“Mother-in-law?” he said, the words tailing off.
“I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean Mother-in-law, I meant something else. She’s the mother of my,” I stopped, the words confused in my head. Toni hadn’t been my girlfriend for longer than two weeks and only way back when we didn’t know what happened when we spent long periods together. Yes, we’d seen each other plenty of times since, snatched time together as our memories lapsed. We’d laid in each other’s arms, but only for the briefest of moments had I considered calling her anything but a friend. I paused on the word. It didn’t sit right either, even more so now she’d handed me over to the woman who’d plunged an infected needle in me, who’d locked me in a cage to see what happened. Breath caught in my mouth as I rambled inside my head, the images of Toni’s body stumbling back, her hand to her stomach so clear in my head.
“Are you okay?” Ryan said, one hand reaching for my arm, the other in the small of my back as I bent. With his touch I pulled upright, shaking off his grip.
“I tripped, calm down,” I shouted and he pulled away. He didn’t speak and I was glad for the quiet. I needed space to concentrate on pushing away the thoughts as we walked. As time went on my mind went over old ground and I needed him to talk, to fill the void left by my feelings pushed down inside, needed his words as a weight to keep them from rising.
“It’s getting light,” I said my voice low, not turning to see if he’d been watching the first glow of orange on the horizon.
“Yes,” he replied and let the silence cover us again.
“Sorry I snapped,” I said. “I’ve got a lot to deal with, you know. It’s no excuse, but,” I added and he quickened his pace to catch up.
“It’s fine,” he said and I could hear the smile in his voice, seeing the curl of his lips as I turned. It was still too dark to make out the detail, but he seemed to have a smile not compatible with his anti-social line of work. I looked ahead, could see nothing on the horizon as we climbed, the rising light highlighting the clean line of the hilltop. There was still a long way to go.
“So you want to talk now?” he said, his words seemed genuine enough, not an accusation. I nodded. “So what’s all this about? What do you know?”
I should have realised he’d want to talk about the one thing I’d had enough of.
“What do you mean?”
“You said something about what’s going on, the dead reanimating. I’ve seen for myself, but I need to know more,” he said. “From the beginning.”
I got it. I would be the same. I am the same. I’d have to know everything I could in his position.
“It’s patchy, but I’ll do my best,” I said and turned to see him nodding out of the corner of my eye. “From what I can gather it started in a laboratory near to the village. The scientists were doing work on the disease, trying to find a cure, an antidote.” He nodded, only moving his eyes from me to check his footfalls as the ground undulated. “It got out of control. There was infighting about how to deal with it, scientists squabbling about the best approach. I got a call, my girl,” I paused on the word. “Toni, was in trouble and I rushed here to see if I could help.”
“Your girlfriend right?” he said and I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath.
“It’s complicated, but yes,” I said, opening my eyes as the sole of my trainer kicked against a stone. “Anyway, fast forward and it turns out through some questionable ethics, to say they least, the virus or disease, call it want you want, hasn’t only mutated, but the creatures, I want to call them the dead, but that’s not right, they overran the place. Not even the army could deal with it.”
“And that’s when you escaped?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Wrong place, wrong time,” I said.
“Where did it come from? The disease?” he said. I paused. It was a good question, one of many I would ask when the gun was in the Doctor’s face. I shook my head.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “All I know is you have to damage the brain to kill them.”
“Like in the movies?”
“Like in the movies, yes.”
“So,” he said, stopping before he continued. “They’re zombies, right?”
I didn’t reply, but my shoulders gave an involuntary shrug. The name had been on the tip of my tongue since I’d first seen them, but to use the word to describe the creatures seemed both perfect, but too cartoonish, too trivial at the same time.
“They’re the dead come back to life?” he said. I nodded. “They’ve got an insatiable thirst for flesh?” he said. I chewed my bottom lip and gave the slightest tip of my head. “What happens if you get bitten?”
“Okay,” I said. “I get it.” The world obsessed with zombie culture on the TV, in books and in film. Now they’d need to obsess in real life too. “Call them Zombies if it makes you happy,” I replied. The silence hung for a few hundred metres.
“Is this legit?” he said.
“In what way? Do you mean am I telling the truth? Let’s not start that again.”
“No, no, no. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve smelt it, felt their cold skin. I get it,” he said holding up his palms. “I mean the work they were doing, was it legit? Is it the government doing this to us, or is it some rogue outfit?”
I thought about his words. Another sensible question. If he hadn’t chosen the path to his scum of the earth profession, then maybe he would have made a good reporter.
“Like a super villain?” I said.
He laughed. I wasn’t smiling.
“I guess, but less like a comic. If this was sanctioned government work, then surely they would be better prepared. They’d have protocols for protecting against a release, back up, enough protection, enough troops to contain any situation.”
“You could be right,” I said.
I looked up realising the light was growing fast and we were heading downhill, the sun blueing the sky enough for us to see the buildings looming larger than I would have thought. My eyes drew to the dark smoke stacks rising on the horizon. With each step I could make out more detail, houses, the olive drab trucks parked along the road leading into the village, the road blocked with a tall metal fence gripping tight to the buildings either side, the wooden fence over which I’d jumped, where I’d run, the house I’d run from, its sight sending a shiver down my spine. I slowed, gripping the gun tight and Ryan kept at my side as we stared on trying to make out if the wriggle, the maggot like movement in the streets, could be anything other than a sea of zombies, looking nothing like they did in the cartoons.
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Reading out of sequence, here’s the rest of Season Two.
Not read Season One? Here it is.