AN: Massive trigger warning before we get started, but this chapter will feature some pretty heavy stuff, mainly dealing with Jane and how she's been coping with Troy in particular. If any of it at all makes you uncomfortable, I absolutely understand not wanting to read further with this chapter. I also want to apologize for not putting a warning in place prior to this – it was a stupid oversight on my part and I'll try not to let it happen again.
Also, this chapter ended up being a million times longer than I'd originally planned, so hopefully it's not a slog for you guys :3
So, for the guest reviews:
Guest: Aha, thank you so much, pal! I'm glad to hear that you're liking it so far, and I'm super happy to hear you say that about the Pit – it's one of those areas that I really wanted to get right, but wasn't completely sure if I'd nailed the atmosphere of the place or not. You'll have to wait and see about the Carver v. Cult smackdown haha, hopefully I can do it justice! Thanks for reviewing!
ForstBite736: Aww, thank you so much! That's a massive compliment, you have no idea :3
Regular Show: Hey there! So the thing is, as you may've noticed by the ridiculously long time it's taken for me to update this, I unfortunately don't have a whole lot of time for writing these days. Real life's been catching up, and to be honest, for a while I'd kind of lost inspiration for TWD altogether, but who knows? Once this is finished, maybe I'll go back to some of my old ones someday! I'm kind of keen on the idea of redoing COPS, since I think that one definitely could've been handled better, but I can't really make any promises at the moment :( Hopefully, though! Anyways, thanks for reading! I appreciate it!
Alright, thank you so much for continuing to support this story, guys :) It means the world to me that you're all still here after I left this story on hiatus for as long as I did. Hope you all enjoy!
Well, I guess I was right about one thing, anyways.
This whole place was going fucking nuts.
Bill had made an announcement over the speakers this afternoon - which I didn't even know worked at the time, and gave me quite a fright – about how there was to be a staff meeting out in the courtyard just outside the big football stadium. I didn't bother attending, already having known exactly what it was about, and as such I'd simply bided my time in the infirmary with Carlos until they finished.
When the lot of them finally ended the meeting, the looks on their faces were absolutely priceless. Panic, fear and disbelief in equal measure, with many of them pacing back and forth on their respective patrols as if the cultists were about to come knocking at any second. Others had taken to heading back to the dorms, most likely to hide and try to wait out the coming storm, and more still were fidgeting over their weapons, pulling them apart and OCD'ing over just how many cartridges they had left.
Maybe it wasn't strictly speaking "nice" of me to find all of this so amusing to behold from my perch at the third-floor window, but I wasn't holding much in the way of sympathy for anybody who willingly chose to align themselves with Carver. I could understand their thought processes on a base level – after all, food, water, weapons and medicine, all under one roof? That was almost unheard of these days, since I knew from personal experience that many of the surrounding towns and cities, once filled with sprawling hubs of people, supplies and civilization, had quickly started becoming barren and worthless with each passing month. Having a place to rest at night, especially one that was consistent and gave you a soft bed that was just waiting for your warm embrace when you got back, was an enticing feeling that made it worth enduring a few quirks here and there. I wouldn't deny that.
But sooner or later, despite all the creature comforts that a place like NCS might've brought, the flaws would eventually start to peel back. Prosperity brought with it greed and infighting over who was most deserving to actually attain those riches. Walls, once thought to be a safe harbor from the unspeakable hell of the outside world, started to feel confining as the panic set in about your asshole neighbour who lived just down the hall from you. Personalities and egos, those you'd think would be put aside during times of crisis, would clash; lingering, festering wounds being left in their wake while your so-called "friends", those you once held in such high regard, plotted against you simply for the sake of living a few more measly days.
Washington had exhibited all of these traits and more, back during the initial phase of the outbreak. People too stupid or short-sighted to help each other out and panicking about even the most mundane of tasks, and so completely scared of what was lurking outside their door that all rational thought had been replaced with a primal instinct of fight or flight. It was strange back then, how almost overnight we'd gone from being a semi-peaceful society to total anarchy, with people seemingly having a switch flipped in their heads about just how many terrible notions they'd been holding back for so long.
Fuck. That Reginald guy probably would've gotten a kick out of it all, I thought to myself with a frown, turning my attention back to the task that Carlos had placed me on. Oh, the wonderful world of sorting through old pill bottles! How frigging marvelous. I could easily admit that when it came to medical matters, I really didn't have much skill beyond clumsily cleaning and dressing up a wound before wrapping a tensor band around it for good measure, but I was almost insulted at how little faith this guy seemed to have in me. Could he have given me anything more boring than sticking my hands through a cardboard box and alphabetically sorting shit? C'mon, dude!
"…did you find the Vicodin yet?"
…god dammit. Which one was that again? Was that in the bottle with the little, red, polka-dotted thingies? Or did that have a red cross on the front?
He must've noticed that I had no idea what he was talking about, since he shut his eyes tiredly and scribbled out something on the clipboard he was holding. "It's in a see-through, orange bottle – the label's probably still on it," he instructed with a sigh. "Keep looking. We have to get this done by nightfall."
My ears perked up at that, and as I stared back at the Hispanic doctor with a raised eyebrow, he shrugged his shoulders and started going about organizing the handful of clean syringes that they had on hand. I'd told Carlos right when I arrived about what was inevitably coming to hit the college campus, so he had to know that all of this infirmary crap was going to be a waste of time by tomorrow.
But he hadn't really said much to that, only nodding solemnly and going back to his routine. "Helps me keep some semblance of normalcy," is the answer he posed to me when I pressed him further about why he was even bothering with this, and aside from the little spoken word here and there about how much I was clearly fucking up the assortment of these pill bottles, we hadn't spoken at all this afternoon.
The only sounds I'd hear from him were the scratching of a pen across his sheet of paper, and an almost whimper-like sigh that he'd shake himself out of when he'd catch me staring.
I never knew this guy's daughter. I wasn't around when "it" happened. But from what I could gather, through the brief amount of sleuthing I was able to pull off, was that it hadn't ended well for the girl. Getting eaten alive by walkers was a bad way to go, and I didn't need to know the physical pain firsthand to understand the kind of trauma she must've been under.
Luke had mentioned to me a while back that Carlos was extremely overprotective of Sarah, and that simply hearing about it from him wouldn't do the situation justice. From the few details I could gather, a bunch of them had been living in this cabin out in the woods, and while the majority of their group were fairly capable and could handle a couple walkers if pressed, the doctor had basically shut away his kid from pretty much everything. No going outside without express permission, no wandering around the cabin without a chaperone, and certainly no guns or weapons of any kind. Just a handful of books, some board games that they'd managed to scrape together, and the cheerful company of the cabin group.
I hated to say it, but it was hardly a wonder to me that Sarah had died. In fact, it was kind of shocking that the girl had even lasted as long as she did, what with Carlos basically teaching her to fear every single thing beyond their closeted, clandestine abode.
Just… careful what ya say around the guy, Luke had warned me one evening, after the both of us had witnessed a particularly nasty blow-up between Carlos and one of the guards. Carlos had been docked dinner that night, not that they'd been feeding us any substantial meals. Don't talk to him about Howe's, or the cabin. Or kids in general. Sarah is obviously off limits… Oh, and, uh… best not to mention Clementine. Like, at all.
We'd been interrupted before I could prod him further on that, but as much as I was trying to walk straight ahead on the thin row of eggshells that it was with Carlos, that question had been itching in the front of my mind. I found myself staring at the man when he was too busy being caught up in his own distracted daze, trying to force an answer out of his brain through sheer willpower alone, but I bit my tongue. I generally sucked at not sounding like a jackass whenever I turned my interrogation tactics on, and with the utter amount of brooding that the guy was exhibiting in his little corner, there was no way I'd be able to get any useful information. Hell, Kenny got a bloody nose from even the mention of his daughter; I couldn't imagine what digging for details would entail for me.
Rolling up my sleeves, I chose to keep myself occupied with sorting the prescriptions even though my head was running a mile a minute. Many different, confusing names stared back at me, half of which I was sure I'd butcher completely if I tried to pronounce them. Some of the bottles were still vacuum-sealed after all this time, while others had maybe two or three pills maximum still jingling about inside. Bill hadn't been kidding about the meds this morning, and despite my earlier insistence about travelling light and only grabbing the essentials, it kinda felt like a shame just to leave all of these behind, even if I didn't know what purpose they served. If there were any painkillers around, or antibiotics or some other good shit left in here, they could've very well been some of the most valuable items left in the country. And who knew what kind of injuries one of us could sustain out there? A billion things could go wrong.
If nothing else, maybe we could've traded some of the stuff to another group of survivors, much like Bill had agreed to earlier with the Disciples. Well, hopefully a more stable-minded and friendly group of scavengers, which I wasn't really betting my chips on. Still, one could dream.
I'd been placing some of the pill bottles alphabetically on a stand beside the counter when my eyes caught the sight of a thin packet, stuck in one of the flaps of the cardboard box. Three layers of white pills stared back at me, with a green row on the bottom as I felt the plastic material crinkle beneath my fingers. The thought of me having to take these after the things that animal had made me do still crushed my spirit, but there was absolutely no way in hell that I was about to get pregnant, much less even consider being the mother of Troy's fucking kids. Bleagh!
In case it hadn't been plainly obvious by this point, I wasn't the biggest fan of babies. They were hungry, shitting noise machines that woke up everybody in the house at the worst possible times, and that was before all of this crap happened.
