Nick flipped the page of the atlas he’d picked up on his very brief trip to the traveling agency located two doors down. Ellis and Dal were still sleeping in the back of the bar, likely to eventually wake with all kinds of kinks in all their major muscle groups. Nick hadn’t been able to sleep very long – perhaps ten minutes. Which was fine, really, because he needed to figure out their next move.
They needed a place to go for the time being. He wanted to get away from the coast. It was hurricane season and, as evidenced by Ducatel, the Gulf was in for it. He wanted to get as far away from that as possible. Heading eastward made sense – getting out of the way of Tornado Alley was simply common sense, and he didn’t want to drive all the way to Arizona or something. On the other hand, the east had a larger, more concentrated population. Not exactly ideal.
He wanted a smaller city with a large shopping center and a rather low population. The problem he was having was that atlases wouldn’t tell him where there were Wal-Marts, Targets, Costcos and such. So, his best bet was to scour his memory for places he had been to and go with those. That didn’t leave him with many options – he’d been to so many places, he didn’t remember half of them. He also didn’t want to travel far to get where he was going, so as to avoid another scenario like the one that had lost Ellis’ dream car.
He flipped the page again. For now, they’d probably end up going to the nearest large shopping center to find a car he could hotwire and stock up on supplies for their move. Also, he needed to find a speech board. Speech boards probably weren’t sold in large shopping centers, but he supposed it’d be worth a look. If they weren’t sold at large shopping centers, he had no idea where to look.
He looked up at the clock that probably didn’t have the correct time, finding that he had been seated at the bar for over an hour. It was time to wake up Ellis and Dal and get a move on. They could nap in whatever car they wound up with.
He spun around in his seat, stepping off the stool and heading into the back. The duo in the back were still sleeping soundly on what was probably the most uncomfortable floor in the history of floors. He kicked Ellis’ foot hard enough to jolt the man awake before crouching down to gently shake Dal’s shoulder. The kid cracked an eye open to stare up at him for a moment before pushing himself upright, groaning in pain.
Nick chuckled, “Now you see why I didn’t stick around for very long,” he mused. Dal shrugged, putting a hand to the wall behind him as he stood up. Ellis was too busy yawning to have bothered listening.
“Man, I feel more tired than I did when I fell asleep,” Ellis blearily muttered, “What’s up?”
“We’re leaving,” Nick explained, “We’re gonna go find a shopping center, grab some shit, hotwire a car, and then go find a more suitable place to stay. This bar has a great supply of alcohol but it’s lacking in beds.”
“That’s fer sure,” Ellis agree. Then, with some surprise, “You can hotwire cars too? Damn, Nick, is there anythin’ ya’ can’t do?”
“I can’t fly.” Nick replied. He glanced over at Dal, noting that he hadn’t gone back to holding his face like he had been before he fell asleep. The pain was subsiding, then. He was sure the kid was probably still in pain, though he was glad to see it wasn’t as bad. He didn’t want to enforce a brisk pace while Dal was in a state of agony. They walked back out to the front of the bar, pausing to grab their gear before stepping outside. It was still gorgeous outside, though Nick could see that dusk was fast approaching. They would have to hunker down for the night in New Orleans, most likely. That genuinely sucked, but it wasn’t a big deal. Nick didn’t want to be driving through the night – his head lights would attract unwanted attention.
It was habit that drove him to glance briefly down the alley where Scott’s corpse probably was. He could see the vague outline of a body lying on the ground, but he didn’t want to go and investigate. He knew whose body it was. His stomach flipped and he turned his gaze back to the streets ahead of him.
He didn’t like doing that kind of thing. Killing at all wasn’t usually a big deal to him. If it would ensure his own safety, he would do pretty much anything necessary. But killing cruelly was something he genuinely did not like to do. He found no joy in ending the lives of others. He found it necessary when it was, and that was it.
So, why did you kill him like that, then, Nick?
He steered himself viciously away from those thoughts even as they started to surface, and focused instead on counting the abandoned cars, trying to identify which cars belonged to families, which ones belonged to students, which ones belonged to single parents, and etcetera. If there was ever a good time for Ellis to start talking, now was that time. Naturally, the hick was as silent as they came. Of course.
They strolled along for several blocks, Nick wishing there was a way for him to see over the tall buildings around them and spot the nearest shopping center. He had been to New Orleans in the past – Mardi Gras was the perfect time for swindling, what with all the drunk idiots roaming the streets and every one deciding that they wanted to try their hand at gambling. He’d purposefully lose for several games in a row, and then, when the kids would put in everything they had, he’d get a “lucky break” and win. And then he’d conveniently find some reason to leave, and advise his opponents to leave the first game they won, in the future.
