"Why are you just standing there? Shoot the goddamned gun!"
The shotgun was clumsy in Fingers's hands, and he fumbled for the trigger. The sound of the gunshot was like the crack of a whip against the silent inky sky. The shell fell to the moist dirt at the same time as the noisy, lumbering man who had come traipsing down the hill toward the little group collapsed onto the forest floor, the gaping wound between his eyes dripping eerily gleaming fluid onto the carpet of leaves. Fingers let out his breath, lowering the gun. He could feel the barrel of another gun poke him in the back of the shoulder and turned to see Disco, his lime hair gleaming in the dim moonlight, nodding.
"Nice shot," he said coolly.
Voodoo was already beside the fallen corpse, and he poked its shoulder with the toe of his army boot. "Fresh." he muttered. "Judging from the way he was running, he hadn't even hit rigor mortis yet. This is getting sick. It means people are getting killed close… real bloody close." he leaned against the side of the statue they were crowded around; a stark marble angel, the only thing in the forest besides these innumerable trees, reaching her stone arms toward that bloodshot sky. Voodoo lit a cigarette, and its smoke mingled with his steamy breath as he released a steady stream of it. "We're not safe here."
"Well I could 'ave told you that," Joss told him. He looked sinister in the dim light. A fringe of his unruly black hair hung into his face, giving him the illusion of having one eye. The white print on his torn shirt glowed in the moonlight, boldly proclaiming love is dead. Fingers shivered. "The whole bleedin' country 'as turned into a fuckin' battlefield. We're not safe anywhere." he nudged Voodoo with his shoulder. "C'n I bum a smoke?"
Pale fingers held the cigarette across the gap between them, and he took it quickly, taking a few puffs before handing it back to Voodoo. "You don't need to point out how hopeless this whole thing is, you fucking downer." Voodoo held a shaking hand to his temple for a moment before dropping it again and turned his back on the shorter man. Voodoo towered over the others. Long-limbed, slim, blonde-hair streaked with purple and caked with blood, and still incomparably graceful after so much stress. "It's already bad enough without you reminding us."
"Oh c'mon, lighten up." Joss swayed slightly. He gave the impression, even away from alcohol for the entire 'Crisis', of always being pissed on something. He draped an arm across Fingers's shoulders. "We're all thinkin' about it anyway. Right, Fingers?" it was Joss who had dubbed him with the nickname in the first place, after he had stumbled upon the group and been saved from certain death by Joss's mad fascination with shooting his gun in random directions whenever there was a threat nearby. It was already starting to stick. His real name was Theodore, but he wasn't about to release that information anywhere near Joss. He tried to make everything into some sort of joke, and he didn't seem to be at all bothered by the fact that death lurked around the edge of every passing moment. It was as if he didn't care. His attitude made it seem that he waved a flag bearing the message Fuck you all, I don't care. Death means nothing. A few minutes after Fingers had arrived, he had even tried to engage him in a conversation about Top of the Pops. Life was a circus to Joss. They were all just his freak show. He was the only member of the group who didn't seem to show any emotional attachment to the others, and it was a bit unnerving, almost inhuman.
"Maybe we should head east," Voodoo broke the long silence that had settled over them. "Maybe it's safer that way… less… zombies." it seemed to almost hurt him to say the word.
Disco had moved away from where he was tending to James's wounds and joined the rest of the group. "We need to stay here," his voice was calm. "David sent off a flare earlier, remember? If we move, we may never be rescued."
"The fairy's got a point," Joss said, pretending to be thinking hard. "In case the search party that doesn't exist 'appens to come'n find us. And in case you didn't notice, David doesn't exactly have the best ideas, remember? Or… didn', anyway. Now I don' think he'll be 'aving many more ideas." he gestured with his eyes to David's corpse lying on the edge of the clearing, those eyes still open and glassy, pointed toward the cloudless sky.
"Shut up." It was the first time Tweak had spoken in quite some time, and his voice sounded foreign to Fingers's ears now. "Just… shut up. All you do is bring everybody down, and I'm sick of it, man. If you can't contribute in some way doesn't cause everyone discomfort, then just shut your goddamned mouth."
"Let me tell you something, ebony-face," Joss told him, poking a black-nail-polished finger into the tall African American's chest. The motion made the thin gold chain around his neck swing, the tiny diamond ring that hung on it bouncing against him as it fell back against his collarbones. "We're in the middle of a damn forest. We're surrounded by zombies. We're all going to die. We probably don' 'ave much time left. 'M just trying to make you all realize that so you don' weep in terror when you figure it out in the end. There's no law against telling the fucking truth. Because the truth is, we're all as good as dead already. So why don' you take your self-righteous bullshit and shove it up your arse?"
