Chapter 1: The Stranger

    ​It had been five years now since the outbreak, Day Zero as people called it, when the dead started making meals of the living. Five years and things still hadn't gotten better. No one knew how it started. Some said it was a government experiment gone wrong or a mutated strain of rabies. Others claim it was God's wrath punishing us for all of our wrong doings. As for me, I never really cared how it all started, all I cared about was staying alive.

    I slowly peered out from my hiding spot behind the counter of the rundown gas station I was in. I had come in here with the hope of finding a bit of food or medicine but the place had already been picked clean. I was giving the place a final look in case I had missed anything when something had knocked over an old display stand at the front of the building. I had quickly ducked behind the counter as soon as I heard it, not wasting time to see what had caused the sound.

    Three figures slowly shuffled about the empty shelves, kicking the garbage that was strewn on the floor. At a quick glance they appeared to be human, but I knew better. They walked without a clear destination, occasionally bumping into a shelf or a wall. Their gaits were slow and blundering, like a toddler just learning how to walk. No, they weren't human, they were zombies.

    The closest one was about four meters away, standing next to the fallen display stand. He was grotesque, with discolored skin that was rotting off in several places. He was missing the bottom of his jaw. It looked like someone had shot it off. What remained of the jaw was nothing but a few strings of rotten muscle and bone. Chunks of his hair and scalp were missing showing the skull underneath. He wore a bloodstained plaid shirt and tan pants that were tattered to ribbons.

    The next zombie looked more human than the one with the plaid shirt. It wasn't as rotten as the other zombie. It was, or had been, a girl and there was a bite mark clearly visible, on her left arm, right below the elbow. She had short, scraggly, brown hair and she wore a black tank-top and jeans that were covered in dirt and blood. Her eyes were cloudy white and they stared straight ahead, not focusing on any specific thing. She couldn't have been a zombie more than a week or so. Her skin was just beginning to discolor. Soon she would be just as rotted as the other zombie. It was always sad to see recently turned zombies this long after Day zero. The human population, once totaling over three billion, had little over 3 million left world-wide, and that number was dropping everyday. I couldn't imagine what this girl had to go through, struggling to survive for five years only to have her life ripped away with a single bite, a single mistake.

    'No don't think like that.' I thought to myself. These things weren't people anymore. Whatever used to make them human was long gone, leaving nothing but masses of decaying flesh that had no other thought than to devour everything in sight. Hundreds of people had died because they allowed themselves to believe otherwise. It's hard enough accepting the death of a loved one, it's even harder to believe they're truly gone if they stand up and walk around after they die. I had seen so many people torn to pieces by a zombie that used to be someone they loved.

    I forced myself to look away from the girl and focus my attention to the last zombie, a massive brute of pure decomposition and muscle. He wore a tattered military uniform. Bullet holes were scattered across his chest.

    "Great, just great." I whispered to myself. "How am I going to handle you?" If it had only been the the two zombies I could have gotten out without much trouble, but bigger zombie complicated things. Somehow only strength seemed to pass through the process of becoming a zombie. The bigger and stronger a person was in life, the bigger and stronger a person would be in death.

    I pulled myself back behind the counter. In my backpack was a pistol that I always kept on me. I weighed the idea of using it, but common sense won out. I might have be able to take out all three without any problems, but a loud gunshot would attract every single zombie nearby.

    That left only one option, I needed to take them out one by one without making too much noise. I took a deep, shaky breath and slowly reached a hand up behind me and drew my katana out of its sheath nestled between my shoulder blades. I moved slowly and carefully, making sure that the metal of the blade didn't clang against anything. I needed the element of surprise to pull this off. Any noise from myself might alert the zombies. When I had fully drawn my blade I stood up very slowly and turned to face the zombies.

    All three of them had their backs to me. I smiled. Slowly, very slowly I crept out from behind the counter. I placed each foot carefully, avoiding the piles of trash on the floor. I slowly crept up to the closest zombie, the stench coming from it was horrible and I had to fight back a gag. When I was close enough, I lifted my katana up so that the tip of the blade was positioned at a spot on his neck right the base of his skull.

    I paused. When I severed the connection to the brain the zombie would be dead forever. I never knew if the people the zombies had once been were still in there, trapped inside of a body they could no longer control. There was a time when I avoided killing zombies, tried to avoid rather than fight them. But those days were long gone. Everything I had seen and experienced told me that a zombie is a zombie, nothing more, nothing less. It's either kill or be killed out here, it didn't matter whether it was a zombie or a human being.

    I took a deep breath and forced my mind to go blank, emotions are nothing but weaknesses, that I learned a long time ago. I sharply thrust my katana into the base of the zombie's skull. It's body stiffened for just a moment before going limp and falling to the ground with a soft thump.

    I pulled my katana out of it's neck and wiped the brownish goo that covered the tip on the fabric of the dead zombie's shirt.

    A soft, raspy growl broke the silence that filled the gas station. I stiffened. "Shit." I thought.

    I must have misjudged how much noise the first zombie had made when it fell to the floor. I turned around and, sure enough, the other two zombies were coming directly at me.

    "Son of a bitch." I said. I backed up a few steps to put some distance between myself and the zombies and held my katana up sideways in front of me in a defensive position. I instantly regretted not having my gun. With the element of surprise gone my katana wouldn't be very effective. I didn't have time to think of a better strategy. The girl got to me first and reaching out a gray, decomposing, arm to grab me. I slashed at her arms. My sword cut cleanly through the rotting tissue and bone and her arm fell to the ground with the signature slap of flesh smacking onto linoleum.

    The stump that remained of her arm didn't bleed and the zombie didn't even seem to notice that she had just lost an arm. She kept stumbling forward. This wasn't going to work. I could hack pieces off of her all day and it wouldn't make a difference. I switched tactics, dropping into a crouch and swinging my leg around to knock out her knees. Her legs buckled, and she fell to the ground. I sprung to my feet, swung my katana up, and brought it down hard on her head.

    ​I  whirled around, ready to face the third zombie. My heart was pounding in my chest. I couldn't see him. A bad feeling settled in my gut. A zombie you can't see can be the most dangerous zombie there is. Before I could do anything, cold, dead, hands grabbed me from behind. I twisted sharply to the side breaking free of the grip. As I turned I could hear the clack of teeth as the zombie bit down on empty air where my shoulder had been just a second before.

    I ran forward a few steps before twirling around to face the monster. He stood there for a few moments, staring at me and swaying from side to side with a strange twitching motion. Then, he let out a screeching moan that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and starting sprinting towards me with inhuman speed.

    "Not a Runner!" I groaned. For the longest time zombies were all the same, lumbering around slowly and mindlessly. Then, about a year ago, new ones started popping up. Able to run faster than most humans, they wiped out hundreds of survivors, reducing the already small number of humans left on earth by almost half. Those who remained called them Runners. They were rare, but deadly.

    I acted instinctively, diving to the side into a roll. I felt a brief stab of pain in my left shoulder as I rolled but it quickly faded. I sprung to my feet I took up my defensive position again. The zombie, crashed into one of the shelves. Without missing a beat it turned and started running at me again.

    A loud growling ripping from his throat. I took a step back at his approach my confidence faltering slightly at the speed with which he ran. I had never really faced a runner indoors before. There wasn't enough space to fight. As I watched the zombie barrel toward me it occurred to me that I might die here.

    "Stop it." I scolded myself. "Cut the tendons in his legs then take him out." I adjusted my grip so that I could slice at his legs when he neared me. I would have to act fast, If I was even a second too slow it would all be over.

    My muscles tightened in anticipation of his attack. He was only a second away from colliding with me, reaching out a hand and opening his mouth wide in a snarl.

    Just before he reached me a deafening boom rang out through the air and the zombie's head exploded in a shower of rotten flesh and goo. It kept moving forward for half a step before falling forward.

    I stood frozen, staring down at the dead zombie, unable to comprehend what had just happened. My brain was going in circles, trying to process everything.

    I heard the soft rustle of fabric on fabric and I snapped my head up to the source. Standing in the doorway to the gas station was a brown-haired boy. He held a sawed off shotgun that was still aimed at where the zombie had been a moment earlier. He lowered it with a small smile.

    "You're welcome." He said.

2: Chapter 2: Teaming Up
Chapter 2: Teaming Up

    I stood frozen, staring at this new obstacle. My instincts were screaming 'Run!', but I couldn't seem to get my legs to move. It had been months since I had seen another living human and now one had just magically appeared.

    Something registered on the boy's face and he held up his hands. "Hey, it's okay," he said slowly. "I'm, not going to hurt you."

    He took a small step forward. His movement snapped me out of my daze. I had to get out of here and fast. I didn't know who this guy was or why he was here and didn't particularly want to stick around to find out. Out here, people are more dangerous than the zombies. Zombies are mindless and easy to handle, if you know how. People on the other hand are dangerous, smart, and ruthless.

    When the boy took another step forward I took action. I started running down the aisle, straight towards him. He stood between myself and the exit. There was no way around him so I'd just have to go over him. Right before I ran into him, I jumped to the side and used one of the empty shelves to push off. I tucked my body into a roll that sent me right over the guy's head and landed on my feet just behind him.

    I didn't hesitate, I ran. I ran out of the drug store, broken glass from the sliding doors crunching under my feet, and out into the open.

    "Hey, stop!" He yelled from behind me.

    "Yeah right." I thought. I felt a little better being out in the open, without walls trapping me in. I pushed myself to run even faster, reaching behind me to sheath my katana as I ran. Earlier this morning I had decided to stop in town to look for supplies. I had been running low on food for a week now and this town had seemed as good a place as any to try and restock. It was nice and small, not too many large buildings which meant not too many zombies. As I ran down the main road of the town, dodging between abandoned cars, I scanned the line of stores for what I needed. I wanted to get to higher ground, there it would be easier to escape without having to worry about running into any zombies.

    I finally found what I was looking for in an alleyway between a two-story brick hardware store and a building that looked like it might have been a gym. I quickly changed my course and ran down it before skidding to a stop.

    About eight feet above my head were the bottom rungs of an old, rusted fire escape. I took a step back before jumping toward one of the walls. I pushed off of one wall of the alleyway, and used the force to push off of the second wall, gaining height until my fingers snagged the bottom rung of the fire escape. My body swung freely for just a second before I grabbed the ladder with my other hand.

    I pulled myself up until I could get my feet on one of the rungs. After that climbing was easy. I glanced back only once to see if the boy had followed me. Sure enough, he stood at the entrance to the ally staring at me with his mouth hanging open. He no longer held the shotgun he had used in the gas station.

    For some reason, seeing him watching me with mouth agape, amused me. I smirked to myself. There was no way he was going to be able to get up by himself. It had taken me a month of practice to be able to use the walls to get up by myself as easily as I did. I climbed the rest of the way up to the roof.

    I straightened up and let out a sigh of relief. Up on top of the roof, with the wind in my face, I felt more relaxed. I had never really liked people even before Day Zero. Seeing another person in the gas station had reawakened old memories that weren't entirely pleasant. I hadn't been close enough to talk to an actual human being in a very long time. Out here, you can't trust anyone, there are no laws in the zombie apocalypse and some people use that as an excuse to do whatever they want.

    I did a quick check on my surroundings. There was one main road leading through town that was lined with shops and small businesses. A road of houses branched off directly in front of me. Something seemed off but couldn't quite seem to pin down what it was. Then it hit me. The town was empty, not a zombie to be seen even from my high vantage point. The noise from the guy's gun should have drawn them in.

    A loud clang came from below. I looked down and saw, with astonishment, that the boy had managed to grab onto the fire escape. His face was red and sweaty from the effort.

    "Who the hell is this guy?" Despite my caution and fear I found myself strangely fascinated. This boy was persistent, determined, and I was impressed. I watched as he climbed up the fire escape.

    I backed up from the edge of the roof. Despite my fascination with this boy I knew he was still a threat. I didn't know why he insisted on following me and I didn't particularly desire to find out. Just as he pulled himself up onto the roof, I turned and I was about to run but I stopped when he spoke.

    "No wait, please don't go. You're the first living human I've seen in a long time who doesn't want to kill me."

    I froze, my mind racing. Was it a trick? Was he trying to make me lower my guard so he could kill me? A part of me denied it. I don't know why, but my gut instinct told me he wasn't dangerous. I slowly turned around to look at him. My hand went to the small hunting knife I kept in my belt just in case.

    He wore tan cargo pants and a dark green long-sleeved shirt. He had a bow slung over his shoulder and a hiker's backpack on. His hair was blonde, and badly in need of a trim. He had light brown eyes, and soft features with a square jaw. Nothing about him seemed dangerous. The thing that really caught my attention was his eyes. They had the haunted look of someone who had seen more than their fair share of evil in this world. I knew that look all too well. It was the same look that I saw every time I looked at my own reflection. This boy had been through hell.

    "How do you know I don't want to kill you?" I said. I didn't even recognize my own voice. It was rough and raspy. It had been months since I had spoken louder than a whisper. Not that it was a bad thing, I actually preferred it.

    He smiled a small smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "If you wanted to kill me I'd already be dead."

    It was true. If I wanted him dead I would have killed him when I first saw him in the gas station. I don't like killing humans. Each life lost brings humanity closer to the brink of extinction. There were times when I didn't have any choice in the matter. It's kill or be killed out here.

    "How do I know you won't kill me?" Even as I asked it I already knew the answer. This boy wasn't a murder. If he was he would have shot me rather than the zombie.

    He shrugged, "You don't."

    I looked at him for a while. He stood casually and held himself with an air of confidence. He was bold, I'll give him that. Not many people are brave enough to openly attempt to speak to another human out here.

    "Fine." I said.

    He raised an eyebrow. "Fine what?"

    I relaxed slightly. "I won't kill you, but if you even think about trying anything, you'll be dead before you take your next breath."    

    "Sounds fair," he said. He held out a hand. "I'm Andy by the way."

    I stared at his hand. Did he expect me to shake it? After a while he let it drop. He cleared his throat awkwardly and reached a hand up to scratch the back of his neck.

    "And you are-?"

    "Why does it matter?" There was no way in hell that I was going to going to get all buddy, buddy with this guy. He had managed to get me to talk but that was all he was going to get.

    He shrugged. "I just thought I'd ask."

    I rolled my eyes. "I don't have time for this." I muttered. I had already lost more time than I would have liked. My goal had been to find at least a little food before the sun set. With the gas station empty I would have to look someplace else.

    I pushed past Andy and went back to the fire escape. If I didn't have to run I might as well get back on the ground.

    "Hey, where are you going?" he asked following close behind me.

    I groaned. He was like a stray dog. "Away from here." I said.

    I climbed down the ladder and dropped the last few feet to the ground. When my feet were safely on the ground I looked back up at the roof. Andy stood at the edge looking down at me. I gave him a brief two fingered salute before walking away.

    I pressed myself to one of the walls of the alley and peered out. A few zombies had crawled out of the woodwork but none of them seemed to have been drawn out by the gunshot. They shambled around aimlessly rather than heading for where the gunshot had come from. I shook my head in disbelief.

    "What the hell is going on here?" I whispered. In the five years I had spent out here I had never experienced anything like it. It was almost as if the guy had never shot that zombie in the first place.

    From behind me I heard a loud clang. Andy was descending the fire escape.

    I did a quick check to make sure that there weren't any zombies too close by before I fled the alley. I made a beeline for the road of houses that was directly in front of myself. My intention was to check the houses for supplies. If the gas station had been looted, then I had no doubt that the other stores had been picked clean as well.

    I heard footsteps behind me and glanced back. Andy was jogging to catch up to me. I shook my head in disbelief. This guy just wouldn't give up.

    I decided to confront him. Obviously he didn't get the hint that I wanted nothing to do with him. I stopped walking and turned around. "Can I help you with something?" I asked sharply.

    I had stopped so quickly that Andy nearly ran into me.

    He backed up a few steps "Huh?"

    "I said, can I help you with something?" I replied putting emphasis on each word.

    "Um, I don't know what you-"

    "Why are you following me?" I snapped.

    He shrugged.

    I clenched my fists to keep from punching him for his cockiness. "Leave me alone." I said.

    "No," He said, crossing his arms.

    "Yes."

    "No."

    "Yes."

    "No."

    I'd had enough of this. In one fluid motion I drew my katana, cleared the short distance between us, and pressed it against his throat. He didn't even have time to uncross his arms.

    "Yes." I hissed.

    He slowly uncrossed his arms and held them up. "Look, we'll have a better chance at surviving if we both work together."

    I didn't remove my blade from his throat. "I've done just fine by myself."

    "That was before the Runners though. Let's be honest here, if it wasn't for me, that Runner in the gas station would have killed you."

    As much as I didn't want to admit it, I knew he was right. I had never faced a runner indoors before today. If Andy hadn't shown up, I would probably be dead or bitten and on my way to becoming a zombie.

