The Panty Raid

“Do you see my panties anywhere?”

Nate gave me a suffering look. “Bree, we’re standing in the lingerie section. I think I’d have to be blind not to see any underwear.”

Narrowing my eyes at him, I chose to otherwise ignore his jibe. Shining my flashlight over the racks and racks of, well, underwear, I kept searching. He remained standing close to the register where he’d stopped after his circuit, ready to cover my ass should we have to make a quick exit.

“Do we have anything else on our shopping list?” I asked.

Nate took long enough to reply that I paused my hunt to shine my light in his general direction—enough to see the look on his face, but not to blind him.

“Twinkies,” he deadpanned.

I couldn’t help but stare at him.

“You’re so damn funny, you know that?”

He flashed me a quick grin.

“Oh, I know.”

“Anything else that won’t make you want to eat my face off?”

He shrugged. “Don’t need to juice up to find you delectable.”

That didn’t deserve a reply, so I instead focused on my mission.

At the back of the store, I stopped, switching the flashlight for my shotgun. A light tap on the door to the storage area yielded no answering sound, so I eased it open slowly, the creaking of the hinges ominous. Someone had busted the lock before, and the relative chaos of torn-apart stacks in the small room spoke of ransacking, but no other surprise lurked anywhere. I still took the time to do a thorough sweep before I let the shotgun slide to my hip on its strap and grabbed the flashlight from between my teeth.

It only took kicking my way through three stacks to hit gold.

“Bingo,” I murmured to myself as I picked up the still-sealed cardboard box. Black, hip-hugging, one hundred percent cotton boyshorts. Chafe and stain resistant, and if I had to, I could just clean them in a tub of bleach. I’d made the mistake of going with white ones last time, and I still got the odd bright grin from Burns for running around in my “tighty whities” in camp. I so didn’t need a repeat performance of that.

Pulling a black trash bag out of my cargo pants, I quickly tore open as many boxes as I found in my size and dumped the panties into the bag. When I was done, I hesitated when my eyes fell on a black pair of butt-floss undies, but, really, just the thought of maybe being stuck wearing those for four days while either running for my life or hunkering down in the car was giving me hives. But I did pick up the neon pink ones on my way back in the largest size they had—Burns so had it coming.

At my return, Nate looked up from the neat stacks he was busy packing away in another trash bag. Pulling up to him, I eyed his loot critically.

“Underwear catalogues? Seriously? What are you, twelve?”

I got a brilliant grin for that.

“The internet’s been out for almost thirteen months now, and last time I counted, less than twenty percent of the people still on the road were girls. It can get very lonely in between settlements. What worked thirty years ago might very well be a veritable gold mine nowadays.”

“And there you keep giving Martinez a hard time,” I teased.

“And why shouldn’t we? The fucker has like eighty percent of the world population to lust after,” Nate replied.

“While you have, what, just me?” I asked with a wide smile.

“Definitely the better deal,” he agreed, stopping for a moment to sweep his arm across the small of my back so he could pull me close. Grinning, I kissed him, wondering if we’d still have time for a repeat performance from the dressing rooms in the women’s section—

Until the com went off, spewing static into my ear. I jumped, one hand on my Beretta in my thigh holster before I even reached down to the receiver unit to switch my mic back on.

“Uh, guys?” Andrej’s voice came out of the speaker, the tone alone enough to make me gnash my teeth. The sound of running boots was impossible to ignore.

“Status,” I barked, casting a quick look around as I tried to visually confirm what I was hearing all around me—nothing moved, and nothing made a sound. Nate quickly stuffed the remainder of the leaflets into his sack before he grabbed the trash bag holding my prized panties and added it to his stash.

“We might have a small problem here,” Andrej replied. His labored breathing—a clear indicator that he was still running—told me that was an understatement.

“Define small,” I replied, following Nate out of the store and hoisting the bags already sitting outside onto my shoulder as we hightailed it toward the other wing and the main staircase.

“We found a few shamblers here,” he offered, only to cut off abruptly. A second later I heard gunshots go off, a good two hundred yards from our current position.

“Do you need support?” I asked, trying to gauge how best to hone in on his position.

“Negative,” Andrej replied after the shots stopped. “But retreating sounds like a helluva good idea.”

Nate and I traded glances as we both sped up.

“Why, you afraid of a few walking corpses?” Burns taunted over the com channel, sounding just as if he were taking a slow stroll on the beach.

“A few don’t bother me,” Andrej replied, followed by a chagrined, “but a good hundred do.”

“What?” I hissed, just as Nate followed up with a succinct, “The fuck?”

“It’s complicated,” Andrej pointed out—followed by more shots, coming from much closer. The source was easier to pinpoint now as it came from the same wing we were in, from somewhere a couple of floors down around the bend. By then we’d hit the first bank of escalators. While I hastily ran down one, Nate slid down the other right next to mine, overtaking me. He did a quick sweep, then nodded to me that the coast was clear.

