The world has been over for a decade and I can’t even get a drink. “No can do, kid. You’re not old enough and I’m not about to serve a minor a drink.” The bartender shakes his head as he moves farther down the bar.
“But that law doesn’t even exist anymore,” I call after him, watching him take an order from someone whose hair has silver streaks. I’ve been fighting the infected since I was ten years old, that should earn me a drink. Just because I’m one year short of twenty-one shouldn’t stop me from relaxing at the end of the day. Not to mention the hard work I’ve been doing on the wall to protect our little town from the infected that are left. The music from the old machine in the corner pauses for a moment before leading into one of ten songs that still plays. It sounds like the twangy country that Dad used to listen to in his truck.
I weave my way through the crowded tables until my eyes land on the back of Felicity’s head. Her hair curls underneath her chin, framing her face in a way that softens it. She is leaning forward on the table, her hands covering her mouth. Jay is sitting across from her, talking with her arms moving through the air with her words. The legs of my chair squeal against the wooden floor as I sit down. I try to be quick as I grab for Jay’s glass. Her hand wraps around it even faster, sliding it away from me. Damn. “What do you think you’re doing, Samson?”
Felicity laughs next to me, but I leave my hand extended across the sticky wood table. “Come on, Jay. I just want to try it.”
Jay shakes her head. “You’re too young. When’s your birthday again? Maybe next year when you turn twenty-one, Sam. Felicity can try it though, since she’s legal.” She turns to look at Felicity. “Do you want to try it?” Offering the blue glass of homemade alcohol to her.
I raise my eyebrows at Felicity, and a smile spreads across her face. She tucks a piece of bright blond hair behind her ear. “My stomach’s a little upset or I would.”
Jay shrugs and takes a drink. I tap my fingers against the table, watching the way her face scrunches together when she swallows. “You know, the legal drinking age doesn’t even matter anymore. What are you going to do? Call that idiot of a sheriff?”
Laughter roars behind us, and I glance quickly at the group of men creating the sound. The bar is full tonight, like every other night, but that’s probably because it’s one of the five places open after five. Each table is filled with large glasses of foaming liquid. My eyes scan over the faces around me and only a few of them look familiar. You would think you’d know everybody now, because they’re really aren’t that many people in Mt. Smoke. I guess the apocalypse makes people keep to themselves.
“You hate the sheriff because he held you in quarantine when you came here. Everyone else seems to think he’s okay. He officiated a wedding last week.” Jay’s glass clinks against the table as she sets it down. I roll my eyes and she continues, “Maybe he can marry you two.” Felicity looks at me over her shoulder and raises her eyebrows. She lets out a little laugh and I let my hand slip under the bottom of her t-shirt, her skin warm against mine. “You two are practically married anyway, why not make it official?” Jay offers up loudly.
Felicity leans forward, her elbows on the table and shrugs. “Sam doesn’t believe in marriage.”
My eyes get wide and I let my mouth drop open. “That is not--”
A scream cuts through the air, and a deep voice yells, “What the hell!” The room erupts with more cries. I turn around, standing up out of my chair, and my stomach drops. Everyone is backing up, rushing over tables and chairs. Voices layer on top of each other, and it’s hard to make out what they’re saying. Underneath it all, the beat of a rock song pulses. Past them, an infected stands with its hand grasping at a woman’s back. It jumps at her and sinks its teeth into the soft part of her neck. Her skin breaks, blood exploding out like rain around her.
How the hell did that thing get through the wall?
“Don’t move,” I say to Felicity, not stopping to look back.
I pull my knife out of the sheath on my hip and push through the people rushing my way. Another infected steps in through the open door. My heart crashes in time with my feet against the sticky bar floor as I rush the infected. It stops moving when I slam my long knife into its head. The dead thing’s mouth falls open, and foamy blood cascades out. Thick red covers my knife after I pull it out, not bothering to watch the infected crumpling to the ground.
“Get away from me,” a deep voice timbers through the bar, and I turn around. My heart pounds hard in my chest as I register what’s happening. The second infected is walking toward the bartender, who keeps backing up. He has a look of panic on his face as the infected snaps its teeth at him. The thing is moving so fast that I almost don’t know how to come at it, not wanting to risk getting scratched or worse. The bartender meets my eyes, and the fear is dripping out onto his cheeks. I jump over the corpse on the ground and rush around the bar. It doesn’t turn toward me as I step behind it. That makes it easy to grab the infected by the back of the neck and throw it into the wall. The glass bottles behind the bar shatter from the impact, and the dead thing falls toward the floor. A sound erupts from the crowd, and the bartender bangs into the wall behind him. I crouch over the squirming infected and quickly slam the knife down into its head. The dead thing jerks one last time before lying still. I turn around quickly and look out at the crowd, everyone’s eyes on me. “Are there any more?”
