Posts Tagged ‘serial’

Chapter Twenty Four

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day 18

     They woke to the sound of sirens.

     When the first one zipped by, Maddie did little more than stir quietly; years of living in the city had inured her to the noise. The second siren pierced the thin veil of sleep, prompting her to open one reluctant eye. As a third, then a fourth, joined the shrieking chorus, she struggled to sit up.

     “It’s early,” Vinnie mumbled, pulling her back down to the floor. His arm snaked around her, pinning her down.

     “Get off,” she said, squirming to get out of his grasp. “Something’s wrong.”

     “Just a fire or something. Go back to sleep.”

     “I want to see. It sounds like a lot. Let me up- Oh!”

     She swallowed her words as the bedroom door opened and her sister stumbled into view. Jessie squinted into the dim living room.

     “What the fuck?” she whined, a hand pressed to her forehead. “Is the building on fire?” She shuffled closer; Maddie knew the exact moment her eyes adjusted to the gloom: the look of hazy confusion left her face, replaced with a sneer.

     “Well well,” Jessie said, pinning Maddie with a contemptuous glare. “Don’t you two look cozy.”

     Maddie blushed. “It’s not what it looks like,” she said.

     “Your pants are over there,” Jessie said, pointing across the room. “So’s his shirt.”

     Maddie glanced at the man lying bare-chested beside her and wondered when that had happened. Frowning, she realized she didn’t remember much after the condom debacle. Oh no. She felt the blood drain out of her face, leaving her cold and shaky.

     “You’ve still got your panties,” Vinnie muttered. She was startled to see that he was fully awake, smirking as he reached over to snap her waistband. “I helped you put them back on.”

     “Gross,” Jessie snapped.

     Maddie ignored her; she stared instead at Vinnie, willing him to answer the question she knew was in her eyes. After a moment he shook his head, just once, a slow back and forth that flooded her with relief. It must have shown on her face; the good humor fled his, and he turned away.

     “Don’t look so happy about it,” he grumbled. Before she could respond, he threw back the blankets and got to his feet. “Put your pants on,” he said, tossing them to her; the balled-up cotton whapped her in the chest, not hard, but it felt like a slap just the same.

     Maddie wanted to explain, but her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth. She didn’t want to discuss it in front of her sister, or Caleb, who came tripping out of the bedroom just as she was wiggling into her pants.

     “What happened?” he asked. He clung to the doorframe, unsteady on his feet; from his grimace, Maddie knew the sirens were killing his head.

     The noise outside continued to swell; she pictured a cavalcade of cruisers out there, converging on the building, maybe this apartment. Summer, she thought, and shuddered. Surely Vinnie had been careful.

     Getting up with a groan – the floor had not been kind to her aching shoulders and back – she went to the window, flinching when the light flooded through the cracked blinds. Peering down at the street below, she gasped.

     “What is it?” Jessie asked. She came to stand just behind Maddie, looking over her shoulder. “Is it a fire? What-” She caught her breath. “What the hell?”

     Maddie stared, struck dumb. It seemed as though every cruiser in the city was flying down the street, lights flashing frantically; they took up both lanes, forcing oncoming traffic up onto the curbs as they struggled to get out of the way. A taxi failed to get over fast enough; a fire truck slammed into the front bumper, sent the cab spinning across the sidewalk and into a building, and kept going. No one stopped, or even slowed. Maddie eyed the cab’s mangled front end and waited for the driver to emerge.

     The door remained shut.

     “Where are they going?” Jessie breathed.

     Maddie shook her head. “I don’t know. But it can’t be good.”

     “They’re leaving.”

     Maddie turned, tearing her gaze from the window with difficulty. The scream of the sirens rose and fell, rose and fell, and she felt suddenly dizzy. The room spun, and she stumbled, lurching toward the couch. She reached out, hoping Vinnie would take her hand, catch her, but he was ignored her, his eyes glued to the TV. She collapsed down beside him, twisted, her face pressed against the back cushion.

     “Dick,” she muttered.

     “Sshh,” he hissed back.

     He turned the volume up higher, fighting the sound from outside. Maddie glanced at the screen and froze, her whole body going numb with fear. She read the chyron twice, then again, disbelieving.

     “Does that say-”

     “Yes. Shut up.”

     Maddie blinked, hard, hoping the words she was seeing would change, rearrange, become their true selves. But they remained. THE DEAD WALK, tidy script, plastered beneath a pair of news anchors who looked for all the world like they would rip off their mikes and run at any moment. The man sat rigid behind the desk, the papers clenched in his hands shaking ever-so-slightly; his face bore a frozen grin as he stared into the camera, not speaking, immobilized with panic. His co-anchor spoke at a rapid clip, her voice high and cracked.

     It had started at Bayer Stadium, she said, but Maddie knew that wasn’t true; Bayer was just where it had gone beyond their ability to explain it away. Hundreds had died, been piled up in the halls, and hundreds had come back, a groaning, rabid mass that had descended on the sick like they were a buffet. In a way, they had been – too ill to fight back, many near death already, most hadn’t been able to even leave their cots before they were fallen upon. Chopper footage showed a teeming crowd of people on Bayer field, snapping and snarling at each other like dogs.

     Police had barricaded the arena, hoping to contain it, but of course they weren’t able. The dead had flooded into the streets overnight, joined soon enough by hordes of others. People fled into the subways, only to find that those too were unsafe; trapped between two waves of undead, most didn’t make it back out. And still they tried; even as the newswoman warned against them, new footage came up, hundreds of people converging on stations, taking their chances. The clips had no sound, no doubt to protect viewers, but Maddie could easily imagine their panicked screams. She’d heard it before.

     “Local police are working to contain the situation.” The anchor’s calming voice had a brittle edge to it; she was reading her lines, but she clearly didn’t believe them. “The national guard has been mobilized. Stay in your homes.” She swallowed, her throat working. “The situation will be contained.”

     Maddie looked at the window, listened to the sirens and thought, Bullshit. Those cars outside weren’t rushing toward anything; they were running away. She tried to be angry, or disgusted at their cowardice, but found that she couldn’t. She wished she was in one of those cruisers instead, whizzing toward freedom. Surely they’d be let through the quarantine barricades. They were cops, after all.

     Vinnie muted the television and stared straight ahead; Maddie watched the vein in his temple pulse. She waited for him, for any of them, to speak, but the stunned silence stretched on.

     “Well,” she finally said. “Guess this is where you say ‘I told you so’.” When he still said nothing, she reached out, touching his arm gently. “Vinnie. What do we do?”

     He turned his head slowly, a look on his face she’d never seen before. Maddie’s scalp prickled. She took note of his eyes, the set of his jaw, and thought, G.I. Joe. He’d shed his civilian skin, had probably never been comfortable in it anyway. The man beside her now, his forearm like steel beneath her fingers, was a soldier.

     “Vinnie?” she asked.

     “Come with me,” he said, rising to his feet.

     “Where are we going?”

     He tossed Maddie her coat, then shrugged into his own. Pulling open a kitchen drawer, he retrieved the handgun, checking the clip before he stuffed it in his waistband. When he looked at Maddie again, his face was closed and cold.

     “We’re gonna need more guns.”

Chapter Twenty Three

Posted: March 23, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie was sure this was the saddest drinking party she’d ever been a part of.

     She’d eaten slowly, and dawdled in the shower, hopeful that by the time she emerged the others would have consumed enough to have lost their melancholy edge. Unfortunately, it seemed that no amount of time was going to allow for that miracle. Sitting now on Vinnie’s sofa, acutely aware of the short distance between her own thigh and that of the smoldering man beside her, she groped desperately for a way to brighten the mood. Appealing to Caleb was out – he slumped in the armchair, fifth beer in hand, and glowered any time she turned her gaze in his direction. Vinnie seemed content to sit and drink in silence, unperturbed by the air of hostility that permeated the room.

     At least Jessie is enjoying herself.

     Maddie’s sister lay sprawled on the carpet, her head propped on a pile of blankets; the angle couldn’t have been comfortable for her neck, but it allowed her to drink straight from a vodka bottle without choking herself. Every few swigs she missed the mark, sending alcohol dribbling down her chin and chest, an error she found hysterically funny no matter how many times it happened. The manic laughter scraped the inside of Maddie’s skull, causing her to flinch each time it broke the silence. The others didn’t seem to mind; Maddie saw Caleb smile once or twice, a brief twitch of his lips that stopped the moment he realized she was looking at him again.

     When she caught his eye once more, he exploded. “Find something else to fucking look at!” he shouted, his voice thick and ugly.

     “Jesus!” Jessie sat up, mopping off the liquor that had splashed across her face. “You made me spill!”

     “You’ve been bathing in it for the last hour,” the kid snapped. “You smell like a hobo.”

     “What is your problem?” Jessie whined. “Why are you yelling at me? She’s the one you’re pissed at.”

     “Thanks, Jess.”

     “Well he is!” Jessie struggled up onto her knees, swaying. “I didn’t do anything! Whatever I did, he made me.” She pointed an accusatory finger at Vinnie. “This is all your fault!”

     Vinnie remained impassive.

     “He didn’t do anything,” Maddie said quickly. “I did. It’s my fault, not his.”

     “Yeah, it is.” Caleb gripped the bottle in his hand so tightly, Maddie was surprised it didn’t shatter. “You did it. You killed her. You think if you keep staring at me, I’ll say it’s okay?”

     “She was already-”

     “I KNOW THAT.” Spittle flew from Caleb’s mouth as he screamed. “I know what she was! But you…but you…” The anger fled in a sudden rush, leaving him to sag again, crying. “You hit her so hard. She wasn’t even…I couldn’t even…” He trailed off into sobs.

     Maddie turned her face away.

     The awkward silence stretched on, broken only by Caleb’s quiet sniffling, until finally Vinnie stood.

     “You need to rest,” he told Caleb. “You haven’t slept.”

     The kid shook his head, suddenly frantic. “I can’t sleep in there. I can’t.”

     “I’ll go with you.” Jessie staggered to her feet, leaning for a moment against the chair before she found her balance and straightened. “I’m sick of this floor, anyway.” She placed a clumsy hand on his shoulder. “You won’t be alone in there. Okay?”

     Caleb hesitated, casting a fearful look at the bedroom door. Maddie realized in a flash that she’d never been in danger from him, no matter what he’d said – he was too afraid to cross that threshold.

     After a few minutes of consideration, with Jessie murmuring words of encouragement in his ear, he finally nodded. Waving away Vinnie’s offer of help, he lurched up, grabbing hold of Jessie’s arm when he rocked on his feet. “S’like being on a boat,” he slurred, the beer he’d had catching hold of him with sudden vengeance.

     “I’ve got you, sailor.” Jessie steered him toward the bedroom, smirking at his careful steps. “Maybe a little less booze next time, huh?”

     “You drank a gallon,” he mumbled.

     “I’m kind of a professional.” Maddie rolled her eyes at that. “It takes years to build up my kind of tolerance. The trick is-”

     Her words cut off as the door clicked shut. Vinnie turned, a grin on his face.

     “Alone at last.” His eyebrows wriggled.

     “Ugh. Don’t be an ass.” She gestured toward the door with her bottle. “You think he’ll be okay?”

     Vinnie shrugged. “The beer should help him sleep. I’ll check him in a few minutes.” His brow furrowed. “Your sister handled him well.”

     “Yeah. She’s used to dealing with drunks. Everybody she knows is one.” Maddie heard the bitter judgment in her voice and cringed. Don’t be a bitch, she chastised herself. She calmed him down. Doesn’t matter why. “Sorry,” she said aloud. “Guess I’m a mean drunk.”

     Vinnie stepped into the kitchen, re-emerging with two more beers. Handing one to her, he sat; she noticed that he came back to the sofa, though the armchair was now vacant. He sprawled, his legs spread wide, his knee resting against hers.

