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King and Sarah
Charleston, South Carolina
I have to squint against the brilliant sunlight when I peer through the small break in the curtains. The once busy streets of Charleston are deserted. Trash blows down the sidewalk, and in the distance I catch sight of a horse. Trotting down Market Street like he’s in his glory days, pulling a carriage full of tourists through the city. I can't help wondering who let him out. Maybe it was the owner of the tour company. It's possible they let the poor creature out when they realized the end was near. Or maybe some good Samaritan did it when they passed by the stables and saw the animal trapped. I'll never know for sure of course, but either way the horse is screwed now. What was probably done as a kind gesture is a death sentence for the animal.
“See anything, Sarah?” King says from behind me.
I step back and pull the curtains across the window, taking a second to make sure the fabric is secure before turning to face King. His dark hair is so long now it touches the collar of his sweatshirt. I’ve never seen it this shaggy, and we’ve known each other since we were two five-year-olds, digging through the dirt in our backyards. Passing mud pies through the chain link fence that kept us apart. He’s thinner now, and his brown eyes don’t twinkle. There used to be more life in King. Probably in me too, if I'm being honest.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “The streets are empty.”
King swipes his hand through his hair and chews on his bottom lip. He glances toward the window a couple times like he's considering looking out, but he doesn't. Probably doesn't want to start another fight. There have been too many lately. "Where the hell did they all go?” His voice shakes, but I can’t blame him for being scared. King isn’t a coward. Fear is inevitable when you’re facing the dead.
“My guess? Out of the city to find food." I kick at an empty can on the floor as if to point out the fact that we've run out. Like King doesn't already know. "You and I have to be the only two idiots left downtown. Everyone else got smart and got out.”
King’s whole body jerks at my harsh words, and regret twists inside me. As if there's a rope coiled around my stomach. King and I have had this argument so many times it’s lost all meaning. There's no point in rehashing the whole thing. The decision was made and we can’t go back in time and undo what was done. We have to move forward. Work together as a team. That’s what will keep us alive. And it’s what we promised to do only two short months ago.
“I’m sorry,” I say, putting my hand on his arm. “I didn’t mean it.”
King’s brown eyes move to where my hand rests on his arm. The tips of my fingers brush against his firm bicep, and the muscles flex under my touch. There was a time when the contact would have set us both on fire. Before the virus, before the death, before the bodies rose. Back when things were simple and being together was out of want, not necessity.
Those days feel like a dream now.
He flicks his arm just enough to make my hand fall away, then takes a step back. The space between us has grown so much over the last few weeks that it feels wider than the Grand Canyon now.
King grabs his backpack off the ground and throws it over his shoulder. “We should move out while the coast is clear.”
He doesn’t meet my gaze, and I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t feel like a knife in my heart. After everything we’ve been through over the past two months, I can’t be shocked that so much damage was done. Too much. I’m afraid things will never be the way they were again.
“Yeah.” I sigh, just to let him know it all still hurts. That the pain of our rift hasn’t faded and I haven’t lost all hope of repairing the damage. He still doesn’t look my way.
Can I really blame him? No. I can't.
He heads to the door while I rake my fingers through my auburn hair. I twist it into a knot, then secure it with a hair tie. It’s tangled and probably not pretty, but it will keep the curls out of my face. I don’t want anything obstructing my view while we’re out there. It’s too dangerous.
“Come on, Sarah,” King snaps. “We have a very limited window here.”
I swallow down my anger and silently count to five, just like I remember my mom doing when I was little and she was annoyed. The promise I made to myself rings in my ears: I will make everything up to King. All of it.
“I’m coming,” I say, working to keep my tone even and calm. Non-confrontational.
When I turn to face King, his eyebrows are raised. Almost like he’s shocked I didn’t bite his head off. Again, I can't blame him. I've been too much of a bitch over the last few weeks to expect anything else.
“Okay,” he whispers.
