Not your typical zombie story... Beta readers who don't like zombies loved this book! Just because zombies can kill you doesn't mean they're always ruining people's lives. They just exist, the same way that people do and the same way that everything else does. The zombies have been around for so long that most people have learned how to live without being affected by them. Most of the time. So when a young woman, traveling with a man she hardly knows, is bitten on the foot, she's faced with a difficult decision: Let the infection run its course and become a zombie herself, or let him amputate. After losing her parents and not knowing how to trust someone new, putting her life in the hands of a stranger seems to be the toughest situation she will ever be faced with. Turns out that was the easy part.
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Copyright © 2018 by Natalie Cuddington
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews.
Other Works by Natalie Cuddington
(in order of publication)
Calypso Christmas in Disguise Chloe Diller
For those who feel lost. We’re all in this together. We’ll find our way.
I squealed louder than I meant to and immediately slapped my hand against the side of my neck. I knew it was coming and I knew it would hurt, but it still caught me off guard. It still startled me so much that I yelped embarrassingly loud and felt myself going red. Mason stopped what he was doing and looked over at me with raised eyebrows.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I just got stung by a stupid hornet,” I said.
“Ouch,” he said, shaking his head and putting his axe down. I really hoped he didn’t see how red I had gotten, but he probably couldn’t. I was so dirty you almost couldn’t tell what colour my skin was.
“It just surprised me,” I said, shrugging.
“Yeah?” he asked, starting to walk over to me. “Why’s your hand still on it, then?”
“Because it stings.”
“I could pee on it.”
“I-” I started to answer him before I realized what he said. “What?”
“Pee has something in it that neutralizes the stinging.”
“Gross,” I said, backing away from him.
He smiled and took a step in to me. “Let me see.”
He rolled his eyes and I responded by narrowing mine at him.
“Fine,” he said, walking back to his firewood. “Be in pain.”
“Fine, I will.”
He chuckled and shook his head, and then picked up his axe and swung it down onto a log, splitting it in half.
So I got stung by a hornet. That’s what hornets do; they sting people. They’re tiny little bastards that fly around your face, try to get in your clothes, and then sting you even if you did nothing to them. Some people even die from hornet stings. But just because hornet stings can kill people, doesn’t mean hornets are always ruining people’s lives. Sometimes you go outside and you don’t see a hornet at all. Sometimes you go outside and you see a hornet so you go the other way. Sometimes a hornet won’t leave you alone, so you kill it, or it stings you while you try to kill it, or it stings you while you try to get away from it. Sometimes you go outside and find a swarm of hornets. Sometimes.
It’s always sometimes with hornets.
That’s what it was like with them, too.
Mason eyed me over his glasses and I looked away, feeling embarrassed. He put his axe down and strolled over to me, making my stomach do flips.
“How’s your sting?” he asked softly.
“Does it still hurt?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
He nodded and put his hands on his hips. “Have you had enough to drink?”
I nodded, but he handed me a water bottle anyway. I hesitated, then slowly grabbed it from him, our fingers touching for just a second before it was completely in my possession. I took a sip, but before long it turned into gulps, and I finished the bottle off without even realizing it.
“Stop trying to act so tough,” he said. “It’s stupid.”
“I’m not stupid,” I said under my breath. I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t trying to act tough, or pretend to be brave, I just didn’t want to mooch. I didn’t want to be the girl who needed to share water because she already drank all hers. Maybe he was acting tough. Giving his water away and all.
I watched him walk back to his tree stump and continue chopping up wood. When he looked over at me again, I turned away and went back to our camp to continue setting up a fire pit with the rocks I had gathered earlier. When I was done and out of breath, I made my way over to Mason again to ask if I could help with anything else. He didn’t hear me approach, and I didn’t want to startle him while he seemed to be in the zone, so I stood and watched him. My fingers found their way to the purple stone on my necklace, like they always did when I wasn’t sure about something. I really wished I could just bring myself to do something other than fiddle with some crap necklace and look at him. Do something other than watch his muscles tighten around his shoulders as he brought the axe down on the wood, splitting it into two perfect pieces.
I gasped a little when the cord of my necklace rubbed against my sting, and Mason looked at me again. I guess I could have said something without startling him after all.
“You want in on this?” he asked.
“You want to learn to use this?”
“The axe?” I asked. “To cut wood?”
“Well that’s a start.” He smirked and tossed the axe up in the air a little, catching it by the head so he could reach the handle towards me. “But once you’re good at cutting wood, you might be good at cutting zombies’ heads off, too.”
I feel like I need to offer some kind of explanation, but to be totally honest, I don’t really have one. I know there was a time that zombies didn’t exist. I know there was a time where big factories made all the things you needed, and people had jobs that paid them money, and they used the money to buy the things from these factories. I know that was a time that used to be real, but it was never real to me. It might have been real to my grandparents, but I wouldn’t know; I never met them. I’ve met a lot of people over my 19 years, but I’d never stayed with anyone as long as I had with Mason. My parents and I were always traveling. Any time a place started to run dry, or people got too close to us, we packed up and went to a new place. We scrounged houses for canned goods, and old grocery stores that still had things left, but like I said, the time without the zombies was before ours, so almost everything was always gone.