Pia and Martinez joined us on the next landing, dragging their trash bags along with them. As they were already overladen, I handed my bags to Martinez so I could get a good grip on my shotgun. Someone had to keep their backs free—might as well be me.

“Care to explain where you found a hundred of the fuckers hiding after we did a full sweep of the entire area?” There were always a few stragglers locked in somewhere—heck, every time I busted into a restroom I got a faceful of corpse—but that sounded like enough to put the mall as it was on the red list. No sense in wasting that many bullets for the cleanup alone.

“Well, there was this door,” Andrej started.

On the way down the next escalator, I finally got a glimpse at the ground floor. In between the heaps of refuse and overturned shopping carts I could see several of our people retreating, lugging trash bags and containers along with them. The echo of boots on marble was loud, but interrupted by that dragging kind of sound that followed me into my nightmares these days. I was sure that, had I stopped to listen, I would have heard them growl and moan, too, but there was no sense in dawdling now before we got our goods stored away. Besides, even Nate couldn’t have hit anything with a shotgun from three floors up.

“What door?”

“A huge-ass, locked door with a chain on it and a red X painted all over it!” Cho shouted over the com. “And this motherfucking asshole had nothing better to do than open it!”

With my hands free of bags, I took point on the next landing, while Nate lagged behind to secure our retreat. At Cho’s revelation, Pia let out a curse that was half English, half Serbian, and all vile, quite eloquently answering for me.

“Seriously?” I chuffed, stopping for a moment to clear the ground floor around the elevators before I gave the others the go-ahead. Martinez and Pia ran by me toward the sunshine streaming in through the wide-open mall doors where the cars were parked outside in a haphazard cluster. I waited for Nate to join me, but when I looked up, I saw him taking up position at the glass barrier of the first floor corridor, looking out over the main mall floor, his M4 at the ready. Not a second later, he started to shoot, providing cover fire for the remaining five members of our team that came sprinting toward us.

Followed by a mass of bodies, well over a hundred strong.

Burns was the first to reach me, dumping his bags in favor of getting his AK-47 ready. My adrenaline levels spiked as every single cell in my body screamed for me to run, but instead I assumed a good defensive stance. With Nate and Burns providing cover fire, Andrej and Cho were running full out now. Seeing us standing by the escalator, they veered to the left, giving us a clear field.

Bracing myself, I pulled the trigger, not even aiming at a single screaming, half-decayed zombie coming at us. At a distance of less than thirty yards, it was almost impossible to miss. The earplugs dampened some of the sonic assault but the recoil slammed into my shoulder hard, making my second shot hit just a little higher than the first as I let loose a moment too early. It nevertheless made a head explode and the zombie right next to that one stagger, but there was still a wall of them coming at us, making my effort almost useless.

Where was a flamethrower when you needed one?

“I’m falling back,” I shouted, already starting to walk toward the cars, still aiming and shooting at everything that didn’t have a pulse. By the time the last shell dropped, my shoulder felt like so much raw meat, and I didn’t hesitate any longer. Let the guys do their thing—I had my own job. Whipping around, I ran the remaining yards to the car, grabbing the bags someone had left right in front of the bumper. With the doors already open on the driver’s side for a quick retreat, I threw the bags into the back seat and quickly reloaded as I took a stance behind the car, waiting to get a clear shot.

The staccato of the rifles thinned out as Santos and Clark came running out, almost staggering under their load of loot. Cho was walking backward right behind them, providing cover until they’d reached their car. And then it was just Andrej and Nate, and I felt like chewing my cheek raw as I waited. The howls and screams got louder as they emptied a good five magazines between them before—finally—the last two members of our team beat it.

The moment the first zombie made it out between the cracked glass doors, I pumped a round into it, hitting it squarely in the chest. Two more followed, but instead of staggering out into the light, they fell on their downed fellow shambler. Then the rest of them came pouring out around the grisly display on the ground, quickly hiding it from view. From the corner of my eye I saw Nate make it to the car, where he spent all of five seconds throwing the bags inside before the front door slammed shut.

“All clear,” he shouted to me, then repeated the same over the radio. I still had three slugs in the tube so I emptied it at the raging horde before I slid behind the wheel, the shotgun jammed between my seat and the center console. I wasted precious ten seconds with strapping myself in, the belt harness tight over my full gear. Nate kept shooting at the rabid corpses through the side window until the first made it onto the hood.