     “You don’t like her much, do you?”

     “What?”

     “Your sister.” He took a long pull of beer. “You don’t like her.”

     Maddie frowned. “It’s not that. She’s just…exhausting.” She waved a hand at the mostly-empty vodka bottle. “She seems fun at a party. Except, you know, every night is a party for her. And every morning. And every afternoon.”

     Vinnie stared at her, his eyes dark. “And when do you party?”

     “I have fun!” Maddie protested. “Not her kind of fun, but…” She threw her bottle cap at him, annoyed. “Somebody has to be the responsible one.”

     “Uh-huh. How’s that working out for you?”

     She glared at him. “Fuck you.”

     Confusion flashed across his face. “Madelyn-”

     “No, I get it. The party girl flounces around, showing everything off, and everyone loves her. Responsible Maddie, though, she can’t even keep her fiancé satisfied.”

     “That’s not what I meant-”

     “Whatever.” She drank deeply before slamming her bottle down on the end table. “You think it. She thinks it. Everybody does.” He opened his mouth to speak, and she surged to her feet. “I’ll go check on them. Hopefully she hasn’t puked on his face.”

     She stalked across the room, angry and embarrassed. Her hands shook as she turned the knob, easing the door open as quietly as possible; she slipped in through the narrow opening and moved to stand beside the bed.

     They were both asleep. Jessie lay on her back, her arm tucked protectively around the kid; he had curled onto his side beside her, his head resting on her chest. Maddie stared down at them, her fists clenched at her sides. People like you, she thought. People like you sleep so easily. She wondered, suddenly, how Holly was sleeping these days. She was another party girl, just like Jessie. No concern for anything, so long as it didn’t interfere with her ability to have a drink, flash a guy, fuck somebody’s husband. Had she found someone new to protect her, now that Jack was gone? Was she hiding, the way they were, watching the world fall apart one news clip at a time? Had she encountered one of the…things, seen what happened to the dead now, lay awake the way Maddie did, wondering if her lover had become the same?

     Her anger faded, her body softening as she watched the sleeping pair. He’s right. Being responsible hasn’t brought me anything. And what does it matter now? The dead don’t care. Summer’s slavering face rose up in her mind, and she shuddered. The dead don’t care at all.

     A new feeling took hold of her, a reckless resolve that made her stomach flutter. She left the room, closing the door quietly behind her, and went to stand before Vinnie. Her whole body trembled now, not in rage but fear – of what she was doing, and how he would react.

     “They’re asleep,” she said.

     “Good.” He stared up at her, wary. “Madelyn, I didn’t mean-”

     “I know.” She leaned forward, placing her hands on the back of the sofa, framing his face. Her head swam. “Kiss me.”

     He laughed. “What?”

     “Kiss me!” she demanded.

     He shifted, clearly uneasy. “You’re drunk.”

     “Maybe.” She tilted her head, the change in angle setting off a wave of dizziness; her knees were shaking. “Okay, definitely. So what?”

     “I don’t think we should-”

     She brought her mouth down on his, silencing his protest. For a moment he sat frozen, and she wondered if he was going to humiliate her by not responding. She was about to move away when he groaned; his hand came up to wrap in her hair, his tongue plunging into her mouth. Oh thank god. She moved her hands down to grip his shoulders, steadying herself against him.

     They were both gasping when she pulled away. He reached out, his eyes on hers, and fumbled with the knot at her waist; it took him a moment to pull it free, and then her pants were down, a pool of cotton fabric around her feet. Holding his gaze, she stepped out of them, grateful she’d chosen a decent pair of panties when she’d changed. The room was mostly dark, and he didn’t seem like the type to care about underwear, but still – worrying over a holey pair of drawers would have killed her mood.

     All thoughts of her wardrobe choices fled when he leaned forward, his hands on her hips, and kissed her stomach. She inhaled sharply, the feel of his lips setting off a tingle that surged downward; as his tongue dragged over toward her hip, she felt herself throb.

     Glancing up at her briefly, as if seeking reassurance, he hooked his thumbs into the waistband of her panties and yanked, baring her to his mouth. He kissed and licked, gently at first, then with increasing urgency; one hand grabbed her calf and lifted, urging her to place a foot on the sofa, giving him better access. She gripped his hair in her fists, her head falling back as she gave herself over to what he was doing. He slipped a finger inside her, and she stiffened, embarrassed at how quickly and easily she’d become ready for him. She didn’t have long to feel self-conscious, however; as he moved his hand he growled, a low rumble of pleasure she’d never heard before, and she let herself simply enjoy.

     “Vinnie,” she whimpered. She could feel an orgasm building as he plunged deeper inside her, first the one finger, then adding another, his tongue tracing frantic circles over her clit. She yanked on his hair, not wanting to finish. “Please. I need…I need…” Her breath hitched in her throat.

     He pulled himself away at the last moment, falling back against the sofa. She tore at his jeans, clumsy in her eagerness, until he pushed her hands away and undid them himself. Gripping her hips tightly, he pulled her down, spreading her wide over his lap. She was about to lower when reason penetrated the fog.

     “Wait!” She levered herself back up. “Do you…having anything?”

     “What?” He looked up at her with dazed eyes. “Like, herpes?”

     “No! A condom.”

     “Oh. Oh. Shit.” He groaned with frustration. “I think so. In the bathroom, maybe. I’ll go look.” Before she could move he lifted her, shifting her to the side so he could climb out from beneath her. “Stay here,” he ordered.

     “Where else would I go?” she mumbled. The sudden move from his lap had set off another wave of dizziness; she held her head, willing the feeling to go away, or at least hold off for a few more minutes.

     She watched him stumble toward the bathroom, hitching his pants up as he went; his steps weren’t much steadier than Caleb’s had been, and she realized he’d had more to drink than she’d thought. So have I. She tried to count the empties they’d left on the table, a task made more difficult by the darkness of the room and the fact that her vision kept doubling. That’s not good. She closed her eyes, which only made the dizziness worse – the sensation that she was spinning made her stomach roll.

     You’ll regret this tomorrow, a little voice said.

     So? It’s time I had fun.

     You won’t like yourself. Or him.

     I don’t like him much now.

     Then why are you going to sleep with him?

     The thought brought her up short. She’d lied to herself, and she knew it: she did like Vinnie, as much as she didn’t want to. But sleeping with him, especially this way, wasn’t going to make things between them any easier. She wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye after, which might be a problem given how much time they now spent together.

     He’s getting a condom, you dumbass!

     Her booze-soaked brain searched for a way to get out of this easily, without setting him off or making him hate her. She was still thinking when he emerged from the bathroom, a packet of foil raised triumphantly.

     “Found one!” He tripped his way toward the couch, collapsing beside her in a heap. “Now, where were we?” He reached for her, leering – until he saw her face. Drawing back, he searched her eyes for a moment, then sighed. “Killed the mood, huh?”

     She blinked at him. “What?”

     “I knew it was taking too long. Stupid box was buried under the toilet paper. Stupid!” He glared at the rubber, still gripped in his hand, then tucked it into his pocket. “Chicks always turn off if it takes too long,” he told her, the conspiratorial tone of his voice making her giggle.

     “They do,” she allowed. “Besides…” She chewed her lip. “I think we’re both too drunk to be doing this.”

     “Probably!” He threw an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close; she snuggled against him, resting comfortably against his side. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” he said confidently.

     “We’ll see.”

     He tilted her chin up, kissing her gently before staring deep into her eyes. “Madelyn?”

     “Yeah?”

     “We will try again.”

     She heard the dark promise in his voice, and shivered.

Chapter Twenty Two

Posted: March 16, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     It felt like hours before she heard the others return. Maddie perched on the side of the bed, hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes fixed on the door. Every few minutes she could feel her attention drifting toward the other side of the room – the stains on the wall and carpet all but called her name. She resisted the repeated urge to look, conjuring up instead images of another door, that one locked against her rather than in her favor. She gritted her teeth and seethed.

     She didn’t really believe she was in danger; if Caleb had intended to kill her, she figured he’d have done it while she was still asleep. He was posturing, as teenaged boys were wont to do. Still, she hated him for scaring her, and for the dislike that had rolled off of him in waves.

     Without me, he’d have been left behind. Ungrateful ass.

     Her eyes started to wander again, and she snapped them back. Don’t think about it, she ordered. Don’t think about her. Her hands twitched, feeling a ghost of the bat against her palms.

     There was a thump on the other side of the door, followed by loud, brittle laughter. Maddie groaned. She knew that laugh – years of hearing it echoing down the hallway and through thin bedroom walls had taught her to gauge in an instant how pleasant the next few hours were going to be.

     Wherever Vinnie and her sister had gone, alcohol had clearly been on the menu.

     More high-pitched giggling drifted through the door, along with the low murmur of what sounded like an argument. She was about to get up and see what was happening when there was a quiet knock.

     “It’s me,” Vinnie called.

     Maddie thumbed the lock and let him in, glaring at Caleb over his shoulder. The kid stared back defiantly, a beer clenched in his fist. No sign of Jessie, though clattering in the kitchen was a good indication of what she was up to.

     “You’re letting him drink?” Maddie asked. When Vinnie raised an eyebrow in response, she blushed. “He’s not…he’s too young,” she said, feeling instantly lame.

     Vinnie pushed the door shut. “You want to report me for corrupting a minor?”

     “Ha ha. Very funny.”

     “His friend zombie’d out in front of him. I think he deserves a few drinks.”

     His tone was gentle, but Maddie still looked away, feeling like she’d been slapped. She found herself staring at the spot she’d tried so hard to avoid, her stomach churning again at the sight of the stained floor. I didn’t do anything wrong. No matter how many times she repeated it to herself, it failed to make her feel any better.

     “Where did you take her?” she finally asked. Part of her cringed, both dreading and wanting to hear.

     He waited a few moments before answering. “You, ah…you don’t need to know.”

     She pulled her attention away from the rug. “Did you do it alone?”

     “No.” He glanced at the door. “Your sister helped me.”

     “Ah.” Maddie paused. “And now she’s drunk.”

     He sat down heavily, his expression sad. “I shouldn’t have made her. She cried a lot. But the body was too heavy for me to move it alone. The kid couldn’t do it.” He stared off into space, seeming not to notice when she sat beside him. “She shouldn’t have been heavy. She was small. I’ve moved bigger guys, guys weighted down with gear. I should have been able to do it alone.” He shrugged. “But I couldn’t, so I made her help. And now she’s drunk.”

     Maddie took his hand, gently stroking across the back of it. “I’m surprised she made it this long,” she said, keeping her tone light. “Where did you go?”

     “Mini mart, couple streets over. I had to give the guy a twenty to lift the gate and let us in. There’s been looting.”

     “Where are the cops?”

     He shot her a surprised look, then laughed. “You’ve missed a lot, Sleeping Beauty.”

     “So tell me.”

     He seemed about to, then shook his head. “It can wait.” Getting to his feet, he pulled her up too; before she could react she found herself wrapped in a hug. “I’m glad you’re awake,” he whispered. The now-familiar chill raced down her spine, and she hugged him back.

     After a few moments he pulled away; she let her arms drop to her sides, feeling suddenly awkward. I wonder how much beer there is, she thought. She hoped the answer was “a lot”; if she was going to deal with her drunk sister and drunk Caleb, she needed something to take the edge off.

     As if reading her thoughts, Vinnie grinned. “Let’s get you something to eat,” he said. “You can’t drink on an empty stomach.”

     “Are you hoping to get me drunk?” Maddie teased.

     The look he gave her left her feeling as exposed as she had in the kitchen earlier. She remembered what Caleb had told her.

     “You don’t have to look at me like that,” she blurted, crossing her arms.

     “Like what?”

     “Like you want to see me naked.” She took a step back. “You had your show already, when I was sleeping.”

