"What do we do now?"
"We'll figure it out."
Strains of music pouring from the Walkman were the only sound filling the room for a moment after. Riley shifted on her feet, glancing at Ellie and then away again, a smile still lingering on her lips.
I don't care
with you I can't go wrong
Riley cleared her throat. "Well, we should probably get out of here."
"Yeah." Ellie's gaze was still fixed on her.
Riley stepped off the glass table and offered Ellie her hand. The other girl took it without hesitation, joining her on the floor, never bothering to loosen her grip.
"Marlene is going to be pissed," Ellie muttered.
Riley paused before speaking. "She'll just have to deal."
"Are you sure about this? I mean, you wanted-"
Riley cut her off, catching her gaze and giving her a half smile. "Yeah, I am."
Ellie stared at her intently, looking for some hesitation, some uncertainty. Finding nothing, she gave a nod. "Okay."
She unplugged her Walkman from the radio and carried it to her backpack before stuffing it inside. "Are you sure she's just going to let you walk away?"
Riley pulled the straps of her own pack over her shoulders. "No, there's no way in hell. I know too much to just up and leave."
"So… we're just not going to go back?"
"Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don't see another option."
"We'll be fine. We'll need supplies and stuff, but we can handle this. Ellie, we can finally get the fuck out of here. See stuff, explore, whatever. Isn't that what you wanted? Remember what you said, that night when you met Marlene? That we should just go, take off on our own? This is our opportunity."
"You weren't exactly into the idea when I mentioned it."
Riley glanced away. "I know."
"If you're really sure about this… I think it'd be fucking awesome."
Any prior uncertainty gone, Riley grinned and gestured toward the door before setting off, Ellie on her heels. "We'll need to get some stuff: new clothes, food, medical supplies… You need a gun, too."
"I haven't used one before."
"I can teach you."
"Great. Where will we stay?"
Riley hesitated. "Let's find somewhere up high. Infected don't usually hang out on rooftops. We'd have to make supply runs, but it'd be better than being somewhere where we could be found."
"We could get trapped on a roof."
"I know, but I still think it'd be safest. Plus, we'd have a cool view."
Ellie smiled. "Maybe we can find a tent here?"
"Yeah. I think we passed a camping place earlier."
Shoulders brushing as they walked, they made their way through the mall, passing stores that sold candy – a look inside offered nothing but empty shelves and dust and plants and the smell that old, undisturbed places have – shoes, books, candles – the smell of which had dulled over the years – fancy soaps, flowers – this store was also bare, the dried remains of the bouquets having turned to dust – and various other impractical things. They passed a lingerie store, displaying a red, lacy bra-and-thong set in the window, and Ellie eyed it with amusement.
"What was the point of that stuff? I mean it doesn't even cover you."
Riley put her hand over her mouth, stifling a giggle. "It's for sex, Ellie."
"I knew that."
The camping store was toward the back of the mall. Blood, brown with age, was smeared on the floor in front of the entrance. Letters above the door, though faded and obscured by age, proclaimed it "The Outdoorsman."
Riley pulled her gun from her belt. "This place will probably be pretty empty; I'm sure a lot of people had the idea to go hide in the woods when this shit started. But maybe we'll find something."
Ellie nodded, her hand resting on her pocketknife.
Riley pushed against the door, and it quickly opened with a bit of effort and a creak, scuffing the floor audibly. Ellie followed her in, and they knelt behind a shelf, listening.
"You think there will be any infected in here?" Ellie's voice was barely a whisper.
"I don't think so, but we can't be too careful."
They kept to the wall as they moved, their flashlights revealing circles of the floor in front of them. The shelves they passed were mostly empty, and many were toppled, lying broken on the floor.
"Damn," Riley muttered.
"Let's keep looking."
Their search brought only a pair of large, dusty boots, a broken flashlight, a lighter, and a book on shelter building.
"Well, maybe we can burn the book for warmth in the winter or something," Ellie said, flipping through it. "Not much in here that will help us."
She laughed then, flipping it over. "'This book could a essential in a time of crisis.' It didn't stop the world from going to hell, now did it-"
Riley's hand covered her mouth suddenly, and her lips were by her ear. "Quiet! I hear something."
The noises, high and guttural, came from somewhere across the store.
"Clicker," Riley whispered.
"What do we do?"
"We can't fire. If there are more nearby they'll come running."
"Can we sneak past it?"
"If it hears us we're fucked."
"Can we kill it without a gun?"
Riley hesitated. "If we can hit it with something, I could take it out with your knife."
Ellie held the broken flashlight, weighing it in her hands. "You think this would do?"
"Only if we don't miss."
"I can handle it."
