She stared at the names on the wall in the small room she called her own. There were very few personal touches in it. She didn’t anticipate that she’d be staying here forever, so she hadn’t bothered. A soft sigh escaped her lips, one hand reaching up to gently scratch at the scabbed over lacerations on her face.
One of them was dead. One of them had sent her away. One of them hated her. One of them deserved a heartfelt apology.
And if she ever found those three who she hoped still lived, she’d make sure to tell them all how sorry she was… about everything. She had been cruel. Unreasonable. She had been frightened, but that wasn’t an excuse. It hadn’t been fair.
She was sure they were alive, somewhere. She couldn’t imagine them getting killed by anything. One of them was an ex-hunter who could probably hit a penny with a sniper rifle from a hundred meters away. One of them had a history of criminal activity that gave him experience and skills that were rivaled by none. One of them was practically a Sherman tank when it came to powering through obstacles.
They couldn’t be dead. Not yet, anyway.
She glanced at the clock in her room, forgetting yet again that it was dead and needed new batteries. She was probably running late. That was no good. They had a lot of ground to cover, and while the door-to-door part would likely be intensely boring, she knew that her company would make it interesting. It was nice to have another woman to talk to.
She pulled on her black boots and holstered her pistol to her waist. She had been surprised when she’d discovered that any survivors who had encountered the infected and fought their way to rescue were being recruited to help with the “clean up.” A lot of the military didn’t know what they were dealing with, and when they’d discovered that, they had called upon any willing survivors for help.
She had originally volunteered because there were so few who had and she wanted to be helpful. After everything she’d been through, sitting around and waiting for the authorities to deal with the problem had been agonizing. Now, she had found that the fear she had felt towards the infected was disappearing quickly, and she was thankful for that. There were few of them left, and when they found one, they would administer the cure and hospitalize them so they could recover and receive the appropriate medical attention. Few of the infected had survived, most burning out from a fever or heat stroke, some dehydrating, many beating each other to death or being killed by survivors.
The death toll was immense. So many people had lost so many friends and family. So many mothers and fathers had lost their sons and daughters. So many children had lost their parents. So many people didn’t know whether or not their friends and family had survived, and so many had seen those friends and family shot or turned or butchered alive by infected.
So many people had died alone and sick and in pain.
It hurt her heart to think about it.
There was a sharp rapping on her door, “Rochelle! It’s time to go!”
She stood up from her bed, “Okay, be right out!” She called back, turning to look at the names she had written on the wall one last time. One of them was dead. Three of them were unaccounted for.
“Here’s hoping I see you today,” she whispered, walking over to her door and pulling it open, their names ringing in her head as she vacated the room.
Coach, Ellis, Nick, Dal.
It had been two hours and thirteen minutes since Megan had delivered the bad news, and it had been two hours and eight minutes since Dal had vacated the scene. It was painfully quiet in Nick’s room, the only sound coming from it was the sick conman’s fast and shallow breathing pattern. Occasionally, his expression would shift to one of discomfort, but he didn’t wake. Ellis didn’t know if he would ever wake.
He had gotten the impression that Nick didn’t have a whole lot of time. Megan would’ve been scrambling to try and combat the infection if he did. Well, Ellis was pretty sure she would’ve. When Dal had been sick, it hadn’t mattered to her how sick he got. So long as she could keep him alive for another night, she had hope.
Nick probably wouldn’t make it to the next sunrise.
He wondered if the man knew. He wondered if Nick had any idea how sick he was, how close to death he was. He wondered if Nick was panicking on the inside, or if he was blissfully ignorant of his impending demise.
For the first hour, Ellis hadn’t been able to handle it. Nick had already died once. He had come back to life that first time, but the scare had been the same for Ellis. He had mourned Nick silently, he had grieved the loss, he had gone through all of it, and managed to find himself on the other side.
He hadn’t thought he’d be able to do it again. Now, he felt almost like he could. The shock had faded away, leaving a hollowed, empty sort of misery that he remembered and hated. Megan had been staring at Nick dully, and Ellis knew she was blaming herself. All of them were. They should’ve been keeping an eye on Nick’s injury. Everyone had known that he’d been sleeping for the past three days and somehow it had never occurred to any of them that maybe he wasn’t looking after the wound.
If Ellis was the kind of person to genuinely point fingers, he could point them at all of them. And while he felt a certain, painful amount of responsibility for the outcome, he wasn’t pointing fingers at himself or anyone else. There was no point in blaming anyone. It didn’t matter if it was anyone’s fault.
Nick was dying. That, and all the things that it implied, was what mattered.
