Chapter 5 of Over My Shoulder!
I know that I didn't post up a chapter last week, but that was because I didn't get around to writing very much due to the time consuming process of handmaking every christmas gift I am giving friends and family, individually. It's a slow, but gratifying tradition of my own.
But, please let me know what you think and how you feel about this chapter :) I'd love to hear the feedback.
Consciousness returns like a whip. The white pristine ceiling looms over me, a serene blank canvas. I launch myself up. The sheets bunch underneath my grip. My lungs constrict and seize, belittling me down to struggling silently.
It was one of those nightmares again. The type of nightmare where it doesn’t end just as your impending doom looms over you. The one where you feel every minor detail, feel every sensation of pain that beats upon you. The one where you aren’t allowed the gratification of death on impact.
A heavy layer of sweat sticks to my skin, coating every part and moving like a second layer underneath my clothes. My hands sweep over my face, briefly wiping away the sleep from my eyes, and running the tips over my throat to check if it’s still intact. The dream is the same each time – a slice of a throat and thinking of how I’m bleeding out while chaos runs rampant around me – then I awake in a different place each time. Last time it was in a frozen tent - This time a little bedroom in a country home.
Breathing begins to settle down to an ease, my pulse rhythmically pumping underneath my touch. Feeling the blood coursing through my veins helps me to focus on the here and now. To not begin crying again, or hold the gun to my temple. Perhaps it’s the lonely feeling of night creeping in, or the melancholy that dances with it.
I curl inwards, resting my chin on the tops of my knees. It’s comforting, in a weird way.
The dark behind the drawn curtains sits peacefully on every surface, bringing a stillness that lulls the house in the dead of night. The dream drifts away from me and I’m left by myself with my thoughts. Gentle pattering hits the window near the bed, so faint that it drones on like background noise. It’s raining again. Did it start up again after I fell asleep, or has it never really stopped?
The sheets on the opposite bed shuffle around. A slightly snoring Cassie lies on her side, with her hand tucked underneath a pillow, concealing her hunter’s knife. Every night she has placed the sheathed knife under her pillow like a child awaiting a knife fairy to grant all her wishes. Never once has she lost it, or let go of it during the night.
She looks peaceful. Her red hair is tied back in a braid, exposing her whole face. There’s no twitching, or scratching, or at times, even breathing. It’s like stumbling across a little secret, someone who is in this world but dreaming off in another, while their world goes on without them around. It almost masks the fact that anything could be wrong in the world. There are no blood marks, smears, or puddles on the floor or walls. Cassie isn’t running away or killing Biters. Things are left just like they were when the owners ran and died.
An ache starts up in the curve of my spine from holding myself too long. Stretching back out feels amazing, even when the little pops of my cracking back trail up and down. The idea of going back to sleep lingers, but with each passing second I’m slowly becoming more alert. Perhaps I can try to lie back down and give it another shot. Tucking my hands between my thighs for warmth and digging my shoulder back into the mattress, I try to coax sleep back to hold me and let me rest. The rain against the window has stopped for good now; only the sounds of Cassie remain.
Sleepy eyelashes flutter and tickle my cheeks as I tighten and untighten them to encourage sleep. It doesn’t work. I toss to the other side. Everything isn’t comfy anymore, instead of feeling like I had just laid on a cushioned cloud that engulfs me into sleep; it just makes me itchy and sore. I toss once more back to the other side.
“Can’t sleep?” a slow croak peeps out through the dark and rain.
“Did I wake you?” I cringe to myself. Every muscle is held tight so I don’t move an inch.
“I’m a light sleeper,” a yawn pauses her mid sentence, “but it’s okay. What woke you? Did you hear something?” there’s a quick switch from fatigue to alarm. “No, nothing. Just a dream.” I roll onto my side, facing Cassie in the dark.
“Was it a nightmare?”
“Kind of…What gave it away?”
“You were whining, and breathing oddly in your sleep,” She says with no judgement. Sheets rustle from across the room.
“Was it of your last group?” I am struck dumb by her question. My mouth opens to speak in response but nothing falls out, just an invisible wall to protect.
“If you don’t want to answer, it’s fine. I’m about to fall asleep on you anyway” Cassie says with a slur. I don’t talk, or even think about my dreams. I’ve had no one to tell them to. I reel through memories; feelings and instances in my mind that have been tucked away securely. She wouldn’t understand. She barely knows me.
