And what I could see of Teddy’s body wasn’t pretty. His legs and pants were shredded, clawed up by the zombie’s hands. His mouth was open wide, frozen in an expression of horror, and his entire back was stained with blood.
“Stella, sweetie,” I said, turning my attention to the little girl hiding in the tree. “It’s okay. The zombie’s gone now.”
“No!” She shook her head, tears streaming down her chubby cheeks. “The zombies are never gone!”
“Well, they are for now,” I said. I moved closer to the tree, which meant stepping over Teddy’s body, and I held my hands out to her. “The zombies are gone, and everything’s okay. You can come down now.”
“No!” She clung onto the branch and kicked at me, like she was trying to shoo me away. “I’m never coming down again!”
“Stella.” I sighed and put my hands on my hips. “This is like the loft all over again. You came down from that, and that turned out fine.”
“It did not!” Stella pointed to Teddy. “He got eaten! And something happened to that lady back in the cabin! It’s not fine!”
“Well, yes, those things did happen but …” I trailed off.
But what? She had a point. She just couldn’t live in that tree forever.
“Is everything okay?” Bishop asked as she jogged up behind me. Boden and Daniels were following behind her, but at a much slower rate.
“Well, Stella’s in the tree,” I started to explain, but Bishop’s eyes had been locked on her. She’d probably been summoned by Stella’s cries, the same way I had.
Bishop looked down when she got close and slowed to a startled walk. She put her hand to her mouth, and her eyes widened as she approached Teddy.
“Oh my god.” Her voice trembled, and tears filled her eyes. She lowered her hand and circled closer to Teddy. She reached out like she meant to touch him, but she didn’t. “Oh, Teddy. Oh no.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“No.” She pushed her lips together in a thin line and swallowed back tears. “It’s not your fault. And he died bravely, at least. That’s something.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed.
“Stella.” Bishop turned her attention to the child, smiling up at her with tears in her eyes. “Are you okay, sweetie?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “But I’m never coming down.”
“How did you get up there, honey?” Bishop asked, wiping at her eyes. “Did you climb up there?”
Stella shook her head. “Teddy helped me up here. Then when he was climbing up, the zombie grabbed him and pulled him back down.”
“That won’t happen to you, Stella,” Bishop said. “We got all the zombies. It’s safe to come down now.”
“I already tried that approach,” I told her quietly. “The kid’s not budging.”
“Come on, honey.” Bishop held her arms up to the tree. “Come on down. I’ll keep you safe, Stella. I promise.”
“Remy!” Max shouted, and I turned to see him running through the trees toward me. Daniels was behind him, but moving more slowly.
“Hey, kid!” I stepped in between Max and Teddy, blocking his view as best I could. When Max reached me, he jumped into my arms, hugging me.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Max said, and I let go of him, putting him on the ground. “Are all the zombies dead?”
“They sure are,” I said. “Well, the ones that were attacking us, anyway.”
“Did everyone make it okay then?” Daniels asked me, and I shook my head. His eyes travelled over to where Teddy and the zombie lay dead, and he frowned.
“Thank you for taking my brother,” I said.
Daniels nodded. “It was nothing that you wouldn’t have done for me.”
“What’s Stella doing up in that tree?” Max asked.
“Um, she’s hiding out.” I put my hand on his shoulder, keeping him from walking closer to Teddy’s body.
It might have seemed silly to some that I was trying spare him from seeing that. After all the gore and death he’d witnessed, Teddy would just be another one in the long list of horrors he’d encountered in his short life.
But if I could make it so there was one fewer awful thing haunting Max’s nightmares, then I would do it. I’d always tried to shield him from seeing the worst of everything, and I knew that I couldn’t every time. But that never stopped me from trying.
“Stella, you’ve got to come down,” Bishop told her in a soothing voice. “We can’t stay here forever.”
“Max, why don’t you ask Stella to come down?” Boden suggested, since none of Bishop’s tactics seemed to be working.
“Come on, Stella.” Max stepped forward, but he was looking up at her. “You gotta come down from there eventually.”
“No, I don’t!” Stella insisted.
“Yeah, you do,” Max said. “You’re gonna get tired and hungry and you’ll have to pee. You can’t eat or pee up in that tree, and if you tried to sleep, you’d fall out. So you should come down now when we’re all here to help you.”
That argument seemed to be winning Stella over. She didn’t immediately denounce it as stupid, and she looked down at Bishop.
“It’s okay, Stella.” Bishop held up her arms. “I’ll catch you.”
“Oh hell,” Boden whispered.
“What?” I whispered back, wondering what his problem was.
Then he pointed, and I saw it right away. When Bishop lifted up her arms to reach for Stella, her shirt had ridden up in the back. There on her side, a few inches above her hip, was a large bite mark. The edges were ragged and bloody, fresh from her fight. A zombie had bitten her. She was infected.
“Shit,” I said.
Daniels and Serg must’ve have seen the same thing, because they both let out large sighs. Bishop was too busy coaxing Stella out of the tree to notice us, and it seemed to be working, so we let her keep going.
“Come on, honey.” Bishop’s hands were outstretched, and Stella was tentatively letting go of the tree. She moved closer to Bishop but hadn’t made an official move to get down yet. “I’ll catch you, sweetie.”
“You promise you’ll catch me?” Stella asked.