     He stared at her, dumbfounded, until realization dawned. “I checked you for scratches,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t look at anything. Unconscious chicks aren’t really my thing.” When she had no response, he huffed, impatient. “I was making sure you weren’t hurt. Are you really going to be pissed about it?”

     She chewed her lip. “I guess not.”

     He stepped into the space she’s created between them, leaning down until his mouth was inches from hers. “The next time I see you naked,” he said, his voice a low growl, “It’ll be because you invited me to. Okay?”

     Swallowing hard, she nodded.

     “Good.” Pulling away, he opened the door. “Now…let’s eat.”

Chapter Twenty One

Posted: March 9, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Everything hurt.

     Maddie lay very still, blinking into the semi-darkness. The overhead light was off; a small lamp on the bedside table threw most of the room into shadow. She was surprised to note that it was still night – she could spy a sliver of moon through the partially open curtains.

     The space beside her in the bed was empty.

     Groaning, she sat up, the ache in her head a dull throb compared to the screaming agony of her arms and shoulders. She felt like she had when she was younger, immobilized after a weekend spent helping her father chop, lift and store firewood. They’d had no real need for the wood, but he was the type who’d rather spend the day doing good, honest work than be shut up inside, listening to the bickering between his wife and younger daughter. Maddie had worked alongside him for just the same reason, the labor a welcome trade for his companionable silence.

     Now, though, there was no sense of accomplishment to accompany the pain; no pride in a difficult task done well. Every movement reminded her of what she’d done, and who she’d done it to. And why.

     Unable to resist the pull, her eyes jumped to the other side of the room. Summer was gone – all that remained was a dark stain on the carpet. The bat had been cleaned and replaced on the hooks; everything that had been jostled out of place in the struggle had been carefully put back. Someone had also wiped down the walls, though a pale pink streak remained on the paint above the dresser. Her stomach rolled when she saw it.

     “Vinnie,” she croaked. Her throat was raw, dry as dust. “Vinnie!” she called again, a bit louder. When no one came, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, taking a steadying breath before she stood. Her knees felt weak, her thighs a little trembly, but she thought she’d be okay to walk.

     The living room, too, was dark; the television flickered, images Maddie thought were from the barricades filling the screen, though with the volume muted it was hard to tell if it was new or old footage. Her scalp prickling, Maddie looked around.

     No one was there.

     Her immediate thought was that they had left her; they’d waited until she was asleep and then fled. The fear was irrational – her sister and that coward Caleb might have ditched her, but she doubted that Vinnie would have agreed to such a thing, not when he had Grace to deal with in the somewhat hazy future. Besides, she told herself, You haven’t been asleep for that long. Maybe they’re out dealing with the…clean up.

     That was an even less pleasant thought; she shied away from it.

     Swallowing hard, she noticed again how dry her mouth was and shuffled toward the kitchenette. She fixed herself a glass of ice water, chugged, then made another, squinting against the freeze that spread up through her forehead. A third glass finally loosened her throat, washing away the taste of sleep and death.

     Leaning back against the counter, Maddie stared into the shadows of the living room; her mind circled back to what the others could be doing. They’d moved Summer’s body, that much was clear. But where? How did one dispose of a dead body without getting caught?

     Fear spiked in her belly. Maybe they had been caught. She saw it clearly: the three of them, wrestling the sheet-wrapped corpse down the building’s stairs, right into the arms of the cops, who’d no doubt been called due to all the screaming. They’d been arrested; jailed. She was alone now.

     Stop it. She rolled her eyes, exasperated with her ability to worst-case-scenario everything. Her mother had always said she had an active imagination. Grace hadn’t known the half of it.

     Never imagined this, though. Never imagined anything like this.

     Despite what she’d seen – what she’d done – Maddie had difficulty accepting this new reality. Zombies…it seemed so impossibly ridiculous. The rational part of her continued to conjure explanations, though her ability to believe them was now wholly compromised; if she found ways to excuse Summer’s behavior, sane ways that left aside the issue of the walking, snarling dead, then she had to acknowledge that she was a murderer. She’d beaten a woman to death, for no reason other than fear. That, too, was an unacceptable scenario.

     The pain in her head increased. She resisted the urge to stumble back to the bed, to hide under the blankets and pretend, for a little while longer, that it was okay. Wherever they were, they’d be back soon, she thought, and she couldn’t stand the idea of them looking at her. Judging her.

     She was so focused on her thoughts, the sound of the toilet flushing startled her into dropping the glass. Water splashed across the kitchen floor, ice cubes rattling over the linoleum and sliding under the fridge. The glass, shatter-proof, thudded hollowly at her feet.

     Caleb emerged from the bathroom. Catching sight of her, he cringed, shying away like a skittish dog. Maddie felt her fists clench, and forced herself to relax.

     “I didn’t know you were up,” Caleb said. He refused to meet her eyes, talking instead to a space just around her knees. “Vinnie wasn’t sure how long it would be.”

     “Where is he?” she asked. “Where’s my sister?”

     “They went out.”

     “With….with Summer?”

     He looked at her then, a quick piercing glance. “No,” he said. “They took care of that this morning.”

     It took a moment for his words to sink in. “This morning? What…” She took a step toward him. “How long have I been asleep?”

     He seemed to hesitate. “Two days.”

     Maddie reeled back, shaking her head. “That’s not true.”

     Caleb shrugged. “You can ask them. They’ll be back soon.”

     Two days. How was that possible? She’d thought for sure it had been only a few hours. No one slept that long, unless they were sick. Or…

     Panicked, she yanked her shirt up, searching her torso for marks. Caleb watched her dispassionately as she spun around, checking the backs of her legs, the soles of her feet.

     “He already checked you,” he finally said.

     “What? What?” She looked at him, chest heaving.

     “Vinnie,” he said. “He already checked you. Yesterday, when we couldn’t wake you. You’re clean.”

     “Oh.” She sagged against the counter, weak with relief. She felt foolish, a feeling that intensified when she realized she was standing there, being glared at by a 17-year-old, wearing nothing but a borrowed t-shirt and her underwear.

     “Uh…” She fidgeted, tugging the hem of the shirt down. “I should probably get dressed.” When the kid didn’t respond, she snapped. “Could you turn around, please?”

     He complied, smirking. “Don’t see why it matters. You already flashed me.”

     “Ugh.” Forgetting her jelly legs, Maddie dashed for the bedroom, not processing what else he’d said until she was at the door. “Wait.” She spun around. “He checked me?”

     Caleb glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah. Why?”

     Maddie had a vision of Vinnie running his hands over her sleeping body, lifting her shirt, turning her over to make sure no area was missed in his inspection. She shuddered. She was sorry for how she’d treated him, given he’d turned out to be right, and she certainly couldn’t deny the way her body reacted to him. But still…she hated the idea of him touching her while she was unconscious.

     “We’ll have to talk about that,” she muttered. “Why couldn’t Jessie do it?”

     “I don’t think she would have enjoyed it as much,” Caleb snorted. Before she could respond to that, the humor left his face; he glared at her again, eyes cold and hard. “I voted to kill you.”

     She recoiled. “I- I’m sorry about-”

     “No you’re not.” He took a step toward her, his expression blank. “You know what she was. We both do. But still.” He stepped forward again. “I voted to kill you.”

     Heart pounding, Maddie slammed the door in his face.

Chapter Twenty

Posted: January 26, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     She remembered the roar that had filled her apartment when Vinnie had shot Mr. Webber, and the pops from the pharmacy; she knew, even in her inexperience, that gun shots were anything but quiet. Eyes scrunched tight, Maddie braced herself for a loud bang.

     She was rewarded with an impotent click.

     Her eyes flew open. The gun remained in her hand, cold and silent. On the bed, Summer struggled to her feet and took a step, seemingly unaware in her mindless state that walking across a mattress wasn’t quite the same as traversing the floor. Her foot tangled in the sheets and she went down again, slavering with rage.

     “You have to cock it!” Jessie screamed from the doorway. “Cock it!”

     Maddie fumbled at the back on the gun, searching for the lever she thought should be there. She’d seen westerns, she had, she knew how to cock a gun. But to her dismay, there was no lever. The gun slipped in her hands, slick with sweat, and she moaned in frustration.

     “It’s a slide!” Vinnie made to release Caleb, to come and help. As soon as the grip around his body loosened the kid redoubled his efforts to reach Maddie, screaming incoherently, not even aware of what his friend in the bed had become. Vinnie hauled the kid back again. “Slide it! Slide it to cock it!”

     “I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS.” Maddie heard herself sobbing, her breath coming out in panicked gasps. Her fingers slipped over the body of the gun, not able to get a grip and slide anything, never mind that there wasn’t anything to slide. What the hell is he talking about?

     Summer lurched down the length of the bed, reaching the end and tumbling over onto the floor, arms outstretched. There was a crack as she hit the carpet; when she rose again, Maddie saw that her left arm dangled at an impossible angle, the bone poking through near the elbow. Summer paid it no mind – she shuffled forward, toward Maddie, eyes empty and wild.

     Maddie moved backward, still clutching the useless gun. She pulled the trigger again, twice more, each time hearing only the quiet click of nothing.

     “The safety!” Vinnie sounded suddenly furious, though whether it was with her or himself she didn’t know. “The safety’s on! Push the button!”

     Oh, fuck this. Fed up with buttons and slides and levers that weren’t there, Maddie brought her hand back and hurled the gun at Summer. It hit the girl in the cheek, just below her right eye; blood poured down her face. It was a blow that would have given anyone pause, but she kept coming.

     Maddie’s retreat was halted as she backed up against something hard. The dresser. Turning quickly, she scanned the top, searching for anything she could use to fend the girl off. Her eyes skipped over the few small items clustered neatly toward the front; over the framed photo of Vinnie in uniform, surrounded by other similarly dressed men; over the box of useless bullets he’d pulled out when he’d retrieved the gun. They landed on a set of hooks, screwed into the wall just above the dresser top, cradling what was clearly a prized possession.

     Batter up.

     When she whirled back around, bat in hand, Summer was closer than she’d expected. Screaming with fear, she swung out; the bat connected with Summer’s shoulder, knocking the girl back a few steps. Maddie swung again, hitting her mark this time – the thud of the wood as it rapped against Summer’s skull was sick and satisfying.

     She never knew, after, how many times she hit the girl. After the first blow she left herself, went to a quiet place where there was no screaming; no one snapped and snarled like a rabid dog with only half a head; her ears weren’t filled with the sound of her own sobbing laughter as her arms moved up and down, up and down, hoeing a row of horror she’d remember clearly only in her dreams.

     When she came back, the room was still. She perched on the end of the bed, bat still in hand, the blonde wood streaked and stained with blood. Staring at it, she wondered how much was on the rest of her. Her face felt sticky and hot.

     There was whispering behind her, and the sound of running water in the other room. Caleb said something, a plea she couldn’t quite hear, before Vinnie ordered him out.

     You’re next, she thought, hands tightening on the bat. She liked the feel of it in her grip, the heft it had. Fool me once, kiddo.

     But she found that all of her energy was gone; whatever reserves she’d been able to access to deal with Summer were empty. Her anger at Caleb was a weak thing, tired – she couldn’t muster up more.

     “Madelyn?” A hand fell on her shoulder and she flinched, half-raising the bat. “It’s all right. You’re fine now.”

     Vinnie sat beside her, his weight shifting the mattress, and she found herself leaning against him. The warmth of his body set off a sudden round of shivering; the bat trembled in her hands.

     “Let me have that,” he said gently, reaching out.

     She tried to release her grip. “I can’t,” she said, surprised to hear her voice sound so hoarse.

     “That’s okay.” Moving carefully, he loosened her fingers from around the handle. When it was free, he set it aside and took her hand. “I’m going to clean you up. Okay?”