But maybe she can, or will. She must have been through the same thing and knows how to deal with it, to deal with the sickening blows that occur at random.
Before I can choose this moment to be open, Cassie’s snores return. I deflate inside as everything that was ready to erupt inside of me winds back into its bottle, shut tightly and back into the dark. I find myself pulling the sheets away to leave the room. I was weak to even consider that someone might know what it’s like. It was dumb. I know better.
Numbness stings through the pads of my feet. I should have put my boots on before I left the room, but I’ve already walked more than halfway down the corridor. I can’t return just yet.
Carter and Benjie are sitting there, not talking but content in the silence. Benjie inspects his gun while holding it, ready to strike at any sudden sounds. “You’re awake early…everything okay?” Carter asks, noticing me first. He bounds over in two steps, and lightly presses a hand to my shoulder.
“I’m fine, everything’s fine. Couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d take over the shift for one of you,” Peering around Carter, my glance catches Benjie’s and offers him the chance to swap.
“That’s sure helpful of you. I’m sure Benjie would-” Carter says with a rub of his beard, but Benjie says no and dismisses it with a pat and a shove. The idea of sitting in silence with Benjie isn’t the most appealing, but by one look at Carter, it’s what I have accepted to take.
“You go. I’m good for a few more hours.” I cautiously grab his gun to indicate that the choice is out of his hands. With a concerned look between Benjie and I, he slowly smirks and lets go of the gun. “Alright, I can see when I’m in the minority. It’ll be good for me to close my eyes for a bit.” He bids us a cross between good night and good morning.
Benjie ignores me and sits on the same chair. Being near him can only be described as spending time with an obnoxious cat that ignores you until it needs something, then it won’t shut up. He runs his hand through his dark hair again within the last minute I’ve been standing here. It does nothing as the hair flops forward onto his forehead again, tickling his eyes and coaxing him to repeat the cycle. Perhaps it’s a nervous tick, but it’s beginning to go from nervous to annoying quickly.
He stops and turns to look at me incriminatingly, “Why are you just standing there? Sit down or something,” he gestures towards the chair across from him. I flop down into the seat with a gruff that makes him roll his eyes. I don’t know why the group, even Carter, insists on being on watch while sitting inside. The only thing you end up watching is the person you’re on watch with. I tried before to change the setting to somewhere where the watching would actually be beneficial ahead of time, but was shot down by Benjie’s complaints of hypothermia and the need to stay as a group.
The silence is heavy between us. Topics are limited when no one else is around to fill it in, which often leaves Benjie and I often avoiding each other. I’m not sure what it is about him that causes me to want to keep my words in and locked up while I glare at him to bugger off but it’s not only me though; Benjie is full of disgruntled eye rolls and clenched fists towards my direction. It’s an agreed partnership, without the communication side of things, to survive.
As the morning chill begins to set in, chilling the tips of my feet as they seek shelter underneath my body. “Where’s your shoes?” Benjie asks, squinting as he questioningly shoots looks from my eyes to my feet.
“I did just come out of bed.”
My palm finds my face even in the dark.
“Some of us can’t stand to sleep with our heavy mud-filled boots and-”
“So what? You can’t just hope that you’ll be quick enough if there comes a group of ‘em. That’s how people die, Ava.” He states with such sternness and a condescending tone that flicks off my name that I have to clench my fist just to calm myself down.
“Well, if it’s such a big deal to you, you can go get them for me - seeing as I’m probably just putting you in danger with my vulnerable feet and inability to know how people die.” A sarcastic smile posters itself up as an invitation for him to shut up and sit down or step up. While this tiny lounge room may have held positive, and even family-friendly discussions, it is now backing off from two dysfunctional people simply coping. He doesn’t move at all at first. Hands on gun, leaning forward and his stare attaching itself to mine. I don’t back down, instead pressing further towards him. His jaw tightens, sending the muscle spasming. His eyes flash a warning before he pushes himself forward.
I’m almost on my feet when the heavy weight of his gun hits my lap and sends me back down into the cushioned seat. He steers towards the back bedroom; I win silently.
It’s quiet and cold. My eyes are adjusting as best as they can in the dark, and now the shapes and silhouettes casted by the moon are as clear as they’ll ever be. On the coffee table in front of all the couches are ammo, bits of scrapped food, and a small totem. The bedroom hasn’t casted any sounds, and Benjie still isn’t back yet. I place the guns onto the coffee table and carefully pick up the totem. The different textures and accents roll around in my hand, forming the shape of a Wolf. It reminds me of one of those Tiki-dolls, the ones that stand guard near entrances or have flames attached to them to be used as a guide.