Ellis had said he could do anything, but that wasn’t at all true. There were encyclopedias full of things he didn’t know and couldn’t do. It was just that he had been required to learn a lot of unusual skills in order to make it in his life. He could handle a gun, even though he wasn’t legally allowed to own one. He could probably make a living just snapping necks for anyone who paid him enough. He could hotwire cars easily, having taught himself after he’d been forced to run approximately the width of New York City to escape a gang who had cottoned on to his tricks early enough to avoid the scam.
The fact of the matter was that he couldn’t “do anything,” he was just very good at living the life of a criminal. Doing something for a long time would eventually make a person good at it. He had been swindling and conning and gambling and cheating and stealing since he was about seventeen, and he’d been on his own since about the same moment. It wasn’t like he had family he could rely on, and he’d been better off taking care of himself anyway. Sure, he’d been in lots of trouble on more than one occasion, but nothing a new fake ID and a scenery change hadn’t been able to fix. If he stayed out of an area for long enough, people would quickly forget his face, and if he was really worried, he could just give a different name.
It wasn’t necessarily that he had ever enjoyed the life he had gotten himself into. The adrenaline rush was always amazing and he loved being able to get whatever he wanted out of people (whether they realized it or not), but he’d had his fair share of miserable nights on the streets for various reasons, looking over his shoulder and wishing he could’ve ended up anywhere else in life. Marriage hadn’t done much to domesticate him, either. He hadn’t harbored any emotional connection to the women involved, sure, but it had all been so boring. He needed some kind of thrill in his life, and while criminal activity wasn’t the healthiest way to find a thrill, it had gotten the job done long enough that he had gotten sort of comfortable with it.
Marriage had been so foreign and, in the end, horrible, he’d decided after the second bout to just never let a woman get emotionally involved with him. It wasn’t like they’d actually cared for him, they’d just been helplessly attracted to the fact that he lived a dangerous life. Of course, after experiencing Nick for a while, they had changed their minds.
Well, the first one had. The second had tried to repair him like he was some wounded, broken animal. He hadn’t wanted to end that one because the woman had money and he happened to be very fond of money, but he respected himself at least enough to walk away from something as ridiculous as someone trying to fix him.
He didn’t even remember their names.
Nick was still wrapped up in thinking about the various ways he hated his life when Ellis suddenly spoke up, “I’m glad ya’ knew where you were goin’, Nick. I was worried we were gonna get lost forever in this city.”
Nick blinked and looked up, noting that they were walking across a parking lot. Apparently, his subconscious had remembered the way, even though Nick was beginning to think he’d never been to this place. It was a Wal-Mart, as he’d been partially expecting. He could always rely on there being a Wal-Mart, no matter where he was.
The windows and doors on the front of the store were covered with what looked like a series of tarps. He wondered if they were going to walk in to that place and find the remains of the continent in that one shopping center. Certainly seemed like a smart place to hole up. It had bathrooms and all the supplies anyone would need. Definitely convenient. Maybe they’d do that. Find a store, find some mattresses, hole up in the store. It’d certainly make things simpler.
The sliding doors on the “Home and Garden” side of the store slid open, making the tarps rustle. Nick wasted no time finding the break between them and holing it open for Ellis and Dal. The interior was still lit, and it was quiet. If anyone had once been there, they certainly hadn’t left much sign of themselves in their wake.
“Should we grab a cart?” Ellis asked. Nick nodded in reply, pausing in his steps as Ellis did the honors of tearing one cart away from the rest. He glanced over at Dal briefly, instinctively wanting to make sure he was still present. He was officially paranoid about the kid wandering off. And none could blame him – whenever Dal disappeared somewhere, something bad came out of it. Not counting the time he had gone off and found the others for Nick. Although, that had actually turned out poorly in the end too.
They walked through the aisles in silence, aside from the occasional creaking and squeaking from the cart Ellis had chosen. It figured that the cart they wound up with was the one with the bum wheel.
“I don’t even know what aisle they’d sell speech boards in.” The look Dal gave him at that looked sort of like incredulity. Nick stared back at him, “What?” The kid shrugged, shaking his head. Dal either didn’t believe that Nick didn’t know what aisle the speech boards were in, or he didn’t believe that Nick thought they might find one in this store.
“Hello?” All three of them stopped dead, looking around for the source of the voice on high.
“May I ask who’s calling?” Nick replied loudly, wanting to make sure he was heard. There was a silence that followed that, and he was beginning to wonder if they had been collectively hallucinated when the voice (now identified as female) finally replied.
