Not so lucky anymore...
Civilization is on the brink of crumbling—and this time not just due to the zombie apocalypse. The roads have become dangerous, and what havens have been established are no longer safe. Murmurs of unrest—or maybe even a brewing civil war—are getting loud. No longer are zombies the only thing preying on those that think to brave the world outside the settlements.
Yet as grave as things are getting, this is not the main issue that is plaguing Nate’s mind. He has bigger fish to fry.
Less so the actual act of biting it, although I wasn’t deluding myself. Already I felt like crap, and I was well aware of the fact that things could only go downhill from there. But as I was lying there in the grass, with Nate crouching next to me, fighting hard to keep his composure while the others gathered around us, I realized that an entirely different realm of misery was still in store for me—saying goodbye to the people who had become my family over the past year.
My eyes fell on my Glock where Nate had dropped it, and suddenly, holding on as long as possible didn’t sound quite like the way I wanted to end my miserable existence.
I’d barely tensed in preparation to go for it when Nate surged to his feet, his fingers wrapping around the gun and plucking it right out of my reach. I glared at him, any sentimentality welling up inside of me momentarily forgotten. His mouth compressed into a tight line, his eyes blazing with sudden anger.
“No you don’t,” he ground out, and for good measure hurled the gun away. It clattered down onto the road between two of the cars, several pairs of eyes following its path before they snapped back to us. At least no one would have to go hunting for it later. Still a stupid gesture.
Snorting, I let myself sag back into the grass. “So you will do what, watch me die, then shoot me? Before or after I come back?” He didn’t reply, but the answer was written plainly on his face. Stay with me until the bitter end he would—but end me he wouldn’t, not before he absolutely had to. “Gee, thanks for taking away the last remaining choice I still have.”
Tension was already running high, and my snap was enough to tip the scales. I wouldn’t have been surprised if actual steam had been coming out of his ears and nostrils as he continued to glare down at me, before he whipped around and screamed, the sound primal enough to make me wonder if he could insta-convert from frustration alone. If that were a possibility, I was sure I would have triggered it by now. And it wasn’t like I couldn’t understand his outburst. There was just nothing I could do about it.
Looking past him to the others wasn’t much better. Some, like the Ice Queen, did a moderately good job keeping their features closed off, but Martinez still looked about ready to hurl any moment, and there were actual tears shining in Burns’s eyes. Surprisingly, Andrej didn’t take the news much better, making me look away immediately when I felt my throat close up in response. Losing Bates they had handled better, but then we’d all had an outlet for our grief ready at hand. And dealing with death after the fact was so much easier than when it was still towering right over the horizon.
“Shit. I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I murmured. “That whole saying goodbye, drink-yourself-into-a-stupor-at-your-own-wake thing like we’ve been doing when Jason’s guys lost one of their own.” It wasn’t like I hadn’t understood why Phil had hung himself the morning after, but now I could sympathize a lot more.
More uncomfortable, miserable glances met my gaze. Like so often, it was Pia who took charge, seeing as the downright shell-shocked expression on Nate’s face didn’t bode too well where decision-making was concerned.
“And you won’t have to,” she said. If her tone was a little softer than usual, it still held enough steel to make everyone snap back to attention. “I saw a sign to a motel a few miles back. We can clear it out before the sun sets, and you can hunker down there.” She waited until Nate gave the hint of a nod before she started shooing everyone back to the cars. Then she went to fetch my gun. Nate continued to stare into space a few seconds longer before he visibly shook himself out of it and bent down to pick me up. I tried to protest, but really, it was a token protest at best. I still hated that he pretty much deposited me in the passenger seat as if I were a child, but I drew the line at buckling the harness myself. “I’m not completely incapacitated yet,” I hissed. He didn’t even bat an eyelash, just threw the door shut with a little more emphasis than strictly required.
The stench of bleach made me retch almost immediately, so I shoved the door open to do some more puking. Nate, halfway around the car, halted in his tracks, watching with a stony expression on his face. My entire chest hurt like hell by the time I was done, but I did my best not to let it show on my face. Catching his gaze, I gave the approximation of a shrug. “If you really want to stick this out with me, you better get used to this.”
That didn’t deserve an answer and I didn’t get one, not even when he climbed into my seat a few seconds later, never mind the dried blood, gore, and grime. It took him a small eternity setting up the seat right. It wasn’t like we’d never switched sides, but now everything was different, of course. I’d never need to change the orientation of the mirrors back, or find that exact perfect recline of the backrest. Usually, I would have screwed around with his seat, too, but I didn’t have the strength left in me.