King grabs the aluminum baseball bat leaning against the wall, then cracks the door. He sticks his head out, checking to be sure the coast is clear before pushing the door open the rest of the way. He nods in my direction without really looking at me, and heads out. I’m right behind him, carrying the only weapon I have. A butcher knife taken from the kitchen. It doesn’t make me feel very secure.
I’m right on King’s heels when we head down the stairs. They're rickety and creek under our feet, and even though it isn’t very loud it still sends my heart into overdrive. The sooner we can get out of the city the better. It makes me too jumpy.
We pause at the bottom so we can check the street once again, but it’s still clear of the dead. It doesn’t ease my worry, though. I hate not knowing where they are. It reminds me of the feeling I used to get when I watched horror movies. Knowing the killer lurked somewhere in the shadows, but having no idea when he would jump out. Only I wasn’t really in danger then. Not like now.
“It’s clear,” King says, even though I can see the street too and he knows it. It makes me feel a little better. We’ve barely spoken the past week and it's starting to get to me. He’s hurt and pissed and so am I, but I don’t like things being this way between the two of us. It feels more like the end of the world than even the killer virus and zombies.
He doesn’t give me a chance to respond. He shoves the door open, gripping the bat tightly in his hands. Then he steps out and I’m only a second behind him. The air is cooler than I expected, and there’s a slight bite to the wind as it whips down the street. The sun is bright though, making me squint. I shield my eyes with my hand—the one not holding the knife—but it only helps a little. We haven’t been outside for weeks and the apartment we were hiding in had poor lighting. It’s going to take some time before my eyes are fully adjusted.
“Ready?” King says in front of me.
I nod because my throat is so tight it makes talking impossible. King takes off and I do my best to pry my eyes open so I can follow him. He trots down the sidewalk in front of me, almost on his toes. He’s doing it to make his footsteps as light as possible, but for some reason it makes me think of a ballet I saw when I was little. The Nutcracker. My mom took me at Christmas time when I was only seven, and at the time I was positive it was the most magical thing I’d ever see. I’m not sure I was wrong.
In the distance a dog barks, and I’m pretty sure I can hear the clopping of the horse’s hooves on the road. Otherwise, the world is deathly silent. My eyes slowly adjust as I follow King through the deserted city, making it possible for me to really take in the full extent of the destruction. The stores we pass are empty shells, with shattered windows and bare walls. The looting started around the time the virus got really bad. When police were too sick or overworked to keep up with it. Then the world died and the people who came out scavenged what they could, not caring how much they broke in the process. We were among them. King and I, along with the rest of our group. Other survivors we had banded together with once we realized we were not going to die a horrible death from the virus. We thought we’d been through the worst of it, but we were so wrong.
If only we had left the city then.
“Pst,” King says, grabbing my attention.
He jerks his head to the left, then darts across the street. I follow with my heart beating so fast it threatens to explode. I was so lost in my memories that I wasn’t paying attention, and I can’t do that again. It will get me killed. I need to stay alert. Keep my eyes and ears open. Always be on the lookout.
Once we’ve crossed the road, King turns onto Calumet Street and picks up the pace. The parking garage we left our rental car in is only a short distance away now. All we have to do is get there and we’ll be okay. No. Not okay, but better off. I’m not sure okay is something we’ll ever be again.
We reach the concrete building and King pauses. He’s panting and his bat is up, ready just in case, but his eyes are big and I can tell just by looking at him he’s listening. For trouble or any indication someone else is around—living or otherwise. I hold my breath and wait, scanning the streets. We’ve yet to see a single zombie and my nerves are on-edge.
“It sounds good,” King whispers. “Stay close. We only have to make it up to the second floor. That’s it.”
I swallow and try to force words out, but they won’t come. So I just nod and follow King into the dark building.
Every step we take echoes across the open space. There are cars lined up as far as the eye can see, but the corners are so dark I’m positive something evil has to lurk in them. King heads for the stairs, and I strain my ears. Somewhere in the distance there’s a constant dripping, like someone has left a faucet running. A cricket chirps and the scurrying of tiny feet alerts me to the presence of rats, but there’s nothing else. Nothing that sounds otherworldly.