Fingers, who had heard so much of this same thing today that it almost made him sick, leaned against the statue beside Voodoo and tried to drown out the rest of the bickering. "Smoke?" the tall man asked him softly, and he shook his head.
"No thanks I don't…" he trailed off for a moment. "I don't smoke."
Voodoo nodded. "Good. It's a bad habit." he took a puff. "I'd kick it if I could but I figure… why bother now. Now that it's all…" he gestured to the area around them. "Like this. Everyone dying… everything fucked up the way it is… and the dead coming back and walking around… I had to kill them all…" he paused. "After they came back when they'd been killed. My whole band. We were playing a show at Manchester… and some of those things… those zombies… got in. Killed almost everybody. I was lucky… I don't know how. And now I almost wish I hadn't been." another puff of smoke curled upward toward the sky like a ghost wandering toward the heavens. Fingers nodded solemnly, understanding.
"They're everywhere." his voice was shaking. "No matter where you go… zombies… people dead, people dying… getting ripped apart in the streets. Getting their organs devoured… like we're in some movie… some old horror movie… and the credits never roll." he swallowed. "There's no way to escape them… it's all a nightmare… I remember how the city was… they all came at me at once… I could never stop running… and I could never wake up from that nightmare. Why does it all have to be real? Why does it all have to be like this?" he bit his lip to keep from choking. Voodoo's hand was on his shoulder, strong and assuring.
"I don't know. But we'll be okay… really. We'll make it through this. We've got backpacks full of ammo and supplies. We took them from an army camp where everyone was dead… back before you found us, before we came to this spot." he blew a few smoke rings, and the two of them watched them dissolve into nothing before he continued. "We've got enough shit to last us for months. Someone will come rescue us. We'll send off another flare tonight… and one in the morning. We've got thirty left. Someone's bound to see them. They'll get the outbreak contained. And we'll get out of it alive… we've got your aim, after all."
Fingers smiled weakly. He had seen this man in music videos, talk shows, interviews, so many times in the past decade. But he had never imagined he'd meet him in person, and certainly not in this unpleasant of a situation. He had been someone he'd looked up to, and now here we was, trapped in a zombie-infested wasteland of a world with him, and would most likely end up dying with him. Fate was strange, and almost cruel. Not many people would have to watch the person they admired the most die. "I hope you're right," he said quietly.
The sound of a soft, ominous moan came from somewhere out of sight, and the two of them snapped to attention, guns raised and steady, pointed toward the small hill. A tall, ragged figure slowly came into view, silhouetted against the moonlight. He staggered slowly, blindly, his legs stiff and dragging as he made his way in their direction. Fingers aimed and fired. The bullet had reached the figure before he had time to see it leave the gun. It buried itself quickly in the skull, and the walking corpse's head burst like a kicked melon, sending a spray of brain matter and fluid in all directions. The scent of decay filled the air as the zombie collapsed onto the dead leaves, and Fingers wrinkled his nose.
"Nice," Voodoo gave him an encouraging smile and leaned back against the marble. "See, I told you. That aim of yours is going to save us."
"Fingers," Disco's calm voice came from behind them. "Can you help me with James?" the young man was biting his lip, looking pale and worried, and Fingers set his gun down against the statue and walked over to where Disco had James propped up against a tombstone. Being in the middle of the small, long-abandoned graveyard gave a feeling of security rather than having the opposite effect that was expected. Its gravestones also provided useful backrests, especially for the wounded. James was wounded extensively, so they were definitely being put to good use. As Fingers neared them, he saw the full extent of James's damage. He had been wounded when several zombies unexpectedly stormed the camp a few hours previously, but Fingers hadn't noticed just how much harm had been done. He had bites out of both arms, his shoulder, and his neck, which were now concealed by the gauze they had been wrapped in. Deep bites also punctured his worried face, and his deep brown hair was matted with blood from a bite taken right out of his skull. Fingers was surprised the man was even alive. He knelt beside the two of them, trying not to step on James's glasses, which were broken in half but sat beside him in case they were suddenly needed.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked Disco dutifully. Disco was still biting his lip, and in the time Fingers had known him he had never seen him look quite this worried. His normally laid-back attitude was gone, replaced by one of frantic worry.
"Can you put some antiseptic on the ones on his face and put some gauze pads over them?" the young man asked. Fingers nodded, reaching into the first aid kit that sat open beside Disco and grabbing the necessary items.
"Are you alright?" he asked James gently as he began to rub the bites with the antiseptic. James winced as the liquid touched his skin.