Now? Out here? It wasn't that I was completely ignorant of why Rebecca and Alvin (if he truly was the father as they claimed) would want to have a kid out here, to raise a family and grab a hold onto some sort of a life for themselves. They were married, after all, and wanted the post-apocalyptic American dream: house, kids, a walker-free front lawn, all that.
But there was no way in hell that I'd ever subject myself to that kind of a future. Babies, to me at least, created more problems than necessary, and weren't worth the effort of caring for when so many capable, fully-grown people were struggling as it was for themselves. It wasn't like they could defend themselves, or feed themselves or walk or even fucking wipe their own asses, for Christ's sake.
The last thing I needed was to burden myself unnecessarily when I knew, deep down, that it'd kill me. That might've seemed callous and cruel, but I'd discovered early on that sometimes, in order to keep yourself alive, it meant voicing some opinions that others might hate you for, and making decisions that'd leave you with a lot of sleepless nights.
Not wanting to venture down that particular rabbit hole yet again, I traced my fingertip over the label of the pill packet and squinted to read over some of the instructions. They weren't particularly legible, but if the row of seven across the board was anything to go by, I'd assumed that popping one of these a day would probably do the trick.
Noting that the scribbling sound had stopped a little while ago, I ever-so-slowly dared to peep up, only to find a wide-eyed Carlos staring at me and the packet as if I'd just been caught robbing a bank. My throat was going dry over the exchange, and even though I didn't explicitly say to anybody that I was unwillingly having sex with Troy, it couldn't have been very difficult for Carlos, a PhD-certified physician, to figure that out.
"…that whole doctor-patient confidentiality thing wasn't just a sham, was it?" I tried breaking the ice, only seeming to make things worse when Carlos gulped and turned his head to look out the window. Sighing as he closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, I thought the man was about to give me a lecture when he instead turned back and gently snatched the packet out of my hands. He gave it a read-through a couple of times before shaking his head.
"It's expired," he said, surprising me with the info that these things actually could expire. "Five years ago, actually. It might still have the estrogen and progesterone necessary, but I wouldn't count on it. Too risky."
I watched him take over my duties for a bit, scrambling through the box and pushing aside various bottles until he found another similar-looking package buried just beneath everything else. Checking it over again, he handed me the plastic (which was only a few years old) and gave what possibly could've been the briefest doctor's instruction of all time. I got the gist of it, and I wasn't too far off of my initial assumption with the pill-a-day scenario, but keeping it to a consistent timetable might've proved a little difficult. With so much going on and, with what was soon to occur within the next couple of days, sticking to a schedule like that almost seemed impossible.
But, I told myself with a grunt as I quickly placed them in my pocket, I'd damn well give it a try. No way on earth was I willing to bear children. Absolutely, posi-fucking-tively not.
I'd almost rather hang myself than to try and go through the process of "motherhood", despite that being on the extreme end of the spectrum. Yuck. Even the name itself gave me hives.
"…think we could maybe just, uhh… keep this between us?" I stuttered, wringing my hands together nervously and scraping my teeth upon the lower, inside part of my lip. "Please… don't tell anyone. Anyone. Especially not…-"
I don't even know why those last few words left my mouth. Especially not… him? Really? God, I wasn't even doing anything with the guy, let alone actually spending more than like ten minutes a day with him on average! So why the hell was I so damn nervous about the farm boy finding out about me taking birth control pills? My body, my rules – I shouldn't have given a bull's left nut about what anybody thought about me.
And yet… for some reason…
Carlos seemed to ponder this for a while, debating on whether or not he'd actually follow through with my brazen request, before turning back to me with a solemn look. "Only if you do something for me in return," he proposed, causing me to roll my eyes when he turned back towards the medicine cabinet. Figures. There always had to be a catch with everything these days, and nobody could just do things out of the goodness of their –
"Take it," Carlos interrupted my thoughts, holding out a thin stick-looking thing towards me with an impatient hand. Taking it out of his grasp, Carlos awaited my reaction as I read over the label with increasing dread, particularly when I saw the image of a "plus" sign on the outside of the packaging.
Indignant, I frowned deeply and immediately made a move to return the stupid thing to him. "Not in a million years."
"We have to be sure."
"I'm not fucking taking a pregnancy test! There's no need! I'm… I'm not pregnant, damn it!" I shuddered, voice cracking as Carlos leaned his hands against the counter. "I'm not."
"Then there shouldn't be an issue in proving it to me," he countered, gaze softening when I tightly clenched the plastic device. "Look… I don't want to force something like this on you. But I'm honestly only trying to help your situation. It's just a precaution. Besides," the doctor continued, "I think it would set both of our minds more at ease if we knew for certain."
My breathing was becoming more sporadic the longer that I stared at the test, shaking with each passing second in my grasp. This was all happening way too quickly and at way too inconvenient a time. Pregnancy scares hadn't been in the cards when I arrived a few weeks ago, but then again, neither had half of the things that had gone down within these walls that I'd quickly grown to loathe. It was all a whirlwind, swirling this way and that around my head to the point that I felt my legs start to unintentionally give out.
Quickly pulling out a chair that I promptly sat down in, Carlos, in full-on physician mode at this point, bent down in front of me and closed my test-clutching fist. I didn't bother trying to deny his insistence this time.
"Just take a moment to breathe, get your bearings," he instructed in a tone that I could tell he'd used many a time. Screwing my eyes shut with as much force as I could muster, I managed to give Carlos a tiny nod and started tearing the plastic wrapping open.
"So…" I trailed off, opening my eyes once again. "what, uhh… what happens if I find a result that I… don't like?"
"…then we deal with it. Regardless of the outcome, it's ultimately your decision. How we'll proceed is entirely up to you," he insinuated, unflinching to the prospect that he knew I was referring to. He's probably dealt with this situation a thousand times before.
Lightheaded and growing weary of this conversation, I quickly popped one of the pills and ignored his questioning stare as I made to stand.
"You really should be taking it easy, Jane."
"Sorry, doc. Kind've got a lot on my mind at the moment."
"Which is exactly why you should be taking this slowly," he advised, running a hand through his dark, wavy hair and insisting that I sit back down. When he seemed to realize I was doing nothing of the sort, I heard him sigh through his nose and return to his usual spot behind the counter. "Just let me know when you're finished. We still have a lot of work to do."
Gripping the door handle and grunting to myself about how the man could suddenly be "all-business" so shortly after our candid conversation, I stopped and released the handle before reflecting on how I was behaving at the moment. Carlos could've turned around and completely ignored me; could've simply rolled his eyes and forgotten that I'd even existed… but he didn't. He helped. He was trying to make my sticky situation a little less… sticky, I guessed.
The pregnancy test, although it frankly scared the crap out of me, wasn't an attack, but an olive branch. I'd barely even talked to the man before we were forced to work together this afternoon, and so far all I'd done was judge and attack him for something that wasn't even his fault to start with.
I was being a total brat.
"Hey, Carlos?" I found myself whispering, surprised that he was able to hear me at all with how skittish I sounded. Clearing my throat, I stared down at the floor when the words came to me. "Just, umm… well… thanks."
His expression remained largely the same – that distracted, pained look he'd been wearing that might as well have been permanently etched onto his exhausted mug. "Bathroom's out in the hallway, to the left," he simply replied, hurrying back to his scribbles as I nodded and left the room without another word.
The bathroom in question was a tiny, unfurnished thing that had several of the floor tiles missing or broken, and a ratty, old curtain on the open window that flapped in the breeze. There was no mirror, a sink that looked as though it'd churned out rust when water was actually readily available, and the toilet seat bounced nosily when I sat down upon it. I didn't give a shit about the whole decorating scheme, though, and hastily ripped the packaging open before setting it all up.
I was pretty sure I'd straight-up murder Troy if this displayed an answer that I wasn't fond of, and I held no tone of exaggeration there. The remnants of cold, calloused fingers on my neck and shoulders from that son of a bitch still shook me to my foundations, and the memories of seeing the guy thrust himself upon me still haunted my subconscious every time I tried to close my eyes. Just the thought of going through childbirth was enough to make me consider downing a bottle of cyanide, not to mention the idea of Troy standing over me with that stupid, fucking smirk on his lips, glowering down and chastising me for even letting this happen in the first place.
Groaning, I made sure to keep the test in place before lightly banging the back of my skull against the wall in time with my words. "Fuck. This. Shit. Just. Let. Me. Die."
As soon as that last part escaped my lips, however, I practically wanted somebody to come over here and give my head a good shake. The fuck was I saying… I wanted to die now all of a sudden? Really? Whether it was just a stupid expression or not, the whole notion of it was left in extremely poor taste. Moving on, regardless of whatever might've happened to me, was the only priority I'd ever made since… -
"Why'd you give up on me…" I hoarsely whispered, struggling to keep the pent-up emotions from overtaking my senses. I thought I was past this. "Why didn't you get it? I needed you, damn it all! I… I still do! You really think I can do this shit on my own?!"
But as I lightly banged my fist onto the sink, praying to whoever was actually listening for me to be completely fetus-free, I started second-guessing myself for about the twentieth time that day. Sure, my sister hadn't wanted to go through the day-to-day life of running, camping out in the woods and struggling to keep each other alive, and that in retrospect I really wasn't doing the girl any favours by forcing her to try and tough it out with no clear objective in sight. But I, despite wanting to keep the last person I actually loved alive for as long as possible, was just as responsible for her death as she was. Perhaps, in the end, I was the one was the one who gave up, and that all my instincts and feelings towards certain people being a liability I couldn't afford… were what really killed her on that roof.
