Posts Tagged ‘zombies’

Chapter Thirty-Three

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

     It was late afternoon when they stopped.

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

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

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

     “SHAWN!”

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

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

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

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

     “SHAAAAAAAAAWN!”

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

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

     “Well, clearly.”

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

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

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

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

     “Let me get my stick.”

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

     “Quiet,” he whispered to her.

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

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

     “Peekaboo,” Vinnie muttered.

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

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

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

     “Yes.”

     “Does he like it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     He never leaves.  “Crippled how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Where are they?”

     “Outside the city somewhere.  He never said.”

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

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

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

     “He knows the city.”

     “So do you.”

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

     “That he could lead us out.”

     “Yes.”

     Shit.  “So what do we do now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I don’t know.  I’ll be quiet.”

     “Do you want me to wait?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Vinnie?” she whispered.

     “No.”

     She rolled her eyes.  “Everything okay?”

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

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

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

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

     “Are you hurt?”

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

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

     “Better?”

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

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

     “The others,” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

     “My lip…you can’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “To clean up?”

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

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

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

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Chapter Thirty Two

Posted: July 20, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     For a moment, Maddie thought the woman on the other side of the door was fine.  The look of surprise on her face was so normal, so perfectly human, that it overrode the truth of her condition.

     Oh, Maddie thought, reaching out.  She must be looking for her baby.

     Then Hannah screamed, and the illusion of normalcy was shattered.  Maddie saw the marks on the other woman’s face, abrasions from the gravel when she’d been trampled; she saw the crooked bend of the broken nose, and the peculiar bulge of the woman’s eyes, damage that contributed to the expression of wide-eyed surprise.  In the seconds it took to understand her mistake, Maddie realized two things: the thing in front of her was snarling.

     And she was still reaching out to comfort it.

     They leaned in toward each other, two women about to embrace.  Maddie brought her left hand up, intending to ward the other off with her rod, and was horrified to realize it had dropped from her numb fingers.  Now both of her hands were reaching for the creature, empty and defenseless.  Before she could reverse direction, they came together.

     The woman’s breath, hot and rank with the smell of death, blew across Maddie’s face.  Blood and spit spattered her cheeks; Maddie clamped her eyes and mouth shut and held her breath.  She felt fabric in her hands.  Bracing herself, she flattened her palms against the other’s chest and shoved.

     Had the thing been steady on its feet, it likely wouldn’t have worked; Maddie had the fleeting impression of trying to push against a solid brick wall, despite the other woman’s lesser size and weight.  The missing shoe, however, and the absurd height of the one remaining, affected the creature’s balance.  It swayed, then stumbled back.  Maddie cracked an eye open, saw what had happened, and pressed her advantage.  Another hard shove knocked the thing down on its ass.

     It started to scramble forward immediately, snapping and growling like an angry dog.  Maddie tried to move back, meaning to close the door between them, and found herself blocked, then crowded forward again.  She screamed, fear mingled with outrage, and kicked out.  The creature’s head snapped to the side, then swung back around, barely deterred.

     Before she could draw back to kick again, Maddie was shunted to the side.  She bounced off the edge of the doorway and spun out into the alley.  The thing followed her, moving away from the door and the others who huddled just inside it.  As she scrambled to back away, Maddie had a pretty good idea of who had shoved her out to die.

     You miserable motherf-

     “Hey!”

     Maddie looked up, saw the gun in Vinnie’s hand, and dove to the side.  The dead woman swung again to follow, scrabbling on her hands and knees.  She was still scuttling forward, jaw dripping with saliva, when the side of her head exploded in a gout of blood.

     Too late, Maddie clapped her hands to her ears.  The roar of the gunshot echoed between the buildings, filling the alley with thunder.  Kicking, she dug her heels against the ground, pushing herself back and away from the body that had collapsed in front of her.  A few more feet, she knew, and it would have been on her.

     A moment later, Vinnie loomed over her, blocking her view of the dead woman.  She took the hand he offered and let him pull her up.

     “You dropped this.”  He held out the iron rod.

     She took it wordlessly.  He turned away and went to the body.  She flinched when he kicked it, half expecting the woman to rear up, but the corpse remained still.

     “Are you all right, dear?”

     Hannah had ventured out through the door.  She gave the body a nervous glance, then took Maddie by the shoulders.

     “Are you okay?” she asked again.

     Maddie started to nod, then realized she didn’t actually know.  “I don’t think she got me – I didn’t feel anything – but…”

     “Let’s have a look.”  The older woman gave her arms and hands a brisk once-over.  Maddie saw no marks or scratches, and neither did Hannah, who gave her a reassuring smile.  “All clear.”  She touched Maddie’s cheek.  “Although this blood-”

     “It doesn’t work that way,” Vinnie cut in.  “At least, I don’t think it does.  You need a bite or a scratch.”  He gave Maddie a dark look.  “We have some experience.”

     Maddie remembered the way Summer’s blood had splashed over her, and Webber’s before that, and shuddered.

     “Who was she?”

     Maddie startled at the voice.  Caleb had crept toward them, so quiet she hadn’t noticed him.  Slinking like a rat.

     She didn’t know what she meant to do until it was done.  The length of iron caught him across the back, knocking him off balance; he stumbled forward, nearly tripping over the body before righting himself.  The bat fell from his hands.  She hit him again, lower this time, and he went down on one knee.  Maddie raised the rod high, prepared to smash it down on the back of his hanging coward’s head.

     “Stop!”

     Vinnie grabbed her from behind, wrapping his hands around her wrists and halting her downward stroke.  Maddie hissed, twisting against him, until his grip tightened.  Pain flared in her wrist, and the rod dropped, missing Caleb’s head by a mere inch before clattering to the ground.  Thwarted, she kicked out, knocking him forward onto his hands when her foot connected with his ass.

     “He pushed me!”  Maddie twisted again, struggling to get free.  “He pushed me at her!”

     “No he didn’t!” Vinnie shouted.  He forced her arms down.

     “Yes he did!  He wants me dead and he tried, he pushed me!”

     Caleb said nothing.  He crawled away from her, head still down, not raising his eyes to meet hers.  Vinnie spun her away and crushed her against his chest, endeavoring to keep her still.

     “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”  He squeezed again, and she felt the air leave her lungs in a rush.  The pressure around her ribcage was intense; she stopped moving, as much from fear that he would crack her ribs as from lack of air.  After a long, agonizing minute, Vinnie eased his grip.

     “He pushed me,” she whispered.

     “No.”  Vinnie let her go and stepped back, waiting for her to turn and face him before he continued.  “He didn’t.  I did.”

     She took a step toward him, fists raised.  “What the fuck?  Why?”

     Vinnie put his own hands up, keeping her back.  “You were in the way.  I couldn’t shoot her with you in front of her.”

     Maddie contemplated the wisdom in that.  Shoving her out into the alley had been dangerous, but surely less so than trying to accomplish a head shot with her in the way.  Still…  “She could have grabbed me,” she said, full of disgust.  “You’re lucky she didn’t.”

     “You’re lucky,” he corrected.  “You’re the one who opened the door.  I told you to wait.”

     “The alley was empty!”  She clenched her fists again, not sure who she was angrier at, him or herself.  “There was nothing here!  I don’t even know where she came from!”

     “If you open a door, you should be ready.  You dropped your stick.”

     “Oh fuck you,” Maddie said, turning away from him.  “You’re the one who practically ran right into the end of it.”

     Vinnie had no answer to that.  Maddie watched balefully as Hannah helped the kid to his feet, murmuring something to him as she straightened his shirt and put the bat back in his hands.  When she caught Maddie’s eye, her face was full of reproach.  Maddie braced herself for whatever harsh words the woman was going to unleash – from her expression, there were quite a few waiting to come out – but Vinnie put an end to it before it began.

     “Let’s go,” he said curtly.  “There might be more of them around.”

     Maddie glanced around nervously.  She didn’t think there were more; if they were attracted to sound, she and the others had made more than enough, such that any dead in the vicinity would surely already be converging.  If sound is what attracts them.  She didn’t know for sure that it did; it was guesswork, all of it, and if the guesses were wrong…

     She hurried to the side of the building, following closely on Vinnie’s heels.  Hannah lagged behind, helping the kid to limp along; the hit to his knee had been hard, and he seemed unable to walk on his own.  Maddie felt a flush of guilt, then turned her gaze resolutely away.

     They made their way down the side alley and out onto the front walk.  The crowds moving past the building hadn’t thinned much; weaving through them, Maddie thought it was possible that everyone in this part of the city was out on the street now.