Slamming my hand down on the ignition button, I kicked the car into reverse as soon as the engine howled to life, momentarily drowning out the screams from outside. Unable to hold onto anything, the shambler slid off the hood and quickly disappeared under the tires as I sent the car forward, ramming a couple of the really fast ones. Now that they lacked the funnel of the mall layout, they seemed disoriented by the dispersing targets; or maybe after being locked in all their undead life, they hadn’t quite figured out how cars worked. I downed three more before I wrenched the wheel hard right, forcing the car into a turn that made my body slam into the harness. The mall disappeared from view, and as soon as I felt the tires gain traction, I floored the gas pedal. The car shot forward after hitting another bump, and then we were on the road, speeding away from the screaming mob behind us.

“Alpha clear,” I barked into the radio as soon as the last zombie was well out of running distance to catch up to us. One after the other, the different cars signed in, making me relax once Cho was the last. Turning my head just enough not to lose sight of the road, I glanced over at Nate. He just finished reloading my shotgun and put it away in the rack between the front row seats before he dug into the bag at his feet—and got out one of the damn underwear catalogues.

Shaking my head in silence, I focused back on the road. The cows I had seen grazing on the way in were over the hill now, the racket we—and now our horde of followers—had made signaling them that it was wise to stay far away from anything that moved on two legs, whether it carried a rifle or preferred to use teeth and claws.

“Seriously?” I asked when my silence didn’t speak loud enough.

“It’s just the responsible thing to test the merchandise before we barter anything for it,” he claimed, but then dropped the magazine into his lap—only to pull the blasted pink thong out. Dangling it from the end of his finger as if it were contagious, Nate inspected the offensive piece of underwear for a moment. “And there you complain about my habits.”

Instead of getting defensive, I flashed him a bright grin.

“As far as I remember, you’ve never actually seen me in lingerie. Proper lingerie, with lace, bows, ruffles, and shit.”

The look on his face was as close to shocked as I’d seen it in… probably ever, and that was saying something.

“I’d rather see you in full riot gear,” he replied, pointedly looking at the lightweight kevlar jacket I was wearing. “Something sturdier than this, at least.”

“I can’t move in that shit,” I complained. “If you had a say in my gear, I’d be bouncing around in a bomb squad blast suit or something.”

Nate considered that for a moment. “Not the worst idea you’ve had this week.”

I rolled my eyes at him, already angling for the car radio.

“Which reminds me,” I started, pushing the button to open the team frequency. “Andrej, if you pull some shit like that again, I will have your ass, understand?”

“But it looked like such a promising cache!” came his amused reply. Fucker.

“It was locked with a chain and had a fucking huge red X painted all over it!” Cho interjected, still a little breathless from all the running he had to do to get away.

“Could have been a raider cache,” Andrej replied.

“Because any of us would be stupid enough to leave that in a still-infested, not-cleared building?” I asked, hard-pressed not to gnash my teeth too loudly.

“Could have been stupid raiders,” Andrej offered.

A million replies came to mind, but with the euphoric rush of our successful retreat slowly dwindling, I felt a little more mollified.

“Latrine duty for the rest of the week for you, Romanoff,” I ordered.

“That’s not fair!” Andrej complained.

“And you, too, Cho.”

“What the fuck did I do?” Cho grumbled back.

“You let him fucking open a fucking door with a red fucking X on it!” I replied heatedly, but couldn’t help adding a chuckle.

More grumbling ensued, but about half a mile later both acknowledged with a grumpy, “Yes, boss.”

I looked over to Nate to see if he had anything to add, but he was leafing through his stupid catalogue now, making me shake my head again.

Boys will be boys.

 

Things used to be different. Heck, I used to be different.

I used to worry about so many things. What my nosy neighbor would say if she caught Sam and me necking in the elevator again. What color shirt to wear to work, and if it clashed with my hair. Was I eating too many carbs, or should I cut animal fats from my diet? There was always a deadline at work approaching, another weekend spent locked away in the lab—counting cells, working biochemical miracles. Had I been overlooked for a promotion? Was my involvement with my girlfriend holding back my career?

I’m not even sure what day it is, except the third day that I’ve been wearing the same pair of underwear, which will change the second I can pull up on the side of the road and change into the new panties I’ve picked up at the mall. Risking your life for a new set of clean, fresh clothes? Definitely worth it if you’ve been on the road as long as we have.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year. One year without internet, without smartphones, without a place to crash that doesn’t require heavy fortifications and a watch detail round the clock to be classified as “safe.” One year since we all learned that we—humans—are not the top of the food chain.

Until a year ago, I never held a gun, let alone knew how to use it. I never ran five miles, or hiked over thirty each day, for weeks. I was never hungry enough that a can of dog food tasted like a gourmet meal.

I never dreamed that I would be in charge of anyone or anything.

Why, you may ask yourself now, am I still alive?

I made a lot of stupid decisions in my life, and a single right one. Turns out, it was the only one that counts.

Welcome to our brave, new world.

 

 

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Adrienne Lecter  |  2017 |  Impressum