I'd tried to bury any and all regrets of that day along with my conscious, which constantly reminded me of what a shitty sister I'd ended up becoming. But the longer that I'd tried to stow those feelings away, the more frequently they'd spring back to the surface. Mom and Dad would've been so fucking ashamed of me, not that we'd ever seen them again after the walkers started eating people. I'd always had it drilled into my head as a child how, as a big sister, I was supposed to look after her when they weren't around, to set a good example since Jaime would likely look up to me for guidance. And in a way, they were right – countless summer afternoons were spent in our little backyard, with Jaime having to practically drag me by the hand so that I'd actually participate in all the crazy adventures she'd concoct in that imaginative, little brain of hers. She'd often ask me questions such as what middle school was like, where to find the best skipping stones by the creek where we lived, and, once we were much older, how many tequila shots on average did I think it would take before she got put on her ass.
Oftentimes I was distant with her, more inclined to saunter off and do my own thing rather than try to answer the bazillion inquiries coming from the girl. But now? Here, with me sitting on a toilet seat, trapped in a prison camp that was sitting on a goldmine of walkers, worrying about whether a cap-sporting child had been killed in all the confusion of earlier this morning, all on top of waiting for a pregnancy test to which I hadn't yet prepared myself mentally for the outcome? I would've given anything, absolutely anything, for her to be with me right now; squeezing my hand and telling me that everything was going to be okay. The bright, hopeful spark of a personality she'd once held that I used to find annoying would've been an absolute godsend.
"…just stay with me here, alright? I need you in my corner for this one," I said, figuring that it had been more than enough time for the test to have been completed. Huffing out three straight puffs of air in a row in nervous anticipation, I bit the bullet and quickly yanked it out; staring at the sign as I sank back against the wall and chuckled in relief.
Negative, thank fuck. The very least trauma-inducing outcome I could've hoped for, and yet, the one that I'd had almost zero faith that it would actually come to pass. All of the signs were pointing me in the complete opposite direction.
Maybe, however agonizingly slowly it might've been, my luck was finally starting to turn around.
"…thanks, sis," I breathed, placing a hand on my leg and feeling content enough to just sit in the solitude of the bathroom for a few more minutes.
The smell of my meal was the first thing to hit me when the goop was ladled onto my plate. Cold leftovers, again. And not the good kind, no – it wasn't like the refrigerated pasta that I used to sneak the day after when Mom wasn't looking. The food was… well, to be honest, I had no idea what it was. It didn't look remotely edible, and even though admittedly it could've just been my imagination, I could've sworn that something had started to sprout and grow within the red slab of mush. Something green. And still alive, no doubt.
Not bothering to hide my disgust, I slowly glanced up at the cook and watched him shrug me off.
"Don't ask me what it is. That'd only make it worse," he explained, rearranging the utensils in his bucket and rearranging a larger plastic case in his hand. Noticing me eyeing the contents, he shook the container a little bit and made a move to wander off. "Right then. Duty calls."
"Forcing some other poor bastard to suffer through that slop?"
"Bitch about it all you want, but a meal's a meal. Don't like it? Then don't eat."
"With pleasure," I murmured under my breath, having half a mind to toss the substance out of a nearby window and into the thorn bushes. A generous gift for the birds tomorrow, I thought to myself, though in the state that garbage was in I'd have even been surprised if they'd choose to dine on it. "Might as well use that crap for compost, if nothing else."
Most cooks probably would've been insulted that I'd just ripped their handiwork to shreds, but this guy most likely had just been assigned to this role recently, without an ounce of experience to his name. He chuckled and shook his head. "You're probably right on that count, seeing's how those folks in the gym'll definitely whine about it too."
My ears perked up a bit at that, seeing an opportunity to actually get some more info on this escape plan that sure as hell was as undercooked as the food at the moment. Stopping him in his tracks, I tapped the man (I thought his name was… Trent? Steve? I couldn't remember…) on the shoulder before he could head out into the night. "I can take that off your hands if you want."
"Mmf…" he mumbled before fiddling with the door handle and letting the cool evening air wash over us both. "Think I can manage it just fine, thanks. Unless of course you just want a second helping of my gourmet culinary skills."
"Heh. Yeah, that's it," I played along, but unwilling to give up on my offer while also trying to keep it as unenthusiastic as possible to avoid drawing suspicion. It might've been a little worrisome that I'd been finding myself lying to people's faces with ease lately, but I doubted that it would matter with this guy. He clearly didn't know me, or what my relation to Clementine's friends was. "Seriously though, I've got nothing else to do tonight and I'm super bored. Figured the least I could do is pitch in a little."
Giving me a once-over, the cook shrugged and agreed; passing me the supplies and dusting his hands off on his jeans. "Alright then. Knock yourself out. Saves me the trip," he remarked. "Gym's over that way, and I've got some plates and cutlery in that bucket. Make sure you at least offer it to everyone in there, even if they throw it back in your face. Just leave it there when you're done – pretty sure Russell's got cleanup duty tonight." The man twisted the toe of his boot in the dirt and gingerly took off his apron. "…and be sure to get some sleep tonight, alright? You must've heard by now, but there's some screwy people living right below our feet apparently. Bill's got a plan to clear them on out of their holes, but we'd all best be ready for tomorrow."
"Sure wouldn't wanna miss that," I sarcastically replied out of earshot, heading away from the old residence buildings before he could change his mind about the food.
Preparations for the coming conflict seemed to be well underway tonight. They'd likely been told to keep it quiet and make it looking like it was all business as usual in case they were being watched, but I doubted that it would make much of a difference. According to the kid's note in my pocket, we were probably all fucked regardless, seeing's how Reginald too was shaking up his own plan to murder or enslave everything that so much as blinked. Happy times, indeed.
I got the gist of some of the workers' activities aboveground, what with many of them lining up vehicles close to the subway tunnel entrances to block off any choke points around campus. And while they didn't have any sandbags to try and pad the walls with, other people were making do with random stuff from the dormitories: pillows, ratty, old mattresses, cardboard and an array of other knickknacks. Some were carrying boxes (most of which I presumed were empty) to make it look like we were still bargaining fairly with the cult, and more still were just walking about, worried out of their minds about being dragged into yet another struggle.
There'd been a couple of people who asked if I could help them set up some traps, which they'd explained would be used to either kill a handful of cultists or force them to bottleneck into the main plaza, but I simply held up the food packages and declined. Wasting my time and energy on anything but getting to the girl downstairs wasn't high on the priorities list, especially since I'd been getting more nervous by the day that I'd just end up finding her dead in the rusted, iron deathtrap Carver had forced her into.
God… Clementine… I was afraid that my window was closing quickly when it came to finding the girl, and I couldn't help but feel that every minute I spent up here was another that I'd been abandoning her. Sure, I'd been dealt a pretty shitty hand today from Carver, the pregnancy scare and the "Disciples" or whatever they called themselves, but nothing could erase the image of her from my mind; shaking uncontrollably, eyes seeming as though she was a thousand miles away, and all the while being a practical skeleton with her spirit having nearly been completely fizzled out. I'd seen that exact face before on my sister far, far too many times, and frankly, that's what frightened me the most. Seeing another young girl who looked as though she was barely clinging onto life was… difficult to watch.
I knew that I had to try getting to her at least, since there was so much at stake and far too much unnecessary bullshit paddled through to just give up before I finished. I owed Clem that much. But waiting on the sidelines like this instead of being able to just wander over and see for myself just made it seem all the more hopeless.
I just had to hope that she could wait it out one more night. Hell, I guess that could've gone for us, too.
My feet had led me to the gymnasium almost instinctually while I was lost in my own head, and I sighed in relief when I glanced upon a familiar face. Mike happened to be standing watch outside of the door upon my arrival, thankfully, and didn't give me any trouble over my food delivery except for a warning to try and keep the visit short inside. I felt kinda guilty towards the man, since apparently Tavia chewed him out for letting me pass through to the Pit last week. He didn't seem to hold any ill will towards me, but if nothing else, I could at least go one more night without getting him into shit.
Taking a deep breath, I waited for him to open the door and walked on through. "Knock-knock," I quietly announced, gauging the reactions of everyone and suddenly starting to wish that I'd just handed off the grub and bolted.
Most of them looked pretty surprised to see me there, and nobody really knew what to say as I placed their dinner on a nearby table. Sure, I'd seen Carlos earlier today, but I hadn't really spoken with anybody else since my hotel room at NCS had been upgraded to a master suite, as it were. Not exactly a five-star by any stretch, but compared to this dump, it probably looked like I was living in the lap of luxury. If only they knew the physical and mental toll it took to earn that spot.
Luke was the first to break out of the trance and approach me (because with my luck, of course he fucking was) and gulped before speaking to me. "I reckoned we wouldn't see you again 'til tomorrow," he told me. Stacking the plates across the table, I began dumping generous cuts of the worst feast any of them had likely ever received.
Christ, would I ever not be sick of that smell?
"Disappointed, huh?" I tried to quip, but when I didn't hear him try to say something snarky back, I turned my head to see that he wasn't in his usual carefree mood. "What's wrong?"
Luke's voice was heavy with uncertainty. "It's complicated," he trailed, itching at his scalp and frowning. I heard Nick let out a humourless chuckle from his bed, consisting of nothing but a wooden baseboard for some measly back support.
"He means we're about to be knee-deep in shit creek by tomorrow night."