It’s hard to tell in the dark, but the wood appears discoloured in certain places. I pull it up close to my eyes in hope that it would be clearer to see, but it doesn’t.
I glance back again towards the bedroom. He’s been gone longer than he should have been, seeing as my boots are always placed at the side of my bed in case of emergencies, and he still hasn’t retrieved them. Perhaps I should go and grab it instead while humiliating him on the side for taking so long. A loud slamming noise coming from the front porch makes me jerk and let out a short shriek. Biters! I jump again as another crashing noise disturbs the silent air.
The front porch light pops on. A line of mutilated and bloodied faces flash in front of the window. One is slowly raising itself from the ground, a large hole now indented on the side of its face from the fall. Oh no oh no oh no! I scatter backwards for the gun, smashing my thigh into the side of the couch as I turn and letting out a painful gasp. Another loud slam. They’re attacking the doors and windows. I heave the gun off the table. I can’t shoot them and bring more. I can’t take them on all myself. I can’t wake everyone up without alarming more Biters.
What do I do?!
The floodlight switches off and I’m drowned back in darkness. Only the sounds of raspy breathing and growling echo. Hovering low to the ground, I dash towards the bedrooms. I have to wake them up one by one. The thought pushes aside the fear that is channelling up my throat, threatening to close it for good. The window in the corridor allows me a passing glance towards the front porch. There’s a secondary line forming behind the first line of Biters, eagerly scratching at the walls and sniffing through the cracks leading into the house. My insides throw themselves around the walls of my stomach.
Where in the hell is Benjie!
The door creaks loudly. I wince and try to press against it more firmly. For a moment, I swear the growling of the swarm outside heightens with the creaking.
Nicholas is fast asleep, but Olsen is already grabbing his knife under his pillow and placing a finger against his lips. I point at Nicholas with a questioning look. Olsen puts his hand up to stop me coming further into the room, then ushers me out. He is going to wake up Nicholas and advance, but I need to wake up the others.
The door creaks again on my way out but this time it doesn’t slow me down. In the next room, Travis is up and pressed against the wall. Caught mid way between a dream nightmare and a real one, he is being shushed down by Violet. Sleep hangs on her like a dragging coat, but her eyes are alive with fear and a hint of determination. One way you don’t want to be woken up is by being eaten alive. I’m beckoned by Violet to come closer, but the swarm is starting to resemble the constant humming of a hive of bees. As I creep up towards her, pressing my bare feet evenly across the surface of the ground, she whispers with flooding calmness.
“What happened? Who was on watch?”
“Carter and Benjie,” I whisper back hastily, “But I swapped halfway with Carter, then Benjie went to get my shoes and they just came like a wave. I didn’t even have time to set off the alarm before they were already at the door!” I whisper, my words seemingly spilling out of me and shaking me to the core. She looks around at something I can’t see, possibly trying to devise a plan or hanging onto the word Benjie in that entire information dump.
“Travis, we gotta go. C’mon.” I take a step, but Travis doesn’t budge.
“He woke up like this. Ben usually deals with this sort of thing – I haven’t.” Violet impatiently runs her hands through her tangled mess of hair and gives me a frustrated look. I’ve seen this panic before. The look of, ‘If he doesn’t move, he’ll die there’. I’m about to speak when a gun blast goes off. I duck further down, anticipating the moment the bullet will zip past me, but it doesn’t. Glass shatters somewhere in the house, along with the need to be quiet.
“Travis! Let’s go!” I shout. He looks at me, searching me as if he doesn’t know who I am and is seeing me for the first time. “Travis!” I screech, Violet pushes past me and looks down the corridor. “They’re coming. Travis, get up or stay there. It’s your choice” Violet’s flat tone sends shivers down my spine. She can’t mean that. She wouldn’t leave behind her boyfriend’s only possibly living family member. But there is something in her eyes, something that catches me as odd. A door collapses and smashes onto the ground, letting in with it a smell that surrounds everything. It’s like I’m watching a tennis match – my eyes bouncing between Violet, then Travis – and it clicks. She is forcing his hand. A little bit of hate pokes through my chest and a surge of agitation wears me like a corset, tightening my chest unwillingly. I twist back to Travis.
