I didn't have the pleasure of waking up naturally, slowly and satisfactory as I did on most mornings. No, it was the sun that had woken me up this morning, projecting it's light onto my eyelids with such impatience that I could finally ignore it no longer.
I awoke laying on the piercing chill of the tiled floor draped messily in a sleeping bag, my head still nestled in Ellis's lap, my sneakers tossed aside.
I could taste a bitter grit on my tongue and, as I turned to look, I saw our majestic, comforting fire-a once grand pile of wood and newspaper-now a soggy, doused pile of ash.
I punched my arms out into the open air to stretch them, yawning rather loudly as I rolled over to be met by Ellis's slightly bristled jaw.
He had fallen asleep sitting up, his arms still cradling my body, his head hanging low with exhaustion. The swollen, purple rings beneath his eyes said that he hadn't slept well; Frankly, he looked incredibly uncomfortable.
I shut my mouth tight for just a second and, feeling rather guilty, slipped gingerly out of his arms and into my sneakers.
Taking his head into my hands, I carefully tilted him backwards until he was lying perfectly flat, before throwing the sleeping bag over him.
He's taken such good care of me, I thought, it's time I returned the favour.I unzipped my jacket and slipped it under his head as a make-shift pillow, to which he simply grumbled and rolled onto his side. That made me smile, seeing all the anxiety drained from his face as he slept peacefully.
I laced my shoes up tightly and stepped over the mushy remains of our fire to head to the light that shone jaggedly through a barred window.
I squinted against the light for just a moment as my eyes adjusted, allowing the gentle breeze of the fresh air to brush against my skin.
For the first time in a very long time, it was refreshingly silent. No gunshots, no screams, none of the strange, strangling noises that infected just a minute I could imagine myself on a beach somewhere, the crisp salt of the sea air dancing on my tongue, the grainy feel of sand between my fingers, children laughing and dogs barking in the near distance.
I quickly snapped the image out of my head. I had to stop this taunting, reminding myself that it was only an illusion. It was out of reach. Perhaps it wouldn't have been if Bill, Francis, Louis and I had made it to that island. We didn't even know what island this was, we just assumed there would be a perfect little abandoned island in the middle of the ocean, conveniently with enough food sources to last us until the end of the apocalypse.
When I thought over it, we sounded like over-excited kids, thinking everything was going to perfectly work out and that our troubles would disappear overnight.
What about fuel for the boat? What if there's a storm whilst we're in the boat headed toward the island? What if there was no island? What if there was no boat?
Those were questions that just skipped right over our heads and, if we had really gone through with our plan, would come back to bite us in the ass Louis's general optimism had began to rub off on us, well Bill and I, at least. We were tired of the wasteland towns and the deserted stores and passing deathly silent often say that when circumstances are worst, you need to have something to keep you going. You saw it all the time, the soldiers who wrote home to loyal girlfriends, the desk-jockey cop with a picture of his kids beside his computer.
And to us, the thought of there being a perfect little island somewhere far away, that was what kept us going. The thought of never having to shoot another mangled, ravenous infected again. It would give us time, time for wounds to heal, both physical and psychological.
"Nice day, ain't it?" A soft voice came from behind me, making me jolt with shock. I turned suddenly to find Coach stood behind me, his eyes glowing from the soft light emanating from the window. His face was creased with deep, aged lines that I hadn't noticed before, a thick, dark stubble lacing his chin.
"It sure is," I smiled, my breath slowing once more. Coach seemed just as overwhelmed by the weather as I did.
"This is what I miss," he murmured quietly, taking a few steps forward to stand beside me, taking a deep inhale through the nose, just as I did. "The quiet, the stillness of it all."
"Me too," I nodded slowly, "it's nice to actually look outside, y'know? When all you're doing is running and shooting, you can't take it all in and enjoy it."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Coach gave a small, deep chuckle before his face fell. "But you know what I miss the most? The kids. Happy kids, playing ball in the streets. There ain't no kids anymore."
"You used to teach, didn't you?" I asked.
"Sure did. Coached the high school football team after I busted up my knee in a game."
"Wow. Y'know, I never was the kind for sports at school, too busy curled up watching movies and being unproductive," I murmured.
Coach chuckled and shook his head slowly. We were silent for just a moment, both of us delving back into our memories, eyes flooded with the glow of the morning sun.
"I'm tired of living like this," Coach said gruffly, his much darker voice now breaking the silence. He gritted his teeth before sighing heavily. "All this zombie shit, it's taking it's toll. Hell, I ain't as young as I used to be. I mean, yesterday with Rochelle just made me realize-" Coach's voice crumbled into silence.
"It'll be alright," I assured him, turning to place a hand on his shoulder, "as soon as we get to New Orleans, we'll have nothing to worry about." I suddenly sounded too optimistic for my own good, just like Louis had been. "The military will take care of us and you'll never have to shoot a damn infected ever again."
Coach paused for just a moment, before lifting his head and giving me a weak smile.
"Yeah, maybe that day is worth waiting for" he mumbled.
I closed my eyes and took another deep breath, enjoying the sun's glow for just a moment more before I realised I could no longer bask in this artificial peace.
"Alright," I sighed, "guess we should wake up the cavalry and get going. We're not getting any closer to New Orleans by sitting in this depressing bank."
"Amen," Coach nodded. He turned his back to me and began tapping Nick in the back with the tip of his shoe. "Nick! C'mon lazy ass, time to get moving."
"Eat shit," Nick muttered, eyes still closed as he curled closer into his sleeping bag. "I got five more minutes."
I knelt down beside Ellis, observing his content, sleeping face before tapping his nose playfully with my fingertip. Ellis's stirred before his face scrunched up and a small, joyful grin spread across his face. He opened one eye, glancing up at me as his smile grew.