My parents were pretty good at finding stuff, though. Things like bomb shelters and food banks in old, small towns that other people never thought to look for. So we were never too hard off. We were never too concerned about eating because my parents had learned long ago where the good stuff was hidden. They never let anyone get too close to us though, because they had trust issues. They kind of passed it along to me, too, but I think I was still more trusting than they ever were, or ever wanted me to be.
“You can never tell when someone wants to be your friend,” my dad would say, “or when they just want to kill you for what you have.”
I would just nod at him and let him have his beliefs that no one in the world was good except for us three. But I knew there were other good people out there somewhere. There had to be.
Mason stood behind me and gently wrapped his arms around mine, gripping the axe between my fingers. He smelled sour with sweat, but then again so did I. He had never stood so close to me before, and I almost pushed him away purely based on the way my parents had raised me, but I knew he was only trying to help. So I tried to focus on the axe in my hands rather than on his breath in my ear.
“You’re strong,” he started, “so I know you can get it through the wood, you just need the proper technique.”
“I’m not strong,” I said.
“Stronger than you think you are. You just grew up a scrounger so you don’t know some of the things that I do.”
“It’s not my fault I grew up the way I did.”
He let go of my hands and stepped back, so I let the axe fall to my feet. “I didn’t say it was. I’m saying there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You think you’re not strong because you’re small.” I almost objected, tried to tell him that size had nothing to do with it, but he kept going before I got a word in. “I can see the muscles in your arms. I can see your stomach when you lift your shirt to wipe your face. You just gathered rocks to contain the fire and you’re barely out of breath. You’ve been active your whole life, so you never get too tired or need to readjust your bag when we’re walking for hours at a time. You just don’t know how to use an axe because you’ve never needed to. Your size has nothing to do with it.”
“Right,” I said, not sure how else to respond, especially because he literally said what I had been thinking. “I don’t…” I stopped, trying to think of how I wanted to word my sentence. “I don’t think I’m weak because I’m little. And I’m not… that little.” I looked down at my feet and then back to Mason who was smirking at me. Ok, I might have looked small next to him, but that’s just because he was so big. He was quite a bit taller than me; I just barely came up to his shoulders, but I always thought that he was just really tall. And muscley. “I’m just not very strong,” I finally added with a shrug.
He sighed. “If you don’t want to learn, then that’s fine. You don’t have to. I’ve been doing this by myself for a long time. But you haven’t.”
I squinted at him but didn’t reply.
“You keep saying that you’re not going to be following me for long, so if that’s true, you need to know some of this stuff. What are you going to do if you come face to face with a zombie?”
“Leave it alone and walk the other way.”
“What if it’s a pack of them?”
“I’ve only ever seen a pack once in my life, so I’ll take my chances that it won’t happen again for a while.”
“You want to learn how to use the axe, or not?”
“Why do you just assume that I don’t know how?” I grabbed the axe from the ground and lifted it above my head before bringing it down on the wood, slicing it into two almost perfect pieces. I tossed the axe to the ground and walked passed him, our bodies only just inches apart. I could feel him looking at me as I made my way back to our camp, and couldn’t help but smile.
No, I didn’t grow up hunting. I didn’t grow up killing my own food with spears like Mason, or using axes on firewood, or even zombies. But I grew up watching people. I watched my parents, I watched the people we traveled with for only days at a time, and I watched the people we weren’t supposed to talk to. And I watched Mason. I watched the way he moved, the way he held the axe in his hands, the way he exhaled only when the blade came in contact with his target. I was a good watcher. And so it turned out, I was also a good doer.
I took my tank top off and tossed it in the grass. I was so sweaty and uncomfortable and I wanted to take my bra off, too, but I was afraid of Mason coming over and seeing. So I lay down on my back in the shade of a tree and draped my arm over my eyes.
“I think there’s a lake over the hill,” Mason said from a few feet away. “We could make camp on the other side instead.”
“After you just cut all that firewood?” I replied without taking my arm off my eyes.
He sighed. “Yeah. Tomorrow, then.”
Mason cooked us some rabbit over the fire and we ate in silence. I didn’t grow up eating fresh meat, since my parents and I were scroungers. I was used to canned ham, and canned tuna, and canned sardines. So the first time Mason killed and skinned an animal in front of me, I was a little traumatized.
“Don’t you eat?” he had asked.
“Yes. But not things that used to be alive.”
He smirked at me. “I highly doubt that.”
I never made the connection when I was with my parents that the meat we ate out of cans might have been alive at some point. I just thought it was always in the can until we ate it.
“This tastes really good, actually,” I had said that first time.
Mason laughed under his breath and rolled his eyes. “Because it’s fresh.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the stuff you’ve been eating from cans can’t be good for you. It’s so old. Plus what were you going to do when there were no cans left?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but didn’t have anything, so I closed my mouth again. He shrugged with a smile that I couldn’t quite place, and took another bite. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was funny, or stupid, or if he felt sorry for me.
