The pouring rain was putting a serious damper on Dal’s mood. Every muscle in his body was stiff as bone, his shoulders were hunched up pointlessly and his was head bowed against the wind. The tension in his body was exhausting him. He felt extremely high-strung, like he could go off on the slightest trigger. He wouldn’t try not to, obviously, but he hadn’t felt quite like this since he’d had his little fight with Nick when they’d first met.
He was sure that it was the rain that was making him feel like a time bomb. But he wouldn’t be surprised if Rochelle’s paranoia was also adding to his hair-trigger temper. Even more than Coach’s constant questioning of Dal’s state of mind, Rochelle’s fear of him was cause for both anger and incredulity and hurt. As the rain started pouring down harder, Dal wondered what he would have to do to convince them that he wasn’t dangerous. He felt a hand grab his arm, pulling him back slightly, and turned to find the source of the pressure. It was Nick.
“Slow down!” He called over the sound of the torrential downpour, “I don’t want to lose track of you!”
Dal nodded as obviously as he could with the tension in his neck, hoping that Nick could see the movement. He dropped back, taking one of his hands out of his pocket and wrapping his fingers around Nick’s forearm as lightly as he could. The man didn’t reject the contact, and Dal’s stomach flipped slightly with a mixture of happiness and anxiety. Now the the rain was getting direct contact with his skin, and it only made his tension worse. But he fought it, ignored it as best he could, and plodded on with Nick by his side.
Nick was a conman. He hadn’t known that until the man had mentioned it more or less in passing to Ellis. Nick was, in essence, a criminal at heart. Dal wondered what kind of life he’d lived – obviously, it had been at least a partly violent lifestyle, just considering that he had “killed people before the Infection hit.”
The wind was howling loudly in his ears. This storm was probably the edge of a small hurricane, like Ellis had suggested. Or maybe it was just a really bad typhoon or something. Either way, he wished it would stop. He couldn’t pick up on the scent of gunpowder from the occasional shots fired, he couldn’t hear the approaching crazies, and he couldn’t see much of anything.
He glanced back behind him to do a check on the group, just to make sure everyone was still present. Coach was scowling through the rain, Ellis’ face was screwed up against the wind, and Rochelle had a hand up to shield her face against the harsh downpour. Nick eyes were forward, his movements stiff – he looked very tense, and Dal could guess why. Nick seemed like the kind of person who had probably lived the kind of life that produced a danger-sensitive foresight. Assuming that he hadn’t been exaggerating earlier about his comfortable relationship with violence, that is.
He heard Nick holler something, but he didn’t quite hear it. He lifted his head in time to see a horde of crazies running towards them – their had to be at least two dozen, maybe more, headed for them. What trap wire had they tripped?!
He took a step back, fully understanding that, as the one person without a gun, he ought to try and stay out of the way mostly to avoid getting shot.
Gunfire filled the air, and Dal pulled his hunting knife out of its holster at his hip and waited patiently for his turn. He scanned the area even as he slashed a few crazies and socked some others in the skull. He wanted to make sure that none of the Super Crazies came along and blitzed them. Nick and the others called them “Specials” but, in Dal’s opinion, Super Crazies was more fitting.
As he was turning to jam his blade into a nearby throat, he heard a sharp cry that lasted about a second before it was cut off. He recognized it immediately as Rochelle and the start made him pause long enough to get socked in the face by some asshole. He shoved the guy away, his eyes darting about for Rochelle’s distinct pink shirt, blocking out Nick’s calls to seek out her voice.
He spotted her and, forgetting about the horde (which seemed to be getting larger), he took off after her, pushing and shoving through the crazies. She was being dragged off by that one with the long tongue – Nick called them Smokers, which seemed like an apt enough title for the musty-smelling things. He could faintly hear Nick (or maybe Ellis) calling for him and Rochelle over the roar of the rain and the howling wind, but he blocked them out entirely, his attention focused on rescuing the one survivor who was most afraid of him.
The Smoker had pulled her to his feet and was kicking at her chest as she lay there, eyes bugging out and breaths coming out in wheezy, choking gasps that he could barely hear. He launched himself into the Smoker, his knife coming up with the intent to lop off the thick, slimy tongue. With his knee digging into the swollen, tumor-covered throat, he grabbed the tongue, but couldn’t get a good enough grip to hold it while he cut it. The rain was making it even wetter and slimier than normal. The last time he’d had to deal with one of these…
Last time, you were the one all wrapped up and you were able to rip out its tongue.
