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Searching for Spencer wasn't an easy task, not by any means. Especially considering that I was a bit on edge concerning what I might find when he popped up somewhere that I didn't expect him too.
I didn't want to be suspicious of Spencer for no reason...but, since I had no idea what a zombie kid looks or acts like before they turn over completely, it was becoming harder and harder to differentiate him from possibly becoming one of the zombies at the gate. Being wrong or naive about this sort of thing can be deadly at this point. And this whole zombie apocalypse thing, while fascinating to watch and think about from a distance...has an entirely different feel when it hits this close to home. It would be an understatement to say that I was beginning to get a little bit worried here.
I checked upstairs, I checked in any place where there might be food or some kind of snacks that a boy his age would be drawn to...but it was almost like he literally vanished off of the face of the Earth during those few minutes that Dr. Vega and I had turned our backs on him. Maybe, if the sedative was doing its job, Spencer was just laid out some place and passed out where neither one of us could find him. I mean, who knows? He might just be sleeping in a closet or an empty classroom somewhere, right? That would totally make sense, wouldn't it?
I kept walking around in the halls for a while, hearing a few spoken voices in the background as the restless members of the shelter began to wake up and come to life. It was difficult for most of us to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, despite our physical and emotional exhaustion. The brain never shuts itself down...not completely. And it's amazing how quickly you adapt and numb yourself to the heavy dose of anxiety that you're forced to deal with on a minute by minute basis. It's weird. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't worried about being devoured alive anymore. I never thought the day would come where that was something that could be considered as 'normal'. You know?
So crazy. Right?
As I wandered the hallways...my mind began to echo the memories of Alex's face when I even suggested that he leave this place with Cain, Jamie, and me. It was just this sudden expression of...I don't know. Was it shame? Was it hurt? Was it anger? The more I thought about it, the more I wished I could rewind time and take that moment back. It's not like I was going to leave him there. I wanted to take him with me. That should count for something, right? Maybe not everybody, but Alex for sure. Then again, even thinking that seemed to humiliate me inside. How could I just leave Preston behind to fend for himself. That wouldn't be fair. Donovan was probably stronger than all of us put together...but there was something weak inside of him that he was just beginning to deal with. Could I turn my back on him as well? And what about Walker and Eddie? And what happens to Spencer if he turns out to be sick?
Times are hard. I get that. But the real question is...would I rather deal with those hard times as they come? Or would I rather spend the rest of what little time I may have left in this life wondering what happened to my new 'family' once I bailed on them and never came back to check to see if they were even ok?
I'm starting to think that the latter would be a fate much worse than death, to be honest. Who wouldn't?
It was then that I saw one of the doors open up on the right of me, and that one boy came out wiping his eyes on the back of his sleeve. That 'Stephen' boy that Donovan had been looking for earlier. Im assuming that his dad wasn't doing too good from the looks of things, and he just sort of fell back against the lockers and slid down to the floor as he began to cry into his folded arms.
I wasn't sure if he wanted to be left alone or not, but there's always this part of me that gets triggered by my insane need to help other people. Even if I'm unqualified, or even unworthy, of doing so. "Are you...ummm...ok?" I asked.
Sobbing quietly, Stephen looked up at me and replied, I don't know what's going on. I don't understand any of this at all." It broke my heart to see tears rolling down his cheeks, and it made me really uncomfortable, but I tried to offer him a shoulder to lean on if he really needed it.
"Was your...I mean, the person you came in with...did he get bit?" I asked, trying not to make any big assumptions without knowing his story at all.
He slowly shook his head. "No. He didn't get infected or anything. But he was trying to help me get away. We were both so scared when they began breaking the windows and forcing their way into the house." He said. "They killed my neighbors. They were killing everybody. And my dad tried to fight them off but just as he was lowering me down out of the upstairs window..." He began to sniffle and sob again. "This 'look' appeared on his face...and I could see the veins in his neck...and even though he was in a lot of pain, he just held the line and made sure that I was able to get down to the ground. And then….then he just climbed out of the window and it was almost like his body shut down completely. He gripped his chest, and I think he had a heart attack. He could barely breathe. He kept screaming at me to leave him and get myself some place safe, but I refused to just let him lay there on the front lawn and die all alone! Even when those monsters came after us, I kept trying to pull him away so we could both survive together." He started to weep openly right in front of me, and his vulnerability just felt like a knife in my heart. He just couldn't hold it back anymore. "Luckily, there were soldiers sent in to clear out the area, and they were able to rescue us and get him some medical attention. But even now...they can't tell me if he's going to make it or not. And I just...I don't know what I'm going to do if he doesn't. He's the only person that I've got left in this world since..." He paused, trying to hold back from breaking down entirely. "...Since my mom was bitten at work. They say she turned almost instantly. They say that...they made it quick. Painless." He looked up at me as he tried to speak through the burning lump in the back of his throat. "...But I don't believe them..." He said. "How can that be painless? How? They killed my mom because she became a monster! They stabbed her in the head! Does that sound 'painless' to you???"