“Travis, please. Benjie needs you. I don’t know where he is.” I plead, softening my tone and offering my hand up to a scared boy in a world that demands the strongest live and the weakest be sacrificed. This is enough to cause Travis to push forward, grabbing my hand just so he doesn’t tumble off the side, and to fly by me towards Violet. Two gunshots cause my ears to ring. Violet, in the midst of the chaos, gives a surprised smile and pushes me past her out into the corridor, but not before whispering to me – “Knew you could do it! Maybe. Probably. Sure.” – I point at myself, then at the last door. Violet gets the message and shoves Travis towards where the battle is ensuing while I race towards the last bedroom. One hand rises to the handle, the other on the gun, and my shoulder ready to burst in. My shoulder slams in effortlessly as I time the opening correctly. Cassie stands, her legs spread a part, a body underneath her, and a dripping blade in the other hand. I freeze. Benjie.
I can’t breathe and my gun is threatening to drop out of my trembling hand. Cassie looks up at me, notices my frozen expression of sheer terror, and stays cool. We both don’t speak, but I’m about to throw a singing chorus of accusations and disbelief in an increasing countdown. I take a step forward; the blood that had seemingly rushed out of my body and let me feeling cold has raced back. Why? Why!
“Benjie’s out back. He saw them before they hit the door and took Carter out with him.” She says in one controlled sweep. My heart has been torn out, stomped on, blown on, and then shoved back into my chest. Beneath her is a Biter. A dead Biter. Not Benjie.
“O-ok-okay…Right. Okay. Um…” I trail off; my words are now too ashamed to even show their face in the heat of false accusation.
“Here.” A pair of boots come flying towards me and I fumble to catch them with a gun in hand. “Benjie said thanks for the heads up by being an idiot.” She adds and kneels down to stab the Biter again in the skull. Her knee crushes ribs, cracking the sternum alongside it. She doesn’t even flinch. She gestures towards the window near the bed. “Came through there. Guess it didn’t want to follow the same route as the rest of them.” She shrugs casually and seems to not be realising the weight of the situation. “Cas…” I start, “I know. It’s fine. The look on your face said it all. You’re much easier to read than you think.” She finishes, walking over to the window and explaining that she is meeting up with Benjie and Carter. My boots are usually so easy to slip on and out of, but tonight, when it really matters, my feet don’t seem to be cooperating.
When they slip on, Cassie is already out the window and I’m racing down the corridor towards the Master Bedroom. My heart is racing and the muscles in my legs are pumping me along. Katrina and Leah. Katrina and Leah.
A door cracks open and before I can stop, someone comes out and I skid against the wall and clip their shoulder. I let out a yelp, and another cry of pain and shock rings out. It’s a female one. Tumbling slightly, but rebalancing myself against the wall, I turn to see Katrina against the wall, and Leah leaning out of Olsen’s room. Rapid gunfire pops through the air. I can’t tell if they are winning, or losing.
Leah’s face is contorted with tear-stained cheeks and panicked crying. Katrina, after regaining herself, grabs Leah by the wrists and says something quickly in Spanish. It seems to do the trick as her screaming quietens down and Katrina switches her focus to me.
“Are you okay!” she asks, her voice cracking. More gun shots, and some yelling bellows from the front door and Lounge. They need help. I push myself up to my feet and put my hand on Katrina’s shoulder.
“Do you have a gun?” I shout.
“Yes! Yes, I do!” she nods frantically and pulls her handgun out from seemingly nowhere. I gesture towards Leah, asking if she has one too. Katrina uncomfortably nods and Leah holds out a kitchen knife.
“Okay! Stay behind me – we need to see if the group is okay first.” I explain as I press forward to lead. Sweat is rolling down my neck now and itching the skin. How we got into this situation is beyond me, but I’ll be damned if this is the time we all go down because of a minor slip up.
Rounding the corner that leads to the Lounge, Katrina and Leah halt behind me as I place my hand up. I peer around. The floodlights have switched on again, illuminating Olsen and Nicholas who are holding off two Biters, with a third slowly incoming. Travis pulls his blade out the skull of another fallen Biter, lying next to the piles of the other dead. Two more enter in through the front door. I take a quick breath, step past the corner, and take aim. One bullet sails straight through the air and clean into the closest Biter’s head. It stops in its track and crumples to the ground, hitting the floor with a force that rattles the still standing ornaments on the shelves. The second is clipped in the neck, sending it spiralling to the ground and writhing. Travis sees, and steps forward to finish it with a quick jab. Nicholas and Olsen fling their dead past them and onto the ground. The Biters’ bodies hit with a dull thud and they take a moment to catch their breath.