     She nodded, grateful, but when he brought the washcloth forward she recoiled. Seeing the look on her face, he quickly reassured her. “It’s clean.” After a moment of hesitation he tried again, and this time she allowed him to wipe her hands, then her face. She believed him that it was clean; nonetheless, her skin crawled. As he dabbed at her cheeks, she bit her lip to keep from screaming.

     “She should have a bath,” Jessie said, hovering still in the doorway. “It’s all over her.”

     “Later,” Vinnie said.

     “But….Vinnie, her hair.”

     “I said later,” he snapped. “She’s in shock.”

     “But-”

     “Go check on Caleb,” he said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

     When she was gone, he knelt before Maddie. Her eyes drifted over his shoulder, to where Summer lay sprawled on the carpet; someone had thrown a sheet over her, white cotton blooming with red patches.

     Seeing the direction of her gaze, he gripped her chin, bringing her attention back to his face. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, voice soft and stern. “I’ll take care of it.” He waited for her to nod before continuing. “You need to lie down now. Okay? I’ll help you walk.”

     Maddie shook her head. “The bed,” she said.

     Vinnie raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”

     “Yes.” She fought the urge to collapse back, to writhe across the mattress the way Summer had, until her head was on the pillow. Wasn’t Summer, though. Not Summer at all. Squinting, she forced herself to focus. “I hate the floor.”

     “You can sleep on the couch,” he said.

     “No. The bed.”

     “Okay.” He sighed. “I have to change the sheets first. You want to go to the bathroom?”

     She shook her head again. It was a long walk to the bathroom; she wasn’t sure she’d make it. Why am I so tired? She thought she’d done something, something exhausting, but couldn’t remember. Her head swam.

     She blinked and he was standing in front of her, arms full of clean linens. Taking her hand, he tugged her to her feet. “Sit here,” he told her. He led her to the chair, one he’d dragged in from the living room; doing as she was told, she found herself staring out the bedroom door. She watched, detached, as Caleb sobbed on the sofa, Jessie standing over him. Useless. She glared at her sister, angry for reasons she couldn’t explain. She felt her nails biting into her palms.

     Vinnie worked quickly, stripping the bed and tossing everything on top of Summer’s body. He had the new sheets on the bed before she knew it. Helping her again to stand, he brought her to the bed.

     “You….” He hesitated, shifting uncomfortably. “You should change your clothes.”

     She looked down at herself. He was right; her blouse was destroyed, and her pants not much better. Numb, she plucked feebly at the buttons of her shirt, not able to make her fingers work.

     “You want me to get your sister?”

     “I can do it.”

     “I don’t think you can.” He frowned, thinking, then moved to shut the door. “We’ll do this fast. I won’t….I won’t look.”

     She stared at him. “Look at what?”

     “Never mind.”

     She let her hands fall away as he undid her buttons, first on her shirt and then on her jeans. The air in the room was cold; she felt her skin dimple as he pulled her top off, tossing it aside. Despite his promise his eyes fell to her breasts, then skittered away.

     “You’re blushing,” she said. She sat down so he could work her pants down and off her legs.

     “You’re cold,” he said. “Here.” He held a t-shirt out. “Raise your arms.”

     She did. He tugged the shirt down over her head, then helped ease her back onto the pillows. She sighed, relieved beyond measure to finally be lying down. Drawing the covers up, she burrowed.

     “I’ll come back soon,” he said.

     “Can you…” She peeked out from beneath the blankets. “Can you sit? For a minute?”

     “Uh…sure.” Climbing in awkwardly, he half-sat, half-lay beside her. After a moment he reached out, stroking her hair. Recalling what Jessie had said about her needing a shower, she wondered what his hands would look like after; before she could dwell on it the thought floated away, and she drifted, down, into sleep.

     Just before she was gone, she shifted. “Vinnie?” she asked, her voice soft and dreamy.

     “Yes?”

     She frowned. “I really hate baseball.”

Chapter Nineteen

Posted: January 19, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day 15

     Maddie lay in the dark, listening to her sister’s gentle snoring, and wondered what the hell they were going to do.
They’d been stuck in Vinnie’s apartment for four days. Four days of nonstop news on the television, endless sniping with her sister and repeated, failed attempts to find a way out of the godforsaken city and get home.

     Four days of waiting for the girl, Summer, to recover. Or die.

     Maddie had been hopeful that she was going to get better. On the first day Summer had been talkative, laughing and joking with Caleb; she’d even eaten some of the soup Vinnie had insisted would help her. On the second Maddie had sat with her, rubbing her back and making sympathetic noises while the girl cried, explaining again what had happened down in the tunnels. She wanted them to find Dirk; would not lay back and sleep until Maddie had promised that they would try.

     That had been the last time she’d spoken to anyone.

     Now it was two days later and the girl slept on, unable to be roused. Caleb insisted she was resting, rejecting all other explanations for her deep, disturbing slumber. Maddie and Vinnie had had a dozen arguments over whether she could be hauled down to the car and taken to the hospital; with each passing hour Maddie had grown angrier and angrier with his reticence to do anything beyond stand around, waiting to see what would happen.

     After much yelling, he’d finally consented to canvassing his neighbors for a working phone. Most doors remained closed, no matter how much they knocked; when they finally found a friendly face, an older woman who called Vinnie “Honeybunch” and offered them cookies, the effort proved to be a waste of time – ten calls to 9-1-1 ended in nothing more than a ringing line. A quick call to Maddie’s mother had at least been picked up by the machine; she’d left a short message, assuring Grace that they were fine and trying to find a way home, before Vinnie had dragged her back to the apartment.

     The news report that evening had offered an explanation for their failure: 911 was no longer operational. Nor were the emergency rooms at any of the city’s four hospitals; it seemed mandatory vaccinations for personnel had not had the desired effect, and most of the doctors and nurses were either laid up at home or lying on cots at Bayer Stadium.

     Help, Maddie had realized, was not coming.

     A particularly loud snooork from her sister roused Maddie from her thoughts. Sighing, she gave Jessie a shove before rolling over herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she had ear plugs. Although she had to admit, it wasn’t just the snoring that kept her awake at night; even if she could stop worrying long enough to sleep, the floor of Vinnie’s living room wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to be camping out. Vinnie had magnanimously offered the use of the sofa, but both women had refused, Maddie because he was already displaced from his bed, Jessie simply to keep her sister from sharing sleeping space with him.

     Forget it, she told herself. You can worry about all of this crap in the morning. Sleep.

     For a few minutes, it seemed like she would be successful. She was just starting to drift off when she heard a creak in the bedroom.

     There was no reason to pay it any mind. Vinnie’s building was old, and anyway, Caleb got up multiple times a night to fuss over Summer, rearranging the bedding and wiping her face with fresh cloths, as though such simple measures would bring her back to him. Maddie had already grown used to ignoring his middle-of-the-night puttering around.

     Nonetheless, she was jerked back into alertness by the sound. After a moment she realized her body was rigid, her ears straining as she held her breath.

     Creak.

     She sat up, aware as she did so that Vinnie was already throwing his blankets off and rising to his feet. He was a mere shadow in the dark room, moving toward the bedroom door before she could get up.

     “Vinnie!” she whispered, not wanting to wake her sister. He stopped, a disembodied voice coming out of the darkness.

     “Stay there,” he ordered. “I’ll check.”

     “Yeah right.” Stumbling, she made her way to his side, tripping over Jessie’s feet in the process. He caught her arm as she fell into him.

     “It’s probably nothing,” he told her. For the first time since she’d met him, she thought she detected uncertainty in his tone.

     “We’ll just peek,” she said.

     Moving slowly, Vinnie eased the door open.

     As she’d expected, Caleb was hovering. He perched on Summer’s side of the bed, a damp cloth in his hand; from the look of her cheeks, he’d been scrubbing them for some time. He muttered to himself, his speech low and rapid.

     Maddie took a cautious step into the room. “Caleb?” The kid jerked, his shoulders twitching, but didn’t stop wiping. “Caleb. What are you doing?”

     Vinnie nudged past her, pushing her closer to the bed. Maddie’s gaze fell to Summer’s face, and she froze. The girl’s expression was utterly blank; her mouth hung open, jaw slack. Aside from the chaffed redness of her cheeks, her face lacked all color.

     “Oh no.”

     “She’s fine.” Caleb nodded at his own words. “She just needs to cool off. She’s so hot. Feel her forehead.” Maddie shrank back, not wanting to lay a hand on the girl, but he continued as though she’d complied. “See? It’s just a fever. I need to cool her off.”

     “Caleb.” Vinnie stood at his side, his eyes lingering on Summer’s face for only a moment before he turned away. “She’s gone.”

     “No!” Caleb shook his head, frantically redoubling his efforts with the cloth. “It’s just a fever. She’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

     “You need to move away from her,” Vinnie said, putting his hand on the kid’s shoulder. Caleb shrugged him off. “Come on, Caleb. You know you can’t sit here.”

     “Leave him alone,” Maddie said. She heard the tremble in her voice and swallowed. She hadn’t known the girl very well, had barely spoken to her since they’d met, but her eyes still stung with unshed tears. “She was his friend. Leave him be.”

     Vinnie gave her a withering look before reaching toward the girl. Caleb grabbed his wrist before he could touch her. Rather than argue, Vinnie spoke gently. “I just want to check her fever. Okay?”

     The kid hesitated, then nodded, releasing his grip. Maddie watched as Vinnie stroked the girl’s forehead, brushing the hair away from her face before trailing his fingers down, over her cheeks and along her jaw. His fingers paused for a few moments; he closed his eyes, brow furrowed, and then shook his head.

     “She’s gone,” he said again. “Move away from her.”

     Not waiting for an answer, he strode to his dresser and yanked open a drawer. When he turned back toward them, he had the gun in his hand.

     “NO!”

     Maddie wasn’t sure which one of them screamed louder, but it was Caleb who leapt up and hurled himself onto Vinnie, grappling for the gun. Both men shouted and shoved; though Vinnie had several inches and fifty pounds on the kid, Caleb proved to be stronger than he looked – he wasn’t able to wrestle the gun away, but he did manage to use his body to prevent Vinnie from raising his arm to take aim. In their struggle they moved across the room, crowding Maddie closer to the bed. Recoiling – she’d never touched a dead body and certainly wasn’t going to change that now – Maddie skirted the mattress, stopping at the foot to shout at them.

     “Stop it! Somebody is going to get hurt!”

     Jessie appeared in the doorway, hair knotted and tangled from sleep. She blinked in the light. “What’s going on?”

     Her arrival startled Vinnie, who looked at her with distraction for just a second. It was all Caleb needed – with a primal scream, he brought his fist back and then down, slamming it into Vinnie’s wrist. The gun flew, landing on the carpet near Maddie’s feet.

     Caleb pressed his advantage, lowering his head to ram the other man’s chest; Vinnie hit the wall behind him with a solid thud. He groaned. “Pick it up,” he gasped at Maddie. Wincing, he wrapped his arms around Caleb, preventing the kid from moving away to strike him again. “Pick it up!”

     Maddie took a step back, shaking her head. Just seeing the gun unattended on the floor terrified her; she’d never held one, and besides, she wasn’t going to do what he wanted her to. There was no way she could shoot Summer, no matter that the girl was already dead.

     “I can’t,” she told him.

     “Pick it up!” he screamed back.

     “I can’t!” She looked around frantically, searching for an escape. “I can’t! I can’t shoot her, I can’t, I can-”

     The words died on her lips.

     The dead girl in the bed was moving.

     Summer’s hands rose and fell, flopping onto the bed. She writhed, seemingly unable to extricate herself from the blankets; her body thrashed wildly from one side of the bed to the other. She grunted frantically, animal sounds that sounded horribly familiar. She sounded like…like…

     Oh my god. Oh holy shit.

