Walking towards the cafeteria where everybody else was laying down, more than half of them asleep after all of the commotion that we had been through earlier…I half expected to find Spencer just spread out somewhere on the floor, doped up and probably trying to get his equilibrium back, or whatever. But as I looked around the room, he was nowhere to be found.
Even Walker and his friend, Eddie, had both drifted off at this point. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the shadows surrounding me, still swiveling my head around as I tried to locate Spencer and see where he might be and what he might be up to. But I still hadn’t caught sight of him just yet.
That’s when I felt a hand being placed on my shoulder from behind, and I suddenly JUMPED from being so startled by it!
Thankfully, it was Alex’s stunningly beautiful face that greeted me when I turned around, and not something much more terrifying. In fact, he was a bit shocked by my reaction and jumped back a little himself, taking his hand off of me as if he had burned himself. Neither one of us meant to scare one another, but…these are tense times.
“Sorry…” He whispered.
“No, it’s ok. I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to react like that, I just…I guess I was on edge, or whatever.”
“Aren’t we all?” He said, his green eyes charming me as if for the first time all over again. “Did you get a chance to sleep at all?”
“Not much.” I said. And then I looked around the room some more before pulling Alex over to the side with me. “Listen…there was something really strange going on with Spencer. I was a bit worried about it. It was kinda creepy.”
“Worried? About Spencer? Why, what happened?” He asked me, and I lowered my voice to a softer whisper as I looked around to make sure that nobody else was listening.
“Look…I don’t know what’s going on with him, or how he got sick in the first place…but he’s been acting a little weird lately. I’ve got to admit that it’s making me a little uncomfortable now.” I told him.
“You think that maybe Preston was on to something? Maybe he was right to be cautious around him?”
“I don’t know if I can say, with any confidence, that he was wrong.” I said. “I took him over to see Dr. Vega, just in case…ummmm….”
“Just in case, what?” Alex asked me. “Do you think he might be turning into one of those ‘things’ out there?”
“No! No…” I said at first, trying to hide the doubt on my face. “Or…you know…at least not yet. He seems to be ok most of the time, but…”
“But you’re not sure…” Alex said. And I reluctantly shook my head.
“I don’t know what to think anymore, to be honest.”
“Where is he now? Is Dr. Vega giving him any examinations or treatment?”
“That’s just it…” I whispered, still looking around the cafeteria for any sign of him. “I don’t know where he is. He, like…’escaped’ or something. He could be anywhere in this place.”
“You’ve gotta be shitting me!” Alex said, taking a step or two back from me. “It’s just like what they say started happening at Hillside, dude. This is how the massacre starts!”
“No. He’s not like that. I was just talking to him less than twenty minutes ago. He seemed fine.”
“They ALL seem fine, right up to the moment when they’re taking a bite out of you!” Alex told me. “You’ve gotta tell somebody, Jake.”
“I DID tell somebody! I told Dr. Vega! He knows what to look for, and he’s gonna handle it…”
“What if he doesn’t?” He said. “Where is Spencer’s dad?”
“He’s going on a supply run soon with some of the soldiers to see if they can stock this place up for a while longer. But, let’s be honest, they’re not going to be able to sustain this place forever.” I wasn’t going to say anything at first…but looking at the worry on Alex’s face compelled me to speak. “My brother, Cain…him and his friend Jamie are thinking about…maybe getting us out of here. Finding some place safe for us to barricade ourselves in until the worst of this outbreak blows over.”
“You…you mean, like…to another part of the school, or…?” He asked…and all I could do was slowly shake my head in the negative. “You’re talking about leaving the shelter…aren’t you?”
“I don’t know, Alex…I mean…you heard what the soldiers said. You know, about all of us teens and preteens being a potential problem. Every night, things seem to get a little bit more tense around here.”
“We’ve got a better chance in here than we do out there, Jake. What happens if we end up not finding a safe place to settle into? A place where we can defend ourselves?”
“There’s gotta be something out there.” I told him. “Most of the whole city is either dead or they’ve turned into one of those ‘things’…and if we can just get by them and find a way to hide out in some place where we don’t have guns and military gatekeepers watching over us day and night…”
“IF we can get past them, and IF we find a decent place to avoid this mess…what happens when we run out of supplies? What if we can’t get electricity? Or heat? Or water? You’re gambling an awful lot on ‘maybe’, dude.” Then he asked, “And what about Preston? Or Walker? Or Donovan? Do you think they’re gonna go long with this too?”
It shamed me. It really did. I had to look away from Alex’s eyes for a moment before getting up the courage to say the words out loud. “We…we can’t take everybody. It’s just…it would be a risk. Cain was saying that maybe it could be…you know…just you and me. And Jamie, of course, but…” Alex suddenly took a few slow steps back away from me.
