished and fill in the holes at a later date. It was a good tip, and it’s a technique I’ve used myself when I hit a plot wall, although I prefer to plug in an * rather than “elephant”. Whatever works, though.

I wish I could fucking do that now.

You would think, going in to my story, that it wouldn’t require much in the way of research. “Love story during the zombie apocalypse”, like, what the fuck could you be looking up? And I suppose I could have fudged on a lot of stuff, or eliminated plot points to simplify the process. But no. No, I prefer to know exactly how something works, like vaccine production or CDC quarantine procedures, and THEN I screw around with it, changing aspects to suit my needs and keeping just enough so that it could be plausible, maybe, if you tilt your head and squint a little bit.

Question: What did I research and where did it show up?
Answer: Damn near everything, and you probably didn’t notice.

When I first started, I spent hours reading about vaccine production and distribution, CDC history and policy, and accounts of real disease outbreaks and how they were handled by medical professionals. I looked at blood-born disease vectors versus air-born. I looked at cases of “zombification” in the animal kingdom, shit that didn’t even show up in the plot until this last chapter, and then it was a throwaway from an obviously crazy person. But there really is a parasite that hijacks the brain of paper wasps, which seems a bit like karma considering there’s a type of wasp that hijacks spiders and makes them build webs on their behalf. The more you know.

In trying to figure out if I could put an indoor fire escape in Vinnie’s building, I wound up reading pages and pages and PAGES of the NYC fire code, which is….even more boring than you’re imagining. The answer I came up with was yes….maybe….if it met certain code requirements and existed in conjunction with other means of code-compliant escape routes. So I just made the building old and the landlord a jackhole who didn’t fix shit, like the elevator or Vinnie’s broken escape ladder (a code violation!) and called it a day. I wish I could get those hours back.

I spent about two hours two weeks ago trying to figure out if street lights in certain areas run on a separate power grid from the one that supplies power to domiciles, without getting a straight answer. Although the city of New York really wants me to know about the new light bulbs they’re putting in their streetlights, so…yay for them?

I’ve spent so many hours looking at a 3-foot tall map of New York City that I’m pretty sure I could get around with my eyes closed, despite having been there only once, 13 years ago.

That just sits in my kitchen, to the right of where I write, and mocks me all day long. Bless my husband for not even glancing at me oddly when he happens to catch me musing over it at random times. He probably doesn’t even notice anymore. I’ve lost time looking at worse things.

Like the guns.

So, full disclosure: like Maddie, I’ve never seen a gun in person, let alone held or fired one. I’m working on remedying that, as I’d like to have the experience before I have her shoot one for the first time, but the shooting ranges in my area kind of frown upon random people just showing up and asking to fire weapons? What’s up with that? I just want you to hand me a handgun and shoot at things for an hour, I DON’T THINK THAT’S UNREASONABLE.

(Okay, no, it totally is. But I’m working on finding a solution.)

In the meantime, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching Youtube videos where other people shoot weapons. And scrolling through websites dedicated to buying guns, to get an idea of the different types out there and how they’re constructed, loaded, broken down and put back together, cleaned, properly stored, etc. And, um, googling things that have probably ensured I’m being monitored now. Hi, NSA.

What else have I looked up along the way here? The population of New York City, obviously. Floor plans of traditional brownstones. Apocalypse survival tips, like how to open cans without a can opener and how to make a flashlight work without batteries. (The secret for the latter is tin foil. You’re welcome.) The structures of the brain. Hospital emergency codes. Drugs used in hospital treatment settings. Forensics – blood spatter, how certain causes of death are determined via physical evidence, that kind of gory stuff. How flooding affects the structural integrity of various types of buildings. (……)

The thing is, I like doing research. Even when I don’t use it, I enjoy finding out the answer and storing it away for possible use at a later date. But it slows the process down massively, like when I realize I just put a gun in my heroine’s hand, and she and I are equally clueless as to how to make it realistically go boom. I can’t just throw an elephant at the problem and come back to fix it later, when all the rest is done. And every chapter, or almost every chapter, something crops up that I decide I need the answer to, and I have to stop, head off into Google land and hope I don’t get caught in some terrible Wikipedia spiral where I started out looking up parasitic wasps and when I come back up for breath three hours have passed and I suddenly know a whole lot more about Costa Rica than I ever intended to.

Don’t look at me like that. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

This would probably be easier if I could just let certain things go, accept that it’s fiction and doesn’t have to have even a hint of realism about it, but I can’t. Lord knows why. So I fill notebooks with information I’ll never need again and turn my bookmarks tab into a horror show, scatter bits and pieces of real shit throughout the text knowing nobody will ever know the damn difference, and drive myself crazy while everybody else is like “Holy crap, when are they just going to FUCK?!” Which is a problem we’ll address with next week’s post on Romance.

But seriously: Weaponized parasitic zombie virus. That’s how it’s going to happen, you guys. Buy tin foil and be ready.

You can still be fancy in the zombie apocalypse.  Don’t slack.

(Also, final note: I have my fingers crossed that I’ll have the chapter ready for Sunday, but I won’t even lie, I have a SHIT-TON of school work to finish before Monday, so no guarantees.)

Chapter Thirty Five

Posted: October 12, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It quickly became apparent that the outage was more than a temporary glitch; the tiny lights on their absent host’s myriad electronics remained dark, a loss Maddie found oddly unsettling. There was a difference, she felt, between a wholly unlit room, and one whose black aura was sprinkled with the familiar, if ineffectual, glow of power indicators and cable connections. The longer she sat, staring into nothing, waiting for the power to return, the more her discomfort grew.

     Anxious to prevent the heebie-jeebies from taking hold, she stirred from the sofa, moving carefully toward the living room’s large window. There were no trees in Shawn’s neighborhood, no leaves and branches she could watch whip back and forth in the storm until her nerves were soothed, but she found herself drawn in that direction anyway. As a child, she’d caused her mother endless grief with her urges to press herself up against the nearest glass surface, palms open and framing her face, so she could watch a thunderstorm rage through their yard. Standing at the window, Grace had always cautioned, was asking for a tree limb to come crashing through, or a freak electric current to run through the metal frame and shock her. Years of such warnings had done nothing to curb Maddie’s voyeurism, though they did serve to make her feel eternally guilty every time she disobeyed, even long after Grace had given up trying to save her reckless daughter’s life.