     Visions of the photographer filling her head, Maddie dove for the gun. Caleb continued to kick and scream, begging her not to hurt Summer; his cries mixed with Vinnie’s shouts and the increasingly loud snarling, a cacophony of confusion and terror.

     With shaking hands, Maddie raised the gun. It was lighter than she’d expected, the grip pebbled against her palms. Her aim wavered as her arms trembled. I can’t do this. Maybe he was wrong; maybe she wasn’t dead. I can’t do this!

     The thing in the bed freed itself; rising to her knees, she looked Maddie full in the face, lips pulled back to bare her teeth. A roar, bigger than she’d have thought possible for such a small person, filled the room.

     “SHOOT HER!”

     Closing her eyes, Maddie pulled the trigger.

Chapter Eighteen

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

     Vinnie’s apartment was not at all what Maddie had expected.

     Taking in the paraphernalia displayed on the walls and bookshelf, she turned to him, surprised. “You collect baseball stuff?”

     “You were expecting a military bunker?”

     “No.” When he raised an eyebrow, she blushed. “Okay, yeah.”

     He laughed. “I wasn’t always in the Army, you know. I played in high school. My dad used to take me to games.”

     “Mm.” Musing, Maddie walked around the small living room, peering at his possessions. There were a few team photos, an old trophy and two signed balls on a corner shelf, mixed in with books on the history of the sport and player autobiographies. “Have you read all of these?” she asked.

     “Surprised I can read?”

     Maddie drew back at the slight bitterness in his tone. Before she could reply, Caleb appeared in the doorway, Summer leaning heavily into his side. Vinnie went immediately to help.

     “Bring her in here,” he said, guiding them toward his bedroom. “She can lie down for a while.”

     Maddie watched them help the girl into the bed, brow knit with concern. Summer’s arm had continued to bleed on the drive over; the rate of the flow had slowed significantly, but she’d still soaked through another change of bandages before they’d made it across town. They’d had to resort to using the t-shirt she’d discarded the first time she’d been in the car, after the gauze from Jessie’s medicine cabinet had run out.

     Looking at the girl’s face, Maddie wondered how much blood she’d already lost. She seemed paler than she had earlier, the circles under her eyes so dark she looked as though she’d been sucker-punched. She should be at the hospital.

     After he was done re-wrapping her arm, Vinnie propped it on a pillow to elevate it. Her eyes closed as soon as the covers were pulled over her; within moments, she was asleep. Caleb moved to sit beside her, but Vinnie restrained him gently. “Let her rest,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We’ll check on her in a bit.”

     Clearly reluctant, Caleb nodded his head and allowed himself to be led back into the living room, where he collapsed into a chair. Maddie squeezed onto the small couch, giving her sister a shove to make her move over. Once Vinnie had taken his own seat, wheeling a computer chair over to be nearer to the group, she said what she assumed was on everyone’s mind.

     “Keeping her here is irresponsible. She’s going to bleed to death.”

     Caleb hitched in his breath, but said nothing. Vinnie merely stared, dark eyes boring into her. When the silence stretched on, she grew impatient. “Well?! We can’t just sit here and wait for her to die!”

     “He was right.” Caleb’s words were slow, his voice shaky. “We already know what’s going to happen. Nobody can help her.”

     “Don’t be ridiculous,” Maddie snapped.

     “You said it yourself.” Caleb looked at her, tears in his eyes. “You’ve seen people get bit like that. They died. Even with doctors, they died.”

     “Well, yes, but…” Maddie sputtered. “We can’t do nothing!”

     “We’re keeping her comfortable.” Vinnie’s voice was steady and flat; Maddie shuddered at the lack of emotion. “That’s the best we can do. Until it’s over.”

     “Wait,” Jessie said, leaning forward. “So you really think she’s gonna die?”

     Vinnie ignored her, turning instead toward Caleb. “Tell us about the subway.”

     Caleb groaned.

     “We know you were lying,” Maddie said. “What didn’t you want her to know?”

     “Did you find Drake?” Vinnie asked.

     “Dirk,” Caleb corrected. He ran a shaking hand across his face. “No. Although it was…hard to tell.”

     “Why?” Jessie asked. “Was it dark?”

     They waited, the three of them staring expectantly, until finally he relented. “Okay. Okay, fine. I lied.”

     “What did you see?”

     “I don’t know what I saw.” He stared into space, his eyes taking on a far-away look. “I didn’t go all the way down. Didn’t have to. I could see the platform from the steps. There were-” He swallowed hard. “Everybody down there was dead.”

     Jessie was horrified. “Did the cops shoot them?!”

     Caleb shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Some of them were wearing uniforms. I think they were cops.”

     “A riot,” Maddie said. “Like at the pharmacy.” She heard the gunshot in the crowd again, could easily imagine how people who were trying to leave, get to safety, could turn on the police.

     “How many?” Vinnie asked.

     “I don’t know. There were…parts.”

     “Parts?” Jessie frowned. “What does that mean?”

     “Body parts,” Vinnie clarified. Caleb waited a moment, then nodded.

     “What the hell happened down there?” Maddie whispered, overcome with horror. “Was it…was it the dogs? Summer said there were dogs.”

     “I didn’t see any dogs,” Caleb said. “Dead or alive. But maybe. Some of the bodies looked….eaten.”

     Maddie’s skin crawled. She glanced at Vinnie, whose face remained as impassive as ever, before reaching for her sister’s hand. “Dogs do that,” she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Eat corpses.”

     “I saw that on tv once,” Jessie said. “Gross. Those poor people.”

     When Caleb opened his mouth to speak again Maddie shook her head, just once, to stop him. He slumped back in his chair, his face tired and sad. It was easy to forget, with the piercings and the attitude, that he was so much younger than they. She felt bad for pushing him to talk.

     Visions of what he’d described crowded her thoughts, and she felt suddenly ill. Jumping up, she rushed into the bathroom, barely making it before she was violently sick. It had been a long while since she’d eaten; her throat and chest burned as she threw up, again and again, until finally her stomach stopped cramping.

     Maddie slumped, her face resting against the cool tile of the tub, and waited for her bearings to return. She could hear the others talking quietly, the sound carrying through the thin door; she felt her face grow hot as she realized that they, in turn, could no doubt hear her. There’s no shame in getting sick, she told herself.

     Rising slowly, she was surprised by how shaky her hands and knees were. Gotta eat something. Her stomach rolled again at the thought of food, but she knew she’d have to choke something down soon. It was a miracle she didn’t have a migraine already.

     She bent over the sink, waiting for the water to run ice-cold before rinsing her mouth and splashing her face. When she straightened and looked at herself in the mirror, she couldn’t help but flinch. With her messy hair and red face, water dripping down her chin, she looked like shit. She was looking around for a towel and a hair brush when there was a tap on the door.

     “Everything okay?”

     Reluctantly, she opened it, wishing she’d thought to crack the window and let out some of the sick smell. Vinnie didn’t flinch, however; he scanned her face, eyes filled with concern.

     “I just need a towel,” she said, lowering her head to stare at the floor. “And a brush.”

     “Hold on.” He stepped into the bedroom, carefully and quietly opening the door, and re-emerged a moment later. “No linen closet. I keep these in there.”

     “Thanks.” She took the hand towel first, patting her face dry, then the hair brush he offered her. “This is a woman’s brush,” she said.

     “Yeah?” He leaned against the door jam, watching her fuss in the mirror. “How ‘bout that.”

     “Is it your mom’s?” she asked, glancing at him quickly. His answering smirk made her blush, at the transparency of the question and her desire to know the answer.

     “Sure,” he agreed. “It’s my mom’s.”

     Maddie refused to look at him again, staring at her reflection instead. Idiot. She ripped the brush through her hair, wincing hard when it yanked at a sore spot on the back of her head.

     “You’re hurt,” he said. “Did I…?”

     Oh my god. She surprised them both by laughing. “It’s not from you,” she told him. “Keep your ego in check. Some dick at the pharmacy pulled a chunk out. Still hurts.”

     “You didn’t tell me that.” He came to stand behind her, the size of the bathroom crowding him up against her body. Pressed between him and the lip of the sink, she shivered.

     “It’s fine,” she told him.

     “Let me see.” Before she could protest further he had his hands in her hair, parting the strands carefully until he found the spot; he probed it gently and she winced again. “Sorry,” he said. “Looks like you ripped it open a little bit with the brush. We should clean it out, at least.”

     “Oh…..okay.” She blinked, trying to think straight, a hard thing to do with his hands on her. When he leaned into her further so he could reach the washcloth in front of her, she caught her breath.

     That’s just his zipper, she told herself sternly.

     “This might hurt,” he warned her.

     When he pressed the hot cloth to her scalp, she yelped. “Ow! That stings!”

     “I told you it would hurt.” He stroked her hair with his free hand, dabbing carefully with the cloth in the other. “Just relax.”

     Tingles raced down her spine. Scrunching her eyes closed, she willed herself not to move until he was finished. He’s an ass, she reminded herself. A crazy, crazy ass. He leaned into her again. With a big zipper.

     “All done,” he said finally, tossing the rag into the tub. With quick movements, he fluffed her hair a bit, then stepped back. “Well, it’s a little wet, but you should be fine.” He met her eyes in the mirror. “Just don’t let anybody pull it for a few days.”

     She was spared the difficulty of coming up with a response by her sister, who huffed impatiently in the doorway. “Are you two done? Some people need to use the bathroom.”

     “Sorry, sweetheart,” Vinnie said, stepping around her to leave. “It’s all yours.”

     Maddie remained leaning against the sink for a moment, not sure she could trust her weakened legs. When she finally turned to go, she caught the look on Jessie’s face and flinched back.

     “You can play doctor with him all you want,” the other girl said, brushing past Maddie. “It’s not going to work.”

     Maddie rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Jessica, do we have to do this? Do you have any idea what’s happening out there?”

     “I get it,” Jessie said. “I think I get it better than you do.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?” Maddie demanded.

     Reaching around her sister, Jessie pushed the door shut. “They told me,” she said. “They told me the truth.”

     Maddie closed her eyes. “And you believed them.”

     “Well, yeah. I don’t understand why you don’t.”

     “Because I’m not an idiot, Jess.” She shook her head. “Zombies? Really? I’d hoped even you were smarter than that.”

     Jessie’s eyes flashed, hurt and anger evident on her face. “I’m not stupid,” she hissed. “You think you’re so perfect, with your money and your fancy job and your snobby fiancé. Look how right you were about all of that.” Maddie blinked, stung, as her sister went on. “You were wrong then, and you’re wrong now. And if you expect me to help you when you get into trouble and finally figure this shit out?” Jessie stepped back, her face hard. “You’re wrong about that too.”

     “Jessie-”

     “Get out,” Jessie said. “So I can pee.”

     Shoulders slumped, Maddie realized she’d make no headway with her sister right now, and turned to go. Opening the door, she paused.

     “Jessie?”

     “What?”

     “This is exciting for you right now. Like a story. Zombie Apocalypse with the Handsome Soldier, whatever.” She looked at Jessie, hoping she was listening. “But when that girl dies? It’s going to be real. And you’d better hope that I’m the one who’s right.”

Chapter Seventeen

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

     Vinnie and Caleb had to help the girl up the stairs; Maddie trailed behind, clutching both baskets and side-stepping blood as it dripped onto the steps ahead of her.

     “Which one is it again?” Vinnie asked, pausing when they’d reached the top.

     “To the left, 206. I’ll get the door.”

     Shifting the baskets, she let them in to her sister’s apartment.

     “Oh, you’re back! I wasn’t expecti-” Jessie’s exuberant greeting was cut off when she realized they weren’t alone. “What the fuck?!”

     The two men ignored her, steering the injured girl toward the sofa. Maddie glanced at her sister as she passed, and stopped dead.