“I’m just saying,” he continued, “they’re gonna run out at some point, and odds are it’ll be in our life time.”
“Well we ate berries and stuff, too. We didn’t only eat from cans. We just didn’t eat… animals.”
“Yes you did,” he said with another smile. “Just old, gross ones.”
I looked down at the warm juicy meat in my hands and suddenly felt horrible for all the animals I’d eaten in my life. All the animals who died before me and were stuffed into little cans, and for the animals that Mason killed and then cooked in front of me. So I thanked it. I brought the meat close to my mouth, but before taking another bite, I apologized and thanked it. It made me feel a little bit better.
And I thanked my meal now, quietly, hoping that Mason didn’t hear me.
After eating, Mason took his glasses off and rubbed them in his shirt. But he made a face when he put them back on, and then took them off again. “Shit,” he said. “I just made it worse.”
I chuckled at him, and he threw the black frames at me. I caught them before they hit my face. “Hey!” I shouted playfully.
“Shh,” he put his hand out and I held my breath, listening for what he had heard.
We waited quietly for a few minutes, and when we didn’t hear anything else, he put his arm down.
“Sorry,” he said. “Thought I heard something.”
We both sat and watched the fire for a little bit, the crackles of the flames on the wood breaking the silence between us. Mason smiled in my direction, and something inside of me almost made me ask him a question. But I didn’t know what to ask. I just had something tugging at me, pulling me to be closer to him. Instead I looked past the fire, at the trees filling the landscape in lush greens. There were fewer trees over here than we had seen in the past few days, and they got farther apart as they climbed the hill in the distance. I let myself take a moment to admire it all; the sun setting across the tops of the branches, and the leaves looking as if they were glowing.
I went into my canvas canopy that I had strung up from two trees when it was still light out, but Mason stayed out by the fire. He never slept under a shelter. I didn’t know how he did it, sleeping out in the open. He always bugged me when I said that, because he said that my stupid canopies didn’t protect me from anything. There was no point. But I was brought up always sleeping with something separating me from the sky, and without it, I felt lost. After a few days he stopped saying anything about it, but I secretly still thought he was weird for just sleeping right under the stars. It seemed too exposed.
I dreamt of my parents. Or more specifically, my parents dying. I almost always had the same dream, which was just a variation of them dying. Sometimes they were drowning and I couldn’t save them. Sometimes they were burning, and I wouldn’t run through the flames to get them out. Sometimes they were being eaten by zombies. But that particular night, I dreamt of their actual death. It replayed in my head exactly the way it went in real life, and I woke up screaming.
“Hey,” Mason said from the opening of my make-shift tent. “Shh.”
“Sorry,” I said, wiping the tears from my face. “Bad dream.”
He sat down and leaned his back against the tree that my end of the canopy was tied to. He sat sideways and turned his head towards me. “Your parents?”
“What was it this time?”
I paused, afraid to tell him the truth. Afraid of what he might feel, or think I think he might feel. “The real thing,” I finally said softly.
He nodded and looked away.
I don’t know why I didn’t just say it was one of the things I had dreamt about in the past. I could have lied and he wouldn’t have known. I don’t know why I didn’t lie.
Except that I think I do know why I didn’t lie.
My parents were the only people I was ever close with, my entire life. Nobody else knew anything about me. Even Mason didn’t know anything about me, and I’d been traveling with him for a month. I was hungry for an emotional closeness. I needed someone in my life who cared about me. I didn’t think that Mason cared about me, and I didn’t really care much about him. But I wanted to. I so wanted to.
Just over the hill was a longer walk than we had anticipated, so I was glad that we didn’t decide to make the trek the night before. The hill was steep, and the sun was hot, and I could feel my skin blistering already.
“You should put on something with sleeves,” Mason said back to me.
“You should put on something with sleeves,” I shot back.
“You’re going to burn.”
“Why do you care?”
He stopped and looked back at me, a little grin forming on his lips. “I don’t. I’m just looking out for you.”
“Well I don’t need it. I can take a sunburn. Plus it’s too damn hot for sleeves.”
“Fine,” I repeated.
I stayed a few paces behind him as we made our way to the top of the hill, and tried my best not to sound like I was trying to catch my breath any time we spoke.
“You need a break?” he asked after we made it halfway up.
“No,” I said shortly.
“Ok. Well I do. Can we take a break?”
“Oh.” I stopped and looked at him, studying his bright green eyes that were so striking against his brown skin. “Sure.”
He swung his bag off his back and sat down, leaning back into his bag like it was a pillow. I watched him for a few long seconds before sighing and doing the same. He opened one of his eyes at me quickly and then closed it again.
“You know you’re allowed to talk,” he said.
“You never talk. I’m always the one asking questions.”
“So the only things I know about you are the things I’ve seen. You don’t tell me anything.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“Nothing at all?” He sat up and looked at me.