     The guilt was there now, as Maddie reached out to draw back the curtain; Grace’s voice, shrill with fear and dismay, echoed in the back of her head. It made her pause, as it always did, before she swept the fabric aside, an ingrained response that in this case gave logic a chance to catch up with impulse.

     The storm was not the only dangerous thing out there.

     Maddie swore under her breath. If she opened the drapes, there was a good chance that anyone out on the street would see her, standing in full view like an oblivious dumbass. She might as well throw open the front door and invite any nearby…things in for dinner. Common sense dictated that she find something else to do: nap on the couch, crash out with Hannah, play 20 Questions with herself in the dark.

     Slip back into bed with the naked man you left alone upstairs.

     A picture formed in her mind – strong thighs, covered in downy soft hair, between which nestled the cock she could no doubt coax into taking another ride. She swayed on her feet. She still ached from earlier, a mostly-pleasant combination of soreness and satisfaction; now that ache increased, as she considered fumbling her way back up the stairs.

     She’d gone so far as to take a step toward the foyer, her recently-acquired resolve crumbling in the face of the throb between her legs, when thunder once more cracked overhead, stopping her in her tracks and jolting her back to reality.

     She turned back to the window in a huff, angry with herself. She needed a distraction, now.

     Considering her options, she finally settled on pulling the curtains back just a tad, enough so she could see out but nothing, hopefully, could see in. The old lady who lived next door to her parents managed to do it – she saw everything through her blinds, an invisible spy, the bane of everyone’s existence. Maddie was certain she could do it too.

     Moving carefully, she pushed a fabric panel aside and smushed her face into the opening, peering hard through the hole she’d created. The reward was instant: her eyes had adjusted to the lack of light, and she was able to see the rain, falling in sheets and bouncing off the pavement. She imagined being outside, allowing the water to drench her clothes, her hair, to pour over her uplifted face and pool in her shoes. She could almost feel it, pounding on her shoulders, washing away the tension she carried and leaving her fresh and clean, the way it was washing the detritus of the city out of the streets. Rainwater rushed along the curbs, bubbling over the drains as the force of the storm outstripped the sewer’s ability to handle the run-off. The prospect of a flood appeared more likely than it had a short while ago, when she’d first wished for such an intervention. The storm just might-

     Maddie paused in her thoughts. An unpleasant prickle swept across her scalp, down the back of her neck and over her arms, her body reacting before her mind registered that something had changed. She squinted into the darkness, narrowing her gaze.

     Something was moving in the shadows.

     It took a few moments – long enough that she began to doubt what she’d barely seen – and then a figure emerged, stumbling out of the inky darkness that pooled around the house just down the street. He lurched up the sidewalk, weaving back and forth, looking for all the world like a man determinedly making his way home after closing down the bar. Maddie wondered, guiltily, if her reptilian brain was mistaking drunk and disorderly for dangerous.

     The next flash of lightning put a quick end to her doubts. No one, no matter how drunk, could walk home while missing half an arm.

     The flashbulb effect of the lightning left her vision momentarily blurred, but the image remained burned in her brain: the torn suit, hanging from the man’s drenched frame, the right sleeve missing from the shoulder. His arm ended just above the elbow, an injury he seemed entirely unaware of. Pity and fear served to tighten Maddie’s stomach; she remained frozen, anxious to see where he would go, deeply afraid that he would turn in her direction.

     She was so focused on the creature’s trajectory, she didn’t realize that Vinnie had come up behind her. “Hey,” he said quietly, landing a soft kiss on her ear.

     She jumped, hard, suppressing a strangled scream. Her hand, still clenched around a fistful of fabric, jerked to the side, whipping the curtain open wide. Lightning, in a terrible burst of timing, flashed again, lighting up the section of exposed window and startling her even more; this time, she did scream, a sound that was blessedly swallowed by another resounding thunder boom.

     “Sorry,” he said, the hint of a laugh in his voice. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

     She whirled on him in a fury, groping through the dark until she caught hold of his bicep and squeezed, digging her nails into his bare skin. “Shut up,” she hissed.

     “Everyone is asleep,” he whispered back, his confusion evident.

     “One of them is out there.”

     She felt the shift in his demeanor instantly; he shunted her to the side, ignoring her grunt of surprise and outrage, and peered through the curtain himself.

     “Do you see it?” she asked, when he was silent. “Is it still there?”

     “Yes.” He waited a beat. “What is it doing?”

     “I don’t know, let me see.” Slowly, she peeked through another gap in the drapes, eyes scanning. It took her a moment to find him – he’d moved further down the street, his figure merging in and out of the shadows. He seemed to have turned around, as he was heading back in the direction from which he’d originally come.

     They watched him go in silence, until the next burst of thunder. The creature’s head swung at the sound, and after a few seconds of deliberation he turned again, heading once more toward them.

     “It’s following the sound,” Maddie realized.

     “Trying to,” Vinnie agreed. “There’s probably an echo out there, which is confusing it. It doesn’t know which way to go.”

     Maddie frowned, disturbed by the idea. She knew the intelligence of these things was limited – she’d watched Summer walk right off the edge of a bed, after all, risking a broken limb or other injury without a second thought – but there was something incredibly sad about a consciousness so easily confused by something as fundamental as an echo. Whatever he was now, he’d once been a person, someone smart enough to hold down the kind of job that required a suit and tie. To be reduced to little more than an animal, baffled by unfamiliar sounds and spurred only by the search for food, seemed a colossal waste.

     She didn’t know how long they stood there, watching the man stumble his way up and down the street, turned this way and that by a force beyond his control. Eventually the gap between the rolls of thunder allowed him to pick a direction and set off, until he moved beyond where they could track him. As he disappeared from view, Maddie heaved a sigh of relief, one that quickly turned into a hitching sob. Pity, terror, and exhaustion overwhelmed her, and she began to cry, silent tears that coursed down her cheeks and dripped from her chin.