The drive back to the motel took less than ten minutes. I remained in my seat but slipped off the belt, then opened the door to let the cooler evening air in. The sun was rapidly disappearing behind the horizon, a rather fitting image if anyone asked me. Nate was out of the car before the engine had stopped completely, his rifle at the ready. I watched as he, Pia, Andrej, Clark, and Taylor coordinated their plan of action before they disappeared into the sprawling, two-story building. Of those remaining, Burns was the only one who seemed moderately in one piece, the guard perimeter he set up a rather lax one. Except for two husks of cars at the other end of the parking lot, I didn’t see anything that could have given a zombie cover except for the L-shaped building itself. The motel looked like it had seen better days—in the sixties. It was the kind of dive that couldn’t really suffer much from the apocalypse happening as business must have been virtually dead already. Why Pia had selected this over one of the few farmhouses that lay scattered among the fields and pastures I had no idea, but she seldom did anything without a very good reason. Maybe because there was a good chance that some shamblers were hiding out in there and Nate got the opportunity to let his frustration out on something other than himself.
My momentary staring at the grasslands was interrupted by Martinez sagging against the back door of the Rover, just outside of my possible splatter radius. The way he had his rifle slung across his chest was at ease at best. We were so toast if Pia had miscalculated and there was half a streak hiding behind those beige-going-on-barf walls. His sigh held a world of grief, but when I glanced at him, he managed a weak smile.
“Hate to leave you alone with those yahoos,” I offered.
He grimaced. “I’ll manage. At least I don’t have to put up with your smart comebacks anymore.”
“There’s a silver lining to everything.”
The silence that followed was awkward, and about as uncomfortable as I’d ever gotten around Martinez. I just had to break it.
“Listen—“ I started, just as he said, “Don’t worry about us—“ We both laughed, although it was a little forced.
“You first,” he said.
I raised my brows, smirking. “Terminally sick before beauty, eh?” He chuffed but didn’t contradict me. “Just, I don’t know. Take care of him for me, will you? We both know him well enough to know that he’s not going to just get over this. Just look what shit he pulled when his brother died.”
Martinez gave me a long look as if he was checking whether I was joking.
“Bree, he’s not going to come back from this,” he finally replied. “He’s going to stay with you, and then he’s going to bury you. Or burn your body, more likely. And then he’s going to kill every fucking zombie and government asshole that he finds, until one of ‘em offs him. Can’t say the thought of joining him isn’t tempting.”
It wasn’t that hard to scoff at him. “Oh, come on. I know that the world will be a much duller place with me gone, but I’m not that much of a sensation that you’d have to commit suicide over the loss.”
Try as I might, that didn’t keep our conversation from tanking. It was a blessing when Burns decided to park his ass on the hood of the Rover, leaning onto the open door between us. His eyes kept scanning the lot, but it was obvious that he wasn’t at his most alert. Unlike Martinez, he couldn’t even look at me, which didn’t really make this any easier.
“Hey, big guy,” I said, thumping the door so it bumped into his arm. “It’s not the end of the world.”
I got the ghost of a grin for my effort, but his eyes remained on the building. “You couldn’t just stick it out with the rest of us and die of old age and boredom,” he remarked.
“Nope. Not dramatic enough,” I huffed. Anything else I wanted to say got drowned out by a coughing fit, blood and more phlegm joining the puke on the ground. Martinez was wise enough to step back, and when I just went on hacking up my insides, Burns pushed him away so he could thump my back until finally I managed to get a grip on myself again. As he pulled away, the back of his hand brushed my cheek, ice cold to me.
“Shit, you’re burning up,” he said, following that up by checking my forehead next. I batted him away, and when Martinez made as if to try next, I pointedly glared at the gun rack between the seats.
“Don’t get any stupid ideas, chico. You shouldn’t even be that close to me right now. Just because none of us caught anything from someone who’s sick yet doesn’t mean that I’m not contagious.”
Maybe it was the fact that my statements carried a certain amount of weight due to my virology background, or maybe Martinez had been aware of that possibility before, but he made sure to inch away again, even if he didn’t look happy about it.
Santos joined our pity party, looking a different kind of miserable. He was heavily favoring his left foot and Martinez had put his right arm in a sling earlier, forcing him to stick with handguns only for now. Half of his face was swelling, with bruises on his chin and cheek starting to bloom, and I bet that there were a lot more hiding all over his back and torso. It took me a moment to discern exactly why he was looking so damn miserable—besides the obvious, of course.
“You’re not fucking responsible for this,” I told him, my sharp tone making his lowered eyes snap up to meet mine.
