I dodge swiftly to my left, barely escaping the hand that claw wildly for my throat, I thrust upward with my dagger in an uppercut, lodging my knife deep into its skull. The other was quickly disposed of with a gunshot blast to the face, the kid never took his eyes off me, as I crouch down to retrieve my knife and wiped it on the dead man’s shirt.
This time when I approach him he didn’t run, he just stood there with those wide honey hazel eyes, holding the door open for me. The rest of the guys finally caught up to us, and none but Tzar bother to ask if I was okay, I guess they figured my mutation could handle any complications. I look to the boy before me, trying my hardest to ignore the smell of him, and gave the warmest smile I could muster.
“Hey kid, my name’s Loki, what’s yours?” I asked, crouching down to his level, extending out my open palm in greeting.
“Um.. I’m Kahlil.” He replied nervously, but he found the courage to take my hand for a firm shake.
“Are you here alone? Do you have a family?”
“Yea, there’s my uncle and my older brother, we were held up in the ‘Macy’s’ with a bunch of survivors on the other side of the building. We were here for the grand opening, my mum had dragged us all across town to be here for it, we had just left one of the other shops when suddenly the world ended.” His eyes grew sad at the mention of his mother, but he didn’t dwell, and continued to give account of his predicament. “I went roaming the back passages against my uncle’s wishes, and ran into some of the dead ones.. I’ve been stuck out here for three days.”
“Have any of your group been bitten or have been showing signs of infection?” Bloodhound asked sternly, causing Kahlil to look at me nervously, I just nodded to him.
“There is one guy.. He was bit by a rat or something a couple days ago, but he was okay as far I know.”
“Do the back passages lead throughout all the stores?” Husk asked, peeking inside with his gun raised, Kahlil just nodded as he watched the mercenaries case the hall before we entered.
“It’s clear you know your way around the place, so how about we make a deal.. We take you back to your group, and along the way we’ll only take what we need.” I said, bartering with the kid, and a smile cross his lips.
“Would you really?! I swear you guys can have whatever you need, I even know the best route to take.” He replied enthusiastically, as he lead us through the narrow corridors till we came to the first store, a ‘Burlington Coat Factory’.
You’d have thought Balthazar and I had lost our minds, we went running up and down the aisles trying on everything, even Jerry found himself compelled to roam. Husk and Bloodhound kept their guns raised at attention, expecting everything they could and couldn’t think of. I made sure to stock up on items for the winter season ahead, knowing space and opportunity were both limited, I grabbed several items for group. Next, we entered a ‘Footlocker’, and the retail mayhem ensued. After I settled on a couple Items, and kept looking around, until I found Balthazar in the storage room crying.
“Tzar, what happened?! Are you hurt?” I asked, worry causing my heartbeat to quicken.
“No, I’m not hurt..” He replied, sniffling, as he wiped his eyes.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“These are the the last Jordan’s that are ever coming out.. It just hit me, the world is really over.” He said, holding onto the metallic silver sneaker.
“You can’t be serious?”
“And they don’t even have a pair in my fucking size!” He screamed, throwing the shoe, and bursting into another round of tears.
I shook my head and left him to his tantrum, the reality hit us all differently, so I didn’t judge him. He came out a moment later fresh faced, sporting bright cerulean blue Nikes, and a new smile upon his face. He threw another pair in one of the shopping carts we had smuggled from Burlington’s, with no mention of what went on inside, so I didn’t ask.
Traveling through the next corridor brought us to the ‘Sporting Goods Store’, we didn’t find many bullets but along the wall was a display of Crossbows. I pulled down one that had a scope with night vision and a precision laser, it was awkward to hold, and the last time I had held a traditional one was as a kid in summer camp.
“What do you think you’re doing? You can barely hold it right..” Jerry said as he passed by me, he laughed in that dry irritating tone of his. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot ‘Home Boy’, this ain’t like the movies!”
As he walk away, I adjusted my grip, put a bead on my target and pulled the trigger. He screamed when the arrow caught pinned shirtsleeve into the cardboard display he was next to.
“Damn, I missed..” I said, snapping my fingers in disappointment.
“You motherfucking bastard! You could have hurt me!” He yelled in reply, as he attempt to free himself.