“Where the heck are you?” That certainly hadn’t answered his question. Nevertheless, he didn’t think she sounded particularly malicious.
So, he called back, “Aisle six.”
A moment later, a pair of women appeared around the end of the aisle. They didn’t approach, and Nick didn’t move either, sizing them up perfectly well from the distance he was at. Neither of them was armed, save for what looked like a machete held in the hand of the brunette. The look in her eyes was distrusting and actually rather hostile. The other one, a redhead, was watching them with interest and seemed to be in the process of decision making.
“Uh, hi?” The red-head finally said, waving in greeting. “I’m Megan. This is Kris.”
“Nick,” He replied, jabbing a thumb towards Ellis and Dal. “My right to left, Dal and Ellis.”
Megan nodded, glancing over at Kris. Kris shook her head, but Megan seemed to ignore the gesture entirely, “What are you doing here?”
“We’re moving out of town soon and wanted to get some supplies before we went,” Nick said nonchalantly, “Does Wal-Mart sell speech boards?”
Megan gave him a strange look, “Why would Wal-Mart sell speech boards? Why do you need one?”
Nick paused then, noting the way Kris was openly staring at Dal. Megan had watched the boy carefully for a moment, more curious than anything else, but she had diverted her attention back to Nick after a while. Kris was probably about to do a Rochelle-Coach.
He indicated Dal, “He’s mute and can’t work his hands for sign language.” He explained, his voice taking on a cooler tone that he did not at all intend. All at once, Megan was approaching them, Kris reaching out to grab her arm and missing entirely.
Megan suddenly looked very interested in the conversation, “He can’t work his hands? Why not? And why can’t he talk?”
Nick bristled, noting the way Dal stiffened at the attention. Ellis stood there, looking sort of dumb as he observed the situation as it unfolded. Kris was rolling her eyes, and moving over to them as well. He hoped she could see the assault rifle on his back.
Nick tapped Dal’s shoulder, persuading the kid to look up at him, “Should I tell her?”
Dal shrugged, “God, you are so noncommittal, it’s actually not funny.” Nick grumbled, looked back at Megan, who was eying Dal like he was… what, a slab of meat or a very interesting test subject? He couldn’t tell. It was weird.
“Why are you asking?” He decided to ask before telling her. If she was CEDA or something, he’d just punch her and thank her for her time. Her eyes slid back up to Nick’s, and she looked a little offended.
“I’m a physical, speech, and cognitive therapist.” She said a little coolly, looking annoyed, “I’m one of those doctors who gets interested in a new case.”
“I didn’t know therapist denoted a medical degree,” he challenged, already tiring of the strong personality standing before him.
“It doesn’t.” she answered him easily, “But I also have my MD in Neurology.”
Ellis stared at her, looking disbelieving, “There’s no way. Yer too young to have a medical degree, ain’t ya’?”
She looked over at him, looking incredulous, “I’m thirty two.”
Nick furrowed his brow – thirty two? Really? She definitely didn’t look a day older than twenty five. She could’ve been lying to impress them, but during an apocalypse, it wasn’t really something people would do. Probably.
Kris let out a long-suffering sigh, “Enough, Megan. Let them get what they’re getting and get out.”
Megan rolled her eyes, “Shut up, Kris.” She turned back to Nick, “You said you were looking for a speech board, right? They have them at the office where I worked, probably two hours away. Maybe. Something like that.”
“That’s… vague. Where is this office of yours?” Nick asked, glancing over at Dal. He’d been extremely stiff and quiet and still the whole time. He wondered if the kid’s jaw was acting up again. He hoped not.
“Brookhaven,” Megan said, “In Mississippi.”
Nick searched his memories for that location and didn’t find it. “Small place, I guess. I’ve never heard of it.”
“Well, it’s not New Orleans but it isn’t Smithdale either.” The redhead stated, looking over her shoulder at her companion. Kris shook her head again, but Megan seemed to disagree with her. “You should stay here tonight and I’ll take you there tomorrow.”
Nick stared at her, “You’re coming too?”
Ellis chose that moment to speak up, and Nick wished he hadn’t, “Well, we’re gonna have an awful hard time findin’ her office otherwise, Nick. We ain’t got Google Maps on our side.”
It was his turn to let out a long suffering sigh, wondering at that moment how he’d been railroaded into spending the night in a Wal-Mart and acquiring new traveling companions. Or maybe just companion. He wasn’t entirely sure if Kris wanted to go.
“You’re friend doesn’t seem excited about it,” Nick offered, hoping Kris might have an easier time changing Megan’s mind than he would.