     As they came up on the car, it appeared to be empty, and Maddie felt a whisper of fear.  She hadn’t been gone long, surely no more than half an hour, and she didn’t really believe that her sister would leave the relative safety of the locked doors in order to check on her.  Nonetheless, she was relieved when Jessie’s head popped up above the windshield; she’d reclined her seat, having apparently taken Maddie’s warning to stay hidden seriously.

     “Twenty minutes my ass!”  Her shrill complaining started as soon as the doors were opened.  Vinnie ignored her, sliding into the driver’s seat and adjusting its position so the others could climb into the back.  Hannah took the middle, helping Caleb to ease into the seat behind Vinnie.  Maddie squeezed herself in behind her ill-tempered sister; once the door was shut, she found herself squashed up against it.

     “What the hell happened?” Jessie demanded.  She twisted in her seat to glare at Maddie.  “What’s on your face?  I didn’t do that!  That’s not my fault!”

     “There was a….problem.”  Maddie found that the word zombie still caught in her throat.

     “And him?  He’s walking funny.”

     Caleb didn’t answer her, and nobody else bothered to explain.  Vinnie started the car and slipped out into traffic, taking his place behind a cab that was crawling along at an even ten miles an hour.

     “We could walk to the bridge faster than this,” Maddie said.

     “Maybe.”  Vinnie drummed the wheel with his fingers, already tense and irritated.  “But this way there are doors between us and them.”

     Maddie sighed and sat back.  Now that they were moving away from the building, however slowly that movement might be, she felt the tension leaving her body.  It doesn’t matter how long it takes, she thought.  Once we get to the bridge, everything will be fine.

     Hannah chose that moment to ruin everything.  “Wait, is that your plan?  To cross the bridge?”  When Vinnie nodded, she laughed, a sad chuckle that made the hair on Maddie’s arms rise.  “You won’t get across.  They’re barricaded.”

     “Yes, but…”  She looked at the older woman, confused.  “They’re opening them.  They can’t leave us here.”

     Hannah shook her head.  “That’s not what the radio said.”

     “What?!”  Jessie twisted again, turning her attention to the newcomer.  “What do you mean?”

     “They’re maintaining the quarantine.”

     Maddie was struck numb with horror.  “They can’t do that!”

     “Well they are.”  Hannah looked at her, and Maddie saw that she wasn’t kidding.  “We’re stuck here, child.”

     Vinnie reached out and snapped on the radio.  After a few stations full of static he found one that was broadcasting the news.  They sat in rapt silence, listening to the announcers confirm everything Hannah had just said.  The bridges remained closed; the barricades were in full effect.  Citizens were advised to remain in their homes, while the city’s police and the National Guard attempted to get the “situation” under control.  Maddie recalled the mass exodus they’d seen earlier that morning – dozens of police cars, driving like hell to get out of the city.  Under control.  Yeah right.

     When the message started to repeat, Maddie realized they were listening to a recording.  There were no live news broadcasts, not on any of the channels Vinnie managed to call up.  No music either; no morning DJs, filling the airwaves with their inane chatter and call-in contests.  Just the recorded messages, and static.  She remembered that the television had been static too – stuttering snow, instead of the news that had been airing before they’d ventured down to the basement.

     They cut it all off.  Maddie’s eyes sought out Vinnie’s in the rearview mirror; when they met, she saw her own understanding mirrored in his face.  They cut it off, and fast.

     That could only mean one thing.

     They were on their own.

Chapter Thirty One

Posted: July 6, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie crouched in the backseat, knees folded to her chest, and considered their options.

     One: They could obey Vinnie’s orders and leave. The fact that this part of the city was unfamiliar to both of them was a problem, but she thought they could simply follow the flow of traffic and come out where they wanted to be. Where else were all of these people heading, if not the nearest bridge and barricade? They no doubt held the same hope that she did: the quarantine had to be broken. Surely they were letting people out.

     Two: They could wait. He’d said to leave after twenty minutes, but that might not have been enough time. Especially if he’d run into trouble a couple of floors below the twentieth, where the screaming had been. Or with Caleb. Suppose they drove away just a moment before he came back? Could she really strand him here? He’d saved her life. Even leaving aside everything else, there was that.

     She considered the possibility that he might not come back – ever – and dismissed it immediately. He’d been slowed, or hemmed in maybe, but he hadn’t been caught out. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did.

     He was still alive.

     Which brought her to option three.

     Twisting in her seat, she peered at the front of Vinnie’s building. Sunlight glared off of the lobby’s glass doors, making it impossible to get a clear view of the inside, but it looked empty. The back staircase surely was; they’d been the only ones to use it. Maddie didn’t relish the idea of going up and down all of those stairs again, but…

     Jessie won’t like it. She turned appraising eyes on her sister, who still sat peeping around the passenger seat. She was talking – had been for a while, Maddie realized – but now she stopped, waiting. She won’t like it. But fuck her. A cold calm dropped over her, and she knew she’d made her choice.

     Moving quickly, she darted between the seats and grabbed for the car keys. Jessie reached out, snatching at Maddie’s arm, half a second too late. When she realized that she’d missed, her pretty face contorted into a snarl.

     “I’ll be right back,” Maddie said, aware even as she spoke that it was pointless; they had, after all, heard the same thing from Vinnie. “You’ll be fi-”

     Jessie’s hand whipped back, a blind swat that nonetheless succeeded in cracking Maddie across the face. She reeled back, clutching the keys protectively to her chest. A hot trail of pain flared across her cheek; when Jessie’s nails came back for another rake, Maddie ducked.

     “Quit it!” she screamed.

     Jessie ignored her. She started to scramble between the seats, clearly meaning to launch herself into the back. Maddie brought her feet up, hesitated for a moment, then pistoned her legs out. The kick caught Jessie squarely in the chest; she flew back into the dash, then collapsed awkwardly into her seat.

     If Maddie had hoped for a reprieve, she was disappointed – Jessie’s arm came swinging around the seat back again, hand scrabbling for the keys. Cringing against the rear of her own seat, Maddie found herself wishing, absurdly, for her mother. Grace Stryker had never physically put an end to a squabble between her girls; she’d never had to. Her nervous fretting and tears had always been enough to make them stop, either out of guilt or a desire to shut her up.

     No. Not both of us. Maddie kicked her sister’s seat, bouncing her back before she managed to land another blow. I always stopped. She always got in one last dirty shot.

     Well, Mommy wasn’t here now, and she couldn’t wait for her idiot sister to exhaust herself. The clock’s power had died when she’d removed the keys, but she saw the minutes slipping past just the same. If she was going, it had to be now.

     Gritting her teeth, Maddie leaned forward. Jessie’s nails tore at her face again, opening a new seam along her left temple, but that was all right – it was the last hit she would score. Maddie twisted to the side, her back up against the door, and shoved her arm through the narrow space between the front seat and the inside of the car. It was a tight squeeze – her bicep screamed at the pressure – but Maddie ignored the pain, and the gibbering part of her that insisted she was stuck, stuck, her arm was never coming free! She pressed on, and her grasping fingers found what they wanted: the long, loose locks of Jessie’s hair.

     She twirled her hand, wrapping the strands quickly around her fist, and gave a terrific yank. Jessie jerked back, howling. She tried to flail away, her hands batting at the back of her head, and Maddie yanked again, slipping her arm back through the gap as she did. Jessie’s head twisted; her temple hit the car’s window with a dull thud.

     She went slack, dazed from the blow, but Maddie kept her grip on the hank of hair, pulling it back toward her until Jessie’s head bumped up against the seat. She gave it one more vicious tug before letting go.

     They sat, the silence broken only by the sound of their harsh breathing, until Jessie finally spoke.

     “Ow.”

     “Yeah.” Maddie touched her stinging face and winced. “Tell me about it.”

     When Jessie made no reply, Maddie sighed. She leaned forward and gave her sister a pat on the head, gently, solicitous in that way only siblings can be about wounds they themselves have inflicted. “There’s some Tylenol in my purse,” she said. “No water, but you’re used to swallowing nasty shit.”

     There was no returning volley. She sighed again and gave it up; let the other girl sulk. She turned her attention instead to the building, the lobby doors, and tried once more to discern if there was anyone – any thing – inside. She was as uncertain as she’d been the first time; after squinting and peering, she gave that up too, and knew she was in for another very long climb.

     “I’ll be right back,” she said again. Shoving the keys down into her pocket, she put a hand on the door handle and waited. For what? An encouraging word? “Good luck, sis, I love you?” Fat chance. Shaking her head, she climbed out of the car. “Lock the doors,” she instructed. She hesitated, then added, “And stay low. If one of them comes by, it’s probably better if it doesn’t see you.”