     “Who the hell is that?” Jessie asked her.

     “What the hell are you doing?” Maddie asked in response. Her sister stood in the kitchen, clad only in a towel, an open bottle of vodka and a glass on the counter. “Are you drinking?”

     “Oh.” She at least had the good grace to blush. “It helps, you know, with the hangover.”

     “So does coffee,” Maddie said, not able to keep the disgust out of her voice.

     “It was just one shot,” Jessie insisted. “It’s not a big deal!”

     “Madelyn.” She turned toward Vinnie, who was staring at her impatiently. “We need the first aid stuff.”

     “Okay.” Maddie started to hand him the basket, then snatched it back with a groan. “Shit. All that’s in here is medicine.”

     “You didn’t get anything else?!”

     “I got distracted!” Maddie snapped at him.

     “I might have some things in the bathroom,” Jessie said.

     Vinnie gave her a curt nod. “Go look.” He gifted Maddie with a glare before turning his back.

     Maddie fumed. So she’d only had time to grab cough drops and some bottles of medicine; was that her fault? His basket was full of nothing but batteries, the hypocrite.

     When Jessie pushed past her, Maddie grabbed her arm. “Bandages, okay? Peroxide, if you have it.” She looked her sister up and down. “And put on some clothes.”

     Jessie rolled her eyes and flounced off. Maddie made her way into the living room, settling on the floor to listen to whatever explanation the girl was currently in the middle of giving.

     “-bway. The trains weren’t running, but Dirk, he thought we could use the tunnels anyway. To walk. He said homeless people do it all the time.”

     “That’s actually not a bad idea,” Vinnie said, musing.

     “Yeah, well, the cops thought of it too. We got down there and they were all over the place, saying we couldn’t get off the platforms. Threatening to arrest us. People started screaming and pushing, and a group of us just went for it. Right over the side.”

     “Is that how you got hurt?” Maddie asked her.

     The girl shook her head. “No, that happened once we were in. It was dark down there, except for, you know, the safety lights. We kept bumping into each other, walking on people’s heels. And then…” The girl teared up, her breath hitching in her chest; Caleb reached out to pat her arm. “Can’t we just fix her up?” he asked. “Does she have to do this?”

     “We have to know what happened,” Vinnie said, his voice flat and calm.

     “It’s okay.” The girl reached up to wipe her face, giving Caleb a tremulous smile. “I can tell.” She took a deep breath. “We ran up on some homeless people, I guess. A huge group of them. They have, like, cities down there? In the old tunnels? We must have got turned around, in the dark. They weren’t happy we were down there. Everybody started screaming, and fighting, and somebody grabbed me and, like, bit me. I think it was a person but they had dogs down there, you could hear the growling, so maybe it was a dog. I don’t know.” She wiped away more tears. “I turned around and ran back. To the platform, you know. A couple people followed. Dirk…”

     “That’s enough now,” Caleb said, taking her in his arms. She sobbed against his shoulder. “I can tell you the rest. Just, clean her up. Fix her.”

     “Give me that stuff,” Vinnie said, reaching out for the armful of supplies Jessie held. Maddie was surprised to see her sister; she’d been so transfixed by the girl’s story that she hadn’t heard her come back out of the bedroom. She was relieved to note that Jessie had traded the towel for jeans and a t-shirt.

     “So, what, she called you?” Vinnie asked, starting to work on the girl’s arm.

     “Yeah.” Caleb sat back, still gripping the girl’s hand. “She told me what happened, and where she was. I tried to wait for you guys, but you were taking forever.”

     “We weren’t gone that long,” Maddie said. “Don’t make it our fault.”

     Caleb blushed. “It felt like forever,” he amended. “I had to go get her, so I just…left. I took her to the ER, but she never even got looked at. We were there most of the night. Sick people went in first, I guess.”

     “And Dirk?” Vinnie finished cleaning the girl’s wound and started unwinding a roll of bandages. “Where is he?”

     “We went back to the station. She stayed in the car. I went down there.” Caleb hesitated for a moment, glancing quickly at his friend’s face. “Nobody was down there. Platform was empty.”

     Maddie knew immediately that he was lying. Whatever he’d seen down in the subway, he didn’t want the girl to know about it.

     Vinnie was also skeptical, albeit for different reasons. “You went down there alone? You?”

     Caleb puffed out his chest. “Yeah, man. I did. I’m not-” He shot Maddie a contrite look. “I’m not always a wuss.”

     “Mm.” Vinnie applied some tape to his bandaging job and sat back. “Well, it’s clean, and that should help stop the bleeding. She needs stitches, but that can’t be helped now.”

     “Thank you.” The girl seemed better now that her wound had been cared for, although Maddie still didn’t like the look of her – her face was very pale, her lips colorless. She realized with a start where she’d seen a look like that before. She looks like Jack did. Right before the end.

     Shifting uneasily, she forced her eyes away from the girl’s face. “What now?” she asked Vinnie.

     “Is your stuff packed?” When Jessie nodded, he clapped his hands. “Good. Now, we leave.”

     “There’s nowhere to go, man.” Caleb sat forward. “You know a way out of this?”

     Shaking his head, Vinnie said, “No. Not yet anyway. We’re going to my place.”

     “Can we…” The girl struggled back into a sitting position. “Can we go with you?” When Maddie and Vinnie exchanged a glance, she rushed on. “I know you’re pissed at Caleb, since, like, he stole your car. But he was helping me. We brought it back as soon as we could.”

     When they still hesitated, Jessie stepped in. “If you don’t take them,” she said, “I won’t go.”

     “Jessica,” Vinnie said in a warning tone. “This doesn’t involve you.”

     “The hell it doesn’t.” She put her hands on her hips, defiant. “You said yourself he’s just a kid,” she told Maddie. “And this girl is hurt. What are you going to do, leave them out on the steps when we go?”

     Maddie hung her head. Her sister was right, loathe as she was to admit it. Fine time for her to develop a sense of responsibility, she thought, irritated. She really didn’t want to take Caleb anywhere, given how her last moment of charitable concern had turned out, but she couldn’t see any other option. But the girl…

     “I need a cigarette,” she said suddenly, rising to her feet.

     “You what?” Jessie looked at her, confused. “What?”

     “Vinnie,” she continued, ignoring her sister, “Come out with me?”

     “Oh…kay?” Vinnie followed her to the balcony door. “What’s going on?”

     “Wait a minute,” she said, keeping her voice low.

     “Will you keep an eye on her?” Caleb asked Jessie, gesturing to his friend. “I’m going with them.”

     “No, that’s-” Maddie tried to protest, but her sister quickly agreed to his request. He followed them out onto the balcony, waiting until the door was shut before he rounded on both of them.

     “You can’t leave us here,” he said. “I know you’re still pissed at me, but please. At least drop us at a hospital or something.”

     “I don’t think being pissed is the problem,” Vinnie said, lighting a cigarette and passing it to Maddie. “Is it?”

     Maddie shook her head, watching the paper on her cigarette burn away. Both men stared at her, Vinnie smoking silently, Caleb on the verge of tears. Finally Vinnie said, “You don’t smoke, do you?”

     “Nope.” She brought the filter to her mouth and inhaled, letting out smoke in a cough. Her throat and chest burned. She inhaled again, her head swimming. “It’s your friend,” she finally said.

     “Summer,” Caleb said. “Her name is Summer.”

     “Okay. Well, cleaned up or not, she needs a doctor. Her arm needs more than some peroxide and a band-aid.”

     “I told you, we tried! We sat there all night, and they never saw her. Kept telling me to wait.”

     “She needs to go back,” Maddie insisted.

     “That doesn’t seem to be an option,” Vinnie told her.

     “Well. Well, then….” She looked at Caleb uncertainly, not wanting to have this conversation in front of him. “Then she’s going to die.”

     “No she’s not!” He shook his head frantically. “Don’t say that. We got her fixed up. She’ll be fine now.”

     “You know that’s not true,” Vinnie said. His matter-of-fact tone seemed to set the kid off worse than Maddie’s words had; Caleb collapsed into the metal chair and started to cry. Vinnie raised a brow at Maddie. “I’m surprised to hear you say it, though.”

     Maddie flicked ash, watched it float down to her shoes. “Even without your bullshit,” she said, “I’ve seen two people with bites like that. And they’re both dead. Bill too, and all he got was a scratch. If those homeless people were sick-”

     “It could have been a dog!” Caleb looked up, desperate. “She said there were dogs. A dog could have bit her.”

     “That wasn’t a dog bite,” Vinnie said. “Did you even look at it?”

     The kid slumped. “No. She had it wrapped in a shirt. Wouldn’t let me see it, said it was gross.”

     “Well it’s gross all right,” Vinnie agreed. “I doubt the peroxide did any good. That thing is infected. You should have cleaned it for her last night.”

     “I thought the hospital would do it,” Caleb said miserably. “Like I said, she wouldn’t let me touch it.”

     “It wouldn’t have mattered,” Maddie said, taking another drag. Each one burned a little less than the last. She felt an odd combination of jittery and calm. “I’m telling you, Jack and Chrissy went to the hospital right away, and it didn’t matter.”

     “So what do we do? With her?”

     “I can’t listen to this,” Caleb said. He stumbled back into the apartment, slamming the door behind him. Maddie took his vacated seat, refusing to meet Vinnie’s eyes.

     “Madelyn,” he said, “What do we do?”

     “I don’t know!”

     “Yes, you do.” When she looked up, his hand was on his waistband, where he’d stashed the gun again, under his shirt.

     “You can’t shoot her,” she whispered, horrified.

     His face hardened. “You know what will happen to her. Whether I’m right or not, it’s not going to be pleasant.”

     Maddie remembered Jack, and the four people it had taken to hold him down at the end. This girl, Summer, was much smaller, but who knew what it would be like for her? Caleb wasn’t going to be able to help. Jessie was probably inside downing more vodka right now.

     “Maybe it was a dog,” she said.

     The look he gave her was filled with disgust. “You surprise me,” he said. “I thought you were different.”

     “What does that mean?” She had no idea what he was talking about. “Different how? Why?”

     “The way you kicked his ass,” he said. “When you caught them.”

     “Wait, Jack?” She surprised herself by laughing. “I was angry,” she said. “I hit my cheating fiancé because I was angry, and you think I can shoot some sick girl?”

     He shrugged. “I thought you had balls, that’s all. Guess I was wrong.”

     “It doesn’t take balls to shoot somebody,” she said. “They teach you that in the Army?”

     He reached out, lightning-quick, and grabbed her wrist, startling her into dropping the cigarette. She tried to shrink back but he held her, his grip hard and mean. “Watch it,” he told her, his voice deadly quiet. “Having my tongue down your throat doesn’t mean you can talk shit.”

     “Fuck you.” Her foot shot out, connecting with his kneecap; he let go of her as his leg buckled. “Sticking your tongue down my throat doesn’t mean you can grab me.” She got to her feet, breathing hard. “Don’t touch me again.”

     He rubbed his knee for a moment, wincing, then straightened. She braced herself, and was surprised to see that he was grinning. “There she is,” he said.

     She shook her head. “What’s wrong with you?”

     He took a step toward her, stopping when she moved back and raised her fists. “A lot of things,” he told her. “Keep that anger, sweetheart. You’re gonna need it.” He nodded his head toward the door. “Let’s go in. We can talk more later.”

     Wary, she moved past him and into the apartment, careful to keep space between them. If he grabs me again… But he didn’t.

     “You guys ready?” Jessie frowned when she saw Maddie’s face. “Everything okay?”

     Maddie nodded. “Yeah. Fine.” She glanced over the bar, into the living room. “Are they ready to go?”

     “I think so,” Jessie said. “The girl is tired, but she should be okay.” She lowered her voice. “Those bandages aren’t doing so great, though. She’s already bled through.”