Riley bit her lip, and then nodded. "We'll flank it. If you can climb up on a shelf you should be able to catch it off-guard. It's blind, so it won't notice our flashlights."
They crept away from the sound of the clicker, weaving their way silently between shelves until they were close enough that they could hear the clicker's feet shuffling across the floor. Ellie took a deep breath and set a foot on the shelf, her working flashlight in hand and the broken one hanging at her hip. She handed Riley her pocketknife, and then carefully climbed the first two shelves, peeking over the top shelf warily. Heart thudding in her chest, she scanned her light along the aisle until it illuminated the clicker. It moved toward the front of the store, occasionally pausing, never ceasing its shrieks and clicks.
She hefted the flashlight and took a deep breath to steady herself. The clicker had stopped at the end of the aisle, and was lunging at thin air, teeth gnashing wildy. It turned around awkwardly, its movements jerky and unnatural, and began to track back toward her. Ellie lifted the broken flashlight and prepared to throw it. When the clicker was within feet of her, she sent the light flying. It clunked solidly against the Cordyceps on the clicker's head, and it tripped forward a few steps.
"Riley, now!" Ellie hissed.
Riley dashed from behind the other side of the shelf, jumping onto the clicker's hunched back and jamming the pocketknife into its neck. Blood coated her hand as she twisted the weapon, and they both thudded to the floor, the clicker's muffled shrieks accompanying them. Riley wrenched the blade from the clicker's neck with a noise of disgust.
"Fuck," she breathed.
Ellie climbed over the shelf to join her. "You okay?"
Riley nodded. "Good throw."
Ellie picked up the broken flashlight. "Guess he found the light."
"Are you fucking serious?"
"Bad joke. Sorry."
There was a moment silence of silence, and then they both abruptly broke into laughter.
"We just killed a clicker!" Riley said, beaming.
Ellie grinned, taking her pocketknife back from Riley and wiping it off on her pants. "Where do you think it came from?"
"Maybe from the backroom of the store. We should probably get out of here."
Ellie glanced back into the darkness of the room. "Good idea."
Book and matches tucked away in Riley's backpack, they made their way carefully out of the shop, heading toward theSears store, which led to the exit.
"We need clothes. After that, we can try to find shelter for the night. We'll look for food tomorrow," Riley said. The tone of her voice made Ellie wonder if she was as confident in her planning as she wanted to appear.
Sears seemed the least affected by time. Apart from a considerable amount of greenery growing, it was utterly undisturbed. Clothing of all sizes and colors was stacked and hung throughout the room. Changing rooms sat to the side, stall doors hanging open.
"Well, no lines!" Riley proclaimed with a grin.
Ellie blinked, and glanced at her with a raised eyebrow.
Hooking her arm through Ellie's, Riley pulled her forward. "Come on. It's time for a shopping trip."
They trotted around the store eagerly, picking up various articles and shaking them out – the clothes were coated in dust and smelled musty, and many had holes, but most were usable - and tossing them in the lone cart they found by the counter. Ellie collected mostly T-shirts and pants, along with a few long-sleeve shirts. Riley found herself a few new shirts and pairs of pants, and new jackets for both of them.
"It will get cold later," Riley explained.
"Not that soon."
"We'll need them at night."
Eventually, when they had found a few things that would fit easily in their backpacks, they set off toward the dressing rooms. Ellie hesitated at a rack holding a variety of brightly colored dresses. Some were fake silk and satin that glimmered in the light. Others were polyester and simple. Ellie lifted one from the rack, touching the shimmering turquoise fabric admiringly.
"You should try it on. Actually, hold on!"
Riley sprinted off toward some other racks, gesturing for Ellie to stay.
"Go put it on. I found something I want to try real fast, too."
Ellie walked into the first dressing room she reached and closed the door behind her. Tossing her tank top and jeans aside, she pulled the dress over her head, reaching back to zip it up afterward and then smoothing out her hair. In the cloudy mirror on the wall she caught a glimpse of herself: the blue of the dress complimented her hair and pale skin. The dress, though too large, seemed to age her. She took a step forward, the hem of the dress dragging the floor as she did.
Wiping the mirror with her hand, she stared at her reflection, receiving a look of awe from the girl in the mirror.
"Huh," she murmured to herself.
Riley's voice disturbed her thoughts. She unlatched the door and stepped out, freezing in place when she saw Riley.
Donned in a black suit that hugged her form, elegant black heels, and a turquoise necklace, Riley posed before her, expression expectant.
Riley smirked, extending her hand with flourish. "I could say the same. How about a dance, m'lady?"
Ellie took it, smiling from ear to ear. "Hell yes."