“I can’t believe you’re saying this…” The pain in his eyes nearly broke my heart. To be honest…I couldn’t believe that I was saying it either. But I was trying to be reasonable about all of this. At least, I thought was. And if I can save Alex too so that we might, one day, live long enough to get our ‘happily ever after’ moment…then why not try? Just go for it, you know?
“I’m not trying to be heartless, ok? I wanted to take everybody with us too. Hell, I didn’t even want to leave at all at first…but…what my brother was telling me was starting to make a weird kinda sense, the more that I thought about it. We can’t all just stay here forever and think that this is just going to blow over. You said it yourself. How long will it be before we have a Hillside High School situation on our hands, and a bunch of trigger happy soldiers looking to put a few bullets in every slightly suspicious teenager that they see walking the halls at night?” I said. “If we wait too long to get out of here…it’ll be too late to escape what might be coming our way. This place could crash and burn at any moment, and it’s not a good idea to stick around for front row seats when it happens.”
It was almost like…like Alex couldn’t believe what I was saying. He wrinkled his brow slightly, and then took another step back from me. “I think I should…try to get some sleep. The sun will be up soon. They’ll be calling for us to come get breakfast…”
“Alex…whatever you think I meant by…what I said…I didn’t, ok? I’m just trying to figure out how we’re all gonna get out of this alive, without…”
But he cut me off. “My parents are still out there. They’ll be looking for me…here. I’m gonna wait for them.” He said, and with a shaky voice, he added, “But…you and your brother go ahead and do whatever you want. I wish you the best.”
“Alex, c’mon…” I said, but he was already walking away from me. Going off somewhere to rest in the shadows.
Did I just fuck everything up? Because I feel like I just fucked everything up. And it hurt, you know? I mean, it really hurt! I never had a boyfriend before in my life, or even the possibility of finding one…much less one that was so perfect that he was almost too good to be true. But my heart was breaking regardless. I found myself being sore with regret. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut. I really did care about him, Preston, Spencer, and the others…but I can’t deny the fact that I can feel the walls closing in on us here. The zombie horde is getting closer, and more dense, by the day. They’re getting faster. Smarter. And if any one of us can just simply ‘change over’ into zombie mode whether we’ve been bitten or not…then this shelter of ours is going to end up being more of a trap than a fortress. Doesn’t he understand that I just want us to be together? That I want us to be safe? I want to keep him sooooo bad! Please don’t think I’m a bastard for craving the chance to finally spend my life with someone I love and care about so much. I’m not trying to be selfish, I just…I don’t ever want to think of a time where I might have to let him go.
I didn’t chase him when he went to the wall and sat down on his little pallet to pull a blanket over his shoulders and roll towards the wall so he didn’t have to look at me anymore tonight. I felt like I would only make things worse if I did. Should I give it time? Is it possible that we could both wake up later and pretend that this conversation never happened? I don’t know. I can’t say that I’ve ever been in this position before, so I don’t really have anything to relate it to. But, as I wandered over to the cafeteria windows and looked out at the world around us…I thought about what Dr. Vega said. You know…about the desperate need to fall back into old habits? The loss of control and…being forced to deal with the enormity of it all? Maybe that’s what I was doing at that moment. Looking out at the chaos, just on the other side of those fences…and wanting to pretend…no, truly believe…that they’d hold the masses back forever. That I could live in some kind of romantic fantasy with Alex while the rest of what was going on in the world faded away, if only for an hour or two at a time. Was it wrong to want that? Was it sane?
There are a lot of things in life that you can hide from…but the truth isn’t one of them. And I’m going to have to deal with this eventually. Just…maybe not today.<p.
I don’t think I can bear the full weight of it today.
God, I hope Alex isn’t mad at me. I know he misses his parents and all. Maybe I was just being stupid.
As I peered through the window, I could see the flickering light of the giant bonfire coming from the high school football field. Clouds of smoke and the rising embers of ash as they floated up towards the dark sky above. Bodies. Sooooo many bodies. Being burned as if they were worthless bags of trash. When there are that many of them all at once…it’s almost hard to calculate or have any emotional attachment to them. They just become a statistic. How else could my brain possibly deal with any of this madness? Mothers, husbands, brothers, sisters…kids…
I stood at that window and I couldn’t believe how numb I was to the very sight of watching them burn. Knowing that they had a life a few weeks ago. Dreams, and ideas, and regrets, and laughter. They had no idea that they’d end up becoming just another log on the fire.
Thoughts like these…they fuck with your sense of humanity, you know?
“Feels kind of weird…doesn’t it?” Came a voice over my shoulder, and I was surprised to see Donovan walking up to the windows to join me. “All of the things that we once had so much faith in, all of our rules and regulations and social norms…they all crumbled in the matter of a few weeks. Makes you wonder what a so-called civilized life would have been like if we had any idea how very fragile it all was to begin with.”