     At that Jessie twitched, but still said nothing. Fine. Let her be.

     Maddie walked away quickly, anxious to get off the open sidewalk and around the side of the building. She had to weave around and between the crowd that still spilled down the street, but they paid her no mind, intent as they were on reaching their goal: the bridge, the barricades, freedom. When she reached the mouth of the alley she turned back, just once, and was gratified by what she saw – Jessie still slouched in her seat, sullen and angry as any thwarted teenager, but she’d slouched low, and that was good. Maddie wasn’t sure that she would be okay – she hoped Jessie would be – but she’d made her choice now. Time to see it through.

     Squaring her shoulders, she set off down the alley at a slow jog. She skirted around the decayed railing, careful of the sharp edges, then stopped a few steps beyond it. Going in empty-handed – was that such a great idea? She didn’t even have the gun, empty as it had been; at least she could have used it as a bludgeon, before she’d taken it apart like a fool.

     Her eyes roved over the junk piled around her, hoping to find something with heft. After a moment, she found herself staring at the old fire escape.

     Tetanus, she reminded herself. Blood poisoning. Lockjaw.

     Zombies, came the reply.

     She grabbed one of the railing’s spokes, positioning herself away from the deadly sharp edge, and pulled. Rust sloughed off, turning her hands a dusky red-orange. The metal squealed as she twisted, fighting to yank the spoke loose from its moor. Sweat dripped into her eyes, and her wrist pulsed with pain, but she finally managed to wrench the thing free. When it came, she stumbled back, barely stopping herself from falling into a pile of ill-smelling garbage. She gave the metal rod an experimental swing, then nodded, satisfied. It was fairly light, and wouldn’t do too much damage when it came to whacking, but the jagged points on the end were something. Better than nothing, at least.

     Duly armed, she trotted down the rest of the alley. At the corner, she paused to take a quick peek around before heading toward the stairwell door. The area back here still smelled terribly, but it was empty. Even, she saw, of bodies. Where the young mother had fallen and been trampled, all that remained was a single battered espadrille, lying on its side.

     Well. At least someone helped her.

     Holding the rod at her side, Maddie opened the door and slipped inside. The stairwell, too, was empty. She moved carefully anyway, not sure if the dead were capable of subterfuge, not terribly interested in finding out too late. The sound of her shoes on the metal steps seemed impossibly loud, a dinner bell rung again and again as she climbed.

     She was six floors up when there was a crash from far above. A little scream escaped before she could stop it; the rod slipped in her hands. She caught it before it could clang its way back down the stairs and held it out in front of her, like a sword. The line of it wavered, and she realized she was shaking. Not just her hands – her whole body shook, tremors of fear that went right down to her toes.

     The stairwell filled with echoing thunder. It took her a minute to recognize what it was: footsteps. Someone was running, racing down the stairs toward her. More than one someone, she was pretty sure. Her mind conjured up a horde of dead, stumbling and slavering their way down the stairs, heading straight for her. She moaned. The rod in her hands felt as useful as a splintered toothpick.

     Let it be fast. Please, god, let it be fast. She could feel her bladder, hot and heavy. She wondered what it would be like, when it was over. Would she be aware? Would some part of her still exist, when her twisted body sat back up and lumbered away? All of me, she prayed fiercely. Let them take all of me. The thunder came closer, pounding in her ears. She set her feet and brought the rod up, the sharp edges ready. And let me take one with me first. Just one.

     She screamed when the first one came around the bend in the stairs, a high, undulating scream of rage and terror. She saw it stumble back, catching its heel on the step behind it; it floundered, wheeling for purchase, and fell back into the one behind it.

     “Fuck!”

     Maddie had time to realize he was screaming back at her – not it, he – but it wasn’t enough. Her body, already set on its kamikaze mission, surged forward, the rod jabbing up and out. If he hadn’t tripped, she would have impaled him, driven on by an instinct that wholly ignored what her eyes and ears were now trying to tell her.

     Die! that reptilian brain screamed. Fucking die!

     Lucky for him, he did trip; he fell back, the one behind him did too, and the point of her weapon missed by bare inches. She drew back to go again and he kicked out with one heavy boot; the rod spun out of her hands, and now it did go off clanging, down a few steps to the landing below.

     “What the fuck?”

     Maddie’s arms dropped to her sides as she gaped at him. “Vinnie?”

     Vinnie climbed carefully to his feet, anger and admiration at war on his face. “You almost killed me,” he growled at her.

     She didn’t even think to apologize. Instead she launched herself up the steps between them. He tottered under the collision, grabbing the railing to keep from falling. She wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed. “I thought you were hurt,” she breathed in his ear.

     “Got held up,” he snapped. But his arm crept around her in a half-hug. She smiled against his shoulder.

     “My fault, I’m afraid.”

     Maddie looked up, surprised to find that the voice belonged to a woman. She stood on the landing above them, a small carry-on bag in her hand. In the other she clutched a rolling pin. Maddie took in this unlikely weapon and restrained the urge to giggle. Honeybunch.

     Vinnie reddened under her speculative gaze. “I went back for him,” he said, jerking a thumb at Caleb. The blank look on the kid’s face hadn’t changed much, but he bore Vinnie’s baseball bat in his hands; clearly he’d been cajoled into some semblance of normalcy. “I thought one more wouldn’t hurt.”

     “He was quite chivalrous,” the other woman said. She came down the steps toward them. “Even waited while I packed my pictures.” Shifting the pin so it was tucked under her arm, she held out her hand. “Hannah, dear.”

     Maddie took it, bemused. Packed her pictures? She tried to imagine Vinnie waiting patiently for that, and found that she couldn’t. “Madelyn,” she replied. “Or Maddie. Whatever.”

     “We can do this later,” Vinnie said, no sign of that patience now. “We have to go.”

     “Traffic is bad,” Maddie warned him. She led the way back down, grabbing her rod as they passed. “Lots of people are heading to the bridge, I think.”

     “You should be there already.” Maddie heard the frustration in his tone, and ignored it. He grabbed her elbow, forcing her to look at him. “I told you to leave.”

     “Well I didn’t.” She shook him off, angry. “If I had, what would you do? Walk to the bridge?”

     “If I had to.” Something seemed to occur to him, and he frowned. “Where’s your sister?”

     “In the car.” She saw the look on his face. “I have the keys,” she assured him. She glanced at Caleb over her shoulder. “Fool me once.”

     She held them out, and when he took them there was a small smile on his face. Admiration had now won out over his other feelings; she could see that. Not bad for an Uptown Girl, she thought smugly.

     When they reached the door, Maddie stayed in the lead, puffed up with her own daring. She’d been ready to face down an unknown horde of zombies, to fight to her death and destroy some in the process. Her meager spoke had become a mighty sword; she felt ready for anything.

     “Let me check-” Vinnie said, starting to move in front of her. Before he could finish, Maddie whipped open the door.

     Pride, as quickly as it had come, flowed away like water.

     Standing on the other side, its mouth yawning open, tottered a corpse in one tattered, blood-stained espadrille.

Chapter Thirty

Posted: June 22, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Realizing that Vinnie was gone, beyond her reach or recall, Maddie embarked upon the only logical course of action.

     She tantrummed.

     Gripping the wheel, she threw herself back and forth, back and forth, shaking so hard she was surprised the wheel didn’t come off of the steering column. When that didn’t make her feel better, she unleashed her fists, slamming them down again and again. Each time she struck the center of the wheel, the horn gave a pathetic, neutered bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. The sound served to enrage her further. She didn’t want the enfeebled bleating of a half-dead bicycle horn – she wanted the guttural roar of a semi; the deep, masculine blare of a fog horn. The high-pitched warning of an air-raid siren.

     WooooooooOOOP! The world has gone to hell! WoooooooOOOOP! Everybody’s fucked! WooooooOOOOP! WoooooooOOOOP! WoooooooOOOOOOP!

     Instead:

     Bap.

     Maddie screamed.

     The sound poured out of her, ripping and scraping at the tender insides of her throat. She could feel her pulse beating hard in her temples. Her vision blurred, sharpened, then blurred again, until finally she closed her eyes. Her face hurt. Her chest hurt. Her fists clenched so tightly she could feel her fingernails digging into her palms, and the sting of sweat in the small cuts that opened there.

     And still she screamed.