     Maddie grimaced. “Okay.” She shot Vinnie a look. “You want to re-wrap her, before we go?”

     “Lot of good it’ll do.” When she glared at him he held his hands up. “I’ll do it. Don’t hit me again.”

     When he’d walked away, Jessie stepped closer. “You hit him? What the hell for?”

     “Don’t worry about it.” Maddie picked up the baskets from where she’d dropped them and set them on the counter. “You have any plastic bags? We can put this stuff in them, look less like we robbed the place.”

     Jessie pulled some bags out of the cabinet under her sink. “Did you?” she asked, shaking the plastic sack out. “I mean, you leave for food and stuff, come back with no food, no bags and somebody who’s bleeding. I got her story, but what the fuck happened down there?”

     Maddie hesitated for just a moment, then decided, fuck it, it was time for Jessie to know everything. Especially if what she thought was going to happen to Summer actually did happen, and Vinnie pulled out his damn gun.

     “A riot,” she said, tossing things into the bags as quickly as possible. “People are scared. Whatever this flu thing is, it’s fatal, Jess. People get sick, and they die. All of them.”

     Jessie froze, her face slack with shock. “What do you mean, ‘all of them’? Like, all the ones who get pneumonia or something?”

     “No.” She grabbed her sister’s shoulders, forcing her to look Maddie right in the eye. “No. No pneumonia. They just die. They have a cold, and they cough, and then they’re dead. Like the photographer.”

     “Oh. Oh my god.” She brought her hands up, covering her mouth. “Oh my god.”

     “There’s something else.” Glancing into the living room again, she saw that Vinnie was occupied with changing Summer’s bandages. Nonetheless, she dragged her sister into the corner, next to the door. “That guy, Vinnie? He thinks…” Maddie tried to find a way to say it so that it sounded sane, then realized it couldn’t be done. Best to just be out with it. “He thinks the people who die become zombies.”

     For just a moment she thought her sister would be outraged, or horrified by the sheer insanity of such a belief. When she wrenched herself out of Maddie’s grip, Maddie thought the anger on her face was for Vinnie. She was stunned when her sister stepped away from her and sneered. “Seriously, Maddie? Can’t do any better than that?”

     “What?” Maddie reached out, but Jessie evaded her grasp. “What do you mean?”

     “I saw the way you look at him,” Jessie said. “And the way he looks at me. You think if you tell me he’s some psycho freak, I’ll back off?”

     Maddie gaped. “What the…are you serious right now? You think I’m lying so you won’t sleep with him?”

     “He was my date,” Jessie said. “I have dibs.”

     “Dibs?” Maddie shook her head. “You can’t call dibs on people, Jess.” When her sister started to respond, Maddie rushed on. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. That’s not what this is. I’m serious. He believes in zombies.”

     “Everything okay, ladies?”

     Maddie jumped. Vinnie stood on the other side of the kitchen bar, regarding them both with a bemused expression. How much of that could he have heard?

     “We’re fine,” Jessie said, all but purring at him as she leaned over the counter. “Just getting these things bagged up. Are they ready to go?” When Vinnie nodded, she snatched up the bags and stalked away, not giving her sister a backward glance. Maddie watched her go, at a loss.

     “You okay?” Vinnie asked her.

     She nodded. “Fine. Does Summer need help down to the car?”

     “We’ve got it,” he said. “You go ahead.”

     As she headed for the door he came around to meet her, pressing the keys into her hand. Maddie willed herself not to flinch away as he leaned in, putting his mouth close to her ear.

     “You can ride shotgun,” he murmured. “I think you have…dibs.”

Chapter Sixteen

Posted: December 29, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The line into the pharmacy stretched a block and a half down the street. As they approached the crowd, Maddie was conscious of the fact that she and Vinnie were the only people not wearing masks. Uneasy, she gripped his hand harder.

     “Excuse me,” she said, tapping the person in front of her gently on the shoulder. “Is this the line to get in?”

     The man turned, looking her up and down before responding. “No. For the vaccine clinic.”

     “Oh. So we can go around?”

     “If you don’t want the vaccine.” His tone of voice made it clear what he thought of that decision.

     “We don’t,” Vinnie said curtly, tugging her forward. They made their way to the entrance, pushing through the crush at the front. Maddie pressed herself against him, regretting already her insistence that she accompany him.

     Once inside he handed her a basket and jerked his head in the direction of the medicine aisle. “This way.”

     “You don’t think we should get shots?” Maddie asked, hurrying to keep up with him as he strode across the store. “The news said-”

     “I know what they said.” He turned and eyed the long line for the clinic, which appeared to be staffed solely by two harried nurses. “Waiting would take forever. Besides,” he said, lowering his voice, “They don’t have an endless supply. Most of these people are wasting their time.”

     Maddie looked at those waiting, her gaze lingering on the families with children in their group. Their faces were all obscured by the masks, but she could feel their desperation.

     “They’re not going to be happy when the shots run out,” she said.

     “Which is why we need to get in and out of here fast. We don’t want to be here when that happens.”

     Maddie shuddered at the warning in his tone. She tried to imagine what she’d do, if she had a child for whom she wanted the vaccine and they told her it was gone. It’ll turn ugly, she thought.

     “Let’s make this quick then,” she said. Settling the basket handles in the crook of her elbow, she surveyed the shelves. “What are we here for?”

     “Tylenol, Advil, any kind of pain killer. Are you allergic to anything?” She shook her head. “Good. Band-Aids, gauze, tape. I have a lot of stuff at my place, but it can’t hurt to have more.”

     Loading a few things into her basket, she glanced at him. “How much of this would you say you have?”

     He shrugged. “A couple cases, I guess.”

     She blinked, surprised. “Why?”

     “You never know when you might need it.”

     “Uh-huh.” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you one of those people, you know, with the canned food in the basement and stuff?”

     “A prepper?” He laughed. “I guess so.”

     “Aren’t those guys…”

     “Crazy?” He laughed again when she blushed. “Maybe. Although it doesn’t seem so crazy now, does it?”

     Maddie looked away. “No. I guess not.”

     “Fill your basket,” he ordered. “I’m gonna go see what their batteries look like.”

     She nodded and got to work. Bypassing the name brand items, she chose giant bottles of generic meds, adding a dozen of each to her basket. After a moment of hesitation, she grabbed boxes of cold medicine and threw them in too; not every cold was the flu, after all, and who knew what they’d need. She was considering whether to take some cough drops when she was startled by a sneeze.

     “Bless you,” she said automatically, before recoiling from the woman beside her.

     “I’m not sick,” the other woman quickly assured her. She wiped her nose and gave Maddie a rueful smile. “Allergies. They always flare up in the fall.”

     “Oh.” Maddie’s knees weakened with relief. “I’m not sick either,” she said defensively, noticing as the woman glanced into her basket. “Just….stocking up.”

     The woman nodded. “I get it.” She hefted her own basket, filled to the brim with boxes of allergy medication. “Better safe than sorry.”

     Maddie was about to respond when the woman sneezed again. When she rifled her pockets for a clean tissue and came up empty-handed, Maddie opened her purse. “Hold on, I might have something-”

     “Hey!” Both women turned to find that a large man had stepped out of the vaccine line. “Hey, are you sick?”

     The woman shook her head. “No, no, it’s just aller-”

     “You shouldn’t be here if you’re sick,” someone else in line said. “You’re supposed to stay home.”

     “I’m not, I just have-”

     “There are children here.” The first man took another step toward them, his fists clenched at his sides. “You want to get these kids sick?”

     “Stay away from my baby!” A woman a few places back in line placed a protective hand on the child strapped to her chest. “My baby can’t get sick!”

     “Your baby should be at home,” someone shouted. “Leave the vaccine for those of us who need it!”

     The mother whirled around, her voice high-pitched and indignant. “Who said that? My baby needs the vaccine!”

     “We gotta go to work! You can stay home with your baby! Some of us have no choice but to be out!”

     As the mother continued shrieking about her baby’s God-given right to a vaccine, the first man continued to advance down the aisle. “You don’t even have a mask on,” he said, his voice trembling with rage. “Are you trying to kill everyone?”

     “I’m not sick!” the woman protested, looking around wildly. “I have allergies! I have- Hey! Hey! Get off of me!”

     The man, having finally reached them, grabbed hold of the woman’s arm. Over her protests, he started to drag her toward the front of the store.

     “Hey man, let her go!” Maddie came forward, only to find herself shoved back into the shelves. Boxes and bottles rained down around her. The push seemed to ignite something in the watching crowd; several more people surged forward, grabbing onto the woman and shoving her toward the exit.

     “I have allergies!” the woman screamed. “I’m not sick! I’m not sick!”

     “Leave her alone!” Maddie made to move toward the woman again, although to what aim she couldn’t say – so many people had hold of her now that there was no way to stop her from being ousted from the store. As she walked toward them, however, she felt a tug, and realized that someone had grabbed her hair.

     Maddie reacted instantly, bringing her arm up and around as she turned, forgetting that she still held the full basket in her hand. As the plastic connected with the side of her attacker’s head she felt a sharp pain in her scalp; the guy stumbled back with a hunk of her hair in his fist.

     “You hit me,” he said, dazed. “You hit me, you bitch.”

     “You pulled my hair out!” Backing away, Maddie wondered where the hell Vinnie was. How far away is the fucking battery section? “Don’t touch me,” she warned, brandishing her basket in front of her.

     The man made no move to approach her again; with a hand pressed to his head, he backed away as well. Behind him, Maddie saw that the line for the clinic had devolved into a shoving match, as people tried to get closer to the front and others tried to hold their spots. The allergy woman had disappeared.

     “We need to go.”

     Maddie jumped, surprised to find Vinnie had come up right behind her. “Where the hell were you?” she hissed.

     “Batteries.” He showed her his full basket and then grabbed her arm, pulling her toward the door. “Let’s go.”

     Maddie dug in her heels. “We need to pay for this stuff!”

     “Seriously?” Vinnie tightened his grip on her and yanked, nearly pulling her off her feet. “We’ll come back and pay later. Right now we need to go.”

     As they neared the door the crowd became impossibly dense, with people pushing and shoving; it wasn’t clear who was trying to get in and who was trying to escape the melee. Maddie saw that someone had become pinned up against the side of the door, unable to move due to the crush around them. Somewhere, a baby was crying, loud, piercing cries that seemed to egg the mob on in their madness.

     Suddenly, there was a loud pop. Maddie’s breath caught in her chest and she stumbled, falling out of Vinnie’s grip. The flow in the through the door abruptly reversed, and people began to scream and shove their way out. Another pop came, and the pharmacy filled with the acrid smell of smoke.

     Maddie’s vision grayed. Bodies pressed against her from all sides, squeezing the air out of her lungs. She stopped moving, sagging against those around her; try as she might, she couldn’t make her legs work. Am I shot? She didn’t think so, but someone had been – they were screaming, a high-pitched scream that vibrated in her head.

     “Maddie! Run!” Vinnie’s shout came back through the crowd that now separated them, jolting her. “RUN!”

     She tried. She struggled against the crowd, fighting her way through. Eventually they all but carried her through the door and out onto the sidewalk, where people were dispersing in all directions. Looking around, she failed to spot Vinnie.

     Run, she told herself. He’s fine. Run.

     She ran, the basket banging against her side as she took off down the block. The walk sign at the corner glowed orange but she ignored it, jogging across the intersection without a sideways glance. Three blocks later she wanted to slow down, to stop and catch her breath; her chest and sides were burning. Gritting her teeth, she kept going, until her sister’s building was within reach.

     Gasping, she leaned against the brick and bent over, afraid she was going to be sick. Every inhalation felt like fire. Should have used that gym membership.

     She had no idea how long she stood there, gasping for air; eventually the pain receded, and she felt confident that she wasn’t going to puke. She still had her hands on her knees and her head down when she heard Vinnie’s voice.

