It took a few moments for everyone's nerves to unfurl. Our emotions untying the tension filled knots that they spent the last twenty five minutes tangled up in. As much as we all desperately wanted to believe that we were safe, that we had the military on our side and we'd just have to wait things out until this global malfunction had worked itself out somehow...that illusion was slowly dissipating like the morning fog under the dawning light. This attack was a reminder that things in our protective shelter could easily come crashing down on us at any moment. That our 'secure' situation could go South without any warning at all. And...if push came to shove...we may not be anywhere near as prepared as we wanted to think we would be when the shit inevitably hits the fan.
I didn't even realize how stressed out I was until my muscles began unravel and my breathing returned to normal. Still feeling Walker's arms constricted around my middle as though I was the only thing keeping him gripped to reality itself, I found myself trying to awkwardly hug him back in a lame attempt to comfort his nerves. I don't think I was doing much to accomplish that, but...it was worth a shot, right?
That soldier guy, Cooper, was going to have to go in to be thoroughly checked and re-examined by the doctors in the infirmary after our close call. Just like everyone else involved. Even though he was taking zombies out from a great distance, security was getting increasingly tight around this place. But before he was led away, he made a point to walk in my direction and lightly place a hand on Walker's shoulder to see if he was ok.
"Hey, buddy...you hanging in there?" He asked. But even though he knew and trusted Cooper much more than he would a strange kid like me, he slightly cringed and jerked away from his touch, squeezing the air out of me until I had to grunt from the pressure of it. "It's ok. We're alright. Everybody's alright." Cooper's eyes met mine for a moment, and he asked, "Does he still have all of his puzzle pieces in one box?" Which, I was guessing, meant had he completely freaked out beyond the ability to return to a sane frame of mind.
"Ummm...I think so." I said. "He said something about a lucky number, but I wasn't quite sure what he..."
Cooper stopped me. "Wait! He SPOKE? He actually said something?"
His sudden interest sort of threw me off, and I felt a little intimidated to answer right away. "I...I couldn't hear most of it. He was just kind of saying it under his breath to himself."
Cooper moved forward and got down on one knee to look at Walker, eye to eye. "Hey, buddy? Did you say something important? Did I miss it?" He asked. "Can you do it again for me? Just a word or two?"
At first, Walker buried his head even further into my chest, but when Cooper lightly rubbed his shoulder and decided not to push him any further than he was willing to go, Walker lightly whispered, "31....30. 31-30. It's a lucky number. Double threes."
Cooper's smile seemed to brighten up his whole face. "Wow. Yeah. 31-30. Double threes." Then he briefly tussled Walker's hair, chuckling to himself. "Well, I'll just be damned. Listen to the subtle pipes on you. Pleased to finally 'meet' you, Walker. Your voice, anyway."
I asked, "You've never heard him talk before?"
"Not since the little rugrat shot me in the arm, no." Cooper replied, and I looked over to see a bandage on his arm, stained with the remnants of stale, coagulated, blood. "I'm still waiting on that apology, kiddo. You know...once you're feeling chatty again." Walker didn't say anything else. I guess he was still having trouble finding his voice again. But, at least now we both know that he actually had a voice at one time. Cooper stood up, and he looked me in the eye, "Jake, right?"
"You think you can babysit for a little bit longer. Maybe an hour or two, while I go get myself checked out?"
Feeling a little weird about having the responsibility thrust upon my shoulders without warning, I told him, "I don't know. I mean...I don't know what I can do."
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Just do what you've been doing. You've been great. You got him to talk. Not even I could do that. Just keep him with you, be a friend, and I'll be back as soon as I can. K?"
I wasn't sure what to say, but seeing as Alex was already holding Spencer in his arms...I figured I might as well sign up for my good deed for the day as well. "I...I guess I could watch him for a bit..." I said, meekly.
"Great. That's really great. And THANK you, ok?" Cooper made me blush a little. What the heck was he thanking ME for? He's the one who just helped Logan take on a rabid army of the undead for our benefit!
"M'kay..." I answered.
Cooper turned his attention back to Walker, and got him to loosen his grip on me long enough to turn around and look him in the eye directly. "Listen...I'm going to come back for you. I promise. You stick close to Jake here, and his friends. And when I'm done, I'll be right back at your side to keep the monsters at bay. You copy?"
Walker nodded silently at first, but then found just enough breath to whisper, "...copy..."
Cooper's grin was soooo grateful for his attempt to respond to him. I could actually see his eyes sparkling as he stood back up on his feet again. "Copy. Good. You sit back and relax for a while. I'll be back in a blink."