Without thinking about it, he lifted the knife and plunged it into the open mouth, twisting it and jerking it back and forth until he felt the tension in the tongue he held with his other hand suddenly give. The Smoker was dead and the tongue was severed. Easy enough. He clambered off the bloody corpse and moved over to Rochelle as he fumbled with his knife to get it back into it’s holster. She wasn’t moving much, and his heart stumbled a bit in fear for her life. He crouched down beside her and, moving as carefully as he could, started unraveling her from the thick tongue. Then, noting that her breathing was still extremely shallow, he grabbed her shoulder firmly and shook her just a bit. She jerked, taking in a huge breath and choking on it and she regained consciousness. They didn’t have time to wait for her, though – the others could start looking for the two of them and end up heading the completely wrong direction.
When Rochelle saw him, she stilled, eyes wide like a deer in headlights. He didn’t exactly have the time or patience to be docile and quiet and kind and all that nonsense. He grabbed her by her bicep and hauled her to her feet, at which point she immediately moved to pull away. Dal, however, did not let go. He tugged her along, indicating with mild force that he had no intention of letting go of her and that they needed to get a move on.
“I can-… let go…!” She requested rather loudly, trying to pull her arm away. Dal turned to look at her, his expression – he hoped – as sour as his mood had turned. She halted her ministrations and clenched her fists, “Let of me, y… Just, let go!” She had almost called him something nasty, he was sure. He wondered only briefly why she had changed me mind.
He clenched his jaw briefly, loosened his grip just a little, and then started walking, nearly dragging her along because she was so keen to not be dragged that she was willing to slow them down and be dragged. Along the way, he stooped to grab her gun, deciding not to give it to her until they had found the others.
“Give me that,” She requested, “You-… You shouldn’t have it.”
He looked at her again, this time a properly infuriated glare. She clamped her mouth shut and flinched away all in the same breath. He huffed out a breath and went back to dragging her.
Dal kept his ears peeled, looking around, trying to spot Coach’s familiar purple or Ellis’ pale yellow. He hoped that they hadn’t decided to head off to the nearest safe room to wait for the two of them. Dal was not interested in traveling with Rochelle.
Finally, they tripped over a couple of bodies, and then a dozen or two. He let go of Rochelle, looking around numbly to make sure none of the corpses belonged to Ellis, Nick, or Coach. They had gone ahead to the next safe room. He cursed his luck at the sky, turning to Rochelle again. She was looking around, her arms wrapped around herself. She was probably freezing. He’d be damned if he was going to give her his hoodie, though. She probably wouldn’t even take it.
He swallowed, walking over to her. She startled and looked over at him, eyes widening slightly. He slowly held out her gun, offering it back to her. He wasn’t going to travel with her if she was unarmed. That’d complicate everything, especially if he was carrying her weapon. He doubted she could fight.
He looked around, peering through the rain as it started to let up, found the familiar set of houses they had been walking towards, and glanced at her again. He tilted his head in the direction they needed to be walking in and started moving.
She didn’t say anything, wisely, because he was sure that another word out of her mouth would have him mauling her.
No, don’t think like that. He scolded himself severely, she doesn’t need any actual reason to be afraid of you.
It’d be nice if she stopped treating me like a highly dangerous psychopath, though.
Rochelle, he was sure, wasn’t a bad person. In fact, he could bet on many things that she was probably a good person. A zombie apocalypse was something that could wipe out many forms of prejudice while simultaneously producing a bunch of new prejudices. It would ruin a society but it would bring individuals together. Really, it was like any horror film about the end of the world.
The woman had obviously had bad experiences with the Grudges. Or maybe they just frightened her on a visceral level, developing those kinds of phobias that weren’t necessarily illogical but still ought to be reasoned with and overcome. Like hydrophobia or arachnophobia. Too bad this particular group didn’t have a resident psychotherapist. They could all probably use one.
That didn’t excuse her habit of thinking of him as a dangerous “Hunter” (Grudge), though.
The rain had let up significantly since they’d starting this expedition, thankfully. It was still a decently heavy rain, but it wasn’t the torrential downpour from five minutes ago. Basically, he could see now. He raised his head, looking around for signs to the nearest safe room. It was more than likely that the others had headed in that direction, and even if they hadn’t gotten that far, they would probably see Rochelle and Dal walking by and call out to them. Hopefully. Assuming they were paying any attention. The two of them had been walking for a while now with no signs of the rest of their party. He hoped that they wouldn’t have to turn back.
