Five hundred yards from the safe house everyone realized it was much, much too quiet. "Where's Ellis?" Rochelle said, stopping short at the front of the group. She wheeled around, eyes wide; Nick bristled when she glanced his way, looking at him as if he was supposed to know.
They scanned the area but it only took a minute to realize they were the only things alive in the square. "Damn," Coach whispered, his hands on his hips. "Where the hell did that boy run off to?"
"He probably found a turnip truck and couldn't resist."
Nick felt Coach glare at him but they didn't have time for arguing; the last time any of them could remember seeing Ellis was when they'd all been surprised in front of that drug store. The fight had been a mess, zombies lurching out of every alley like they'd been waiting in ambush. They all compared notes and realized the last time anyone had seen Ellis was nearly fifteen minutes ago.
Fifteen minutes was a long, long time to be alone. "We have to go back," Rochelle said, meeting both of their eyes and daring them to disagree.
Coach shook his head, leaning on his shotgun; he'd wrenched his knee somewhere along the way and was using the gun as a makeshift cane. "We should get back to the safe house first, re-equip, then go out. We have no idea what's still out there, it makes no sense not to be prepared."
"We don't have time for that. What if....?"
Nick sighed. "I'll go get him."
Coach narrowed his eyes. "We all go."
"Yeah, because if one of us does something stupid we should all do it. Great plan." He saw Coach take a breath to argue with him and raised one hand, cutting him off. "Look, you're lucky to make it back to the safe house with the shape your leg's in, let alone trying to keep up with me. And on top of that, you're out of ammo." Coach clenched his jaw and Nick couldn't keep back a satisfied smile; he actually hadn't been sure of that, but Coach had a way of looking around with extra care when his ammo belt was empty. At least the world diving straight into a zombie apocalypse hadn't taken away his ability to read people.
"I'm not out ammo." Rochelle stared right into him, like she could see every card in his hand. "I'll go with you."
"Right. So if a Hunter comes out of nowhere between here and the safe house he gets free Coach burgers." Rochelle's lips pressed into a tight line and Nick knew he'd won. "Look, we don't have time for this," he said, trying to head off further arguments from either of them. "You two get to the safe house, heal up and leave the hillbilly hunting to me."
Rochelle shook her head. "We've not letting you go out there by yourself. There's no reason...." An eerie, ghostly sobbing bubbled up behind them, cutting her off. They looked at each other, all thinking the same thing: Witch. A few seconds passed without an attack and Nick signaled to the other two to keep quiet, then took a few excruciatingly careful steps and peeked around the corner. He spotted a small form huddled less than ten feet away, so close Nick could smell the decay. The hair on his arms rose with each wail, the sound creeping under his skin. He hated Witches, even more than the other monsters out to eat his brain; that sound always kept rattling in his head for hours, waking him up from sound sleep and making him check around corners for phantoms.
He shook himself free of the spell and went back to Coach and Rochelle, clutching his shotgun so tightly his hands ached. "How about now?" he whispered, not wanting to be the one to startle the Witch. "You going to tell me all three of us can sneak past her?
Coach and Rochelle looked at each other. Coach was walking with a clumsy limp, making him even noisier than usual. Even if he'd been in perfect health, the street was narrow and the likelihood that all three could walk past the Witch without triggering her was very, very slim. Coach grumbled deep in his throat and Nick knew he was getting his way. "We'll be waitin'," he said, turning away towards the safe house before things got emotional.
Rochelle took a step after him, then turned back to Nick and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. "You bring that crazy white boy back safe, you hear me?" she said into his ear. "Tell him he can tell all the stories he wants and I won't ever shush him again." She squeezed him tight and Nick reached up to awkwardly pat her on the back Then she let him go, wiped her eyes and took off after Coach, her gun already out as she scanned for trouble.
As he watched them disappear around the corner, Nick knew it might be the last time he ever saw them. To his shock --- and frankly, a bit to his horror --- Nick realized he actually cared.
When they'd all met back in Savannah it had taken less than twenty minutes for Nick to know that Coach, Rochelle and Ellis were all good, honest, decent people.
Nick wasn't a rube. He'd spent almost half his life separating rubes from their money and he'd long ago drawn a solid line dividing him from them, mark from con. That was the rule: drift over that line too often and you risked going soft, losing the edge that separated you from the herd and kept you alive.
So Nick couldn't say why he'd volunteered for a suicide mission to bring one of those rubes back. Sometimes Nick felt like he'd been dragged over that line for so long he could barely see it anymore.
The Witch was still sobbing. Nick took a deep breath and flattened himself against the red brick building dominating his side of the square. His rifle dug into the small of his back as he edged himself forward; sweat dripped down his collar and into his eyes but he didn't dare move to wipe it away. Any sudden movement, just one glint of light from his sidearm and she'd be on him.