Just as he was leaving, Alex and I looked at one another and smiled. Something about his alluring green eyes gave you the meanest little 'tickle' inside...just under your ribs. And that's when Donovan walked closer and gave us all a strange look. "What?" I asked.
Donovan looked at Spencer, then he looked at Walker...
"How the fuck did you do that?" He said.
Alex asked, "Do what?"
"How did you guys suddenly pop up with two new 'boy pets' in the short amount of time that it took to get through a potentially life threatening disaster? What, are we collecting them now?" He grunted, but neither Spencer nor Walker were really in the mood to let his prickly comments push them away from us. Even if they did stand up straight and take a step back from our protective embrace.
Male pride...it develops within us so early, you know?
Preston was the first to break up the brief, yet uncomfortable, silence. "HEY! You guys wanna eat something? The food here is kinda lame, but some stuff is good too! Donnie got me a fresh tray after those butt munchers knocked my other one down on the floor. Did you see them do it? It was right over there. Bunch of bullies..."
Alex said, "That actually sounds like a really good idea. I'm starving." He glanced up at me, and...I don't know...my heart seemed to spin and flip and get all tangled up in a series of complex veins and arteries as I struggled to keep my ever growing infatuation for him from getting out of control. I mean...can other people SEE how in love I am right now? It hardly seems like an appropriate time to be entertaining thoughts of sweet kisses and giggles when I know we were extremely close to being...ummmm...violently murdered and eaten by monsters.
And yet, something about that danger made me feelings even stronger. It's weird how situations like this make you focus more on the moment, and appreciate it with a hypersensitive level of appreciation.
Had Alex and I just been two boys on opposite sides of a high school cafeteria...I probably would have drawn out a heartfelt confession of love for months before I even gathered up the courage to SPEAK to him...much less give in to the temptation of kissing him on those sweet sweet lips of his!
Preston took both Spencer and Walker by the hand, and he gave them a gentle yank to get them to follow him over to the food line. Surprisingly, both boys followed him without giving any resistance at all. It was weird. Preston was like this cute little woodland creature that never seemed to send up any red flags at all when it came to trusting him completely...even through the fog of fear and trauma. It's like...if you meet a stray dog on the street...he may bite you, he may not. You approach a strange dog with caution, you know? But Preston? He was like a fluffy little bunny or something. Nobody's scared of a bunny. You just kind of take him at face value. And if anybody could exist as the embodiment of 'face value'...it was Preston Miles.
Seeing as most of the adults were still severely shaken by the events that had just taken place outside, we were able to walk right up and basically help ourselves to whatever we wanted without waiting. Spencer, even though he looked a bit weak and frail...his chest heaving with an occasional dry cough...seemed to have definitely brought his appetite with him. I was shocked to see a boy that small in stature even entertain the idea that he'd be able to polish off all the meat that he was putting on his tray. He even began nibbling on it before he could finish filling his plate. That was...weird. Seeing as how much he dad looks after him...I can't see him allowing Spencer to miss a meal. Especially when he's sick.
We found a table against one of the far walls in an empty corner of the cafeteria. Surprisingly...Donovan came to join us. I mean, he was more than welcome to join us, of course...I guess I was used to him being a bit more...'standoffish'.
I notice Preston saying a little prayer before putting a paper napkin in his lap and preparing to chow down. You would have thought he was having a steak dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in town. But, hey...it's not for me to knock good table manners, is it?
However, as I began to take my first few bites, I heard this 'sloshing' sound coming from across the table. Heavy breathing. Even a few grunts of indulgence. Spencer was seriously going to town on that breakfast plate. Especially the MEAT! Link sausage, patty sausage, bacon...and it was almost as if he couldn't scoop those scrambled eggs into his mouth fast enough. It was a ravenous hunger that caused the whole table to go silent.
Donovan gave the boy a strange look at first, but simply went back to eating his own food instead. I heard Preston giggle sweetly at the sight of it. "Hey! They have Jell-O too! I got green! Always get the green. The orange ones taste like medicine!"
But despite Preston's lighthearted view of the situation, there was something that seemed a bit unnatural about devouring his food the way he was. A few times he stopped to cough, his waifish frame rattling from the inside out. And he was eating so fast that air would get trapped in his throat, and he'd have to pause for a second to belch softly before digging back in again. Jesus...what's with this kid?