    I glared at him for a while longer with my katana pressed to his throat before I pulled it away. He rubbed the spot where my blade had been.

    I ground my teeth before I spat out the next words. "Fine I'll work with you, but you do what I say when I say it. Got it? I didn't make it this far just to have some asshole get me killed."

    He nodded. "Will you at least tell me your name now?"

    I rolled my eyes "Lauren," I tossed over my shoulder as I started walking towards the houses again. "Now come on, we're going to go check those houses for supplies."

3: Chapter 3: The Couple of Bones
Chapter 3: The Couple of Bones

    I started for the closest house. I moved fast and kept low. I didn't check to make sure Andy was keeping up. If he really wanted to team up with me he would keep up on his own. The house was a white, two story building with boarded up windows. The grass in the front lawn was wildly overgrown, and came up to my knees.

    I walked up the narrow stone path to the front door and paused.

    Andy came up beside me and reached for the doorknob. I grabbed his wrist, stopping him.

    "Are you trying to get us both killed?" I whispered fiercely.

    "No?" He said.

    "We have no idea what's in there and you think it's a good idea to just go waltzing in?" I threw his wrist away from the door. I didn't care that I was being harsh.

    "Sorry," he muttered stepping back.

    I rolled my eyes. "How the hell did I end up with the stupidest person left alive?"

    I turned my attention back to the house. All of the windows were almost completely boarded up, save a single missing board on the bottom of the right-most window.

    I walked over to it. Hidden amongst the weeds was a board and a pile of rusted nails. Around the nails was the disintegrated remains of a cardboard box. Who ever had boarded the windows must have been interrupted right before they had been able to finish. I crouched down to peer inside. Behind the wood and glass was the interior of a living room. A set of brown leather recliners sat on either side of a table with a lamp, the leather of the chairs was starting to dry out and crack.

    Pictures both hung on the wall and sat on the mantle above a wide fireplace, each one portraying the smiling faces of people probably long since dead. Everything was coated in dust.

    It didn't look like it had been looted. Aside from being extremely dusty, it still looked like a room someone might come back home to, tidy up, and go on living in. A looted room would be practically destroyed. People aren't usually concerned about neatness when they're starving and desperate to find supplies.

    I tried to see into more of the house but a sliding door blocked my view of anything outside of the living room. From what I could see, the house seemed relatively safe. Of course I couldn't speak for anything that might have been outside of the living room. After a while I stood up and walked back over to the front door. Andy had sat down with his back against the door.

    "Alright, let's head in. I didn't see anything dangerous from the window but that doesn't say anything about what's really inside. We need to make sure every room is clear before we can start searching for supplies. Understand?"

    He rolled his eyes. "I'm not a child you know. I know how to loot a house."

    "And yet you tried to walk inside without checking if it was safe first." I countered.

    He dropped his eyes and didn't say anything.

    "Exactly" I said. I turned back to face the door of the house.

    I felt a mixture of excitement and fear as I stood in front of the plain, white door. I had no idea what might be inside the house and I loved the uncertainty of what I might find. Looting houses was one of my favorite things to do. Someone had once lived in each one, someone with a life and a story to tell. To me, exploring each one was like reading a book, each room had something new to say. But as much as I loved to do it, I would never loot a house if I didn't need anything from it. It had always felt almost disrespectful to search someone's house for no other reason than to find out what was inside.

    I placed my hand on the cool doorknob hopping silently hoping that it wouldn't be locked.

    "Ready?" I asked glancing back at Andy.

    He nodded.

    I twisted the doorknob and it miraculously opened, the door swinging inwards. I quickly reached back, pulled my katana from its sheath before stepping inside. Despite my curiosity and excitement I never forgot the danger and unfamiliar house might contain.

    Once I was inside, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting inside the house.

    The front door opened into, hallway-like space. The end of the hall ended with a stairwell that led up to the second floor. The floor was carpeted and covered in almost an inch of dust that swirled up into the air, performing a hypnotic dance in the ray of light let in from the open doorway. Three doorways with doors shut tight broke the smooth expanse of wall on either side, two on the left and one on the right.

    I cautiously smelled the air. I was searching for any traces of the sickly sweet smell of rotten flesh that always came from the living dead but the air only smelled musty and stale.

    "You take the room on the right I'll take the room on the left. Yell clear once you're sure that the room's safe." I told Andy over my shoulder.

    "Got it," he said. He headed for the first door on the left. As he walked, he slung his shotgun over his shoulder and casually started humming a tune.

    "Cocky son of a bitch," I muttered just loud enough that he would be able to hear me. He didn't turn around but he did give me a brief thumbs up before he disappeared into the room.

    I paused, looking back at the open door. I considered leaving, walking out of the house and never looking back. Andy didn't exactly seem like the sort of person who would be difficult to lose, but something held me back. It might have been that, deep down, I was tired of being alone. It's true that it was safer and easier to stay alive if you're alone but spending every night alone with nothing but your own thoughts can drive anyone to insanity.

    I sighed and slowly shut the front door. There was no going back now. I crossed over to the left-hand room. The room itself was a small study of sorts. Bookshelves filled with books covered every wall from floor to ceiling, a large desk with a chair sat in the middle. Before all of this, I might have taken the time to walk over and browse the literature for a few hours. Now though, I didn't even give them a second glance. Books weren't food, weren't supplies. They couldn't keep you alive and spending several hours reading wastes time that could be spent finding supplies.

    I left the room I could have searched the drawers of the desk but I didn't think I would have found anything useful in them. Outside of the room, I sheathed my katana and leaned up against the wall.

    Andy stepped out of his room a few heartbeats later. "That room is clear" he said.

    Like myself, Andy had also put his weapon away. He had fastened some sort of strap to the side of his pack that held the gun in place.

    "Wasn't that the room you looked into from outside" He asked "I could see the missing board on the window."

    "Yep, it was." I replied.

    "But if you you knew that there wasn't anything in it, then why did I have to check it?"

    I shrugged. "I never forced you to." I replied. In truth, I had asked him to check the room to see if he was smart enough to figure out, on his own, that I had already looked into it.

    He opened his mouth as if to say something, then thought better of it.

    "Smart kid." I thought.

    I pushed off from the wall, headed for the other room beside the stairs. Unlike the other two rooms which had had doorknobs, this door was bare, with a long, thin sheet of metal where the knob would have been. Inside was a white and tidy linoleum kitchen. The kitchen was the one room that I wanted to check the most. It was where most people kept their food. The fact that it wasn't completely trashed made me hopeful that I might actually find something in it.

    I gave the kitchen one last glance around. As much as I wanted to, I wouldn't be searching the kitchen right away. There was still an upstairs to check through.

    I turned around to leave the kitchen and ran straight into Andy who must have been looking into the room over my shoulder.

    I roughly pushed him aside. "Watch it asshole!" I yelled at him.

    He backed up a step, confusion clear on his face.

    I glared at him, "Stay out of my fucking way! It's bad enough I let you convince me to letting you tag along. Don't make me change my mind."

    "But all I did was stan-" he started to say but after a fierce glare from myself, he closed his mouth.

    I turned away and stormed up the stairs. With each step my anger faded away into confusion. I didn't honestly know why I had yelled at him. He hadn't done anything wrong, and I had let my temper get the best of me. I instantly felt bad about it. I wasn't a mean person, I never had been. Before the outbreak anyone who knew me would say that I didn't have a mean bone in my body, but I guess that might have partially been because I didn't often associate with people.

    I sighed and turned around. Andy was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at me.

    "Look... I'm sorry I yelled."

    He paused a second before answering. "It's fine."

    "No, it's not. I was a dick and I'm sorry."

    Andy nodded. "I accept your apology."

    "Alright then." I said. I turned around and walked up the rest of the stairs. The hallway at the top of the stairs looked a lot like the one on the first floor only this hallway ended with a doorway and only a single door that on sat each wall. Andy came up after me.

    "You take the right I take the left?" I said.

    "Are you sure you didn't already check that room too?" He joked.

    I turned back to glare at him. "Don't push it." I said.

    He held up his hands. "Alright, alright."

    I walked over to the left side room. It was a bathroom, small and simple it contained only a toilet, a shower and a simple ceramic sink with a mirrored cabinet above it. The white curtain of the shower was closed so I walked over and quickly ripped it open.

    Nothing. There was a small bottle travel-sized shampoo sitting on the edge of the tub, which I grabbed. You never know when you might need something like that.

    Next, I checked the mirrored cabinet above the sink. There wasn't much in it. A can of shaving cream, q-tips, a bottle of antidepressants, and a tube of toothpaste. Nothing I particularly needed. I closed the cabinet and started to turn away but the reflection in the mirror caught my attention. I starred at the girl I saw reflected back at me. Her eyes were a light hazel and her eyes looked wild and dangerous. Her black straight hair was roughly, and unevenly cut and barely reached past her small ears. I scowled at her and she scowled back. I suddenly felt extremely angry. Like the girl who I saw in the mirror couldn't possibly be me. I grabbed my knife from my belt and stabbed her right between the eyes. The mirror shattered and she was gone.

    With a huff I exited the room. As I was returning my knife to my belt Andy ran out of the room he had been checking.

    "What happened?" he asked.

    "Nothing," I snapped. "Did you find anything?"

    He shook his head. "No, it's just a bedroom. Nothing special either, besides a lot of dust."

    I sighed. "Let's just finish checking this last room, I'm hungry and I want to see if there's any food in the kitchen."

    "Alright." Andy replied.

    The door to the last room was locked. "That's strange," I thought. "Everything else had been unlocked, so why wasn't this door?"

    For the second time that day, I let my curiosity get the best of me. I knew it was stupid to try to force a locked room open. I had no idea what might be behind the door. Someone might have locked themselves in after being bitten. I seen it happen before. Unable to kill themselves, some people choose to lock themselves away, where they wouldn't be able to hurt anyone.

    Even though I knew it might be dangerous, I really wanted to know what was in the locked room. I didn't have a key and I didn't particularly want to search the house. So, I decided that the only way I was going to get into the room was by busting through the door. I backed up a step and kicked the door, hard. There was a loud crack of splintering wood but the door didn't move. I kicked the door again and it flew inwards.

    "Holy shit," Andy whispered.

    I boldly sauntered into the room but what I saw inside made me stop in my tracks and made my heart clench.

    "Andy wait outside," I called out to him.

    He ignored me came in anyway.

    "Why? What is- oh," he said falling silent as he took in what was in the room.

    In the middle of the room was a large, king sized bed. On the bed were two skeletons, still clothed, with their hair wreathed around their skulls. It was obvious, from the clothing and hair of each of the skeletons, that the one on the right belonged to a woman and on the left, a man. Their skulls lay close together and the man still had a gun clutched in his skeletal hand. Long-dried blood covered the pillow where the skeletons laid. I'm sure if I had inspected them closer I would have found a bullet hole through both their skulls.

    It probably didn't happen too long after Day Zero. As sad as it was it wasn't uncommon. People saw the world falling apart around them and felt that death was the only real way to escape.

    The couple of bones on the bed had probably seen death as a way to escape and never be apart.

    "Let's go." I said pushing Andy out of the room and shutting the door. I started walking without looking back. I didn't want to think about what I had seen. In my opinion, it's cowardly to kill yourself just to escape the world. So many people had died when they wanted to live. To just throw your life away is one of the most horrible and selfish thing you can do out here.

    I walked back down the stairs building up yet another emotional wall with each step, blocking out the sadness, the fear, the pain, and just focusing on staying alive. My life is filled with these walls. Whenever I was scared, or lonely, or sad I would push all of those emotions deep within my mind and build a wall to keep them in. It's how I learned to cope and it's one of the only reasons I was able to survive these past five years.

    I didn't stop to see if Andy was following me or not. At that time, I could care less about what he did. I pushed open the door to the kitchen and pushed the memory of what I had seen in that bedroom out of my mind.

    I didn't bother with the fridge, past experiences taught me that. Checking the fridge was an option during the first month or two. After that, almost everything that could be found in the fridge was spoiled. And when the power started to go out everywhere, the fridge became meaningless.

    I headed straight for the cupboards. Cupboards were where people kept the food that lasts. Canned things, bottled liquids, even simple seasonings could be useful if you knew how to use them. I went straight for the first cupboard I saw and pulled it open. Inside was a mix of dishes, bowls, and cups... nothing useful. I moved on to the next cupboard which turned out to be empty. The next two cupboards were similarly bare. I started to get frustrated. I was sure that this house hadn't been looted before, so where was all the food. Had the couple upstairs used it all before killing themselves?

    By the time I got to the last cupboard, I was starting to loose hope. But when I pulled it open, I almost smiled. It was packed full with cans of food. There was enough canned food to last two people a good week if it was rationed well.

    I turned around, expecting to see Andy but he wasn't there.

    "Andy?" I called out. No answer.

    "Did he run off?" I wondered. I doubted it, not after all the trouble he had gone through to follow me and get me to team up with him. So if he hadn't left, where was he?

    I pushed open the door of the kitchen and looked out into the hallway but he was nowhere to be seen.

    "Andy?" I called again. The front door was open so I went towards it. When I stepped outside, I finally spotted him.

    He was standing a few yards away with his bow drawn back. As I watched, he released the arrow. It flew straight and landed dead center into a clump of already fired arrows in the trunk of a tree on the other side of the yard.

    Because we were outside, I didn't want to risk attracting any zombies by yelling to him so instead, I walked over to him. "Andy?" I said.

    He jumped at the sound.

    "What?" he asked his voice strained.

    I was rather shocked at his change in personality. Earlier he had been lively and positive to the point of annoyance. Now he seemed defeated and drained.

    "I found some food in the house," I said watching him carefully. "It's getting late and the sun will be setting soon. We should get inside. If you still plan on sticking around, that is."

    He just nodded, slung his bow back over his shoulder, and went to retrieve his arrows.

    I watched him for a few moments before turning away. "Why did I have to get involved in this mess?" I muttered before walking back into the house.

4: Chapter 4: Andy's Past
Chapter 4: Andy's Past

    I was back in the kitchen trying to pry open a can of baked beans with my knife when Andy walked in. He, shrugged his pack off his shoulders and tossed it into corner where I had tossed my own pack. My katana, still in its sheath, sat next to me on the counter.

    I reached behind me to where I had moved all of the food from the cupboard, grabbed a random can and tossed it to him.

    "Thanks," he said, catching it out of the air.

    I didn't answer him, I had already turned my attention back to opening my own can. It's harder than it looks to open a can of food with nothing but a knife. With a final twist of the blade, the top of the can popped off.

    After I had moved all of the food from the cupboard to the counter, I had dug through the the drawers until I found the silverware. All of it was packed neatly in a their own parts of a sectioned drawer. Both the spoons and the forks were stacked up neatly one on top of the other. The utensils on the top of the stack were rather dusty but the ones underneath were clean enough to use. I had grabbed a spoon that I now used to scoop the beans out of the can. The burst of sweetness that filled my mouth from the sugary sauce was heavenly.

    I hadn't realized how hungry I was. Fighting the zombies in the gas station and trying to run from Andy had taken more energy than I had thought. I started to attack my beans shoveling it down. I noticed that Andy hadn't made an effort to open his can. He just stood staring at it like he expected it to do something.

    I swallowed the food I had in my mouth. "What is it?" I asked.

    He looked up, "Nothing, I'm just... not that big of a fan of spinach."

    What was with this guy? He was like no other survivor I had ever met and not necessarily in a good way.

    "Again, it baffles me as to how the hell you're still alive."

    I reached back and grabbed another can. "Here," I said, tossing it to him after checking the label to make sure it wasn't another can of spinach. "How does creamed corn sound?"

    He caught it and tossed the can of spinach back.

    "Better," he said. Then, after a short pause, "thanks."

    I caught it easily with my free hand then placed the can back on the counter. I resumed the attack on my beans. Andy pulled out a pocket knife and flipped it open to the can opener attachment.

    I'll admit, I was jealous. I had been searching for a pocket knife for the longest time and I never seemed to be able to find one. I thought about taking it from him but I knew that my conscience would never let me live it down. I don't like stealing from people, in the same way that I don't like people stealing from me. The simple act of stealing even a seemingly unnecessary thing could lead to someone's death.

    I didn't mind stealing from Raiders though, in fact I had made it a goal of mine to steal from them whenever I got the chance. In my mind, Raiders didn't deserve the title of human. So far I had never been caught stealing from them, but I knew that if I continued, I was bound to be caught sooner or later.

    I finished off my beans and wiped my finger around the inside of the can, trying to get every last bit out of it that I could. When it was completely empty, I tossed the can and the spoon into the sink. I was far from full but I didn't want to eat another can. I wanted to make all of it last as long as possible. I leaned back against the counter looked at Andy. He was tipping back the can of creamed corn so that it would pour into his mouth.