He heard a soft sound, closely followed by Megan whispering his name, and he lifted his head quickly. He looked to Megan first, but she was staring at Nick as if he were the most interesting thing she had ever seen. He turned his attention in the same direction, eyes widening. Nick’s face had grown more ashen, likely a result of him feeling pain as he slowly worked his way towards consciousness. His eyelids were fluttering occasionally, and he was shifting a little under his blankets.
“N-Nick?” Megan spoke up hopefully, looking like she might finally start to cry. Ellis’ fists were clenched on his knees so tightly, his blunt nails were digging into his palms. He waited, because that was all he could do. Megan called Nick’s a couple more times, and he could hear the mixture of hope and apprehension in her voice. She didn’t want him to wake because she didn’t want to have to tell him that he was going to die.
But at the same time, they both wanted to say goodbye.
Finally, after several minutes of what seemed like a grueling battle, Nick opened his eyes. He stared at the ceiling for a long moment, blinking hard. Ellis swallowed the lump in his throat, trying to contain himself even as his eyes started to fill with tears again.
Nick hummed something that almost made it past his lips, a completely incoherent series of syllables following soon after. Megan reached under the blankets and found his hand, and Ellis figured she was squeezing it to give Nick something to ground himself with. Whatever she had done, it seemed to do the trick, because Ellis could see the deliriousness fade from Nick’s eyes. He wasn’t entirely, fully operational, but he was more conscious than he’d been.
“Nick,” Megan spoke, her voice thick, “Nick, I… I’m…”
“Mm-mm,” Nick mumbled, shaking his head a little. “Meg, don’… s’not… your fault.” He said quietly, his voice sounding a little hoarse, his words a little slurred. He seemed to be hanging on to his consciousness by a thread.
“Do … d’ya want me t’get Dal?” Ellis managed around his aching throat. Nick shook his head again.
“Not… ’round… l’nng…” Nick tried to take in a deep breath, and Ellis could see how difficult it was for him. Megan had mentioned when she’d checked his pulse earlier that his heart was beating ridiculously fast, and it had been around that time that Ellis had first noticed had fast and shallow the man was breathing.
“I… never told ‘ny… one…” The conman’s voice was subdued, and Ellis had to lean in to hear him, “My name…”
Ellis’ heart leaped into his throat, and he gave up trying to contain his tears. “Nick…” He whispered, almost disbelieving. He wasn’t sure if Nick was coherent enough to be saying what he was trying to say, but if he was…
If he was, it meant that he knew he was dying.
His heart hiccuped in his throat, and Ellis had to swallow hard to get it to stop strangling him. Nick slowly turned his head to look at Ellis, and the hick could see the way his eyes were dilating. He really was hanging on by a thread, whether to life or just to his consciousness was debatable.
“My name…” Nick spoke again, staring at Ellis’ tear-streaked face. “I’ve never told anyone…” He paused briefly, and it was beginning to look like the simple act of giving them his real name was agonizingly difficult for him. The implications of that realization only furthered Ellis’ emotional distress.
“What’s your name, Nick?” Megan spoke, and Nick turned his head to face her. Ellis looked up at her, seeing her watering eyes and her trembling lip. He knew she was holding Nick’s hand, and he couldn’t help but wonder if Nick knew.
“Nicholas… James… Anderson…” He whispered, turning his gaze back to the ceiling. His eyelids were fluttering, and Ellis could see that he wasn’t going to last much more than a minute longer.
“Nicholas James Anderson,” He repeated back, and he watched as Nick’s eyes welled with tears that didn’t fall. He could see the regret in Nick’s eyes. He was probably thinking of everything he hadn’t done yet, everything he wished he hadn’t done, everything he could’ve done.
Nick’s eyes slowly closed, and Ellis couldn’t hold back the sob that made it out of his throat. He lowered his head, burying his face in his hands, and took several stabilizing breaths in an effort to calm himself down. He could hear Megan moving, but he didn’t look up.
“He’s not…” she mumbled. “He’s still got a… a pulse.”
Ellis nodded, but it didn’t really matter to him. It didn’t matter if he still had a pulse. It didn’t matter if he was still breathing. It didn’t matter that he was still alive. Not really, anyway. He would be dead before tomorrow, Ellis was sure. And if not by then, then surely within another day or two. He didn’t know how long it would take for the infection to start eating through his organs. It might be more merciful to just put a round through his head now.
It wasn’t like there was any hope left for Nick, anyway.
Dal had been on the verge of passing out when he heard a sharp knocking on the front door. For a moment, he didn’t move, uncertain about whether or not he was hearing things. Even if he wasn’t, he didn’t really want to answer the door. He could feel how swollen his eyes were, he knew they were bloodshot and rimmed with red, and his nose was probably tinted pink from the amount of crying he had been doing.
