I felt David lean over me from behind, his breath brushing my ear as he whispered.
"How many and where?"
I was laying in the grass, looking down at the abandoned mall below us. I clinched my teeth at the urge to speak. No, I couldn't; I should never speak. Instead, I reached back and took his hand. I tapped the Morse code he'd taught me on his palm.
Just on otherside; less than-
I stopped, stunned by what I was sensing. The rotters in the mall were dying. Dropping like flies as each one's presence disappeared from my mind in quick succession.
There are none. All killed. Fighters? I finished.
David stood up and helped me to my feet. He stood taller than me, about as tall as my dad had been.
"Let's go down. They might want to trade," David said. He pulled the camper's backpack on and handed me mine. It was a monk's style bag that I kept my few belongings in. I had tried taking the larger bag a few times when we'd first teamed up three winters ago, but he always made me give it back.
I followed him down the hill and we made quick time crossing the parking lot. We had to. Open spaces were both a blessing and a curse. Good because you could easily see what was near you; bad because anything hiding could easily see you too. We made it to the over grown shrubbery that bordered the mall. I headed towards where I had sensed the last rotter, David following a pace behind. The padding of feet hit my ears before David's and I grabbed his hand, forcing him to stop.
Feet. Toward us. Over 10. I tapped into his palm and then let my hand fall to my side.
We stood still, waiting for whoever would turn the corner and find us. This always made me nervous. You never knew which of the survivors were more prone to the 'shoot first, ask later' mentality.
The dark clothing was what I noticed first, and that they were all men. There were 13 of them, and all of them were armed.
"Hey!" one called out. He stood out in front of the rest, his hair still clipped short in military fashion. He was the leader.
"Hello," David said and I stepped back, putting on the show of submissiveness. No need for them to know I was more dangerous than I seemed, yet.
"Where y'all from?" the leader asked, shifting his weapon.
"We're drifters, just looking for a good place to settle away from the rotters. I'm David, and this is my daughter, Zoë."
The lie rolled off his tongue as easily as if it were the truth, and we were lucky enough to look somewhat alike. Our dark hair was just a little off, but the fact that his was graying a little at the temples let us off the hook. Any differences people called attention to, we blamed on my dead mother.
The leader looked us over, a cautious look on his face. "I'm Scott, we're from a compound east of here. Do you have items for trade?"
David nodded. "I have some sewing materials and I can also fix things. Zoë is a musician. I'd ask her to play for you, but out here it might draw them out."
I started to pull the flute's case from my bag but stopped. Every nerve in my body quivered, making the hair on my neck to stand at attention. I sent out a thought with power, into the empty shops and buildings around us. The sheer number of them in my mind made me clutch at my head.
"Zoë?" I heard David's voice, but I couldn't see him. The vision of the rotters was more powerful. It was the office building to the left, a block over. They were pouring out of it.
I looked up at David and took his hand, tapping as quickly as I could.
"What's she doing? What's wrong with her?" Scott asked, an edge of authority taking over his voice.
"She can't speak; it's like sign language." David said over his shoulder, then turned back to me. "Zoë, slow down, I can't understand."
It was too late. They were surrounding us. I threw off my bag and pulled out the small knife I fought with. David understood that, even if the others didn't. Scott's men took a step back from us, but David was already dropping his bag.
"Rotters!" He said.
"What?" Scott looked at us like we were crazy. "We just cleared this area-"
He stopped as he looked to see where I was pointing. A rotter stumbled out of an ally way, quickly followed by another and another. Scott turned, staring at me with that horrified awe that I'd come to recognize.
"How in the..." He began.
I shrugged, and ran through the men to attack the closest rotter. I used the knife as a decoy, my other hand finding its way to its greasy head. I spoke then, my voice barely audible to my own ears over the sound of fighting. The rotter's head exploded like an over ripe pumpkin. The body dropped as I moved on to the next one. I repeated the process over and over, blasting at their decaying bodies until I was left standing alone.
Scott and the other surviving men were staring at me. I turned away from them. I felt like a monster; cover in blood and guts, my chest heaving as if I was about to have some sort of fit, my own voice a ticking bomb.
I turned and went back to David, he stood next to our bags arguing in hushed whispers with Scott. I'd just killed an army of rotters, almost single handed. It was an amazing feat, no matter how I had done it, but...
There was always a 'but'.
I picked up my bag and slung it over my shoulder. I touched David's arm, interrupting his heated discussion.
Fuck'em. Let's keep walking.
I wasn't a rotter but I wasn't human either. I was something else entirely, and most humans had an issue with that. Hell, I had an issue with that.
I stalked off, not waiting to see if David was following me. I knew he would. He wasn't afraid of me like others were. Maybe it was because Jesse was with me when we first him.
Three years ago
The aisles were decimated, the store deserted. I kicked at an empty can and it clattered down the floor. My stomach growled for attention.
"Fuck!" I whispered harshly, then snapped my lips shut. The shelves beside me collapsed, the metal twisting at harsh angles trying to free itself.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. Concentrate. Remember, control.