"Sure… I'm fine." the smile he gave Fingers was shaky, and it worried him. He didn't know James as well as the others, but the thought of him being hurt still concerned him. He could sense something in him… a kind of resoluteness he had known before in those mortally wounded. He just hoped that the feeling was wrong and that James was in fact not beyond repair. He began to slowly patch his face up with the gauze pads, murmuring a quiet prayer under his breath as he worked.
It must have been nearly midnight when Voodoo pointed out the fact that they hadn't slept. "I'll take the first watch," he volunteered. "You can all get some rest. We're going to need it if we're going to be fighting zombies again tomorrow." he said it with that tone of authority that he did so well, that made it clear it was pointless to argue, that he wasn't going to back down, and that you'd be better off just going to sleep than trying to get a word in otherwise. It was why the group had unspokenly elected him as their leader. He was the only one who could make decisions and make the others listen. "It'll do us all some good to dream for a while, won't it?"
The group agreed reluctantly, and Fingers could sense the fear in all of them, the fear that burned and tore and throbbed. The fear had been growing in everyone he had come into contact with since the outbreak had begun. It changed, it grew, molding everyone under its influence, morphing and fluxing and growing in one constant pattern that was the same in all individuals, until it had grown so much it was an entity of its own. The fear had grown more forceful by the moment, and as the group lay down in sleeping bags and under blankets among the gravestones, its intensity burned with the force of an open flame, consuming everything in its path. A silence fell over the graveyard, blanketing everything, and as they all lay breathing in the cold, quiet hush, there was the desperate, unspoken hope that they would all be alive come the morning.
By morning, James was dead.
The clearing was silent, empty of voices, empty of gunshots. The small group just stood in restrained agony around the young man's corpse, his face frozen in a peaceful half-smile that was almost eerie, considering the thing that caused his death. They paid their unspoken respects to what he had once been as they stood in the warming morning, bathed in the early, dim glow.
Disco lay wrapped around the corpse for as long as they would let him, sobbing. Fingers had never seen him display such unrestrained emotion, and it made the wetness prickle at the corners of his eyes to see the calm, collected Disco sobbing uncontrollably as he embraced the cooling body of what had once been a living, breathing man. And when James let out an animalistic moan and opened eyes that were thickly glazed over and mad and began to move his stiff limbs, Fingers gritted his teeth and said "Disco, move."
Disco disentangled himself from the shifting corpse and walked quickly to the edge of the clearing to duck behind a tree. Fingers loaded his shotgun and aimed carefully, killing the zombie that had once been James with one shot. Disco's sobs became louder at the sound of the shot and James collapsing onto the ground. He wandered away from the clearing for a few moments to compose himself and then returned quickly with his face streaked with tears, afraid to leave the relative safety of the clearing for long. And then, beside the fire Joss had made, he cried in silence. The others buried James and David quickly outside of the clearing in the pinkish glow of the sunrise.
"They were lovers," Voodoo explained to Fingers quietly as they lowered James into his grave. "They were together when they joined us, back in Sussex. I guess all of their friends and family had been killed. They were all each other had left. They'd been together for a year or so, I think James said. They were going to get married when it was all over… but James didn't make it." he bit his lip. "So this is very hard on Disco… he's probably going to be inconsolable for a while."
"I wonder what makes it happen… two men being together. What makes it work," Fingers wondered aloud. He had always been attracted strictly to females, and they had never been coy in their mutual interest in him. He had never really understood those who 'batted for the other team', as his brother Philip would say. Business was good with the opposite sex, and it rarely occurred to him that attraction to males was even possible.
"I guess it's the same as what makes a man and a woman work." Voodoo lowered some more dirt into the hole. "We're all really the same once you get past the outside, when it comes to how we love."
"Yeah yeah, so they were 'omos. Big deal. You don't need to turn the whole thing into a psychology lesson," Joss said, patting down the dirt on David's grave that he and Tweak had finished filling in a moment ago. "We've got more pressing matters to attend to, like zombies, for instance." he turned and strode back toward the clearing with the shovel over his shoulder.
"Why you always gotta be such an asshole?" Tweak asked, following him with his hands in the air. Fingers sighed and deposited another shovel full of dirt into James's grave.
The day passed uneventfully. No less than five zombies found their way into the camp, a strangely low number, and a feeling of hope began to grow, barely even conceivable under the all-consuming veil of the fear. It was a fragile ray of hope, like weak sunshine peeking from behind the clouds on a day full of storms. The slightest incident could extinguish it completely, but it was still there, and it was a silent reminder that there was the possibility of a future on the horizon, no matter what hell they were trapped in now. The tiny glimmer of optimism made the day seem less long and painful than the days passed. But even under light of all this, the group was subdued, the memory of James's death still lingering over their heads. They were less talkative with each other in the light, not needing conversation to seek refuge from the impossible darkness, and the silent that had spread itself over the camp was broken only by the occasional question or snatch of discussion of current events. Disco, especially, was passive, sitting up against the gravestone James had been propped against the night before, head between his knees, deep in thought.