     “Hey,” Vinnie said again, his voice tender. He pulled her toward him and she sagged against his side, allowing herself to find comfort in the arm he wrapped around her. She decided, in that moment, that she didn’t need a distraction from him; that could come later, when “later” was something concrete, rather than a time there was no guarantee she would see. Right now she needed him to distract her from everything else.

     “You should sleep,” he told her, his lips moving against her hair.

     She shifted beside him, sliding her hand down over his stomach until it rested on his crotch; her fingers flexed, kneading him through the thin cotton pants he wore. “Come with me,” she breathed.

     To her surprise, he moved her hand, his grip gentle but firm. “Someone has to stand watch,” he said. “More of them could come. I shouldn’t have gone up in the first place.”

     She knew what he meant but flinched anyway. He must have felt it, or sensed that he’d said the wrong thing; he squeezed her hand before ducking his head, planting a swift kiss on her lips before she could fully withdraw. “Worth it,” he murmured reassuringly. “But irresponsible. You go.”

     She hesitated, not wanting to leave him alone in the dark, until he gave her a gentle nudge. “I’ll do it next time,” she promised, moving away before he could argue. She turned back at the stairs, one foot on the first riser, and peered through the darkness; she could just barely see him, standing at attention before the window, his shoulders squared off as he stared out into the street. A soldier.

     She hoped he’d still be there in the morning.

Last week I snuck in a reference to a post that I intended to write when Love in the ZA celebrated its first anniversary, where I was going to go over some of the lessons I’ve learned since starting the book and the blog; you may not remember this, since it was a loooooong time ago, but in the beginning I was up-front about the fact that a) I’d never shared my work with anyone, not even my husband, before I started putting it up here, and b) I had zero experience with the serial format. A little more than a year later, neither of those things is true anymore, and the process of getting from Then to Now has been….interesting. I thought it would be fun to dissect it a little bit.

Then I dropped the ball and disappeared and missed the 1-year anniversary, and we didn’t even have cake. I really wanted to have a cake, you guys.

Well, it’s too late for the cake, but I do still intend to write about the lessons and whatnot. I tried putting everything into one post, all neatly bullet-pointed and organized, and then it got crazy long and even I didn’t want to read all of those words dragging on and on down the page, so I’m breaking things up. At the moment it’s looking like it’ll be a six-week series, encompassing the following “lessons”: Approaches to Writing, Continuity, Research, Responsibility, Romance and Fatigue. I might think of more as we go along here, we’ll have to wait and see.

Since I touched last week on the issue of linear writing, which falls under Approaches to Writing, we’ll start there. As I mentioned before, under other circumstances, I tend to write scenes for a book as they come to me, jumping over and around areas that are blocked and coming back to them later, or leaving them out altogether, depending on how the final manuscript shakes out. Other writers take the linear approach every time. Either way is valid – provided you have the time to piece things together into some semblance of order before putting it out there for someone to read. Unfortunately for me, writing a serial doesn’t give me that kind of time. It’s zero percent helpful that I (think I) know how the book will end, or that I have scenes from later chapters already scripted in my head and ready for the page; what I need is the NEXT chapter, RIGHT NOW. My brain is less than accommodating on this score.

Outlines, I’ve heard, can help a bit with this issue; they allow you to lay out major plot points, so you have a better idea of where you’re going, and then you just write so you travel from point A to point B to point C. I tried that.

 No spoilers!

Super fucking helpful.

Another issue I’ve encountered is determining what, exactly, constitutes a chapter. Due to my writing style, I never break things into chapters until I’m done with the manuscript; scene follows scene, and then I go back through, read it, and figure out where it would be appropriate to do a mid-chapter scene break (you know, usually delineated with a ***) and where a chapter break would make more sense. Only a handful of Love in the ZA’s published chapters have scene breaks – most of them feature just one scene, in the interest of getting something up to be read, and also for ease of use; I can’t remember where I heard this, but somewhere I read that readers tend to abandon blog posts that require them to scroll down too many times in order to read it in its entirety. Chapters in a serial aren’t exactly the same as blog posts, I guess, but I’ve still had that tidbit in the back of my mind every time I’ve decided how far to write in a given chapter. In some cases I think I made the right call; in others, I’ve erred. I had Staples print me out a copy of all the chapters I have written so far, for editing purposes, and a single pass through led me to cut things down from 32 chapters to 24, just by changing chapter breaks into mid-chapter scene breaks instead. (33 and 34 weren’t written when I had that done, but I would totally combine them for a final draft.) Sometimes I make the conscious decision to break a longer chapter up into two, due to the format here, but plenty of these changes only made sense to me long after the work was done and I’d gone several chapters ahead. It’s the kind of editing that can only be done once the finished product is all laid out, which makes it impossible to do on a week-to-week basis. I find that immensely frustrating.

The last two things I’ll talk about are editing in general, and time management, which go hand-in-hand for this type of project (or any project where there’s a deadline, and you’re not just banging shit out in the privacy of your own home, free to fiddle with it until you decide to send it out for scrutiny). My typical method is to handwrite everything – EVERYTHING – for my first draft. Then I type it up, surface editing as I transcribe. Then I print it out, edit for language and clarity, print it out AGAIN, edit for grammar, print it out AGAIN and make sure there’s nothing else I want to change. In case you missed it, that’s four drafts, potentially five, depending on whether that last run-through yields anything (and it usually does, because writers generally can’t resist ripping their own shit apart, even if it ends in tears and a mangled piece of crap that was probably better off left alone). How much time would you guess that takes?

Any guess shorter than “Too fucking long” is incorrect.

I started out adhering to this method, which I love and am hugely dependent on. Then I realized I was spending upwards of 15 hours a week laboring over a 1500-2000 word chapter, in addition to all of the other shit I have to do every day, and something was going to have to give. Since I’m paying for school and legally required to tend to the needs of my children, the process had to change. So I gave up an edit. Then another edit. Then I had to concede that spending 3 or 4 hours handwriting a rough draft for a chapter was probably an unreasonable use of my time, and I cut it down to handwriting until the juices started flowing, at which point I now switch to my laptop, type out the rest of the chapter quickly, and then go back and transcribe the first part. My wrist is happy with the change, but I’m not. I’ve tried to make sure that the work itself hasn’t suffered, but I can’t make an unbiased judgment on that; I vacillate between loving the hell out of (almost) everything I’ve written and wanting to throw the whole manuscript into the fire.