    He certainly was strange. I had no idea what his past could have been, how much he had to go through, what he's seen. Instead of just wondering about it, I decided to go right out and ask him.

    "So then," I said. "What's your story?"

    He choked on his corn and started coughing. "Excuse me?" he said between coughs.

    I waited until he had stopped coughing. "I said, what's your story?"

    "Um, I don't have one?" He looked very uncomfortable, looking at the ground as he spoke instead of talking to my face.

    I rolled my eyes, "Bullshit, everyone's got a story. So what's yours? How did you manage to survive through five years of hell?"

    I hopped up on the counter and pulled one of my knees up to my chest letting the other dangle off the side. I waited for him to say something.

    "Um, I don't know. I guess I'm just lucky?"

    "That's your answer? No one makes it this far by being 'just lucky'. Luck can get you a week, a month, maybe a year, but not five years. Now tell me, what's your story?"

    "Why do you want to know?"

    "Look if you really want to stay with me, you're going to have to tell me everything. And don't lie, I'll know if you do."

    "I don't know what you want me to say."

    I shrugged, "I don't know, start from the beginning. What happened on Day Zero?"

    He took a deep, shaky breath and ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, uh... Day Zero... well, I assume you know the general details of what happened that day. No one really knew where the outbreak started but once it did I spread like crazy. The people that were bitten turned within 48 hours-"

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone knows that part. Cut to the chase." I interrupted him.

    He cleared this throat before beginning. "I was uh... I was home with my family that night. It was just me, my mom and dad, and my little sister. We were watching TV when the emergency broadcasts started airing. I remember my dad turning off the TV and telling us to go to our rooms and pack a bag nothing but essentials. He looked worried. That was one of the things I remembered the most, was the look of worry on his face. My dad had retired from the military several years before and he never looked worried about anything. Except for that night."

    "We tried leaving the city but all the major roads were packed with the cars of people trying to flee. Thankfully, we managed to take one of country roads out. The first time we came across a zombie was three nights later. We had been living in the car the whole time and had stopped for gas when one of them came out from around the corner of the building. No one noticed it until it was too late."

    "My dad was the only one outside of the car at the time. He was filling the car up with gas when it snuck up from behind. He managed to fight it off and get back in the car but somehow during the process he was bitten. At the time we had no idea that was how the disease spread so we didn't think much of it. It wasn't long before he started to get sick. He started to hallucinate and he had an extremely high fever that just wouldn't break.

    "I wasn't physically there when he turned. My sister and I were outside playing in a field somewhere. At the time, my dad had taken a turn for the worst so we had pulled over and my mom has shooed us     away. I don't know if she knew what was happening or not. I remember hearing her scream. After I heard it, I grabbed my sister and ran. I don't know why I didn't go to my mom, I just... I was so scared. I knew something horrible had happened and I knew that I needed to protect my sister."

    "We ran and ran until we came across a small town. We stayed there for almost four years, living on the outskirts, avoiding zombies and Raiders. One day, though, my sister just vanished. I searched every inch of that damn town and never found a trace of her. After that I left. I never stopped moving. Then I saw you in that gas station with those zombies and well, here I am now. There's not a day that goes by that I don't miss every single one of them." He fell silent.

    I didn't quite know what to say. I knew everyone out here carried their own demons, their own evils and experiences that they had been forced to go through, but I hadn't expected anything close to what he had told me. I was impressed that he hadn't snapped a long time ago. Maybe he was stronger than I had initially thought.

    "I'm sorry," I said.

    "What are you sorry about?" He asked, rubbing his face with his hands.

    "Everything you had to go through."

    I hopped down and grabbed my katana from the counter. "Well I don't much fancy sleeping on the floor when I have a better option available. You okay taking first watch?" I asked him.

    "Yeah, sure." he said.

    I turned to go. "Alright I'm going to go crash on one of the chairs in the living room. Wake me up in a couple of hours."

    I started to leave.

    "Wait, aren't you going to tell me what happened to you?" Andy asked.

    I stopped walking and turned around. "Not today, and maybe not ever. There are some things I don't share with anyone."

    When he didn't say anything, I turned to leave again.

    "Hey Lauren?"

    I stopped but didn't turn around. "What?"

    "Thanks," Andy said.

    "For what?"

    "For not saying it was my fault. With my sister, you know."

    I turned around then. Andy was sitting on the ground staring at his hands that sat in his lap. "Things happen that you can't blame yourself for."

    "Yeah, well goodnight."

    "Goodnight Andy." I said and I left the kitchen.

    I walked down the hallway and into the living room. I leaned my katana against one of the chairs and curled up on it. As tired as I was I couldn't seem to fall asleep. My mind was racing with everything that had happened. For five years I had lived my life pretty much the same. Alone. Then, in just one day, I wasn't alone anymore.

    The sun slowly set until the room was pitch black. At some point in the night, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

    I woke up the next morning to the light shining in through the cracks on the boarded up windows.

    "What the? Why didn't Andy wake me up for my turn on watch?" I thought to myself. I looked around the room, nothing had changed from the night before. When I sat up, a blanket fell from my shoulders. "What the hell?"

    I got angry then. I slid off the chair, grabbed my katana and the blanket, and stormed out of the room. Andy was sitting on the stairs carving patterns into the wood of the bottom step with his pocket knife. I threw the blanket at him.

    "What the hell is this?" I demanded.

    He casually pushed the blanket aside and closed his pocket knife.

    "Good morning to you too," he said.

    "Don't you dare get cocky with me." I snapped at him.

    He shrugged. "You looked cold last night so I covered you up with a blanket."

    I couldn't control my temper any more. In a flash I dropped my katana and pulled my knife from my belt. I crossed the short distance between us and pushed him back against the stairs so that I held my knife at his throat.

    "Let's get one thing clear here." I spat in his face. "I don't need anything from you. I let you join me and I could just as well leave right now and not give a flying fuck about what happens to you. Do you understand me?"

    The next thing I knew, Andy had knocked me to the ground and sat on top of me. He held down each of my arms. I tried to break free but I couldn't. Andy was stronger than he looked.

    "You know, I think it might be a little extreme to threaten someone with a knife just for trying to do something nice." He said calmly.

    "Get the hell off me!" I snarled.

    He only smiled slightly "Look, I promise not to do anything nice like that again as long as you promise to stop pressing blades against my throat. Deal?"

    "You absolute dumb ass!" I said. Then I kneed him in the balls.

    That got him off of me. He fell to the side, his hands clutching his crotch.

    As soon as I was free I sprung to my feet.

    "That's for pinning me down asshole."

    "I don't quite think I deserved that." Andy groaned into the floor.

    "If you ever do that again, I'll put a blade through your throat."

    "Right, got it." Andy said.

    I snatched my katana from the ground and stormed into the kitchen. I couldn't believe that guy.

    "Well you did threaten him with a knife." a part of me said. "He didn't really do anything to deserve that."

    I groaned and ran a hand over my face as my conscience caught up to me. I shouldn't have lashed out at him for something he did just to try to help. I shook my head and grabbed a can of food at random.

    Andy peeked his head into the kitchen a few minutes after I had finished eating.

    "If I come in are you going to murder me?" He asked.

    I sighed. "No, I'm not going to murder you."    

    He slowly walked into the kitchen. An awkward silence stretched out between us.

    "I'm sorry." he finally said.

    "No, you're not the one who needs to apologize. You weren't the one who did something wrong." I said. "I just... Haven't been around people in a long time and it's hard for me to control my temper."

    Andy nodded. "That's understandable." he said.

    I shook my head. "No it's not. I'll tell you right now that I'm not a good person, Andy. I've done some things in the past that I regret. I'm not a Raider, but I don't consider myself much better than one. If you were smart, you'd turn around and leave right now."

    Andy started laughing. This threw me off completely. Of all the possible responses I thought he might have had, laughter wasn't on the list.

    "What the hell are you laughing at?"

    "Absolutely nothing." He said.

    I rolled my eyes. "Whatever. Forget I said anything."

    I walked over to where my pack sat and brought it over to the food on the counter. Off all the items I had, my pack was probably one of the most important things that I had. It was simple and solid black, but it was durable and held everything I had acquired over the years to survive. The pack itself had only three main pockets. A small one in the front with a straight zipper going from left to right, a slightly larger pocket behind it that made a pouch off from the main body of the pack, and the largest pouch. I kept it well organized so that if I ever needed something in a moment's notice, I would would know exactly where it was and would be able to get to it quickly.

    The smallest pouch contained the Ruger P95 that I carried along with a small amount of extra ammo. The next pouch held both medical supplies and other miscellaneous items; a flashlight, batteries, a small bit of rope, a few fish hooks, a screw driver, and a flint and steel. The largest and final pouch contained canned food and a metal water bottle. I also kept a towel, folded up against the back wall of the pack so that whatever I had in my back, wouldn't dig painfully into my back.

    I began stuffing as many cans into my pack as I could.

    "What are you doing?" Andy asked.

    "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm packing up."

    "Why?"

    "You know," I said, turning around to face Andy. "Sometimes I forget how stupid you really are."

    "Just tell me." He said.

    I rolled my eyes and resumed packing up the food. "We can't stay here, it's not safe."

    "It seems pretty safe to me." Andy said.

    I slammed the can I had in my hand down onto the counter and whirled around. "Then by all means Andy, stay here. I'm going to keep moving because I don't like being tethered to a single place!"

    Andy held up his hands. "Okay, okay. I get it. I'm sorry I asked."

    My clenched my hands into fists at my sides. It took all of my willpower not to punch him in the face. I remembered why I hadn't liked people, even before Day Zero.

    I gritted my teeth and forced myself to turn away. This guy was really getting on my nerves. I didn't know why I didn't just leave. I had food, I had supplies, there was nothing physically keeping me here but for some strange reason, I didn't want to leave.

    By the time I had had filled my pack with as much food as it could hold, there was less than half of the total number of cans left on the counter. I zipped up my pack and slung it onto my shoulders.

    Now that it was full, it weighed a good twenty or so pounds. Five years ago, before Day Zero, I would never have been able carry a pack that weighed this much for more than an hour. Now though, after years of building muscles, my back and shoulders were strong enough to carry as much as thirty pounds on my back for an entire day.

    I turned to Andy. He was leaning against the wall next to the fridge with his arms crossed in front of his chest.

    I walked to the door of the kitchen but stopped before walking out. "I'm leaving in ten minutes." I spoke to the door, not bothering to turn around. I knew he would be listening to me. "If you're coming with me, pack up the rest of the food and be out before then." And with that, I walked out of the kitchen. As I walked out of the house, I felt nothing. No lingering attachment to the place. I'd never stayed anywhere for longer than a few days. I always stayed on the move, not because I had any destination in mind, but because it never felt right staying anywhere for longer than that. I felt like if I allowed myself to settle down in a single place, everything I had to sacrifice would have been for nothing.

    Outside, the sun was bright and birds chirped in the trees. If it weren't for the zombies sprinkled throughout the cars, it would have seemed like a beautiful summer day. Judging by the position of the sun, it was around ten in the morning. I hadn't slept this late in a very long time. Part of me blamed Andy. I had slept soundly that night because I had believed that Andy would have woken me up some time late in the night. I didn't have to wait more than two minutes before Andy joined me on the front steps.

    "Did you decide then?" I asked him.

    He nodded. "Yeah. I packed the rest of the food that was on the counter. I've still got plenty of room in my pack if you want to put some of yours into mine."

    "Why? Worried I might run off and leave you with less?"

    "No, I just thought you might like to share some of the weight between us."

    "If you're trying to imply that I can't hold my own because I'm a girl you are seriously mistaken. I suggest you change your frame of mind before I cut your balls off." I snapped at him.

    He sighed. "That's not what I meant. I just thought we might share some of the weight so neither of us kill ourselves trying to carry more than we can."

    I shook my head and turned away. Now that Andy was with me, everything had changed. The rules of survival I had to follow when I was alone were different now that I had someone else around and I didn't know what they were yet.

    Sensing that the conversation wasn't going anywhere, Andy changed the subject. "So what are we doing now?"

    "We're going, take the main road out of the city and try to get as far as we can before dark." I replied.

    "Lead the way then." Andy said gesturing out with his arm.

    Again, his cockiness almost sent me over the edge but I checked myself. It just wasn't worth the energy to argue with him any more. So I just started walking, choosing to ignore him.

    As we walked, Andy tried several times to start up a conversation, but after about the fourth attempt, he gave up altogether. We walked in complete silence for quite a while after that. A few times we would have to veer of the road to avoid a lone zombie but for the most part, the town seemed vacant.

    It was about two hours after we had left the house that I suddenly heard a noise that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was faint, drifting in on the wind, but it was quickly getting louder. I stopped dead in my tracks. Andy, who had been looking at a sun bleached poster on a storefront, ran into me.

    "What the hell?" he complained loudly.

    "Shut up," I snapped. I was trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. I tilted my head in different directions, trying to pinpoint it. The entire time the sound kept getting louder and louder until it was clear where it was coming from. It was a sound I knew only too well. The sound of feet pattering on pavement mixed with the sound of moans and snarls.

    The source was what I called a herd. It wasn't common, but every once and a while, groups of zombies would clump together to form a masses that would travel together, never stopping. I'd seen herds of zombies wipe out entire groups of people in only a few minutes.

    "What is it?" Andy asked.

    Panic flared inside of me. "We need to get off the road." I said.

    "What?"

    "We need to get out of here!" But it was too late. From around the corner of a building about 50 meters in front of us, came the herd.

    The zombies at the front of the group spotted us first and started up a collective snarl. It was a smaller herd, only about five zombies. But as soon as the group saw us, four of the five broke into a sprint straight for us.

    "Dammit." I said. I didn't have time to get out my gun, so I reached up and drew my katana. I quickly took up my defensive stance with my katana out in front of me.

    "At least we aren't indoors." I thought.

    The zombie at the front of the pack never had a chance to reach me. It went down only seconds before, an arrow sticking out of the front of its forehead. I glanced over to see Andy drawing back another arrow.

    At that moment I was glad to have him there. I turned back around just as one of the zombies reached me. I twirled to the side and swung my katana in a tight arch. When the Runner flashed past me, it fell forward without a head.

    Andy's next arrow missed the brain of the Runners and lodged itself in it's cheek. That was all I managed to see before I had to face the next Runner that charged at me.

    I quickly swung my sword low, and it toppled to the ground, missing a leg, skidding a few feet on the pavement. It instantly tried to get back up, but I never gave it the chance. I sprinted over and quickly brought my sword down on its neck, killing it for good.

    Andy finally managed to hit the other zombie's brain with an arrow. When it was down he lowered his bow and looked over at me. But he had forgotten that there had been a fifth and final zombie in the group. It came up from behind. At the short distance I knew Andy wouldn't have time to draw his bow.

    "Andy, behind you!" I yelled. He turned, but not soon enough to act as the zombie grabbed him by the shoulders. He tried to push it away but it had him in an iron grip. It was all he could do to keep it from biting him. I quickly grabbed my knife and threw it at the zombie. It spun through the air and lodged itself in the zombie's skull. The zombie fell to the ground in a heap.

    I ran over to Andy who had bent over with his hands on this knees.

    "Did it bite you?" I asked sharply.

    He shook his head.

    I let out a sigh of relief. "Good." I sheathed my katana and went to the zombie with my knife in its head.

    The blade had struck right in the middle of the zombie's forehead, right between the eyes. It was embedded up to the handle of the knife. A thick, dark brown fluid slowly seeped out of the wound. I grabbed the handle and tried to pull the knife out but it was stuck. I shifted my body so that I was holding the knife with two hands and had a foot planted on it's face. With a strong tug I managed to pull the out. The blade was covered in the brownish goo and the smell was absolutely horrible. I wiped it off on the dead zombie's shirt and returned it to my belt.

    I quickly glanced around the area. It didn't seem like our fight had attracted any unwanted attention but I didn't want to stick around for another herd.

    I cleared my throat. "Let's go. Before any more of them show up."

    Andy didn't respond. He stayed hunched over his face pale, staring blankly at a spot on the ground.

    "Hey, you ok?" I asked.

    "I just... It never gets any easier." he croaked out.

    I took a step towards him. "Look, I don't know what your life was like before, but you better get your head straight, or this," I gestured to his hunched form, "is going to get you killed. Everything out here wants to kill you. Forget that, and you might as well just throw yourself into a pack of hungry zombies. Now I'm going on ahead. I suggest you think long and hard before doing anything because once you make a choice, there's no going back. Just remember that I'm not here to protect you. If you screw up it won't be anyone else's fault but your own."

    Andy straightened and looked at me, sadness filling his eyes. "Alright." He said softly.

    I gave him a sharp, curt nod and started walking again, stepping over one of the dead zombies in my path. Andy trailed behind keeping a bit of distance between myself and him.

