What We Learn From Each Other

by Panny

Nicole stared down the barrel of a hand gun, eyeing it and its bearer warily. His face was grim, staring directly at her, their eyes remained locked until she turned her focus downward.

"Now this is the safety switch. Always, always remember to check it or you'll be dead before you figure out what's wrong."

Nicole nodded, hoping this impromptu lesson would be over with soon. She was certain Kenneth felt the same way since when Michael had suggested they all share their knowledge of firearms, he hadn't seemed too enthusiastic. They'd barely known each other for three days and he didn't seem like the social type. Not only that but the last time the two of them had interacted, he was about to shoot her father.

The hardened cop, or perhaps that would be former cop, since the world which christened that title was now gone, continued, showing her various parts of the gun. He began to explain how everything worked internally and she felt her eyes beginning to cross.

"C-can you just show me how to shoot it?" She asked. "That's all I really need to know, right?"

This was an uncomfortable situation for a number of reasons. She didn't hate him for killing her father, because it wasn't her fault, and she didn't particularly hate guns, just the pain and sadness they brought each time she saw one fired. So for now she just wanted to finish quickly so she could go back to pretending that she wouldn't need to fire one herself.

Kenneth looked at her briefly before answering. "Yeah... For now. Come on, we'll go up to the roof."

They made their way up and found Steve lounging in a sun chair with one of his usual mixed drinks. He looked over at them and gave Nicole a creepily suggestive smile that made her cringe inwardly. She hated the way he looked at her.

Nicole followed Kenneth to the edge of the roof and after a moments hesitation, looked down. They were still down there, shuffling about, moaning and crying. She hated the sound even more than the sight of them, and the smell was no better. No longer human, though they looked it, the word demon is all she could use to describe them.

"Now here." Kenneth commanded, holding out the gun. "Just take it, point and shoot. After that I'll show you how to do it properly, but for now just see how it feels."

She took the gun into her hand,surprised by it's weight and felt a bout of nausea kick in. She wasn't a violent person, and though she knew in times like these it was necessary, she really didn't want to have to do this. Her hand was shaking as she raised it up, so her instructor placed her other hand on the grip to steady it.

She grit her teeth and pulled the trigger, jumping at the sound and recoil while tears burned in her closed eyes. It reminded her of the sound of the shot which had taken her father's life. And her brother who had run to help their neighbor and gotten killed in return, mistaken for one of them. She hated it and at that time had vowed to never fire a gun herself. It was the foolish vow of a dreamer that she knew she could never keep.

"Okay, well those fuckers are piled deep and you managed to hit the ground, not them. Either you're a hell of a shot or you got some bad luck."

She nodded, a strange feeling of fear and pain welling up. "Well, I fired it. That's good enough, isn't it?" She asked, wanting to get away before breaking down. He could hear the shakiness in her voice, and though he couldn't understand the feeling behind it, he decided it was best to let it be.

"Yeah. Go on back down."

Nicole quickly pushed the gun into his outstretched hand and ran across the roof to the stairwell, doing her best to avoid Steve's gaze. Once inside she crumpled up and let her tears flow bitterly.

'Why? Why am I scared? I have to do this. I can't rely on the others to protect me anymore. First Thomas and Brian, then Dad. They all died protecting me. I can't go through this anymore.'

She buried her face in her arms and sobbed. Her throat burned and she swallowed, trying to relieve the dryness. She couldn't go down, not like this, so she would have to wait before finding something cool and soothing to drink.

'Maybe Terry will come by. He'll see me and try to cheer me up and I can ask him to get me some water. He won't tell anyone, and he's seen me crying before so it'll be okay, but not anyone else. They've probably all labeled me as some weak pathetic kid. It's what everyone sees me as no matter where I go. Maybe I really am pathetic. I'm crying on the stairs because I'm too afraid to fire a gun! Not at other people, but at those things! What's wrong with me?'

She heard a small creak that told her someone was opening the door behind her. She jumped up, wiping her eyes as best as she could manage while trying to run down before being seen. 'Please. Don't be Steve.'

As the aforementioned arrogant asshole walked in, the metal door closing behind him, she cursed herself. Kenneth was right, she did have bad luck. She heard him make some derogatory comment or another about PMS and ignored it. He'd been such an ass in the truck, making disgusting comments about women and sex that finally her father has asked him to stop. But Steve, he was such a jerk, he just laughed and kept doing it, and Monica didn't help with her encouragement. Nicole was near tears by the time they were finally let out.

She slowed her pace once the stairwell door was safely closed and she turned around a corner to wait, making sure he didn't see her as he stepped out and headed down the halls, most likely towards Hallowed Grounds to refill his drink. He always seemed to be drinking.

Once she was satisfied that he had gone, she walked down the hall and stopped in an electronics store. She had planned to rest on the couches in there but she could hear two people talking over the sound of static. Peeking in she saw Michael explaining to Glen that they'd been hoping for a TV signal to come in from somewhere so they had several of the sets on, tuned to different channels. Unfortunately they didn't seem to be having any luck.

Moving on to find somewhere else to hide for a moment she looked in the different stores. She didn't come to this mall often, her mother preferred to shop locally, so there were plenty of places here for her to look around.

She wandered inside a toy store, picking up the small stuffed animals to see them closer, then placing them back on the shelf. As the minutes ticked by her anger and helpless feelings faded, replaced by boredom. Figuring there was nothing better to do she started rearranging the plush toys, creating stories for them as she set them about. It was the first time since she'd seen one of "them" that she began to think about something unrelated.