Although now that I think about it, I feel the same way about the 100,000-word fantasy novel I’ve been working on for nigh-on 15 years now, so maybe I just have a love-hate relationship with my work, regardless of the time invested.

Some of my gripes about editing are related to issues of continuity and research, so we’ll save those for later posts. Next week we’ll tackle the topic of Research, wherein I’ll explain how I came to read the entirety of the New York City fire code and watch so many YouTube videos about Glock handguns that I’ve surely ended up on some kind of watchlist.

Chapter Thirty Four

Posted: October 5, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Nineteen

     In the middle of the night, while the living slept or prayed for salvation, the storm that would ruin everything unleashed its fury upon the city.

     Maddie sat in the dark, listening as the first gusts of wind threw rain against the windows. In another time, the patter of water against the glass would have served to soothe her nerves; she’d always loved storms, and found the rumble of thunder as comforting as a familiar lullaby. Tonight, however, she remained on edge, unable to quiet the racing thoughts that crowded her mind.

     She’d slipped out of bed as soon as Vinnie had rolled away from her, creeping first into the bathroom, to clean up and re-dress, and then down the stairs. The unfamiliar creaks and groans of the house had sounded impossibly loud as she’d moved through the hallway and down the steps; she was certain the others would throw open their doors and demand to know what she was doing, skulking around in the dark. To her immense relief, no one had.

     Vinnie had not followed her down the stairs either. She told herself that that was also a relief. Most of her believed it.

     Guilt, she knew, was a misplaced emotion; Jack was gone, and he hadn’t exactly earned the right to loyalty, anyway. She owed him nothing, least of all posthumous fidelity.

     Why, then, did she feel so terrible?

     Anyone would have slept with him, she thought, continuing an argument she’d been having with herself for the last hour. I didn’t do anything wrong. She’d had sex with the man who had saved her life; regardless of the decisions he’d made since then, many of which she’d disagreed with, his role in her survival was an undeniable fact. He’d saved her ass. He’d cared for her, in the aftermath of the horrible situation with Summer. He’d gone back to rescue an ungrateful teenager, and a neighbor with whom he had only a passing acquaintance. He was hot, and capable – all things that justified her attraction to him, and her tumble into his bed.

     He was also a man who still bore the passion-fueled scratches from the last woman he’d fucked – a woman, she noted, he had not mentioned, nor expressed concern for, in the week that they’d spent together. Had he treated her the same way? Whispered in her ear, murmured sweet words, been as attentive and concerned with her pleasure? Maddie suspected the answer was yes. Men said what they needed to say to get what they wanted – she’d learned that lesson.

     He’s not Jack. And he’s not a monk, either. Whoever he slept with before doesn’t matter.

     She wanted to believe that. But she knew herself too well; she was already too involved. The sex had been great, no argument there, but she couldn’t allow herself to fall for another man who didn’t share her feelings. And if they slept together again, she knew, she would fall. Hard. She’d come out on the other end looking like a fool – again.

     Jessie has the right idea. The admission was bitter. She can fuck whoever she wants and not worry about any of it later. For the first time in her life, she wished she was more like her sister.

     Frustrated, she reached for the remote, hoping to find something that would distract her from her brooding. Wind screamed around the eaves, shaking the windows in their frames, and she found herself wondering how the dead would fare in the storm. Would the rain confuse them? Force them to seek shelter? Perhaps a storm was exactly what they needed; it could provide them with cover, when they decided to set out for their next destination. Maybe the tunnels will flood. The prospect filled her with a savage joy. Let Mother Nature sort out the problem, wash away the corpses and leave the city to those who deserved it.

     She tried to find a weather report, a task that proved more difficult than she’d anticipated. Most of the local stations had gone off the air; on the one that remained, the anchorwoman looked exhausted and terrified. Maddie was pretty sure she was the same woman who’d been on the last time they’d checked the news – it was hard to tell, they all had the same overly plucked, frozen look to them, but her face looked familiar. Certainly the way she sagged behind the desk gave the impression that she’d been there for far longer than she was used to. Watching her filled Maddie with sadness, and fear; she flipped the channel away quickly, unable to bear the woman’s desperate expression.

     The national channels were in better shape. One of the twenty-four hour news stations was in the middle of a weather report when she found it, and the forecast was delightful – four full days of wind and rain, with a flood warning to boot. Maddie grinned. People still able to think would know enough to seek higher ground and stay away from the rivers; the dead, she hoped, wouldn’t do the same.

     She was about to click away again, in search of a mindless comedy to lull her to sleep, when the camera switched back to the studio. “Is Z4N2 The Government’s Fault?” the chyron at the bottom asked. Her hand stilled on the remote.

     What followed was a basic rehash of the onslaught of the virus, from the first “flu” cases that had come into hospitals on through the uprising that had occurred at Bayer Stadium. Maddie was horrified to hear that the death toll had risen from 100,000 to 500,000, with no sign of stopping. A good portion of the city, she calculated, had died or been infected already – before the fatalities had climbed off of their cots and taken to the streets. The rate of transmission was beyond anything the CDC had ever seen before; though the newscaster tried to be optimistic, it was clear that no one in charge had any idea how to handle the current situation.

     “The question on everyone’s mind now is, how much did the government know, and when did they know it? And did they have a hand in the outbreak of this terrible disease? One scientist believes the answer to that question is ‘yes’. Joining us now is Professor Hutchins. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Professor.”

     “Yes, well, thank you for having me.” The small man whose face now filled the screen fidgeted, darting his eyes between the camera and his hands, which clenched and unclenched convulsively on the desk top. The satellite connection was imperfect, an issue that combined with Hutchins’s nervousness to give the interview the overall feel of a conspiracy theorist broadcasting dispatches from his closet.

     Hutchins’s accusation was, at its heart, a basic one: he believed that the United States government, in concert with the military and intelligence groups of a handful of other countries, had decided to test a new biological weapon on the American public – a weapon, Hutchins claimed, that they had disguised in an otherwise innocuous influenza vaccine.