    We walked for another two hours, neither of us speaking. We finally stopped to set up camp in an old church. There was still a few hours of daylight left but Andy had started to fall behind and I wasn't opposed to calling it a day.

    Being inside of the church made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I had never really been religious and, before Day Zero, I could count the number of times I had been inside a church with one hand. I pushed down my discomfort. The church was safe, the doors were solid and the windows were intact. As long as Andy and I kept quiet, we should remain fairly safe. After we each ate a can of food, we settled down for the night.

    "I'll take first watch. Get some sleep. I'll wake you up in a few hours." I told Andy.

    Andy nodded gratefully. He had been struggling to keep his eyes open for the past hour. He laid down on the floor and after a few minutes, his breathing slowed and evened as he fell asleep.    

    The next few hours were peaceful and uneventful. I passed the exploring my own thought, letting my mind wander from thought to thought, not letting my mind stay on any one thing for longer than a minute or two. At about one in the morning I stood up and walked over to Andy's sleeping form.

    I shook his shoulder until he woke up.

    "Wazzat?" he said groggily.

    "Your turn for watch."

    He yawned and nodded, sitting up. I walked back over to where I had sat for the beginning of the night and laid down. "You better not fall asleep." I grumbled.    

    He gave a half-hearted "mm-hmm."

    I sat quietly in the darkness for a while, listening to make sure Andy didn't fall back asleep. To his credit, he didn't. He kept softly humming the same tune to himself over and over. Eventually I drifted off to sleep.

5: Chapter 5: Raiders
Chapter 5: Raiders

    I was standing on a tightrope stretched between two buildings. The ground was hundreds of feet below me. Andy was standing on the roof of the building in front of me. I risked a glance behind me and had to pinwheel my arms to keep from falling off the rope but I was able to see that the roof of the other building was filled with hundreds of zombies, more grotesque and monstrous in appearance than I had ever seen. Their eyes glowed red and their bodies were misshapen.

    A strong gust of wind blew. I didn't have time to prepare and I was knocked off. I reached out blindly and managed to grab the rope with one hand.

    Andy hadn't moved at all. He stood watching me, face blank. "Help me!" I yelled.

    He shook his head and knelt down at the edge of the roof, where the rope was attached to the building. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocket knife before looking back up at me and giving me a small smile. Then he began sawing away at the rope.

    "What the hell do you think you're doing!?" I screamed.

    He didn't answer or even look up at me and the next thing I knew, I was falling.

    I jolted awake. My skin was covered with sweat and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. "It's okay." I told myself, trying to calm my racing heart. "It was just a dream."

    My dreams were often plagued with nightmares, ever since Day Zero, if I dreamed at all. I couldn't even remember the last time I had anything resembling a good dream. Some nights my nightmares would be so bad, I couldn't even sleep at all.

    I sighed and rubbed at my eyes. The sun had just started to rise and the room was still mostly dark. Suddenly, a loud blast broke the silent calm of the morning. I was instantly on high alert. Reflexively, I jumped up and grabbed my katana. Someone had just fired a gun, someone very close by.

    Andy was standing next to the broken stain glass window at the front of the building with his back pressed against the wall. He glanced over at me and did a double take when he saw me standing. He quickly pressed his finger to his lips, before slowly leaning forward so that he could look out the window. He looked around a and leaned forward a bit more before stiffening and pulling back from the window. He crept over towards me, moving slowly and silently.

    "What is it?" I asked him in a low whisper when he was close enough.

    "Three people." He said. "Probably Raiders."

    I clenched my jaw. Damn. Day Zero brought out the best in a lot of people and the worst in a lot of others. Raiders are the latter of the two. They're people who you absolutely don't want to come across. People who don't care about anyone but themselves and who will do anything to get what they want.

    Another gunshot rang out. This time from somewhere farther away.

    I flinched at the sound "There's more of them somewhere," I said. "We need to get out of here."

    "You think?" Andy said.

    "Okay, um... Is there a back exit in this place?"

    Andy shook his head. "No."

    "Just great. Alright, we'll have to sneak out the front then." I said. I sheathed my katana and swung my pack onto my shoulders.

    "Where were the three that you saw?" I asked Andy.

    "About three yards away, right in the middle of the street." He said. "But they were walking so they're probably farther away by now."

    "That makes it a bit easier." I said. If they were moving then it would be easier to sneak past them or avoid them altogether.

    I took a deep breath. "Alright. We're going to have to move fast. Stay close to me. If you fall behind I'm leaving you behind, got it?"

    He nodded.

    I made my way over to the shattered window and crouched low so that I was hidden behind the small space of wall below the window.

    I lifted myself up just enough to see outside and look around. The street looked empty. There was no sign of the three people that Andy had seen. In the middle of the road, about three yards away, was the fallen corpse of a freshly killed zombie with a hole right in the middle of it's forehead.

    It was risky to leave but it was even more risky to stay. If the people Andy had seen were indeed Raiders, then the town would be crawling with them. Raiders never worked in small groups, they would clear out entire towns of zombies before going back through and looting every building. Sometimes, if a town proved fruitful, they would decide to stay, forming a base of sorts until they used up all of the supplies. Then they would move onto the next town. If they found a survivor they would usually give them a choice, either join their group or die, that is if the survivor they found was, in their opinion, "fit" enough. In the Raider world it's survival of the fittest. Depending on the group, those that were unable to pull their own weight, were either kicked out or killed.

    I placed my hands on the sill of the window and hoisted my body up and over. Andy follow right behind me.

    "Which way did they go?" I asked him in a silent whisper.

    He pointed in the direction we had come from yesterday. "They were heading that way but," he paused looking around. "I don't see them now."

    Suddenly a loud crash came from one of the buildings across from us. The interior was dark but I saw a brief flash of light from inside. I could hear the faint sound of voices from inside.    

    "Found them," I muttered to myself.

    Andy was watching the building with wide eyes. He looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

    "Andy." I said. He jumped and turned to me.

    "Stay focused." I said.

    "Yeah. Right, sorry."

    "Come on." I said and I started heading in the opposite direction. I moved fast, keeping low for a few yards, then straightening and breaking out in a sprint. I never checked to see if Andy was keeping up. I hadn't lied when I told him I would leave him behind. I had no obligation or responsibility to his safety, and to be honest I didn't care. My only concern was getting myself out alive. If things went bad, I wouldn't hesitate to run without looking back.

    I hadn't made it very far before I heard voices. They came from in front of us, somewhere on the road. I couldn't see who the voices came from, there was a car blocking my view. But if I couldn't see them, it was unlikely that they could see me. Either way, Andy and I were sitting ducks out in the open. I looked around for any form of cover, something to hide behind, and spotted an overturned FedEx truck on the sidewalk in front of us.

    I quickly dove behind it. I didn't check to see if Andy followed, if he was smart he'd figure it out on his own, and sure enough, he was hot on my heels, ducking behind the truck right behind me.

    A gunshot rang out, deafeningly loud.

    "How the hell did you miss that one?" An unfamiliar male voice said.

    By the sound of it, the owner of the voice was just on the other side of the FedEx truck. If we tried to move, we ran the risk of being seen. We were completely and utterly trapped.

    "I don't know, my arm twitched at the last second." A second male voice said.

    "Bullshit, you just can't aim."

    There was a pause, and then the first guy spoke again. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, what makes you think you get another shot at it? You had your chance and missed so now it's my turn."

    I took a deep breath, then I slowly inched forward until I could see around the side of the truck. I knew it was a risky move, but if we were going to get out of here alive, I had to know where the people were. 

    Standing in the middle of the street were two young men. They stood about 20, yards away from a zombie . From the looks of it, she had been a young girl before she died. She looked like a walking skeleton. She was nothing but rotting skin stretched tight over her bones. It was a heart breaking sight. This girl probably came close to starving to death before she was bitten.

    The younger -looking of the two men held a shotgun in his hands. The other guy held wicked-looking machete that was covered in a dark brown goo.

    As I watched, the machete guy casually walked up to the zombie. She made a grab at him with her muscle-bare arms. He easily sidestepped the reaching hands and swung his machete at the zombie's legs. He managed to cut through both of her legs with one swing and the zombie fell to the ground.

    Machete guy walked back to the guy with the shotgun, a smug look on his face. "Ha! Two legs in one swing! Beat that!" He said.

    Shotgun guy looked unimpressed. He shifted his weight to one hip and swung his gun to his shoulder.

    "Betcha I can shoot out its teeth without finishing it off."

    Machete guy smiled revealing a mouthful of crooked and discolored teeth. "You're on!"

    Shotgun guy walked over to the zombie, who had been attempting to drag itself over to them by its arms, and placed a booted foot on the side of its face. Its teeth worked and gnashed, biting at the air, while its bony hands scratched feebly at the guy's leg. He raised his shotgun, took aim, and fired. The resounding boom was deafening. True to his word, he managed to blast the zombie's teeth out and shatter a majority of its jaw, but he didn't kill it. It continued to claw at his leg, though it didn't have a jaw to bite with anymore.

    I couldn't watch anymore. I pulled myself back behind the truck. There was no doubt in my mind that those two men were raiders. It's one thing to kill zombies out of necessity, it's a whole other thing to turn killing them into a game. Every single zombie had once been a living person, with dreams and feeling and personalities. What those two were doing out there was equivalent to digging up a grave and taking a shit on the corpse.

    I had seen Raider's do horrible things before but this was crossing the line. I clenched my fists. If Andy hadn't been with me, I would have killed those two right then and there.

    "What's going on out there?" Andy whispered.

    I shook my head, if I had to explain it out loud, I knew knew I would end up yelling. So instead, I just said, "We have to get out of here."

    "How? They'll see us the moment we move." He whispered back.

    "It's still slightly dark and they're rather focused on something else." As if to prove my point, another loud gunshot rang out followed by a cackle of laughter. "If we move fast and keep low we should be able to sneak right past them."

    He glanced nervously in the direction of the voices. "Are you sure it'll work?"

    "It's the only choice we have, unless you want to stay here until they find us."

    He paused. "Alright."

    "Let's go," I said.

    I carefully peered around the truck again. The two still had their complete attention on the zombie. She was now missing an entire arm, the stump that remained was a splintered mass of shattered bone. I took a deep breath, and broke from our cover, moving as fast as I could while keeping low to the ground. At first, I listened carefully for any sign that the two raiders had seen me, but I didn't hear anything. After a while, I straightened up and started running. I glanced back once to make sure Andy was following. He was right behind me, keeping up step-for-step.

    We were almost at an intersection of two major roads when another Raider came out from around the corner of the building in front of us. How he missed seeing us, I have no idea. I skidded to a stop and crouched low.

    There was no way we'd be able to sneak round this guy. I'd have to take him out.

    I turned toward Andy and pointed at the Raider, made a slicing motion at my throat, then pointed trying to explain without words what I was planning to do. He nodded and started to reach back for his bow. I shook my head and he stopped. I pointed to him and then at the ground, telling him to stay put. He nodded again and slowly dropped his hand.

    Satisfied that Andy wasn't going to get in my way, I turned around and slowly started to creep towards the Raider. He had stopped walking at the side of the road.

    I crept up until I was close enough to touch him, moving soundlessly across the pavement. Then, I sprang up quickly, wrapping my arms tightly around his throat. He struggled against me kicking and scratching, but I held on. After a while his struggling slowed and finally stopped. I laid his limp body on the ground and waved Andy over. Then, we both took off running, leaving the town and the Raiders behind.

    We ran on and on, following the main road out of town until we were well outside of the city limits. When we finally did stop I collapsed to the ground, rolling on my back and gasping for air like a fish out of water. My legs felt like they were made of rubber. I hadn't run that fast and that far in a very long time.

    "That. Was a. Close one." Andy gasped out between heaving breaths. He stood next to me, hunched over with his hands on his knees.

    I laughed and put my hand over my eyes to block out the sunlight. "Yeah, let's try to avoid that next time."

    I sat still for a while, lying on my back. Masses of pebbles on the asphalt dug painfully into my back but I didn't feel like moving. It felt good to lie down.

    "What now?" Andy asked.    

    I uncovered my eyes and looked up. Andy was standing over me. He held a hand down to me.

    I ignored it and pushed myself to my feet. I wasn't blatantly trying to be mean, I just didn't like taking help from people when I didn't need it.

    When I was standing again I looked around. The highway was lined by a thick forest on either side.

    I sighed. "We keep moving. The greater distance between us and the Raiders back there the better."

    "After you."

    I glared at him. I wanted to say something but I just didn't have the energy to be angry. So instead, I just started walking again without saying a word.

    We walked for several hours in complete silence. I glanced over at Andy walking beside me. He looked as tired as I felt and, with the sun close to setting, I was glad we would be stopping soon.

    As I looked at him I felt something I hadn't felt in a long time. Trust. He pissed me off a lot, and he was cocky as hell, but he hadn't done anything that would make me distrust him.

    So, against my better judgment, I decided to tell him what I had never told anyone before.    

    I told him my side of the story from Day Zero.

    "Boston," I said.

    "Huh?" He said, looking over at me in surprise.

    "Boston, that's where I'm from." I kicked a rusted out can that lay on the road. The hollow metallic clunking sound it made as it skittered away from me was rather pleasant.

    "O-kay? Why are you telling me this?"

    "That's where I was the day the outbreak started," I continued. I risked a glance at him and saw his eyes were wide in surprise.

    "At the time it was just me and my grandparents living in a small house in the city. I never knew my parents. My grandparents never talked about them and I never really asked. I really wasn't in town on the actual Day Zero, I was out on a camping trip by myself."

    "When I came back I immediately knew something was wrong because there wasn't anyone around. Usually the city is full of people, Boston was a fairly popular tourist spot, but that day, I didn't see a soul."

    "I remember pulling into my driveway and seeing the door to my house swung wide open. My grandparents never left their door open. I almost didn't go in, I almost turned around and left but I had to know if my grandparents were alright."

    "When I walked inside the house the first thing I saw was the blood. It was everywhere, splattered on the walls, and the ceiling, and there was a smear of it leading into the living room. It looked like something had been dragged across the floor. I should have left right then, I should have turned around and walked out but I had to know what happened to my grandparents. I guess some part of me was hoping that they that they would be alright. That I would walk into the living room and my grandparents would be in there laughing at the prank they managed to pull on me, but it wasn't a prank. When I walked into the living room, beside the couch, I saw...I saw..." I couldn't seem to make myself say the next words. Images and scenes from that night flashed vividly in my mind I felt like I was there: back in that horrible nightmare of a day. It hurt to remember it, it hurt to remember what I had lost.

    "You saw what?" Andy asked in a soft voice.

    I shook my head and felt my eyes starting to burn with tears.

    "It always helps to talk about it," he said.

    I didn't say anything for a while. I was trying to build back up my inner wall that always helped me cope, that helped me block out my emotions. Without that inner wall I was sure I would have broken down by now, maybe even killed myself like that skeleton couple had. That wall had helped me survive.

    When I finally spoke again my throat was tight and it felt like I had to force out each word. "Behind the couch I saw my grandmother. She was bent over my grandfather on the floor just tearing his insides out and chewing on them like some kind of deranged animal. When I saw it I thought I heard someone start screaming, until I realized I realized it had been me. The next thing I knew my grandmother was coming towards me, her mouth and shirt were covered in my grandfather's blood. I ran from her, into the kitchen and... and I grabbed a knife. I don't know why. I guess, deep down, I had known that she wasn't my grandmother anymore and I was terrified. She followed me into the kitchen. I warned her to stay back, pleaded with her, but she just. wouldn't. listen."

    "I had no choice. She was going to kill me. I drove that stupid fucking knife into her skull again and again and again until she stopped moving. After that I ran. Before I left town I stopped at the pawn shop in town that I knew sold weapons. All of the guns had already been taken but there was still this." I motioned to my katana, "So I grabbed it, left the town, and never looked back."

    When I stopped talking I realized that the tears I had been trying so hard to keep back, had managed to escape. I wiped the tears angrily from my face.

    Andy was silent for a few moments before he spoke, "Lauren, I had no idea. I'm-"

    "No. Don't you dare say you're sorry for me. I don't need anyone's pity." I snapped.

    He didn't say anything after that.

    The sun was just starting to set "it's getting late," I said. "We should stop for the night."

    We found a place off to the side of the road among the trees. Andy gathered dry wood while I got a fire going using the flint and steel I had. I considered it one of the most precious items I had gained over the years.

    It took several tries to get the tinder going. Once one of the sparks caught, I gently blew on on the ember until the tinder was fully ablaze.    

    Neither of us spoke the rest of the night. After a canned food dinner, I laid down next to the fire while Andy took up first watch. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in minutes.

6: Chapter 6: The Bite
Chapter 6: The Bite

    It must have been around one in the morning when Andy shook me awake. It took me a few moments to remember where I was, and why I was here. It was a common event, where I would wake up with the blind hope that I would find myself in my bed again, with everything back to the way it had been. Sometimes I felt like the whole world was a dream, some horrible nightmare that I could never seem to wake up from.