“You never tell me anything, either,” I said, sitting up too.
He shrugged. “There’s nothing to tell.”
“Well where’s your family?” I asked.
“How do you think?”
I huffed and lay back down.
“I’ve been on my own for years,” he said. “I have no stories.”
“My parents never let us get close to people. They taught me never to trust anyone but them.”
“So you don’t trust me?”
“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I think if you wanted to kill me, you would have done that by now.”
“Why the hell would I want to kill you?”
I shrugged. “My dad used to say that people would want to kill us for what we have.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have anything.” He smiled, and I let myself smile too.
I thought about my parents for one of the first times throughout our hike. Of course they were always on my mind in the form of nightmares, but during the day I never had time to think about them. But for some reason today, my parents kept coming back into my head. While the hike up the hill was still tiring, something about it seemed more relaxed than Mason and I had been in a while, and my dream kept repeating itself over and over in my head. I just kept thinking about how my parents were the only people I had ever known, and now they were gone. And even though I knew there was nothing either of us could have done, I still sort of resented Mason. If I thought about it, I still hated him a little bit. They were my parents. He didn’t know them. He didn’t know what I had been through. They were mine and he took them away from me before I even had a chance to do something myself.
I think I heard the groan before he did. Which surprised me, since I had almost zero experience with them, and he was usually so cautious. But we were finally on our way down the hill, and our steps were heavy beneath us, the dry grass crunching with every bounding stride that we took.
I turned my head towards the sound of death, and almost squealed. But I thought maybe it didn’t know we were there, that maybe if I left it alone, it would leave us alone, too. But Mason caught my eye and he noticed me looking past his shoulder. Noticed maybe a second too late. The zombie was slowly pacing towards us, but the second that Mason saw it, he leapt, like really leapt at us. Like he was hiding his strength and speed so he could surprise us. I was surprised alright. Mason jumped in front of me but the zombie landed on him, making him fall back onto me. The three of us were a jumble in the heat, each of us only trying to survive. Mason kicked the zombie and he flew back, but not before his grimy hand gripped my wrist, and yanked me with him. It.
I wriggled out of his grasp and started crawling backwards away from him, but he – it – got back onto its feet like it was nothing. It let out an ear piercing scream and I almost gagged at the smell that came out of its mouth. He came at me faster than I had time to think, and as his jagged teeth came down on me, I finally reacted. I kicked both of my feet at him, but it just gave him easier access to me.
I couldn’t tell when the axe finally came down on its head, if it hit me too, or if its teeth sank into my flesh at the last second.
Mason was heaving, and I was holding my breath.
“Did it bite you?”
“I don’t know,” I managed to say.
Mason didn’t even stop to think or ask me any other questions. He should have run away, is what he should have done. He should have left me there to die so that he was nowhere around when I turned. But instead he kneeled down in front of me and took my hiking boot off. The sock was already drenched in blood, and I tried not to gasp as he peeled it away from my broken skin.
“It’s too ripped up; I can’t tell if it was from the axe or the zombie.”
“Shit,” I said.
He looked at me with a tightened expression and I just stared back into his bright eyes. He sighed and then tossed my boot and sock at me. I caught them, and was about to put them back on when he hoisted me off the ground.
“What are you-” I started, before Mason cut me off.
“We’ll wash it off in the water and see if we can find out more.”
“I can walk,” I said.
“Not fast enough.”
He carried me the rest of the way down the hill, and I just hung onto his sweaty shoulders, my sweaty boot, and my bloody sock. The water at the bottom of the hill was clear and blue, and if I wasn’t afraid of dying right then, I would have been excited to jump in it.
Zombies ruined everything.
He carried me right into the water and trudged into it until it was up to his knees before setting me down. It was cold and refreshing, and made my clothes cling to me even more than they did with my sweat. I put my hands down on the lake floor and bent my good leg to keep myself balanced in the water. Mason was already rubbing my ankle, letting my blood turn the water a deep red. He lifted my foot out of the water, forcing the rest of me back. My head almost went under but my bag still on my back kept it up while he inspected my foot.
“It won’t stop bleeding,” he said. “I’ve also never seen a zombie like that before.”
“What, fast like that?”
His lips formed a tight, straight line and he nodded.
“Your axe probably just caught on my foot when you chopped the thing’s head off,” I said.
“I think it would have gone deeper than that.”
“But the zombie’s bones and stuff slowed it down. It would have hit me last.”
He shrugged. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”
We slowly walked out of the water. Well, he walked, I limped. He kept looking back at me once he got to the sand on the edge of the water, but I kept a straight face. Once I caught up with him, I emptied my bag out and laid my extra clothes in the grass so they could dry.
“Sorry,” Mason said.
I laid out my last shirt and looked over at him. “It’s fine.”
“I should find something to cover your foot with.”
I sat in the grass and watched Mason go through his things, and then finally just take a t-shirt with him to the water. He scrubbed it between his fists for a few minutes and then came back and grabbed my foot, wringing his wet shirt out over it. The water from his shirt washed the sand away from my foot, but only just. He inspected it and then picked me up again.