     From far way, she could hear Jessie talking – “Don’t, stop, Madelyn, relax, Madelyn, stop, breathe, don’t” – soothing calm-your-ass bullshit that Maddie herself had uttered thousands of times before. In the back of her mind, where her sanity waited patiently to reassert itself, she marveled at the way their positions had been flipped. How many times had she wished she could take a page from her sister’s book? That she could, for once, allow herself to act like a coked-out nutcase, and somebody else could pick up the pieces? Dozens of times. Hundreds.

     As it turned out, it wasn’t as satisfying as she’d always imagined.

     She ran out of steam all at once; exhaustion slammed her in the face, and she sagged against the wheel. She swallowed hard, grimacing at the ache in her throat. She wished desperately for a drink of water.

     After a few moments, Jessie spoke. “Are you done?”

     “Fuck you,” Maddie croaked. She sat up, and slapped the wheel one last time. Bap. “And fuck this horn.”

     Jessie, perhaps wisely, had nothing to say to that.

     Sighing deeply, Maddie slumped in her seat and stared out the window, watching as people continued to stream down the sidewalks and street. Where are you going? A woman trundled past, doughy arms cradling a stockpot to her bosom. Where are you going? A man followed behind her, his straining t-shirt stained with sweat, the handle of a rusty red wagon clasped in one hand. The wagon wobbled, one wheel low on air, stacked high with wire cages that appeared to contain an assortment of reptiles. Where in the hell are you going?

     “How long has it been?”

     “What?”

     “You know.” Maddie waved a hand, not shifting her gaze. “He said twenty. How long has it been?”

     “Oh.” A long pause. “I don’t know.”

     “What?!” Now she looked at Jessie, whipping her head around and pinning her with a glare that made the younger girl cringe. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”

     “Well…” Jessie gestured toward the dash. The clock, set above the radio, was blank. “I don’t know when he left.”

     “Shit.” Maddie slapped her forehead. She’d stuck the keys in the ignition before having her freak-out, but she’d never turned them. Now she did, a single click that fired the battery but left the engine off; the clock and radio blinked to life. Reaching out, she jabbed off the music, then tapped the clock’s plastic face. “9:36,” she said. “That’ll be twenty.”

     Jessie opened her mouth, maybe to say that he’d already been gone for at least half his time, but bit back any arguments when Maddie glared at her again. “9:36,” she agreed.

     Maddie slumped again, her mind whirling. Where are you going? She had no idea. Vinnie would know, had seemed to know where they should go, but Maddie was lost. Should they try for one of the bridges? Surely the barricades had been removed – they couldn’t keep people in, not now that they were dealing with- well, with something worse than the flu. They had to let people out.

     The bridge, then. Chesterfield was on the other side of the city, but Havers was only…only…

     Reaching over, she popped open the glove box and rummaged through the contents. Not there. Dammit. “Check under your seat,” she told Jessie. “See if there’s a map.”

     Jessie groped beneath her for a few moments, then shook her head. “No. Just this.” She pulled out an old coffee cup.

     “Great. Helpful. Thanks.”

     “What do you need a map for?”

     Maddie ran her fingers through her hair, pulling it back until she felt a sting in the roots. “Do you know where we are?”

     “What do you- Oh.” Jessie frowned. “Actually, no.”

     “Yeah. Yeah, me neither.” She felt tears of frustration pricking her eyes, and fought them back. “I don’t know this part of the city. If he doesn’t come back, I don’t know where to go.”

     “We could find the subway,” Jessie offered. “Check the map there.”

     “Which way is the station?” Maddie asked. “It could be down the block that way,” she said, pointing ahead of them, “Or ten blocks behind us. Or over two streets. How long is it going to take us to find it? Especially with all of this?” Maddie swept her hand out, directing her sister’s attention to the horde of people outside the car that kept growing in number.

     Jessie bit her lip. “Well….he’ll come back.”

     Maddie glanced at the clock.

     9:21.

     They sat in silence. As the minutes ticked slowly by, the interior of the car grew warm and Maddie’s eyes slipped shut. Just for a second, she told herself. She was so tired. The booze from the night before, the early morning wake-up, the escape from the basement and then from the building – everything weighed on her, and the day had barely begun. Gently, eyes still closed, she touched her lower lip. The throbbing there had dulled, but it was still tender. Her wrist, too, felt sore; for all the care she’d taken to follow her doctor’s instructions and rest it, she was pretty sure she’d undone that work over the last few days.

     I’m already beat to hell, she thought, despairing. How can I do this alone?

     She cracked open an eye.

     9:27.

     He’s not coming.

     You don’t know that.

     He’s not coming.

     Shut up.

     He’s not coming, and you’re going to die.

     Maddie’s eyes flew open.

     9:29.

     Reaching down, she grasped the bar beneath her seat and jerked, sliding back as far as she could. She levered the seat-back down, twisted, and scrambled into the back seat.

     “What are you doing?” Jessie asked, sounding alarmed.

     Maddie ignored her. The seat covers back here were flecked the old blood; she grimaced as she knelt on one of the stains, seeing Summer in a flash. Pushing the picture away, she swept her hands over the rear dash, searching for the tab she knew must be there.

     “Maddie, what are you-”

     “Ha!” Finding the tab, she yanked, and the rear seat back came down a flop. She groped in the opening, grabbed a fistful of fabric and tugged one of Vinnie’s bags out of the trunk. The heft told her it was the one she wanted.

     9:30.

     “Maddie?”

     Maddie opened the bag and shoved her arm in, reaching down past the pile of cotton and guns until her fingers touched cardboard. She grasped a box, hardly aware when one of her nails bent back painfully, and pulled it out. The box came open, spilling small bullets across her lap and the seat.

     “What the fuck are you doing?!” Jessie was shouting now, and there was no question about the depth of her concern.

     “It’s empty,” Maddie told her. She reached back, where the gun still pressed into her waist, and pulled it out. “It’s empty, but I can load it.” She held the pistol in her hand. “At least…I think I can.”

     She stared at it, trying to work out what she should do. The trigger was obvious, and she kept her fingers well away from that. Turning the gun this way and that, she spotted two buttons on the right side. One, she reasoned, was the safety. The other must open the handle, to allow for insertion of the bullets.

     “Are you sure you should be messing with that?”

     “Shut up,” Maddie muttered.

     “Maddie, come on, you don’t know-”

     “Shut up!”

     Jessie recoiled as if slapped.

     9:32.

     “Fuck it.” Maddie pushed the top button, which was really more of a switch, and got nothing. Okay. She pushed the other – and the inside of the handle fell into her lap.

     “Okay. Okay.” Setting down the gun, she swept up a handful of bullets. “It’s like loading Pez. Right? I think.”

     “You think?”

     “Yeah. Yeah. These go in here, and they…they…” She stared at the bullets. “Shit. Shit.”

     “What?”

     Maddie looked at her sister, her eyes wide. “I don’t know which way they go in.”

     “Which way they- Aren’t they labeled?!”

     “They’re not batteries!”

     9:35.

     “Oh for fuck’s sake.” Maddie dumped the bullets back into the box and shoved it back into the bag. The gun, now in pieces, went in as well. She jammed the whole lot back into the trunk and slammed the seat back up. The urge to start screaming again rose up in her throat; with effort, she choked it back down.

     “Maddie.”

     “Give me a minute.”

     “Maddie.”

     “I said wait a minute!”

     “I can’t.” Jessie peered around the side of her seat. “It’s 9:36.”

     Twenty minutes.

     Maddie closed her eyes.

Chapter Twenty Nine

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

     Maddie froze in mid-step. The screams from below pierced her fragile belief in their escape plan, shattering it instantly. She was suddenly certain that the lobby had been over-run, and it didn’t matter which way they used to get out of the building – by the time they got around to the car, parked right out front, the dead would be spilling out of the enormous glass doors, swarming over Vinnie’s car like flies. They were screwed.

     We could keep going, she thought dully. All the way to the roof. That’s another way out.

     As quickly as it came she shook it off, the way a prissy dog shakes away the rain. She thought of Caleb, still and quiet in Vinnie’s apartment, and her lips twisted into an unconscious sneer. She might die in this disgusting, dilapidated building. Or on the dirty sidewalk outside. Probably would. But still – one floor from the exit. You are not giving up one floor from the exit. No. Fucking. Way.

     The scream came again, and now that she had a firm grip on her panic, she realized there was no way it could be coming from the lobby. They were too far up for that. Two floors down, three at the most; much closer, much more dangerous, but not if she kept moving. She just had to keep moving.

     So MOVE.

     Her legs unlocked, and she was surprised to see that she could run. As tired as she was, she could still run. The others ran too, hurtling up the last two flights of stairs and bursting onto the landing of the twentieth floor, they ran, Maddie and her sister following Vinnie’s lead as he darted to the left and led them down the hall. At the end: the door to the fire-proof stairwell.