"Z! You okay?!" Jesse came around the corner, a couple of dented cans in his hands which he quickly shoved into his backpack. His blondish hair hung past his thin shoulders, his blue eyes searching for what had made me speak.
Listening, I hoped the noise I'd made hadn't attracted any of them. So far so good. I nodded at Jesse and turned to searched the rest of the store. All I found was a forgotten can of peas. I put it in my bag reluctantly. I hated peas but food was food.
We left and walked down the street a bit, looking for promising stores that may have had something we could use. The weather was starting to turn cool, so a coat or blankets were on the top of my list. And of course, food was always a plus.
The virus had spread rapidly earlier this year. I know it's cliché, but normal life as you know it was just gone. Me on the other hand, I was enjoying my new found freedom. Even if it meant fighting for survival, at least I wasn't still locked up in that room.
"Z look! It's a hotel. Think there's anything left inside?"
I shrugged at Jesse. I didn't really feel like going in. Places like that were prime spots for the rotters to hang out. But, there was a good chance that there were some blankets in there, maybe even some food left. I pointed to us, then to the building. It was my way of saying "let's go there."
The hotel seemed as dead as the old grocery store. The lobby was full of trash that had blown in the open glass doors. We walked around, Jesse chattering non-stop about the stuff he was finding. I rolled my eyes and tried to keep an ear out for the shuffling noise rotters made when they walked.
I turned to look for Jesse, and he flew past me riding one of the dinning carts from the restaurant. I winced, the muscles in my shoulders tensing as I waited for what I knew would could next.
I stalked over to where he and the cart were entangled and punched him hard on the shoulder, giving him an angry glare.
"Oww! What was that for?!"
I pointed at the cart and shaped my hands like an explosion.
"I didn't mean to crash it," he sulked, trying to get himself free.
I just shook my head and started to turn, but stopped. On the other side of the lobby, stood a man. He held a shot gun up at us, but lowered it slightly as I turned.
"You kids okay?" he called to us. He was taller, older than us too. Late 30's maybe.
Jesse pulled himself to his feet, and I punched him again. This was his fault.
"Oww, Z, stop it,"
I shook my head, and gave him one last punch for good measure before turning to walk away.
I was about to walk out the front doors when that sensation hit me. The one that tensed all my nerves and muscles, making my body spasm and double over before I'd even registered what had happened. I heard running, and felt Jesse's hands on my shoulder.
I had my eyes closed tight, the pain in my head unbearable. I leaned against Jesse's chest, trying to hide my face from the light.
"Is she alright? She isn't sick, is she?" The man's voice was a little rough, as if he hadn't spoken in a while.
"It's just headaches. She gets the bad ones." Jesse's voice rumbled in his chest and I tensed to keep myself from whimpering. He was too close. I didn't want to hurt him.
"Migraines you mean." The man's voice was moving closer.
I pushed at Jesse trying to get away. I couldn't be this near to him, not while I was in so much pain. I didn't want to hurt him. Either of them.
I managed to take a few steps, before I stumbled. I grabbed on to the front door of the lobby, and another wave of pain hit me. I screamed, and fell. Shattered glass from the doors and windows around me flew, before I sank into darkness.
It was dark when I opened my eyes again. I woke up all at once, not used to the feeling of laying in a bed. Sitting up, I found myself alone in a hotel room. Where was Jesse? Why was I here?
I heard the murmuring of speech from the room next door. A deep voice I didn't recognise was speaking.
"I use to be in the army, retired about half a year before all this mess with the virus started. I used to have a family, friends. But, I'm alone now." The was a pause, then "How about you? How'd you two meet?"
"I first met her at the Center," I heard Jesse say. I crawled from the bed, inching closer towards the cracked door that separated the rooms.
"The Center was a boarding school for 'special' kids. At least that was the crap they fed the parents, to get them to leave us there. They'd also take in orphens and rough cases from the foster care system."
I peeked into their room through the crack of the door. The other room was a little larger and mostly bare of everything but the double bed that'd been shoved into the corner. They both sat near a fire that was burning in a small trashcan. Jesse had a blanket wrapped around him, and both of them had weapons within reach.
"The Center?" the man asked.
"In reality, it was a government run research facility that experimented on us." Jesse grew quiet for a moment, then said, "The things they did to us behind those walls, it makes surviving out here seem like a walk through the park. I'd only been there a few months when the virus started spreading. Soon, the younger kids started dying too. I saw that they'd been given the virus, I guess even they were looking for a cure. A few of us tried to escape; I didn't want to be the next one to die."
Jesse had never told me about this. I'd just thought he was suppose to be one of us; one of the dangerous kids that they watched closely.
"They caught me, though, and took me down to the lower level," Jesse's voice shook a little as he continued. "I was a flight risk now. I pretty much figured that just put me at the top of the list for the next shot of virus. But they shoved me in a room and locked me in. I remember taking a moment before releazing I wasn't alone."