"Time to go, sweetie pie," I smiled weakly.
"Well, somebody's cheery this morning," Ellis murmured, his voice still thick with sleep.
He seemed a little confused as to why I was so cheery when yesterday had been utter hell, yet he didn't seem to complain about my sudden mood change.
"It's a new day and something tells me things are going to get better. We've got to keep going, whether we like it or not." I didn't add that Rochelle would want us to be happy and move on, because even mentioning her name was heartbreaking. But it was true, we would get to New Orleans and Rochelle wouldn't have died in vain.
Ellis rubbed his eyes, gave a gentle yawn and returned to his smile, "well count me in."
We managed to wake Nick and Francis-after some encouragement- and began rolling our sleeping bags up and packing them away, slipping my jacket on again once Ellis got to his feet.
Nick didn't seem to manage the general positive attitude this morning, but I didn't blame him and I wasn't going to force it on him. Things weren't going to get better overnight, that thought would always be dominant, no matter what my mood.
Eventually, the room was clear once again, apart from the soggy pile of ash in the centre of the floor. Now it was just a case of what to do with Rochelle's things, her sleeping bag and designated food that still sat in a backpack beside the door.
We all stared at it guiltily until Coach broke the silence. He stormed over to the backpack and slung it over his shoulders.
"I don't care if I've gotta carry an extra bag," he announced. "Nobody gets left behind and we're gonna keep it that way."
Francis gave him a thump on the back in appreciation. "You're right, man. They're only gone if you forget 'em."
Francis tugged fiercely at the plywood before tearing it from its nails with his bare hands, bathing the dusty bank in the morning sunlight, and gestured for Coach to go first.
Nick and Francis followed him out to the truck, slinging their bags onto their back. Ellis stepped outside and turned back to me, backpack under his arm, and raised his eyebrows.
"You ready?" he asked.
I paused and took one last look around the room that had been my home for the night. In this deserted, cramped bank, I decided I would abandon my grief and my hopelessness and replace it with optimism that was brought by the refreshing glow of the morning sun. If not for myself, then for Rochelle.
"Yeah," I nodded firmly, "let's go."
We piled back into our trusty, paint-peeled truck as I took my usual seat beside Ellis in the cab. The fuel dial was still flickering dangerously close to empty, so just how far we were going to get, I didn't know.
Still, Ellis managed to get the truck started-after a few tries-and we were soon back on the everlasting road.
"Y'know, I'm feeling a lot better now," Ellis gave a small smile, glancing quickly at me before returning his eyes to the road. His hair began to whip into a frenzy once again, a little feature of driving in the rusty truck that I had grown to love.
"Good," I replied, snaking both my hands around his left arm and pulling myself closer.
I felt his stubble graze my forehead as he planted a kiss in my hair. We were silent for a moment, enjoying the purr of the engine and the smooth growl of the tires against the road.
"Oh shit," Ellis muttered suddenly, making me jolt.
"What? What's wrong?" I asked, eyes widening in a growing fear.
Ellis's closed his eyes for a fraction of a second, before he took a deep breath. "I could really go for one of my momma's roasts right now."
I paused, a little surprised by his answer, before I burst into laughter. I felt Ellis freeze next to me before his body began to shake as he joined me.
"What?" He chuckled.
"That's so sweet," I giggled, "your mom still makes you roasts?"
"'Course she does! Well, she did. I used to go 'round to hers every Sunday, hungrier than a horse," Ellis gave me a quick glance and a playful wink.
There was a sudden thump from the back of the truck, making Ellis and I jump from our skins.
"I used to go round your mom's for something else!" Nick yelled, before he too burst into laughter, a laughter that seemed to numb our pain if only for a while. Ellis rolled his eyes, still chuckling under his breath. At least we all seemed to be a little brighter, it wasn't just me having some strange guilt trip.
"My Mom wasn't the best cook in the world," I mused, after Nick's hysterical laughter began to die, "but my Dad made a pretty good chilli."
"Your Dad cooked?"
"Sure did. A cop that cooked, God knows where he found the time." I shook my head, smiling as I reconstructed an image of his gentle face in my head. "He always said I'd be a cop like him, that's probably why he was so eager to teach me how to use a gun."
"Damn," Ellis murmured, lips returning to graze my forehead, "you'd be one sexy cop."
I began to laugh once again, curling myself closer to Ellis to try and control the flood of giggles that seemed to be forming a mask over my grief. Unfortunately, that joy was only short-lived, as I heard a loud bang from the engine followed by dry spluttering, as if the truck was gasping for air.
"Ah, shit," Ellis grumbled, his smile fading, "there she goes." With it's dying breath, he managed to pull the choking truck off the road and onto the gritty sand, creating thick clouds of dust as it ground to a halt.
Ellis and I remained still for a moment as a thump sounded from behind us, 'causing the truck to rock slightly, before Nick appeared at the driver's window.
"Yo, Ellis, why've we stopped?" He asked, yet another cigarette pursed between his lips. How he managed to have the breath to sprint, I'd never know.
His eyes were hard like they had been yesterday, his face showing no sign that it had been creased with laughter today.
"She's outta gas," Ellis replied glumly, tapping the dashboard lovingly, "looks like we're walking from here."
"Walking? Are you fucking crazy? We're in the middle of nowhere!" Nick cried, arms thrown up in frustration.
"We ain't got a choice, Nick."
"It's walk or sit here like ducks," I added.
"But…we're in the middle of nowhere," he repeated.
"We're just gonna have to be optimistic," I smiled.
"Like that'll keep me alive," Nick muttered sourly, rubbing his eyes with a frustrated sigh.
Yes, it seemed our happiness had been simply a sudden burst of optimistic energy to help mask the heart wrenching pain of yesterday. Still, I would try to keep it up, I knew no other way to deal with grief. We were human, and that's all we could do; Pretend that everything was going to be ok.