Luke rolled his eyes. "That ain't exactly the way I'd have put it," he remarked, "but… he's kinda got a point. The plan's a no-go, at least with how it was before."
Looking around for somebody to elaborate, Rebecca came forward and obliged. "I'm guessing Bill told you about this whole "cult" business?" At my nod, she continued. "Well… we figured that he'd just send all of us out onto the front lines so that the rest of his people wouldn't get hurt, but he's got us all split up now."
"Yeah. He sectioned us all off to completely different parts of the campus – me n' Kenny, Alvin n' Nick, Rebecca n' Carlos," Luke said. "We were countin' on just waitin' until things got heated enough to make a break for it and grab Clem and AJ, but it's gonna be a hell of a lot harder with us all over the place."
He was right. Without everyone being in a centralized location, and with no sure-fire way to safely communicate, there wouldn't be much hope for an escape through the tunnels to go smoothly. Sure, I'd been down there twice now and knew a little of the general layout, but with all the different sections and intricacies of the subway system, it was practically impossible to figure it out off the top of my head.
"…I still don't get it though," I heard Nick mention as I shook myself back into the conversation. "Why'd Bill change his mind on a dime like that? I mean, wouldn't he figure that we'd just run off the second everythin' goes to hell?"
Gulping, I looked down at my boots and bit my lip. Shit... I knew exactly why Carver would've shifted everyone around – yours truly, and her big fucking mouth. The guy might've already been on red alert already with these guys considering their track record with getting the fuck outta dodge, but I'm pretty sure it was my stumble of an explanation that may've gone the extra mile.
Not going to completely divulge this info and try to steer the topic in another dimension, I stopped myself when somebody else beat me to it.
"It ain't gonna matter none, regardless."
Kenny was hunched over some kind of crinkled paper of some kind, mulling it over with Alvin towering beside him. At everyone's questioning looks, he went on. "We're too spread out to wait for each other to cross the campus. With all the fightin' and whatnot, we wouldn't get far. But that doesn't mean the plan has to change. Just might not be all of us headin' out at once."
Seeing's how Kenny pretty much lost most of the room, Alvin chimed in. "If we time it right, we can spread out into teams and go for the exits that're closest to us. Becs, I'm closest to AJ, so Nick and I'll break into Carver's office and grab him from there," he insisted, noticing his wife's worried face. He walked over and held her hand, kissing her knuckles tenderly. "I won't let him take our son, alright? Not again."
"…alright," she sighed, nuzzling into his shoulder. "Just be careful. I need both of my boys back. No matter what."
Smiling warmly at the pair, Luke turned back towards the food before arching his eyebrow at me; a silent question of "Really?" I simply shrugged in response and covered the nasty-looking grub back inside of the plastic container. No way was anybody gonna be feeling hungry with this tonight.
"What if he's not there?"
Everyone turned towards Carlos at that, surprised that he'd actually managed to drag himself out of isolation for the time being. Apparently, though, he'd chosen to play devil's advocate tonight.
"Nobody's seen him since yesterday, right? There's a high chance that Carver might've relocated the boy in case something like this were to happen," he continued, cringing a bit at the parents' glowers. "Look, I'm not trying to put a damper on things, but we have to prepare for every possibility. Carver's not an idiot – he'd have put in some kind of security measure when it comes to your child."
Sighing, Kenny nodded and folded his arms together. "Doc's got a point there. He might've moved Clem outta the Pit by now, too." I tried my absolute best to ignore the deep frown that Carlos developed when he mentioned the girl's name, but lucky for him that Kenny didn't happen to see it. "Damn it all… This is exactly why we should've been on this days ago! We're fumblin' around in the dark when we could've been halfway to Wellington by now!"
A handful of groans were thrown back at him, which he was absolutely not having, but Luke intervened quickly to try and keep the peace among the squabbling group.
"Alright, enough already! Listen, y'all, if we're still serious about getting' this done tomorrow, then we'd best look over the map again and find a place to meet up."
"As long as it don't end up like last time," Nick quipped, shutting his mouth instantly when he noticed Kenny standing right beside him. "Ah, shit… Hey, man… I'm so – "
"Let's just figure this out," the old fisherman interjected, waiting until everyone had gathered around to start laying out ideas.
It took just over an hour for us to finally settle on a plan that was generally accepted by the group. Luke figured that, combined with Alvin's knowledge of that cultist map he spied a few days ago, our safest bet would be to head out east and keep to the side roads until we could hit up Interstate 87. I tried to mention that trying to get through downtown Raleigh had been extremely risky even with Reginald keeping his walkers on a tight leash, but seeing's how nobody was familiar enough with the areas outside the city to safely travel them, I was overruled.
The subway tunnel, while indeed stretching out in multiple directions, could also be traced out to a centralized hub a couple miles east into the city, also known as Raleigh Union Station. It was unanimously agreed though that the place would be a little too obvious for a meetup spot, so after some internal debate, Nick had gotten us to agree on a local diner called Jose and Sons Bar and Kitchen. The place would be a temporary safe haven at best with all the shit that was going down, so while there was no guarantee of us meeting there at the same time, we couldn't prolong our stay for more than a couple of days.
From there, it was simply a matter of deciding whether to stick to the highway and take the long way around, or chumming it up with the locals and passing through different neighbourhoods to get to 87.
"Alright… this could work. Yeah… yeah, we can roll with this for the time being," Kenny affirmed before furrowing his brow. "Still need to find a way to get to the kids, though. Can't just be strollin' around the place like a bunch of headless chickens, and besides, those asshole guards'll be watchin' us like a hawk."
In an almost comical way, nearly all the heads in the room started to turn towards me as I widened my eyes. I wasn't a big fan of all the sudden attention.
"We need you on this one, Jane," Luke insisted, getting a nod from Nick. The farm boy gently placed his hand on my arm in a show of support, and although the contact was definitely not as nauseating as certain other assholes had been as of late, I still flinched a little under his touch. Sensing my discomfort, he backed off a bit. "Think you could maybe scope out some of them buildings tomorrow? I know this campus is big n' all, but I reckon Bill would've kept 'em relatively close to him just in case."
"Uh… y-yeah, sure," I answered quietly, hoping that that would be the end of it. "If Clem's still in that walker pit, it'll definitely still be on lockdown, but I'll keep an eye out. I've got a few ideas of where to start looking, anyways."
"Thanks. Whatever you can find out'll go a long way tomorrow night," he smiled at me, to which Rebecca also chimed in and patted me warmly on the shoulder.
Kenny looked like he wanted to say something directly to me, probably to mouth me off in some way, but just sighed and shook his head when Alvin suggested that everybody try to get some rest for tomorrow. I could tell the fisherman didn't trust me, and I was still holding onto the faintest glimmer of hope that Carlos didn't mention anything about Troy or the shit that went down in the infirmary, but other than those two, I wasn't completely sure where I stood with the rest of this crew.
Not that it really mattered, regardless. I hadn't mentioned this to any of them, but I was seriously considering breaking off with this colourful cast of characters once I found Clementine and got out of this shit stain of a school. Things had been going relatively easier for me with a maximum of two or three people whom I knew wouldn't just end up slowing me down, and so far, this trip hadn't exactly swayed me in that belief. I was smart enough to be able to make it on my own, and every instinct I possessed was screaming at me to high-tail it the fuck out of here once we'd gotten to Interstate 87. Where I'd go from there was a bit of a mystery, but somehow I'd find a way. I always did.
First things first, though. Getting the girl away from the monsters surrounding her – living and dead – was the absolute top priority, along with escaping with my head still attached, of course. Everything and everyone else came second, if at all, despite what the group had decided upon.
While the majority of their crew went to bed (without their dinner, which I was oh so insulted about), something else had clicked inside my mind. I walked over to Nick and Luke, who were talking quietly amongst themselves.
"Forgot to mention this," I told them, handing them the note I'd been given down in the subway system earlier this morning.
Nick looked sceptical. "What is it?"
"Well, unless you can absorb information telepathically through the paper, I'd suggest you open it to find out."
"Alright, alright… Jesus… Rough day at the office or somethin'?"
"Yeah," I deadpanned, "something like that."
Chuckling and shaking his head, Luke unfolded it only to grow concerned a few moments later. "Don't believe the promises Reginald makes. Our leader's got a plan that'll wipe you all out," he read aloud, rubbing the exhaustion from his eyes. "Well… at least it ain't cryptic nonsense this time, but that doesn't exactly give me a whole lot of confidence for everythin'."
"No kiddin'," Nick agreed, turning to me. "Who the hell gave this to you, anyways?"
"It's a kid – name's Andre, I think. He's the same guy I saw following us a few days ago."
"Huh. Now that's reassuring."
"Nick…" Luke shushed him, focusing back on topic. "This kid, you think you can trust him? 'Cause I'm not really sure if this note ain't just a scare tactic or a cry for help, if I'm bein' honest."
Mulling it over for a second, I shrugged. "Could just be more mind games they're playing, but I'm not sure we can take that chance. They literally didn't have a gun to their name, and Carver still nearly shit himself this morning when we saw them down there."
"Heh. I'd have paid good money to see that asshole taken down a peg or two," Nick remarked; a sentiment I was pretty sure we all shared.
Glancing over the note again as though to make sure he didn't miss anything, Luke solemnly handed it back over.
"Dude, you sure you're alright? You look worse than I do," Nick joked, giving his wounded leg a bit of a shake for emphasis. Luke cracked a small grin at that, but it certainly didn't reach his eyes.