Before Ellie could mention their lack of music, Riley had rested her free hand on her waist and pulled her close, nodding at Ellie's other hand. "Put your hand on my shoulder. I've seen pictures of this."
Ellie rested her palm against Riley's shoulder, looking down at their feet as Riley attempted to guide them in a circle, humming a song Ellie didn't recognize.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
They spun and twirled, tripping over each other's feet and giggling uncontrollably. Once, they stumbled into a rack and nearly sent it crashing over before Ellie grabbed it. Riley attempted to dip her, but then lost her balance in her heels and sent them both to the floor.
Ellie snorted. "Well, that was special."
"Hey, it wasn't just me."
They remained on the floor for a moment, a strangely content tangle of limbs and shiny fabric. Eventually, Riley sighed and stood, helping Ellie up.
"It's getting late," Riley said, glancing out the glass windows at the setting sun.
"Let's hurry, then, I guess."
They quickly tried on and found what they needed for practical clothing, and left the fancy clothes in the dressing room.
With one last wistful glance at the mall, they made their way out through the glass doors of Sears and into the summer evening. The air outside was warm and thick, and smelled of earth. Riley straightened her pack and gestured toward the horizon.
"See the big building with the short shop beside it?"
"The little place used to be a grocery store. I don't know what the big one was, but I think we can stay in the generator room at the top. It'll be a hell of a climb, though. Tomorrow we can explore the grocery store and see if there's anything left. I have food in my backpack for us to eat tonight."
The walk to the building was slow and tedious, made worse by the humidity of the air. The droning of mosquitoes seemed omnipresent, and swarms of insects sparkled in the low light, looking like dust in the air. Dusk was settling, painting the sky with blues and purples and pinks like paint on a canvas. Ellie glanced from building to building, squinting to make out the features in the shadows.
"It's kind of beautiful. Apart from the mosquitoes," Ellie commented.
Riley followed her gaze, eyeing the crumbling buildings around them. "In a dark, decaying sort of way, I guess."
"Considering what the world is like now, I think it's kind of nice."
Riley's eyes fell on her as Ellie continued to look around. "Yeah, it is."
They stopped at the foot of their building, peering into the gloom through the windows.
"Well, let's get this done," Riley murmured. Ellie wasn't sure whom she was talking to.
They pushed the glass doors open quickly, pausing inside to make sure they were alone before closing them behind them. The foyer they had entered was simple and neat, with a wooden reception desk not far from the entrance, armchairs with rotting upholstery in the small sitting rooms on either side of the door.
"This must be a hotel," Riley mused, walking up the desk and looking at the bell that rested there, coated in dust.
"Seriously? That's fucking awesome. Maybe we could get the lights on here-"
"We'd have to turn on the generator, and that'd bring every infected around down on us in a second. Not worth it."
Ellie frowned. "Oh. Roof, then?"
"I guess. Let's find the stairs."
As they searched, Ellie glanced at Riley thoughtfully.
"So, did Marlene teach you all this survival stuff? Like, was there a handbook she gave you, or…"
"You pick it up being around the Fireflies. I mean, we all know the obvious stuff, but I'd hear them talking about missions where they lost men because they turned on a generator, or tried to take a clicker head-on… Just stuff like that. Marlene never really sat me down, or anything. I just kind of absorbed it all."
"I had this vision of them like… having a ceremony where they gave you the pendant, and maybe a set of robes…"
Riley chuckled. "No, it wasn't that glamorous."
They poked around the hallways until they found an elevator, and the signs that accompanied it that directed people to the stairwell. They found the stairs just where the signs had indicated, and they stood at the bottom for a moment, looking up the first set of steps warily, barely able to see anything in the gloom.
"Stay behind me," Riley said, heading forward.
"Riley, that's bullshit-"
"I have the gun. It's just a better idea, okay?"
Ellie resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
Everything was silent and still as the climbed upward. The occasional bird would be startle awake, fluttering and cooing as it departed from its perch on the railing of the stairs – often causing them both to flinch - but nothing else moved for the first few levels.
For a brief moment, the both thought they might actually make it to the roof without incident. Of course, they couldn't be that lucky.
They first heard the shriek when they were starting up the fourth flight of stairs. Ellie immediately stooped down, Riley beside her.
"What the fuck was that?" Ellie whispered.
"Um… not a clicker?"
"No. The same thing that bit through my jacket the first night you met Marlene, maybe."
There were more shrieks, and they sounded within a room's distance.
"These are the smart ones, I think. And they can see, unlike the clickers."
"Shit. Well, do we shoot them?"
Riley looked down at her gun, running her finger over the trigger nervously. "If we could get somewhere they couldn't get to us I could take them out. We can't take them on hand-to-hand, and we can't shoot them face to face because they hunt like a fucking pack."