"We better get walking," Ellis mumbled. I swear I saw his bottom lip tremble as he placed his hand back onto the dashboard. "Goodbye girl, you've been good to us. You got us through some tough times and, hell, you got us this far. You remind me of a truck I once had-"
"Ellis, it's a fucking car," Nick growled.
"Right," Ellis mumbled, frowning. He opened the driver door swiftly, hoping to smack the metal against Nick's shin. But Nick saw it coming and jumped back in plenty of time, giving a smug grin.
We unloaded our bags from the back of the truck, Coach still clutching Rochelle's backpack and I stepped back to take one last look at the rust eaten, paint-peeled truck that had got us this far.
It wasn't in the best of shape, it's tires were a little deflated and it coughed and spluttered like a chain-smoker. But everything had to die sooner or later, and that included our truck.
And so we began walking along the gritty dirt, my sneakers filling with sand as I focused on the tarmac of the road beside me, my vision blurring with the wavering heat.
"I hate walking," Francis growled, "and I hate deserts."
"You hate deserts," Ellis mused, "but do you like desserts?"
"Nope, hate desserts too." We all knew it was awful small talk, but it was something to keep us busy and keep our minds off other things.
"Damn," Coach murmured, "what I wouldn't give for a slice of cheesecake."
The group groaned in unison. Food that wasn't in a can was a luxury nowadays. Of course, factories were deserted and livestock were eaten up as quickly as they came. I wondered if the military would have food, proper food that actually had a taste and texture.
Of course they would. It's a military base, they'll have everything.
"I spy," Ellis said suddenly, breaking the small silence, "with my little eye-"
"Oh please don't," Nick interjected.
"-Something beginning with," Ellis continued anyway, like a defiant child, "…S."
"Sand?" Francis guessed.
"Sky?" Coach asked.
"Silence," I murmured.
"Right," Ellis smiled, closing his eyes for just a second as he walked, "I haven't seen a damn zombie today."
"You think that means we're getting close to N'Orleans?" Coach asked, his voice raising a little in excitement. "It's gotta be, right?"
"Don't get your hopes up," Nick muttered. He pulled his lighter from his pocket, finally lit the cigarette between his lips and took a deep inhale before he continued. "But yeah, maybe you're right, Coach."
"I knew we were close," Ellis said, before his voice lowered to a whisper. "Don't you worry, Rochelle, we'll get there."
And so we continued to walk, with the hope that New Orleans would appear over the horizon keeping our legs moving.
Nick began to stride ahead, hands thrust deep into his pockets, cigarette still in his mouth, though now it had burnt to a stub.
Coach and Francis seemed to start a conversation from nothing, legs moving in unison as they talked about things they disliked. From the sounds of it, Francis could talk about that all day long.
Ellis fell behind the others to walk with me, shyly leaning across to take my hand and link his fingers with mine. He smiled warmly at me; It was one of those nice moments where nothing needed to be said.
We continued walking for what seemed like years, with still no sign of an infected the entire way-not that I was complaining. The blazing sun dragged lazily across the sky, until the few dotted clouds in the sky began to flush a delicate pink. It was getting later and later in the day and I soon began to worry that we'd have nowhere to sleep tonight.
"Shit," Nick said suddenly, his general reaction to everything. We all stopped dead in our tracks behind Nick, my free hand twitching for my gun.
"Look," he said, "that's gotta be a store in the distance."
"You sure you ain't hallucinating?" Coach asked suspiciously.
Ellis slipped his hand from mine to pace a few steps ahead of Nick and place a hand on his forehead to stare into the distance. I hurried to stand next to him and looked up at his face.
He squinted for a few minutes, before he broke into a breathtaking smile.
"He's right," Ellis's voice was almost a laugh. He thumped Nick firmly on the back, something Nick would have objected to a week ago. "Damn, Nick's right, that's a building up there. Told ya' we'd find someplace."
The murky building in the distance gave us that hopeful drive that put that bit more extra air in our lungs and spring in our step, the sand becoming firmer beneath our shoes.
The closer we got, the clearer this building became, it's details becoming more significant before Ellis once again stopped in his tracks.
"Well, shit," he chuckled, a wide grin spreading across his face. "It's a mechanics!"
"Are you sure?" I asked doubtfully, squinting into the distance. I still couldn't see the exact colour of this building, let alone what it actually was.
"Are you shittin' us, Ellis?" Nick growled, suddenly in no mood for light humour.
"I ain't lying, that's a mechanics! I'm sure it is! Damn, what are the odds?" Ellis's face was still filled with his grin. He seemed to up his pace a little, now more eager to walk than ever.
I was sceptical about Ellis at first, until we drew closer to this mystery building.
And wouldn't you know it, he'd got it right. The building was practically a large garage with a shop attached, a disintegrated car propped up on cinderblocks in the driveway, laying to rot in the evening sun.
"Well damn, Ellis," Coach smiled, "you sure got good eyesight."
"I spent most of my life in a garage," Ellis winked, inspecting the place like he was a cautious viewer in an art museum. "I know one when I see one."
"Were you born in one?" Nick joked, giving a playful wink towards me. The comment seemed to bounce off Ellis, he was in his prime.
"C'mon, let's look inside," Ellis peered into the open garage, cocked his head to look around, before turning to us and nodding confidently.
The garage was dusty and murky, it's walls covered in metallic shelves, an old sports car leant on a jack in it's centre.
Rusted tools littered the floor, drowsy moths circled the blinking light of an old radio; The place had been abandoned so suddenly, it was just a ghostly as it's surroundings.
"Shit, this reminds me of all the good times," Ellis's voice was barely a whisper. "Y'know, this is the type of place you'd find me and Keith, sittin' around on a lazy summer day, tinkering on an old car." Ellis began to laugh loudly at memories that were unknown to everyone else.