“What are you-” I started.
“It’s not clean enough.”
“And lake water’s going to fix that?”
He lowered me into the water again and gently rubbed my wound, making me wince.
“Sorry,” he said softly.
I watched him carefully pull my foot out of the water again and examine it, but he kept frowning when the blood continued to pour out.
“The water’s making it seem worse than it actually is,” he said to me. “But I’m still worried.”
“Wouldn’t I have turned by now if it was the zombie?” I asked.
“No. If the bite doesn’t kill you, you have to wait for the infection to do it.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Well usually when people turn right away, it’s because they’ve had major veins ripped out, right? They bleed to death in minutes – sometimes seconds. If you die with the infection in your system, you’ll come back as a zombie, but a bite like yours obviously isn’t going to kill someone. The infection’ll spread and eventually kill you, but it could take days.”
I gulped and closed my eyes.
“Come on.” He dunked his hands in the water to get the blood off, and picked me up again, carrying me back to the grass. After setting me down, he made sure that the wounded part of my foot didn’t touch the ground by turning my right leg so that my toes pointed inward, and the outside of my ankle was facing up. I just sat there with my arms splayed out behind me to hold myself up, and watched him. He made careful movements as he set my boot down and then stood up, covering his mouth with one hand. He was staring at the wound on my foot, but he wasn’t really staring at it. It was more like he was staring through it, like he was distracted, thinking of something else. He looked troubled.
“Mason?” I asked, starting to feel the panic set in.
“Huh? What?” The hand that was covering his mouth quickly ran through his dark mess of wavy hair, pulling it out of his face. He looked into my eyes, his face a little softer than it was a second before, but still seemed a little uneasy.
“What’s wrong? What’s that face for?” I asked, hoping he would answer by saying nothing was wrong. That everything would be fine. The expression on his face told me that everything would not be fine, and I had to hold my breath to stop myself from freaking out too much and hyperventilating.
“Nothing,” he said, clearing his throat and seeming to snap back into himself. “I should be asking about you. How are you doing?”
“Well I might have been bitten by a zombie, so not that good,” I managed through my shaking voice.
Without another word, he took a clean shirt from his bag and ripped it into strips, then carefully wrapped them around my wound, tying them off really tight. The grey shirt turned red within seconds, and we both sighed as we watched the dark stain grow and crawl across the fabric. He took the last strip of shirt and tied it tightly around the top of my ankle, above the wound, probably to try and slow the blood flow.
“It’ll stop,” he said, I think more to himself than to me. “It’ll stop,” he said again.
“What if it doesn’t?” I asked.
“It will.” He looked at me and I felt a little better when I saw his jaw relax, but I was still worried. Why had he seemed to go off somewhere else when he looked at my foot? Something about it was upsetting him more than it should, and that didn’t seem like good news to me.
“Why are you helping me?” I asked instead, afraid of the answer to the question I really wanted to ask.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, you don’t even know me.”
“But we’ve been together for over a month now. We have to look out for each other,” he said.
“But I said that-”
“I know what you said. But the fact is you’re still here with me. I don’t think you want to leave.”
I looked at him and tried to think of a response, but nothing came. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to stay with him so that I could have a person again. I don’t know how he lasted for years by himself.
“It’s ok,” he started up again. “I don’t want you to leave either.”
There weren’t any trees close enough together for me to hang a canopy from, and even though we could have walked farther, Mason insisted on staying where we were just until my foot settled. He wanted to make sure it didn’t get worse. He wanted to make sure it didn’t turn me into a zombie, but he didn’t use those exact words.
I sighed and curled up on my side, feeling too exposed and vulnerable to sleep. Plus the air off the water was cool and I had been shivering for a little while. I heard Mason take a few careful steps towards me, and then he put a sweater over me, covering my chest and arms.
“Yours are still damp,” he said.
He lay down beside me and brought his body in real close to me, making me gasp. I almost moved away, but his body heat was comforting. That was probably what he was doing. Keeping me warm, not comforting me. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled my back into his chest without saying a word. I kept wanting to say something to him but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do.
“Warm?” he finally asked after I stopped shivering.
I nodded, not trusting myself to actually say something out loud.
But he didn’t move.
Neither did I.
My parents were dying and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I tried. I tried to warn them, I tried to stop the bleeding, but they died anyway. They died in front of me and my tears just mixed with their blood, spreading in a pool around my knees.
“Shh,” Mason’s voice woke me, and I relaxed into his arms.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
“Don’t be sorry. Everyone’s dealing with shit.”
I shifted and a burning sensation traveled up my leg, making me squeal. We both sat up and tried to focus our vision just under the moonlight bouncing off the water. I reached down and untied the shirt from around my ankle, but the burning sensation just spread faster. I screamed and tried to tie it again but my hands were shaking. My whole body was shaking and I couldn’t think beyond this fear spreading through every inch of me. It was the zombie. The zombie bit me and I was going to die.