"I understand..." I said, not really knowing if I did or not. But he was really turning into a wreck before my very eyes. I had to say something. "This is a really chaotic situation for all of us, dude. We're all just trying to deal with it as best as we can. I know that sounds fucked up because it is fucked up...but we just need to come together so we can get through it. You know? It sucks, but at least it's the truth." I wasn't sure that my brief experience and teen knowledge was going to be enough to soothe Stephen while he was obviously going through such an incredibly difficult ordeal at that very moment...but I wouldn't feel right about walking away if I didn't at least try.
Thankfully, he wiped his eyes free of tears again and nodded with a sullen expression and a subtle whimper. "Yeah. You're right." He said, causing a mellow shiver of goosebumps to cover my arms as the biological reward of actually being able to help somebody in need washed over me. "I guess I'm just trying to make sense out of everything right now, and it's not working. It's like the whole world fell apart in a matter of days, and I don't know how life is supposed to just go on after all this. None of it seems real anymore. If anything, it makes the reality that we used to believe in before a few weeks ago seem like such a joke. You know?" He wiped his eyes again and reached his hand out to me. "I'm Stephen." He said.
"I know." I told him. "I'm Jake."
"Yeah. I think we have a friend in common in this place. His name's Donovan. He was searching all over for you when he got here." I said, and I saw Stephen's eyes lower themselves down to the floor.
"Oh." He said blandly.
"You do know Donovan, right? Do I have that wrong?"
"I don't know." He said. "We recognize each other, sure. But...to be honest...the idea of him caring enough to look for me in this place is a bit to unrealistic for me to grasp right now." I take it that he's been on the other side of Donovan's standoffish appeal more times than not. I could understand that. Makes a ton of sense. I've been there myself, most of the time after all.
"I know that he seems like a meanie sometimes, but I think Donovan has a lot of heart. You just have to bully your way past the bullshit to find it." I grinned. "But, from what little I know of him...I think that it's a treasure worth finding in the long run. Maybe you could talk to him some time."
"If Donovan has a heart...he's not looking to share it with the likes of me. But...whatever. Maybe I'll matter to him once he sees me as being 'useful' again."
Ummm...what was that supposed to mean?
"Jake?" Came a voice from the side of me, and I saw Walker approaching us with his best friend, Eddie, pacing quietly by his side.
"Hey..." I said, and they both looked over at Stephen as he tried to compose himself and stop crying...but it wasn't working too well. It was easy to see that his heart was completely torn in half by what was happening with his father and all.
"We were just, ummm...we were..." Eddie said, but he kept looking down at Stephen and asked, "...Is he ok?"
"I'm fine." Steven said, and he dusted himself off as he pushed himself to get back on his feet.
"Dude...it's ok to be hurt." I said. "We're all hurting right now. Shit is crazy. The only way to get through this is together."
"Wise words from a wise kid." Came another voice from over my shoulder, and we all turned to see Donovan approaching us in an almost submissive manner. "Hey, Steven..." He said.
Steven looked away from him, replying with a mumbled, "Looks like you're not dead. That's good."
"You too." Donovan said. Then, after an extended pause, he added, "There's no way that I could have predicted any of this, you know? If I thought, for one minute, that you might get hurt in something lik this..."
"But you didn't think for one minute, did you?" Steven said, his aggravation sprouting up more from his current fears and dire situation than from anything Donovan did or said to him directly. "Maybe you didn't mean it..." He said, "...But I learned my lesson either way. If I don't look out for myself...it would be a mistake to think that anybody else is going to do it. So, like...whatever. We both got what we wanted, didn't we? Why even pretend that it was anything more than that?"
