But when I crouched down next to the river to wash the blood off my skin, I realized my hands were trembling. I wanted to cry and throw up, so I splashed cold water on my face and hoped it would pass.
It wasn’t just about seeing Blue as a zombie, although that was bad enough. He’d been a good guy and a good friend, and it was a horrible way to go out. As a mindless monster. He’d deserved far better than that.
But it was also what him being a zombie meant. I’d put him in charge of Max to take him to the compound.
I guessed that they’d probably made it to the compound, given how close we were to it and Blue’s age as a zombie. I couldn’t say for sure how long he’d been turned, but it couldn’t have been more than a month, maybe two at the absolute most.
If he’d made it to the compound – and I was inclined to think he had – then he’d turned while he was living there. And that didn’t bode well for the compound or my little brother.
I knew I should tell the others about Blue and about what that probably meant, but I couldn’t. I had to make it there, to see if Max was alive or dead for myself, and if the zombies were bad around the compound, I wouldn’t be able to get there alone. I needed the guns and protection that the group could provide.
That’s why I didn’t want Bishop to see Blue. She’d met him at the quarantine, so she might’ve recognized him. If she had, she could’ve drawn the same conclusion that I had – that going into the compound might be a suicide mission.
“Are you coming?” Boden shouted down over the bridge, and I hurriedly pulled on my jeans.
“Yeah! I’ll be right up.”
Everyone was at the top waiting for me when I finally made it up there. When Teddy asked me if I was okay, I couldn’t meet his eyes when I mumbled that I was fine.
I was deliberately leading them into harm’s way, and I knew it. It was one thing to suggest going to the compound when I thought it really might benefit them. It was an entirely different thing to lead them there when I suspected that things had probably gone to hell.
If Blue had turned in the last month or so, it fit with the timeline Tatum had told me earlier. The zombies had begun to really organize and target large populations about a month ago about that time. Or at least that’s when they really started hitting the quarantine.
But Max was all I had in the world. I had no other family or friends or home or possessions. Lazlo and Harlow might be dead for all I know and, in fact, probably were. The only thing I had – the only reason to even live – was my brother Max. Protecting him and taking care of him was the only thing that kept me going, kept me fighting.
And I would do anything to protect him. Even put other people in danger. If it meant I could save Max, then I would do it.
I had to have hope that he was still alive. Like me, he was immune to the zombie virus, so his odds were better than most. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have been ripped apart by a zombie, especially since he was only an eight-year-old boy. But … he still might be alive.
Besides, Boden and Nolita were soldiers. Not only could they handle themselves, but it was their job to protect people. Bishop had a gun, and she was bad ass. Daniels had almost killed both me and Max, so in a way, he kinda owed me.
The only one I really had to feel guilty about was Teddy, but I tried not to think about that. The world was overrun with zombies. There were no guarantees of safety for anyone.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Teddy asked me after we’d walked for a while. He normally kept his conversations with Bishop, but I was walking faster now, almost next to Boden.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said tightly, still refusing to look at him. He’d picked up his pace, moving away from Bishop and walking next to me.
“You just seem a little shaken up after the thing with the zombie,” Teddy went on. “Have you killed a zombie before?”
“Yeah, I’ve killed plenty of zombies. You don’t survive this long without getting a lot of green blood on your hands.”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Teddy looked down at the ground and scratched the stubble on his chin. “It’s been awhile, though, since I’ve had to fight them. I’m sure that’s true for you, too. Is that why you’re upset?”
“I’m not upset,” I insisted.
“Well, if you were, I wouldn’t blame you,” Teddy said. “Nobody would. It never gets easier dealing with all this crap. You’d think it would, but I guess you can never really get used to monsters.”
I didn’t say anything to that, so Teddy continued, “And getting to hide away from it for a while actually probably it made it worse. Especially for you, since you weren’t even interacting with people. Dealing with zombies now must be a real shock.”
“I’m not shocked. I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth.
“It has to – ”
“Teddy!” Boden snapped, cutting him off. “She said she was fine. Can you drop it now?”
“Oh, right.” Teddy looked embarrassed and fumbled with the straps of his backpack, then fell back in step with Bishop behind us. “Sorry.”
When we reached the large wooden sign outside of town, it was still light enough to read the familiar slogan written there: “The Best Little Town in the West.” The sign was riddled with bullet holes and splattered with zombie blood.
Already, the death groans were audible. Boden and Nolita drew their guns, and we all moved in close together. We couldn’t see the zombies, but there were plenty of trees and houses to hide them.
“We have to be careful,” I told Boden in a hushed tone. “Last time I was here, there were marauders who shot at us.”
He swore under his breath, then muttered, “Delightful.”
“Marauders?” Nolita asked. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean be as quiet as possible so we can make it to the compound undetected, and we won’t have any problems,” I said.
Nobody shot at us as we made our way into the town, so that was something. I didn’t see any signs of marauders, but that didn’t mean anything. All the houses had been damaged, lawns were torn up, and the streets were littered with smashed cars and broken furniture, as well as body parts and corpses.
A low rumble came from a tree next to us, and Boden turned toward it, aiming his gun at the monster in the branches. I looked with him and saw that it wasn’t a zombie, but something that made me much happier to see.