The man dropped another piece of broken wood on the fire. It crack as the flames caught on.
"There were four others there in that room. Z was the oldest; she's about my age. Trev and Tiva, the twins who looked about ten," his voice softened, "and Elsa, who was four. They left me there, and never came back to give me the shot. But it wasn't long after that night that the rotters got into the school."
"What happened then?" the man asked.
"The alarms had been going off for a while. Finally, one of the doctors opened our door, he said we were leaving and to follow him."
"So you made it out then?" The man sat forward a little, listening to Jesse.
"No, not all of us. The rotters, they where everywhere. It wasn't long before we were separated from the doctor. The twins didn't make it, and Elsa - she was hurt."
I walked out of the room then, the guys looking up at me, startled. I shook my head widely.
Jesse caught on first, but he knew by now my rough way of signing. "'No' what?"
I raise my arm, biting at my wrist.
"'Bitten'? The little girl was bitten?" the man said, wide eyed.
I nodded, but Jesse spoke for me. "Yeah, she was feverish before the end of the day. And ...gone by the next."
I sat down near Jesse, gripping one of his larger hands in mine. He put his arm across my shoulders, hugging me close to him. He'd barely known Elsa, but he knew how close she and I had been just from the few days we'd spent together in that room. He knew how much pain her loss still hurt me.
"I was just telling David about the Center," Jesse said.
I nodded, and closed my eyes.
"Are you feeling better? The pain is gone now?" the man, David, asked.
Looking at him, he seemed alright. He reminded me of my dad, the doctor that had looked after me. He'd died trying to save us from the rotters in the end.
I shrugged, but then nodded once.
He stared at me seriously, and I could see the question forming in his eyes that I knew I wouldn't want to hear. "Did your voice really cause all that damage to the glass?"
I looked away, avoiding his gaze.
"Did you-" he started again.
"She doesn't like to talk about it," Jesse said quickly, earning a glare from David in return. "Honestly, would you? The government experimented on us. I was lucky, I'd only been there a few months, and the 'treatements' they're giving me weren't too serious. But Z -"
He glanced at me, asking permission. I nodded. What could he do? Kick us out of his hotel? Oh well.
"Z had been there her whole life. As far as she could remember they'd been messing with her. Operations, injections, testing. They were- "
"And how do you know this if she can't speak?" David interrupted.
Jesse smiled, "We've had a long time to play 20 Questions, and she can write. There's just not always something to write on."
David sighed, sitting back to stare at the fire. After a long silence, he asked, "Are you heading anywhere in particular?"
I shook my head as Jesse said, "The surviver groups and compounds, they're not really nice to people like us. Add in Z's explosive voice, and we're outcasts really."
My eyes narrowed, and I turned to punch him, but David's quick laugh caught me off guard.
"Well, it may not mean much to you, but I'm happy to know I'm not the only human left alive in this city. We should stick together and conserve our resources, -if you want to of course."
I could hear the longing in his voice. Even if I'd managed to freak him out, his loneliness was overcoming his fear.
Jesse looked at me again asking, without words, what I wanted to do.
I glanced around, and after reaching for my bag, pulled out the worn hard plastic case that was inside.
Jesse smiled, and settled back wrapping his blanket tighter around him where he sat. "We'll stay with you, for now at least."
I popped the locks open, and queitly assembled my treasure. My only form of freedom while I was in the Center. My flute.
David looked startled at first, as if he were going to stop me as I lifted the silver tube to my lips. Here I would need to play softly. The rotters wouldn't hear it, there weren't any close enough. I knew this, but I wasn't sure how though.
It was that part of my head, the one that was always sore after the 'killer headaches'. Now, with that sore part of my mind, I could just barely feel them. I could sense each the rotters that were hanging around. I knew where they were, where they were moving towards. I hadn't felt this before.
W-what if the experiments they where conducting on me at the Center were still active in some way? Still progressing without the doctors having to instigate any of it?
I pushed the thought aside, and focused on the song I was playing. As long as we were safe tonight, I'd worry about my 'otherness' tomorrow.
The park was blissfully quiet. I dipped my hand into the stream, and used the cool water to wash the blood from my face and arms. That night had been so long ago, and thinking back to it only reminded me of what I was missing.
Starring into my reflection, I watched a tear slide down my cheek, and make ripples across the water.
My grief for Jesse grew more and more, everyday. How was I suppose to continue without him?!
I clamped down on my emotions hard. I couldn't cry here, and I didn't want David to see me crying again. I splashed more water on my face, scrubbing hard.
When I turned around, he was staring at me with a guilty look. Like he wanted to apologize for something. I couldn't imagin why. None of this was his fault. Not the experiments at the Center, or other survivors not liking me. Not even Jesse's death was his fault.
No, that was mine.
Jesse had made me promise with his last breath, that I'd keep going. He made me promise to find a place for myself in this broken world. He didn't want me to spite what I was, he'd wanted me to accept it.
Walking over to David, I tapped his arm in code.
Let's get moving.
I wasn't going to find peace with myself here.