The ride was rough and weary, as we traveled on through the night into the next day, taking the safest route possible. It made the trip longer, but we had no choice, we could only keep moving forward leaving the blazing barrier behind us.
The sun had just started to creep up when Sera had awaken, she looked around frantically until finally her sad eyes found me, I was sitting at the bar holding Hunter’s red glass bowl in one hand, a double shot of Jack in the other. Our eyes met and I recognized the look, the look you have when you wake to see this was real, the nightmare you thought but a dream, a sick twisted reality that was inescapable.
“I should thank you..” She finally spoke, breaking the tense silence.
“Should you really?”
“Yes, it’s absolutely imperative that I do, I’m alive.. and it’s all because of you.” She replied, as she attempted to sit up, struggling a bit to gain leverage, even so, I received a death glare when I moved to help her.
“How can you be so thankful with all that I’ve taken from you.. things you will never be able to get back.” I asked somberly, getting back on the barstool.
“I’ve been given a second chance, so I believe it all balances out.” She replied, so resolute and strong that it humbled me. “I don’t plan to waste it as a burden to the group either, I don’t want any of your pity.”
“I understand, trust me when I say I really do..” I told her as I slipped the red glass into the inside pocket of my navy trench coat, Patience had told me I look like Captain Crunch with it on, garnering a round of laughter from Grannie and I shortly before everyone had turned in.
Rising to my feet to head to the front cabin, I didn’t say anymore on the subject, but I couldn’t help but notice her clutching the Saint’s dog tags as they hung loosely around her neck. Passing the Wolf and the other three ladies sleeping, I ventured further to the passenger seat of the Betty’s front cabin.
The sun had barely start to rise so Caiden looked surprised that anyone was up this time of morning, let alone the person being me, no one seemed to notice that I haven’t been sleeping. I could see the cherry mustang Serafi rode in on, just ahead, within it housed Jerry, Husk, Balthazar, and the Bloodhound. They had yet to pull over, not even after the run in with the General’s militia, so I knew we’d be making a pit stop soon.
“You aren’t getting enough sleep.” He said, eyes on the road, the grin I was used to, wiped from his face. “You’ve gotten maybe a couple hours over the last few days.. I think I’ve seen you rest maybe an hour, that’s no good Loki.”
“There’s a lot going on that’s no good for me, try not to worry yourself too much about it.” I replied, staring out the passenger window as the trees flew by in the darkness of early morning.
“Because someone else is taking care of you now, huh?”
“Excuse me?” I asked, cutting my eyes to him, admittedly taken off guard.
“You heard me..” The blonde male spat, his tone like cold steel. “So it’s serious between you two now? You’ve made it official with the Wolf?”
“It’s not official, but it’s serious.” I answered in truth, unable to look him in the eye as I said it.
I could hear the hurt in his voice, it caused me to let my gaze fall upon him once more, and said pain could be witnessed in the depths of his deep sea blue eyes. I felt guilty, but I knew I had also given us enough time to figure out what was going on between us, it was him that failed to step up to the plate. There would always be conflict in any love regarding the two of us, it would never be simple or effortless, but it was surprisingly unfaltering as well. One moment I loved him like a brother, the next, it was a little something more complex and undeniable.
“I believe he can make me happy, and I’ve decided to let him try.” I spoke softly, ashamed to be offering an explanation to the man, then there was a brief moment of silence afterward that unnerved me further.
“Reach into the inside pocket of my coat.. No, not that one, the breast pocket.” He requested suddenly, one hand on the wheel, the other was holding open his thick wooly coat.
I reached within and pulled out a familiar burnt photo, it was the one of Hunter and I. I held it like the delicate treasure it was, unable to keep the tears from gathering, making my eyes moist. A picturesque moment of pure bliss captured unawares, I could still feel his soft lips upon my cheek, and recall a happiness that doesn’t seem to be capable in the present circumstances of civilization.
“I want you you to have it..”
“What?! No.. It was given to you.” I balked, knowing how much this meant to him.
“Remember the story I told you about that photo?” Caiden asked softly, and I immediately nodded my head, it was hard to forget how close he came to perishing in that bombing attack. “What I told you wasn’t the entire tale, there was more to it.. More to why I’ve held onto it as long as I have, why I wouldn’t give it to you while you were grieving.. I was being selfish, still am, even in this very moment. It’s why I have to tell you the truth about what you hold in your hands.”
I looked down at the partially burned photo I held, on the burned half was Hunter and only his face was left untouched, he was kissing me gently on the cheek. The undamaged side depicted me, looking so blissful the person was unrecognizable to me, but I remember the love I felt then, the gentle warmth as it held and cradled my soul, like his arms around me.
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me Caiden..”