"This one time, Keith was under this old truck, and I honked the horn. Scared the shit outta him, he smacked his head right on the metal. Went into a coma for three weeks. Doctor says-"
"Urrh, nice story there, Ellis," Francis interjected, silently doubting Ellis's story like the rest of us. "But what I wanna know is, are you gonna be able to get some oil from here? Y'know, for our truck?"
Ellis didn't seem to mind that his story had been interrupted, he was now beaming at Francis.
"Well damn, that skipped my mind." He thumped the dented metal of the old sports car, "I could see what's left in this baby's tank, we'd get our truck going again!"
Ellis grabbed a plastic jerry can from one of the metal shelves, picked up a spanner and threw himself on the floor the crawl underneath the car. He seemed to be right at home here, it felt nice to see him so happy.
"Hey y'all," he called, his voice muffled beneath metal, "could you see if we got working lights in here?"
"Sure," Coach mused. He began to wander around casually, eyes glazing the walls for a switch. Nick hesitated for a moment, before he decided to join the search, grazing his fingertips across the doorframes.
I headed toward the old radio, it's blinking, green light taking my attention. I swiped the eager moths away with the back of my hand before gingerly picking up the radio by it's handle.
I expected it to be plugged in, giving a slight hope that there was still electricity here, but it had no wires. It was seemingly running on batteries.
Shit, batteries? This place couldn't have been empty a few weeks ago.
I flicked a switch and was instantly met by obnoxious static, something that never changed no matter how far I turned the little dial. Of course people didn't do radio shows anymore, there wasn't time for that. And news? Well, was there anyone alive to even hear it?
As I was just about to give up on the old device, I noticed the gleam of a tape beneath a plastic case in the centre of the radio. I pushed down hard on the play button and heard the radio struggle to play the tape, whirring and clunking now and again.
But, after more coughing a spluttering, a jazzy song began to fight it's way through the speakers, a song I didn't recognise. Brass instruments were muffled beneath the poor sound quality of the radio, but it was music none the less.
"Ah, now we're talking!" Ellis cried from underneath the car. He poked his head out from under the poorly painted metal to give me a playful wink. "Nice job, Zoey."
Suddenly, the lights above us began to flicker, as if they struggled to splutter up light. After a minute or two of irritating flickering, the garage was finally filled with a piercing bright light from the ceiling, illuminating the shadows of the rust-ridden shelves.
"Damn," Nick called from the other side of the room, poking around in a fuse box full of tangled wires. "I'd say this place was in use less than a week ago. Still got power and I bet there's running water."
Nick stopped poking around in the fuse box and headed for a door at the back of the room, presuming they'd be a sink in the back. He reached for the door handle, before he paused, a confused look spreading across his face.
"You hear that?" He frowned, head turning to face me.
I held my breath and strained to hear what was confusing him so much. I spun the dial of the radio to turn the crackled music down in an attempt to hear clearer but I didn't have much of a chance.
After a few loud clunks, Ellis slid out from underneath the car, a triumphant grin spread across his face, a jerry can filled to the brim with thick oil in his hands.
"Got it," he smiled, "ain't much here, but it'll keep us going. Man, I was really heartbroken when I thought we'd have to leave our truck-"
"Shhh," Nick ordered, shoving a finger against his lips. Ellis fell silent, his face falling a little in disappointment. He liked lightened moods, we all did, they filled the empty gaps of reality. It seemed Nick had silenced this one for now.
Everyone remained silent for a few minutes, unable to hear what Nick apparently was hearing. But, after a few minutes, he drew a finger back to his lips and gingerly reached for the door handle of the door he stood in front of. He beckoned at us, to which Ellis and I creeped over to him, Ellis carefully placing the jerry can on the workbench, his attention now elsewhere.
"Nick, what's wrong?" Ellis whispered, once we were close to him.
"I think I can hear crying," Nick murmured, "but I'm not sure. Keep quiet for a second."
Wrapping a hand around the door handle and turning it slowly-wincing at the loud click it made-Nick carefully pushed open the door. The room beyond the door was flooded with a line of light, just big enough to show it was a closet, not very big at all.
And yet, sat in the centre of the floor was a witch, hunched over and wailing harrowingly. Yet, surprisingly, that wasn't the first thing we noticed.
Behind the witch, sat along the back wall not two feet from us, was a large freezer with a glass screen. And beyond the glass of that freezer was beer.
Bottles and bottles of beer, aligned perfectly in cardboard cases that were stacked upon each other.
"Holy shit," Ellis whispered, his voice dry. He needn't point toward the large freezer, he knew that Nick and I were already mesmerized by its contents. Nick swiftly shut the door, his hand shaking just a little on the handle.
"Ellis," he murmured, "how much of that oil will we need?"
"Well, I don't know. Depends how far we wanna get-"
"Will we need all of it?"
"Well," Ellis paused for just a moment, "no."
"Perfect," Nick grinned, "don't touch that door."
Taking powerful strides, he headed over to the backpacks that Coach had piled on the floor and unzipped his own. He fished his hand inside before pulling out a large, empty whiskey bottle, one I recognised from the fridge of a safe room we had camped in when these people were simply strangers.
He took a swig at the bottle to check it was still empty, clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth to savour the few bitter drops of whiskey, before heading over to the workbench.
"Ellis," Nick beckoned, "gimmie a hand."
Ellis trotted up to him obediently and held the large whiskey bottle still as Nick began pouring the contents of the jerry can into it.
Ellis eventually had to stop him getting carried away, explaining that using any more oil would make his handiwork pointless.
Nick grinned wildly, proudly holding up his whiskey bottle, nearly half full with thick oil, its potent smell making my head spin a little. He grabbed a strained and tattered rag from the workbench and shoved it in the top and suddenly I knew what he was planning.