    When I saw the fire and the dark forest I remembered everything all over again and the world came crashing down around me. I sat up slowly as I felt the weight settled back down onto my shoulders and with it came the tense muscles that ached constantly. As I rubbed my eyes, Andy walked over to the other side of the fire and laid down. In less than ten minuets his breathing slowed and he was asleep.

    I leaned back against a large maple tree that was nearby. The night was quiet, with nothing but the chirping of crickets and the crackling of the fire to break the deadly silence.

    For a while I just watched the fire, watching as the flames flickered and twisted in a sort of hypnotic dance. The small amount of light that the flames gave off, cast eerie shadows onto the trees around me that flickered and moved in time with the flames. I let my mind wander, thinking over the past few days. Things had been easier with Andy around so far. I didn't have to watch my back so much anymore and I was actually getting sleep not the fitful, half awake sort of limbo that I used to fall into every night so that I could be fully awake and ready to fight on a moment's notice.

    Despite how things were going, I didn't regret all the years I spent alone. I had seen so many people torn apart, so many lives lost because people put too much trust into someone else. A mistake on the part of one person in a group, can lead the the death of everyone. I'd lost count of how many people I had seen who died because of someone else they trusted . So no, I didn't regret being alone for almost five years because it was probably the only reason why I was still alive.

    Suddenly, a twig snapped somewhere to my right. I immediately turned towards where the sound had come from, reaching out to grab my katana from the ground beside me. I scanned the trees but it was too dark to see anything beyond where the fire-light reached. The leaves on a large bush rustled softly and I tensed getting ready to spring up and fight at the first sign of rotten flesh. For a few moments, nothing happened. I kept my eyes trained on the bush, not even daring to blink. Then, I saw a flash of a red, bushy, white-tipped tail and I let out a sigh of relief. It was just a fox.

    There was another soft rustle of leaves and then a small head slowly appeared from the darkness. The fox wasn't very large, it's face not much bigger than a cat's. It's fur was a light red-orange with a white patch on the bottom of it's jaw leading down it's chest. It's large, bushy ears swiveled slightly from side to side, listening. It's black nose twitched constantly and it's large, round, amber-colored eyes were filled with curiosity as it eyed our makeshift camp. A log shifted on the fire, sending up a shower of sparks into the air and the fox vanished back into the darkness, without a sound.

    I smiled after the fox had disappeared. Her presence here meant that there weren't any zombies nearby. Animals tend to give the undead a rather wide berth. Zombies would go after anything that moves, though animals didn't really seem to have too much trouble avoiding them.

    To be completely honest, I envied her. The fox, and all animals for that matter, didn't have to worry about becoming infected. True, they did have to watch out for a zombie's gnashing teeth as much as humans did, but a single bite would be nothing more than an injury to an animal. The virus only seemed to affect humans, at least as far as I knew.

    I sighed and leaned my head back against the rough bark of the tree, staring up at the star-filled sky. A light breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and the stars seemed to flash on and off as the leaves covered and uncovered them as they moved.

    It was peaceful and quiet for the rest of the night. Occasionally Andy would roll over in his sleep, making more noise than I would like as he rolled over dead leaves and occasionally snapped a stick or two, but other than that, nothing else happened until morning.

    When the sky began to turn pink, and the first, early-rising birds started chirping, I stood up. My body was stiff from having sat in the same position for so long. I walked over to where Andy lay. He was sprawled out on his back one arm flung out to the side and the other laying over his chest. Crushed leaves covered his green shirt and a thin line of drool trailed out from the corner of his mouth.

    For a moment I just watched him, the rise and fall of his chest. I briefly wondered what he might be dreaming about. Did he have nightmares, like me or were his dreams peaceful and nice?

    After a few more seconds, I kicked him in the leg. "Oi, wake up." I said loudly.

    His eyes flew open and he bolted upright, looking around wildly. When he saw me, he relaxed and rubbed a hand over his face. "What time is it?" he asked in a tired voice.

    "Time to get moving," I said in response.

    Andy groaned and leaned back until he was laying down on his back again, both arms stretched out. "Can't we just take a day off?" He said to the sky.

    I rolled my eyes. "Sure Andy, feel free to take the day off. In fact, I'll let everything that's out to kill you know that you're off duty today so that they'll leave you alone." I put as much sarcasm into the words as I possibly could.

    Andy pushed himself up again so that he was leaning on his elbows. "Jeez, it was just a joke." He said.

    I bit back another sharp reply, it just wasn't worth it. Instead, I spun on my heal and started disassembling the camp. I kicked dirt over the glowing embers that remained of our fire, making sure that it was completely extinguished. Then, I started to gather up any trash that we had made and tossed it into the bushes.

    When the camp was cleared I slung my katana and pack over my shoulders and turned back to Andy. He was still sitting on the ground watching me. His pack was on his shoulders along with his bow and shotgun.

    "I would have helped," he said. "But you didn't seem like you needed any." He stood up and brushed himself off.

    "Whatever, let's just get going," I said, too tired to argue. "The more distance we put between ourselves and the Raiders, the better."

    Andy gave a brief nod and we set off, weaving our way through the trees until we reached the highway again. I stopped briefly, looking back in the direction of the town we had come from the day before. There wasn't anything to see except trees and an empty stretch of road.

    "What is it?" Andy asked.

    I shook my head. "Nothing." I said.

    I turned around and started down the highway, Andy walking beside me. The morning was still dim and every once and a while Andy would trip over something letting out a silent curse. We walked in silence for a long time. I didn't mind it though, I was used to silence. To having nothing but my own thoughts to listen too.

    The road we walked was empty. Here and there large weeds sprung up from cracks in the asphalt. At on point we passed by a car that had veered off the road and smashed into a tree. The the front of the car was completely destroyed, wrapping around the tree. The front and back windshields were completely smashed and tall weeds grew out of the inside. I wondered what had happened to the driver off the car and what had made the car crash. If I looked inside, would I find the withered husk of a body or had the driver somehow escaped from the wreckage. The thoughts only briefly occupied my mind and as we passed by the wreck and when it was out of sight, all thoughts off it left my mind.

    An hour passed, then two. I looked at Andy walking beside me. He looked straight ahead as he walked, his eyes glassy. I knew there were things that he hadn't told me about his past, horrible things that he would never tell anyone. Everyone out here has them, things that they have seen or done that keep them up at night, keep them questioning why they deserve to live when everyone else had died. I know I did.

    I decided to pull Andy into a conversation to bring him out of whatever horrible nightmares he was revisiting in his memories.

    "So Andy," I said. "Where'd you learn to shoot a bow and arrow?"

    Andy's eyes cleared and he looked over at me. "What?"

    "Where'd you learn to shoot a bow and arrow," I repeated gesturing slightly at the bow slung across his shoulders.

    He looked down at the string of the bow that crossed over his chest as if he had forgotten it was there. "Oh, uh.... my dad used to take me out hunting all the time before, well, you know." He shrugged. "We, my dad and I, used to be really close."

    "Ah," I said. It wasn't the answer I had expected. Most people out here learned how to use a weapon after Day Zero, purely out of necessity. People that knew how to hunt before had an advantage, it might explain how Andy had made it this far. "I never got to know my dad... or my mom for that matter. My grandparents raised me."

    "What happened to them?" Andy asked.

    I shrugged. "I don't really know. My grandmother used to tell me that they died in a car accident or something, but I knew she was lying."

    "How'd you know?"

    "Because my grandfather told me the truth. He said that both my mother and father were druggies. When my mom found out she was pregnant she came back home long enough to have me and then she disappeared again, left me with her parents so she could get high whenever she wanted without having to worry about taking care of a kid."

    I kicked a stone that was in my path and watched it clatter away. "To be honest, I hope they're both dead. I hope they were torn apart by zombies."

    An awkward silence fell between us then. I didn't want to say anymore and Andy didn't say anything else, and I was grateful for that. I don't know what I would have said after dropping a bomb like that.

    Over the next hour as we walked, houses started popping up along the road that we walked on until we stopped at the edge of a new town.

    It was small not much bigger than the one we had just escaped from. By then, the houses had made way for small shops, and businesses that lined the street. But they weren't the reason why we stopped. Right in the middle of the street, stretching from building to building, was an over turned semi truck. It must have crashed years ago, the top of the truck was facing us. The cab of the truck had smashed into a building, bringing it down on top of it. It blocked the road entirely and I couldn't see any easy way around it.

    "What do we do about that?" Andy asked.

    "We climb over it," I said. I walked over to the truck and looked at it closely.

    The bed of the truck was a plain white with a silvery metal along the edges. Silver rivets lined the edges of each sheet of metal. It was about eight feet high. I put a hand on the surface. The metal was cold and hard.

    "Make yourself useful and help me up." I said, turning back to Andy. "Once I'm on top I'll pull you up."

    "Sure, works for me," Andy said. He walked over to the truck and adjusted the string of his bow across his chest before interlacing his fingers together and bending over slightly.

    I back up a few steps as he got into position. When he was ready he gave me a slight nod. I sprinted forward a few steps before reaching him. I made sure my right foot landed in his hands and I felt him push me upwards. I grabbed onto the top edge and easily climbed up.

    Once I was on the top of the truck I stood up and looked out. The town was even smaller than it had seemed from the other side. The street was packed with cars . Directly below me, a pile of cars sat right up against the truck and a handful of zombies shuffled through the maze.

    Instinctively, I began making mental notes about the area. Noticing where the zombies were the thickest, noting shops that might prove fruitful to loot. I was so lost in thought I had completely forgotten about Andy until he loudly cleared his throat.

    "Are you going to help me up or are you just going to stand there sight-seeing all day?" He called up.

        I shook my head, chasing away any last wandering thoughts. "Right, sorry." I knelt down at the edge of the truck and held a hand down to him.

    He reached up with his left and grabbed my arm. As I started pulling him up, the sleeve on his left arm dropped down and revealed something just below his wrist.

    When I saw it the world seemed to fall away. My body seemed to move on it's own as I released my hold on Andy's arm and drew my katana.

    He fell back to the ground landing on his ass and letting out a loud, "Oof."

    "What the hell?" Andy said but when he looked up at me, sword in hand, he froze. "Lauren?"

    "You told me that zombie didn't bite you!" I yelled at him.

    Confusion filled his eyes. "What are you talking abou-" He started to say but his eyes widened and darted down to where the bite mark was still visible on his arm. He quickly pulled his sleeve down, covering it back up.

    "Lauren, wait, it's not what you think."

    I couldn't control my anger. He had used me. I had let down my guard and he had taken full advantage of it. I knew I should have killed him the moment I saw him. "Then what is it Andy, huh? Are you going to tell me that isn't a bite? I'm not fucking stupid!" I gripped the hilt of my katana so hard my knuckles turned white.

    He bowed his head. "No, you're right, it is a bite." He said in a low voice. "But it's old."

    "Old? What do you mean, old?" I snapped.

    "I mean," he said looking back up at me. "that this bite is from two weeks ago."

    I furrowed my brow in confusion, my anger faltering slightly. "What?"

    Andy sighed. "I said I was bitten two weeks ago."

    I didn't understand what he was saying. It wasn't possible. Everyone who was bitten by a zombie turned within 48 hours. Was he lying? Was it another trick?

    The tip of my katana fell until it was resting on the top of the truck. "But... how is that possible?" My mind was running in circles. 

    Andy sighed, "I don't know. But if you let me, I'll tell you everything I do."

    I didn't say anything, I couldn't seem to get my mouth to work right. In a daze, I nodded and sheathed my katana and knelt down one more, reaching out a hand. Andy stood up slowly and grabbed on and I helped him all of the way onto the truck. Once he was standing in front of me, I broke out of my daze. 

    "Show it to me." I demanded. I had to see the bite for myself, up close.

    Andy held up his arm to me, palm up. I stepped forward and grabbed his arm, pulling back the sleeve quickly and there it was. It was undoubtedly a human bite. Two crescent moon shapes marked the skin on his forearm, parallel with his arm. But they weren't fresh wounds. The marks were scabbed over and both had already begun to heal and scar around the edges. The undamaged skin between the two marks was a faint yellow color of a bruise that was almost healed. Unable to stop myself, I ran a finger lightly over the wound, the skin was smooth except for the scabbed part. "Are you sure it was a zombie that bit you, not some human?"

    "Yes, I'm sure."

    I looked over the bite one last time before dropping his arm and stepping back. I crossed my arms over my chest.

    "Alright, start talking."

    Andy dropped his arm and pulled his sleeve back down. "There's really not much to say. I got careless and I got bitten but I never turned. I don't know why, I just didn't," he said.

    "Why didn't you tell me?" I said.

    He shrugged. "To be honest I had actually kind of forgotten about it."

    I raised my eyebrows. "You forgot? You've got to be kidding me." I uncrossed my arms and put them at my sides, my hands balled into fists.

    "I had other things on my mind," he said. "I was in that town I found you in because I heard that there were clues about New Eden there."

    "New Eden? What the hell is New Eden?" I interrupted.

    He started at me in surprise. "What, you don't know?"

    I glared at him and he held up his hands. "Sorry, I just thought it was common knowledge. It's supposed to be the last safe zone left."

    Safe zone? That was a word I hadn't heard in a while. Safe zones were areas set up by the military shortly after Day Zero. They were communities set up for survivors. Each one was heavily guarded, any zombie that came close was shot down. They worked well for a while, there was even a time when I considered joining one, but by the time I had made up my mind to do so, almost all of them had fallen apart, overrun and abandoned.

    "But, I thought they were all destroyed." I said.

    Andy shrugged again. "Not all of them."

    I was silent for a long time. If what Andy was saying was true, if there really was another safe zone out there, then it changed everything. All I've ever wanted was to feel safe again, to not have to struggle, both physically and mentally, every single day just to keep going, to keep on living.

    "Are you sure that it's real?" I asked quietly.

    "As sure as I can be," he said in reply.

    I hesitated again. Andy had lied to me, deceived me, but if there really was another safe zone, he was the best shot I had at finding it.

    It pained me to say the next sentence. "Alright, fine. I will go with you to find New, whatever it was."

    "Eden." Andy supplied.

    "New Eden, whatever. But I'm warning you , If you ever lie to me again, I will not hesitate to kill you on the spot. Is that clear?"

    Andy looked relieved. "Yes."

    "Good," I said. I turned on my heel and hopped down off of the roof of the truck and started walking away.

    "Hey wait! Where are you going?" Andy said.

    ​"Away from you." I paused and looked back at Andy who was still standing on the truck. "Don't follow me." I said and I turned around again and kept walking.

7: Chapter 7: Losing Control
Chapter 7: Losing Control

    I had to be alone. I had to clear my head. Everything was backwards and I didn't know what to believe any more. I ran down the first alley I saw and pressed my back against the wall. My mind was a swirling hurricane of emotions. Anger, confusion, grief. It was overwhelming. I had spent so many days alone, I had forgotten how it felt to feel. I felt tears stinging in my eyes and furiously blinked them away.

    I pushed off from the wall and looked around me in the alley. There was an old, rusted dumpster against the wall across from me. I ran over to it and climbed on top. From there, I dug my fingers into the small cracks and ledges that adorned the side of the building and started to climb. It was slow work, trying to find large enough hand and foot holds to support my weight. At one point, my hand slipped and the rough stone of the wall scraped the skin from my palm. I barely noticed the pain and kept climbing, leaving bloody marks on the wall each time I placed down my hand.

    I reached the top and stood up, closing my eyes and feeling the wind on my face. I felt like screaming, but I kept quiet. I kept my emotions inside me.

    I knew why Andy had chosen not to tell me about the bite, but it didn't make it any easier to know that he had lied to me. It wasn't that I felt betrayed, it was the fact that I had finally let myself trust anyone besides myself only to have it come around and bite me in the end that made it so difficult.

    My fist thought was to run. Run from all of the emotions, run from everything, and run I did.

    I started sprinting the length of the rooftop, the wind whipping at my face. When I reached the edge, I planted one foot firmly, and jumped. My body soared over the gap between one building and the next.

    I landed on the other roof and softened my impact by tucking my body into a roll. Without giving myself anytime to think, I straightened back up and began running again, gravel crunching under my feet.

    I jumped between two more rooftops before coming to a halt at the edge of the final building. The next roof was a good fifteen feet away, separated by a road. There was no way I would be able to jump a length like that so I backed up from the edge.

    My heart was pounding in my chest and and I was slightly out of breath, but I was still feeling. I reached back and slowly pulled out my katana, bringing it in front of me and examining it closely.

    The blade itself was about three and a half feet long and ever so slightly curved upwards. The hilt of the sword was wrapped in black leather and the blade was as sharp as a razor without a single nick on the edge of the metal.