“Stop, stop,” Mason said quickly, getting up and moving towards my leg.
“What are you doing, you can’t even see!”
“I can see enough.”
I could hardly see the outline of his body, so how he saw what my leg looked like, I had no idea. Plus he didn’t even have his glasses on. His gentle touch on my burning skin was comforting but still made me twitch. He shushed me even though I didn’t make a noise, and I bit my mouth shut and tried to focus on him focusing on my leg. Tried to focus on his calm, hoping it would help me calm down a little, too. He tied the shirt around my ankle again, but higher up this time, and even tighter than before.
“I’ll have to look at it in the morning.”
“It was the zombie,” I said frantically. “I’m going to die.”
“You’re not going to die.”
“Well if you don’t kill me after I turn, then you’re just an asshole.”
I heard him laugh under his breath, and then felt him shift closer to me again. He gently forced me back down and wrapped his arm around me. “Try to sleep,” he said. “We’ll deal with it in the morning.”
“I have to cut your foot off.”
“What!?” I screeched. Now that the sun was up, Mason was inspecting my foot, and his face was stern in this way that made my stomach do flips.
“The infection will kill you if I don’t,” he said.
“So you just want me to bleed to death instead?”
“You won’t bleed to death. I’ll make sure I have all the right stuff before I do it.”
“The right stuff?”
“Well I’m not just going to do it with my axe.”
“Right, because you’re not going to do it.”
“Do you want to die?”
I looked at him and tried to lie. But I couldn’t. So I didn’t say anything. He raised his eyebrows and asked me again. “Do you want to die?”
“No!” I yelled. “But I don’t have a choice!”
“Yes you do!”
“Why do you even care? Why do you want me to stay alive so badly? You don’t even know me.”
“But I want to know you. That’s the thing. I never thought that I would get close to anyone again, but I want to get close to you. Don’t you want to have somebody?”
I snorted and started to stand, but I wobbled and he had to reach out and hold me steady. “What am I going to do without my foot?” I choked.
“I’ll make you crutches.”
“Great,” I said sarcastically.
“We’ll find something. We’ll look for an old prosthetic clinic and find you a foot that fits.”
“I don’t think it works like that.”
“If you cut off my foot, Mason, you might as well cut off my head.”
“This is the reason I travel alone.” He glared at me for a second before turning around and walking away. I sat back down and watched him pack up his bag and grab his axe. Was he seriously leaving? He just tried to convince me to let him cut off my foot so that I wouldn’t die and now he was leaving?
“Where are you going?” I called.
“Why do you care? You don’t even know me.”
I tried not to take Mason’s leaving personally. I probably would have left, too. I mean, he wasn’t going to cut my foot off without my permission, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to stick around and wait for me to turn into a monster that wants to eat him. Any smart person would have left. It’s not like we were close or anything, anyway. He wasn’t my partner, and we didn’t love each other; we were just traveling together because… Well, I don’t really know why we were traveling together. We were both alone, so we just stuck together. But he had been alone for years before we met, so why would he change his pace now? He probably took pity on me. Poor girl who just lost her parents and didn’t know how to do anything except for scrounge. He had been letting me tag along out of pity, but he’d finally had enough. Which made sense. If he was going to be a zombie in a few days, I would have had enough, too.
I hobbled down to the water for a drink. The pain shot up my leg and went all the way into my hip, so I bit down on my bottom lip, even though there was no one around to hear me if I screamed. I knelt into the cool lake and scooped some water up in my hands, taking a few refreshing mouthfuls.
This would be ok. Right?
This would be a nice place to die.
I crawled back onto the beach since it hurt too much to continue putting weight on my foot. I slowly started to unwrap the bandages, afraid of what I would see. Some of the shirt strips stuck to the open wound and I gagged as I pulled them out of my broken flesh. I bled a little bit, but only in some spots, and it wasn’t pouring out like it had the day before.
Seeing the area around my wound made me retch, and I tried not to keep looking at it, but it was hard not to, even though it was disgusting. The bite was all ripped up and jagged, the open wound almost bubbling. The dark purple skin didn’t look at all promising, and the veins around my ankle and up part of my leg were huge and dark. I slowly brought a finger to one of the veins and pushed on it, gagging again at the feeling reminding me of touching a worm. I tried to take a few deep breaths and fell back into the sand.
I wondered how long it would take me to die. Would I remember my family once I turned? Would I remember myself?
I tugged on the stone around my neck and rolled it between my fingers, letting the black cord it was on pull at the skin on the back of my collar. I watched the sun move across the sky, and squinted when there were no clouds covering it. But I didn’t once close my eyes. I kept staring up at the bright, burning star and thought about my life. It was a good life, I guess. I didn’t have much to compare it to, or people to compare it with, but at least I had my parents for as long as I did. Maybe dying wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe being a zombie didn’t feel like anything.
Would I feel the change coming?
As it traveled up my leg and got closer to my heart, would I feel it? Did the change happen slowly or all at once?
Well I guess it killed you first.