“We’re not really friends,” was the reply he got. Kris glared at her companion’s back, and the redhead continued, “She can stay here if she wants. I don’t like having to hole up in a Wal-Mart. My sister lived in Brookhaven too, and she had a large family. I’ll bet the house is still standing. There’ll be room for all of us to wait out the infection. Shouldn’t be much longer, I don’t think.”
“You just want a chance to try rehabbing that kid,” Kris said matter-of-factly.
Nick turned back to Megan, who shrugged, “She’s right. I do want to try rehabbing him. I might be able to get him talking again, you know.”
Dal didn’t even react to the offer. He was stiff as a board and looked… almost frightened. He’d been watching Kris carefully for the entire duration of the conversation. He looked even paler than usual, as well. He turned his attention back to Megan, suspicious.
“You never told me why he can’t talk or use his hands,” Megan said, looking at Dal again, “Does it have something to do with the scars?”
Nick scowled, but answered truthfully, “He’s sort of infected. Kind of.”
That surprised Megan, which he thought was a little amusing. She hadn’t come to that conclusion. He looked over at Kris, but her expression hadn’t changed. She looked wholly unsurprised, in fact.
“He’s infected? But he’s not at all violent or anything?” Nick shook his head in response to her question. Megan’s eyes lit up with the same interest he’d seen when she’d been first looking at them, “Cool! I wonder why that is? Maybe he’s got some kind of antibody that fights it off or something. I wonder if it has something to do with his own history of illness or if his mother’s immune system has something to do with it. Babies inherit a lot of their immune system from their parents, y’know.”
“Meg, be quiet.” Kris said, “Keep your dirty thoughts to yourself.”
Megan laughed despite Kris’ tone of voice, which wasn’t particularly friendly. It wasn’t hostile, either, but it had definitely not been a kind tone of voice. The redhead turned, “Follow me and I’ll lead you to our little campsite.”
Nick nodded, following after her. Ellis abandoned their empty cart, and Nick felt Dal move over to walk closer to him. Something was upsetting the kid. He didn’t know if it was something to do with Kris’ bad mood or if it was because Megan seemed so attentive towards him. He didn’t know what it could possibly be, but something was bothering the kid and making him anxious.
The part of him that had a tendency towards jealousy was a little happy that Dal was relying on him to feel safe. He had smothered most of the thoughts and feelings because they were stupid, but the fact of the matter was that he’d found himself feeling a little (just a little!) put off when Dal had discovered that Ellis was pretty cool, too.
He didn’t have any real reason to feel that way, he had just had attacks (that appeared to be never ending) of feeling alone in the world. It was stupid and childish, but he couldn’t seem to make it stop. It sort of pissed him off, actually. He hadn’t felt like this before, and he didn’t quite understand why he felt the way he did now. Dal was going to prefer people who weren’t horrible. That was how everyone worked. If there was something better that was also available, they would go for that instead.
Nick was… scraping the bottom of the barrel. He wasn’t the kind of person that people chose as a friend, or a lover, or anything. He wouldn’t choose himself for those things. He wasn’t a good-natured, decent human being like Ellis. He was a bastard, with all kinds of personality defects that made him both an enigma to society and a stain on creation. He belonged in a prison, away from the eyes of the public.
Nick, in all honesty, sort of hated himself. For all that he was and wasn’t.
They walked up to the “campsite,” which Nick noted looked significantly more comfortable than any of the campsites he’d been to thus far. The girls had gotten camping air-mattresses blown up and set up around a large, heavy-duty lantern. They had blankets and pajamas, it seemed, and it all looked amazing to Nick.
“Where’d you find the mattresses?” He asked, wanting one already.
“They’re in the camping section,” Megan said, “I’ll go with you and we can get you three set up for the night before it’s actually night.”
Ellis grinned, looking grateful, “Man, I ‘aven’t slept on a bed in days.”
“What’ve you been doing up ’til now?” Megan asked curiously, leading the way to the camping section as promised, walking backwards so she could see them as she spoke. “Lots of walking? You all look like shit.”
Dal was walking extremely close to him. Something was definitely bothering the kid. He gingerly put a hand on the boy’s shoulders, wanted to offer comfort even though he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the contact. Dal leaned into it just a little, but Nick was sure that Megan noticed. She looked at them, a curious light in her eyes, before smiling and resuming her forward pace.