"Nick," I muttered disapprovingly, brow furrowing. "Are you sure that's a good idea? We're in an enclosed garage."
"It's beer, Zoey," Nick smiled, his eyes burning with a wild fire. "I think I need booze more than anything right now. Besides, I need to kill something." Grasping his homemade Molotov cocktail by the neck with a surge of pride, he stormed up to the door-motioning at us to stand back-and carefully opened it.
The witch continued to cry, completely oblivious to her fate, wailing and screaming dementedly.
Since my first-and hopefully last-close encounter with a Witch, I had become a lot more wary of them. It seemed I had underestimated their power before, and I sure as hell wasn't willing to test it again. Nick apparently was.
He fished his lighter out of his pocket and hovered the flame beside the greasy rag.
"Hey, bitch," he barked sharply. The witch looked up suddenly, her eyes wide and piercing, lips curling back to reveal stained, grossly-sharpened teeth.
"This is for Rochelle!" Nick screamed, setting fire to the greasy rag just seconds before throwing the bottle into the witch. The glass shattered against the floor and the bottle's contents erupted into a ball of flame, the sudden heat singeing my skin.
The witch began screaming hysterically, her cries now filled with pain, an unusually human noise almost upsetting to hear from something so un-human.
Ellis took a sudden step in front of me, arm outstretched, shielding me protectively. But it seemed his attempt could not block everything.
I watched as the witch's body was swallowed in flame, her muscle began to sink from bone.
Nick slammed the door shut and pressed his body against the wood, wincing as the witch thumped desperately against the brittle closet door.
Nick began laughing darkly as the witch continued to claw at the door, sending sharp fragments of wood flying across the room. He seemed to be enjoying hearing the witch scream, though I'll admit that I also seemed to feel a dark sense of vengeance.
The witch continued to thump against the frail door a few more times, before her struggling ceased and her screams began to wither.
Nick paused, waiting for complete silence, before he gingerly opened the door. I was hit instantly by the overwhelming smell of burnt flesh, the smell leaving a sickly, bitter taste on my tongue.
The witch-or what was left of it-was slumped against the door, the sight of its charred body making my stomach knot with another wave of nausea. We all stood staring at it for a moment, before Francis stepped up behind Nick and thumped him on the back.
"Nice job," Francis grinned, before he fiercely kicked the witch's body aside with the toe of his boot, seemingly unaffected as it's limbs crumbled.
He then eagerly stormed over to the fridge full of beer and began pulling out the crates and handing them to Nick, who held his arms out as if he were graciously accepting a prize.
"Well damn," Ellis said, his voice wavering with shock. He eyed a crate of bottles that Nick handed him. "We got beer, we got fuel for our truck-"
"It would seem things are getting better already," Coach murmured, though I couldn't tell if he was serious or not. His eyes were sunk back into his face, as if watching this witch die was just one death too many, infected or not. He looked just as sick as I felt.
"Y'alright?" Ellis asked gently as I carefully took a crate of beer from him.
"Yeah," I nodded, more reassuring to myself than to him "I'm fine."
Ellis gave me a weak smile before he raised his voice, "alright guys, let's get back to my baby."
"Aren't we going to stay here?" Francis asked, eyes glazing the spacious garage. "We got electricity, plenty of beer and we should be alright so long as we check all the closets." He gestured to the door behind him with a grimace.
"No point," Nick said bluntly, inspecting the crate of beer in his arms. "It's still daylight so we might as well keep moving whilst we can. If the electricity is still working, it must mean we're getting closer to civilisation and besides, I'm not in the mood for playing anymore whack-a-witch."
Taking one last look at the foul remains of the witch crumpled against the closet door, we left the garage just as we had found it, abandoned, and set off on the road we had come.
Nick, Francis and I each had a crate of beer in our arms whilst Coach carried our backpacks and Ellis held his precious can of fuel tight against his chest.
"Shit, this beer better not be warm now," Nick grumbled, a slight smirk on his face.
"It's beer either way, right?" Francis grinned, "I'll drink it 'til I'm sick."
Sudden enthusiasm with the promise of alcohol and a sense of redemption from a charred witch seemed to hurry our pace in the dirt and, in what seemed like no time at all, our rusted truck peered over the horizon.
Ellis stopped suddenly, breathless as he took off his cap to run his fingers through his caramel hair, eyes focused on the horizon.
At first I thought he was exhausted-I knew I was-but that was before he burst into a sprint, screaming at the top of his lungs as he ran.
"I'm coming baby! I told ya I'd never leave ya!"
"Oh Jesus Christ," Nick muttered, but I began to laugh as Ellis continued to run.
He charged into the truck and embraced it's rusted metal, fingertips lovingly grazing the metal frame, the rear-view mirror, the broken window.
"Oh, I'm sorry we left ya, girl," Ellis purred, "I got ya some gas now, don't you worry."
"Urm, hey, Ellis," Nick said in a voice thick with sarcasm. "Just wondering, urh, do you actually know we're in a fucking zombie apocalypse and not some poorly made mechanic porno?!"
Francis burst into laughter, causing Nick to give a sly smile at the fact someone had a similar sense of humour and that meant perhaps he wasn't going to go completely insane.
"Hey," Ellis snapped, though there was more annoyance than anger in his voice. "This truck has got us through a lotta' miles and we'd probably be dead without her. So show some goddamn respect, and maybe I'll fuel her up so we can go!"
"You're not serious?" Nick asked, arching a thick eyebrow. He sighed wearily and muttered something under his breath, before he squatted and gingerly placed a hand on the truck.
"Well, you rusted, tin-can pile of shit-" he began.
"Hey!" Ellis interjected, a scowl on his face like a disapproving parent. "Play nice, now."
Nick gave another sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose with his free hand before starting again.