     It wasn’t locked.

     With a sob of relief, she shoved the door open and they went down, feet barely touching the landings as they raced in a circle, down and down, the sound of Vinnie’s boots ringing off the metal steps and echoing off the concrete walls of the stairwell, pounding in her ears. Down and down and down.

     At the bottom, breathless, she reached for the door, yelping in surprise when Vinnie shoved her away.

     “Wait,” he said. His face dripped with sweat, his shirt stuck to his chest in large wet patches, but he was not, Maddie noticed, breathing hard. He adjusted the bags across his back, and then drew his gun. “Wait.”

     They waited. Every cell in her body screamed at her to go, to yank the door open and rush pell-mell down the alley, but she willed herself to be still.

     Carefully, Vinnie eased the door open. He stuck his head out slowly, checking in both directions, the nodded. The door swung fully open. “Okay.”

     Maddie tumbled out behind him, gasping in the fresh air, not even caring that it smelled of garbage and mildew and what she thought was probably urine. It had been too long since she’d been outside; she was grateful for anything that didn’t smell of sickness, and death.

     Glancing down the length of the building, she saw others pouring out of a door on the other end. A maintenance entrance, she guessed. Or another stairwell. People stampeded through the narrow exit, pushing and shoving each other in their haste to get out and away. As she watched, a woman went down, her stacked espadrilles flying out from beneath her as the frantic crowd behind her surged forward. The car seat she carried flew out of her hand, landing on its side with a resounding crack. She hit at the same moment, but the flow behind her didn’t stop; they ran right over top of her.

     Maddie didn’t realize she’d taken a step toward the woman until Vinnie grabbed her arm and yanked her back. “This way,” he said, tossing his head in the other direction. “There’s a side alley.”

     “But that woman-”

     “No time.”

     Maddie gaped at him, appalled. “They’ll kill her!” He stared back at her, his face impassive. “She has a baby.”

     When he still didn’t blink, she turned away, moving again toward the woman and child. He grabbed her arm again and she struggled, trying in vain to shake him off. His hand tightened on her wrist, a metal band, and she gasped with the pain. Before she could kick him, or do whatever she thought would make him release his hateful grip, she saw someone in the crowd reach out and pluck up the seat without missing a beat. The mother stayed down, and Maddie saw, even through the churn of feet, that she wouldn’t be getting back up.

     She turned back to Vinnie, prepared to hiss blame in his uncaring face, but he jerked her forward before she could speak. Jessie followed, pale with fear, as they made their way down the narrow side alley. Halfway to the end the way was partially blocked by a rusted-out railing, likely taken off one of the outdoor fire escapes and left there to rot; several of the spokes were twisted out of shape, their sharp points waiting to jab unwary passerby. Vinnie knocked it out of their path, sending up plumes of orange dust, and waved the girls past.

     Tetanus, Maddie thought as she skirted around the jagged metal. And we can’t even get a shot now.

     And then, they were there. The car. Maddie fell against it gratefully. All around them people ran, crowding the sidewalks and spilling into the street, weaving in and out of traffic, unmindful of the honking horns and screamed obscenities. Driving anywhere, she could see, was going to be a bitch.

     “Here.” Vinnie popped the trunk and heaved his bags in, then gestured for the girls to hand over their cases. Once they were stowed, he slammed the lid shut and took Maddie’s hand. “Get in. And lock the doors.”

     Her fingers closed over the keys he’d pressed into her palm. “Wait. What are you doing?”

     “Going back for the kid,” he said, his tone infuriatingly calm.

     “What?!” Maddie exploded. “No! Hell no! You can’t go back in there!”

     “I said I would try.”

     Maddie shook her head. “That woman…you said no. But you’ll go back for him?”

     He looked away for a moment, his face tinged with pink. When he met her eyes again, she saw there was no point in arguing. Nonetheless, she tried. “He chose to stay. He chose.”

     Vinnie’s throat worked, and he seemed to be groping for words. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft. “He’s just a kid.”

     Maddie flinched. Hearing her own words thrown back in her face, spoken what felt like years ago now, she felt her stomach knot with shame. Desperately, she reached for him, her fingers scrabbling numbly at his arms. “You can’t. Please. You can’t go back in.”

     Pulling away from her, he moved around to the side of the car and opened the driver’s side door. “Get in.”

     “Vinnie. Please. Just listen a minute. You can’t-”

     “Get in.”

     “No! Listen! You can’t go back up, you can’t, you-”

     Someone shoved her from behind; Maddie whipped her head around and realized it was Jessie.

     “Get in the fucking car!”

     She shoved again and Maddie stumbled, still babbling, against Vinnie’s chest. He pushed her down into the seat; lifting her feet, he tucked them into the car, then took her grasping hands and set them on the wheel.

     “Listen, you can’t, you have to stay here- Vinnie!”

     Jessie scrambled into the passenger seat. Vinnie leaned over Maddie, ignoring her, and addressed the other girl.

     “Twenty minutes,” he said. “If I’m not back, you leave.”

     Jessie nodded.

     “No! NO!” Maddie writhed, trying to twist her fingers into his hair. She knew she was caught in the grip of insane panic, knew it but couldn’t stop it. “You can’t! You can’t leave us here!”

     The door slammed. On the other side of the glass, she saw his mouth moving, repeating his instructions. “Twenty minutes.”

     Maddie moved to get out, to open the door and throw herself on him, but her sister dragged her back. Sharp nails dug into her scalp as Jessie grabbed a hunk of her hair and yanked her into the center console.

     “Stop it!” Jessie shouted. “Stop! He gave you the keys! We can find a way home! We don’t need him!”

     Maddie turned on her, baring her teeth in a savage snarl. Jessie cringed away, her eyes wide.

     “Do you know how to load a gun?”

     “I-” Jessie stopped. “No.”

     “Do you know how to shoot?”

     “….No.”

     “He does!” Maddie screamed. “He does!” She started to laugh, a high-pitched cackle tinged with hysteria. She gripped the wheel in her fists and brayed laughter at the windshield. “A trunk full of guns, and we don’t know how to use them! But he does! WE NEED HIM!” She threw open the door, her sister too shocked to stop her this time, and screamed into the street. “VINNIE. VINNIE. VINNIE!”

     But he was gone.

     We have to go up to get down, he’d said, and unfortunately he hadn’t lied. Standing on the landing between floors 14 and 15, her back pressed against the wall, Maddie wondered just how far up they were supposed to be going. The suitcase she carried seemed to grow heavier with every step.

     “Not too much further,” Vinnie assured her, as if he’d read her thoughts. He stood tall, barely sweating despite the double-load he bore on his back, and she felt her face flush with a mix of embarrassment and guilt. She hadn’t complained, not yet anyway, but he’d sensed it just the same.

     She started to speak, to tell him she was just fine, thank you, she could trudge upward for days, but was shoved back into the wall before she could. She bit her lip to keep from yelling at the pusher, a move she immediately regretted – fresh agony shot through her mouth, and she was unable to hold back the yelp of pain.

     The people shoving past them didn’t even glance at her. She shuffled further into a corner of the landing and watched them go: weighted down with belongings, their faces tense with fear, a mass exodus. They streamed down the stairs, jostling against each other to get ahead. But not, she noticed, speaking. Not even any muttered swears when someone from behind managed to push their way ahead, not caring if they tripped up the person they were trying to pass.

     Stuck between floors, unable to go up and unwilling to go back down, Maddie wondered what these people would find once they reached the lobby. She’d tried to warn them at first, to tell them that the lobby could already be over-run, but no one had listened. They hadn’t hesitated; not one of them. She was done trying. Now she stood aside, as far out of the way of the crowd as she could, and waited.

     She’d been turning something over in her mind as they climbed, a puzzle to keep her from noticing the screaming protest in her calves, and now she went back to it. The question, of course, was How much do they know? She’d seen the movies, everybody had, and the prevailing wisdom in those was that they were mindless, focused on nothing but their next meal. But those were fiction, and this was…not.

     Could they climb stairs? That was the true question. Could they climb? She remembered Summer, the way she’d walked off the bed without missing a beat, and thought maybe not. It seemed so easy, walking up stairs, but it wasn’t, not really. A lot of things had to come together, to coordinate, in order for it to work. Were they capable?

     They could fall up the stairs. Maddie frowned at the idea. It would take a long time, but they could fall. And get up. And fall again. Or they could crawl.

     Wouldn’t crawling be as difficult as walking?

     Okay, fine. They could slither.

     That made her shiver, and she pushed it away.