He could see the Witch now. Every time she twitched he was sure she'd seen him; once he stepped on a piece of glass and it seemed like the crack was loud enough to hear across the city. He held his breath but she didn't react, consumed with her private misery.
He'd run out of building; after a few steps the only thing between him and the Witch was open air, without even a car to dive behind if things got ugly. The last time he'd felt so exposed had been years ago, posing for a mug shot; forget the Witch, Nick half-believed every zombie in the city could see him.
He managed to turn the corner and finally put solid walls between him and the Witch. The moment he escaped her field of vision Nick slumped down, gulping down air as his heart jackhammered in his chest. What the hell is wrong with me?
Those first few days, all he could think about was ditching the other three; every second with them felt like treading water with rocks strapped to his ankles. One of the first things he'd learned in his business was that no one was watching your back. He was best by himself, had been since he was a teenager, but there'd been no chance to make an escape and he'd clued in that he had to play nice if he didn't want to wind up as one more piece of zombie chow.
It became his own private little con. He let them believe he was on their side, part of their little team, and in return he had a sure supply of healing and ammo, not to mention a little back-up if things got too hairy.
Only as the days went on Nick was beginning to wonder just who it was he conning.
Take this latest insanity: Nick didn't know why he had spoken up back in the square, other than that he was tired of the bickering. As he picked himself up and began moving again Nick tried on different rationalizations; an insistent part of his mind was trying to convince him this was his chance, that he should find a quick way out and put some distance between him and the others. Or that he was only doing this to further part of his campaign to win the others' trust, the better to sucker them in at the end. He liked this theory; it was the way he'd always done things and made the most sense.
And if it let him ignore how his stomach had twisted when he'd realized Ellis was gone, Nick was fine with that, too.
It would all be fine if he could just make his mind shut up. He kept remembering a conversation leaving the safehouse early on, where he'd made an off-hand comment that no one would care if he didn't make it through the apocalypse only to see Ellis standing in the doorway with his mouth hanging open. "Well hell, Nick, I would."
Or flashing back to waking up gasping in the street, Ellis kneeling over him pale as a ghost with defibrillator paddles in hand. Nick still had the burn marks on his chest; Rochelle told him later that Ellis had charged a Tank to get him back.
So maybe he felt like he owed the kid for that. And if Ellis had stayed up with him all that night talking nonsense at him because Nick hadn't wanted to fall asleep, sure he wouldn't wake up again, maybe Nick owed him for that, too.
He'd made it back to the site of the battle, zombie remains littering the street. After a few minutes he found some shell casings matching the .50 caliber he knew Ellis had been using; from there it wasn't all that hard to work out a trail, picking up casings as he went. After about ten minutes he found one of the Desert Eagles Ellis had been carrying abandoned in the gutter. He opened the gun and saw it still had two rounds left, meaning Ellis hadn't just dropped it instead of reloading. He'd never known Ellis to just toss away a gun, but before he could start worrying about it he re-found trail.
Five minutes later he found Ellis' hat.
He wanted to stop looking. Stop looking, take off in a random direction and never be seen again. He felt something small and mean clawing its way through his digestive tract and Nick wanted to run. He wanted his old life, wanted to go back to cards and craps and the roulette wheel, back to the nights sliding one into the other where all he'd had to worry about was how bad the house was going to screw him over. No one depending on him, no one's back to watch except his own, no loudmouth hicks wandering off so they so they could get torn apart by zombies. It looked like he'd had his own slice of heaven from where he was standing.
"Who charges a Tank?" he whispered, turning the hat over in his hands. Ever since Rochelle had told him he'd been trying to figure out why someone would do that. Nick knew he wouldn't. Not for anyone.
Nick wanted to stop looking because when he'd bent down to pick up the hat he'd noticed a body wearing jeans and a white t-shirt lying across the street. He squeezed his eyes shut for one long second, trying to find a way out of this hand he'd been dealt, then took deep breath and started towards it.
Stupid hick. It seemed like it took several hours to walk the few dozen feet; the entire time Nick made himself relive every annoying thing Ellis had ever done, every ridiculous story, every time he'd spooked a Witch or attracted a swarm. By the time he finally got there he'd almost managed to convince himself they'd be better off this way (be dead if it wasn't for him), that they'd move faster, be more efficient (a fucking Tank).
The body lay on its side with its back to Nick; he crouched down next to it and --- after a moment's hesitation, keeping the Desert Eagle out just in case --- turned it over.
The stench of rot made him taste bile; maggots were already crawling in the corpse's eyes, but Nick barely noticed. What he did notice --- all he could notice, for a long time --- was the dark beard on the dead man's face.