“After the incident at the embassy, I carried that picture on every tour I took, it had become a good luck charm at first..Then time went on, and I found myself captivated by what my brother had been able to achieve even though he was living such a hard life, the happiness was unmistakable in both of your eyes. It wasn’t long before that picture became more than an ordinary keepsake, more than mere nostalgia and superstition.” His eyes had formed a tense squint, but they stayed on the road, almost as if he couldn’t face me during such a revelation. “I became infatuated with the image of you two.. What you both were feeling, the ideal circumstance of love captured in a single image, the beauty of it was captivating. I wanted that, No, I needed it. Soon the infatuation narrowed to a single element within the picture, one person..”
“Wait, Do you hear what you’re saying? You fell in love with an ‘idea’ of me, not for the person I am. That’s the problem Caiden, that may have always been the problem..” I cut him off, and couldn’t help but to sigh in exasperation.
“But.. I didn’t fall in love with you, until after we met.” Once the words left his lips, our eyes locked to each other, my breath had grown short and I felt the pace of my heartbeat quicken.
There was a sudden scream from the back, It nearly made me jump out the window and caused Caiden to even swerve the wheel a bit, I looked to the back and could see Granny was the one yelling. Doctor Jhedav tried to calm her, but I shouted out a warning to the dusky skinned woman because I had a bad feeling, she ignored me and placed a hand on the matrons shoulder. The resounding smack that echoed from the back let me know my suspicions were correct, the old woman was having a fit, even now she was rambling on about her father, Big Daddy.
Caiden and I made eye contact, and not a word was spoken, it was clear we needed to make that pit stop, right about now.
“But Caiden baby, I don’t understand..” The old woman replied, sounding alarmed and bewildered. “Where is Big Daddy’s house?.. Where is our home?! What is this thing you have us in? Who are these people?!!”
“Calm down Granny, everything is going to be ok, relax for a second.. take a few breaths.” He turned to me but kept his eyes on her, and requested I go grab her meds.
“No! I want answers, why are we in the company of such.. people and where is your brother? Big Daddy will not be pleased when he returns.. I mean, um, when he finds us.. I..”
“Gran, what year is it?”
“It’s 1949, I’ll be fifteen next July..” She answered sounding so sure of herself, but confused as to where he was going with his questions.
“Am I your grandson?” He asked her tensely, and she nodded slowly as the wheels turned in her head, I could see the fear creeping into her face as I came running back with the last two pills found in the bottle. “How can I be your grandchild if you’re only a teenager?”
“These are it Caiden, there is no more after this..” I confessed, without sounding as worried as I felt.
He attempted to give her the the pills but she fought him, knocking them from his hands, causing them to fly across the room.
“I’ll be damned if I swallow something that’s been in the filthy bare hands of a goddamn nigger!” She screamed out, before he was able to cover her mouth.
The fussing and fighting had woken up the other people with us, Buster barked confused at the commotion going on, as if to emphasize the sentiments of everyone else. Wolf, Karishma, and Sera shared the same befuddled look, not understanding the problem. Patience looked on sadly, knowing everything without an explanation, I knew she was the most fond of the poor old woman. I went to go take her away from the scene, just as the other guys hopped on the Betty to check on us.
“What’s the issue here?” Bloodhound asked, straight to business.
“Well the way Caiden and Loki explain it, the old woman suffers from a combination of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.” The Wolf replied to him, Tzar nodded to confirm his words.
“It’s a miracle this has been the first episode you guys have seen, she’s held on long enough to earn a meltdown or two..” He chimed in on her behalf, I could tell then he had grown as fond of her as the rest of us.
“They best way I can explain it, right now she’s drowning within her own mind.” I added, hoping it would explain the situation better to them, but the reality was most of us were drowning with her.
“I’m going to sound like the bastard right now, and be the first to speak up.. we have no time for this. The General and his men could be minutes behind us right now, waiting for a moment just like so, to strike!” Bloodhound voiced, sharing his unpopular opinion, as true as it may have been.
“You got the bastard part right, that’s for fuckin sure.” I replied, voicing a controversial fact of my own, he looked like he had more to say but Tzar interrupted.
“Enough you two! Golly, like a pair of cats in a damn potato sack.. I’ve had enough of it!”
“We needed to make a stop anyway, you guys barely have a charge and your tank is on fumes. I say we find a safe place that we can camp off road and then visit that strip mall with the gas station coming up down the road, I know you saw the sign.. It’s less than a mile off course.” I reasoned with them, for sake of sanity.
“Yeah we saw it, you volunteering on going in? You gonna lead this team?” Husk asked, before now, he rarely spoken up but I sensed a new attitude from him.
“Absolutely.” I answered, eyeing him defiantly before I turned to go help Caiden.
They returned to the other vehicle and Wolf navigated behind them, while they found a safe area concealed enough to camp, Caiden and I tended to Granny. She wasn’t calming down and it wasn’t getting better, I felt guilty when I advised Caiden to drug the poor old woman but he understood it was the only way to stop her. I aided in administering a healthy dose of a mild sedative, and we waited as she soon drifted off to sleep. I told Caiden of my plan to refuel, he of course objected, but I reminded him of our dwindling supplies.