We charge straight into the darkness of the stairwell, and I suck in a deep breath. The stench of urine is strong enough to turn my stomach, but the usual rot that comes with the dead is absent. Meaning we should be in the clear.
King doesn’t say a word. He barely even makes a sound as he rushes up the stairs in front of me. I’m certain my own steps are louder than a stampeded of elephants, though. Every pump of my legs causes my pulse speed up, but I can’t make my steps lighter. My legs feel heavier than lead. It’s been so long since I did anything other than sit in that damn apartment.
When we make it to the second floor, King barely pauses before rushing out. I don’t know why. He’s usually so careful. But I don’t hesitate to follow him even though I’m pretty sure my hair is about to turn gray from stress. He’s someone I trust with my life, so if King thinks the coast is clear, then it is.
“This way!” he hisses, moving to the right.
He runs faster now, and I have to struggle to keep up. My eyes dart around the dark parking garage like a ball in a ping pong machine, but I still don’t see a thing. Then the car comes into view and I have the urge to jump with joy. The little silver Honda we rented when we flew into Charleston two months ago is the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. That is, until King shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls out the keys.
We reach the car and he presses the button to unlock the door. The beep echoes through the garage and I crane my neck, searching for the horde that will most certainly come charging at the sound. There’s nothing, though. Not a single zombie.
“Get in!” King says, louder than he should.
He pulls the back door open and throws his bag in, and I do the same. Then I head for the passenger side while King climbs into the driver’s seat. Two seconds and we’re both in. Doors shut. Locked. A bead of sweat runs down the side of my face while I try to catch my breath, and I look toward King. He finally meets my gaze. He’s breathing just as heavily as I am, but he smiles. Then we both let out nervous chuckles that remind me of the good times. Back when I was sure he loved me and I thought we’d be together forever.
“We’re going to be okay, Sarah.” He grins again, then shoves the key in the ignition.
I let out a deep breath and lean my head back, closing my eyes while I wait for the beautiful purr of the car’s engine. I don’t have to wait long. King gets the car started and backs out of the space, and I open my eyes just as he puts it in drive.
He moves slowly through the darkness, carefully taking the turns as we wind our way out of the parking garage. The exit signs are hard to find with no lights, but we do our best to follow the arrows. Taking our time.
It isn’t until we reach the first floor that we spot the first one. A zombie wearing a bathrobe so stained and ripped it’s impossible to tell what color it used to be. Underneath the robe, the creature wears only a pair of torn underwear. His skin is rotten and covered in jagged tears that ooze black goo. When he reaches out to us with decaying hands, I notice he has a couple fingers missing.
“Don’t look,” King says, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. “We’re okay. We’re going to be okay.”
“I know.” I have the urge to put my hand on his leg, but I resist. He doesn’t want me touching him anymore.
We turn the final corner and come face to face with a horde so large that for a brief second I’m sure the entire population of Charleston has converged on us. Dozens upon dozens of rotten bodies block our way.
King slams on the breaks, then puts the car in reverse, swearing the whole time. I grip the door like I’m considering jumping out so I can run away. A stupid thought unless I wanted to commit suicide.
I keep my eyes focused on the horde in front of us while King does his best to make his way through the garage, but driving backward through the maze of cars is slow-going. He won’t stop swearing, and it gets louder as the seconds tick by. The bodies keep coming, following us like a group of teenage girls hot on the trail of Justin Bieber. They reach out for us, clawing at the air as they chomp their decaying jaws in our direction. As if they’re trying to take a bite out of us from ten feet away.
It feels like they’re moving faster than we are.
“Hurry!” I yell, unable to keep my mouth shut another second.
King lets out a particularly colorful string of profanities and glares my way. “You think you could do better? Yeah, of course you do. Sarah will save the day while idiot King leads the whole group off to be killed. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”
“That’s not what this is about!” I yell, pointing out the front window. The zombies are now so close I can see how many teeth they’re missing. Not enough.