It was then that Alex and I both looked around the room. Casually at first...but it wasn't long before we noticed the stares of some of the other adults in the cafeteria. The kids our age might have thought that it was a bit comical to have Spencer bury his face in his food like that...but the adults? Their gaze was a bit more focused. A focus that caused them to trade glances with one another as if to somehow pass along some sort of silent agreement between them. A secret accusation.
Feeling the paranoid urgency of the situation, I quietly suggested, "Hey...Spencer? Maybe you might want to slow down there a little, bud. They'll make more grub for lunch, ya know?" I gave him a weak smile when I said it, but I'd be lying if I said that this behavior didn't freak me out.
Spencer, his head still low, glared up at me while still chewing. Bits of food and processed grease, smeared across his lips and cheeks and chin. He was breathing so hard. And the look in his eyes was so...invasive. It forced Alex and I to trade a few silent accusations of our own.
Luckily, the eerie moment was interrupted as I heard a familiar voice over my shoulder. "Peek-a-boo, baby bro! Where the heck have you been hiding yourself?" I craned my neck around to see my brother, Cain, smiling down on me from above. A sight for sore eyes, to be sure.
"CAIN!!!" I immediately hopped up from my seat and hugged him tightly around the waist. "I haven't seen you in a while!"
He shrugged. "Yeah, I've been running a bit of a fever. Heartbeat is a little irregular. Don't know what that's about, but they've basically been keeping me quarantined from everybody else until they figured it out. Luckily, they decided I was fine and gave me my release today." I thought that was odd. Clearly, Spencer was a bit worse off than Cain was, but they let him walk around pretty freely. Then again, he was ill when he got here, so maybe they gave him a pass. Maybe? I don't know.
I saw Cain look over my shoulder at the rest of the table, and I spoke up, saying, "Oh! These are my friends. This is Walker. Spencer. Donovan. Over there is Preston..." Preston wiped his mouth and waved hello with a smile. And then, with a deep breath, I softly said, "...And that's...that's Alex." Did I sigh when I said his name out loud? Was I blushing? God, I hope I wasn't blushing.
A big smile broke out on Cain's face, and I made certain to secretly give him a stern look to keep him from embarrassing me!
"It is and honor to meet YOU, Alex." He grinned. "And the rest of you, of course." He turned to me and said, "I don't want to keep the new popular kid away from his homies, but...I need to talk to you for a second. You mind?"
"Oh...yeah. Ok." I said. Cain made sure to give a short farewell to everyone else at the table, and then I followed him out of the cafeteria and into the hallway.
He kept quiet until we got some place quiet, and in a low voice, he asked, "Listen, I wanted you to know...I still haven't been able to get in touch with Mom and Dad. Not since we got here."
"What??? But that was FOREVER ago?"
"Shhhh!" He said, looking around to make sure that nobody was eavesdropping. "Look, apparently things are more insane out there than we ever could have dreamed. At first, i just figured that it was a huge spike in data usage and heavy cell phone traffic. Then, they tried to tell us that the emergency crisis centers had cleared the airwaves to communicate to the rescue teams on the ground and get more people to safety. But their story keeps changing, and now nobody can even get a signal. Not one bar."
"Because too many people are trying to get through at once?"
"I think it's a little bit worse than that." He said. "I don't think anybody is 'minding the store' out there. All communications have stopped. Even the military is losing its ability to contact anybody on the outside. Something really messed up is going on here."
Afraid to hear his answer, I asked, "Do you think Mom and Dad are still ok?"
Cain saw the distressed look on my face, and tried to keep me from worrying too much. "The last time we spoke to them, they were in a caravan of survivors, being taken to a secure location. Just like we were, right?" I nodded. "Then I'm sure they're doing just fine. They're downtown, so they're probably even more fortified and well protected than we are. It just sucks that we can't reach out to them right now." There was this heavy panic building in the center of my gut, and I began to tremble as I remembered just how serious our parents' situation was. There's a subtle sense of denial when it comes to the idea of possibly losing one of your parents at my age. And losing both of them is just downright unthinkable. I felt as though the air was being squeezed out of my lungs, and Cain decided to distract me. "Did you see that whole fiasco with the fence, dude? What the fuck? Badass, right?"
"Yeah. Some of these soldiers mean business. It's a good thing they're on our side, right?"
I knew that he was just trying to keep me calm by changing the subject, but I went along with it. Hoping the nervous tremors in my stomach would settle down with time. "They...they looked like they were quick to get the situation under control, I guess."
"Fuckin' right, they did. I was on the second floor, watching. I've never seen anything like that before in my life. If we've got guys like that on our team, those stupid zombie things haven't got a chance." He said, and I nodded weakly. "They've been burning bodies, you know?"
