There was a stiff tension that followed them after they had found Rochelle and Dal. Things had already been painfully awkward and tensions had already been running high, but everything just seemed to get worse the moment they found the other two. Ellis was genuinely concerned about the likelihood that he might have to put himself between Coach and Nick again. That had almost been real violence – someone would’ve gotten seriously hurt. If he hadn’t been stupid enough to forcibly plant himself between them, Nick and Coach would’ve killed each other. Literally.
He didn’t know why Coach couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Dal. It was common sense; don’t piss off Nick. Nick, with or without the use of a gun, was the most likely candidate to kill his own teammates. Nick was the most likely to go at someone’s throat with a hunting knife, whether they were infected or not. Nick was most likely to lose his temper and shoot someone – whether in the foot or the chest was debatable. The conman was more dangerous than Rochelle or Coach gave him credit for. They assumed that Dal was the ticking time bomb when, in reality, Nick was the one who was going to snap and kill them all. And when (if) he did that, Coach would be eating his words and regretting everything he’d said about Dal from day one. Nick was fiercely protective of the kid, and Ellis wasn’t sure he could see exactly why.
What it meant, however, was that Rochelle and especially Coach were walking a thin line between getting shouted at and getting shot at. And Ellis was sure his heart was going to give out before that happened. He hadn’t realized how close Nick was to literally killing Coach until half an hour ago, and the knowledge sank into his chest and stomach like a ton of bricks. He was, on some level, genuinely frightened for the lives of his teammates. And it was specifically because they wouldn’t quit.
This whole thing had been a great, huge adventure for his stupider side, and now it had all gone to pieces, and he was about to follow suit. He didn’t do well under emotional stress, it seemed. Living a carefree life had put inhibitors in places he wouldn’t have expected.
Ellis felt like he was watching his parents get divorced violently. The kind of divorce where both parents are in the kitchen, with the husband throwing bowls and the wife throwing plates.
It infuriated him that, for some reason, it had been decided that his opinion didn’t matter much. Nick wouldn’t let him take his side. Nick wouldn’t even let him get a word in edgewise. Ellis may have been the naive one, but he was 23 years old. Even if his ideas and opinions were ridiculous or made up on the spot, he was permitted to have them and he ought to have the right to voice and act upon them. But, for some reason, Nick seemed to want to wage his war against Rochelle and Coach by himself.
Ellis just didn’t want them to all to split up. Losing Nick for even those few hours had been a horrible, jarring experience that had woken him to the possibility to dying by way of tragic accident or, well, zombies. He felt like all his youth had been drained out of him.
At this rate, he thought with a jagged edge of emotion that didn’t suit him, I’m gonna lose it.
As usual, he heard it before anyone else did.
Dal’s hand shot out and grabbed Nick’s arm, stopping him dead. With eyes wide at the ridiculously loud sound of sobbing from a location that couldn’t have been much farther form right in front of them, Dal looked over at Nick only briefly before his eyes started trying to pick out the source(s) of the sound. The man he was holding on to stared at him questioningly, and Dal couldn’t think of a way to enhance Nick’s ears enough so he could hear. Dal also had no idea how they were supposed to get around what sounded like about a dozen of those talon-wielding, angst-ridden teenagers.
He was going to have to figure out a way to lead them around the Witches. That was going to be a challenge – leading Nick was easy, because Dal could just hang on to him and direct him exactly where he needed to go. Four people was going to be harder. Four people might end up being a problem. Especially if two of the four resisted his direction.
He was up to the challenge, though, he supposed. Dal started forward, pulling Nick along. The man didn’t resist, and in fact Dal was sure he heard the sound of him waving the others forward, indicating that they should follow closely. Rochelle and Coach were probably scowling fiercely, but they would feel differently if they could hear all the damn Witches.
On the other side of the mill that Nick had led them through, there was a crop field and it was only then that Nick stiffened in his grasp and gasped at the sound of the small group of Witches hiding in the plants.
“Holy shit.” Nick voiced for all present parties, “That’s fucking great.”
“What d’we do?” Ellis asked, looking strangely nervous, “We don’t really have a way o’ goin’ around them at this point…”
Dal mostly ignored their conversing, his eyes scanning the field carefully as he made a mental index on where each of the Witches were. There were seven in the field, and one pacing around the road beyond the field that he could just make out past the pouring rain. That was eight Witches they had to carefully avoid. He stepped closer to the fenced ledge of the building they were in and looked down. There was a huge metal pipe running across the length of the field. There were planks along the top of it, and they looked to be pretty secure. If they ran along the pipe, they could probably get past the Witches without losing track of where they were going and without startling any of them. As long as no one fell off, they’d be fine. And they’d have to be real klutzes to fall off.