     “Come on.”

     Vinnie’s voice broke her concentration. Looking around, she realized that the flood of people had reduced to a trickle – a few stragglers who were hauling down enormous suitcases, computers, and what looked like a small television set. Where the hell are you going to plug that in? The guy toting his tv was gone before she could think to ask, and then they were alone.

     “Just a little further,” Vinnie said again. He adjusted his packs, took a deep breath and started up, Jessie and Maddie trailing behind him.

     “What floor are we looking for?” she asked.

     “20.”

     5 more floors. 4 more landings. 11 more sets of stairs. Maddie shifted the case to her left hand, thinking she could use the other to haul herself up along the banister, and immediately dropped it. Her wrist cried out; her tired, bruised shoulder cried just a little louder. She watched the case bounce back down to the landing they’d just vacated and fought the urge to scream.

     “Sshh,” Jessie hissed at her. “They won’t know we’re up here if we’re quiet.”

     Maddie doubted that, very much – after the visit to the basement, she was pretty sure they didn’t rely on sound, or at least not solely. She was 99% positive they could smell what they wanted. There was no point in arguing, though. Gritting her teeth, she trudged down the steps, snagged the case and made her way back up.

     “Doesn’t your building have an elevator?” Jessie whined.

     “Sure,” Vinnie said, a hint of humor in his voice. “It’s 50 years old and breaks twice a week. You want to try it?”

     “NO!” Maddie knew she would climb 30 more sets of stairs before she’d climb into an elevator, reliable or not. The thought of being stuck inside the metal room, waiting for the doors to open and reveal whatever was on the other side, made her stomach roll.

     “I didn’t think so.” They passed another floor sign. “4 more floors. We’re almost there.”

     A sudden, horrible thought occurred to her. “What if it’s locked?”

     “What?” Vinnie turned abruptly, stopping in mid-climb to glare at her. “What?”

     “It’s an interior escape, isn’t it? Fire-resistant shaft? They’re not legal anymore. What if it’s locked?”

     “It’s not locked.” His voice was firm, certain, but she thought she saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes.

     “Are you sure?”

     “Of course I’m not sure,” he snapped at her. “I’ve never used it. If it’s locked, we’ll break it.”

     “Why didn’t we just use your fire escape?” Jessie asked.

     Vinnie rolled his eyes. “It’s busted. The ladder doesn’t drop.”

     “That’s illegal!” Maddie protested. “Your landlord-”

     “Look around you!” Vinnie shouted, and that look of revulsion was back on his face. Uptown girl, that look said. You don’t know anything. “You think he gives a shit about my fire escape?”

     There are homeless people living in his basement. Dying in his basement. He has a point.

     She dropped her eyes, staring at her shoes until she heard him start to move again. She focused on her feet, on getting one leg up and in front of the other, and listened to the sound of her own ragged breathing.

     They were one floor from their goal when the screaming started.

     “What happened to your face?”

     Maddie winced, her sister’s questioning shriek setting off a stabbing pain in her left eye. Jessie was on her before she could answer, her hands fluttering uselessly around Maddie’s head.

     “I’m fine,” Maddie mumbled. She tried to wave the younger woman away, but Jessie ignored her; fingers clamped down on her hurt shoulder, and Maddie winced. “Stop, Jess, stop. I’m fine.”

     “What the hell happened?!” Jessie turned on Vinnie, her voice strident with anger and fear. “What did you do?”

     “Ran into some trouble,” Vinnie said. He shrugged the bag off of his shoulders and let it drop. It hit the floor with a clank that made Jessie recoil. “Got the guns,” he added, regarding her with a cool stare.

     Jessie eyed the bag, taking in its size and apparent heft. “How did you get so many?” she asked. She turned her suspicious gaze from Vinnie back to her sister. “Did you rob somebody? Did they hurt you?”

     Maddie shook her head. She wished she could crawl back into the blankets, still piled on the floor, and pretend this was all a bad dream. Not just today, either. She’d wish away the last month of her life, if she could.

     Wish in one hand, shit in the other, her father’s voice whispered. Buck up, Madeline.

     Ignoring Jessie’s questions, Vinnie strode into the bedroom, reappearing with another large bag in his hands. “Load this,” he instructed, thrusting it into Jessie’s hands. “Food. Blankets. Put the other bags by the door.” Jessie stood frozen, the empty bag sagging in her grip. “Time to go,” he told her, not unkindly. “I’ll help in a minute.”

     It took her a moment, but she finally moved to do as he’d said. He watched her stuff cans down into the bag, then turned to Maddie. “Let’s clean you up.”

     “I’m fine,” Maddie said again. “It doesn’t hurt.”

     He raised an eyebrow. “It may not hurt, but it looks terrible. Come on.”

     Taking her elbow, he steered her into the bathroom. Glancing into the mirror, Maddie grimaced; he wasn’t wrong. Her mouth and chin were covered with drying blood, and her lip had swollen to almost twice its normal size. Carefully, she probed her bottom teeth with her tongue. The two in front hurt to touch, but they didn’t feel loose. Thank god for that, at least. She had a feeling that finding an emergency dentist wasn’t in the cards right now.

     Vinnie dampened a rag and brought it to her face, wiping carefully. When she flinched away, he gripped her chin. “Let me see.”

     “We don’t have time for this,” she argued. “We have to go.”

     “Let me see.”

     Her stomach in knots, Maddie forced herself to hold still. Gently, he touched her lower lip, pulling it down so he could see the inside. “Ouch.” He probed, his touch feather-light. “You could use stitches.”

     Maddie snorted. “Great. You know how do those, GI Joe?”

     “Nope.” He released her lip and stepped back. “Rinse your mouth out. Should be okay.”

     Maddie did as he advised. The sting of the water made tears spring to her eyes, but she swished dutifully. Spitting was graceless; water dribbled down her chin.

     When she was done, she turned back to him. “We should-” A sudden spike of fear shot through her. “Wait. Take off your shirt.”

     His eyebrow went up again. “I don’t think we have time for that.”

     “Shut up.” When he didn’t move, she reached out and hiked up his shirt herself, tugging until he had no choice but to raise his arms. Once it was off she scanned his torso, running her fingers down the length of him. “Turn around.”

     A bemused smile danced around his lips. “What are you doing?”

     “Looking for scratches.”

     The smile dropped. His brow furrowed, Vinnie turned, bracing his hands against the tile wall. “I didn’t feel anything. It didn’t get that close.”

     “You screamed,” Maddie pointed out. His back was smooth, no sign of injury. She took a moment to appreciate the ripple of muscle across his flexed shoulders before she moved against him; her hands slid down his sides and around, coming to rest on his belt buckle.

     “Um.” He tried to shift away, and she tightened her grip.

     “I have to check your legs,” she told him.

     “My pants aren’t ripped.”

     Working the buckle free, she unsnapped his jeans. “You got a show,” she said. “Fair is fair.”

     He sighed, but she noticed that she didn’t try to move away again. “At least close the door,” he muttered.

     Maddie swung her foot out, kicking the door closed, then slipped his pants down. Easing onto her knees, she ran her hands down the backs of his legs, checking slowly for any marks. She found one, on the back of his left thigh: a faint scratch, already scabbed over. Old, she thought, something he confirmed when she brushed over it. “Friend’s cat,” he offered.

     What friend? Whose cat? On the back of your thigh? She pushed the questions away, tamping down on the brief flare of jealousy. “Turn around,” she said, surprised by how husky her voice sounded.

     He turned, slowly. Despite the ridiculousness of their current situation, he was excited; evidence of that poked through the flap at the front of his boxers. Maddie glanced up, expecting to find him leering down at her, but his eyes were closed, his head resting back against the tiles. She thought she saw a flush in his cheeks. He was blushing.

     She checked the front of his legs and found nothing. Relief flooded through her. “You’re clear,” she told him. She expected him to move, to cover himself, but he remained still, his eyes clenched shut. She let out a breath, and his cock twitched.

     “Sorry, soldier,” she said. Rocking back on her heels, she rose, yanking his jeans up as she did. “My lip is a little too swollen for that.”

     He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her against him, his dark eyes boring down into hers. For just a moment, she thought she saw fury there, anger over being played with, however inadvertent it had been. Then his expression softened and he inclined his head, slowly, giving her time to move away if she chose.

     Which she did not.

     His lips met hers gently, barely touching. It was the softest kiss she’d ever felt in her life, and Maddie feared she would burst into tears. When he finally pulled away, she felt ravaged.

     “Time to go,” he said quietly.

     She gave herself a little shake and stepped back. “Go where?” she asked.