“They’re still outside. Benjie, Carter, and Cassie.” Katrina reminds, rounding the corner with Leah cooped underneath her motherly wing. Olsen runs out without another word, but Nicholas stays back to rest. Travis goes around the room, jabbing like a sewing needle into each one of the Biter’s skulls.
“Travis-” I want to tell him that it’s okay, that they won’t return, but I can’t confirm that for him. I leave him be to slowly secure the place once more and dealing with his demons, one biter at a time. “Watch them,” I point towards Katrina and Leah, “And help out Travis.” I add as Nicholas scowls, but accepts it without question.
Clambering over the corpses that pack against the front door is a struggle that requires me jump between cracks of see able floor. They may be Biters, already dead and flesh-hungry, but I won’t go stomping on them freely and without caution. I hiss between my teeth as I occasionally step on an arm, or a leg, and shattering decaying bones.
Outside, the cold climbs into my jacket and sets deep into my bones. A slither of light etches into the sky, leaving the stars to disappear one by one from view. Without my watch, it’s hard to estimate the exact time it is. Rot coats the air as I make my way down the steps, scanning over all the dead bodies in the front yard. The smell is reminiscent of old road-kill wafting through your car vents. It hits my nose, catching in my throat and causing me to visual it sitting on my tongue. I can handle the smell of B.O, or bad breath, but rotting flesh stains your skin. It rests on you, leaving you to carry it like old baggage.
I stop dead in the yard. I don’t see them anywhere, and there aren’t any Biters around. It’s off. I wind around, looking for any clues or blood trails. They wouldn’t have left, but they wouldn’t disappear too far.
I trudge a little further on, passing the old beat up truck that stands on dead grass. It’s painted blue, but with so many scratches and dents, the paint has peeled back to reveal the silver steel underneath. It’s been there for months, I’d say, guessed Carter as we passed it on our way in. An odd sensation grips my gut, stopping me in my tracks. I need to check out the car, even though it’s a long shot. Double-checking to see if my blade is in my leg strap, I brace myself for any sudden movement. I should have brought Travis, or even Katrina, with me as the buddy system works best in these kind of situations, but the feeling of adrenaline that I get from working by myself is one that can’t be easily pushed past. Months and months had been spent alone, fighting for myself, and not eating for countless nights. If there was anyone who was going to get me through this mess, it wouldn’t be a group of strangers who can’t even save themselves.
My teeth chatter uncontrollable now from the cold – the situation simply going from bad, even worse, then the worst. Nearing the car, the inkling of making a dumb decision starts pecking at my mind. I’m alone, in the dark, cold, and possibly in the way of another swarm attack. What could happen? The car turns on and attacks me? The voice in my head jokes, but panic emerges in a nervous chuckle.
The car sits idle. Dust, dirt, and condensation set on top of it. There, nothing, it’s settled. I rest my fingertips on top of it, just to confirm to myself that I went and checked it out, and now I can return back saying that the car was all clear. I veer away from the car, but something catches my eye. It’s small, but visible against the shading of the grass it lies in. My blood runs cold, colder than it has ever felt, and my stomach drops deep into the earths crust. It can’t be. I scan around. It’s just me here, alone, outside. I kneel down to pick the object up, and roll it around in my hand. Even in the gradually lifting darkness, I can feel the markings and distinct cuts of the wood. I’m going crazy. I must be. A neck-prickling whistle shoots through the night air. It’s Carter’s call for the group to reassemble. With one last glance down at the wood piece, I stash it into my pocket and break into a light jog towards the house. Please let it be there. Please.
Carter greets me in the front yard looking like someone put blood in a spray bottle and went to down on him. On his face it seems smeared – probably an attempt to wipe it off. He offers a tiredly pat on my shoulder and it feels comforting. A subtle, ‘I’m glad you’re still alive’ kind of acknowledgement. I’m happy to see him alive too, and unbitten.
“What’s the plan now, Chief?” I jest, hoping to lighten the mood and get him to crack a smile.