     “What would be the purpose of such a weapon?” the anchor asked. Maddie couldn’t tell if he was shocked by the accusation, or by the sheer insanity of his interview subject.

     “Think about it,” Professor Hutchins huffed. He swiped a hand across his sweaty face and back into his hair, a move that left him looking more unhinged than he had before. “What better way to infiltrate a hostile population than to send them vaccines? The government accepts them as a sign of good faith and assistance, only to have their citizens decimated by the sleeper virus. And then – THEN! Those same citizens come back, a virtually unstoppable force that kills without discrimination! We wouldn’t have to lift a finger!”

     “Um.” The anchor shifted in his seat, darting a glance at whoever stood behind the camera. Maddie suspected he’d taken on more than he’d expected in agreeing to have Professor Hutchins on as his guest. “Such a virus, though….could they really create something like that? It seems….fantastical.”

     “That’s the real beauty of it!” Hutchins leaned forward, an expression of total triumph on his face. “There already exists in nature, a parasite that compels the host that it infects to act in ways that are contrary to the host’s natural tendencies. We see it in wasps that have been infected. We see it in certain types of beetles. It’s entirely possible that such a parasite has been the subject of experiments – tweaked, we could say – such that it would serve the purpose nicely. We don’t even have to make it; Mother Nature has made it for us. A few adjustments here, adjustments there, and BOOM!” He slapped his palms down on the table, shaking the camera. Maddie jumped. “The perfect biological weapon.”

     “Has anyone gone on the record as having done this kind of experimenting with these…parasites?”

     The light went out of Hutchins’s eyes. “Well, no. Not officially, anyway. But then, your government also insists that it doesn’t have alien life in stasis at Area 51.”

     Maddie rolled her eyes. The anchor did a better job of restraining his impatience, but the subtle shift in his expression made it clear that he was officially done with the interview, and his crackpot interviewee. Maddie wondered how on earth the guy had even scored the air-time.

     “Regardless of its origins,” the anchor said now, “One thing is clear: Z4N2 has gained a strong foothold among the population, and eradicating it is proving more difficult than originally anticipated. Despite quarantine efforts, new cases have been reported in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles; the Federal Aviation Administration is currently in talks to determine which, if any, airports should be placed under service suspension. Pharmaceutical company Merck released a statement late last night, stating that they are working closely with the CDC to develop a vaccine, which they hope to have available within the next few weeks. In the meantime, citizens are still being encouraged to get their flu vaccines – a decree that may be difficult to follow, given the recall statement issued by up-and-coming pharmaceutical company Lark. Lark, which recently produced and distributed an estimated 200,000 influenza vaccinations, recalled all lot numbers related to that production, citing contam-”

     The rest was lost in the boom of thunder that echoed directly overhead, so close that the windows rattled in earnest and Maddie felt the reverberation deep in her gut. A flash of lightning, blindingly bright, lit up the kitchen, throwing white light through the archway between the rooms and cutting through the shadows. The television’s power cut off in the same instant, a quiet thunk followed by yet another thunderous crack.

     Maddie leaned back into the sofa, listening to the increasing intensity of the storm, and wondered if her fervent wish for Mother Nature’s wrath had been a good idea after all.

Are you still here? I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t. I haven’t been around, so it would be the height of hypocrisy to expect otherwise out of my readers. But I’m back now, and if you’re still around, I promise to make things up to you. I haven’t figured out how yet, but I will. I hope.

So that was a very long and unexcused hiatus. I’m not usually a procrastinor, and I didn’t actually intend to go so long between chapters, it just…happened. Let’s break it down.

August 24th: Oh shit, the chapter is due today. But it’s not done! I don’t know how to end it! I can wait another week. They’re used to me being a slack-ass by now.

August 31st: Still not done. Now it’s two weeks late. Okay, maybe I can write that post about things I’ve learned in the last year instead, and get them the chapter next week. They’ll forgive me.

September 7th: Now I’m really, really late. This chapter has to be super awesome, to make up for how late I am. It is not super awesome. In fact, it’s terrible. I’m terrible. Everything in the world is terrible. Let’s go buy boots.

September 14th: Fuck. Me.

September 28th: Where is the line between “Not too late to salvage things” and “Should probably just fake my own death”?

SIGH. And the worst part is I still don’t have the fucking chapter finished, because I STILL don’t know how to end it.

When this happens to me with other work, I jump past it – just move on to the next piece of the story that I have a crystal clear view of, and make plans to come back and fill in the gaps later. That’s my general writing process; I’m not a linear writer, by nature. What I often find is that 1) I have a better idea of how those gaps should be filled once I’ve written around them, or 2) They aren’t gaps that needed to be filled after all, whatever I was trying to force in there wasn’t an organic progression of the story. Either way, it works out.

I’ve resisted jumping, even in my drafts, because I’m trying to teach myself to write in a linear fashion. I think I might have to accept that it’s a lost cause, though. If I’d just done it six weeks ago I’d probably have this damn chapter finished, plus a bunch of other chapters already in the hole. At this moment I have nothing except the draft in my head, which has been gone over so many times I could stand up and recite it word-for-word. Which is fucking USELESS for our purposes here.

So that’s where we’re at. I swear to god, there WILL be a chapter on Sunday, and we will all just have to accept the possibility that it will end in mid-sentence. We’ll pretend it’s artsy. PRETEND WITH ME.

I love you.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Posted: August 17, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It was late afternoon when they stopped.

     Vinnie got out without a word, slamming his door harder than Maddie thought necessary.  The four of them watched as he crossed the street to a run-down brownstone.

     “Shawn!”  Vinnie pounded his fist on the door.  “SHAWN!”

     Maddie glanced up and down the block, nervous about the noise he was making.  The street appeared to be deserted, but she’d learned that that meant nothing.  Anyone could be lurking, waiting to be drawn out.  Any thing.

     “SHAWN!”

     “He’s not even there,” Jessie muttered.  “I knew this was stupid.”

     No one bothered to respond.  They’d argued for hours over the best course of action, weaving back and forth across the lower half of the city in an attempt to avoid traffic snarls and the crowds of people who’d taken over the roads.  Jessie had insisted the nearest bridge was still their best bet, despite repeated reminders that the soldiers manning the barricades had been shooting people even before everything had gone to hell.  She didn’t care; she had it set in her head that the bridges were the only way out, and nothing anyone else had said would convince her otherwise.