The sound of anguished crying reached his keen ears and he slowed his pace considerably. Someone was hurt? He looked around curiously, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. Obviously, someone was either injured or frightened and needed some assistance. He wouldn’t mind being the kind individual to provide it.
Just kidding, Rochelle would have to be the provider of kindness, since obviously no one would trust him.
His sarcasm flared up alongside the part of him that was bitter and angry at the world. He smothered it, wondering where the hell the emotional roller coaster had come from. Rochelle came to a sudden stop beside him and he turned to her, confused. Why had she stopped?
She looked at him, eyes distrusting, “That’s a Witch,” she whispered, more to herself. She glanced over at him nervously, “Ju- uh… Follow me.” She probably just didn’t want to be murdered by Nick, and so would be so kind as to spare his life. He nodded mutely. She diverted her gaze to the ground and then to the world in front of her and started moving, her eyes darting about as she searched for the Witch. He and Nick had encountered one of those before, but he didn’t recall the sound of her crying before they’d fallen on top of her. Either way, he decided he would trust Rochelle’s judgment. He didn’t like those things.
They moved away from the sound of crying, only to encounter the sound of more crying. Rochelle looked somewhere between horrified and bewildered at the revelation that there were several Witches hanging around the area. Dal was beginning to think that they had gone too far – they’d been walking for probably fifteen minutes now with no sign of the others. It hadn’t taken him that long to track down Rochelle, save her, and bring her back to the location of the others.
So they were going to have to backtrack, obviously. The problem was going to be adequately portraying those thoughts to Rochelle and being understood.
He reached out and tapped her shoulder, deciding that it wasn’t a big huge deal that she jumped visibly. She turned to him, looking like she was about to ream him out, but she stopped herself. He could practically see the moment she thought “he might kill me if I yell at him,” and he could’ve screamed. Actually, he might’ve been pretty pleased with her progress if she had screamed at him.
She stared at him, looking wary. He sighed slightly. He held up three fingers – something that required both hands – and indicated the direction they had been coming from. She stared at him for a long, long time, and he could see that she had no idea what he was trying to say to her. He looked skyward, letting out a loud, annoyed sigh before turning back to her. He turned around, facing the direction they had been coming from, and started walking.
“Where is i-… are… what are you doing…?”
Dal decided not to comment on her obvious backtracking. He beckoned her to follow him, but she seemed dead set on not doing what he wanted her to do. He was tempted to pick her up and carry her, but he decided against it. He turned around again and walked back over to her, gesturing broadly in the direction they’d been coming from. That way. It’s that way. You stupid woman.
“That… that’s not the right way.” She said, and he could tell she didn’t want to be interacting with him like this. It seemed to be putting a huge strain on her. This was impossible. He shook his head, shrugged, and gestured in what he hoped was clear terms – “lead the way!“ Rochelle pursed her lips against something she would probably have directed towards Nick or Coach, and turned away from him, taking a detour through a house – evidently to avoid the Witches that were converging on the area before them.
She ransacked the house, but didn’t find much of anything that wasn’t soaked or otherwise useless. She swore loudly throughout the house and the noise made Dal want to cringe – she obviously didn’t quite understand why Nick had insisted that they remain as quiet as possible. She wasn’t an idiot, she was just one of those thoughtless types. Probably. Or maybe the frustration was just getting to her. She’d been pretty quiet up to this point.
“I’m freezing,” she muttered more to herself than to Dal. He frowned. She had been shivering a lot since he’d saved her from that Chainsmoking bastard. They walked into a house a few doors down – this one with two stories, and Dal did the honors of heading upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, and ransacking the master bedroom. He found a Northface jacket that looked to be waterproof. Perfect.
He leaped back down the stairs, finding Rochelle trying to shove ammo into her pockets. He held the jacket out to her. It was a soft blue, and he thought it was quiet nice. If memory served, Northface was one of those stupidly expensive brands that made the same stuff as everyone else, just for a ridiculous price. Like Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch.
She stared at it, looking uncertain – if not downright anxious – about the offering. She took it from him anyway, looking it over. In the end, she put it on wordlessly. He scowled slightly, but she didn’t see.
You’re welcome. Bitch.