"Well, Nick, if it's comin' from your ugly mug, I guess I really should be worried about it, then," he jibed, quickly dodging a friendly blow to his side and chuckling for real this time. The man certainly knew how to keep himself entertained, I'd give him that – even if the situation didn't seem to call for it in the slightest. I had to admit, though, it was kind of reassuring in a way to see him maintain his more lighthearted personality. The guy didn't seem right without it. "Guess that's it then, huh?" he turned back to me once the two boys had stopped roughhousing. "I don't suppose your stalker friend there happened to give you any directions to the nearest secret passageway while you were down there too, did he?"
"If they had a yellow brick road somewhere downstairs, the kid certainly didn't feel like sharing it with me," I told him, finding myself indulging in some of the sarcasm these two thrived in. Before too long, however, I grew serious once again. "Listen, just because I said they don't have guns doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. They're doing something with the walkers that… tames them, I guess."
"Yeah. Their leader had a bunch of them just sitting around in cages without them even trying to bite anybody. What's scarier though is that he was thanking Carver for feeding the ones he's got in the Pit," I explained, watching Nick's face start to become paler with each passing word.
"Fuck me…" he uttered, placing a hand over his face in disbelief. "It just… I don't get it. The fuck would that guy want with an army of walkers? What's he plannin' on doin' with 'em?"
I didn't have a plausible answer for the guy, despite all of us clearly wanting to know what the hell was going on around here. Although, given the circumstances surrounding the douchebags up top and down below, it wasn't difficult to imagine that whatever was going to happen tomorrow night wouldn't be worth sticking around for.
A few beats of silence passed before I noticed Kenny staring at us from his perch on the bleachers, until Luke finally broke the ice. "Hopefully we'll be on our way out before any of that goes down. Ain't no use in stewin' over those creeps," he advised, despite not appearing to be following his own advice. "I'll let the rest of 'em know about what you saw in the mornin'. Until then, we should probably get some shuteye. Long day tomorrow."
Knowing that if I focused on this for any longer my head would probably explode, I made sure to tell Luke that I'd mention the plan to Mike and Bonnie anyways before rubbing my eyes and starting to head back towards the dorms.
Turning around once again, I saw Luke fidgeting with his hands before sighing and sending a determined glance my way.
"I know I had my doubts earlier… but we're gonna get 'em back," he told me. "Clem n' AJ. Ain't no way we're lettin' another couple of kids die. Not again."
There's never a guarantee of that, I was bitterly reminded, shutting my eyes for a second and temporarily letting the memories of all I'd seen – Jaime and countless others – flood back in. It doesn't matter how much you wish it wasn't true. This world wasn't made for kids. It wasn't made for happiness, or love, or any of that shit. All it'll do is tear you apart from the people you care about. Nothing else.
Releasing a shaky breath, I shook my head. "See you tomorrow," I simply replied, knowing fully well that a disappointed grimace trailed the back of my head from a man whose outlook was a hell of a lot different from mine.
The next morning came and went pretty quickly, and the afternoon was closing just the same, but I could tell that literally every single living person aboveground at NCS was on the edge. The usual buzz of workers that could be heard on an average day was replaced with a thick air of tension, and almost every time that I walked by some of the residents, I was met with a start. It was almost as though the Disciples had already arrived and were knocking on the door.
Most people had, whether it was a subconscious choice or not, elected to stick around some of the entrances to various buildings or emergency exits in the event that they had to hide for some reason. A particularly religious trio of survivors were huddled together and praying, although I couldn't make out what they were mumbling to each other. It was a weird sight to see, with so many fully-grown adults trembling in fear over the boogeymen under their beds, finally crawling out from the darkness to snatch them in the middle of the night. Only this time, it was no ghost story. It was genuine. It was real.
Part of the problem, I thought, was that they had no real idea what they were actually up against. The gist of Carver's speech yesterday apparently was that there were some nutjobs coming to try and collect on a deal that would send them packing, that we all had to put a stop to them before they decided to try and fight back, and that if we did this, not only would we not have to give up any of our meds, but he promised to personally lead a team to head into their living area and take whatever useful things they could find.
That all probably would've sounded like a good thing to the people living here, but aside from a brief description amounting to "a bunch of bald-headed fucks who didn't have any guns to fire", these guys really didn't know what they were up against. Hell, I still didn't really know, and I'd literally seen all of them in the flesh.
"…kinda creepy 'round here, ain't it?" Bonnie commented, walking past one of the dilapidated coffee shops with me. God damn, did I wish that was still up and running.
I had to agree with the redhead on that one. "They all look… haunted, somehow."
"I never figured there'd be somethin' scarier than lurkers out there, but I guess the world can up and bewilder you now and then."
"At least you know how to handle walkers," I reminded her, frowning slightly. "People are too unpredictable. Think you must've seen that last night."
Whatever the woman was about to say afterwards was put to rest when I mentioned what'd happened when I left for the dorms, and so she simply stared straight ahead and followed alongside in silence.
Bonnie, to my surprise, had actually started becoming somewhat of a confidant of mine within NCS. I wasn't really keen on dumping my problems onto other people and airing out my dirty laundry to folks I wasn't all too familiar with, but last night… well, last night had been an exception.
The trek back to the dorms hadn't been anything spectacular. Just a typical walk by myself. It would've been kind of nice on a regular evening, but my head was filled with so many bubbling thoughts and worries that I hadn't really been paying attention to what I was doing.
Once inside the dorm hallway, I'd taken my key out of my pocket when all of a sudden, I'd heard him heading towards me – the bastard himself, Troy. Even hearing the guy's name made me want to puke, but in that moment, there was only one thing that could've possibly been on his mind.
And after nearly having a heart attack that morning over the possibility of giving birth to a tiny version of that snake, I was definitely not in the mood to deal with him. If I had my way, the dude wouldn't even have a face at this point.
But I froze when he approached me that time. I wasn't sure if it was simply nerves, or the thought of having to live through all of that trauma again, but something punched my inherent fear of the man up to eleven right then.
"Now what's a pretty thing like you doin' up this late? Figured it was past your bedtime," he questioned, sending a sickening shiver up my spine as he got closer. I couldn't move now if I wanted to, seeing's how he was about four steps away from pinning me to the door. "Works for me, I guess. No use in lettin' a slithery bitch like you get away again. Oh, and how's about you keep it quieter this time? I don't want folks comin' to snoop around just 'cause you're about to cry n' shit."
"You're a fucking pig."
"Pretty sure I've just been fucking a pig, but… hey. Beggars can't be choosers, am I right?" he growled, placing a hand on the doorframe and forcing his way towards me. "So, c'mon now, Jane. Whad'ya say? Word is, we might all die tomorrow anyways. So how's about another round with – "
I turned towards the voice of the woman who'd, knowingly or not, ended up being my saviour that night. Bonnie was standing outside her own door, sporting a frown as she likely was trying to gauge what was happening. I knew that she could smell bullshit from a mile away, but my eyes were still as wide as saucers while I silently begged her to get me out of this.
Her eyes flickered between me and the monster several times before she spoke up again.
"Somebody wanna clue me in here?"
"It ain't none of your concern," Troy told her, the malice in his tone telling her to back off. "Just go on back to bed, Bonnie. Pretty sure you've got the early bird shift in the mornin'."
She stepped forward and grabbed a hold of my arm, and I wasn't about to protest when she made a move to drag me away. "I can handle a little sleep loss, I think. Besides, I'd already told Jane that we'd have a bit of a girl's night," she explained, looking pointedly down to me. "Ain't that right, Jane?"
"Y…yeah…" I agreed, eager to be anywhere other than under Troy's grip.
He clearly wasn't a fan of the interference, and was about to try and grab me back, when all of a sudden, a low, rumbling voice could be heard some twenty feet behind him.
"There a problem down here?" Mike asked, having left his guard shift to another man just a little after I'd left the gym. Troy, probably knowing that he wouldn't be able to take on the big man if he kept on going, simply glared at Mike and sighed.
"No problem at all," he spat, giving me one last knowing look before hollering at Mike to keep it down out in the hallway.
There hadn't been much use in trying to hide the Troy situation from Bonnie after that. I spilled the beans about the "deal" we'd made a number of nights ago, and the underlying fear that I experienced every time I came across his rat-like face. The process ended up being a lot more therapeutic than I was expecting, but it also felt like I was just digging up recent scars that were just starting to heal. I'd kept the raunchier details to myself to save the woman from having the images planted in her head, but I kept my explanations open-ended enough that she could no doubt put the pieces together.
She hadn't really said much throughout most of my explanation, which in hindsight I appreciated, but it'd been a little terrifying telling somebody else all of these things. There hadn't been much need for any kind of advice, since if things went according to plan (to which I wasn't holding my breath) I wouldn't even need to see him again.
But by the end of the night, when Bonnie had succumbed to fatigue, I'd come to a decision. It wasn't exactly necessary for me to escape, but I kept telling myself that it potentially could get me closer to Clementine. The other reason was much more personal.
It'd have to wait, though. Rushing through this wasn't an option. The trap had to be set carefully.
But back to the task at hand. Bonnie wasn't just accompanying me for a walk through the town. We had a date with the infirmary, where Carlos hopefully would've already been taking stock of whatever medical supplies we'd need from cold storage. Carver hadn't lied when it came to what we had available – pills, pills and more pills, enough to keep us swimming in antibiotics for months. We hadn't planned on taking everything to avoid drawing suspicion, but just enough so that we could live comfortably for the foreseeable future.