So it must have happened all at once. I would probably come back instantly as a zombie, without knowing what it was like to be alive.
I hoped I didn’t remember.
“There’s a house on the other side of the lake.”
I sat up, startled, and turned to look at Mason.
“I thought you left,” I said, in the most boring tone I could manage.
“Yeah, well. Guess I came back.”
The sun had set a while back, and looking over at Mason now, I only just realized how dark it was getting.
“You walked all the way around the lake?” I asked.
“It’s a small lake,” he said. “And no, I didn’t. I went part way around and then I saw a house on the other side.”
“People probably live in it,” I said.
“People who might be able to help us.”
“You mean people who might be able to help you hack my leg off.”
He clicked his tongue against his teeth and sighed. “I’m not going to hack it off. And the longer it takes you to agree with this, the more of your leg is going to have to go. If I did it six hours ago, you’d only have lost to the top of your ankle.” I saw him eye my unbandaged foot, and knew that even through our darkening surrounding, he could see how bad it had gotten. “Now it looks like it’ll be halfway up your shin. If we do it before tomorrow, you can probably keep your knee.”
“Look at you, talking like you know everything. What is keeping my knee going to do for me!?” I shouted. “Nothing! It won’t change anything, because I still won’t be able to walk! I’ll be useless and defenseless and I won’t last a minute out here.”
“You lasted all day here on your own.”
“Because I was just sitting here waiting to die.”
He shrugged. “Fine. Die, then.”
He huffed again and sat down next to me. The smell of his sweat so near comforted me.
“I don’t want to die,” I whispered after a few silent minutes.
“So let me do this.”
I hadn’t cried since I lost my parents, if you didn’t count my nightmares, and I didn’t want to start again now. I didn’t want to cry because I was afraid, or because I thought I might die, or because I thought getting my foot cut off would hurt. I didn’t want to cry, even if the reasons seemed justifiable.
“It’s ok to be afraid,” he added after I didn’t reply.
“What am I going to do?” I asked. “We won’t be able to travel anywhere. I won’t be able to run away if I need to.”
“What do we need to travel for?”
“I don’t know… my parents and I always traveled to find more food.”
“Right. But I can just kill our food. We don’t have to go anywhere. Plus there’s fresh water right here.”
“So why have we been traveling this whole time if we didn’t have to?”
He shrugged. “You never said you wanted to stop.”
“Oh so this is my fault?” I asked.
“I guess it’s partly mine, too. Ever since my family…” he paused for a second and let out a deep breath. “Uh, I’ve just been traveling.”
“Why?” I asked.
He shrugged again. “Trying to find something.” It was quiet for a minute before he spoke again. “We won’t need to travel if we have a house.” He motioned to the lake. “We won’t even have to build anything. We’ll have a safe, real shelter right there. With doors and windows and everything.”
“What if people already live there and try to kill us?”
“People are nicer than you think, kid.”
“I’m not a kid.”
He smirked and stood up. “You are to me.”
I wasn’t that much younger than he was. He wasn’t even close to my parents’ age; I could tell that just because he didn’t have any grey in his hair or defined lines around his eyes. Maybe when he smiled, but I probably did, too.
“I’m 19,” I finally said.
“Right. A kid.” He smiled and looked around. “I brought a boat.”
“I brought a boat. I found it half sinking around the bend over there, and I patched it up. I’m pretty handy, it turns out.”
“Handy, and how old?”
“Nice try.” He held out a strong hand to me and I looked at it for a second before grabbing on. He hoisted me to my feet and I winced when I put weight on my festering ankle. Without saying anything, he cradled me in his arms and carried me along the beach, his feet kicking up cool water with every step.
The boat looked like it was made of plastic, and I wasn’t sure what Mason patched it up with, but it seemed to float, even after he set me down in it.
“I’ll go get your stuff. Sit tight.”
“You’re still not cutting my leg off.”
Mason hadn’t been rowing for long, and before I said anything, it was quiet except for the oars in the water, and the crackling of the torch he made before we set off. It was warm as I held it near my face, and the light cast an eerie glow on Mason, creating a weird shadow from his glasses. At least he could see where we were going.
“Why did you come with me, then?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I didn’t want to die alone.”
“Everyone dies alone. Even if you died with me right next to you, you’d be alone.”
“I don’t think so.”
He smirked and looked over his shoulder for a few strokes.
“Would you sit next to me if I was dying?” I asked.
“And would you wait with your axe so you can cut off my head before I come back?”
“Are you just saying that?”
“You’re not going to cut my foot off in my sleep or anything?”
He stopped rowing and looked at me with his serious face again. “I don’t think you’d be in this boat with me if you thought I was going to do that.”
“I’ve never had the chance to trust anyone besides my parents before. I don’t know what to expect.”
The torch was dying out by the time we made it to the other side of the lake, and the water was so calm it was like we were floating through glass. I could just barely make out Mason’s silhouette as he got out of the boat and pulled it up onto the beach. There was a light inside the house, but it didn’t reach far enough for us to be able to see any better. I saw the shape of someone move in front of the light and I held my breath. I wasn’t ready to come face to face with new people yet. Not in my condition. I knew how people reacted when they saw people like me come near them.