The knocking came again, and he weakly pulled himself up from his mom’s armchair. He didn’t want to answer it, but he ought to. Worst case scenario, he would have to kill someone. Dal crossed the living room and entered the smaller foyer, grasping the doorknob and opening the door.
Two women stood at the door. The one standing closest to him was wearing an expression that had obviously started as a friendly smile and was in the process of changing in response to how terrible he was sure he looked. She brushed a strand of ash blonde hair out of her eyes and opened her mouth to speak, but another voice cut in, prompting Dal to turn his attention to the other woman.
He wasn’t entirely sure what to think. First and foremost, he didn’t know who this first, bespectacled woman was. She looked friendly enough, but he didn’t know why she was at his home. Confusion wore at him, the weakest possible vestiges of an old grudge trying to worm their way past his misery and mostly failing.
Aside from that, he didn’t know how he felt about seeing Rochelle again.
“You know him?” The blonde asked, turning to Rochelle. There was a pause, before she slowly nodded, and the front-and-center blonde returned her attention to Dal.
“Dal, right?” She asked, and he nodded mutely. The smile that returned to her face was still friendly, but gentler. It was evident that she could tell something was wrong, “Hi, my name is Jennifer. I’m one of several doctors enlisted to distribute a vaccine for the Green Flu to anyone alive that I come across. Can I come in? Is there anyone else home?”
“Jen,” Rochelle suddenly said, and the woman turned to her companion. “He can’t talk. It’s… sort of a long story, but he can’t talk.”
Jennifer turned back to him, looking apologetic. Dal was simply staring at her, his mind having blanked the moment she openly stated that she was a doctor. Everything else she’d said had been mostly obscured by his frozen head, still partly handling his shock from earlier alongside trying to momentarily quell his urge to cry.
She’s a doctor.
“Is something-…” Jennifer began, but Rochelle cut her off.
“What happened, Dal?” She asked, and it was evident that she could tell that something terrible had happened. His lips parted, but no sound came out. “Will you… will you show us? We might be able to help.”
He didn’t know what had happened to cause Rochelle to seemingly have such a change of heart. He would have thought that if she ever saw him again, she would shoot first and never bother to ask any questions. But the fear that had once plagued her pretty brown eyes was gone, replaced with a confidence that he didn’t remember her having.
She wasn’t afraid of him, anymore.
Suddenly, he recalled that he had been doing something, and took several steps back, inviting them inside and walking into the living room. He turned back to Rochelle, hoping she would understand if he could get the right syllables out.
“Nichk’ssss ‘ichk.” He managed to, slurring his words together. His throat was still backed up with emotion, so getting his voice out at all was a challenge. But Rochelle’s confusion quickly changed as she decoded his poorly spoken message.
“Take us to him, Dal,” She said, looking a little apprehensive. He nodded mutely, beckoning them and hastily making his way up the stairs. He could hear the two of them close behind, so he didn’t bother to slow down, walking down the hall briskly. Nick’s door was mostly closed, as it always was due to the lean of the house, and the door slammed into the wall rather hard as he basically flew into the room.
Megan was standing up, looking confused, her mouth opening on a question. Ellis had jolted upright from where he’d been hunched over his knees. But Dal didn’t care. Jennifer was a doctor. She could help. She might be able to fix Nick. She might be able to save him.
He turned around to see Jennifer in the doorway and grabbed her hand so he could pull her along to Nick’s bedside. He turned to her, about to go about showing her the wound, but he saw the way she stared at Nick, a dawning realization as if she had seen him before.
He stepped out of her way as Megan was suddenly speaking, “Who the hell are you?” She asked a little heatedly.
“I’m… a doctor…” She said slowly, stepping closer to Nick’s bedside and looking at his face around the pile of blankets. “You’re… Jason?”
There was an eerie silence that fell over the room. “No,” Megan said slowly, “That’s Nick.”
“Wait,” Rochelle’s voice came from the doorway, drawing Ellis’ attention immediately even as she was stepping inside, “Jason as in, the Jason who shot up our home base to escape, even though you told him you would let him leave in a couple hours?”
“Yea,” Jennifer replied distractedly, “Y’know, the one that trigger-happy fuck-nugget Andy shot.”
All at once, she went to work, pressing a palm to Nick’s forehead and clicking her tongue. She then threw the blankets back and pulled up his shirt, seeing the damage that the wound had wrought upon him. She grimaced, but didn’t rear back to gag like Dal had, or shift her expression to one of horror and dismay like Megan had.