    I lifted it and slashed it down and to the left. The blade was met with little to no resistance as it cut through the air with a soft whoosh. Then, I brought it up so that it was just above my eyes and parallel to the ground. I widened my stance, placing my feet farther apart. In one quick motion, I twisted the blade so that hilt and the tip switched sides, and slashed from side to side. For the next few hours, I practiced with my katana, performing move after move, each one slightly more complex than the one before.

    I only stopped when the sun began to set. My shirt was soaked in sweat but I didn't care. As I had practiced I was able to sort through my emotions, pushing them into some deep recess of my mind and shutting them inside. I was in control of myself once again. I reached back, re-sheathed my katana and took a deep breath. I was ready to go back and confront Andy. I needed answers and I was going to get them one way or another.

    I walked over to the side of the building away from the street and looked down. built into the wall was a very rusty ladder, that lead down into the alley floor, three stories below me. It didn't look very stable but it was the easiest and fastest way down from where I was.

    I knelt down and grabbed the top wrung, slowly and carefully placing my full weight onto the ladder. The metal groaned in complaint and I froze in place, waiting to see if the ladder would give out. When nothing happened, I slowly began descending down the ladder.

    I didn't get very far before a loud, grating screech tore through the air. I didn't have any time to react and the next thing I knew, I was falling the last sixteen feet or so, to the ground.

    I landed hard on my back, my head cracking painfully on the floor. All the air was knocked out of my lungs. The towel I had folded up against the back wall of my pack, saved me from any further injury when I landed on it.

    I tried to suck in a breath but my lungs didn't seem to want to cooperate. Above me, the rusted ladder had torn away from the brick wall and had bent almost at a ninety degree angle.

    I stayed on my back, unable to move. Back spots danced in my vision as I desperately tried to get air back into my lungs. Just as I had finally managed to suck in a small breath of air, a soft moan sounded through the air. Pure panic flared up inside of me as I tried to see where it had come from. Through blurry eyes, I saw that two zombies stood at the entrance of the alley.

    Without thinking, I clumsily scrambled to my feet and pulled out my katana. As I brought the blade in front of me, a terrible pain ripped through my side and I almost dropped it.

    I couldn't focus my eyes, the world was spinning around me. I could barely make out the first zombie as it came charging at me. I swung my katana blindly at where I thought it's neck was.

    Out of sheer dumb luck I managed to hit my mark and the zombie went down but the mix of pain and dizziness was almost too much and I fell to one knee. As I fought to remain conscience, the second zombie ran into me and we both fell backwards. My katana fell from my hand and clattered across the stone pavement. A rush of adrenaline broke through my foggy mind and I rolled to the side, kicking out blindly. My foot made contact and pushed the zombie away, buying me a few seconds. Without taking my eyes off the the zombie, I slid my hand slid over the pavement around me, looking for something to use as a weapon. My fingers brushed over a loose brick and I snatched it up, lunging forward just as the zombie had started getting back to its feet.

    I smashed the brick into its face and it fell sideways, landing on its back. I smashed the brick into the zombie's head again and again and again. I didn't stop until its head was nothing but a pulverized pile of rotten goo.

    I stepped away from the zombie, breathing hard, my heart pounding in my ears. I looked back down at the zombie in horror, the brick rolling from my fingers. I had gone too far. I had kept going even after I knew it had been dead. What I just done was something a Raider would do.

    The dizziness came back worse than before and I stumbled on my feet. I turned away, bile rising up in my throat. My foot hit something and I tripped, falling onto my hands and knees. My stomach lurched and I wretched, throwing up everything that was in my stomach onto the floor of the alleyway. My arms collapsed under me and I fell to the side, my head pounding. I tried to get up, I knew I had to get up, it was too dangerous to stay out in the open, but my body felt like it was made of lead. Black spots swam in my vision, getting larger and larger.

    "This is it," I thought. "This is where I'm going to die." For some reason, though, I wasn't scared of the thought. The urge to fight the darkness seemed more and more pointless until I finally just gave up and allowed myself to embrace the darkness.

 

**********

    The sound of chirping birds woke me up. I opened my eyes slowly and stared up at a smooth white ceiling. I smiled at the sight, it was familiar, comforting. I slowly gained consciousness of the rest of my body bit by bit. I was laying on something soft. When I looked down, I saw a familiar brown comforter draped over-top of me.

    I smiled and closed my eyes again, snuggling up against my pillow, I was in my room again, everything was all right. Then, with a jolt, everything came flooding back. The outbreak, five years of pain and suffering, everything.

    My eyes flew open and I bolted upright. I was still in my room, everything was clean and, normal. It all looked exactly like I remembered it to be. The white walls and brown accented furniture, my closet full of clothes, even the bookshelf that was literally overflowing with books.

    I jumped out of the bed and ran to the mirror that hung on my door. I hardly recognized the girl I saw reflected back at me. It was me, but it was a me I had almost forgotten about. A girl with long black hair, and bright, eyes, free from the hollowed look of misery, wearing the oversized t-shirt that I used to always wear to bed. Frantically, I inspected my arms and legs. The skin was smooth and unblemished, completely free of the lattice work of scars that I had gained over the years.

    I backed away from the mirror, almost tripping as the back of my knees hit the foot of my bed. I sat down hard my hands shaking. "It has to be a dream," I thought. "This isn't real. It can't be real."

    I scanned my room, looking for something sharp. There was a small, silver pair of scissors on my dresser. I jumped up from the bed and snatched them up in one hand.

    I vaguely remembered someone telling me once that you couldn't feel pain in dreams. "I have to be sure," I thought. I put my left hand palm down on the dresser top and lifted the scissors up in my right. "I have to be sure."

    Just as I was about to plunge the scissors into my hand, a familiar voice called out. "Lauren, breakfast is ready!"    

    My breath caught in my throat and the scissors clattered to the floor. I ran to the door and flung it open, I didn't even notice anything else around me as I ran down through the house I had grown up in until I reached the kitchen. I skidded to a halt in the doorway.

    There she was, standing in front of the stainless steel stove, flipping a pancake. She looked exactly as I remembered, curly white hair cut short and styled up, light red lipstick on her thin lips, and wearing a simple blue shirt and tan capris and fluffy pink slippers. She even had on the apron I had given her one year for her birthday that said, 'loves to cook' in loopy letters.

    She flipped the pancake she was cooking onto a stack of already made pancakes and looked up as she noticed me in the doorway. Her blue eyes caught mine and she smiled. "There you are," she said in her beautifully familiar voice. "I was starting to think you had decided to skip breakfast."

    Memories flashed in my mind. Of her, crouched in the dark living room like a wild animal, smeared across her face and spattered all over her clothes and in her hair. My vision went slightly blurry as tears filled them.

    I ran forwards and hugged her tightly. She seemed surprised hesitating only a moment before hugging me back. "Lauren what is it? What's wrong?"

    I just shook my head and hugged her tighter. "Nothing, I... I just missed you so much."

    She laughed and pulled back, holding me at arms length with a hand on each of my shoulders. "It's only been a few hours."

    I laughed slightly too and wiped the tears from my eyes. "I know... I just, I love you."

    She smiled. "I love you too sweetie."

    Suddenly, her grip on my shoulders tightened and she began to shake me, still keeping the the sweet smile on her face.

    "What are you doing?" I asked. I tried to break away but her grip was too strong.

    She began to say my name over and over shaking me the whole while. "I'm right here grandma, please stop!" I said but she just kept smiling sweetly. Then she reached up a hand slapped me across the face.

    My eyes flew open. Someone leaned over me, hands grasping my shoulders, but it wasn't my grandmother. Panic flared inside of me and my hand flashed down to the knife at my belt. I seized it and slashed out wildly. The person drew back with a cry of pain and I scrambled backward until my back hit a wall. I held my knife up defensively in a shaky hand. Night had fallen, bathing everything in darkness but the full moon provided just enough light to see. I realized, suddenly, that I knew the person in front of me.

    "Andy?" I said, lowering my knife. " What are you doing here?"

    "I could ask you the same thing." He said. He had a cut on his cheek that trailed fresh blood but he ignored it. "When you didn't show up I went looking for you. What the hell happened here?"

    For a second I couldn't remember where I was or why I was there. Then, I saw the zombie on the ground behind Andy, its head looked like it had gone through a blender. Memories began seeping back into my mind, one by one. 

    I groaned and rubbed my temples where a sharp, throbbing pain had just started to form. My chest hurt with each breath I took.

    "Nothing happened," I told him. "I was attacked by a couple of zombies. I took care of it."

    Andy sat back on his heels. "You took care of it, huh? Then why did I find you passed out next to a couple of dead zombies?" His eyes widened suddenly. "You weren't bitten were you?"

    I stopped rubbing my temples and shot Andy a nasty glare. "I wasn't bitten."

    "Then what happened? Why were you unconscious?"

    I opened my mouth to answer him, to explain but I quickly closed it again. Why did I have to tell him anything? What had happened to me was my problem.

    So, instead of answering his question I stood up. As soon as I was standing I was hit with a wave of dizziness and my head felt like it was splitting open. I stumbled and almost fell back down, a fuzzy haze clouding my vision. I leaned heavily against the wall just to stay upright.

    "Not good." I thought. "Really not good." My vision began to clear the dark haze receiving from my field of view. The world still spun around me and my head still pulsed with an intense pain.

    For the past 5 years I had read every medical book I had found as I was looting. When you're surviving alone, you can't exactly afford to be injured without knowing exactly what to do. I frantically searched my memory, sifting through my memories until I finally found what I was looking for.

    "Concussion." The word forced it's way into my thoughts. "I have a concussion." And suddenly I remembered my head slamming into the floor of the alley when I had fallen from the ladder.

    I slowly lifted my hand to feel the back of my head. My fingers brushed over a large knot on the back of my head and I winced at the sharp stab of pain that raced through my head when I touched it.

    When I brought I brought my hand back in front of me, my fingers were covered in blood.

    "Shit." I said out loud. At that moment, the dizziness became too much and I slid back down to the ground.

    "Lauren?" Andy said. He sprang forward and reached out to touch my shoulder.

    I shoved him away roughly. "Don't fucking touch me" I shouted at him. The act of it caused my throb painfully again and I shut my eyes tightly trying to subdue the pain, even a little.

    I couldn't see what Andy did after that but he didn't try to touch me again. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke up again in a soft voice.

    "Look, I know you're probably still really pissed at me." He began. "But look at yourself, Lauren. You can't even stand up on your own. Could you please tell me what happened to you so I can help?"

    "I don't need your help." I said, not opening my eyes. It seemed to help with the pain a bit.

    I knew it was a lie. I knew that, if my suspicions were correct and I did have a concussion, the fact that I had actually passed out meant that this was serious. Even though I knew all of this, I refused to accept the fact that I needed help from anyone, especially from Andy.

    Andy sighed heavily. "That's bullshit and you know it." he said.

    I gritted my teeth. I wanted to punch him, I wanted to prove just how much I hated him, but I knew I couldn't, not in the state I was in.

    The next thing I knew I was being lifted from the ground. My eyes flew open. Andy had picked me up. I struggled against him, my head feeling like some one was stabbing it repeatedly with an ice pick. But I didn't have my full strength and no matter how much I struggled I couldn't break free. Black spots once again began to crowd my vision again. With the last bit I strength had, curled my hand into a fist and punched blindly out at him. I felt my hand connect with something hard but by that time, the darkness had taken over my vision so much that I couldn't see where I had hit.

    The last thing I remembered was Andy letting out a loud curse before I drifted away into blackness once more.

8: Chapter 8: A Painful Past
Chapter 8: A Painful Past

    Suddenly I found myself back in the doorway to the kitchen of the house I grew up in. My grandmother was standing in front of the stove, still making pancakes. For several moments, I stood frozen in the doorway. I didn't know what was happening anymore everything looked so real.

    Something brushed against my leg, breaking me out of my daze. I looked down and saw my cat, Lavender, leaning up against my leg and looking up at me with bright, yellow eyes. She was a young calico, only a little over a year old. My grandfather had come home with her one day and had given her to me as a gift. I crouched down and gently rubbed behind her ears. She purred loudly and put her front paws on my leg.

    "I caught her playing with the toilet paper again," my grandmother said. "Try to remember to close the door when you leave."

    I looked back up at her and instantly fell back. It was no longer my grandmother who looked down at me, but a zombie. It's skin was waxen and sickly looking. It's hair was white and was missing in places. It wore the same apron that I had given to my grandmother, but it was covered in blood. Its eyes were a milky gray and there was blood all around its mouth and down its front.

    "What's the matter, Lauren?" The zombie spoke with my grandmother's voice. When its mouth opened I could see that it's teeth were also covered in blood. It took a step towards me and I scrambled back until my back hit a wall. I heard a loud hiss and saw that Lavender was snarling at the zombie, her back arched and her tail fluffed up to twice it's normal size. The zombie looked at her and lunged, the sound that came from it no longer sounded like my grandmother but like a wild animal.

    Without thinking, I lunged forward and wrapped myself around Lavender. I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, waiting for the pain of the zombie sinking its teeth into my skin, but it never came. After a minute, I slowly opened my eyes again.

    I wasn't in my house anymore, I wasn't anywhere for that matter. An impenetrable blackness surrounded me and yet I could see myself clearly as if there was light only on me. I sat up, but Lavender was no longer underneath me. It was as if she had just vanished. Slowly, I stood up looking around trying to something, anything in the darkness but there was nothing.

    "Why didn't you save me?" a voice spoke. I whirled around and my grandmother stood several feet away from me looking healthy and alive once again.

    "Why didn't you save me?" She said again.

    I tried to answer, I wanted to say that I tried, that I wanted to save her, but no sound came out.

    "You could have saved me," She said and as I watched she slowly started to rot, her eyes going milky and her skin turning waxy until she no longer looked anything like my grandmother.

    At the same time, other forms started to come into view from around me, materializing from the darkness. I recognized the faces of every single person that surrounded me. To my left stood an older man, in a business suit, his head shiny and bald, that I had watched be torn apart by a zombie just a few days after Day Zero. I had been in a city, surrounded by chaos as people frantically ran trying to get out of the city. I had run into and alley and climbed up to the first platform of a fire-escape to try and keep from being trampled and to catch my breath. While I was sitting there the bald man in the suit had run into the alley closely followed by a zombie with a chunk of its neck bitten off. The alley had led to a dead end and I remember him hitting the back wall and turning around. He saw me sitting on the fire escape, made eye contact with me. He screamed at me to help him. While I was nowhere near as good a fighter then as I was now, I had a pistol with me then. I could have shot the zombie, I could have saved him, but I didn't have that many bullets and I wanted to use them for when I was in danger and at that time I wasn't. So I turned away from him and climbed higher up the ladder listening to his screams as he died.

    Next to the bald man stood a young boy, maybe 12 or 13, and a skinny german shepherd that I had shot myself. I had found them just two years after Day Zero in an old abandoned house in the country. I had gone into loot and found them in a bedroom on the second floor. The boy had been lying on a bed had a large bite to his shoulder, covered in blood. The german shepherd had been standing at the foot of the bed with several large gashes to its body. It had tried to attack me when I came in, but I had downed it with my katana. Next to the dog, on the ground was a dead zombie covered in bites and gouges probably the work of the dog. After I had killed the dog the boy had started to cry. He was close to death himself if he hadn't turned first. So, without even blinking, I had taken my gun out and shot him right between the eyes then went about looting the rest of the house.

    There were countless more faces around me, all of them dead because of what I did or didn't do. People I could have saved and chose not to, people I killed with my own hands out of mercy or for one reason or another. And they all said the same thing over and over.

    "Why didn't you save us?" they all said, chanting it, surrounding me with it.

    They started to crowd in around me each one rotting as they moved until I was surrounded by a mob of zombies, each one reaching out and gnashing their teeth. Their voices turned to groans ringing in my ears until it was too painful to handle. I clamped my hands over my ears, fell to my knees, screwing my eyes tightly shut and I screamed.

    I bolted upright, my skin covered in sweat. For just a few moments, I was confused. I was surrounded by darkness. Slowly the world came into focus around me as my mind broke free from the clutches of the nightmare that had woken me up. I was in a large, open room. It was completely empty except for a large amount of leaves and garbage that must have been blown in over the years. The floor was covered in a thin, ratty carpet. Rain softly pattered against the roof of the building and against an unbroken window above me.

    My head ached with a dull throbbing pain, but it didn't hurt anywhere nearly as bad as it had before. I reached up to touch the back of my head. There was still a large knot on the back of my skull but it was slightly smaller and when I removed my hand from it, my fingers were free of blood. I groaned and brought my knees up to my chest. A saw a bit of movement out of the corner of my eye and I quickly looked towards it.