He was even more adverse when I informed him he had to stay with his grandmother, he was the only one she wanted to see right now and I needed someone I could trust Patience with as well. Finally he relented and listened to me, seeing that I was right. I looked to the Wolf knowing he was fully capable of the job at hand, I didn’t even have to ask.
“We’re gonna swoop in, Wolf, you handle fuel and recharge. Caiden you handle the perimeter, while I take the boys in. We regroup and return to this spot if anything happens..” I looked everyone in the eye as I relayed the plan, my gaze fell to the girl on the couch with the fiery dark eyes. “Serafi you got back up, take care of our people, you’re my eyes and ears.”
She nodded as her eyes fell to Karishma in full understanding, the Doctor had grown increasingly suspicious around certain members of the group, always jotting down notes in that little pad as she watched us. Granny had been the first to point it out to me, and now it was blatant.
Wolf started up the Betty and honked her horn signaling we were ready. I hopped in the passenger seat and took his free hand, and simply held it, he gave me that dazzling toothy smile, and brought my hand up to his full lips in a kiss. I felt a flushing heat of desire course through me, to mix with the adrenaline that pumping in my veins, from my body instinctively preparing for our incipient mission. I couldn’t help that my dick hardened from the excitement, and if I could have blushed with my complexion, I would’ve.
I felt a tingling sensation in my mind telling me to turn around, causing the dark mysterious depths of my brown eyes to meet with sad and stormy blues, the elements of jealousy, craving, and regret mixed tempestuously in Caiden’s eyes. I couldn’t help but to let my gaze linger a moment, before I forced myself to turn back around.
We pulled up to the ‘ReCharge’ station that was supposed to be accompanied by a strip mall, only to find out it was a huge newly renovated shopping center, far larger than either of us expected. I argued that all of the available men had to go in, even Tzar and Jerry, Bloodhound countered against it citing that Tzar was still hurt. I looked to my cousin, giving him an arched brow and a stern lip, he knew he was going.
The outside was clear for the most part, there were only two of the Risen present and they had been decomposing for awhile. I used a blade to dispatch them both quietly, as we crept closer to the entrance. I felt uneasy about the number of cars abandoned, but I wouldn’t say the mall was obscenely crowded when the world fell. Bloodhound and I lead the team, checking every vehicle down the line. Balthazar and Jerry, tried to keep pace behind us, with Husk in the rear.
There was a huge red ‘X’ marked across the doors, I pointed out that they were chained from the outside and when we peered inside, it was for good reason, the dead swarmed the main lobby. There were probably fifty or sixty of them, I saw shop patrons, security guards, a couple of fast food clerks, and a handful of children. It was hard to pull my eyes from the horror of it all, my heart went out to these poor people, such tortured souls.
“Look, most of the shops have their gates down..” Tzar alerted to us, and low and behold he was right. “If we find a side entrance, we could probably find a way in.”
“Oh shit! There’s another one of them..” Jerry screamed out hysterically, pointing to the left side of the building. “Quick, shoot it! SHOOT IT!”
“Hold up Goddamnit!” I shouted, hold up my hands, as everyone had already raised their guns.
I looked at the suspected infected, and found it to be a mere boy of maybe thirteen or fourteen. He was covered in dirt and blood, the smell of him was awful even at the distance we stood. His eyes were of interest to me, it was why I stopped them. They were bright brown, almost hazel, and the whites were crystal clear. I couldn’t tell whether he was dusky skinned or just really dirty, but I suspect he was of some middle eastern descent.
“He’s fine, he’s not infected.. look at the eyes.” I explained to them, and everyone calmed slightly. “It’s just a boy, I wonder how he’s survived all this. He has to have a group, there must be other people here.”
“Clever concealment, for a grubby kid, makes perfect sense to cover your smell with the innards of an infected corpse.” Husk mused, eyeing the boys technique. “Question is, how are you gonna get him to come over here to a bunch of motherfuckas with guns?”
“Good question.” Bloodhound nodded to him, bringing his weapon down for the first time. “We look like the enemy this time, we have to handle this delica..”
“Hey kid, come over here! It’s okay we’re not gonna hurt you, we work for the government!”
We all turn to Jerry in shock, and I went to wring his neck, but Tzar was there to block me. The boys eyes flew wide at his mention of the Big G and he soon took off running, I immediately chase after him and could hear the others surprised behind me.
He darted around the corner of the building and I was right on his tail, but as I whipped around the corner a hand clawed out at me, nearly swiping my face. Deadly jaws, peeled of any surrounding flesh, launched toward me with the teeth tearing for my throat. I fell backwards and could see the boy dodge two more Risen before he came to a stop, watching from the door, no longer running, just watching.
The cold eyes of all the dead went to me on the pavement, I could feel their hunger for my tender flesh, and the warmth of life within me. The three of them reached for me all at once, casting a shadow of death, but I refused to fall without a fight. I raised my dearly departed love’s Desert Eagle, and let off the first shot of the day.