"Should we climb something?"
They glanced around, and then Riley was grabbing Ellie's hand and dragging her to the nearest hotel room, through the door that was cracked open. It clicked closed quietly behind them, and Riley leaned back against the wood with a sigh.
Riley glanced around. "Let's find something in here we can throw to get them where we want them. We need them down on this floor."
"Okay, I'm on it."
Ellie jogged to the tiny kitchen in the back of the room. On the counter, an empty beer bottle sat next to a half-eaten hamburger – it was strangely preserved, and Ellie wondered if McDonald's had been a brand name for the sort of preserved food astronauts ate – and a burned out cigarette. She picked up the bottle and showed it to Riley.
"Will this do?"
Riley took the bottle and returned to the door, opening it and flinging the bottle outside, closing the door again quietly before the glass shattered.
"That'll bring them down," Riley whispered, crouching beside the door.
Surely enough, the sound of footsteps immediately followed the crash, and shrieks bounced off the walls in the hall outside. Ellie shivered.
"I need you to man the door. I'm going to lean out and shoot them one at a time," Riley commanded, cocking her gun.
Ellie nodded, and grabbed the door handle. "Ready?"
Riley swallowed, and then nodded. "Yes."
Glancing out the peephole to make sure the infected weren't too close to the door, Ellie pulled it open slightly. Riley aimed through the crack immediately, firing off one shot before Ellie slammed the door.
The screeching had picked up, and was much closer now.
"Did you hit one?"
"Yeah, I think so. Get ready. There are at least three more," Riley said, cocking the gun again.
Ellie wrenched the door open, and Riley aimed the barrel out and fired two rapid shots. The crack of the gun brought more screams, and the sound of something thudding into the wall near their door. Pulse thudding in her ears, Ellie was starting to close the door when an infected slammed into it from the other side, almost crashing through.
Riley dropped her gun to the floor and joined Ellie in shoving against the door. The stalker had forced a hand between the door and the frame, and was grabbing wildly at them. Ellie grabbed her pocketknife and passed it to Riley. "Here!"
Riley stabbed the blade into the creature's arm, earning another screech. The arm was retracted, taking the blade with it. They slammed the door, and Riley locked it for good measure.
"Okay. One hit, one miss. We're doing okay," Riley's voice shook, despite her attempt to hide it.
Ellie 's heart was racing, fluttering in her chest like a frightened bird in a cage. "How many are left?"
Exchanging nervous glances, they returned to their positions. Riley gave a nod, and Ellie unlocked and opened the door. Another two shots were fired.
Ellie was preparing to shut the door when she heard Riley cry out in surprise.
A stalker, one who had once been a large, thickly built man, shoved its way through the door, sending Ellie sprawling backward. It sprung at Riley, pinning her to the floor and knocking her gun aside.
Riley's voice was desperate, and Ellie scrambled to her feet frantically. Moving entirely on instinct, she lunged, wrapping her arm around the stalker's neck and pulling it off Riley. She fell backward, the infected still in a chokehold and struggling violently, screams filling the room. It had almost turned itself around to face her when Riley's boot in its side sent it tumbling over. Aiming her gun and shooting three bullets into its head, Riley stepped over Ellie and landed a kick in the creature's side, and then another, her chest heaving as she did.
"Riley! Riley, it's dead, it's okay."
Riley dropped her gun and stumbled backward. She turned and grabbed Ellie's arms roughly. "Are you okay? Ellie!" Her voice was raw.
"I'm fine," Ellie whispered. "I promise."
Riley stared at her for a moment, deciding the truth of her words for herself, before yanking her into a hug. Ellie returned it eagerly, burying her face in Riley's shoulder, mumbling comforts as she did.
"No bites?" Riley asked, her voice muffled.
"No bites," Ellie confirmed, tightening her arms around Riley's neck.
Riley nodded into her shoulder, and then pulled back.
They fell silent for a moment, and then Ellie glanced toward the double bed, its quilts and pillows practically beckoning.
"Maybe we should stay here tonight."
Riley frowned, looking slightly conflicted for a moment. "Yeah, that'd probably be better."
On shaky legs, they drug the stalker from the room and into the hall, closing and locking the door before tossing their packs aside and flopping down on the bed.
"That was intense," Ellie said, turning her head to look at Riley, whose eyes were closed as she waited for her breathing to return to normal.
"Yeah. I fucked up at the end-"
"No, you didn't. It's fine, Riley. We're fine."
Riley's hand found hers, and squeezed it firmly. "Yeah, we are."
They said nothing else that night, sleeping soundly until the light of dawn spilling through the window woke them the next morning.