“But I am,” he protested. “If Romanoff and I had been faster—“
“You might just have ended up shot as well,” I bit out, interrupting him. “Hell, when Cho and I went for the front room, I was pretty sure that we were abandoning you. The odds were entirely stacked against us. Four people against a good fifty zombies and three idiotic soldiers? They didn’t get me because they overwhelmed me. They got me because that fucking asshole shot me! If he hadn’t, Cho would still be alive and I wouldn’t be spitting up my intestines. You have nothing to blame yourself for. If anything, you both showing up when you did is the only reason why they didn’t tear me apart right there. Although I’m starting to wonder if that wouldn’t have been the easier way out.”
“Always is,” Burns offered. “But then you couldn’t have done your hero stunts. Would have been a waste of a perfectly good opportunity.”
I glared at him before I sagged back into the seat. “Didn’t feel very heroic, killing guys who should have been on our side.”
“But they weren’t,” Burns insisted. “And that’s the point. We all know how it is. You follow orders, and sometimes that puts you on the wrong side of what’s right. They knew why they were there. They could have deserted. Banded up with us. Or not actively shot us when their little ploy with the locked-away zombies got out of hand.”
I must have looked less than convinced because Martinez took right over. “Remember when we first met? In the hallway in the Green Fields Biotech building? We—Smith, Cho, and me—made the decision not to shoot you. We had orders—explicit orders—to take out anyone we encountered. We had your picture on file in the last update we got just before we breached the building. Cho called in to confirm with command. And still we didn’t shoot. Wouldn’t have even if the undead hadn’t caught up with us, but that sure helped. It takes a special kind of fucktard to make the wrong decision in a situation like that.”
Santos and Burns obviously agreed with him. Clearing his throat, Santos asked, “Did you at least kill that fucker?”
“Zombies got to him first,” I admitted, snorting. “Because he was too fucking stupid to gun them down, rather than us. Screamed like a little girl, too.”
Grim satisfaction answered me from all around, making me feel just a tad better. Of course then I had to start coughing again, reminding us all that the end result would be the same in a day or two. Damn but I hated being such a downer.
It didn’t take long for the others to return, Nate and Andrej slightly winded while the rest seemed downright bored. So much for guessing at who’s hand the resident shambler population had found its end. I hated myself for thinking like this, but I was glad that soon I could stop pretending like this didn’t downright kill me. And just curling up and waiting to die sounded a lot less bad now that my body was slowly but surely giving out.
Nate and Pia still had some discussing to do while the rest of the gang lined up to take their leave. Burns didn’t hesitate for a second, barf-breath all but forgotten, to hug me, tight enough to make my ribs hurt. Martinez did the same, if somewhat less ferociously, ignoring my repeat protest that he shouldn’t get too close. The others left it at somewhat more reserved shows of affection like fist bumps and the odd slap on my shoulder. I suffered it all as graciously as I could, my throat so tight that coughing wasn’t an issue for the moment. Pia was up last, and she completely took me off guard when she leaned in and hugged me as well, if briefly.
“I will make sure that he doesn’t kill himself,” she whispered into my ear, almost too low for me to catch. I just had enough time to squeeze back before she was gone, turning away to shoo the others to their cars. My Glock she left on the dashboard.
Nate remained standing outside of the car, watching as the others took off into the darkening gloom of dusk. There was barely any red in the sky left, and the light evening breeze made me shiver. He noticed, finally tearing himself out of his momentary stupor.
“Let’s get you up there. We already got bottled water and some provisions set up.” I would have loved to glare at him, just out of principle, but the simple act of being picked up was too damn uncomfortable to let me get away with nonsense like that. He tightened his grip around me as he felt me tense, but there was no way around it. Maybe I could have tried hopping on my good leg but only with heavy assistance, and I doubted that would have gone down any better. Thankfully there was a flight of stairs right there at the end of the building, and Nate pushed open the door to the last room. It was just as dingy as I’d been afraid, but after how rough we’d been living for the past year, it was practically luxurious. He made as if to deposit me right on the bed, but I protested. I was so not going to die in a heap of bloody, gore-splattered gear if I could prevent it. He ended up leaning me against his front while he helped me peel myself out of my jacket. My pants were so sticky with blood—mine and Cho’s—that he gave up and cut them right off. I tried to avoid looking at my left thigh, but even in the near darkness it was easy to make out just how savaged my leg was. Nate ended up depositing me in the one rickety chair there was in the room so he could use some water and one of my back-up shirts to wipe away the worst of the grime. I’d never felt less sexy being completely naked in front of anyone. As soon as he was done, he bundled me back up in sweat pants and a hoodie before he carried me over to the bed. While I was busy beating the pillow into submission, he dragged the chair outside and got another one from the room next door, making a second trip for more blankets when he realized that I was still shivering under those already provided.
And then he settled in for what I guessed must easily be one of the longest nights of his life. Mine, too, because if I could help it, I wouldn’t waste a single second I still had with sleeping.
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