     Hannah had suggested going to the local precinct for shelter, an idea Maddie thought had merit.  If any officers remained, they could offer protection, and if not, the building was probably a damn sight safer than anywhere else.  Maddie herself had suggested the train station – they could follow the tracks into the tunnel and come out on the other side – but they’d been forced to table that discussion in order to quiet Caleb’s sudden, frantic keening.

     Vinnie had put an end to it all by insisting he knew someone who could help them.  None of them relished the thought of holing up in yet another apartment until it became too dangerous, but arguing with the driver only took them so far.  He’d ignored their protests and gone on his way.  “Besides,” he’d said, “Shawn has a house.”

     “SHAAAAAAAAAWN!”

     “Oh for god’s sake.”  Maddie got out, checking the street again before crossing to Vinnie.  “Will you be quiet?!  You’ll bring all the dead in the city down on us.”

     Vinnie stepped back from the door, his jaw clenched.  “He’s not home.”

     “Well, clearly.”

     “He’s always home.”  He turned to her, confusion clear on his face.  “He never leaves.”

     “He left.”  Maddie shrugged.  “We should too.”  She started to head back to the car.

     “No.”  When she turned back he had keys in his hand.  “He never leaves.”

     Maddie saw the grim look in his eyes, and understood.  He never leaves.  She sighed deeply.

     “Let me get my stick.”

     She told the others what they meant to do as she dragged the rusted iron spike from the backseat.  Jessie was understandably furious at being made to wait in the car again, but Maddie slammed the door on her squawks of outrage and headed back toward to Vinnie.  He waited until she’d climbed the steps to stand by his side before he pushed the door open.

     “Quiet,” he whispered to her.

     A little late for that.  She kept her mouth shut and followed him in.

     They crept into the foyer.  Ahead they faced a steep flight of stairs; to their left, a large arch opened into the living room.  Maddie moved cautiously, squinting in the gloom.  Heavy curtains hung across the picture window, blocking out what was left of the afternoon sunlight; they fell from the ceiling to the floor, long and thick enough for someone to hide behind.  She held her breath and poked the fabric in a few places before drumming up the courage to pull the drapes aside.

     “Peekaboo,” Vinnie muttered.

     Feeling foolish, she let the curtain drop and turned to face the room.  In other hands it might have been a gorgeous sitting room, with wide-planked wood floors and the kind of ornate moldings she’d only ever seen on television.  It was neat and clean, but not well cared-for; she could see, even in the failing light, that the floors were dull with use, and the walls were studded with empty nails where once, perhaps, pictures had been displayed.  Nothing hung there now.  The only furniture consisted of a long, low leather sofa that dominated one wall, and a large television that sat opposite.  No knick-knacks; no personal effects.  Plenty of video games, though.  Another arch cut into the wall opposite the window, leading into the kitchen and dining room.

     These rooms, too, were beautiful and tired, empty of both people and personality.  Maddie saw a window above the kitchen sink and looked out, taking in the view of a walled garden run rampant with weeds and creeping vines.

     “Your friend,” she said to Vinnie.  “He lives here alone?”

     “Yes.”

     “Does he like it?”

     “I don’t know.”  He gave the garden a cursory glance before jerking his head in the direction of the stairs.  “Let’s check up there.”

     More bare nails marked their passage up the stairs, spaced at even intervals along the wall.  Maddie could almost see the pictures that had once hung there – happy family portraits, maybe, or photos of a child, aging frame by frame.  Their absence made her uneasy.  This house is steeped in sadness.  If they found Shawn hale and well, she suspected she would still not be pleased to meet him.

     A meeting was not to be; they found the second floor as empty as the first.  The master bedroom showed signs of a quick departure: drawers left half-open, clothes strewn across the bed, a closet that bristled with bare hangers.  The master bath had been swept clean of any personal items.  The other two bedrooms waited behind closed doors, full of dust and stale air.  One was clearly a guest room, with a neatly made double bed and cheap dresser dominating the small space.  The other bedroom was larger, and it was here that Maddie lingered, once they’d done their sweep and ascertained that the house was not harboring Vinnie’s friend, alive or otherwise.

     The bedroom had no window, but Maddie saw well enough, now that her eyes had adjusted to the house’s poor light.  There were twin beds, one on either side of the room, covered in pastel-colored bedspreads.  Stuffed animals reclined on dusty pillows, their glass eyes staring vacantly ahead.  A small shelf held dozens of books; she caught a glimmer in the gloom and saw that some bore gold foil bindings.  Little Golden Books.  For little girls. 

     She started to enter, but a hand on her elbow stopped her.  When she looked at Vinnie questioningly, he shook his head.  “Don’t.”

     “Where are they?”  The dust on the dresser was inches thick, she guessed.  This room had been closed for a long time.  A terrible thought seized her.  “Oh my god.  Are they-”

     “They’re fine,” he said quickly.  “With their mother.

     “Oh.”  She looked again at the unused room.  “How long?”

     “Ten years?”  He shrugged.  “Before I knew him.”  He sounded indifferent, but his lips twisted into a sneer of contempt.  Maddie doubted he was even aware of it.  “She didn’t want to stay with a crippled soldier.”

     He never leaves.  “Crippled how?”

     “It doesn’t matter.  He’s not here.”  She followed him back down the stairs.  “We’ll stay for the night,” he said.  “By morning we’ll have a plan.”

     Maddie disliked the idea, but it was plain that arguing would be fruitless.  She left him in the living room, staring at the blank television, and went out to get the others.

     They complained, but they came.  Both Hannah and Jessie had to help Caleb from the car and across the street; he sagged between them, unable to bend or bear weight on his injured knee.  Maddie trudged along behind them, hauling their bags.  She’d left the larger two behind, for Vinnie to bring in, but that still left enough for her to stumble under their weight as she climbed the front steps.  They’d seen people fighting during their day’s drive through the city, fist fights over stupid things like baby strollers and portable radios.  She thought it best if they brought their own supplies in, rather than leave them unattended in this unfamiliar neighborhood.