     He frowned. “I have an idea. I don’t know if it will work.” He raked a hand through his hair, a gesture that left it sticking up in places, stiff with sweat. “Have to try, though.”

     Before she could question him further, Jessie’s shrieking pierced through the bathroom door.

     “Get UP, you piece of shit! Get UP and HELP ME.”

     Emerging from the bathroom, Maddie saw why she was yelling. Caleb remained seated, his blank gaze focused on the television. The news coverage had dropped out, leaving only a screen full of static.

     Jessie turned toward them, tears of frustration trickling down her face. “He won’t get up!”

     “Finish with the bags,” Vinnie said. “Both of you.” He took a knee beside Caleb and grabbed the kid’s hand; Maddie saw his knuckles whiten and knew he was squeezing, but the kid didn’t flinch. “We have to go, kiddo.”

     Caleb said nothing, didn’t even acknowledge that he’d spoken. The way he was staring made Maddie’s skin crawl.

     “Bags, Madeline.” Vinnie kept his eyes on Caleb’s face. “Everything from the bedroom. Hurry up.”

     Maddie hurried, grabbing the two small suitcases that were beside the bed and adding them to the pile by the front door. She saw that Jessie had stuffed the spare rucksack with canned goods, blankets and their ill-gotten gains from the pharmacy raid; the bag would be heavy, but everything had fit.

     “Caleb.” Vinnie kept his voice low, but firm. “We can’t stay here.” When the kid didn’t move, Vinnie gave him a shake. “They’re down in the basement. They’ll be up here soon.”

     Jessie heard him, and gasped. Maddie reached out and took her sister’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

     “If we go now, we can get out.” When Vinnie looked up, Maddie saw the worry on his face. “We’ll leave you here,” he told the boy. When not even that spurred a reaction, he gave a resigned nod. “Suit yourself.”

     Vinnie crossed the room quickly, heaving the bag of supplies up over his shoulder. The other shoulder was burdened with the gun bag; he staggered minutely under the combined weight, grimaced, then straightened. “Take a case, each of you,” he ordered, nodding toward the remaining gear. “If it slows you down, drop it.”

     “They could already be through the basement door,” Maddie said.

     “We’re not going out the front.” Vinnie paused, thinking. “There’s another staircase, starts up a few floors. It leads down to the back.” He sighed heavily. “Have to go up before we go down. We’ll cut through the alley to get out to the car.”

     Maddie didn’t like it, but she liked the idea of revisiting the lobby even less. Finally, she nodded, and hefted her case. “Him?” she asked.

     Vinnie shook his head. “If we get down there okay, I’ll come back up for him. Can’t do anything else.”

     And if not, Maddie thought, he’ll sit there until they find him. She wanted to rail at him, to slap the kid’s face and jerk him to his feet, but part of her knew it wouldn’t do any good. Wherever he’d gone, he was immune to their pleading.

     “But he’s just a kid,” Jessie argued weakly. “We can’t leave him here.”

     “Are you gonna carry him?” Jessie looked at the ground. “If he won’t come, I can’t make him.”

     Maddie knew he was right, but it still felt all wrong. She’d fought to bring the damn kid, and now he was refusing to go any further. Weak, she reminded herself. You already knew he was weak.

     Vinnie left first, with Jessie on his heels. Maddie glanced back once, at the boy in the chair, his impassive face lit by the flickering screen.

     With a sigh, she shut the door.

Chapter Twenty Six

Posted: April 27, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     The year Maddie turned five, her parents decided they’d had enough of city life and set their sights on suburbia. On the recommendation of a colleague, they’d rented a house on the outskirts of their new town, a ramshackle old place with crumbling plaster walls and a leaky roof. Maddie didn’t remember much about it; far brighter in her mind were the memories of that first city apartment where she’d learned to crawl and walk and avoid cockroaches in her patent-leather party shoes, and the house she’d grown up in, purchased after six months in the shitty rental.

     But she remembered the first house’s basement.

     With its dirt-packed floor and perpetually damp walls, it was more cellar than a true basement. They’d never stored anything down there; Maddie couldn’t recall ever setting foot on the rickety staircase, let alone venturing down into the light-less space where the furnace groaned and heaved, sounding for all the world like an oil-fueled monster that hungered for five-year-old flesh. Within a few weeks she went from running past the cellar door at top speed to creeping by slowly, hoping her stealth would keep the Basement Monster from waking. Eventually she refused to go near it altogether; her parents quickly realized it was easier to let her sleep with them than to carry her kicking and screaming to her own room, unfortunately located just past the monster’s lair. Even then she would lie awake, sandwiched between them in the too-small bed, her body rigid as she listened to the house’s every creak and moan.

     That same childhood fear gripped her now, as the door behind her swung shut and she found herself descending another rickety staircase into a pitch black void. The heavy thud of Vinnie’s boots echoed with each step, followed by the quieter shuck of her canvas sneakers. Cringing, Maddie tried to adjust her steps, placing less and less of her shoe on each riser, until she found herself tottering on the balls of her feet.

     She realized too late that this exaggerated tiptoe was terrible for her balance; Vinnie stopped abruptly, jerking on her hand, and her top half continued to careen out and down. She had a brief vision of her head slamming into the concrete at the foot of the stairs before her right hand shot out, seeking the railing she thought she’d glimpsed from the doorway. Rough plywood slid across her palm; there was a quick pinch of pain, so sharp it made her gasp. The handrail swayed, poorly fastened…then held.

     “Jesus,” Vinnie hissed. “I said be careful.”

     “Sorry,” she whispered back. Her hand throbbed where the splinter had gone in; she sucked at the sore spot, knowing that wouldn’t draw out the wood but unable to stand the sting. “Aren’t there any lights down here?”

     “We’re not using them.” She heard the jingle of keys, then a quiet click – a small beam of light illuminated the last few steps. “Stay close,” Vinnie ordered. “And be quiet.”

     Maddie wanted to ask why they couldn’t just use the lights – she didn’t relish the thought of making her way through a dark, unfamiliar basement – but held her tongue. She didn’t need a light to see that Vinnie was scared; she could hear it in his voice, a slight quiver to his usual gruff irritation. Swallowing her fear, she gripped his hand tightly.

     “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

     He led her the rest of the way down the stairs, then veered off to the left. Plywood walls, unfinished like the railing, rose up on either side; they passed door after door, though she supposed “door” was a rather generous description – she was reminded of the makeshift barrier they’d thrown up after Webber had crashed into her apartment. Cheap brass-colored knobs with little thumb locks shone dully in the flashlight beam.

     When they’d walked farther than she’d have thought possible, and taken two more turns, she couldn’t keep a handle on her curiosity any longer. “What is this?” she asked, careful to keep her voice low.

     “Storage.”

     “What-” She stopped short as something brushed her face and trailed back through her hair. Visions of an intricate web, spun by the kind of enormous spider that thrived in cool, dark places, filled her head. She shuddered and moaned.

     “Sshh,” Vinnie whispered.

     “Something touched me!”

     The flashlight rose, revealing the delicate metal chain that dangled just beside her face. “It’s just the light pull,” he said. “Come on.” He jerked her forward.

     Her skin still crawling, she asked, annoyed, “Why are we creeping around in the dark?”

     She felt him draw closer, his hand releasing hers and moving to the small of her back; he bent down to whisper in her ear while they walked. “People sleep down here.”

     Maddie frowned. “So?”

     Rather than elaborate, he stopped, tugging on the hem of her shirt. “Here.” Moving quickly, he slipped a key into the nearest door’s lock; a door, she noticed, that seemed heavier than the others they’d passed, and sported a deadbolt the size of her fist. He slipped inside, pulling her after him; once she was through he eased the door shut again. She heard a soft snick as he re-bolted the lock.

     Vinnie moved away, muttering to himself, taking the light with him as he crossed the room. Maddie remained pressed against the door, considering objectively the situation she was now in. I’m in a locked room, inside of a dark basement, with someone who is carrying a gun. I don’t know how to get back out. My guide is a guy who, up until a few days ago, I thought was 100% crazy. She bit her lip to keep from breaking into hysterical laughter. What the fuck has happened to my life?

     “Come here,” Vinnie said, interrupting her reverie.

     She crossed the room carefully, shuffling her feet to keep from tripping over anything she couldn’t see. When she’d reached his side Vinnie turned, gun in hand, the muzzle pointing directly at her. Maddie froze, terrified, and opened her mouth to scream.

     “Here.” He flipped the barrel, presenting the gun to her butt-first. When she made no move to take it, he sighed. “It’s empty,” he said. “I’ll show you how to load it later.” Still she didn’t move. “Take the fucking gun,” he snapped, and his tone was so scathing and impatient, she had the thing in her hand before she realized what she’d done.