A girl with long curly hair tied against the back of her neck came out of the house with her hand above her eyes, as if that would help her see us better.
“Who’s there?” she called.
“Holly! Get back in here!” someone else shouted from inside the house. Great. There were at least two of them.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Mason said with his arms up. I couldn’t promise that, so I didn’t say anything. “We’re just looking for somewhere safe to stay.”
“We’re full,” someone else said, coming outside and standing next to the curly-haired girl. Or Holly, I guess.
“We’ll provide our own food, we just need somewhere to stay for the next little bit while my friend heals.”
“Heals?” the person next to Holly said. “What happened to him?”
“She got hurt in the leg and she can’t walk. We’ve been traveling for the last few weeks but she can’t keep going right now in her condition.”
“Find somewhere else.” They went back inside and shut the door.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“No it isn’t.”
“We can just stay out here on the beach and we can hang out until I die, and then try to eat you.”
I think he smiled then, but I couldn’t really see.
“We’re not taking no for an answer.”
“Just like you’re not taking no for an answer with me?” I asked.
“Exactly.” He grabbed his bag and hooked his axe into it, and then threw my bag onto his back, along with his own. He leaned into the boat and pulled me out, cradling me in his arms. I tried to make myself lighter somehow as he carried me and all our stuff up the beach and onto the grass, getting closer to the house. The people inside stood up and the closer we got, the more I could see from the light inside. The girl with the curly hair, Holly, looked to be about my age. Maybe a little older, but not by much. She had the palest skin I had ever seen, and her hair was a bright orange, like it was on fire. There were two other people with her, both guys who looked about Mason’s age. However old Mason was.
One of the guys came out of the house with a big gun. “Get outta here,” he said.
“We don’t want to cause trouble,” Mason replied.
“Then leave!” he pointed the gun at us and I wanted to jump out of Mason’s arms and run away. Already the losing my leg thing was starting to prove some points. I was pretty useless now with my injured ankle, but without a leg at all, it would have been worse.
“Mason, it’s fine, let’s just go.”
“She’s got the right idea,” he said.
“I just wanted somewhere nice to die, but it’s ok, we can go,” I added.
“You dyin’?” He lowered the gun and tilted his chin up.
“She won’t die if I can get her foot amputated.”
“Excuse me? Is she bitten?”
“Don’t let them in!” Holly screamed. “I can’t go through this again!” Her voice quivered and I winced, hating that I was making them scared.
“It hasn’t spread all the way up her leg yet,” Mason tried. “She won’t turn if we cut it off.”
“You can’t just cut her leg off,” the guy said.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“I can cut it off, ok? Properly.”
“How do you know it’ll work?” he asked.
Mason’s face went tight and serious before he spoke. “I’ve done it before.”
For some reason the two guys were interested now. They were all eager to get me into the house and ready for my leg to come off. As soon as Mason said that he’d done it before, the guy with the gun raised his eyebrows and his voice went different, all concerned and worried. But intrigued. He asked Mason a few questions and everyone started to get loud, and eager, and excited, and that’s when I started to tune everything out, because I was realizing at that moment that I was actually going to let him cut my foot off. He was going to cut my foot off.
“Cut above the knee,” one of the guys said as Mason brought me through the door.
“No, she needs her knee,” Mason said.
“Didn’t you say that stuff under her skin was the infection!? It looks like it’s traveled pretty far up her leg and I’m not taking any chances! You take the knee or you leave.”
“Mason.” I don’t know why I said his name the way I did. I was afraid. I was the most afraid I had ever been in my entire life. Not that I had much to be afraid of growing up, but I was even more afraid than I was when my parents and I were attacked by the pack of zombies. There were at least 10 of them and their rotting flesh seemed to get under my skin as I breathed around them. I tried to get them off me, I tried to stay away from their teeth, but even just the sound of their jaws clicking made me weak in the knees. I was so afraid then that I almost couldn’t think. I didn’t know what to do. But this time, I knew there was nothing I could do. There was nothing for me to do except to lie there and face the pain that was about to overtake me.
“I have drugs!” Holly cried through a cracking voice. I think she was scared. “Good ones.” She hiccupped and sniffled, but then took a deep breath and spoke again. “These ones are strong, I grew them myself. They’ll help.”
“Thanks,” Mason said, nodding to her. He set me down on top of a wooden table and the two guys cleared everything off it in a hurry. My heart was beating so fast that I thought it would shoot out of my mouth. The two guys left the room and came back in out of breath, holding more candles and lanterns, and started setting them up around the table.
“You have anything that I can heat up without it catching on fire?” Mason asked. “To stop some of the bleeding.”
“Oh, like to cauterize,” one of the guys said, a sound of recognition in his tone.
“Exactly,” Mason said. “Oh, and a belt. You guys have a belt?”
“Mason,” I said again.
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