“Loki, Jerry! You two stay the hell away from each other, I mean it dammit! Como un grupo de niños locos!” Bloodhound demanded and complained, fed up with our bickering.
I gave the trapped spectacle bastard a smirk as I passed him, continuing on to the back of the store, I happen to chance upon a small handicapped section with an arm attachment for deer hunters, I immediately thought of Sera. Something like this could make her live easier, I had a strong belief she would make great use of it with an abundance of patience and practice.
I joined the rest of the group and we followed Kahlil’s lead to the next corridor. We traveled like that, store to store, getting closer to our destination, among the shops we pass through; an upscale pottery and furniture store, a bridal shoppe, a lingerie retailer, and a Jewelry store. When we got to ‘Banana Republic’ it finally occurred to me how large the mall actually was, the old map we had used, gave the impression that this was an old strip of small businesses before the renovation.
“This is about the most worthless mall in existence.. I can’t find anything I like!” Jerry complained, coming out of a dressing room with his arms full of clothes and accessories.
“How do you expect to carry any food? Your cart is twice as full as both of ours!” Tzar mused, looking at the brunette incredulously. “Did you even pick out anything for Karishma?”
“I think I saw one or two things I liked for her, though I don’t think I remembered to pick them up..” He replied sheepishly, looking over his treasures, I could only shake my head at his selfishness.
I was going to mention it to him but I felt someone tap me, it was Kahlil, standing there with a fearful look in his bright eyes.
“In the back is where I barricaded the doors from those dead ones, they were fast so I know they’re fresh, I think it was a group of guys who were trying to get in.. There are five or six of those vicious things in there.”
“Don’t worry kid, we’ll get you back to your people like we promised.” I reassured him, as the two mercenaries set about removing the barricade. “Tzar, I need you and Jerry to take these full carts back to the Betty, you think you can find your way?”
“Yeah, bitch. You know I can navigate a mall now, hunny!” He replied, as he depart with the full carts.
I talked with Kahlil, while we wait for them, the boy was telling me of his life before this. He was second generation American, born to the daughter of a Syrian refugee, who fled the Assad regime. Their family had just moved to the area, and owned a computer repair shop, closer to town. It took Tzar a little longer than expected to come back, but when Jerry and him returned, they blamed the hold up on Caiden and the Wolf fighting. Everyone in the group cut their eyes to me, and I knew full well what those looks meant, they did little to hide the judgement.
“Por el amor de cristo, we don’t have the time! We have our mission, let them handle theirs.. Loki, you’re taking point, while we get the door.” Bloodhound commanded, giving me a look that cautioned me to prepare myself, the thump of my heart could be felt in my chest as the adrenaline coursed through my veins.
I could hear the groans and moans of the dead, on the other side of the doors, they were getting riled up from our scent in the air. I gave the merc, the slightest of nods and they pulled the doors open, I burst into a sprint toward the first risen that came running out the door. She was fast, quicker than I anticipated, so we crashed in a collision of bodies and tumbled to the floor. I flipped us over till I was on top, and impaled my dagger into her eye socket.
As I stood up I could see the other two were advancing, the way they moved reminded me of a pack of wild dogs on the hunt, they seem to weave paths with such synchrony and cohesion even though one was missing an entire third of his upper torso. When the one on the right pounce high, the other slide low as if to take out my legs, it was clear these things were adapting and learning, some would even say evolving.
I launched myself high and dropped kicked the man soaring towards me, and as I landed, I brought my elbow down sharply on the woman sliding low. I had seen enough wrestling, but I was a little impressed with myself that I got move like that to work, there was sickening crack as her skull was breached under my weight. The other didn’t slow down, he came running at me, but I used his momentum to slam his head into the concrete wall of the corridor. I wiped my hands off on my jeans, and turned around angrily to the four men still standing outside the door.
“So it’s like that now?.. Where the fuck was the calvary? You twats could have joined the party at anytime!” Suddenly, faster then my eyes could see, Husk shot an arrow through a risen that had crept up silently behind me.
He smirked and arched a defined brow in my direction, as if he was waiting for a thank you, my response as I walked by was an eye roll. This time I insisted the two mercenaries lead the rest of the way down the corridor, I was done playing the bait, but before we could even move the commotion from the fighting must have brought the last two dead ones our way, both came sprinting sharply around the corner. Husk threw his knife, catching the closest one in the head, dropping him to the floor. While Bloodhound cloths-lined the other, sending him feet over shoulders, he crouch down and grabbed both sides of the clerk’s head, twisting sharply to remove its skull. Gruesome tactics, but much needed, to bring this boy back to his family and friends.