"Any luck?" Bonnie asked the doctor when we arrived, quickly unzipping a backpack and placing everything Carlos handed to her inside. I unzipped one myself and did the same.
"Bill's got the morphine hidden somewhere else, and there aren't quite as many anti-inflammatories as I'd like, but other than that, I think we'll be okay," he explained, looking over his shoulder every few seconds out of paranoia that we might've been watched. "I hope you two know what you're doing here. If either of you are caught…"
"Don't go worryin' 'bout that, Carlos. You just make sure to hop on out o' here the second you see an openin', ya hear?"
"Telling somebody not to worry is kind of counterproductive… but fine."
There hadn't been much time for idle conversation after that. The sun was quickly descending, and most of the guards would be called to the atrium before too long. We said our goodbyes to Carlos, zipped up our contraband, and were on our way.
Bonnie and Mike, to their credit, were definitely our aces in the hole. By staying within Bad Old Bill's good graces for as long as they had, nobody seemed to have any suspicions about their loyalty to the camp. And while they still weren't afforded the same privileges that Troy or Tavia were given, they still had enough pull that they could get away with things Luke and his merry posse could only dream of. No daily inspections, more lenient assignment options, and perhaps most importantly, the freedom to wander about the campus when they weren't on duty.
None of us had been able to find a trace of Clementine all day, though. We'd carefully poked around in some of the old buildings, including the more restrictive ones, and although Mike confirmed with Rebecca that AJ had been moved to a nursery overlooking the rec centre, the cap-bearer remained undetected.
I was losing my damn mind over all of this. The thought of racing down into the Pit, shoving my way past dozens if not hundreds of walkers only to find the grisly remains of the girl had become almost too much to bear, and way too possible of an outcome. The worst part was that I literally had no control over any of this shit. Survival tactics didn't really mean much when I was stuck up on the first floor of a fucking residence building.
And so, I sat there in an empty dormitory hallway, maintaining a combination of staring aimlessly at the wall and silently chastising myself for allowing this to get as far as it had. For nearly two hours I remained like that; obsessing over the girl who'd quickly become the focus of my attention and praying that I could cash in on some kind of luck fund that would make my plan a success.
Something had to go right today. Anything at all. It just fucking had to.
Step one was already completed – I'd made sure that a handwritten note had found its way into the guy's hands. Whether he'd actually follow the instructions dutifully was a bit of a mystery, but knowing the person I was trying to contact, it shouldn't have been too difficult.
The second step of my four-part, semi-foolproof plan, I realized as I sighed and braced myself, was about to begin, with the man in question having just entered the building.
"Mind tellin' me why the fuck you dragged me back here?" questioned Troy with contempt. My blood still boiled whenever I had the displeasure of talking to him, and it was difficult keeping my intentions a secret, but I told myself that this time, I was going to take matters into my own hands. It was basically all or nothing at this point, with absolutely no going back, but I had to see this through to the end.
The arrangement we struck was ending tonight, whether he liked it or not.
"Just been thinking a lot, lately. Mostly about you," I told him, standing up and trying to appear as genuinely interested and not sick to my stomach as possible. "I chatted for a long time with Bonnie last night, and it got me thinking – if tonight really is as dangerous as you say it's going to be, then I want my last one to be extra special."
What Bonnie had actually said to me, when I mentioned what I planned to do, was that she was scared of where my mind was going with this idea. She told me to sort things out differently, to find another method of retribution and to just stick to the plan that Luke and the others had laid out for us.
Was it vindictive? Maybe. Was it cruel? Debateable. But was it necessary?
Absolutely fucking yes it was.
"…you're tryin' to tell me that you wanna ride the horse now, instead of helpin' out and doin' your job?" he insinuated, apparently not quite as in the mood as he was last night. "Stupid goddamn cunt! I've got half a mind to send you over to Bill right fucking now!"
"I don't think you wanna do that, Troy."
"Oh really? And why's that?"
Getting closer towards him, I slowly started to undo my jacket zipper and whispered into his ear, "because I'm ready to blow your fucking brains out. And a little bit of action with me might be just the thing to loosen you up for tonight."
I heard his breath hitch a little despite trying to hide it, and to further coax him into complying with my proposition, I made my way behind him and slowly rubbed one of my hands over his chest, and the other down near his belt.
Never in my life had I been as disgusted with myself as in that moment, but for the ruse to take hold, I had to maintain it for a little while longer.
"I… I shouldn't…" he tried telling himself, losing the battle quickly when I felt him shudder underneath my touch.
"Why shouldn't you?" I countered. "You deserve this, Troy… You got me out of that slum, and I figure the least I can do is show a little gratitude."
Circling back around and biting my lip to try and appear as captivating as possible, I tried to seal the deal by grabbing the front of his camo sweater.
"So what do you say, Troy?" I asked, turning his own words back on him. "You ready to go another round with me?"
Troy stared at me for a handful of moments, and I was worried that he was gonna take off anyways, but luckily this piece of human garbage thought with his groin and not his brain. "…fuck it," he said with that crazed look in his eyes, pushing me through the partially-opened door and placing his pistol on top of my dresser to the side of the room. I tried to sound like I was enjoying the experience as much as possible, breathing a little heavier than before and lowering my coat zipper the rest of the way to really sell it.
He figured that it would simply go the way that these romps normally would and made a move to shove me onto the mattress, but I caught his hands quickly enough and shook my head.
"Not this time, handsome," I said, nearly gagging with how I was acting. "I've got a new magic trick up my sleeve for you. Think you can be my assistant?"
"'Bout time you took over for once," he remarked with a smirk. "I was getting' kinda bored havin' to tell you what to do all the time."
"Oh trust me, this will be anything but boring."
Ordering him to lay on his back, he dutifully complied and waited with boyish excitement as to what kind of magical new idea I'd come up with to spruce up his usual sexual assaults with.
"Hmm… this won't do. Think I'm gonna need my assistant to take his pants off real quick," I told him, waiting for him to do the deed before sliding one of my hands along his thigh. Lowering my eyelids, I mentally prepared myself as step three began. "That's it. Now, lean your head back, Troy."
Doing as I instructed, I casually flipped open a side pocket on my leg when he couldn't see what I was doing.
If this didn't go exactly how I wanted it to, I knew that I was fucked. Beyond fucked. But so far, the walking shit-stain had played right into my hands.
"Ready? Here it comes," I whispered in a sultry voice. "I'm gonna rock your fucking world."
Troy, practically bursting in anticipation, had a gigantic grin that went from ear to ear.
He wasn't smiling quite as much when I plunged my knife straight into his motherfucking dick.
Instantly putting my other hand over his mouth to stifle the agonized screams he released, I jumped onto him with my knees and plunged the weapon further, making sure he felt every inch of the metallic blade. "How does that fucking feel, huh?!" I bellowed at him, twisting the knife right and left as he buckled in pain underneath my weight. I kept it going for a few more twists and turns, more so as some distorted version of personal justice, before I finally slapped him hard across the face and forced his tear-soaked, bloodshot eyes to look straight at me.
"You fucked with the wrong girl here, Troy," I swore at him venomously. I was pretty sure that I'd since used the word "fuck" so liberally by that point that it'd pretty much lost its meaning in my head. "I'm pretty sure you know what I want here. After all, you took me away from her the first night you forced yourself onto me."
If he hadn't been under such physical distress, he probably would've tried to tell me no, but I was making sure that he was hearing every single thing I had to tell him. He had nowhere else to go.
Once I realized that he couldn't really make a move to fight back with me straddling him like this, I loosened my grip a tiny bit and tilted my head to the side. "You still there? I sure hope so, because I haven't even gotten to my request yet," I asked, gazing upon the heavy beads of sweat dripping down his face and wondering just how long he could keep this up for. "So, here's what we're gonna do," I cleared my throat. "You," I pointed to him, unsheathing the now blood-soaked knife as he groaned underneath my hand, "are going to take me straight to Clementine. Not just to the building she's in or the general vicinity. I want to literally be brushing shoulders with the kid by the time we arrive."
Troy definitely was going to try and tell me to fuck off, but whimpered when I pressed my knee straight into his wound.
"Don't interrupt, and pay attention," I told him, nicking the side of his cheek with the knife and watching a small trail of blood trickle down his face. "Carver's gonna be starting his dick-measuring contest with those cultists pretty soon, so we're going to do this nice and quietly. No detours, no distractions."
"G-godddd…" he cried when I finally did let him speak. He wasn't really capable of forming coherent sentences at the moment, which was perfectly fine by me. Figuring that when I turned around he might've just tried to sprint for the exit, I slowly stood up, making sure to press my boot onto him once more to keep him glued to the mattress. Facing him the entire time, I held my knife threateningly out in front of me before closing the door.
Then I backed up into the dresser, grabbed his pistol, and motioned with it for him to get dressed.
"That girl better be alive down there, or you're not going to enjoy what comes next," I warned. "And if I were you, I wouldn't try calling to any of your so-called "friends" for help this time. Not that it'd do you much good, seeing's how there's not a single person living at NCS who doesn't know you're a creepy, degenerate piece of shit you are."
Making a point of letting him see me taking the safety off his gun, I motioned for Troy to get moving. He was definitely thinking about trying to rush me, but one step forward quickly erased any idea of resisting. I'd never felt this level of power and control over another human being before, and while so far I couldn't deny that it was getting results, there was still a traitorous part of my brain screaming at me about how inhumanely I was treating this bastard. It felt wrong on so many levels, and a part of me was worried about taking this any farther than it had to, but I had to keep telling myself that this was ultimately for a good cause.