"Well, old girl, thanks for getting us this far. Maybe if you can drag us another mile, we'll survive long enough to starve to death."
He pulled himself to his feet and looked Ellis in the eye. "That better?" He asked.
Ellis squinted for a minute, deep in thought as he contemplated, before he gave a quick, satisfied nod.
"Thank fuck," Nick breathed, before heading around to the back of the truck and opening the catch.
"Hey," Coach murmured, his voice startling me. He had been unusually quite for a while. "Y'all mind if I sit up front? I ain't feelin' so good."
I felt my eyes widen in shock, "you haven't been bitten, have you?" I wasn't
even sure if that was how the infection was passed on, I just guessed from the countless hours of zombie movies and the reassuring fact I had received injuries and was still very much well and human.
For a stupid minute, I could actually feel tears prick in the backs of my eyes. But Coach waved a hand at me reassuringly.
"Nah, ain't nothing like that, just feeling a little queasy, probably got what you got, Zoey."
"Oh," I exhaled heavily, putting the pieces together in my head, "well, that's a relief. Yeah, of course."
And so, whilst Coach clambered into the front and Ellis-after tipping the contents of his jerry can into the tank- took his usual place behind the wheel, I loaded up into the back of the truck with Francis, Nick, a pile of backpacks and a few crate-loads of beer.
As Ellis began to drive and we followed the smooth road in which we had trekked, I closed my eyes and focused on the smooth feeling of the wind against my face, the hot air enough to make someone drowsy.
I slipped the band from my hair and let it whip against my shoulders and skin, noting that if a person had the ability to fly, this was probably what it would feel like.
After a few minutes I peeled open an eye-more out of curiosity than anything-to catch a glimpse of Nick's face in the corner of my vision, his eyes locked firmly on me with an expression I couldn't read.
"What?" I asked playfully, both my eyes open now, my hair still flurrying over my face.
"Nothing," Nick muttered, quickly jerking his head to the right and suddenly becoming much more interested in the road ahead.
I followed the landscape for while, though nothing seemed to change-we passed the garage once more, now presumably uninhabited.
Still no infected wandered aimlessly like they usually did, making it easy to pretend everything was normal, a trick that was easy to slip in to but should be avoided at all costs.
I turned to Francis, who sat beside me, and smiled weakly at him. Once he caught my gaze, he gave me wide grin in return, before outstretching his arm, his hand balled into a fist.
At first I had no idea what he was doing, until he jolted his arm three times and produced two fingers at an angle, then again with a completely flat palm. Scissors, then paper.
I smiled, suddenly feeling more childish than I had in a while, and extended my arm. Out of three tries, I won twice-something I was surprisingly more proud of than smashing in the skull of an infected.
The day was reaching it's end now, the orange glow of the setting sun piercing the desert landscape, as if it were preparing for its final dramatic goodbye before it disappeared beyond the horizon.
The air began to cool a little now, its comfortable temperature making me slightly worried at how fast it was decreasing. I despised the thought that we might have to turn back and spend the night in the garage, but it was looking that way if we couldn't find another safe house soon-we couldn't sleep unguarded in this truck.
Nick took a deep inhale through his nose, the collar of his shirt flapping wildly against his skin, before his eyes widened. He began tilting his head, searching, before he found what he was looking for and had to restrain himself from standing up on the back of a moving truck.
"Shit, Ellis, can you see that?" He yelled, his voice almost happy.
"What's that?" Ellis called back, his voice snatched by the wind.
"The ocean! I can see the goddamn ocean!"
I sat bolt upright and squinted in the direction Nick was looking and, sure enough, there was the outline of the ocean, the first prominent feature to the skyline yet. I inhaled deeply; The bitter taste of salt danced on my tongue.
"Well damn," Francis grinned, "we've gotta be close to N'orleans now, right?"
"Let's hope," Nick tried to return the smile, but failed, settling for a lighter tone instead. "Ellis, take the right up here."
I hadn't even noticed there was a right turning ahead until Nick pointed it out, I'd been so used to this one stretch of road that seemed to go on forever. The term 'highway to hell' seemed appropriate.
Ellis did as instructed and took a sharp right, our brittle truck now headed toward the direction of the burning sun which lay casually on an ocean that enveloped more and more of the land as we approached. The sand seemed to dance as we drew closer to the sea, swirling clouds of grit that sparkled like dying diamonds in the rough.
My shadow breezed along the dust, depicting the image of a young woman far more carefree than myself, so much more beautiful even though her features were not visible.
I had no idea who she was.
"Hey," Francis said, shattering the stillness, "another building up ahead! It's huge!" His voice rang with enthusiasm and hopefulness, like the laugh of a child.
"You're right," Nick replied, his voice competing with the wind, "right by the beach. Anyone else see stereotypical horror story coming up?"
"Haven't we had enough of that already?" I asked slyly. Nick flashed me a grin, though the smile didn't reach his eyes, too cold on an evening like this.
We pulled up alongside a tall building with ladders climbing it's walls like vines, a large, illuminated sign informing us the building was a hotel.
Ellis slowed the truck to a halt outside, the engine still stuttering as I observed the building more closely.
The windows remained unbroken, an odd few projecting beacon-like lights out to us. A washing line was strung across several balconies, a small, floral dress clinging to the wire in a desperate struggle.
Beside the building lay a pool surrounded by speckled blue tiles, ripples gliding effortlessly across the water's surface, dragging a colourful inflated beach ball along and jolting it swiftly when it fell behind.
Our group remained speechless, absorbing the deserted scene; The only thing this place was missing was people. Not even infected lurked around this spring-break bliss.
"Shit, I knew lady luck was headed our way," I could hear the goofy smile in Ellis' voice. "This place is perfect. Whaddya say we pull up and take a look inside?"