He stepped back over to Nick, who was conversing with Ellis and Rochelle in milder manners than usual. Coach had one stink-eye on him, as usual, but Dal had somehow learned to tune that out. He grabbed Nick’s arm again, tugging gently. The man stopped mid-sentence to look down at him. Dal jerked his head towards the ledge and led him over, pointing at the pipe.
“Think we could run across that?” Nick asked for clarity, and Dal nodded. It wouldn’t even be hard, really. He leaned over the edge further, looking down – the elevator to their right landed less than five feet from the pipe, and he could see what looked like a small ladder bolted to it. It’d be easy. No jinxing intended.
Nick was nodding thoughtfully as Ellis, Rochelle, and Coach walked over to join the two of them.
“Oh, I didn’ even see that,” Ellis commented, “Great thinkin’, Dal.”
He shrugged slightly – it wasn’t really all that great. It was simply being aware of his surroundings. Rochelle was staring at the pipe distastefully.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
Nick stared at her, “It’s safer than running through the Witches. At least this way, even if we get one after us – which won’t happen if we move quickly – it’ll be harder for her to snag us because we’ll be above their heads.”
“It is better than running through the Witches. We’ll just have to be quick and careful,” Coach agreed, never once looking towards Nick. They seemed to have decided that they truly loathed each other in the time that Dal and Rochelle had been separated from them. He wondered what had happened. He looked over at Ellis, wondering if there was a connection between Ellis’ quietness and Nick and Coach’s less than subtle contempt for one another. They had been fighting a lot but somewhere prior to actual hate earlier. Dal wondered what had happened to bring forth such a tense atmosphere. There was no way Rochelle hadn’t noticed it – she had been quieter too, since the other three had caught up. Everyone seemed to feel like they were a part of an active nuclear explosive.
They piled into the elevator. Nick looked around at them all and said, “So, when this thing opens, we’re all gonna make a made dash for that ladder. Last one there’s a rotten egg.”
“Cute,” Rochelle commented wryly.
“Wait only for the person behind you – once they’re up, just run,” Nick said, “I think it’ll be best for those planks if we don’t all go at the same time.”
Ellis nodded in agreement, “Yea, they might be a lil’ weak ’cause of all this rain.”
“Alright, we’ve got a plan,” Coach spoke, his voice cool, “Let’s do this, then.”
The elevator doors opened and they all hurried over to the ladder. Coach went first, taking a little longer than Dal was comfortable with. But, then, he was older so it would be expected for him to take longer. After Coach, Ellis clambered up, pausing to wait for Rochelle as Coach started moving.
“They’re just a little wobbly, so be careful!” Coach called back as the rain started to pick up. Once Rochelle was up, Ellis took off. Nick sent Dal up after Rochelle, who barely waited for him to be on the ladder before she started moving. Dal didn’t care how long she waited – he wasn’t worried about himself getting stuck or falling off. In fact, if anyone was going to slip, it’d probably be Rochelle – her shoes were made for dressing up a bit, not running through water and muck and across fields and etcetera. He started moving as soon as Nick was up the ladder, jogging across the planks. It wasn’t a very long pipe, so he didn’t expect the walk to take very long. There was a growling noise ahead – one of the Witches who was closer to the pipe was getting a little irritated.
He saw Rochelle’s right foot slip off the plank, he saw her go down with a yelp, and he heard the moment her boot connected with the side of a Witch’s head. He could’ve run right past her without a care in the world. He could’ve shoved her off the planks, in fact. But, when he saw those talons come up and the shriek sounded through the field, he didn’t hesitate. He slowed down just long enough to stoop down and scoop Rochelle into his arms. Nick didn’t pause, running right past him, and Dal was grateful for the trust.
Rochelle didn’t seem inclined to persuade him to set her down, and he didn’t really have time anyway. Nick leaped off the pipe, hollering for everyone to get into the safe room. He saw them disappear into the gas station as he was jumping off the pipe, leaping right over the head of the Witch who had been pacing in the road. She growled, but didn’t startle, thankfully. He sprinted into the open door of the gas station, jumping over the counter with Rochelle instinctively clutching onto his shoulders for support, and stumbled into the safe room. Nick slammed the door behind him, locking it seconds before the Witch’s talons came swinging at the door. They fell back away from the door, Dal carefully putting Rochelle down as he panted to catch his breath. His heart was hammering. God, he hated Witches.
Rochelle was rubbing her bicep, stepping away from him and looking pale. He had probably bruised her arm and thigh with his grip. He almost felt bad, but decided that it wasn’t worth feeling sorry for. Adrenaline would strengthen anyone’s grip. Probably not to the point of bruising, but Dal was pretty strong now. That was something he wasn’t sure whether to call a blessing or a curse. It meant he could kill someone with a single blow to the head, but it also meant that he had to take care to control how tightly he held things and people.