     “Madelyn!”

     Straightening up, she barely had time to register his arrival when he was on her. The wall scraped her back as he pushed her against it, his hands in her hair. She gave a muffled “Oh!” when his lips met hers; his tongue slipped in her mouth, hot and desperate with adrenaline and fear. When he finally pulled away, she gasped.

     “Are you okay?” he asked, cradling her face. “Are you hurt?”

     She shook her head. “No. Not hurt. You?”

     “No.” He seemed to suddenly realize what he was doing and stepped back, dropping his hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

     She grabbed his shoulders, cutting him off. Rising on her toes, she kissed him again, hard. He tensed, his hands held out away from her, and she thought for an embarrassed moment that he wasn’t going to respond. Then his mouth opened under hers, and he pulled her up against him, crushing her.

     I haven’t kissed another man in 6 years, she thought. He tasted different than Jack ever had, like cigarettes and mint gum. His hands were in her hair again, tugging her head back with a measure of control that bordered on roughness. She felt herself throb.

     The sound of a horn startled both of them; they leapt apart, breathing heavily.

     “Is that…?” The horn blared again, the car careening down the street toward them. “Isn’t that your car?”

     Vinnie turned. “What the hell?” He watched the car’s approach for a moment before grabbing her arm. “Back up.”

     “What?”

     “Back up!” Moving quickly, he hauled her up against the side of the building, just as the front wheel bumped up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. The car came to a shuddering stop.

     Maddie noticed the girl in the passenger seat before Vinnie did. “We might have a problem,” she said. Caleb burst out of the driver’s side door and came hustling around the front of the car.

     “I know, I know, I took your car, man, but I had to, okay, I had to, she needed help, you have to help her, she-”

     “Shut up,” Vinnie growled, reaching out to grab the kid by his collar. “You came back? You come back here, after stealing my car?”

     Caleb put his hands up, shaking his head frantically. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry, okay? But she called, and she needs help. You have to help her!”

     Vinnie shoved him away before looking in the car window. “Who is she?”

     “A friend.” Caleb opened the door and helped the girl out. “She’s a friend, okay? You have to help her.” The girl stumbled, sagging against Caleb’s side. “You can help her, right?”

     Maddie looked her up and down. The first thing she noticed was that the girl’s shirt wasn’t, as she’d first thought, a red-and-white patterned blouse, but rather a white blouse that was now spattered with what could only be red blood.

     The second thing she noticed was the gaping bite wound on the girl’s forearm.

     “You can help her,” Caleb repeated, his eyes filled with tears. He looked at Vinnie. “You can. You can help her. Right?”

Chapter Fifteen

Posted: December 16, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Eleven

     Staring into her sister’s fridge, Maddie concluded that they’d chosen the worst place possible to ride out the supposed apocalypse.

     “These eggs expired four months ago!” Clutching the carton in her hand, she peered into the still-dark bedroom. “What the hell do you eat, Jess?”

     “Take-out,” Jessie groaned. Moving slowly, she rolled over in the bed and glared at Maddie. “Can we not talk about food right now? I’m gonna hurl.”

     “Well, I’m hungry,” Maddie said, “And the only thing you have in your kitchen is old food and vodka. I can’t even find the danish you were talking about.”

     With another moan, Jessie darted out of the bed and into the bathroom.

     You’d think she’d have better tolerance, Maddie thought, eyeing the closed door with distaste before turning back to the kitchen. “Looks like we’re not having breakfast,” she told Vinnie.

     “Dammit!”

     “Whoa.” Maddie held up her hands. “Don’t shoot the messenger.” She paused awkwardly. “Uh…never mind.”

     “What?” Vinnie looked up from his phone, confusion on his face. “What did you say?”

     “Nothing.” Maddie gestured toward the phone. “What’s wrong?”

     “I still can’t get through.” Scowling, he threw the phone across the room, where it bounced onto the sofa. “Every time I try, I get the same damn busy signal.”

     “Same thing with mine,” Maddie said. “I tried calling my mom, but it doesn’t go through.”

     “Did you try texting?”

     Maddie nodded. “Doesn’t work either.” Every text she’d sent had bounced back, undelivered. “Is it…do you think they cut the cell towers? For the quarantine? Do they do that?”

     “No, I don’t think so.” Vinnie paced. “Could be the lines are overloaded.”

     “Oh.” Maddie chewed her lip, thinking. “Think we could find a landline?”

     “I don’t know. Dammit!” Vinnie turned and slapped his hand against the wall.

     “Vinnie-”

     “Give me a minute.” Pushing past her, he yanked open the balcony door and stomped outside, lighting one of Jessie’s cigarettes.

     Maddie watched him brood through the glass, wary and uncertain. She was unfamiliar with men who were this obvious about their anger and frustration; taking his cues from his mother, Jack had been a silent grudge-nurser. She’d known how to handle her former fiancé; with Vinnie, she was adrift. She considered going outside with him, cajoling him in to talking through their options, but she really didn’t relish the prospect of being yelled at.

     “What’s wrong with him?”

     Maddie glanced at her sister, surprised to see her upright. “We can’t make any cell calls,” she explained. “How are you feeling?”

     Jessie grimaced. “Like shit.” She looked outside and gasped. “Is he smoking one of my cigarettes?”

     “I’m sure he’ll buy you more,” Maddie said, rolling her eyes. “You shouldn’t have them anyway. Mom said you quit.”

     “Yeah, well. What Mom doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

     Maddie opened her mouth to argue further, then decided against it. Not worth the energy. Instead she asked, “Do any of your neighbors have a phone?”

     “How should I know? I don’t know my neighbors.” Jessie made her careful way to the sofa. “Who does he need to call?”

     “I have no idea. Maybe the cops? To report the car?”

     “He didn’t do that last night?”

     Maddie shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not when I suggested it, anyway. He could have after I went to bed, I guess.”

     “Speaking of that, did you know that you snore? You kept waking me up.”

     “I do not!” Maddie glared at her sister. “You’re no treat to sleep with either. You drool. It’s disgusting.”

     “Whatever.” Closing her eyes, Jessie leaned back, gingerly easing her head onto the cushion behind her. “Can you get me some Advil or something? My head is killing me.”

     “Big surprise,” Maddie grumbled. Rifling through the cabinet, she found the bottle she wanted, and a jelly glass that looked relatively clean. She handed her sister the pills and some water before sitting down beside her.

     “What are we going to do?” Jessie gulped down the pills with a grimace. “How are we going to get to Mom’s?”

     “I don’t know,” Maddie said. “Even if Caleb hadn’t taken the car, we wouldn’t be able to get past the barricades.” She glanced out the balcony door. “That’s what has him pissed off. He thinks…well, he doesn’t think it’s safe here, and now he doesn’t know what to do.”

     “Who is Caleb? One of his friends?”

     Maddie hesitated, not sure how much she should say. If she told Jessie about the attack, she knew she’d have to deal with her sister’s histrionics, and she didn’t feel up for that right now. On the other hand, when it came out later, Jessie’s reaction might be ten times worse for being kept in the dark. I don’t have to tell her everything. Just enough.

     “No, not his friend,” she said. “He was the photographer’s assistant. You know, from the wedding?”

     “No, I forgot all about the guy who died at your wedding,” Jessie said, rolling her eyes.

     “Shut up. Anyway, he came to my apartment yesterday, to return the deposit, because, well, you know. While he was there one of my neighbors went a little….crazy. Vinnie showed up, and he…defused the situation. The kid – Caleb – he didn’t have anywhere else to go, and he was upset about the neighbor thing, so we decided to bring him with us. Out of the city.”

     “Oh. So you didn’t even know him and you left him with the car?”

     Maddie sighed. “The kid was scared. He seemed harmless.”

     “They always do,” Jessie said.

     “I’m sure you would know.” Maddie dropped her head into her hands. “But like I said, it doesn’t matter. Even if we had the car, where could we go?”

     “My place.”

     She jerked her head up, surprised to see that Vinnie had come in. “What’s at your place?” she asked.

     “Well, food, for one thing.” He swept Jessie with a look full of contempt. “If we’re going to be stuck here – and I’m not sure that we are, yet – we should be somewhere that has supplies.”

     “I don’t get many visitors,” Jessie defended.

     Her words sent a pang through Maddie’s chest. Looking around, she tried to remember the last time she’d been to the apartment and was embarrassed to realize that she couldn’t. They lived on opposite sides of the city, in very different neighborhoods; Jack hadn’t even taken the train past the 30th block station, insisting it wasn’t safe, nor did he want Maddie parking her expensive car anywhere in the downtown area. She could have argued, and probably should have, but it had been easier to accept his rules and stay uptown; he’d provided her with an easy excuse for not visiting and seeing how her baby sister lived.

     Shaking off the guilt, she sat up straighter. “Okay. So we need to get to your apartment. How do we do that?”

     Vinnie frowned. “I need a phone. I have a friend who can pick us up, I hope.”

     “We could call a taxi,” Jessie suggested.

     “With what phone?” Vinnie asked.

     “Oh. Right.” Jessie blushed.

     “What about Roy?” Maddie asked. “He must have a phone at the bar, right?”

     “We’re not going back to Roy’s,” Vinnie said. “Not after the way we left.”

     “What about the bodega down the street? Maybe they have a payphone or something.”

     Vinnie thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Are there any other places like that nearby?”

     “There’s a place that sells cigars and stuff down the block,” Jessie said. “And a pharmacy, but that’s a couple blocks down.”

     “We can walk a couple blocks,” Vinnie said. “If we do that, we can pick up supplies at the pharmacy while we wait.” He clapped his hands together. “Great. Go pack a bag.”

     “Wait, me?” Jessie looked at each of them, incredulous. “I barely made it out here to the couch. You expect me to walk six blocks?”

     “We can’t leave you here,” Vinnie said impatiently. “I guess Maddie could stay with you, and I can run down-”

     “No.” Maddie jumped up. “You shouldn’t go out there alone.”

     He raised an eyebrow, surprised. “You think I’ll be safer with you?”

     Glancing at her sister, she grabbed his arm and pulled him away, into the kitchen. “Listen,” she said, keeping her voice low. “I still think you’re full of shit on this. But if you’re going to the pharmacy, you shouldn’t go by yourself. Sick people go there.”

     Vinnie smirked. “I think I can handle it.”

     “I’m sure you can,” Maddie agreed. “But if you can’t, then what? We sit here and wait for a guy who isn’t coming back?”

     “She’s right, though – she can’t walk the six damn blocks. She’ll puke on her shoes before we make it down the stairs.”

     “Then we leave her here. She can pack her shit, throw together whatever will be useful, and wait for us.”

     “That’s not really any different than you two waiting together,” he pointed out.

     “I know.” Maddie huffed, frustrated. “It’s just….I can’t just sit here. I barely slept last night. I need to do something. She’s used to sitting around and waiting for people to do things for her.”

     “And you’re not?”

     Maddie held his gaze. “I am. But I don’t want to. Let me help you.”

     He stared at her hard, taking her measure, and finally nodded. “Okay.” He turned back to Jessie, who was eyeing them both with suspicion. “Pack a bag. Clothes, shoes – sneakers, not that shit you were wearing last night – whatever you need. Any first aid stuff you have, pack that too. We’ll be back.”

     “How long?” Jessie asked.

     “However long it takes,” Vinnie said.

     “You have time to shower,” Maddie told her. “Which you should probably do. You smell like a bar floor.”

     “Thanks a lot!” Jessie looked at each of them, the annoyance on her face turning to concern. “You two will be okay, right? You seem…”

     Maddie forced a smile. “We’ll be fine. Pack up. We’ll be back before you know it.”

     Before she could say more, Vinnie grabbed her hand, and they were out the door.