“Same as always. Carry away the bodies; Biters or living, and then we regroup. The routine doesn’t change much,” he smiles, but it pulls on the wrinkles that etch his face like scars and it makes him look sadder than before, “But then again, change could always be worse.” He says softly, looking down at the ground and then back down at me. At these moments, I wish I knew what was going on through his head. What kind of things makes him smile like he just did, or what things weigh him down every night. He smiles again, but this time with more warmth and softness. A smile returns to my face, and I wish he knew how long it had been since it last happened genuinely.
The moment is a reverent peace, an expression of gratitude for being able to live through the night one more time, even though it may have been a bit of a struggle during. The moment is also ruined when Nicholas rounds the corner of the house, a large invisible target glowing above Carter’s head forms just from Nicholas’s glare. Carter folds his arms, and just like that, the moment is gone and Carter is back to being boss instead of a man acquainted with death and fighting.
“What kind of crap was that, Carter?!” he yells, his arms bouncing around his head as if they have a mind of their own. Every inch of me wants to leap back, to leave these two to their business while I casually observe a piece of grass or acknowledge that the sky looks very much like a sky tonight, but instead I stand my ground near Carter. One hand on my gun that rests in the holster, and the other ready to push between another confrontation.
“You were on watch duty! You and Benjie. What happened there? Did you decide to just take one of your Grandpa naps,” he attacks, closing the gap between them and forcing them almost nose-to-nose. “Or was it Benjie? Bennie thinking there’d be no other better time to check out Violet’s competition for himself in the late of night-” he spits, casting a dirty look in Benjie’s direction as he trots up half-annoyed and half-amused beside Carter. Violet slowly steps out from the front door way that is now cleared of Biter corpses, but leaving all the bloodstains we’re all so accustomed to.
“This never happens with me and Olsen! Never! And the one night that you and your little lapdog decide to keep watch,” Nicholas gets straight into Carter’s face, spit flying at Carter’s face but him not even flinching to wipe it away or respond. “Everything goes up in bloody flames! We all could have died tonight, but luckily for you, that brat over there ran into each room screaming like a banshee!” he jabs a boney finger in my direction, but I scoff it off. He wouldn’t be acting so distraught and intimidating if he knew that he’d be one of those corpses if it weren’t for the fact of Olsen caring and being more patient than the average human being. This thought invokes a humorous smirk, which seemingly furthers Nicholas’s anger more.
“And another thing! Where did you all piss off to when me and Olsen were killing all of them, huh? You all just disappeared off and turned a blind eye, only showing up when almost all of them were dead!”
“Is someone compensating for a lack of something elsewhere?” Violet spits out between clenched teeth. Nicholas snaps and turns to launch at her but Carter pushes him back with a forceful shove, causing him to stumble slightly.
“It was no one’s fault. That swarm came with no warning and no time to prepare for them. So get off your damned high horse and help, like everyone else is.” Carter calmly, not backing down from him.
Olsen arrives and immediately goes towards Nicholas, putting both enormous hands onto his shoulders and pulling him back from the bad situation. Nicholas barely rips out from underneath his grasp. The grip on my gun tightens and slowly begins to drag it out of its holster. By the way everyone is reacting, not even reaching for their own weapons, it’s not the first time that Nicholas has pulled a scene like this. Violet tuts her tongue as she returns back to the house, picking up another corpse by the ankles and dragging it aside to the designated corpse spot.
“No one even cares that they could have died last night! No one!” Nicholas screams, “And you! You don’t even realise what is going on! You don’t even see that none of this,” he gestures around him wildly, “is not working! You’re just a old washed up man who is trying to relive his glory days.” The tension in the air takes a nosedive as Nicholas finishes up his ramblings with a hock of spit to the ground. In all of this, Carter still remains calm and unresponsive, except for a fire in his eyes that burns through the twilight sky.
“Are you done having your little fit?” Carter asks finally, “Because we need to get this show on the road. With your little yelling demonstration, you could have called who knows how many more of those Biters who didn’t follow the flock.” With that, Carter sends out another quick and sharp whistle. It pricks my ears momentarily, and then slowly the rest of the group begins walking back to the house, leaving Nicholas to decide whether to follow or stay outside.
Inside, Katrina lifts one of the last bodies with Travis, who looks completely different to the Travis from the bedroom. He stands taller, visibly determined and unswayed by the death surrounding him. He doesn’t acknowledge me, and for good reason I presume. There isn’t time to have a break down, or to freeze up, when the only other option is death or turning into one of the Biters.