It was another block before they actually found the safe room. Rochelle opened the door and stepped in, Dal right behind her. As he had suspected, the others were nowhere in sight. He kicked the door shut behind him, stepping aside in case she decided she wanted to lock it.
“Where are they?” Rochelle asked the walls. They didn’t reply. He glanced down the flight of stairs to see if maybe there was any sign of them, but no, nothing. They probably hadn’t even gotten there yet.
“Maybe I out-walked them,” she suggested to the small pile of ammo on a counter top, and Dal looked over at her, that’s what I was saying earlier, you-… “They might not have gotten this far yet. I’ll just have to wait.”
Dal frowned at her, then shrugged with his good shoulder. It’d be best to just wait, he supposed. He wasn’t particularly interested in spending boatloads of time with Rochelle, bu he’d rather be stuck with her for another twenty minutes than be lost in Ducatel.
Rochelle got up on the counter, drawing one of her knees up to her chest, one hand resting gingerly on her gun. He did his best to not think about the way it was angled towards him, or the way her fingers seemed to twitch towards the trigger every time he shivered or moved suddenly, or the way her eyes were trained on him like he was some wild animal that needed a cage. He turned wordlessly, pulling the door open and stepping outside, making sure to pull it back shut behind him.
Dal sat down in front of the door, knees against his chest, and stared out at the road, waiting. He wasn’t getting poured on by the rain. He wasn’t all that uncomfortable. He wasn’t even all that cold, despite how soaked he was. Dal had spend a fair amount of days and nights in almost exactly the position he had found himself in now. He couldn’t even count the number of times his parents had forgotten he wasn’t in the house and simply locked him out when they went to bed. He’d slept outside in similar conditions, actually.
“Just get rid of him!”
Dal had no idea why he hadn’t run away from home sooner. It had been obvious since, since… since he was five that he didn’t belong with his parents. They didn’t seem to believe that he loved them, and clearly his presence had done nothing but make them miserable. They had given him the hints. He’d just been too afraid to take them.
He buried his face in his arms. He had hoped, early on, that he would look in the paper one day and see his picture in the “Missing Children” sections. That maybe his parents would notice his absence. That they might worry just enough to want to make sure he was alright. He had checked every Wal-Mart bulletin, every newspaper that came out, but nothing.
“I didn’t want children in the first place!”
“If he doesn’t want to be with us, then just get rid of him!”
He had tried so hard to prove that he loved his parents, even with all their flaws. He had tried, he had really tried to be a good son and then a bad son, but he had never stopped trying to prove himself to them. What was so reprehensible about him, that it drowned out his affections for his parents so they couldn’t tell he cared for them? What would he have had to do to get them to understand that he did love them? What would he have had to do to get them to see him and love him? He would’ve taken every physical manifestation of their frustration over the constant feeling of being ignored and unwanted.
“I’m just tryna to do what’s best for all of us, and you should damn well know that!”
It wasn’t just his parents who hadn’t wanted him around, either. This new setting he had found himself was almost the same but in many ways still different. The ignorance had been replaced with hatred. The forgetting had been replaced with a hyper-awareness that was both insulting and uncomfortable. He didn’t belong here, either. He was beginning to wonder if he’d ever belong anywhere.
A shivered rolled through his body, but it wasn’t from the chill in the air. He coughed slightly around his tense throat, swallowing down his misery. He hated this feeling the most – since turning, controlling his thoughts and emotions had becoming akin to a war against himself. He commandeered his thoughts away from where they were headed as strongly as he could and with the best of all distractions: Nick.
Nick did care about him. His actions showed that he cared more than his words ever would, that was for sure. The man worried about him, thought about him when he wasn’t around, stuck up for him… Those were traits of someone who cared about the other person in any relationship. And Dal wasn’t going to take Nick for granted, not in a million years. No one had ever treated him “well” (by the textbook definition), and the conman certainly didn’t seem like the type to be the first, but it was really the little things that showed Dal how much Nick did care.
Nick had indicated that he wasn’t a nice person more than once. He had proven in his own wordless ways that he was, in fact, a pretty terrible person, at least in his own eyes. And honestly, Dal didn’t really doubt him for a second. The guy was an asshole. But, at the same time, he was thoughtful and cared about Dal to whatever extent he was capable. So, even if Nick had never done a respectable thing in his life, even if Nick didn’t have a nice bone in his body, for him to show Dal the level of care that he did…
To call it kindness was an injustice, at least in Dal’s head.