He pushed his foot back onto the accelerator and drew the truck around the side of a building, into a large, empty parking lot. The view that met us was breathtaking, even if the sun refused to shine anywhere but our eyes.I leant across the back of the truck's cab, receiving a confused glance from Nick as I brushed beside him to lean around the side and tap Ellis's shoulder through the broken window. Ellis turned his head, allowing me to speak to him with a little dignity rather than yelling. My throat was dry and my voice was sore-hell, everybody felt the same-but he seemed to pick it up pretty clear.
"Sure thing, hon," he called back, his voice a little less gentle, "that sounds like a mighty fine idea."
"What did you say?" Francis asked, brow furrowing as I turned back. I simply smiled at him as the accelerator growled and Ellis drove the truck up over the perimeter of the parking lot and onto the sand.I took a deep breath and clamped my eyes and mouth shut as I felt the flourish of grit and sand dance over my skin as the tires ground into the bottomless, unstable floor.
Francis, it seemed, was not so lucky as he began to splutter a cough, causing Nick to chuckle beside me.
"Ellis, what are we doing?" Francis asked, "are we fucking deep-sea diving? Blagh."
As if in response, the truck jolted to a halt and the engine took one last, breathy rattle before it collapsed onto the sand like a desperate, dying soldier.
I didn't mention that thought to Ellis, something told me referring to his loyal truck as a decrepit veteran would bring a tear to his eye and some mumble of a poem to his lips.
I pulled open my eyes as the truck doors swung open and Ellis and Coach made their way to the back of the truck, hoisting themselves up to sit beside us.
"Ellis, what the hell are we doing? We're vulnerable out here," Nick growled.
"Chill out, guys," I said calmly. I pulled a crate of beer onto my lap and began to slide out a few bottles, handing them to Nick who in turn handed them out.
"I thought we'd just sit here for a few minutes and…have some time to think."
Nick's expression smoothed and, once he had taken in our peaceful, zombie-free surroundings, his body slouched a little as he was the first to open his beer, popping open the cap with his teeth, swirling an experimental sip in his mouth to then spit out onto the sand with what seemed to be a mixture of beer and blood, before he took a heavy gulp.
He swirled, swallowed and grinned. "Shit, I needed that today. Can't remember the last time I had a beer this great, hell I was banned from so many places…"Seemingly now happy that the beer was safe to drink, the rest of us popped open the caps, I myself using the side of the truck to burst the metal cap free and watch it fall to my feet with a took a swig and sighed heavily, his eyes now deep and sombre with the glow of the setting sun. The dark, purple caves beneath his eyes did not weaken with the refreshing drink or the fading evening heat, yet he looked a little more relaxed, which was enough for me at least.
I took my own gulp of beer, eyes stinging as the bitter liquid soothed my throat and began to form a humble cloud over the 'holy shit we're going to die'part of my brain, even for just a while.
"Damn, that makes me feel a whole lot better," Coach smiled warmly.
"Y'all can say that again," Ellis said with my favourite goofy grin.
I turned in my seat just a little and propped my feet against the back of the cab, my sneakers painted an awful rust of blood-matted fabric, head resting on Nick's stiffened for a moment, hesitating as if he wasn't sure what to do, before he relaxed, hands still wrapped around the bottle dropping to his lap. I closed my eyes and let the warmth engulf my skin, the dying orange glow a pleasant sight to the backs of my was difficult not to think of Rochelle when my eyes closed. It wasn't that I didn't like thinking of her, of course not, it was that I wanted to think of her smile and her gentle words, not her screams or her body being dragged into depths more ferocious and blood thirsty than the sea.
No-one had mentioned her for a while; That didn't mean we weren't thinking of her. We were silent when we thought of her and we were loud when we fought a battle with our brains against the screaming.
I opened my eyes swiftly, turned my head and raised my bottle high into the hair.
"Rochelle," I announced pair of eyes in the group seemed to sink back into their heads sombrely and, at first, I thought I should've kept my mouth shut whilst our feelings were still raw.
But, almost simultaneously, every beer bottle raised to reach my with a clink and a murmur of, "Rochelle", before hesitant sips were taken.
And then it got loud.
"Did you seriously Coach a football team?" Francis asked suddenly, his voice unexpectedly chirpy.
Coach looked a little surprised for a moment, no doubt Francis had just broken his chain of thoughts.
"Well, yeah," Coach gave a small smile, "why do ya' think everybody calls me Coach?"
"I guess I just thought it's 'cause you're the size of a-" Francis quickly stopped as Coach's face fell to a playful scowl, "-football."
Ellis burst into laughter, tucking his cap low to cover his eyes, 'causing Nick's body to shake with a chuckle beside me too.
"I'm guessing y'all not a fan of football?" Coach asked Francis, once the laughter had ceased.
Francis grimaced, "Eh, it wasn't all that bad, I guess. It'd been on in nearly every bar in the state, so I'd see glimpses of it." Francis was the one to give a chuckle this time, "at least a little before I was thrown out."
"Whoah, badass sitting right here," Nick mocked, causing another round of laughter.
"Why were y'all always thrown out of bars?" Ellis asked, "ya' sound like the kinda guy who stays for a drink."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Francis winked before he continued, "usually I'd have one too many and start a fight and flip the tables. I'd throw some bottles, throw some punches, throw the TV out the window to try steal it. Pretty much an average Saturday night, in my opinion."
"Average," I huffed.
The group erupted in laughter, the first laughter that didn't sound a little forced. I took another gulp of the bitter alcohol, letting the liquid fill my empty stomach and numb hunger for a little while.
"This one time," Ellis giggled, "me n' my buddy Keith wound up in one of those fancy restaurants, y'know, where they got the shellfish still alive in a tank. So Keith sees this lobster in there n' decides to rescue it from being eaten. Now, if y'all thought a lobster couldn't pick up a steak knife with those claws, y'all thought wrong! Stab wounds over 95% of his body, and ain't all of that come from the lobster!"