"They have...?" i almost didn't recognize my own voice at the moment. Thoughts of my parents being overrun...another massacre...running and fighting for their lives somewhere far away...all in vain.
"I've seen them doing it, out by the South wing. They're using the football field. Soldiers in HAZMAT suits, piling up zombie waste...torching them to ashes, one big pile of bodies at a time. I heard some people talking, and they're getting word about what's gonna happen over the next couple of weeks."
I couldn't keep flashes of my mom and dad being ripped to shreds out of my mind. I tried to block it out, but...the image of it kept coming back to me. "What do they think is gonna happen?"
"Well...all of those zombies out there...I mean, they're basically rotting meat at this point. It rained a couple of times too, which can't be good. The solders are trying to cremate them as fast as they can but we don't have the fuel, the manpower, or the resources, to get to them all. Some of the doctors were suggesting a supply run to maybe get us all some surgical masks to cover our faces. By the middle of next month, the air may be too toxic for us to breathe. Every time they solve one problem, it seems like two more pop up in its place." He told me. "Whatever is going on out there...I hope they find a way to fix it soon. Who knew that a zombie apocalypse would be so complicated, huh?"
"I suppose..." I mumbled, staring blankly at the floor.
At this point, Cain put a hand on each of my shoulders and looked me in the eye, "They're gonna be ok, Jake. You hear me? Just like you and me right now...we're ok. We're gonna get through this." I wanted to believe him, but a part of me just couldn't. For all I know...they could be dead already. "I made you a promise. I'm not backing out now. We gotta keep our heads, ok?"
I nodded. More for his comfort than for mine. "Sorry, I just...the shock of all this is beginning to wear off. It just seemed like one big nightmare before, but I kept expecting to wake up from it eventually. I'd pop up in bed, wipe the sweat off of my forehead and go back to...life." I said. "I'm starting to lose the hope that I'll ever wake up. I'm starting to think there's no way for things to get better..."
"Don't. That little bit of hope is what's going to get us out of here when it's all said and done, alright?" He said. At least he was doing his best to be convincing. I could almost buy into what he was selling me in the 'hope' department. That's when Cain stood up, and he let a little smirk appear on his face. Always changing the subject. "You've got yourself a little 'squad' going over there in the cafeteria, don't ya?"
"We're not a 'squad'. We just all happen to be a part of the same mess."
"We're barely that." I said.
"Except for Alex. Right?" He asked. I didn't say anything at first, but he nudged me with his elbow until he got me to smile. "Am I right?" He said a bit louder.
"Unh unh, don't wuss out on me now. I saw the way you looked when you introduced us. You've got it bad, don't you? I don't blame you. He's even prettier up close than he is from a distance."
"Quit it. I just...I like him. That's all."
"So you haven't talked to him yet?" He asked, and this time I know that I blushed because I could feel my face heating up. "You DID, didn't you? What did he say? Spit it out!"
Cain's eyes widened. "Ohhhhh...my...GOD! You found yourself a boyfriend. A friggin' BOYFRIEND! During the zombie apocalypse! That's mental!"
My brother picks THIS moment to get animated and draw attention to our conversation? "Shhhh! He's...we're sorta...talking, you know? About stuff." I said.
"What kind of stuff?"
"I don't know. Stuff." I whispered.
"What KIND of stuff???" He asked again. Jesus Christ, did Cain forget how to whisper??? Then, he covered his mouth with his hand, "Have you kissed him yet?"
"WHAT?" I said, looking away. "Get outta here."
"You KISSED him, didn't you? You two went off somewhere and started kissing! LOOK at my baby bro, gettin' some!"
"It wasn't like that!"
"So what was it like, then?" He giggled.
Sure, I felt a little bit of shame in admitting it, but...I also felt my affection for Alex warming the ice cold chills that I had inside and causing me to practically melt into a giant puddle on the floor. I looked away from him again and grinned, "It was...I don't know. It was nice."
"'It was nice', he says..." Cain gave me a hug, and added, "...Well, you just let me know when I should officially welcome him into the family, will you?"
Our hug lasted a bit longer than necessary, but I took real comfort in it. Even though I could recognize the lingering affection as something different from a random bonding moment between brothers.
Cain promised me from the very beginning that our parents would be ok, and that they'd be joining us soon. But he couldn't keep that promise, could he? I think we were both beginning to realize that. And with the world the way it is right now...we may end up being the only family we've got left.