“We started in Savannah, Georgia,” Ellis explained, getting a little excited about resuming his story-telling pasttime. “We got a car t’ some carnival’r amusement park’r somethin’, an’ then got a chopper out o’ there. The pilot got infected, though, so we wound up crashin’. Nick fell outta tha’ chopper n’ I guess Dal caught him. And then they had to catch up to us, ‘n we were assumin’ that Nick was dead so we didn’ go lookin’ for ‘im. Eventually they caught up though. N’ this was in the swamps o’ Lousiana by the way, which was horrible. All wet and humid and, gawd, it was ‘ell. Anyway, we got through th’ swamps n’ took a boat up ‘ere to Orleans.”
Megan, who had been surprisingly attentive throughout the story, looked awed, “Wow. You’ve been through a lot, huh? Have you killed a ton of infected?”
Nick snorted, “A ton might not cover it.” He said darkly, “We could probably handle this situation better than the military at this point.”
Megan chuckled, “Probably. You certainly have more experience than any of them do, I’m sure.”
Nick didn’t respond, instead gazing around the store. Kris had stayed behind at the campsite, but Dal didn’t seem any calmer. Did he know Megan? Did they have an unhappy history together? He didn’t know. He didn’t want to ask either of them if they knew each other, either. If Dal was frightened because of Megan, he didn’t want to let her know it was him. She might not have realized that she knew him yet.
That was assuming it was Megan, of course. Dal had been staring at Kris like she was the Loch Ness Monster or something. Whatever or whoever it was, Dal was genuinely frightened. Frightened of being beaten, yelled at, killed… Nick didn’t know. All he knew was that Dal was afraid.
And he didn’t know what to do.
He was terrified.
The sun had set, and they were all sitting on their separate mattresses. Dal was staring at the floor past his hands, listening to the idle chatter of Nick, Megan, and Ellis. Ellis seemed to really like Megan. Dal didn’t mind her. She had a weird fixation on repairing his dexterity, but he didn’t really mind that. If she could fix his hands and make him talk, he would be forever in her debt.
But all of that was on the back burner at that point. Fear ricocheted through him like a blade of ice and nausea. He didn’t want to look up and see her, because he was afraid she would realize it was him. He was terrified she would realize it was him. He didn’t want her to know. Kristina was watching the the group chat, occasionally offering a highly sarcastic and perhaps mildly hostile quips, but the others mostly ignored her anti-social personality and generally grouchy tone of voice. They instead laughed heartily at her, which only seemed to further irritate her.
Dal was afraid she would realize who he was and take out her irritation on him in some way. She had never laid a hand on him, she had never hit him or screamed at him or anything like that. The worse she’d ever done was lock him up in his bedroom for days on end, because she would forget he was there.
He was terrified that Kristina would recognize that he was her son. His mother had rarely even looked at him growing up, so he couldn’t figure whether she’d even recognize him. With his face all scarred up and his entire appearance significantly different since the last time she’d laid eyes on him (which might’ve been years ago), he could hope that she wouldn’t notice. But he couldn’t know for sure.
He was terrified.
“Are you okay?” Nick muttered, leaning closer to him so Megan and Ellis wouldn’t hear over Ellis’ exaggerated story of the day, “Do you need something?”
Dal could’ve burst into tears right then. Sometime, Nick was gentle and kind and thoughtful. It didn’t show obviously, but it was there. And perhaps the guy didn’t know how great he could be, or perhaps he thought that side of him was a sign of weakness. Dal didn’t know for sure, but he did know that Nick was actually incredibly considerate. Nick thought of him when he was missing and worried when he was upset. Nick paid attention. Nick noticed little things that showed that Dal was afraid or angry or about to cry.
He didn’t know why Nick had such a self-centered streak. It probably had something to do with his criminal background. But even so, Nick was a good person, deep down. Even if he didn’t want to be.
Dal leaned against him, trying to control his emotions. He wanted to cry loudly and run away and hide. He didn’t understand why he was so scared. Did he think she’d be mad that he ran away? No, she probably hadn’t even noticed that he’d left. Did he think she would attack him for showing up in her life again? No, his mother didn’t ever get physical with him or anyone else. That just wasn’t something she did. She had never hit him or yelled at him or anything like that.
“Just get rid of him!”
He wondered if she remembered that. He wondered if she remembered telling his father that their son didn’t love her anymore. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to hold him or he didn’t love her. He just wanted to run around and have fun on his own without being confined to his mother’s arms. He didn’t understand why she couldn’t get that. Surely she had once felt the same?
He vividly remembered his parents hollering at each other as he watched from the stairs, remembered thinking that her words were unfair and untrue and wishing he’d had the voice to say so. Remembered feeling a pain that he hadn’t understood, an ache in his heart that brought tears to his eyes.
He still didn’t understand why she stopped loving him.