Nick sat back on his heels, the gun barrel cool against his forehead as he tried to remember how to breathe. Not Ellis. Ellis' hat, but not Ellis. He kept up that litany until he could look at the body with a cool eyes. It was obvious now that the poor son of a bitch had been dead over a day, and the face really didn't resemble Ellis at all.
From the back, though.... He pushed the thought away. He stood and looked at the hat, trying form a clear image of Ellis without it and failing. On impulse he tried it on, but it didn't fit right and a second later he snatched it back off, rolled it up and shoved it into his pocket, glad no one had been around to see that.
Six feet past the body he found another shell casing, and after a few minutes he was able to find the trail.
The trail ended in a literal dead end. Nick had noticed the neighborhood slowly growing more residential until he found himself in a picture-perfect little cul-de-sac that only needed the addition of a Tank or Charger to be a picture-perfect little death trap. No more shell casings, and while there were a few zombie carcasses lying around there was also no sign of Ellis. He walked along the decorative gravel paths --- the stones were painted to form pastel fish patterns, a whole new level of tacky for Nick and he'd lived in Vegas for three years --- between the identical houses and wondered how much the apocalypse was saving these people on lawn care. Not that any of them were still around to appreciate it, of course.
Just as he was about to leave Nick caught a flash of white out of the corner of his eye. He went towards one of the houses, the one with more garden gnomes than should ever be in one place, and took a closer look. For all that the house looked perfect the porch was rotting away, and Nick couldn't keep the back the grin when after all that effort he found Ellis nestled under there like an overgrown raccoon.
Ellis' eyes were closed and Nick had a momentary flash of panic before reassuring himself that he was breathing. The snoring was a clue. He shook his head and poked Ellis in the shoulder to wake him. Hard.
To his credit, Ellis' eyes snapped open immediately and he had a gun up before Nick could blink. Nick forced himself not to flinch. "Good to see you, too."
Ellis blinked, then broke into a wide grin. "Hey, Nick!" Nick noticed his hand shake just the slightest bit as he lowered the gun. "Got myself turned all around."
"Yeah, I noticed." Ellis leaned his head back against the peeling wood and Nick saw his eyelids start to flutter; Nick had to snap his fingers in the kid's face twice before he snapped back to attention. "Hey. Hey. You all right down there?"
"'Been better, I admit." He winced as he shifted position. "Got roughed up some."
Nick let out a long, exaggerated sigh. "Should have figured. Come on, get out of there and I'll have to patch you up."
Ellis crawled out slowly, hissing in a breath as one of the rotten planks brushed against his ribs. Nick gave him a hand with the last, big step out and looked him over as Ellis sat against the house catching his breath. His shirt was spattered with blood, a lot of blood, but Nick thought zombie gore made up most of the mess. He had a bruise around his neck that was going to be all kinds of fun colors in the morning and there were the usual cuts and scratches you got fighting the horde. "Took some bites out of you, huh," he said; he knelt to run his fingers down Ellis' ribs and felt him jump. "Managed to crack a couple of ribs too, it looks like." He shook his head and opened his med kit, taking out the roll of bandages.
"Yeah, I got hauled up by that Smoker,"--- Nick did remember Coach shouting about a Smoker, although he'd been too busy fending off his own zombies to take much notice --- "then once I finally got dropped I was so dizzy I just started staggerin' around, an' then I ran right up on that Boomer an' got all spit on so's I couldn't tell where I was, then when my vision finally cleared up there were zombies all over the place an' I had to get running." Nick let him ramble as he carefully wrapped his ribs and bandaged up the rest of injuries, taking extra care with a long slice down his shoulder. "By the time I had my wits back around me, I was all on my own and I didn't know where y'all were and...and they just kept comin'. I tried to look for y'all but...." He trailed off, the first time Nick had ever heard him stop speaking voluntarily. "They just kept comin'. Lost one of my guns, ran out of ammo for the other one, finally got down to just the shotgun an' I still hadn't found any of y'all...."
"And you decided to curl up and take a nap. Sound right?"
Ellis chuckled. "Guess so." His eyes flew open and he grabbed Nick's arm. "Hey, where's Coach an' Rochelle? Why ain't they---?"
"They're fine," Nick said, prying off Ellis' hand. "They're back at the safe house, where I would be if I wasn't an idiot. No point in all of us dragging you back."
Ellis let out a long sigh of relief. "Good. Got worried there for a second."
Nick fished the hat out of his pocket and tossed it at him. "Here. You dropped this, by the way."
By the way Ellis' face lit up you would have thought Nick had thrown him a bag of gold. "Hey, you found it!" He shook it out and put it on. "There's a good story behind how I got this hat, I must've been around...."
"You ready to go? It's getting dark and there isn't enough room under there for both of us."