“Yeah. I guess.” I said softly, still peeking over at him as the shock began to wear off over the fact that he was even talking to me. I mean, Donovan can be really sweet at heart, but you’ve got to dig through a lot of tough layers to reach his candy center, that’s for sure. It’s not often that he just offers it up like this.
“So…what are you doing up so early?”
“I’m uhhh…supposed to be looking for Spencer. I guess I just got distracted. That’s all.”
“Spencer? I thought he was with you.”
“He is. Or…well, he was. But he wandered off somewhere and I’m not really sure where to go looking for him.”
Donovan sighed to himself. “I wish I could help you out, Jake…but aside from having him nuzzle his sleeping head up against my ribs, I don’t know much about that kid at all.” Then he asked, “Does anybody know what he’s sick with? He doesn’t look too good.”
I made sure to keep my mouth shut about that. The less people that know about my deepest concerns when it comes to Spencer possibly ‘turning’ on us…the better. “Not sure. His dad busted him out of a hospital while it was under attack. That’s pretty much all I know.”
“Well, his dad is a fucking badass. So, I can definitely buy that. He’s one of the only people in this place thtmakes me feel bad for the zombies that have to go up against him.” He said, and then he gazed back out of the window gain. Both of us looking at the fire and the soldiers in protective suits tossing them onto the pile…one after another. A long silence passed between us…and Donovan quietly said, “I keep thinking…you know? About…well, what’s going on out there.”
“Yeah. Me too. But I try not to. Not too much, anyway.” I told him.
“You wanna know what’s weird? I keep thinking about the people I haven’t thought about yet…and I wonder if they’re still alive. Or if, maybe…they’re lying out in some other bonfire somewhere. Or maybe clawing at some fenced in facility like this one…with no idea of who they are or where they came from.” He said. “I have some cousins in a town not far South from here. Little ones. Are they ok? A couple of friends that I grew up with…what are they doing right now? How are they handling all this? Every time I close my eyes, I think about another person that I just…wish I could see again. And I don’t know if I ever will.”
After a slight hesitation, I said, “I wonder if my parents are ok. I try not to think about it for too long because I’m afraid it’ll drive me crazy if I do. But…the truth is, I don’t know where they are right now. If they’re safe. I really wish that I could see them again too. Just to put my mind at ease.”
Donovan scoffed for a moment, telling me, “To be totally honest, man…I thought that I’d celebrate the day that my asshole sperm donor and my big brother, Brett, finally got what they deserved so I could be free from them forever.” But, with another pause, he said, “And now? I can’t believe that I’m going to say this but…I almost miss having them torture me the way they did. I miss the insults, I miss the attitude…I even miss the stale stench of alcohol on my father’s breath. It’s kinda crazy how we never really know how much we care about somebody…until they’re gone.” When he said that, I looked over at Donovan and gently put my hand on his shoulder. I don’t know if it brought him any comfort or anything, but I was hoping that it had some soothing effect on him regardless. “Don’t mind me, Jake. I’m just….making conversation.” He said, a slightly somber tone.
“Heh…I thought you didn’t like making conversation.” I grinned.
“Normally, I don’t. But maybe some of your bad habits are rubbing off on me.” And Donovan actually gave me a halfhearted smirk when he said it. It was kind of shocking to see, considering his usual standoffish disposition. “Besides…I’m starting to feel a bit guilty…about the way I’ve treated some of the people in my life. You know? I could have…done better.”
The sadness in his eyes as he lowered his head slightly, his fingers running through his ample mop of dark brown curls as though he could somehow scratch the demons he was battling out of his head. There was only one time that I’ve seen him look like that since he’s been here. So, I had to ask, “Does this have anything to do with that ‘Stephen’ guy you were looking for?”
Donovan shut down on me almost immediately. His guard was back up, and he said, “Weren’t you supposed to be looking for Spencer? Wandering around in this place before sunrise isn’t really all that smart. Especially with new caravans of people coming in all the time.”
I could have pressed the issue and asked more questions…but much like I did with Alex, I took the hint, and saw that Donovan might just want to be left alone. At least for now. “I guess…I should check the gym or something. Maybe the upstairs classrooms.” I said.
“Yeah. Good idea. I’m sure he won’t be hard to find. Just listen for the sound of him coughing and wheezing and you’re bound to run into him sooner or later.”
I nodded, and stepped away from the window to continue my search. But, before leaving…I looked back and said, “Hey, Donovan?”
“You can be…a little hard to figure out sometimes…but if you ask me, you treat people just fine. Better than most. I doubt you have much to worry about in that department. K?”
I’d like to say that he was touched by my comments…but if he was, he hid the emotional engagement like a pro. “Whatever. Go find the twerp before he gets himself lost, will ya?”
I just smiled at him…and he smiled back, turning around to stare out of the window again.
There’s no better feeling than breaking through to a hard heart like Donovan’s every once in a while. It’s so totally worth it.