“Is the bullet still in him?” She asked, lifting Nick’s shirt higher and revealing a patch of darkened skin near his diaphragm. Dal had no idea what it was – he hadn’t seen that before, but Jennifer seemed to know exactly was she was doing, as she went about checking his wrists as well.
“No,” Megan responded, sounding extremely confused. Dal looked over at her, noting that, despite her confusion, she seemed more than willing to offer up anything that would help, “I had to pull it out for him after I caught him butchering himself in the bathroom.”
Jennifer glanced at the redhead, peering at her over her glasses, “Why was he butchering himself in the bathroom?”
“To make the wound big enough so he could fit his fingers in it. We don’t have any clamps so we had to use our hands.” She explained, looking over at Ellis, who had been remarkably quiet through the exchanges. Dal followed her gaze, finding that Ellis was staring at Rochelle, who had moved to the foot of the bed and was observing the scene with a grim expression.
“Rochelle, radio in. We need an ambulance from here to the nearest fully operational base.” Jennifer said. “You know the address here, right?”
“Yea,” Rochelle returned, pulling a walkie talkie off her waist, “Andy, this is Rochelle. Come in.”
There was a pause before the reply came through, “Hey, Rochelle. What’s up?”
“We need an ambulance right this second.” She replied.
“Ask Jen what she needs in terms of medical.”
“Antibiotics and a stretcher.” Jennifer answer, and Rochelle relayed the message.
As Rochelle was rattling off the address, Megan spoke up, “I… okay, firstly, what’s wrong with him?”
Jennifer turned to face her, grimacing. “I think he’s septic. It means that there’s bacteria in his bloodstream. Normally, your blood is sterile, and when bacteria gets in there, it gets to travel to every part of your body, and it causes a lot of damage. If he survives, he’s going to be hospitalized for a long time.”
“O-okay…” Megan paused, looking doubtful for a moment before she continued. “Where did you two come from?”
“Oh, right, I’m sorry,” the blonde said, smacking herself on the forehead, “I’m Jennifer. I’m a doctor, enlisted by the higher ups to go looking for infected and survivors alike to administer the cure and the vaccine. Everybody gets it. Rochelle is sort of like my bodyguard.”
Megan stared at her for a long moment. “They… found a cure?”
“Yea,” Jennifer said, looking a little apologetic all of a sudden. “It wasn’t hard, since they had already done pretty extensive research into the disease before it got out, so they were already pretty close to having the formula for a vaccine. It’s… it did take a little bit, but… Well, I mean, it spread so fast, they couldn’t contain it. So the higher-ups decided it would be best to just let it run its course on most of the population.”
“That’s awfully shitty of them,” Megan said, her voice strained.
Jennifer smiled weakly at her, “That’s what I said.”
Dal was doing his best to listen to the conversation in order to keep his mind from wandering. He knew where it would end up if he permitted it, so he wrestled it into submission and paid very close attention. Ellis was still staring at Rochelle. Megan had fallen silent, Jennifer was checking Nick’s blood pressure, and then a moment later she was checking his pulse. Rochelle seemed to be purposefully avoiding looking at Ellis, instead observing Jennifer with a very thoughtful look on her face. Dal wasn’t buying the act.
He wondered when (or if) Ellis was going to tell Megan that Rochelle was that Rochelle.
“Jen, I’m gonna go downstairs and wait for the ambulance,” Rochelle said as she was replacing her walkie, “I don’t think this house had a number on it.”
“Okay,” Jen replied, and Rochelle left the room a little on the hasty side. Dal watched her go, before turning to Ellis. He still looked pretty shocked to have seen her. The guy seemed to feel Dal’s eyes on him, because he glanced over at him. The teen could tell that Ellis had no idea what to think, much like Dal had. But after a moment, his expression calmed and he turned back to Nick’s unconscious form.
“What’re ‘is chances?” Ellis suddenly asked. It was the first thing he’d said since Rochelle and Jennifer had walked in the room, and it seemed like it surprised everyone but Dal.
There was a long silence before Jennifer replied, “I don’t know for sure. If it’s a resistant strain, I’d say twenty percent. If it’s one that we can take out with antibiotics, I’d say fifty percent.” Her expression turned as solemn as the other inhabitants of the room. Dal’s stomach twisted, anxiety eating through him. “He seemed like a strong, healthy person the last time I saw him, so he has a better chance than someone’s grandmother, but… but its sepsis. Before the outbreak, it was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.”
“Oh.” Ellis responded quietly.
There was hope, but not much at this point. All Dal could really try to count on at this point was Nick’s history of turning his luck around. He always seemed to make it out of the worst scenarios alive and kicking. He just had to have a little misplaced trust. He was fairly good at that.
“Ambulance is here!”
All he could do was hope.