Well, that wasn't exactly true, and in all honesty she knew that that was what was really bothering her. When they'd come into the mall the only thoughts in her mind were of survival, relief, and concern for her father. She walked in with him and tended to his hand while waiting for Ana to see them. Someone had come up behind her and asked if they needed any help. Looking up she'd caught sight of Terry for the first time. She responded reflexively, pointing out the bite marks, then couldn't fight a small smile as he walked away.

"There you are."

Nicole looked up from the shelf she'd been blankly staring at and smiled weakly at Norma. She was what her mother would have called a "tough old bat," hard as nails, with a soft heart. Her image would be forever etched into her mind as the one who brought them salvation. The church was being overrun and the people gathered there had been backed into the rectory. She could remember Glen's panicked voice as he called for help on the radio, but the energy in his voice eventually faded.

Night came and they were too fearful to sleep. Someone had to be posted at the door at all times to keep them from breaking in, while everyone else just sat and listened. In the morning Glen returned to the CB, their one hope of contacting someone outside, but no one was expecting an answer. When Norma's crackled voice came through it was like a miracle. Now they were in a safe place and it was all thanks to her.

"What are you doing up here Kid? We heard some noises and I was making sure everyone was accounted for but no one had seen you in over an hour."

Had she really been gone that long? Nicole gave a melancholy smile. "Sorry. Anyway, I'm here and I'm fine."

"You sure?" Norma questioned. "Cause you don't look it."

The younger girl nodded but felt her resolve breaking. She tightened her face to fight her emotions but she couldn't hold back. All she'd done for the past few days now was cry, but since her father had... left, she 'd done it alone and she desperately wanted someone to be there and comfort her.

"All right, tell me what's bothering you." Norma's tone was that of someone only asking out of obligation but Nicole knew she was sincere. The two of them sat on the floor while Nicole clutched a large stuffed rabbit.

"I just... I don't know. There's so much going on, I don't even know where to start."

"Your Dad?" Norma guessed.

"Yeah, my Dad. All of my family really. I can't believe they're gone forever. We were always really close, you know? My brothers were older but they still lived with us and it was nice." She stopped to sniffle and wipe her eyes. She was no longer crying, but they were irritating her.

"But now that's over. It doesn't matter because they're all dead. And you know what's even worse? My father, because he didn't just die, he became one of them first. I almost wish they'd shot him before he stopped being him. You know I heard it? Just before Kenneth shot him I heard that monstrous cry. Now whenever I think of him, I'll remember that."

Norma sat grimly and pondered the situation. "Well, I gotta tell ya, I've lost a lot of people, including my husband a few years back, and I doubt any of it can compare to what you've been through. They don't teach you how to deal with these situations so I can only tell you about dealing with his death. I don't know what kind of religious beliefs you've got and frankly I don't care because it don't make a damn bit of difference unless you want to think of him with God or whatever. Point is, he's gone and you're the one who has to deal with it. When you die, all you care about is that someone remembers you, and that's your burden; to keep his memory."

"But what if I stop remembering? Even now when I should be thinking about them my mind is somewhere else. It's terrible and I feel so bad."

Suddenly Norma was laughing. "Hey, do you see anyone else pouting around all day? You've put on quite a public display of grievance and I'd say you've done your part. Just because they died and you survived, it doesn't mean your whole life should be consumed by them."

"I know, but I've been thinking about such pointless and stupid things and that just makes it worse."

"Stupid things like what?"

Now she was stuck. There was no way she could admit to having such embarrassing thoughts that were more fit for some preteen girl. Sensing her embarrassment, Norma nudged her with a smile until she broke.

"Okay, well... You know that young guy, Terry?" She felt herself smile guiltily.

"Yeah. Cute fella, ain't he?" Norma said with a knowing smile. Nicole couldn't help laughing. "Well, shoot, it's normal for a girl your age to be thinking about guys. I'd be worried if you weren't."

"So you don't think it's strange? In the middle of all this?"

"Nah. Can't say I blame you. You really like him though?"

"I don't even know him... But I think about him. And I've got this imaginary idea in my head of what he's like. After my dad died he came to check on me. He said he saw me on the security camera and wanted to see if I was all right, which I thought was nice. I asked him to leave, even though I really wanted someone to be there, because when he came over the first thing I thought was, maybe he kinda likes me and that's why he came over. Then I felt so bad I just wanted to get away from him."

"So, a cute young guy takes an interest in you and you feel guilty for thinking about it? Relax. Move on and be happy. I'm sure your dad would want that."

"Thanks Norma." She leaned over to rest her head on the older woman's shoulder. "I'm glad you're the one who came to find me. This is so embarrassing, I don't think I could have told anyone else."

"You wanna know something really embarrassing?"

"Hm?"

"You just revealed your secret crush to an old lady."

Nicole laughed and stood up, feeling a weight lift off her shoulders. "An old truck driver lady at that."

"You got it! Feeling better?" Norma asking, standing and dusting off her pants.

"Yeah. Thanks."

The two of them walked down to join the others, their entrance barely noticed but by a few. Nicole did her best to ignore the way Terry's head shot up as Tucker greeted her. It was a nice feeling, she decided, to know that these people would be here like her family had been, and it was okay to accept that.