Khalil was grateful, he could barely express his words, and I could barely breath, as he hugged me tight. I pat his back gingerly, fighting the urge to vomit from the smell of him, the others just laughed. As he released me, he informed us that ‘Macy’s’ was on the other side of the luxury boutique coming up next. My eyes grew wide when we walked in, it had dresses that looked straight off the high fashion runways of Milan, New York, and Paris.
I had to grab a dress for each of the girls, something nostalgic compelled me, and I thought of how Tzar reacted earlier. Looking around this small boutique was like a snapshot of the culture we lost, there would be no more seasons of fashion, no more movies at the theatre, no more music for wide release.. It was all really over. Khalil lead us down the last corridor, and we came to a locked double door, the kid pounded hard as he could on the cold metal.
“Uncle! It’s me Kahlil! Please, open the door, I’m not infected!” He screamed, but there was no answer, he beat the doors even harder. “Hadji, Brother!? Why won’t you answer me?!”
An eerie silence was the only reply, and that was soon broken by Khalil’s soft sobs, I threw an arm over his shoulder to comfort him, moving him back so Husk and Bloodhound could go about opening the doors. They began to examine every hinge, crease, and crevice for weaknesses, but just when they had thought of a plan to get in, there was movement from the inside. The door cracked open, and a blonde woman with stern fearful green eyes, peered out at us. Behind her was an older stocky middle eastern man, with a thick coarse beard, he had Kahlil’s eyes.
“Kahlil, is it really you? What is that all over you, it smells foul?”
“Yes Uncle, it’s me, I sorry for disobeying you, I’ll never do it again!” The boy cried, his uncle looked ready to run to him but the woman held him back.
“You tell us the truth right now boy.. have you been bitten?” Kahlil shook his head no, but she was still skeptical of him. “Have any of those things touched you? What’s this stuff all over you?”
“If he was infected, he would have already turned into one of them.. the virus has only increased in ferocity and aggression, with barely any incubation period to speak of in most subjects.” I answered her, and it seemed they finally registered our presence behind the boy, her face grew slightly red and she seemed to concede.
“Is that so? Well then, just who the hell are you people and how do know that?” She asked in a snide tone letting the man pass to get to his nephew, after the two hugged, the boy turned to her and answered this time.
“They’re with the Government.”
The mall survivors had all grouped into the ‘Macy’s’ for obvious reasons, it was huge and had everything they could ever need, they even had the benefit of the food court tier built directly above it. With the buildings generator still functioning, this paradise was lit, comfortable, and warm for all twenty four of them to ride out the apocalypse like pampered kings and queens.
The collection of them consisted of mall employees, unfortunate shop patrons, and several teenagers who played hooky from school that day. When we met them, they were all gathered over ice cream and gourmet pretzels, save for three who were missing. Kahlil’s uncle informed us of the sick man, Carl, his sister Martha, and his wife Shannon.
“The poor guy was bitten by a big nasty rat, while they were in the back cooler of the gelato shop. Good thing we found it and killed it, because it gave him a bad infection..” The older gentleman explained, as he introduced us to their people, I offered to help anyway I could.
“I have some medical experience, would you like me to check in on him?”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary, his sister used to be a triage nurse, she won’t let anyone near him.” He replied, adamantly declining my assistance. “I do check on them daily, to keep them fully rationed, last night he looked alright enough, all things considered..”
“What has she diagnosed his ailment to be?” Bloodhound asked skeptically, it was clear he didn’t trust these people, no matter how innocent they appeared.
“His leg looks pretty bad, and she mentioned amputation as a last resort, only if it spreads. It’s been about a week now..”
“Forget about him, what about us, dammit!?” The crude personality, asking the question was Hadji, Kahlil’s older brother.
He was a tall drink of water, barely old enough to drink, and a stone cold fox. I looked to Tzar, and could see we were on the same page, the kid was fine as hell. The two mercenaries ignored him, but I felt like these people deserved some kind of explanation, even though I didn’t have the answers, I had information.