“Right. I know what you—”
The car comes to an abrupt stop and the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass fills the air. I jerk forward, then slam back against the seat and let out a scream. When I look over my shoulder, I see the big, black SUV we slammed into. Hanging half out of a spot that was most likely made for compact cars.
King is back to swearing. He slams the car into drive, then hits the gas. We lurch forward maybe an inch, then a grinding sound echoes through the car. King doesn’t let up on the gas, and the smell of burning rubber stings my nostrils.
“Shit!” he screams, pushing harder on the accelerator.
The car groans and moves a little, but all that does is take us further into the horde. They surround us, banging on the hood. The doors. The windows. Even through the metal and glass I can hear their screams. I ball my hands into fists and dig my nails into my palms while my whole body shakes.
King finally gives up trying to get the car to obey. His hands drop to his lap and he doesn’t even bother putting the car in park. When he turns to look at me, his bottom lip quivers. “You going to blame me for this too?”
A sob shakes my whole body. “I’m sorry, King. I’m so sorry! I’ve told you over and over again. So many times that I feel like that damn recording they had playing on the TV when all this first started. I can’t say it anymore.”
“You said it enough.” The coldness in his words drowns out the screams of the dead.
Despite the panic building inside me, I don’t move. Neither does King. All he does is sit there staring at me with bitterness in his eyes.
The windshield fractures, bringing me back to the present, and my whole body jerks. King and I watch in silence as cracks spread across the glass, forming a spiderweb pattern on the windshield. It won’t be long now.
I twist my whole body to face King and take in a deep breath, trying to force myself to stay calm. Trying to block out the screaming and pounding. I take his hand, and even though he tries to pull away I hold onto it.
“Don’t let us go out this way,” I say. “We’ve been through too much.”
“I could take it from everyone but you, Sarah. You were supposed to have my back. You were supposed to be the one who stood by me no matter what.” His lip trembles and a single tear falls down his cheek. “I loved you. Love you still, but you destroyed me.”
My heart constricts and the pain spreads through me until it reaches my eyes. My vision blurs and I try to scoot closer, but there isn’t a lot of room. I take King's face between my hands, forcing him to meet my gaze. “If I could take it all back I would. I was angry and hurt and scared, and I needed someone to blame so I didn’t blame myself. I hate that I did that you, and I want you to forgive me. Please. Let the last few moments we have together be something amazing. We’ve had fifteen years of wonderful times. Playing in the dirt, going trick or treating, homecoming, prom, graduation—” My voice catches, making it impossible to get the last one out. The final amazing moment we had only two short months ago. “Please. Tell me you forgive me.”
The window behind King shatters and the stink of death fills the car. King’s eyes move toward the back, but my hands are still on his face. I won’t let him go until he says what I need to hear. I can’t watch him die thinking he hates me.
“King,” I say, pleadingly.
His eyes move back to mine and he covers my hands with his. In the back, a zombie tries to pull himself in through the window. King and I don’t even blink. We don’t look, and even though my heart is going a million miles a minute, there’s a peacefulness about this moment I didn’t expect. King has been with me for every significant moment in my life, it only makes sense he’d be with me when I faced the end.
“I forgive you,” he finally says, “and I love you.”
He pulls me against him and I squeeze my eyes shut. His lips touch my head as I twist the ring on my left hand. My fingertip brushes the smooth surface of the diamond, and even though I know I’m about to be eaten alive, I smile.
“Until death do us part,” I whisper, not even trying to hold back the tears. They run down my cheeks, burning my cool skin with their heat.
King’s whole body jerks and he cries out, but I don’t open my eyes. I grip him tighter as tears stream down my face and my body shakes. My fingers dig into his back so he can’t leave me. His screams ring in my ears and he tries to push me away, but I won’t let him go.
The window at my back explodes, raining glass down around me. When the first set of teeth sink into my flesh, the pain that rushes through me is blinding. More bites follow as I scream and writhe against King, trying to pull him closer. My own cries of agony mix with his until there’s nothing left in the world but pain and screaming and the rotten stink of death.
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