    Andy was leaning up against the wall on the opposite side of the room. Around him, scattered all over the ground, were a multitude of half-tear-drop shaped, black and orange pieces. Leaning against the wall next to him were about four arrows, each one with three of the black and orange pieces near the notch of the arrow. He held one of the arrows in one of his hands and a used bottle of superglue in the other.

    He was watching me, not saying a word. The bottle of superglue was raised towards the arrow, but he wasn't moving it. I noticed that he had a small gash on his right cheek.

    I didn't know what to say to him. What I should have done was apologized for lashing out, thanked him for helping my but I couldn't seem to get my mouth to form the words. For some reason, it didn't feel right. Thanking him would mean that I acknowledged that I had been wrong. That I did indeed need help and I just couldn't do it. So instead, I looked away.

    Next to me, leaning against the wall, was my katana and my backpack.

    I spoke then, not even looking back at Andy when I said it. "How long was I out?" I asked him.

    "Almost two days," he replied.

    I closed my eyes. I was ashamed of myself. Andy had saved me twice. I would be dead now if it wasn't for him and I still couldn't bring myself to admit it out loud or even thank him for it.

    'If Andy wasn't here none of this would have happened,' a small voice in the back of my mind said. 'Who's to say you couldn't have killed that Runner in the gas station yourself? And if you hadn't met Andy you wouldn't have been on that fire escape when it gave out in the first place. If it weren't for Andy, you'd still be doing just fine.'

    Even as I thought it, I knew I was just lying to myself. True, if I hadn't met Andy I wouldn't have fallen, but there was no way I could have said that I would have been fine without him. Everyone makes mistakes, out here though, a mistake can kill you. It was only a matter of time before I would have done something that would have killed me. Everyone is living on borrowed time. There's no such thing as a 'long and happy life' anymore.

    I took a deep breath before I opened my eyes again. I balled my hands into fists in my lap tightly before just letting go and opening my hands so that my palms faced up. I thought about all the things my hands had done, all the people I had killed or hurt, how many lives I had ended. They were the hands of a killer.

    "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being such a dick." I said out loud without looking up at Andy.

    For a long time, he didn't say anything. The sound of raindrops hitting the building was the only sound in the darkness.

    Then, he spoke, but his voice was different, sadder almost. "I had lied when I told you that I never found my sister," he said.

    I looked back at him then. He was still watching me although he had set the bottle of superglue and the arrow aside. All the light had gone from his eyes. He looked defeated like he could no longer keep up whatever act he had been playing.

    "I did find her," he continued, 'two weeks ago."

    He dropped his gaze and gently picked up one of the orange pieces from the ground and began rolling it in between his fingers.

    "I found her in an old playground that I used to take her to all the time. When I found her she had her back to me so I didn't know...I didn't know..."

    He clenched his hand into a fist around the orange piece then dropped it into in his lap. "I called out to her and when she turned around it wasn't her... anymore. She ran at me, snarling like some... animal. I froze up then. I should have run, but I couldn't get my legs to move. By the time I finally was able to snap out of it, it was too late. She ran into me and we both went down. I panicked. I kicked her away, grabbed my shotgun, and I... I..." He bowed his head and I could see a single tear run down his cheek. "I shot her, dammit! I shot my goddam sister right in the face!"

    I remembered the dream I had before. I remembered all the people I had watched die or had killed myself, all the people I could have saved, but didn't. I liked to tell myself that I did what I had to do, that if I hadn't done what I had, I wouldn't be alive, but I knew it really wasn't true. I didn't have to do some of the things I did, yet I did them all-the-same. I felt a mix of jealousy and pity for Andy. He was a good person and he didn't deserve what he had to go through. We all have our own crosses to bear out here, some more than others.

    "What was her name?" I asked him.

    "Abigail," he said, not raising his head.

    "You didn't do it, you know," I said quietly, drawing my knees up to my chest. Doing so cause a small amount of pain in my ribs but I ignored it.

    "What?"

    "You didn't kill your sister. She was already gone."

    "Thank you," he said.

    I gave a soft 'm'hmm,' in reply, watching the rain drum against the window.

    "So where is the safe zone that you talked about?" I asked, looking back at him.

    Andy took a deep breath and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. I couldn't help myself from staring at his arm as if I could see the bite beneath the fabric."To be honest, I don't really know exactly where it is. All I know is that it's somewhere in Texas."

    "You do know how big Texas is, right?" I asked.

    Andy nodded, as he talked a bit of the light returned to his eyes until he seemed to be almost back to his annoying overly-happy self. "Yeah, I do. But I heard that it was somewhere near the south-eastern coast so that narrows it down a bit"

    "I'm assuming you've never been to Texas then, have you?"

    He shook his head.

    I sighed and winced slightly at the pain the it caused in my chest. "Figures," I said. "Well, the state line isn't too far away from here. It should only take us two or three days to walk it."

    "Us? Does that mean you're still coming with me?"

    I rolled my eyes. "I made a promise didn't I?"

    Andy paused before he replied. "You've been all over the place here haven't you?"

    "I've had nothing but time," I said. "We'll leave the first thing tomorrow morning."

    "Are you sure you should rest for a day or two more?" Andy asked.

    I shook my head. "The better we get out of here the better. Besides, I feel fine now." It was really only half a lie. My head and chest still hurt, but I didn't want to stay in one place any longer than I had to. Staying on one place for too long can make it harder to leave it you have to. It can also make it easier for Raiders to find.    

    There was a long silence between the two of us. After a minute, I reached back and grabbed my katana from the wall and set it in my lap. It gave me comfort just to hold it my hands. I ran my hand lightly over the smooth surface of the sheath before I pulled the blade from it. Slowly and methodically, I inspected the blade, looking for any nick in the metal when it had been knocked from my hand in the alley, but it was undamaged.

    I ran my thumb over the sharpened blade and winced when I felt a sharp pain. I pulled my thumb away and watched as  beads of blood welled up from the cut. Instead of wiping the blood away, I pinched the skin around the cut making the blood flow faster. It hurt, but I didn't really care about it. The pain was proof that I was still alive, that I was still me. After a minute, I brought my thumbs to my lips and licked the blood from it.

    "Hey Lauren, can I ask you something?" Andy asked in a quiet voice.

    I didn't look at him. I grabbed the sheath of my katana and started to re-sheath it. "What is it?"

    "How many people have you killed?"

    There was a sharp 'snap' as the sheath hit the metal guard at the end of the blade.

    I bowed my head and stared down at the katana in my lap. There was a time when I might have been called shy. Before Day Zero, I was happy blending into the background and not drawing attention to myself. It's amazing how much someone can change in just 5 years.

    "Too many," I finally said. 

    I set my katana on the floor beside me and my eyes fell on my pack pushed into the corner. I grabbed in and pulled it towards me, unzipping the smallest pouch at the very front. From inside, I pulled out a small, flat, oval-shaped rock. It was blue with small flecks of gold and it was polished smooth. On one side, it had an indent that was just big enough for a thumb to rest on. 

    The rock itself had been given to me by my grandfather when I was young. He had called it a worry stone and had told me that, if I ever felt sad or alone, all I had to do was hold the stone in my hand and it would protect me and give me strength. I couldn't remember the last time I had actually taken it out. I ran my thumb over the smooth surface of the stone before closing my hand around it tightly.

    "I'm not a bad person," I thought to myself as I squeezed the stone tightly. "I'm not a bad person."

    But no matter how many times I said the words, I knew they couldn't change all the things I had done, all the people I had killed. I slowly opened my fingers again and looked at the stone before I turned my hand over and let it fall to the ground. "Yes, you are." 

____________________________________________________________________________________

    I woke up early the next morning. The room was empty when I had first woken up and for a second I thought that Andy might have left. Then, I spotted him sitting in the doorway that led outside, leaning against the doorframe. He looked at me and gave me a small nod before looking back outside. I slung, first my katana, and then my pack, over my shoulders before I stood up and walked over towards Andy.

    He let out a large sigh before getting to his feet and turning to face me. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

    My ribs still ached and my head would throb painfully every once and a while but other than that. I felt the same as I always did. 

    "I'm fine, and if you ask me that one more time, I'm going to punch you." I said and I pushed past him. 

    Outside, the sun had just barely started to rise tinging the eastern horizon a light salmon color. Down the sidewalk to the right of me I noticed a dead zombie lying on the ground. Farther down was a second zombie that had an aluminum arrow sticking out of the back of its head that was slightly bent. Both of the zombies look freshly killed and I realized that the bent arrow looked exactly like the arrows Andy used. I didn't say anything about it, I just turned in the opposite direction and started walking. 

    I passed by shattered storefronts and abandoned cars. As I walked I saw quite a few more zombies lying dead on the street, each one with a fresh hole somewhere in their head. I knew that Andy had killed these zombies but for some reason, each one I saw made me angry although I didn't know why they did. After a while, the dead zombies were replaced with live ones although they were all slow and easy to avoid.

    In one of the cars that I passed, there was still buckled into its seat. When we passed it, it moaned loudly and reached towards us banging against the window of the car.

    We hadn't been walking for more than half an hour Andy when had suddenly stopped beside me. At first I hadn't even noticed that he was no longer next to me. As soon as I did, I turned around and saw him standing, frozen in place, staring at something across the road.

    On the other side of the street, almost hidden behind a car, stood a zombie. It didn't look like it had been much older than six when the little girl it used to be, had turned into the creature it was now. It had long, straight, brown hair that was tangled and ratty, and it wore a pink polka dot nightgown that was spattered with dry blood. In one of its hands, hanging limp as it side, was a filthy teddy bear. I couldn't see its face because its head was bowed as if it was looking at something on the ground. Every once and a while, its body would twitch violently.

    When the outbreak started the children had been some of the first to go. They would try to run to parents and relatives who had turned, not knowing any better and those who survived the initial chaos of the outbreak didn't last very long.

    I walked back over to andy, moving carefully and keeping my eye on the zombie in case it noticed me. 

    "Andy." I said in a low voice, but he didn't show any sign that he had heard me. He just stood, not moving, staring at the zombie girl.

    I tried again, speaking a little louder. "Andy, we have to go."

    "She looks like her," he said, not even bothering to lower his voice. I shot a worried glance at the zombie, but it hadn't moved.

    "Who?" I asked.

    "Abigail."

    Although he had never actually spoken her name, I knew who Abigail was.

    "Andy, Abigail is dead," I said. "We have to keep moving."

    Before Andy could say anything else, a shot rang out from somewhere close by followed by a loud scream. In an instant, the zombie's head snapped up and turned towards the general direction that the scream had come from. Its face was absolutely grotesque. Its eyes were missing leaving only dark pits. It's cheeks had been slashed through, letting its jaw dangle down a bit and revealing a mouth that was mutilated and missing a tongue.

    The zombie turned around sharply. Then it broke into a sprint, still clutching the teddy bear, heading away from us and letting out an inhuman wail.

    "That wasn't far," I said keeping my eyes where the zombie had run. I reached down a grabbed my knife from my belt.

    I turned back to Andy. "We have to go," I repeated to him.

    He looked at me, but his eyes were filled with pain and haunted by memories.     

    "Come on," I said. I grabbed Andy's wrist and started pulling him behind me. After a few meters, he pulled from my grip and kept pace beside me.

    We passed by several Runners and regular zombies that were all heading in the direction that the scream had come from. We were almost to the end of a street when I heard voices ahead of us. I stopped quickly and crouched low trying to find where the voices were coming from. They sounded like there were in a building  across the street from us.

    "Raiders?" Andy whispered from behind me.

    I nodded and pointed to the building where I was sure the voices and come from. I watched it carefully looking for any movement inside. Loud, obnoxious laughter rang out just as I caught a glimpse of a flashlight beam in a window on the second floor. 

    I felt a tug on my sleeve. Andy quickly pointed behind him. The window of the building was shattered. I nodded at him before he turned around and quickly climbed over through the window. I glanced back once at the building where the voices had come from before I Rested my hands on the window sill and swung my body up and over it. Glass crunched under my feet when I landed and I froze when I heard a new set of voices speak up right outside. If we had hesitated only a second longer, we probably would have been caught.

    "Hey did you hear that Todd finally killed that bitch that had been camping down by Park Street?" 

    "I sure as hell heard it, what happened?" said a second voice.

    "Apparently Todd had found her base," the said the owner of the first voice.

    "Really? Did she have anything good?" 

    "Dunno but Todd was bragging all morning that he was going to have a bit of fun with her before he decided whether to kill her or not."

    "I hope he doesn't kill her. We could use a new girl around. I've tired of the old ones"

    "Well, well, well. What do we have here?" said a deep voice. It came from somewhere right behind us. "A couple of lost souls trying to find their way?"

    I froze, the blood in my veins turning to ice.

    I turned around slowly and my eyes were met by the ugliest man I had ever seen. His face was heavily scarred with a spider web of lines, he had one brown eye and one milky white eye, and he had stringy blonde hair that reached his shoulders. 

    I tightened my grip around the knife that was still in my hand before I lunged at him. I saw the flash of movement come from beside me a fraction of a second too late before I felt  I felt a blinding pain on my left temple and everything went dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
9: Chapter 9: Prisoners
Chapter 9: Prisoners

I didn't know how much time had passed when I finally woke up again. I slowly opened my eyes and blinked a few times before my surrounding came into view. My head had started to hurt again and for just a moment, I didn't know where I was. And then I remembered. I remembered ducking into a building to avoid raiders. I remembered the ugly, scar-faced man and the blinding flash of pain before everything had gone dark.

My eyes flew open and my heart jumped in my chest. Where was I? I tired to stand up but I couldn't. I was sitting on an old wooden chair with my hands and feet tied with rope. The familiar weight of my katana was gone from my shoulders, as was my pack and the knife I kept at my belt.

"Shit," I thought. I struggled against the rope that bound my wrists together but the rope didn't even budge. I didn't know why I was tied up but if I had learned anything from watching Raiders over the years, whatever they had planned for me wasn't going to be good. I needed to escape and I needed to do it fast.

I struggled harder against the ropes around my wrists, twisting my hands and straining against them as hard as I could. My hope was that I could find a bit of slack in the rope that I could work at and loosen a bit but the ropes were too tight. The rough fiber of the rope quickly began to scratch and rub my skin raw but I didn't care about the pain. Any injury I got from the ropes would be tiny compared to what the Raiders were probably planning to do with me.

After a while, I gave up. I would end up rubbing all the skin off of my wrists sooner than I would get the ropes to loose, even a bit. I turned my attention to the area around me, my wrists stinging painfully.

The room I was in looked like it had once been some kind of storage space. The floor was made of concrete and was stained with patches of grease. The walls were metal and wooden beams of the wall's structure were uncovered. There were no windows in the room and only one door on the far side. The only light in the room came from a single, naked, light bulb that hung down from the ceiling. At a first glance, it didn't look like there was anything in the room I could use to cut through the ropes that bound me.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of metal loudly scraping against metal. My eyes instantly found the source of the noise and I watched closely as the doorknob of the door slowly started to turn, my heart beginning to pound. I wouldn't be able to defend myself from whoever came through that door and I really didn't like it. I hated felling so...powerless.

The door was pulled open roughly and in walked the ugly, scar-faced man. Just seeing him made my blood boil. I glared at him, putting as much fury into my eyes as I could but inside my heart was pounding. I wasn't about to show him any sign that I was scared, scared of him and what he might do to me. I strained against the ropes again rubbing my wrists raw. The pain of it helped clear my mind and stay in control of myself and my emotions.

By the time I looked him straight in the eye, I felt nothing but anger at the fact that this bastard had captured me and taken me prisoner. He looked up and held my gaze without flinching. Instead, a smile spread across his face which made him look even uglier. His lips curled back to reveal red and inflamed gums surrounding black and brown spotted teeth of which a few were missing from a full set.

"Ah, so the little bird has finally decided to wake up," he said in a falsely cheery voice. A wave of disgust washed over me at his use of the word 'little bird'.

He stepped into the room and shut the door behind him before turning to face me. He clapped his hands together. "Let's get started then shall we?" He crossed over to me, walking with his chin held high as he looked down upon me with amusement.

It seemed as though he enjoyed the entire situation, the power, and control he had over myself who was defenseless against him. As he approached the foul odor coming off of his body wafted over me like a wave and I had to fight to keep from gagging.

Once he reached he leaned forward and put his hands on the arms of he chair, leaning in close to my face. I tried to lean back as far as the chair would let me. He truly was hideous with long stringy blond hair and a face completely scared. When he opened his mouth to speak a breath so foul it seemed like something had crawled into his mouth and died, washed over me and revealed a mouth full of rotten teeth. 

"I'm going to make this simple for you," he said. "I'm gonna to ask you a few questions. Answer them and you walk out of here alive. Lie, and well..." he smiled. "I think you know what happens then."

I didn't say anything, partly because, if I opened my mouth I might end up vomiting from the smell of him, and partially because I didn't want to say anything to a Raider. I glared at him and his scarred, filthy face. He must have taken my silence as agreement. He smiled wider and drew back, standing up straight and crossing his arms.