“Okay, this looks bad but we’ve been through worse, haven’t we?” Carter looks at each one of us. Nicholas creeps in front of Olsen, turning and standing near the door instead of within the forming circle. “This was different. They came to us in a pack - a swarm. If anyone starts throwing around blame, keep your mouth shut instead. It’s not the issue of whose fault it was, but who is going to help move on from it.” Though I don’t look over at Nicholas, something inside me tells me that it was a comment aimed at him. Once everyone finds their place in the circle, except for Nicholas, Carter really begins his encouraging speech.
“Has everyone checked themselves for bites or scratches?” he asks and everybody snaps into action, twisting their arms around, feeling every inch of their skin and rubbing the blood and dirt around. I know I wasn’t anywhere near the Biters to be attacked, but I still look. Every so often, a bruise will mark a place on my skin from falling or colliding into things, or people. My thigh throbs at the jab spot left by the couch, but it’s a small price to pay compared to what other injuries I could have sustained instead. Violet checks Benjie’s behind, lifting his jacket collar away from his neck and scanning for any signs. He reciprocates. The checking slowly draws to a halt when nothing is found except for bruises and minor cuts from self-sustained injuries caused by clumsiness.
“Okay. Good to see, good to see,” Carter murmurs under his breath as he surveys the room one more time, possibly in shock that in a night raid no one was eaten in their sleep. “You all have concerns, fears and worries about whether or not we can even rest at night without being attacked like we just did. I’d like to say that that was an option, but it’s not. We’re always at risk – Watchmen or not – but making do with what we do have-” a flurry of shouts from everyone interrupts him, unnerved by the fact that the leader is a realist instead of a hopeful sugar coater.
“What do you mean we aren’t even safe enough to sleep!”
“You said having people on watch would protect us.”
“We can’t even make it one night without being attacked and nearly dying on our literal death-beds!”
Carter puts his hand up to shush the panicked group, and it works. I keep quiet, running my finger along my gun that stands ready on my lap. I’m still a little on edge.
“If you want to go, no one is holding you back. You can try what you think is best out there on your own. We need to stick together or else everything else is going to turn to crap around us!” he challenges. No one speaks up against him. He looks towards Katrina, who is cupping her small child to her body and stroking her dirty black hair.
“It’s time.” Katrina shakes her head and leans her head to the side, as if asking him ‘really?’. He nods and takes a step to the side, allowing her space to move by his side. Violet offers to take Leah as Katrina hesitates.
“The time wasn’t right then, but it sure won’t come at a better time,” he starts, Katrina looking uncomfortable as she stands in front of the crowd.
“The situation of safety is obviously an issue,” Katrina starts, shifting from foot to foot. “But there’s also the situation of food shortage-” another chorus of uproar, “and now a worsened ammunition shortage-” Travis’s face palm slaps through the air even with all the outraged discussions. Olsen holds a firm grip on Nicholas as his unintelligible concerns and disbelief are yelled out in a form of Tourettes.
“Oi!” Carter shuts down the noise again.
“Ahem – as I was saying, situations are dire and we had to plan for them. You all noticed the lesser rations,” agreement rings through the circle, “And the encouragement to use your knives and saving your guns for emergencies,” another round of agreement, “And the obvious one of more scavenging trips, but there is only so much we can prepare for.” Katrina turns her attention to Carter, indicating his turn to speak.
“What the lady said; rations have been cut as much as they can be without us getting weak and tired. We are probably down to our very last few bullets, if any are left at all.
“That’s why the scavenging group yesterday took longer than normal. It was no ordinary scavenge and scout search.” My ears prick. What does he mean no ordinary search? I stay quiet, though a ball full of questions floats by unspoken.
“What do you mean? It was just a scavenge of nearby places.” Travis pipes up, sharing the same confusion as I hide.
“Wrong. Violet and I overlooked the map before they left, and found a nearby school.” Carter explains as he prompts Violet over to explain the other half of the plan. She strides over, having clearly prepared for this talk for goodness knows how long.
“The school is an hour and a half away. Heavily gated, closed off, and out of the way if you wanted to travel in a straight line through the town. Thought maybe it wouldn’t have been looted just yet, and from the looks of the place, it hasn’t seen human life in some time.”
“What’s that meant to meant? Human?
“It means that it’s infested with Biters. Bigger than the pack that just swarmed us.”
“Wait, wait, wait. So you’re telling us that you’re honestly considering going into an infested area? Have you actually lost your mind? Are you turning into one of them?” Travis throws his hands up in frustration, but the whole room has gone dead quiet. Not even the breeze outside threatens to blow by. My blood feels like it stops still in my veins.
