“I understand.” Serg offered a small smile. “Thank you.”
Once he was out of earshot, I turned to Boden and said, “What’d you invite him along for?”
“I’d rather have him walking beside us than sneaking up behind us,” Boden replied simply.
We finished packing our things and headed out. We started out following Boden’s path as closely as we could, but when we heard the rumblings of zombies nearby, we had to diverge from the course.
It was nice that we had a map, though, and for once we weren’t wandering completely blind, even if it was hard to discern where we were since we weren’t really following roads.
The zombies called frequently in the distance, but we never got close enough to see them. But to be safe, we didn’t slow down. We kept as quick a pace as we could manage and didn’t take any breaks.
That ended up wearing on the kids. Teddy and Nolita ended up carrying Stella most of the day, taking turns between them. I would’ve offered to carry her myself, but I didn’t think she liked me that much.
Besides that, the walking was harder on me than I’d ever admit. My stomach ached terribly, and when I’d cleaned up in the morning, I’d noticed that my incision was leaking. I assumed that wasn’t good, but I didn’t want to ask Daniels for help. Not unless I absolutely had to, and I wasn’t there yet.
By midafternoon, Max really started trailing. I walked in the back with him, and eventually I took his hand, nearly dragging him along. He didn’t whine or complain, though – he just struggled to keep up.
Once Max stumbled and fell to the ground. To make matters worse, the death groans were nearby.
We were walking uphill through thick pines and scattered bare maples. The ground was covered in dry pine needles and patches of snow. It was colder up here, and we’d stopped once to put an extra sweaters on Max and Stella.
The trees offered cover from the zombies, but the zombies calls sounded like they were echoing off the tree trunks. It was hard to tell exactly where they came from, but it couldn’t be that far away. Our best bet was to stay quiet and keep moving.
Every time one of them would cry out, Ripley would stop, her ears pointed forward as she looked around. So far, she hadn’t spotted one, and I figured that was a good sign, since she had better tracking skills than I did. She just kept walking several feet away from us, weaving through the trees.
When Max fell, I was still hanging onto his hand, and it jerked me back. I started pulling him up, but he shook his head and refused to stand.
“Remy, I hurt my knee.” He let go of my hand and sat up. A rock had torn through his jeans, and his knee was scraped and bloody. “I don’t think I can walk.”
“It’s just a scrape, Max,” I said in a hushed tone. “You can walk just fine.”
“No.” He shook his head and looked up at me with sad eyes. “I’m too tired. I don’t think I can walk anymore.”
We’d already been lagging behind the others, and when I looked back up the hill, I could see the rest of them getting even farther away. Even Ripley continued on, her beige body almost disappearing in the trees.
“You can do it,” I insisted and took his hands. I tried to pull him to his feet, but his legs gave out, and he fell back to the ground. “Max, come on.”
“Remy, I can’t,” he said.
The plaintive tone in his voice made me believe him. Max wasn’t one to just give up or throw fits needlessly, but he was an eight-year-old kid. He couldn’t go on forever, no matter how much he wanted to.
With no other option, I tried to pick him up. The problem was that I wasn’t that strong anymore. I wasn’t eating, I was exhausted from walking, and I probably had an infection brewing. The adrenaline rush I got in battle with zombies made me capable of things that I couldn’t do in regular life.
Unfortunately, as worried as I was, the adrenaline hadn’t kicked in yet. Or maybe I didn’t have any left. Eventually, I supposed, my body would give out, too, even if I kept pushing it. Unlike the zombies, I wasn’t immortal.
I put my arms underneath Max and tried to lift, but my feet slipped in the dirt, and we both fell down. Bracing my feet, I picked him up, but the trembling in my biceps let me know that I wouldn’t be able to carry him for long.
Still, I was determined to do it as long as I could. Which only ended being a few steps before I stumbled and fell again.
“Remy, go on without me,” Max said.
“I’m not going anywhere without you.” I sat on the ground next to him and ran an exasperated hand through my hair, trying to figure out what to do.
I couldn’t call to the others, not with the zombies so close. Max and I were talking in whispers, afraid of alerting them to our location. If I yelled for Boden or Teddy, the zombies would be on us, and that wouldn’t be good for anybody.
Our best bet was to wait here silently and hope the zombies moved on without spotting us. When Max had enough strength, we could get up and catch up to the others.
“You should keep going,” Max insisted.
“No.” I looked at him and smiled grimly. “If you stay, I stay. We’re in this together, remember?”
I put my arm around him and stared down toward the bottom of the hill. I had my brother again, and I wasn’t about to leave him behind. We sat there for a while like that, listening to the death groans of the zombies growing closer. Max covered his knee in mud, trying to hide the scent of his blood. I held my breath, and waited.
A twig snapped right behind us, and I whirled around, expecting to find a blood-thirsty monster. Instead it was only Boden, trudging downhill to us by himself. I stood up, wanting to ask him why’d he come back here, but I was too afraid to make a sound.
Without a word, he bent down and picked up Max. He swung Max around to his back, so Max wrapped his arms around his neck. Then Boden started hurrying back up the hill, moving as fast he could without making noise.
I followed after him, determined to keep his pace. I’d had a bit of a break waiting with Max, and I felt a second wind coming. Or maybe that was the adrenaline from thinking that Boden was a zombie about to tear us to pieces.
Based on the fading sound of their death groans, I guessed the zombies were moving slower than us. They were wandering without a real purpose, possibly drawn to the scent of people but without a clear target. We were on a mission to get away from them.
When the zombies sounded far enough away for that it was safe to talk, I finally asked Boden why he’d come back.