     Maddie dumped their bags in the foyer and went to get ice for the kid’s knee, directing the other women toward the sofa.  As she rummaged around in the kitchen, searching for a hand towel, she glanced at Vinnie.  He stood at the dining room’s back door, brooding over the garden.

     “Where do you think he went?”  She emptied a tray of ice into a bowl, and scooped some out to wrap inside the towel.  The bowl she placed back in the freezer, should the kid need more later.

     She waited so long for an answer that Hannah came in looking for her.  Maddie handed off the ice pack.  “Elevate his leg,” she instructed.  “Stack the bags, if you have to.  There are bathrooms upstairs; send my sister up to see if she can find some Advil.”

     The older woman hurried off.  Maddie leaned against the counter, her eyes on Vinnie, waiting to see if he would speak.  From the other room came murmurings, then the stomp of footsteps up the stairs.

     Finally, Vinnie sighed.  “I don’t know.  To his daughters, maybe.”

     “Where are they?”

     “Outside the city somewhere.  He never said.”

     Maddie frowned.  “He won’t get to them.”

     “Not if he left today,” Vinnie agreed.  “But he could have left this morning, or yesterday, or last week.  We don’t know.”  She saw the muscles in his jaw work as he ground his teeth, frustrated.  “We wasted too much time.”

     “How badly do we need him?” she asked, afraid to know the answer.

     “He knows the city.”

     “So do you.”

     He shook his head.  “Not like him.  He was born here; he grew up in this house.  He knows ways around the city that aren’t on any maps.  I thought…”

     “That he could lead us out.”

     “Yes.”

     Shit.  “So what do we do now?”

     “The precinct, I guess.”  She saw from his face what the admission cost him; he hated the idea, but clearly thought there was no other way.  “We could try one of the tunnels, follow the train tracks, but they might be guarded.  And Caleb-”

     “He could be made to see reason,” she broke in.  “He wouldn’t be alone, or unarmed.”

     “He can’t walk,” Vinnie said.  He didn’t add whose fault that was, but Maddie flushed with guilt all the same.

     “We could wait a few days,” she suggested.  “Stay here, let his leg rest.”

     “No.”  He turned back to the garden, his face dark.  “One night here is fine, but it’s not safe.  No more than the apartment was.  Worse, even.  They could come right in.”

     She pictured them crowding around the house, pouring in through broken windows and shattered doors, and shivered.  He was right.  “The precinct, then.”

     “Yes.”

     He left her, to tell the others what they’d decided.  What he decided.  It was her turn to stare into the garden, irritated.  She liked him well enough, and god knew he was attractive, but she was growing tired of him making unilateral decisions.  He had been the one who insisted that they keep Summer in the apartment, instead of taking her to a hospital.  They could have left her there, and the kid too, instead of spending days waiting around for her to die.  He had chosen to come here, looking for his friend.  And now he’d chosen their next step.  She suspected he’d only pretended to listen to her, to talk it through; he’d decided on the precinct the moment he’d realized this house was empty, and they’d get no help here.  The precinct wasn’t even his idea, she thought sourly.  Nonetheless, she could hear them in the other room, praising his wisdom.  Arrogant prick.

     Gradually, the last of the day’s light left the kitchen, until outside and in were cloaked in shadows.  It’s nearly November.  It’ll be cold soon.  She wondered how the dead would fare in lower temperatures, or the snow.  Maybe they’ll freeze solid.  Then they could let us out.

     Vinnie decreed that they should use as little light as possible, so as not to draw attention to the house.  They found pizzas in the freezer and ate them in the darkened living room, accompanied by the faint glow of the television.  There was nothing new on the news, so they sat and watched sitcoms in silence, until Jessie finally complained that she was tired.

     “Go on upstairs,” Vinnie told her.  “The room at the back is mine, but you can have the master.”

     “I’ll go up too,” Caleb declared.  “I, uh, I need some help though.”

     Hannah and Jessie rushed to his side, lifting him again between them to help him up the stairs.  Vinnie went along, to bring their bags and get them situated, leaving Maddie to clean up the dishes and other mess.  Everything was washed and put away when he came back down.

     “Are they good?” she asked, flopping back down onto the sofa.

     “The kid thought the girls’ room was creepy.  He’s in Shawn’s room, with your sister.  Hannah took one of the girls’ beds.” He gave her a look.  “You could have the other one.”

     She felt herself blush under his gaze.  They hadn’t talked about the night before, or what had happened between them.  If he wanted to pretend that nothing had, that was fine with her.  I won’t beg.

     “Sounds good,” she said, careful to keep her tone neutral.  “I think I’ll head up too.  Not enough sleep last night.”  She winced at her words, afraid he’d think she was trying to drop a hint.  Ugh.  Shut up and go to bed.  “Will you be okay?”

     He nodded.  “I’ll be up soon.  I have to bring those other bags in.”

     “In the dark?”  She frowned.  “Is that safe?”

     “I don’t know.  I’ll be quiet.”

     “Do you want me to wait?”

     “No.”  He gave her a reassuring smile.  “Go on up.  I’ll be fine.”

     She lingered for a moment, uncertain, but he’d already turned his attention back to the television.  She waited a heartbeat longer, then sighed and grabbed her bag.  She’d just placed a foot on the stairs when he spoke again.

     “My bed is pretty big.  Just for the record.”

     She went up without responding, her heart pounding.  At the landing she hesitated, torn between the two rooms.  She could hear Hannah, already snoring, through the door of the smaller bedroom.  She could slip in without disturbing her and sleep in a bed left empty for a decade, in a room blanketed in dust and grief….or she could slip into the other, knowing what that meant.

     You stopped him last time.  You knew it was a bad idea.  One day doesn’t change that.

     She went into the hall bathroom instead, to clean up as best she could.  She was not surprised to see that her lip was still swollen; eating had been hard.  The scratches from her sister weren’t as bad as she’d expected – the marks had already started to fade, and neither appeared to have bled at all.  There is blood, though.  Just not mine.  She found a rag and wiped away the flecks around her temples and hairline, grimacing as she remembered the way the dead woman had sprayed her face with spit.  It’s good the scratches didn’t bleed.  No matter what he says, we don’t know how it works.