“I’m going to be real with you guys, there are only a few of our group actually government affiliated, so we aren’t here to save you. There’s no back up coming, and our leadership is in shambles, struggling to pull itself back together. Last we heard from Washington, the President and her vice were lost in the first wave of infection, most major cities have fallen as far as we know. The new president and her people have bunkered in an unknown location, and have constrained resources, so no one is coming for you..”
“What!?! What do you mean?” Screamed the blonde woman from before, she broke down on the shoulder of a salt and peppery brunette, who tried to console her. “I can’t live, trapped like this! I can’t stay here!”
“You folks should be grateful, there are people out there who would do a million dirty deeds to be sitting pretty in a spot like this, feel lucky and suck it up..” Husk told them, getting irritated with their grief.
“We are out here.. shut out in the thick of this, just like you, but we have a mission. There may be a way we can fix this, and save what’s left of humanity in the process. So there is hope, never give up such a saving grace, trust me, I’m someone who’s lost it all and I’m still unwilling to give up.” I said, trying to reassure their spirits, knowing hope was the only thing that would keep us alive.
They seem to take my words to heart, but I knew these people didn’t know how good they had it, so they would probably never understand what was at stake. Sheltered in this paradise, they were still in the mindset of the old world, they had no idea what horrors that wait outside. That’s when I caught sight of a freshly washed, and still slightly damp, Kahlil. He had his Uncle’s dusky tan complexion, that amplified the brightness of his amber honey eyes, this boy wasn’t like the rest, he understood this new world, and what it took to survive in it.
“I see you clean up nicely, kid..” I told him, ruffling his thick mop of soft black hair, we both laughed as he swat my hands away.
“I want to thank you guys again, for bringing my little brother back, safe and sound. He was truly missed..” Hadji said, coming up to all of us, giving each a handshake.
“Don’t mention it, it was the decent thing to do, considering we needed the supplies..” I replied, when he got to me, trying to remove my hand from his grip discreetly.
He was standing far too close to me, I could smell sweet cinnamon on his breath, and his handshake had gone on for an inappropriate amount of time.
“In that case, feel free to take anything here you so desire.” His eyes were darker than Kahlil’s, and more mysterious, it was hard to miss the lust that tainted his gaze. “You can even have me, if that would please you..”
“Um, thank you for the hospitality, but that won’t be.. I mean that wouldn’t ..um.” I stammered nervously, he had blatantly come on to me in front of everyone, leaving me caught off guard.
All of sudden, Bloodhound grip tight to my arm and damn near dragged me into the near corner, Tzar and the rest followed behind. He was hurting me, to the point I was going to say something, but he soon released me.
“What the hell was that shit Loki?! You just can’t keep’m off you, huh? Como un maldito succubus!..” The Hispanic accused, making my cheeks flush in further embarrassment.
“I didn’t do anything, I swear it, don’t even know how he clocked me? Usually Tzar is the spook..”
“Well, clearly you’re giving off more signals than a hooker in daylight..”
“Ok, now hold the fuck up, you wanna rewind that back?” I asked, ready to remind this bastard who he was talking to.
“Calm down y’all, remember where we at.. don’t make a scene.” Balthazar cautioned, as he separate us. “Look, it’s not Loki’s fault his milkshake is bringing all the boys to the yard..”
“Ya damn right!” I chimed in, giggling, before joining my cousin in a ratchet impromptu rendition of the chorus.
“Okay, enough, they are looking at us like we’re crazy..” The stern Hispanic commanded, trying to suppress his smile at our antics. “We should all split up to get everything we need. Tzar, you’re on food and beverage, Jerry, you check the back aisles, Husk, you the front. Loki and I will focus on diplomacy. Everyone has their orders, move out!”
As the group split, I expected us to head back upstairs to the food court, but the merc had other ideas. He ushered me somewhere out sight and hearing range of the survivors. It seemed he wanted to have words in private, and as always he was blunt and straight to business.
“You have everyone else fooled, but my keen eyes have never lied.. I know what you are, I can see what your becoming!” He spat, examining me up and down, as if this were his first good look at me up close. “You’re just like one of those things out there, only ten times more dangerous. You come in this seductive package, and for now everybody loves you, but what happens when the truth is revealed, and you finally turn? Who is gonna protect us from you? I’m convinced.. You, will be the end of us all!”