City and state delineations didn’t matter as much as they used to. Everything was an abandoned waste land anyway.
When the sun started rising to my right, I knew I really was heading north. I tried to navigate by the night sky, but other than Orion, constellations remained a mystery to me.
If we ever found a city, I’d have to look for a compass. And maybe a map. As it was, I hadn’t seen any roads or signs. We were wandering blind in the desert, the sun was coming up, and we didn’t have any water.
We approached a hill, covered in dry brush and loose sand. I climbed up, my feet slipping on the ground, but Harlow lagged behind me.
“I’m tired,” Harlow had been quiet for a long time, and her voice pierced through the silence. It didn’t help that I was getting tired, too. “And thirsty.”
“If you see a drinking fountain and a bed, feel free to stop.”
“Can’t we take a break at least?” Harlow asked. “There aren’t any zombies around.”
“We’re not stopping until we find some place to stop at. We need to cover as much ground as we can during the daylight.”
Harlow opened her mouth to say something else, but I shushed her. I heard something.
I’d scrambled to the top of the hill and knelt down, so I was mostly hidden. I squinted and made out shapes on the horizon. It sounded like a death groan, but there was something else. Almost like a grunt and a growl. I couldn’t place it, but I didn’t think it was zombie.
We could turn and go in the other direction and completely avoid them, and that might be the smart thing to do. But I didn’t want to veer off course. It would be hard enough for me to stay on course without any detours.
Besides, after watching everyone I know get killed by zombies last night, it might feel good taking some of them out.
Harlow had climbed up next to me. I showed her how to click off her safety, and I took out my shotgun. There were definitely zombies, I could see them, but something else made a strange guttural roar. It didn’t really make sense.
Then I finally put it together, and I stopped and stared.
– 3 –
“Is that… a lion?” Harlow asked, sounding just as shocked as I felt.
A truck had been tipped on its side, and attached to the truck bed with a logging chain appeared to be a lion. It didn’t have a mane, but it was pretty big, so I’m guessing it was a lioness. Surrounding her were several corpses, and a semi-circle of living zombies.
She paced back and forth, and the zombies kept trying to eat her or stop her or whatever it was they wanted to do with a lion. But she swatted at with them her giant paw. While we watched, she got one of the zombie’s legs and completely tore it off.
I crouched down on the ground, and Harlow did the same behind me. The zombies were too focused on the lion to notice us, so we could get around them without any problems. But the lion kept making that weird low growling sound, as if she was sad.
“Stay here,” I said, getting to my feet.
“What are you doing?” Harlow sounded scared, but I didn’t answer her.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I had to do something. Animals were immune to the virus, and the lion would be the first thing I’d helped in months that could actually live if I intervened. I could save her.
If I left her chained to the truck, she would die. If I let her go, she might kill Harlow and me. But since somebody had chained her up in the first place, I assumed she was at least partially tame.
When the lion spotted me, she stopped. Her tail twitched and one of her ears bent back, but she didn’t growl.
Unfortunately, the zombies noticed me at the same time. A fat, dirty zombie started charging towards me. I could shoot him, but I was afraid a gunshot would startle the lion.
I pulled my gun out, holding it by the muzzle. When the zombie got close enough, I swung it like a baseball bat. My shoulders jerked on impact, and it made a loud crack as the head smashed in.
That one summer I spent playing T-ball had finally paid off.
Another zombie charged towards me, but this one was much taller. I couldn’t knock his head off. I bent down and swung the gun across its ankles, taking his feet out from under him so he collapsed back on the ground. Before he could stand up, I ran to his head and slammed the butt of my gun down on his skull.
Crushing a skull is not as easy as it sounds. The first blow stunned him, but I had to slam it down twice more before it finally smashed into his brain, and he stopped moving.
Even though I knew they were zombies, that they weren’t people anymore, the sound of breaking bone always made me sick. The sight of their splattered blood on my clothes didn’t help either, but I didn’t even have time to worry about it before another one raced at me.
I rammed the gun forward, using it like a sword to impale the zombie in the stomach. She’d had the virus for a while, so she’d started to decompose, and her body felt like Jell-O when I stabbed her with the gun.
It wasn’t until then that I realized she was a kid. I hated kid zombies.
She stopped moving, but only because the gun didn’t let her go farther forward. She reached her short, pudgy arms out at me, and I jerked back, taking the gun with me.
I didn’t want to scare the lion, but I wasn’t about to do hand to hand combat with a rotting kid. I shot the zombie in the head, and she collapsed onto the ground.
The gun blast startled the lion, and she moved back with her ears flattened. But it also startled the last zombie, which stood dangerously close to the lion. The lion pounced on his back and tore into his throat, killing him before I had a chance to aim.
“Are they all dead?” Harlow called from behind me.
“Yeah, I think so.” I looked around to be sure, but I couldn’t see any moving zombies
The lion licked the blood off her lips and looked up at me. She was pretty damn vicious, but maybe that was just directed towards zombies. Harlow came up and stood next to me, both of us just watching the lion.
“You’re gonna let her go.” Harlow might have been asking it, but it sounded more like a statement of fact.
“I’m gonna try,” I nodded.
“What if she rips your arm off?” Harlow asked, but she didn’t sound worried.
“I don’t know. Shoot her, I guess,” I shrugged.
I walked up closer to the lion but stayed out of range of her chain. Harlow crept behind me, staying a few steps back from where I stopped.
A body inside the cab of the truck hadn’t even bloated up yet, the way bodies did when they sat in the sun all day. It didn’t look like it had been dead for very long.