"First question then. Where you headed? My boys have searched through that whole town and we never saw you before. You don't look like the type of person who sticks around long which means you were passing through on your way to somewhere else. So, where you goin'?"

I set my mouth in a firm line. I wasn't going to answer any of the questions the bastard asked me. Even if I did tell him the truth, there was no way he was going to let me go.

When he saw that I wasn't going to answer he smiled slightly "You seem to be a bit hard'a hearing so I'll ask it again, where you going?" 

Instead of answering him, I rolled my eyes and blatantly looked away, looking at the grease stain on the concrete floor of the room.

I heard him sigh, "Let's try this a different way. Where's New Eden?"

My head snapped back up in surprise. If a Raider was asking about it, then it really did exist. Andy hadn't just made it up.

"Wait," I thought. "Where was Andy? Did they killed him already?" For some reason, the thought of these Raider killing Andy made me furious probably because it would mean that I would always be in debt to him for saving my life. I clenched my hands into fists and strained against the ropes again but the knots didn't budge.

I must have given more away than I wanted to though my body language because the scar-faced man suddenly smiled wider. "Gotcha. Heading to New Eden then?" His smile vanished as quickly as it had come. "Where is it?"

I kept my mouth shut refusing to answer him. What would a low-life Raider want with New Eden anyways? But as soon as I thought it I knew the answer. Food, supplies, women, anything they would want they would take by force.

"I'm losing my patience with you, girl. I'll give you to the count of three to start talking." He held one of his grimy hands with three fingers raised

"One." He put one finger down.

"Two." He put a second finger down so that only one finger remained raised from his pudgy fist.

I didn't look away. Instead, I made myself stare directly into his eyes putting as much hatred and furry behind them as I could.

"Three." He put his final finger down, forming his hand into a fist and throwing it at my face. I didn't have time to react to the oncoming punch before it connected hard with my nose. I felt the cartilage breaking under the force. The pain was intense and blood from my broken nose started running down my face and my eyes began to water.

Through my blurry eyes, I faintly registered that he had pulled his fist back for another swing before I felt it slam into my stomach. My body instinctively wanted to double over but the ropes keeping my hands behind the chair kept me from going down more than a few inches. I wheezed, trying to catch my breath and fighting the urge to throw up.

He shoved my shoulder back against the chair, forcing me to sit upright. His face was mere inches from mine. "Now, let's try again, hmm? Where's New Eden?"

"Go to hell," I snarled at him. I worked up a mouthful of a mixture of blood and saliva and spat it in his face.

He recoiled from me wiping his face.

"You bitch!" he shouted.

He raised his hand and slapped me across the face. This time, I was ready for it and I turned my head with the blow to lessen some of the force.

He stormed over to the door. "We're not finished here," he said before walking out and slamming the door behind him.

I didn't immediately move when I heard the door shut, I just stared at the concrete watching the blood drip slowly onto the floor, seething. In my head, I was visualizing all the ways I could kill that scar-faced bastard, but only for a moment or two. I had to get out quickly before he came back.

I quickly sat up, ignoring the pain I felt in my body, pushing everything to the back of my mind, my emotions, worry, anger, and let calm logic dictate my mind.

I looked around the room again, paying close attention to the walls, looking for anything even remotely sharp that I might be able to use to cut through the ropes around my wrists. And then I spotted something. One of the wall-beams about four feet behind me, I could see a single nail sticking about half an inch from the wood that was bent sharply at an angle.

Even though I saw the nail, I didn't make any sort of move to try and get to it. Instead, I sat still for a solid minuet, listening, trying to hear what might be on the other side of the door but it was completely silent. Only when I was sure that no one was about to walk in I lifted my body and pushed it back in the chair so that the chair moved backward only about an inch. The wooden legs screeched loudly as they scraped against the concrete. I waited, listening for any sign that someone on the other side of the door had heard the noise. When no one came bursting in through the door, I scooted the chair backward again, causing another loud screech, before pausing to listen again.

I repeated the process of moving and waiting, moving and waiting until my hands brushed up against the wooden beam of the wall. I felt around the beam until I found the nail. Then, I immediately began to move the knot of rope that bound my wrists over the nail, keeping my eyes trained on the door the whole time. I had no idea when the scar-faced guy would be coming back and I really didn't want to be caught off guard.

It took almost 10 minuets before I felt the ropes fall away. As soon as my hands were free I reached down, untied the rope from around my ankles and sprinted over to the door.

Surprisingly, the door was unlocked. The Raiders must not have thought there was any way I could have escaped from the ropes. I opened the door only slightly and looked out. There wasn't anyone right outside the door that I could see so I slowly began to open the door all the way.

Outside was large and just as barren and empty as the room I had been tied up in. It looked like I was in some sort of empty warehouse or storage building. There wasn't a single person to be seen in the building. I didn't think about it too much. The lack of guards would make it easier for me to escape.

Straight ahead of me was a small door. I headed for it moving quickly and quietly and I almost smiled. Getting out was going to be easy. When I reached the door, I stopped just before opening it.

"What about Andy?" A voice in the back of my mind said. "Are you just going to leave him here?"

For just a moment, I considered it. I could escape easily on my own. Trying to get Andy out too would put myself in danger.

"Are you just going to let him die then?" The voice said again. "Just like all those other people?"

"Fuck!" I said. I couldn't leave him behind, too many people had died because of me, I wasn't going to let it happen again.

I quickly twisted the knob on the door and pulled it open.

Outside, the an overgrown and cracked road was was surrounded by metal-walled warehouses on both sided, all of which looked the same as the one I had been in. Down the street to the right of me, I could see a couple of houses. Two armed men stood with their backs to me. As soon as I saw them, I crouched down low and ducked behind a bush that grew right next to the building.

"Man," I heard one of the men said. "Why do we have to stay behind while everyone else gets to go raiding?"

"Because Joseph told us to guard the girl," the other man said.

"Why, though? It's not like she's going anywhere."

"Like I said, Joseph told us to. If you want to go against him be my guest. Just don't be surprised if I'm the one who ends up putting the bullet in your head."

I saw one of the two men take a step away from the other.

The first man spoke again. "I just don't see why he's bothering tying her up. Why doesn't he just put her with all the others. I'd love to be the first one to try her out." He chuckled at that and I had to resist the urge to run over and punch him.

"He said he wanted to get as much info out of her as he could first. And you know as well as I do that Joseph always gets first dibs on the girls anyways."

I heard the first guy grumbles something to himself but I couldn't make out what he said. "Didn't he get everything out of the other kid over in the basement?"

I didn't bother listening to the rest of the conversation. The other kid must have been Andy. I pulled my attention away from the two men in front of me and scanned the area. The place looked completely deserted other than the two men in front of me, and another person standing in front of the closest house down the street. If there was a guard outside, then it meant that there was something worth guarding inside.

I slowly started making my way over to it, keeping low and using anything I could for cover along the way. Every once and a while I would stop and look around, trying to see if anyone had shown up but no one did. The fact that there was a guard outside didn't mean that that Andy would be in the house but it was the only thing I had to go on.

When I was closer to the house I ducked behind the trunk of a tree and carefully peered around it. The guard in front of the house held an automatic. He looked bored out of his mind and he paced back and forth in front of the house. He was a little on the smaller side and I didn't think I would have any trouble taking him out.

I crouched down, making sure I was still hidden behind the tree. When the guard started his procession away from me again, I made my move. I shot out from behind the tree and came up behind him. Then, I quickly reached around and put one hand on the top of his head, the other around the bottom of his jaw and twisted sharply. There was a loud snap and I let him fall to the ground dead, his neck broken.

As soon as he was down I grabbed his ankles and began to drag his body out of sight. There was a small shed in the backyard. I dragged him over to it and tossed him inside. I hesitated before shutting the shed doors. The guy looked like he hadn't been much older than me. There was a time when I might have felt bad for killing him, but now, as I looked down at his body, I felt nothing. He was, or had been, a Raider, and I felt no sympathy for him. I noticed that he had a knife in his belt which I took. I didn't take the gun, but I did pick it up and empty it of ammunition. That way, if someone managed to find him, they couldn't immediately pick it up and start shooting. I tossed the, now empty, gun on the dead Raider's chest and shut the doors of the shed.

Then I turned to look at the house the Raider had been guarding. From the back of the house, it looked to be a simple one-story brick building with boards hastily nailed over the windows and over the back door. I quickly made my way around the front of the house, stopping only to make sure that there weren't any Raiders nearby before quickly slipping into the house by the front door.

Once I was inside I slowed down, placing each step very carefully and straining my ears. I had no clue if I would find any Raiders inside the house but I wanted to be ready if I did. Whenever I approached I doorway I would quickly stop so that my back was against the wall right next to it. Then, I would slowly look around the doorway into the room but every single room I came across was void of any sort of life.

There were five rooms in total in the small house. The first room was a small, grimy looking bedroom with a single, very dirty, mattress on the floor and stained white walls.

The second room was in worse shape than the first. The walls had peeling floral wallpaper that was spotted with mold. The carpet had been ripped away some time ago revealing a rotten, wooden floor underneath. The only other thing in the room was an old wooden table that had a large part of one of the corners broken off. On the table laid two, very familiar packs, a gun, a bow, and a katana. They must have deposited the things they took from us in this room, most likely to go though later and divvy up the rewards. I quickly hurried forward and gabbed my katana and pack and slung them both on my back. The familiar feel of my katana nestled between my shoulder blades and the weight of my pack on my shoulders comforted me. I left my katana in its sheath, choosing instead to use the knife. It was smaller and would be easier to use in a tight space. I didn't touch any of Andy's things, they would just slow me down and I wasn't sure if I was actually going to find him.

The next two rooms I passed were completely empty and in such disrepair, that I doubted anyone would ever use them again. The last door of the house was closed and opened to a set of stairs descending down into darkness.

I adjusted my grip on the knife that I held and took a deep breath before I began to descended the stairs placing each of my feet down carefully so that the wooden steps wouldn't creak. The temperature around me seemed to drop a little bit with each step I took. It was pitch dark in the room at the bottom of the stairs. The only thing I could see was a tiny window on a wall across from me about a foot above eye level, although the window was so dirty that it barely let in any light at all.

Still clutching the knife in my right hand, I reached around in the darkness until I felt a cool expanse of wall. I ran my hand along it until my fingers found the familiar feel of a light switch. There had been electricity running in the room I had been locked up in, maybe there was electricity running throughout the whole camp. I quickly flipped the switch.

Immediately, light flooded the room to illuminate a small square place with concrete walls and floors. The room itself was empty save one thing. In the center of the room, tied to a metal folding chair, was Andy. He was slumped forward in the chair and, upon first glance he looked dead, except the small rise and fall of his chest proved that he was still breathing. He was in a bad shape. Bruises covered his face and arms and his lower lip was split and swollen. There were a few places on his sleeves where the fabric had been slashed through and blood glued the part of the sleeve to his skin. There was also a line of dried blood that ran down his face from a large gash just above his left eye.

"What the hell did they you to you Andy?" I muttered to myself and I couldn't help but think that I would have ended up the same way if I hadn't managed to cut my way free.

I walked over to him and started to cut the rope from his wrists. Once the ropes were gone I noticed that the skin that had been underneath the ropes were rubbed raw to the point that it was bleeding. Andy must have tried to break free from the ropes with sheer strength and ended up hurting himself more in the process.

I shook my head. "Bastards," I muttered.

Once his wrists were free, I walked around to cut through the rope that tied his ankles to the chair. Just as I started to cut through the first fibers of the rope Andy began to stir. "Lauren?" He mumbled, his voice slightly slurred. "What...?"

"Shut up," I whispered quickly as I continued to cut through the ropes. "I'll explain everything later but now, we have to get out of here." As I cut through the final fibers the ropes fell away and I stood up. "Can you walk?"

He slowly brought his arms back in front of him and rubbed his wrists. Then he looked up at me with eyes that were full of pain but he nodded and slowly got to his feet, his face twisting in pain as he did so. It was painful to watch but we didn't have time to move slowly. It wouldn't be long before the raiders found out that I had escaped and we needed to be long gone by the time that happened.

I nodded to him, impressed at his determination. "Good, let's move."

I led the way up the stairs. Andy couldn't move very fast at all and had a bad limp. On the way out of the house, I grabbed Andy's stuff from the room with a table and helped him put on his pack, pretending not to notice how his face twisted in pain as the weight of his pack settled on his shoulders.

We exited the house and started to leave the area as fast as we could with Andy painful movement, staying out of sight as much as possible. Somehow, beyond probability, we managed to get out of the town without being seen, by taking as many back roads as we could and crossing through overgrown backyards as much as possible. Every few minuets or so, I would look back to see how Andy was holding up. He managed to keep up a steady pace but his limp was more and more prominent as time when on. He also kept his left arm around his side clamped to a spot on his hip where blood seeped through the fabric. He never once complained or asked to stop to rest and we managed to put a good amount of distance between us and the town with the Raiders when the sound of a gunshot came from the direction of the town. I glanced back once in reflex and noticed that Andy's face had become rather pale.

Half an hour later we managed to leave the city and made it into the forest. By the time we found a well-sheltered clearing, the cut above Andy's eye had opened up again and a thin trail of blood crept down his face. As soon as I stopped Andy slumped to the ground, breathing heavily, his eyes shut. I walked over and knelt down beside him.

I looked over him carefully. With all of the injuries I could see on his skin, I was surprised that he had made it as far as he did before he collapsed. I sighed. His cuts would need to be cleaned otherwise they would end up infected and I didn't see him being able to do it himself in the condition he was in. I didn't mind, I knew a thing or two about first aid. Besides, if I patched him up, it would make us even in terms on one of us saving the other. But, in order to do that, I would need him to take off his shirt so I could get to the wounds on his arms and shoulders. I gently shook one of his shoulders, being careful to avoid any of the visible cuts there.

"Andy," I said. "Andy, wake up."

His eyes fluttered slightly before they opened, looking through me rather than at me.

"I need you to take your shirt off so I can clean out your cuts," I told him.

At first, It seemed like he hadn't heard me but after a few moments, he blinked slowly a few times and sat up. He shrugged his pack off of his shoulders and slowly pulled his shirt off over his head. He winced as he did it and his shirt stuck to his skin in certain places where he had been cut.

My eyes widened when I saw his arms and chest. His skin was almost completely covered in reddish-purple bruises. I counted, at least, five different cuts to his shoulders and arms and one on his hip although, luckily, none of them looked too deep.

"God, what did they do to you, Andy?" I said, but he didn't answer. I looked up at his face and noticed that his gaze was foggy and unfocused.

I took my pack off of my shoulders and sat it down in front of me. From inside I grabbed a small bottle of rubbing alcohol, the towel I always kept in there and the old, beat up, metal water bottle I carried. I did have a bit of gauze in my pack but I wanted to save it for something more serious and I didn't think Andy was going to bleed out.

I started by using the towel and a bit of water from my water bottle to clean all of the dried blood from his skin and face. I worked slowly trying to avoid the worst of the bruises on his skin. Andy never said a word, when I started to clean the blood from his face, his eyes seemed to brighten ever so slightly like he was aware that I was there before he fell back into whatever stupor he was in. I knew the look on his face well. It was the face of someone who had retreated into their own mind, to escape and protect themselves from the world. It was the same place I often escaped to on a daily basis and it was what had kept me sane all these years.

Once all of the blood had been cleaned from his skin, the injuries didn't seem quite as bad they had earlier. Next, I soaked a different corner of the towel with the rubbing alcohol and began to clean the cuts themselves Every time the alcohol on the cloth touched one of the cuts, the muscles of his arm would clench but he never once made a sound. When I started to clean the cuts on his right arm I stopped when I saw the bite on his wrist again. I shook my head and continued on, blatantly ignoring it. When I was done, I folded up the towel and put it and the everything else I had taken out back into my pack.

"I'm done," I said to Andy. He nodded slightly and slowly pulled his shirt back on before lying back down again and closing his eyes.

I watched him for a minuet or two. Then I turned my attention to my own injury. My nose had been throbbing painfully ever since it had been broken by that Raider. I gently reached up and began to feel it, trying to see where it was broken and how I would have to go about setting it straight. It was slightly swollen and hot to the touch. I could feel that the bridge of my nose was definitely broken and shifted slightly to the left. I reached up and put my hands on either side of my nose. I took a few deep breaths and jerked my nose to the right. The pain was extreme and I felt a fresh trickle of blood run down from my nose. I wiped the blood away with the sleeve of my shirt and felt around the bridge of my nose again. Everything felt like it was in the general correct position but I knew it was going to hurt like hell for a week or two.

Afterward, I found the most comfortable looking tree and leaned against it. I was exhausted but I knew that there was no way I would be able to sleep tonight.