Rochelle was giving him a strange a look. He stared at her for a moment, before looking back outside at the Witch. She was staring into the door, huffing and snarling and crying all in the same breaths.
They were still people, all of them. They were beyond reasoning and help and probably incurable, but they were people. All of them. Coach and Rochelle… didn’t see it that way. They didn’t see people. They saw beasts, monsters, things. They saw only dangerous, rabid animals that needed to be put down. And for almost all of them that Dal could see, that was true. But a dangerous, rabid animal was still a living creature. It could still be your dog or cat. Or, in this case, your family, your friends, your neighbors. Coach and Rochelle were thinking of the infected as nothing more than monsters, because they didn’t want to see the fact that they were mass murdering hundreds of people every few hours.
They were justifying their actions, because “survival”wasn’t enough for either of them. That had to be it. There was no other real reason for the way they treated him. Dal was as sane as they were, but they saw him as a monster because if they allowed themselves to see him as “human,” they would have to see all the infected as “human,” and evidently their little tiny brains couldn’t handle the horror of it all.
Dal’s mood turned sour with a suddenness that surprised even him. Coach and Rochelle were so pathetically shallow that they literally could not comprehend the events that were going on around them to the extent that they had to delude themselves into thinking that the people they were killing weren’t “people.”
It disgusted him.
The Witch suddenly let out a loud, anguished wail and took off, her hands carefully covering her face. Dal stared after her. He could have turned into a “monster” like that, but he didn’t. He wondered if there were any others who had been half-infected like him. Or was it just he who had some kind of genetic mutation that allowed his body to fight off this brand new virus that seemed to infect just about everybody?
“Are you okay, Rochelle?” Coach was asking the young woman, “You look kind of pale.”
“I’m fine, Coach, really,” She replied breathlessly, “That just startled me, is all.”
The man didn’t looked convinced, but he didn’t say anything further about it. Dal watched him silently, his face set in a frown. On some level, he despised that person. But on another level, he longed for the recognition that he wasn’t some mindless beast on a timer to explode. He wanted to be seen – that was always the case. He wanted to be seen for who he really was. He didn’t want to be seen as the moron who climbed the bleachers to get a sweater for a girl in his class, and wound up falling and breaking his arm. He didn’t want to be seen as a punk who broke the law and bought himself a motorcycle, only to get into a horrible accident six hours after purchasing it off Craigslist. He didn’t want to be seen as a nuisance who should never be heard and preferably never seen.
He just wanted to be recognized as a person. And Dal had no idea why that was so much to ask for. At school, he was just a number among two to three dozen students in a single classroom. At home, he was just taking up space and ought to be gotten rid of. And now, here, he was just a monster.
“Just get rid of him!”
“I’m just tryna to do what’s best for all of us, and you should damn well know that!”
He despised them both. Rochelle and Coach disgusted him. Dal reminded himself of all the abusive things they had both said and done around him, towards him, and about him, and summoned up all the emotions that went with anger, carefully covering his hurt with hatred. There was no need for him to feel pain like this. There was no need to let the words of someone he hated get to him. It didn’t matter.
“Dal,” Nick’s voice broke into his thoughts, and he looked over at him expectantly. The man was frowning, but it looked more like his natural frown rather than his “I’m pissed about nothing and everything” frown.
“Is your shoulder alright to carry one of these cans?” That was when Dal noticed the green gas cans sitting against the wall near where Nick had wandered to, “They’re gonna be pretty heavy.”
Dal rolled his shoulder as best he could manage, reaching up a hand and pressing his fingers against it. It didn’t hurt much. He nodded at Nick, and the conman sighed heavily.
“Now that the bitch is gone, do we wanna start heading back?” Nick offered to the rest of the group, looking a bit more agitated than usual. Dal hoped he wasn’t in a mood to start a fight. It was also possible that his head was bothering him again. There was no way his concussion was completely healed after only twelve hours or so. “I’m ready for round two on that stupid fucking pipe.”
Ellis laughed a bit, “I ‘unno, I thought it was kinda fun ’til Rochelle fell.”
“Sorry for ruining your fun,” Rochelle muttered, “But Nick’s right – I don’t want to have to deal with flooding and I think that’s exactly what’s gonna happen here. My feet are wet enough, thank you.”
“Yea, let’s get movin’, folks,” Coach agreed, “The faster we get out of here, the better.”
Dal watched Nick pull a bottle of pills out of his pocket, counting out four and swallowing them dry. His head was definitely starting to bother him again, worse than the usual headaches he got. They would probably want to stop for a rest somewhere between their current location and the Burger Tank they had initially been dropped off at. He hoped that he’d be able to persuade Nick to do so before his headache reached debilitating levels again.
He let out a soft sigh, following Nick as the group stepped out of the safe room.