Their whole interaction just made you wonder...what the heck happened between those two to get to this point of simmering hostility, you know? Because it seemed to bubble and boil on a deeper level that any of us could really see on the surface. Donovan was unusually quiet, looking at the rest of us to see if we had any idea what Steven was even talking about. For a moment there, they almost sounded like a quarreling married couple or something. It was the first time that I had seen Donovan be so...lost. You know? Does that make any sense. I don't know who Steven was to him, but he obviously cared a lot about him. Even if he wasn't quite sure how to say it.
And just as my wheels started turning about what might be going on here...all of our heads turned to see a couple of lumbering and limping silhouettes coming our way in the darkness...slightly lit by the shadows caused by the rising sun. They looked to be about Donovan's age, and I rolled my eyes as it was obviously a bunch of older kids playing a prank on us. It's so fucking stupid! I mean...what's so damn funny about any of this? Steven here is crying over his dad, Walker was recently traumatized to the point where he couldn't even SPEAK until Eddie showed up, and Donovan had pretty much shut down completely on an emotional level. Hell, I don't even know if me and Cain will ever see our own parents again! And these assholes want to play pranks? Do they have any idea how fucking inappropriate that is at a time like this? What the hell is WRONG with people???
"Har-dee-har..." I said. "Don't you guys have something better to do? Get a fucking life." But they stayed silent. They just kept coming towards us. One of them seemed to be dragging what looked like a broken ankle behind him on the floor. And another one seemed to be bleeding from the neck, soaking his t-shirt all the way down to his waist.
Donovan put his hand out to 'protect' me as they got even closer, silently telling me to be careful. And it wasn't until they were close enough to us to actually see them clearly that it dawned on me that this was a pretty elaborate attempt at pulling a prank like some of the high schoolers had before. This just felt different. It felt...menacing...
As some of the early daylight poured in through the windows...I got a closer look at some of the kids limping and dragging our way...and their eyes were completely blank. Their veins were clearly visibly in their neck and arms. And with the way they walking, all disjointed and weird...I felt my adrenaline beginning to spike as the fear of their approach began to take me over.
Walker was the one who seemed to recognize that mindless stare first, and Steven was soon to follow. Even Eddie knew that something was off there, and when they began to step back away from them, Donovan and I did the same. They began to growl with hunger...and soon they reached their arms out in an early attempt to grab a hold of us. And it was then that we knew that this wasn't a joke. They were just like those mindless corpses outside the gate. But now...they were here. Right here inside the shelter with the rest of us!
"Dude..." Eddie said.
And Donovan gasped for a moment before telling us, "Run..."
"RUN!!!!" He shouted. And all of us took off down the hallway with Donovan not far behind us. This wasn't a prank this time. They were here! The monsters had found a way in!
Walker and Eddie were screaming as we turned the corner, and Steven was having a traumatic experience with shock as he traveled with us. I could see it on his face. But we just kept going as fast as our feet could carry us. And once a couple of soldiers heard our cries for help, they immediately loaded themselves up and got into position to find the teen zombies and unload on them, full force, without asking any questions beforehand.
Steven curled up on the floor and slammed his eyes tight as he covered both of his ears from the noise of the military weapons being fired off without restriction. Donovan reached out to push me down to the ground as well, thinking that it would be the safest place for me to be, and Eddie and Walker both dropped down to their knees as well. It sounded like the bullets were ripping the entire hallway apart, and once the heavy assault stopped...our ears were loudly ringing from the intensity of the horrific aftermath.
Other soldiers came running once they heard the noise and took strategic positions of their own while making sure that the threat had been handled. They moved forward with measured steps, caution being the priority...and it was clear that all of the teen zombies were dead. Put down with extreme prejudice for daring to walk through the halls of this place.
I felt tears welling up in my eyes as I heard them say, "Hostiles down. Awaiting orders, sir." It wasn't a prank. It was a breach. A small, but significant, invasion of our safe haven here.
Donovan was the first one to stand up and walk to look around the corner. The carnage he saw must have been fierce, as he turned his gaze away immediately.
"No, Sir." On of the soldiers said. "Not naturally infected. It looks like they were bitten, sir. We may have a leak. Or a mole."