Ellis smiled and pumped his shotgun. "You kiddin'? I'm feelin' good enough to kill me every zombie left in this place." He talked a good game --- Ellis always did --- but when Nick hauled him back to his feet he stumbled forward, falling against Nick's shoulder.
Without thinking Nick wrapped one arm around his waist to steady him. "Yeah, you're a killing machine." He felt Ellis' heart beating and flashed back to finding that body. He could still feel that moment in his bones.
"Thanks," Ellis said, after a long, uncharacteristically quiet moment. "For comin' after me, I mean."
Nick shrugged, a gesture even he didn't believe. "Someone had to. Just drew the short straw."
"Still. Glad it was you."
"Just am, is all."
A traitorous part of his brain brain wanted to answer, Yeah, me too. Instead Nick just said, "C'mon, let's go home," not realizing he'd said home until the word was out of his mouth.
A shrill, bubbling sob broke through his thoughts. He felt Ellis freeze beside him, one hand latching around his wrist. "Shhhh."
Nick spotted her first, huddled in the doorway of the house ahead. And Nick didn't know how they'd given themselves away, but barely a second after they spotted her she saw them and screeched. She was on them almost before Nick could blink; luckily Ellis was quicker with his shotgun. Still, it was too late; even as the Witch dropped to the pavement Nick heard the rumble of more zombies approaching. Without a word they went back to back and then the horde was on them.
At first things went well; they were pushed out from the cul-de-sac but it looked like they wouldn't have much trouble with this group, even with just the two of them. Nick never saw the Hunter; one second he was emptying his rifle into some zombie's face and the next he was on the ground with two hundred pounds of zombie on his chest. He'd lost his gun when the thing landed on him, he couldn't scream, he couldn't even breathe. He felt the Hunter's claws slice into him. Not like this. Won't die like this. Spots hovered in front of his eyes; he realized he was going to pass out with this thing still tearing him open. No, not like this. Please, no.
The Hunter howled and rolled off; he heard a some wet thuds and the Hunter shrieking. Nick gasped in a few breaths and turned his head to see Ellis beating the hell out of it with what looked like a yield sign. Ellis kept at it until long after it had stopped moving and he was covered blood spatter. "I think it's dead, Ellis."
Ellis breathed hard and stared at the pulped zombie for a few seconds. Then he dropped the sign and crouched over Nick, checking his pulse. "Shit. Shit, Nick. That was too close."
"Yeah. Kind of noticed."
Ellis laughed, wiping some of the blood from his face. "Scared the hell outta me. Be pretty lousy of me if I got you killed after you came out to rescue me an' all." He clicked his tongue as he looked Nick over. "Aw, hell, you're bleedin' all over your suit."
"Not so much, really. We find something to wrap it up, you'll be right as rain." Ellis held out a hand to help Nick up and he managed to stay on his feet five whole seconds before his legs buckled. He felt Ellis catch him and hold him up, draping Nick's arm around his neck for good measure. "Hey, steady, steady. Ol' Ellis has you, don't you worry about a thing."
In a few hours it would all be very humiliating, but at the moment Nick was too exhausted and hurting to care. He groaned and Ellis tightened his grip around his waist, carefully avoiding where the Hunter had cut him. "Hey, don't fade out on me. Stay with me, okay? Just stay with me."
Nick wondered if the kid knew what he was really asking. Either way, if didn't matter; Nick knew that whatever his instincts screamed at him, his answer wasn't going to change: "I'm not going anywhere."
"That's what I wanna hear." Ellis bent down and picked up the yield sign, balancing it on his shoulder.
Nick shook his head. "Keeping that?"
"Hell, worked pretty well on that Hunter, didn't it?" He chuckled to himself. "Y'know, this reminds me of that time me an' Keith stole that deer crossing sign offa the interstate an'...." He glanced at Nick. "Guess you're not really in a story mood, huh?"
Nick sighed. "Go ahead. It'll keep me awake."
Ellis' smile lit up his whole face, and Nick would never admit it but it made him feel a little better. "Well, there was me an' Keith out there on the road, an' I'm looking out while he pries off the sign. Well, he's unscrewing the last bit and we're both hearing this kind of rustlin' in the brush there but neither of us are thinkin' much of it, but then as soon as he lifts the sign up we see there's a real deer standin' there behind it. An' I don't know why, but that deer was mad, like we were stealin' that sign from him or somethin'. Next thing I know, Keith is runnin' down I-75 and that deer is chasin' him...."
Nick let the words blend into each other and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Let's go home. Strange choice of words. Scary choice of words.
But Nick knew even he wasn't a good enough liar to pretend they weren't the right words. He felt Ellis' arm tighten around him. "Hey, you okay? "
Nick nodded. "Yeah." He was exhausted and bloody and bruised, but yeah. He was okay. "Just keep talking."