I figured Ellis had more to say, but our laughter silenced his speech, though he didn't seem to mind. The thoughts of Rochelle, the images of her death in my head, were starting to fade with each sip of beer and each chorus of laughter.
By the time the dying sun was flaring shades of red on the surface of the horizon, the back of the truck and the sand around us was littered with empty glass bottles and we didn't seem to realise-or care-how much noise we were making. There weren't any infected around, yet I guessed we wouldn't have noticed any even if there were.
Ellis's hat sat backward on my head, Nick's tie was wrapped around his head and Francis was singing a rock song in some delirious grumble of words that Coach seemed to enjoy so much he was providing musical sound effects.
"H-Hey, guys," Ellis slurred, once Francis had finished with an applause from us all, "I bet the Midnight Riders are still alive out there. W-We oughta send 'em a tape of Francis n' we'd be in one of their shows." Ellis began to giggle uncontrollable and spoke with a murmur, "I nearly lost my eyebrows in their show, all them fireworks."
"Hell, I'd make 'em let us in their show," Nick said sternly, "I'll challenge 'em to a g-game of poker, they won't win. Hell, they won't want to win if the stakes are my bitch ex-wife."
Another round of laughter. This time, none of us felt any pain. No, that would come later.
"We better head into that hotel now," I said, a little more stable than the others, "it's getting real dark."
"Y-Yeah, good idea," Francis grinned from ear to ear, "I want to wreck the rooms, like I'm a rockstar!"
"You do that," I muttered, suddenly feeling nauseated from the liquid that sloshed in my stomach. "C'mon, guys."
Each of us clambered out of the truck, a little too drunk to realise we were leaving the truck and all of our beer unattended on the beach for the night.
The street lights ahead of us were beginning to flicker, a hopeful sign that meant the power was still working. Perhaps this place was connected to another grid or, more likely, had a generator or power station in the town. City? State? We were near the ocean, but I had no hope of an idea to exactly where we were on the map.
We strolled in a carefree manner toward the front of the hotel, our hazy drunkenness clouding it's intimidating stance, and approached the double doors that rocked gently on their hinges with the soft breeze.
Their gold-painted rims remained untainted and I could practically smell the fresh coat of paint that had been lavished on this summer by some kid who needed quick money for energy drink and video games. Or perhaps a hotel of this stature would hire a professional, it was difficult to judge a hotel without it's occupants.
We pushed the doors open and stepped inside the clean carpeted lobby, lights on, a desk fan whirring nosily on the counter, chubby suitcases sat neatly beside empty chairs.
"I need some aspirin to chew," Nick muttered, wide-eyed as he took a step forward to gaze over the neatly wallpapered walls.
"Let's check the rooms upstairs," Coach suggested, "t-there oughta be some rooms…there, upstairs." He wasn't even making sense anymore, I wasn't sure if it was fatigue or stress or drunkenness. I guessed it was all three.
We strode across the pristine carpet and up the grand oak stairs, not even checking the ground floor for infected.
"L-Let's go near the top," Nick suggested, "that way, if there's zombies, we'll be…safer." I didn't mention that if there was a fire we'd be the first to die, I didn't think of it at the time. None of us were thinking logically, we were just lucky that the first 18 flights of stairs were empty.
When we decided that 18 flights was enough, we sauntered down the halls, peering into every room, each door left wide open.
"Shit, look at this," Nick cried, his forced happiness scaring me on any other occasion. He ducked his head into a room on the right, number 184, and took a deep, swirling inhale.
I glanced to the open door opposite and was met by a refreshing sight, a sight that pierced right through the alcohol in my blood.
A double bed, a double mattress enclosed in pristine bed sheets, with goose-feather pillows and even a fucking complimentary mint on a pile of clean towels at it's foot.
How long has it been since I've seen a room without blood?
Yes, the only crimson on the walls was within the delicate roses of the gold-bordered wallpaper.
A solid cabinet sat opposite the bed, equipped with a hefty looking TV, a lamp and an empty vase-no flowers. Beyond that was the balcony, currently blocked by a sliding glass door, with a few cheap plastic chairs seemingly the place to enjoy the overlook view of the beach. I guessed, if you looked over far enough, you'd see our truck, along with a scattering of empty green bottles.
"Shit, this place is fancy," Ellis mumbled from behind me, leading me to silently wonder if Ellis had ever been out of Savannah and the few cheap motels that were a short distance from his house.
I stepped into the room in awe, failing to notice that Nick, Coach and Francis were no longer peering over our shoulders.
The room was glazed in a thick honey glow of light from the setting sun that now suddenly felt so out of reach. The sun was setting, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Sure, it would rise again, but not before night and the darkness that accompanied it took it's share. Not everyone survived the night and if my head had been clearer, I would've realised that, in her death, Rochelle was telling me something. Warning me.
Not everyone saw the next sunrise, in fact, an unlucky few saw none at all. They were born into darkness, they thrived in darkness and, to them, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was no sunrise. There was no hope, no future.
You were not guaranteed each morning, they were numbered, just like the doors of this eerily perfect hotel where the beds were made and the lights worked.
It was an illusion, a glimmer of hope, like the flicker of a street light in the night, a flash of a car's headlights. But then the battery died, then the car drove right past and suddenly the night was so much more darker than it had been.
Yes, things were about to get much darker now that I'd seen a light.
Perhaps I would have noticed that had I not taken two uneasy steps and collapsed onto the bed, alcohol and fatigue and pure mental exhaustion refusing to bow to my theories.
You want that car to stop? Stick your thumb out, hitch a ride and things will get brighter, things will get better.
Now where the fuck are my thumbs?