Jay rushes toward the door, the crowd parting for her, and she quickly peeks her head outside. Her face is flushed when she turns back to me. “I don’t see any.”
I take a step back away from the pool of blood, and something about the dead-again infected sticks out to me. Something’s off. They look clean. They look like they took a shower and put on clean clothes this morning. Not like they’ve been roaming around outside for the last ten years, or even the last three months. The infected are messy. They don’t usually stop at one bite or once scratch, they take all the meat they can. The one at my feet has blood on one of their arms. Maybe they stopped the monster who attacked them before it killed them?
My hands shake as I walk out from behind the bar. “Please,” a small voice calls out, and I turn to see who it is. The woman who was attacked is lying on her side, a pool of blood expanding around her.
I don’t move closer to her. Not sure why, but something keeps my feet from walking. A large man with a glass of beer in his hands steps out from the crowd and says, “She’s a goner.”
“Please,” the woman says again, her words strained, “Just do it.” The pain in her eyes makes me tighten my grip on my knife. Something like nervousness rises in my chest as the color starts to fade from the woman’s face. She’s going to turn. So someone has got to do it. Someone has to kill her. I couldn’t begin to guess at the number of infected I’ve killed, but I can remember all of the ones who were still human. Not quite gone yet. It doesn’t make it any easier to remind myself that she’s infected. She’ll turn soon.
People are holding onto each other as I scan the room. Some of them have their backs turned to me, their faces buried in their hands. Jay stands by the door, her arms crossed over her chest. She nods at me. I turn to see Felicity’s face peeking out from between two people, and meeting her blue eyes stabilizes me. I focus on her heart-shaped face and the way her mouth is pressed tightly together. She nods slightly, and her bright blond hair dances around her chin. I try to block any thoughts from my head and force my legs to move. My muscles strain against the weight of whatever is trying to keep me in place as I take a step forward.
Someone has to do it.
I squat down next to the pool of blood and let out a deep breath. I force myself to look at the scuffed wood floor next to the woman’s head while I try to steady my hand. It’s glossy, like someone painted over the wood, but underneath the gloss is a long scratch. My hand shakes, and I quickly thrust the knife into the woman’s eye. Groans fill the bar, and someone whimpers.
A moment passes, and I open my eyes, letting out a deep breath. My palms are sweaty, and the handle of the knife slides in my hand. “What the hell were those things doing inside the wall?” someone asks softly from behind me. I stand, wiping the knife across my jeans, and follow everyone else’s gaze to the man with the beer in his hand.
I put my knife back in its sheath and open my mouth to speak, but a tall woman beats me to it. “They don’t look like they’ve been dead that long.”
“You did a hell of a job killing those, Sam,” the beer man says, and I suddenly feel bad for not knowing his name. I’m sure I’ve seen him before. “I guess I’m a little rusty. Damn walls are making me soft.” He walks over to his table and picks up a glass of the clear homemade alcohol.
The sound of glass clinking makes me turn toward the bar. The bartender is pouring a drink into an old glass jar. He looks at me, and the drying tears on his cheeks shine in the neon light. “Here you go, kid.” His hand shakes as he pushes the glass toward me. “You earned it.”
“They seemed different though,” another voice calls out. “Faster.”
Felicity comes through the crowd to stand beside Jay, her blue eyes stuck on the bodies crumpled on the ground. She looks up at me and says, “I think that’s Jax, the butcher.”
The tall woman takes a step forward and looks around the room, the color draining from her face. “And the other one is his wife!”
A murmur spreads through the crowd, and a single drop of sweat rolls down my back. “Let’s call the sheriff. Right?” Trying to make my voice sound stable and calm to combat the panic that’s sweeping through the room. He’s the last person I would ever voluntarily call, but this is something that he needs to see. This is his job.
As I turn around, Jay walks behind the bar to grab the radio hanging off the hook on the wall. She holds the button down and speaks into it. “Sheriff. Sheriff, we have two—” The murmur in the bar has turned into a low roar, and she turns around, yelling, “Everyone shut the hell up!” Sheepish looks are exchanged as people sit back down at the tables, quieting their voices, avoiding the corpses taking up the floor. “Sheriff. We have a situation at Smokey’s Bar.”
Static rings through the radio. I step over the infected body of Jax, moving closer to Jay as the distinct voice of the sheriff comes through the radio. “Copy. What kind of situation?”
Jay meets my eyes, and I shrug, holding my shaking hands together. “I mean, just tell him the truth?”
She holds the button down on the large black radio and says, “Two infected. Jax the butcher and his wife.”
Static fills the awkward space in the air, everyone behind us now quietly staring at each other. And then it stops. “Uh--” There’s some shock or maybe disbelief in the sheriff’s voice, “Okay. Nobody leaves until I get there.”