     Her pants were dirty, from scrabbling in the alley, but would come clean.  Her shirt was a lost cause, stained with dirt, sweat and blood.  She balled it up and tossed it in the garbage.  If this keeps up, I’ll be naked before long.  She’d only packed enough for a few days, and now two of the shirts she’d brought had been ruined.  She wondered if Shawn would mind if she raided his dresser before they left.

     Washed and in clean clothes, Maddie flipped off the bathroom light and went back into the hall.  After a moment more of consideration, she went into Vinnie’s room.  A thousand doubts ran through her mind, chief among them that she still thought he was an asshole, but she couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping in the abandoned bedroom of Shawn’s lost daughters.  Besides, she was lonely.

     It’s just one night, she told herself.  It’s not like we’re getting married.

     She surprised herself by laughing, a bitter laugh that echoed in the empty bedroom.  You just want to feel wanted.  And so what?  There are worse reasons to fuck a guy.

     She intended to wait up for him, to make sure he came back with the bags safely, but the bed proved too warm, the pillow too soft and comfortable.  She dozed off, and woke with a start when she felt the bed sag beside her.

     “Vinnie?” she whispered.

     “No.”

     She rolled her eyes.  “Everything okay?”

     “Fine.  The street was empty.  No lights in the other houses, either.  They’re either gone, or hiding, like us.”

     The idea made her sad.  How many people were now trapped in their own homes, lucky enough to avoid the flu only to have to hide from their neighbors?  Until they come crashing in, like mine.

     She lay still, listening while he shifted around beside her, getting comfortable.  She wanted to roll over, to snuggle into his side, but nerves held her pinned in place.  That, and pain; she wasn’t sure how long she’d been asleep, but it had been long enough for her injured shoulder to stiffen up in protest.  She hadn’t seen a bruise, when assessing her other injuries, but it was apparent that the muscles were pissed off just the same.

     A minute or so of silence passed before he reached out to touch her, grabbing her shoulder, and she flinched away.

     “Are you hurt?”

     “It’s nothing,” she said.  She turned slowly onto her back, trying not to roll too far and put weight on the joint.  “I hit it hard, this morning.  It’s just stiff.”

     He sat up and touched her again, carefully this time; one hand slid down to grip her forearm, while the other massaged her shoulder, his fingers working the tender muscles.  Every so often he tugged gently on her arm, pulling it down and away from her body.  After a few minutes she heard as well as felt a quiet pop; relief flooded down the length of her arm, so intense her fingers tingled.  She sighed.

     “Better?”

     “Yes.”  She shrugged her shoulder, pleased to note that the pain was nearly gone.  “Thanks.”

     “Sure.”  He lay back down beside her, propping his head in one hand.  The other remained on her arm, stroking from wrist, to shoulder, back down to her wrist.  He didn’t speak, but she could feel his eyes on her, peering through the dark.  When she shifted her weight she felt something else as well, pressed against her leg.

     “The others,” she whispered.

     “Asleep.”  He moved to caress her neck, down and across her collarbone.  “Your sister cradles Caleb like a child.”

     Maddie frowned at that.  Jessie was overly fond of those more broken than herself; if the kid didn’t get his shit together, she would grow more and more attached to him.  Hannah too.  The older woman had also taken a rapid shine to the boy.  It could be a problem, later.  He hates me.  If he hates me, and they love him…

     Vinnie drew her back from her thoughts.  His hand stroked her breasts, first one, then the other, until her nipples grew as rigid as his cock against her thigh.  He scratched them lightly through the fabric of her shirt, and she moaned.

     “You have to be quiet.”  His hand slipped down, to find bare skin, and pulled the shirt up.  “You don’t want them to hear you.”

     No.  He didn’t wait for a response.  His mouth found a nipple while his hand slid further down, beneath pants and panties both, and started to stroke.  She arched her back, hoping he would suckle harder, and he pulled away.  His fingers slipped inside her, one at first and then two, probing gently.  When he moved to kiss her mouth, she turned her face away.

     “My lip…you can’t.”

     His hand left her abruptly; damp fingers grasped her chin, turning her face back.  “Be still,” he whispered.  “I won’t hurt you.”

     She closed her eyes, suddenly close to tears.  “Promise?”

     “Promise.”  His lips brushed against hers, feather-light, and traveled across her cheek.  He covered her face and neck in soft kisses, while his hand slipped back between her legs, his fingers thrusting into her.  The harder he stroked, the more gently he kissed, until she thought the difference in sensation would drive her mad.  She writhed on the bed, gasping.

     “Please.”  She clutched his shoulders and pulled him toward her, desperate.  “Vinnie.  Please.”

     “Sshh.”  Moving quickly, he tugged her bottoms down and spread her thighs.  She reached down to help him unroll the condom and guide him in, noticing as she did that he was shorter than Jack had been, but thicker too.  When he pushed his way inside her, she hissed in surprise and pain.  “Sshh,” he said again.

     He went slowly at first, giving her time to adjust.  Before long she was meeting him thrust for thrust, bucking her hips while she gripped his shoulders.  He surprised her by sitting up, then lifting her hips to accommodate the change in angle.  His speed increased, as did his depth, and she felt an orgasm start to build inside of her.  I can’t scream.  I can’t scream.  I-  I-  I-

     He let out a strangled cry and spasmed against her.  Dammit!  He collapsed on top of her, kissing her neck and murmuring kind words in her ear, words she barely heard in her frustration.  One more thrust, maybe two, and she’d have been done too.

     When he rolled away she made to do the same, until he caught her hip with his hand and pulled her back.  “Where are you going?”

     “To clean up?”

     “Not yet.”  He tugged on her thigh, pulling her legs apart again.  Nimble fingers found her clit and circled, squeezing and pressing gently.  “You’re not finished,” he whispered, nipping at her ear.  “Let me see you come.”

     She threw her head back, abandoning herself to the pleasure he was building back up inside her.  Her nails raked at his chest as she felt her calves begin to tighten, then her thighs.  She started cry out, unable to hold back, and his mouth came down on hers, pushing her injured lip against her teeth.  Her clit exploded with the mix of pain and pleasure.

     She came with the taste of blood in her mouth, and forgot her promise not to scream.