     Holding it gingerly, she looked past him, to the box he’d drawn it from. Eyeing the contents, she sucked in a breath.

     “What the hell is that?” She stared, dumbfounded, at the pile of guns and ammo.

     “Insurance,” he said. “Hold this.”

     Hesitating, she finally stuffed the handgun into her waistband, the way she’d seen him do it, and took the canvas bag he offered. The cold feel of the metal against her back made her shiver.

     He worked fast, stuffing boxes of ammo into the bottom of the bag before adding the guns; he wrapped each weapon in a piece of cloth before setting it inside, muting the click of metal-on-metal. The bag grew impossibly heavy – by the time he’d cinched the top shut and taken it from her, Maddie’s arms and wrists were screaming in protest. Sweat trickled across the splinter in her hand, amplifying the sting.

     “Where did you get all of that?” She wasn’t sure she really wanted to hear the answer.

     He shrugged the bag up over his shoulders and picked up the light. “I have a permit,” he told her.

     “Yeah, but…aren’t guns….expensive?”

     He glared at her in the dim light. “Not everybody spends their money the way you do.”

     She thought about his tiny apartment, and the condition of his building, and bit back a retort. His spending choices were going to benefit them all now, there was no sense arguing about it.

     “We’ve been down here too long,” he said suddenly. “Let’s go.”

     Too long for what, she wanted to ask, but she never got the chance. Before he could flip the lock to let them out, a noise rose from the other side of the flimsy wall.

     “What is that?” Maddie cried.

     “We have to go!” Vinnie jerked open the door and shoved her out. “Run!”

     Stumbling, Maddie obeyed, jogging down the narrow hall. Vinnie stayed at her heels, aiming the flashlight ahead so she could see where she was going. As they raced past the other doors, Maddie saw a few shudder and shake. The noise crescendoed around them, an unearthly groaning.

     “Left!” Vinnie screamed. Maddie veered, bouncing off the corner as she took the turn too tightly. Her shoulder throbbed. Behind them, she heard a splintering crack.

     People sleep down here, he’d said, and suddenly Maddie understood. Who sleeps in a storage room? Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. She remembered Summer’s story about the tunnels – what she and Dirk had found down there. Subway tunnels or tenement basements, they were home to the same people.

     People who didn’t go to the hospital.

     People who crawled home, like cats, and died in the dark.

     Another resounding crack from the rear, followed by the even-louder roar of a shot. Vinnie screamed.

     It’s empty, she told herself. The gun pressed into her back, warm now, and useless. It’s empty, and he has the bag. Her fists clenched, but there was no bat. She slowed for a just a moment, trying to decide what to do.

     A hand plunged out of the darkness, latching on to her shoulder. Maddie shrieked.

     “Run,” Vinnie said, his voice hoarse. He pushed her. “They’re coming. Run.”

     She grabbed his hand, alarmed by the way he stumbled against her. His breathing sounded as ragged as her own.

     “Not alone,” Maddie told him. “Come on. Come on!”

     Now she was the one dragging him, gritting her teeth as he tripped and bumped his way along behind her. The flashlight was gone, but she thought she sensed another hallway ahead.

     Before she could ask, Vinnie yanked her to the right. The sounds behind them faded, until all she could hear was the sound of Vinnie’s boots stomping on the concrete, and the clank of the bag on his back.

     “Right,” he panted, as they came to another turn. A few more feet and they were at the stairs. Maddie tripped over the bottom riser as they started to climb; her face hit another step, smashing her bottom lip into her teeth. Gasping, the taste of blood in her mouth, she surged upward on her hands and knees. Vinnie scrambled past her, the ammo bag knocking her askew again as he went by; when her palms slipped off the step and she crashed down again, she felt panic bloom big and bright. They were going to find her here, scrabbling up the steps like a frightened animal. Any moment now, one would grab her ankle and yank her back down. Any moment. They were coming. They were-

     The door at the top swung open, letting in a weak shaft of sunlight. Vinnie heaved the bag off and up through the opening before turning back to grab her arm and haul her the rest of the way up the stairs. Her feet tangled together, and she fell into him as they stumbled out into the lobby.

     The door slammed. Chests heaving, they leaned against it; Maddie swiped her hand across her face, grimacing when she saw the smear of blood left behind. Her lip was on fire; her shoulder ached; she had a stitch in her side and the damn splinter was still in her palm. But she was alive.

     She laughed suddenly.

     “You okay?” Vinnie reached out, gently touching her swollen lip.

     “Yeah.” She giggled again. “It’s just…did you know I’m afraid of basements?” She bent over, laughing into her hands. “I always told my parents there were monsters down there.” She shook helplessly, tears rolling down her cheeks. “My mother never believed me.”

     The thought of Grace sobered her instantly; drained, she slumped back against the door. Vinnie waited, patient, until she was calm. “Okay?” he asked again.

     She nodded.

     “Okay.” Turning away, he picked up the bag, wincing a little at the weight before slinging it back over his shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up,” he said, taking her hand.

     As they crossed the lobby, Maddie glanced out the glass doors again. The street was still quiet.

     “And then?” she asked.

     Vinnie frowned. “And then….” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

     Maddie sighed. They paused together, Vinnie’s foot on the bottom step, and looked up at the many flights of stairs between them and his apartment. Vinnie glanced at her, uncertainty clear on his face. As they started up the stairs, he muttered to himself. She didn’t catch all of what he said, only the last part, a repetition that made her shiver with fear.

     “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Chapter Twenty Five

Posted: April 6, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Vinnie’s stride was quick and wide, his boots echoing dully down the thinly-carpeted hallway. Maddie had to hustle to keep up with him. She wasn’t sure where they were going, where he planned to find supplies on a day like today; between the announcement and the exodus, she suspected every shop that sold anything resembling a weapon would be over-run within the hour. She remembered the pharmacy riot and shuddered. This will be worse.

     Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t realize he’d stopped until she fetched up against his back. It was like crashing into a concrete wall – she bounced back with a grunt, and he didn’t even flinch.

     “What’s wrong?”

     He held up a finger to silence her. Head cocked, he stood before an apartment door, listening. Maddie hovered behind him, impatient and confused, until he frowned and moved away.

     “Somebody you know?” she asked as they headed down the first flight of stairs.

     He threw her a surprised look over his shoulder. “She let us use her phone.”

     Honeybunch.

     “There’s no one to call,” Maddie said. They paused at the landing, listening again, before heading down another flight. “Help is leaving,” she continued.

     “I don’t want her phone.”

     Maddie pictured the older woman: her kind face; her soft wave of gray hair; her low-heeled black string-shoes, clicking across the kitchen as she’d served them cookies. Like a storybook Grandma, Maddie remembered thinking, down to the slight quiver in her voice when she’d told Maddie she was a good girl for calling her mother.

     The way her palsied hand had shaken when she’d waved goodbye down the hall.

     They paused, listened, descended again.

     “You want to take her,” she said, ashamed of the surprise she felt. “When we go. If we go.”

     He shrugged. “She let us use her phone,” he repeated. Unspoken was the fact that she’d been the only one to do so.

     Funny, the things that determine your worth when the apocalypse comes.

     Finally they reached the lobby. Maddie headed for the front door, only to be jerked back by her hood.

     “What the hell?!” She batted his hands away.

     “Not out there.” Vinnie pointed at a door, tucked under the back of the stairs. “Downstairs.”

     “The basement?” Maddie furrowed her brow. “What’s in the basement?” She gasped. “Do you know a fence?!”

     He laughed, so long that she blushed. “Do you even know what a fence is?”

     “Yes!” Maddie defended. “I live here too. I’ve seen….well, heard things.”

     He chuckled again. “You’re an uptown girl,” he said, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “You don’t know anything.”

     She opened her mouth to argue further, but he walked away before she could start. “Come on,” he said, ignoring her angry glare.

     She considered refusing, then remembered why they were down here in the first place. Suddenly conscious of the big glass doors that led to the outside – doors anybody could open, or any thing – she hurried to follow.

     “Watch your step,” he warned as they started down. “It’s dark down there. The stairs are old. Don’t trip.”

     Maddie grabbed his hand. “What if someone’s down there?” she asked, aware that she was whispering. “What if…one of them…”

     “Could be.” He squeezed her hand. “You can wait here.”

     She glanced again at the glass doors, and shook her head. “No way. Just…stay close.”

     He nodded. “Promise.”

     Hand-in-hand, they stepped down into the darkness.

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.”