“Copy,” Jay responds and hangs the radio back on the nail.
Felicity is standing in the same spot when I turn back around, her arms wrapped around her stomach. The blue shirt she’s wearing makes her eyes seem so much brighter. “Felicity?” She looks up at me and tries to force a smile on her face, but I put my hands on her shoulders and start to turn her around. “Why don’t we sit down?”
I lead Felicity back to our table. Jay comes up behind us and says, “What the hell was that?”
Felicity sits down, but I stay standing, wanting to be ready in case anything else happens. I look back at the two bodies on the ground and a realization hits me. There’s only one way they could have turned. An infected got to them. Which means that there are more of them inside the wall. I keep my words quiet as I turn toward Jay. “We need to check the wall. Something must have gotten inside.”
My boots crunch against the gravel road, and the cold wind rushes through the thin jacket zipped around me. I lean back against the hood of the car, knowing that all I can do now is wait. Trey slams the door of the vehicle, and the sound makes me turn my head. He looks at me with wide eyes, but he doesn’t apologize. Instead, he reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a dented pack of cigarettes. Trey offers me one, towering over me. “When did he say he’d be here?”
I take the hand-wrapped smoke and look out at the dark dead-end street. “2300.” Trey flips open his metal lighter and offers to light my cigarette. We stand next to each other, and the smoke burns my lungs. I hate cigarettes. The taste they leave in my mouth and the way my throat scratches after I’m done, but I smoke them anyway. Because that’s what Boss does. He offered me one when we were on a mission together; it was only my second mission, and I thought it better to fit in. I was nervous enough as it was, not sure why I was chosen to be a part of the military.
“Have you been to Mt. Smoke before?” Trey asks.
“No.” I shake my head and watch the bright red tip of the rolled paper between my fingers. The lie comes out naturally. “It seems small though. Smaller than River City.”
Trey blows out a giant cloud of smoke, the air around him becoming foggy which makes it harder to him. The dark tone of his skin makes him blend in with the night and that sometimes works in our favor. “River City is one of the biggest towns to have a wall around it. When are we doing that one?”
When are we doing that one? The thought of infected roaming the streets of River City makes my skin crawl. Mom is still there, and she’s never been good at defending herself. I believe in what we’re doing. I’m for the mission, but I know that sooner or later, he’s going to say it’s time to destroy the wall around River City. I hope it’s later. I hope we’ve found the cure by then. Before we have to do that.
Before I have to do it.
The smoke burns brightly in my chest as I take a long drag off the cigarette. “When he says to. I guess.” A moment passes, and the wind rustles the dead leaves left on the trees around us. I glance at Trey, and the words come out before I can stop them. “Why did you agree to this?”
He tilts his head and rubs his free hand over his bald head. “Um, I agreed to do this--” Trey stops for a moment to take another drag of his smoke and then says, “I agreed to do this because I was tired of running. And I thought of what the world could be like if we find a cure. We could be real people again.”
“But do you feel like a real person?”
He laughs, and it surprises me. “Don’t you?” Trey shakes his head and drops his smoke to the ground. “I feel like a real person. My heart still beats.” The sound of tires rolling over the rough gravel sounds above the wind. “I feel the same as before but less afraid. I don’t have to worry about the infected coming after me, and that feels worth it.” I let go of my cigarette as two headlights shine at the end of the street. One is bright white and the other tinted yellow, but I know that it is him. “Right on time.”
“He always is.” I look away from the bright lights and think of the town that we drove through earlier today. Mt. Smoke. This city is our next target, and part of me wants to argue that it’s not worth it. The population is small, and that means what we’re looking for is even less likely to be here. The last city we hit was three times the size, and we only found ten people who could help us. That means we might get two here. All this trouble for two people. But two different people than the ones that I came for.
Felicity and Samson.
They came here after Felicity decided she didn’t love me anymore, and Boss knows that.
The car stops, and he gets out. “Good to see you, Wes.” He leaves his door open and walks close enough to us that I can make out his face. His mouth is pulled up into a smile. “Trey.” Trey nods at him. Boss folds his arms over his chest and widens his stance, looking at the two of us. “You ready for this?”
“Yup,” I tell him, wanting to say as little as possible.
He narrows his eyes, and the temperature seems to lower when he says, “Have you gone to see her?”
I fight the urge to roll my eyes or let any irritation peek through the hardened exterior I work so hard to keep up. Of course, he would ask me that. “No, Boss. That’s not what we’re here for.”
Boss raises his eyebrows at me. “Right. We’re just here to blow a hole in the wall and see if there are any special ones here in this little town.” He takes a step toward me and puts his large hand on my shoulder. “But I think you should go see her and that asshole too. We’re already here, and who knows what might happen to them when the party gets started.”