So, swallowing my pride and maintaining my captivity, I carefully put my knife back, slid my bag over my shoulders and pressed the barrel of the pistol into Troy's hunched back.
"How's about I throw in a little incentive here, Troy?" I threatened as we made our way out at a snail's pace. "If you utter a sound, if you even make a peep of what we're doing to anybody? I will personally chop your balls off and feed them to you. I'll make getting eaten alive by walkers seem like a holiday for your stupid ass. You feel me?"
Cocking the slot of the pistol back and jamming it right against the back of his skull, I growled at him. "Listen up. There isn't one inch of you that I don't hate, and I don't think anybody around here would shed a tear if I lodged one of your own bullets right into that mush you call a brain," I warned, firing off a round into one of the hallway picture frames close to his face to prove I was serious. The noise would've been an issue if anybody was around, but nobody came running, and frankly I was too pissed off to care. "So, if you want to get out all of this alive, I suggest you do what I say. Or did you want me to pull out the knife again?"
He flinched at that, and aside from whining a bit with blood dripping down his pant leg, he shook his head and kept walking towards the door.
"Glad we understand each other," I said, shaking myself a bit when I realized just how much of Carver I'd just channeled in the span of ten minutes. Maybe Bonnie did have a point about this after all, and that I was swaying dangerously close to a point where I'd never be able to come back from.
I firmly believed that Troy had every single minute of this coming to him, and a putting this unrelenting fear inside of the man to dissuade him from doing this again was justified in my eyes. But the fact of the matter was, no matter how necessary this was for those reasons and also to ensure Clementine's survival, I still hated torturing and manipulating another human being like this.
So far, my personal vendetta against the guy hadn't been nearly as satisfying as I thought it would.
"Move," I commanded, pushing those thoughts aside for the time being and shoving him out into the street.
The night was deathly quiet. Even the harmonized chirps of the crickets and cicadas, those I'd become accustomed to hearing down here in North Carolina even during these colder months, had simmered down as though they knew something big was going to happen. Aside from the frantic footsteps of guards, workers and whoever else may've still been alive at this once-abandoned university, there was nothing ringing in my ears but the pump of my own heartbeat and the faltering steps of Troy in front of me.
I'd resorted to keeping the gun hidden inside of my sleeve in case anybody happened to be walking past us, but thankfully it was still dark enough outside that nobody really either paid attention or cared enough to wonder why I was walking so closely behind him. We'd been wandering around for fifteen minutes now, partially because of Troy's wound, and I was starting to lose my patience.
"You better be straight up with me," I reminded him with a quick shove in his back. He hadn't really been saying anything this whole time, and while I knew the campus well enough by now to see that he wasn't just leading me back towards Carver at the atrium, I wasn't familiar enough to know the entire layout by heart.
When he finally did start to slow down again, about ten or so minutes later, I was greeted with a smaller building that didn't look like it'd been occupied in decades. Most of the windows were smashed to bits, the various electronic equipment that used to remain here had either been taken or left to gather dust, and nothing aside from a faded sign out front labelled "Toxicology Lab" remained to indicate what this place was once used for.
Trying to see past the man while also keeping him within my restraint, I frowned deeply and shoved Troy again. "So did you move her somewhere in here? Is Clementine inside this place?" I demanded, waiting for a response that I never received. "Hey, asshole! Are you listening?!" I snapped with a quick smack over Troy's head with the pistol. "I'm not going to ask you again. Where. Is. The girl?"
Troy was still clearly in pain and had been for the entire trip over here, but he could control it enough by now to motion towards the door. "Ain't too much further, now," he wheezed. "Go on in. What you're lookin' for's just inside."
"Please," I insisted with the gun, "after you."
Shrugging his shoulders, Troy obeyed and hobbled up the front steps, dripping blood onto the pale cement and leaning against the railing. The guy was losing too much too quickly, and if the paleness of his complexion was any indication, he wasn't going to make it without medical attention. Must've hit an artery or something down there.
"Got a light?" he asked me, grunting when I told him I didn't. "Ain't gonna do ya much good to be stumblin' in the dark, Jane."
"I'm sure you'll manage," I told him, leaving no room to argue with me.
He did have a point about not being able to see anything, though. The place was practically pitch-black, and if it weren't for Troy being able to feel his way through the inky darkness, I'd have had to turn back and result to some more… unfortunate ways of tracking the girl down.
It was impossible to notice anything particular about your surroundings until you were literally brushing up against them, and more than once did I bump into some dirt-covered desk, oversized printer or all manner of electronic made useless even with Bill having turned the electricity on. Our footsteps echoed in every direction, being the only constant companion guiding me forwards and keeping me somewhat centred. Troy had started to descend a small flight of stairs that wrapped around a couple of floors below ground level, which I guessed would've meant that so far, he was keeping to his word.
"Y-y'know? I've… I've been thinkin'," Troy decided to cut through the stillness.
"Oh yeah? How about you don't instead?"
We came out to a wide-open area, similar to the parking garage in size and shape, but, with a little illumination from the moon, revealed that it wasn't even close to that. Bodies, long-since deceased judging from the amount of decay they exhibited, were strung up together and tied to concrete pillars, many of which had their heads cleaved cleanly off. I could hear the flies buzzing around the decaying carcasses, and gazed upon in horror at even more bodies skewered onto what had to be almost a hundred pikes lined up down in some kind of bizarre maze of death. Glancing up as Troy listlessly carried on forward, I was shaken to see the lifeless faces of those same men and women, with their heads gingerly placed side by side, staring directly at me as I passed by.
This couldn't have been Carver. There was only one person I knew that was sadistic enough to think that a display like this was acceptable. What I couldn't understand is why Bill would've moved Clementine into a place like this when he had to have figured who this area actually belonged to.
Troy coughed and groaned before trying to lean onto one of the wooden barricades but, probably thinking better of it, hunched over to place his hands on his knees instead.
"Did I tell you to stop?" I tried to sound threatening, but there was no mistaking the tremble in my voice at where we were heading towards. This had to have been one of the many passages that the Disciples used to get around the campus and spy on the residents for so long, which meant that, eventually, Troy would be leading me right back into their territory. "Alright, cut the shit, Troy. Where did you fucking take her? Where is she?!"
Shaking his head, Troy sat down and leaned against one of the wooden barricades that wasn't completely covered in dead crap. "…been thinkin' 'bout it long n' hard," he hacked, unflinching even when I unsheathed my knife. The man looked like he was too drained to really care anymore. "You… you need me alive to… cough-cough!... to take you to your little friend," he croaked. "But the way I see it… I'm a dead man either way. Without that doc o' yours to fix me up… I'm as good… cough-cough-blech!... as fucked."
Slowly lowering the gun, I felt my breathing become labored with each word he spoke. The guy was right on the money, and without a guide to escort me through this hellhole, I was just as screwed as he was.
I hadn't placed Troy dying before we even arrived into the equation when making my ultimate plan.
Noting that I wasn't saying anything to him yet, Troy shrugged his shoulders and continued. "Figure… if I'm gonna die anyway… why waste the time that I've got left… helpin' some bitch like you?"
"…so that's it then? You wanted me to take you down here just so I could kill you?"
"It ain't like I got anythin' back up top… that this fuckin' world ain't already taken from me…"
The thought definitely crossed my mind. Standing in that dank, underground warren, I wanted nothing more than to hurt him in a million different ways for basically extinguishing one of my last plays to get back to Clementine. I wanted to make it slow and painful for him, to make him regret ever screwing me over like this and to inflict as much damage to his psyche as I possibly could.
But this had gone far enough already. I was exhausted. I didn't want to keep dicking around in NCS, and at this rate, getting back to that kid was going to nearly be suicidal. The only other hope that I had was that this path would somehow magically lead me straight to Clem, and if it didn't? Well… I'd probably either be killed or have to try and escape back out into Raleigh.
"Close your eyes and I'll make it quick," I told him, fully prepared to just shoot him in the head and be on my way. He gulped before holding his hand up, shaking his head for a second. "Ugh… what now?"
"…what time is it?"
Confusion quickly took hold. "I don't have any fucking idea. What difference does that make?"
Sighing, he shrugged his shoulders and leaned his head back and did as I instructed, making himself a little more comfortable in the process. "Doesn't really, I guess… We're both gonna be screwed, regardless…"
I had my finger about an inch away from pulling the trigger, and I was about to end this sorry excuse of a life, but stopped myself right before I could finish him off. "What do you mean we're scr – "
One by one, the lights started to turn on downstairs, and I had to shield my eyes from the intense shift from darkness; waiting for my vision to adjust to everything. The sound of several heavy, metal shutters closing could be heard echoing throughout the underground level, and I turned towards the sound with a feeling of dread taking hold.
"He… he didn't…"
"Guess Bill finally got it all up n' runnin'…" Troy coughed again. "You know what the best way to deal… with weeds is, Jane?" he asked me, but I was already sprinting back towards the way we came in. "Cut 'em off… at the roots…"
No… No, no, no, no, no, no, fucking NO!
Running for dear life as if that would be any help to me at all by now, I gritted my teeth and kicked one of the rotting heads straight into the now-closed security gate; hearing it smash against the thin metal and rattle the rest of the section. There was a red dot flashing on the side panel to indicate it was indeed locked, and as I ran towards the object which had now become my prison, I knew that I was completely out of options.