Travis notices the abrupt silence and starts sputtering, “I didn’t- I mean, I shouldn’t have – it was a mistake. I didn’t try to…” Benjie grabs him by the collar and drags him out of the room while he drags along, pleading and apologising.
“While it is infested with Biters, a bus was near one of the exits with unopened duffel bags nearby. It looks like whoever was about to leave didn’t quite make it,” Olivia fiddles with her knife in the holster as she explains, “That means there are supplies there not being used. No one would have even attempted to take it with all the Biters around. It’s a risk, but there’s worst things we could do, like sit here twiddling our thumbs while we slowly starve to death.”
“No, but there are smarter choices! Choices which won’t put us on either death or risking it,” Nicholas butts it, his voice wavers but he tries to keep it level. Olsen has seemed to calm him down slightly, but Nicholas is a bomb. A loose string in the fabric of this group that when pulled, could tear everything apart.
“The school is a risk. We all know it. Don’t deny the fact that the idea is completely idiotic and gives us a worse chance of coming out of this alive, regardless of what supplies we do get from it. All of us won’t come alive out of it. They are basically asking for one of us to be sacrificed for a few supplies to last us – what? A week? Less than that before we have to go out again and repeat the cycle?” Nicholas argues, now stepping into the middle of the circle and standing up to Carter.
“There have been rumours, whisperings in nearby groups and Traders, of a Safehouse. A real safehouse. One with military, weapons, and plenty of supplies for us all, without having to risk our lives for it.” Something snaps in Carter and he rips Nicholas around by his shoulder.
“You insolent piece of garbage!” he bellows, slamming a fist into his face. Nicholas collapses to the ground, crumpled and grabbing his face while groaning. Carter lets out a growl and shakes his fist in pain. A part of me is slightly giddy to see Nicholas shut up, but the other part of me steps in between Carter and Nicholas. Too many times have I seen arguments escalate, punches thrown, and then necks slit.
“Carter.” I say placing both hands up towards his chest and away from me. His fist rises again and looms above me. The knife is in my hand before I can make the decision and points towards his sternum. “Carter!” Olsen abandons Nicholas and grabs one of Carter’s arms instead, ushering him back with a firm “Don’t. Stop, man.” He backs off, storming over to the other side of the room and stressing his greasy grey hair back with both hands. “Sentinel Hill is a lie,” he growls, “You think some magical army is going to save us from this special kind of hell? No! No they aren’t! This idiotic illusion of yours doesn’t exist. It’s a rumour started by other survivors who need hope, something to look towards or they’ll pop one right in their temple!”
“And if you’re wrong?! You’re just leading a group of people from place to place until we die off because you can’t be bothered to see for yourself! You can’t even stand being proven wrong, you stubborn old git!”
“You wanna go and find your mystical refuge? You go right ahead. Get yourself bitten so that I have the pleasure of taking you down myself.”
“Carter! Nicholas! Enough!” Katrina shouts, sending us all reeling into her direction. “If you keep going like this, we won’t even need to plan when an entire swarm is on top of us because you couldn’t shut your pie hole!” Katrina swears. Violet starts giggling and shaking her head from behind Carter. The way the situation is going, I have no other choice but to switch to my gun. Maybe they’ve all lost it.
Carter steps back and wipes his face aggressively. Olsen releases him, but stays close in case round two begins again. Nicholas stumbles to his feet and wipes the corner of his mouth where blood drips from a cut.
Moments pass to allow the tension to pass and the anger to simmer down. Katrina uses this time to calm down Leah who has not stopped crying since the attack. My bones feel weighted, and I wish I could go back to the time when I had the opportunity to sleep again.
“Okay, let’s start this again,” Violet begins when everyone has seemingly come back to their senses. “The school is our best bet. Since scouting it out, we’ve been discussing how we’d go about taking it with the least risk.” Nicholas sarcastically tuts from the other side of the room. Carter just frowns but focuses instead on Violet.
“How do you suppose we get through a whole swarm without using our guns? It’ll draw them to us.” Olsen speaks up, his voice booming in the small-contained room.
Violet smirks, pulls out the map with an extra piece of paper I haven’t seen before, and claps her hands together excitedly.
“That’s the best part. We’re going in teams – The Collection Team…and The Distraction Team.”