The words hit me extra hard as I saw a small platoon of soldiers come charging down the hallway from around the corner. Mostly because Officer Logan was one of the hardcore badasses leading the team. They were supposed to be getting ready for a supply run, but they came out in full force to make sure that everything was in order. But what really got to me was seeing Spencer suddenly running out of one of the classrooms to hug his dad tightly around the waist. One of the classrooms that I had definitely searched for him before now.
I stood back for a moment as Officer Logan hugged his child with a loving embrace. "You ok?" He asked.
"Yeah. I'm alright." Spencer replied. "What happened?"
"It's nothing, ok? Nothing happened." His father said. "We're just doing what we need to do to keep you safe. To keep all of us safe. That's it. You hear me?"
"Dad…?" He whimpered, coughing a few times as he seemed to look even more skinny and pale than he was before. "...I'm scared."
"Hey...there's no need for you to be scared. I've got your six. Forever and always. And we're gonna get through this, right? You and me. I won't ever leave you behind. Remember? Not ever." He told him, even with Spencer frowning up with watery eyes...trying not to cry out of concern. "Hey...listen to me, ok? I'm going on a supply run, and I'll be back before you know it. I promise."
"Back before you know it! I give you my word, ok?" He insisted, and Spencer nodded reluctantly to acknowledge his father's word. "Alright then. Who's my little hero?"
With an extended pause, Spencer sniffled, "I am."
"That's right. You're my hero. And I'll be coming back for you, no matter what." Logan said. "You just make sure that you're up and smiling for me when I do. Got it?"
"Ok..." Spencer said meekly.
"That's not convincing me. Who's my hero?"
But that wasn't good enough. "I can't hear you. Who's my HERO???" Logan asked again.
"I am!" Spencer said, straining his little voice until it squeaked.
"Damn right!" Logan told him, and ruffled his hair slightly before facing his team of soldiers and getting ready for his supply run back in the city. I really hope that he's able to come back. I just feel like the rest of us really need him if any of us plan on making it out of this place alive.
I was distracted by having a few soldiers drag the dead zombie teenagers past us like they were just refuse in need of doing away with. Possibly more lifeless bodies for the fires burning in our high school football field. The total lack of respect for the bodies of these people...riddled with bullets and explosive wounds...being dragged past us with smears of coagulated blood on the tile floors of a once 'innocent' high school...was sickening. But I suppose this is the way things are now.
How will the world remember this time in our world history? What stories will they tell...if we manage to survive?
When Officer Logan and his mini squad of soldiers left to travel back out into a world of chaos and destruction...I managed to walk down the hall and see Spencer, face to face, again. He coughed a bit and held his chest from the impact of doing so. He seemed so weak, but I came up to talk to him anyway.
He seemed slightly surprised to see me. "Oh...hey..."
"Are you ok?" I asked. "You were gone for a while there..."
"I was?" He said, and then coughed a few more times, his little chest heaving from the strain of it. "Oh….right. Yeah. I got up and I left the room for a little bit."
"Yeah. You did." I said. "Ummm...where did you go?"
"Where did I go? Oh, I don't...I don't really remember." He said. "That shot that you doctor gave me made me feel a little weird. I think I just sort of wandered around for a bit."
"Wandered around for a bit?" I asked. "Spencer...where were you?"
"I just told you...I don't remember."
"Yeah, but..." I was trying to choose my words carefully, to keep myself from making any dark accusations or anything just yet. "I need to know, Spencer..."
"Need to know what?" He asked, looking as frail as ever.
"Did you…?" Ugh, it hurt me to say it, but I had to. "...Did you hurt anybody while you were missing?"
"I wasn't 'missing', Jake. I just needed to rest for a bit."
"Rest where, though?"
"Like I said...I don't remember." He said, a bit offended by the idea of me even asking him that.
I hesitated to press the issue any further, but found myself backing away from him as he coughed again and had to fight to get his breath back again.
Bitten. That's what the soldiers said about the teens they had to shoot in order to keep us safe. Zombies...just like the undead army that was still clawing at the gates outside. Now they're here, and if I don't say anything about the possible breach that we might have within our own walls...will I be dooming us to an inevitable outbreak like I heard about with the Hillside school? But...if I DO say something, and I turn out to be wrong...will I be signing a death certificate for poor little Spencer for just being sick? Will they lock him up away from the rest of us, or possibly put a bullet in his head, just because of my current suspicions? Could I live with that? He might not be infected at all. But how would we know for sure?
And what would people do to him if they did?
Answers are never easy in this kind of situation. Not ever.