Carver had, in an effort to stop the cultists from leaving, locked the entire school down. And from here, there wasn't a damn thing that I could do about it. It wasn't like I knew anything about reprogramming a security conduit.
"FUCK!" I bellowed, slamming a fist into the gate and screwing my eyes shut. I didn't want to die this way. I didn't want to end my life trapped like a caged animal, begging for scraps. But that's exactly what was going to end happening, whether it was tonight or sometime in the very near future. I was going to be trapped in a war between two factions which I hated equally, and now with the boundaries set in place, I'd be forced to either participate in this boxing match, or become a spectator and wait to be killed on the sidelines.
Clem was going to be completely out of my reach at this point. There was no other way around it. She was gone. If the girl was lucky enough, somebody would just put her out of her misery so that she didn't have to suffer in whatever deathtrap of the day she'd been stuffed into.
NCS was literally hell on Earth. And there was absolutely no getting out.
…but I couldn't give in. Not yet. I was still alive, and if I truly didn't want to kick the bucket so soon, then I still had to try and go ahead with the original plan. There was still one last avenue that I hadn't attempted up to now. Nowhere else to go but forward at this point.
I still had to kill Troy, though. The thought of taking another human life was still a terrifying concept, but I knew that he was in no shape to keep moving, and even if by some miracle he was able to get up, I couldn't have him running back to Bill.
There was no other choice to be made. That asshole had to die.
Picking myself up and moving at a jogging pace, I rounded the same corners of the body maze until I made my way back to the guy. Troy could barely keep his eyes open, and he didn't look like he could even move his arms around at this point, but what confused me was why he was looking in the opposite direction of me.
Turning to see what it was he was staring at, I squinted into the distance and saw several of the lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling burst into sparks. I didn't know if they'd been shot at or what, but the impact was definitely intentional, and I held my weapons in front of me in a ready position all the same.
"Told more of Carver's goons about me, did you?" I asked Troy, seeing a large group of silhouettes slowly approaching from the shadows, but still unable to make out who or what they were.
Troy, with what little energy he had left, tried to push himself away. "They ain't… with me…" he wheezed, crying out when a large boot suddenly stomped on his leg and kept him from going any further.
Breathing deeply, I tried to keep my composure when the first bald-headed cultist made his way into the light.
"Thought you guys had a meeting to go to?" I asked, making sure to keep my aim pointed right at the dude's forehead. The man clearly wasn't fazed, maintaining a look of absolute composure. He walked forward as if Troy was just a bug to be squashed beneath his heel, and I shook my head when four more of them emerged in much the same way. "Don't! Don't come any closer!" I warned, backing up slowly and nearly tripping over a decapitated corpse. "I don't want any trouble, okay? Just… just let me go."
Five more after that slowly marched their way behind, and then even more started to appear on top of their barricades to the right and left of me. I couldn't spot Andre among the growing crowd, which meant that my only informant within the group had either disappeared or been killed. There weren't enough bullets in Troy's pistol to take them all out, even if I landed a headshot each time, and I was beginning to panic.
No matter what I did now, I was trapped.
"Shit…" I cursed under my breath. They looked like a swarm of aliens descending upon me, inching closer and getting ready to indoctrinate their latest victim into their fabricated religious doctrine. "Look, I'm not your enemy here! I'll give you whatever you want from me, I swear! Just let me get back to the girl… back to Clementine…"
The whistles started up again, high and low, to signal what I could only presume was to be my untimely death. The sound was almost outer-worldly in a way, and as the melodic tune wormed its way to and fro through my ear drums, I felt my resolve crumble into pieces. Fucking hell, I couldn't do this… Anxiety was permeating at my senses, and with the Disciples closing in around me, I gasped for air and felt the gun drop from my grip of my own accord. There was no getting out of this now.
Closing my eyes, I felt the sting of tears start to pool as I angrily tried to wipe them away, knowing that this was it. I could only hope they'd make my last moments somewhat painless.
"…brothers and sisters, rejoice! I believe we have just been blessed with another soul prepared to join our mortal fold."
He appeared like an apparition, smiling at me as though he was visiting an old friend and waltzing towards my trembling figure while his followers spread out in single-file lines to let him pass. Reginald stopped just a couple feet away from me, placed a hand upon my shoulder and tilted my chin up.
I let him do it. My will to fight back was zapped right then.
"I could see a fire burning in your heart the second you beheld our refuge, Jane. You were intrigued. Mystified, perhaps, but captivated, nonetheless. Admirable qualities, to be sure," he noted, placing his hands back to his sides and nodding. "You, my child, are on the precipice of a higher understanding of which many have only dreamed about. There's an untapped potential here waiting to flourish, and I believe that you may be the key to one of our fiercest tests yet."
"And what's that?" I asked, having half a mind to berate him over the magnitude of his crimes against nature and humanity with just this downstairs area alone. Figuring that it wouldn't do me any good here, though, I refrained.
Heartily chuckling at that, Reginald pointed up towards the ceiling as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "You didn't really think we were ignorant of your leader's attempts at deception, did you? We've been lied to before, after all. We've been tempted by humanity's greed, by their endeavors to sway us from the path and lead us astray… but we've always held fast," he explained, getting a chorus of nods from his supporters. Troy was hidden in behind all of them, so I wasn't able to see if they'd done anything else to the man, but with how much of a lockdown Reginald had over the cultists, I'd have doubted anything would happen out of turn.
"Now… I cannot help but notice the precarious situation that you have placed yourself in down here, running around our offering grounds and making enough noise to make our cadaverous brethren act accordingly," he elaborated, making my eyes widen as he smiled a toothy grin. "Oh yes, Jane. You're closer to your own personal goal than you may realize. The Pit awaits, and we have been awaiting an opportunity of this calibre for some time."
"Is… is she alive?" I stuttered, not needing to explain who it is I was talking about since the guy seemed to know almost everything about the underbelly of this school.
"We have not placed harm upon the child. As I explained to you previously, we have been merely observing up to this point," he reassured me. "Thus far, she has exceeded all expectations marvellously. She has shown great resilience to the abhorrent conditions her captor had placed her in, but the time has finally come for us to set things right."
"Your young charge is within our care, yes. And she, like you, shall soon join our flock."
Equal parts relief and fear enveloped me at his news. While it was great to finally have some kind of confirmation that she was still alive, the fact of the matter was that she was essentially being held hostage by a group of psychotic walker-lovers. And "joining the flock"? Fuck that! Clementine had already been branded and forced to comply with one deranged dickwad, and she certainly didn't need to be thrown into this shit!
The conflict must've shown on my face, because the next thing I knew, I felt somebody from behind wrapping a rope behind my neck and bringing me to my knees. I could barely breathe and was forced to stare up at Reginald as he bent down to my level and patted my arm.
"I'm afraid I must keep our encounter brief, for we have a date with destiny tonight. You know how it is," he explained, digging his hand into the stomach of a recently-killed human to the left of him and rubbing the darkened blood onto my forehead. "Jane… do you accept the gift of enlightenment? Will you travel alongside us, and help to bring about a greater co-existence between the dead and the living?"
Knowing that compliance was now the only way that I could possibly get myself out of this mess, I nodded. "…just… give me… back… the kid…" I struggled to beg, and saw him grin one last time before once again painting the disgusting liquid onto my face. I was no stranger to using walker guts, but being used as a canvas for a guy's corpse-lined arts and crafts session was where I drew the line.
"You have set yourself along the path, my child," he finished, standing me up and whistling for my captor to loosen the noose around my neck. Gasping for air, I felt my arms being held back and bound by the same rope he or she had settled on before, while my bag was torn from my shoulders. "Your trial shall begin before too long, so you had best prepare yourself. We shall see if you possess as much fortitude as the young one. Oh, and I wouldn't worry about the rest of your friends, my dear," he announced as we marched forward, revealing the tied-up figures of Alvin and Nick, both hunched forward in a similar manner that I was. "They're coming, too."
Barely any time at all had passed to register that Alvin and Nick were both unconscious, likely having been beaten into submission or kidnapped, when I noticed that Roseanne girl from yesterday digging through the contents of my backpack. My breath hitched when she unzipped it, revealing the medical contents inside and showing them to her leader.
Reginald, digging his hands through the various supplies, slowly looked up at me with an unreadable expression. "Personal desires and greed are not tolerated within our walls, Jane. Pilfering valuable assets shall place the entire congregation at risk. You know this."
"I… I didn't kn – "
"Yet, you've put this entire situation into a bit of a conundrum, for we required these supplies from the very beginning," he interrupted, rubbing a hand through his wavy, brown hair before placing his hands on his hips. "We should be grateful to you for acquiring what was rightfully ours to start with, but this behaviour of yours? We cannot accept this, if you are to become a Disciple. Perhaps the re-education will set you straight in time, but I cannot help but feel… disappointed."
The big man who'd been stepping on Troy was still guarding him when we passed by, and Reginald, spotting the man laying on the ground, shook his head and bent down to one knee. "Do you seek enlightenment, my son?" he asked, only to be met with a slob of bloodied saliva in the face. Quickly wiping his cheek, the madman sighed and motioned towards his follower. "Convert him, Jonathan. May he find peace in the gloom."
I heard Troy struggle for only a few seconds, listened to one final agonized scream before the man sliced his neck open and left him to choke on his own blood – another walker to be added to the Disciples' collection.
"Sigh… I told William to leave the lights off. Electricity bills are high this time of year," Reginald remarked, almost as if he hadn't just ordered somebody to kill another person at all. "Time to go wake up the neighbourhood."