"You okay?" Fingers asked him around noon when he came to hand him a packet of dry Ramen noodles, one of the main food items taken from the military base. They had eaten all that was perishable in the beginning, on that first day, and now they had little that wasn't dehydrated or instant. Disco nodded dimly when he heard the question, taking the Ramen and muttering his thanks. Fingers took a seat beside him. "I'm… really sorry about James," he said carefully.
Disco nodded again, that blank, dead nod of someone who has gone without sleep for weeks, though Fingers knew he had slept only the night before. "Thanks. It's… alright. I guess it was better for him to die than to suffer anymore… he was in a lot of pain." but Disco's eyes didn't look like he thought it was better. Disco's eyes just wept and burned and longed for him back.
"You're right," Fingers agreed softly, patting Disco on the shoulder, though he knew it could do little to comfort him.
"It's strange, isn't it?" Disco looked thoughtful. "We're so used to holding onto things… and then this infestation happens, and we suddenly have to become accustomed to losing anything and everything… we have to come to expect it, to accept it… almost to welcome it… if we're ever going to survive." Neither of them spoke for a time, and when Disco finally did, he was much more collected. "I know I have to move on… focus on staying alive… on the people who are still here… but it's just so hard to let him go."
"I know. It's always hard to let go. But you can take your time, if you need to. We have all the time in the world being stuck here, right?"
This made Disco smile. "No… I have to move on, or I'll wallow in it forever. It'll be okay… I just wish it hadn't happened this way."
"I don't think I've ever loved anyone like that…" Fingers told him. "Enough to want to marry them… to be that sure that I loved them, that I'd want to be with them forever."
Disco nodded. "You will. Now… let's boil these noodles over the fire… if I have to eat another pack dry I think I might throw up."
By evening, twenty zombies had come their way, some stiff with rigor mortis, some still fresh; fast and nimble, able to run like a living human, though more prone to stumbling. It seemed to be a pattern, fewer zombies during the morning, more during the afternoon and evening. The greatest concentration of attacks seemed to be in the evening, between 5:00 and 10:00, and after that, the night seemed to be far less dangerous, though there was always that eminent danger hanging overhead that death could creep in at any moment-- death, that shadowy lady in its dress as black as night-- and choose any one of them for its lover. After an evening meal of more dehydrated food, Disco shot off another flare to alert other survivors of their position. It had become a routine that they all expected. The flare once in the day, once after dark.
"Am I the only one who's getting fucking bored?" Joss asked after a time of sitting around holding guns and watching out for attacks. "We've been doing the same thing for days." he was fiddling with his pocket knife, opening and closing it and picking his black painted fingernails. "It's getting a little bit old, if you cats know what I mean."
"We're not at a bloody football game," Voodoo snapped. "We're not exactly out here for fun and games."
"Well excuse me," Joss snapped back, and the two of them shared a menacing glare before Joss got up and trounced off toward the trees. "You lot are no fun. I'll go take a wee and maybe you'll be less of a complete social disaster when I come back." his feet crunched on the dead leaves as he walked into the woods. Voodoo shook his head silently. No one moved for a time, and then suddenly, as though the world were punishing them for being able to sit and do nothing, there was an earsplitting shriek from the trees.
"Shit," Voodoo said quickly as they all simultaneously leaped to their feet and poised their guns. "Now we're in for it."
But it wasn't a zombie who came charging into the camp and slammed head-on into Disco. It was Joss. A colorful stream of curse words were pouring from his mouth at approximately the same pace as the blood pouring from his shoulder, which was clearly visible even with the hand he had clamped over it.
"I 'ad just gotten my pants back up, and then the fucker came up behind me. Bit me right in the fuckin' shoulder, 'e did." he lifted his hand and showed them the wound to prove his point. "Stabbed 'im with my knife, but I don' think I killed the bastard… didn' have my gun, so I just ran for it."
Without a moment of hesitation, Fingers lifted his gun and blasted a hole between the eyes of the zombie who had just come lumbering into the camp. Then he turned back toward Joss, who Disco was already leading toward the first aid kit. "We've got to patch you up…" he was saying shakily. "Or you'll end up like James…"
Disco let Fingers clean the wound ("Bloody fucking hell" was Joss's response to the antiseptic), and then did the best job he could of stitching up the deep bite, and Fingers helped him put some gauze strips over it. When the ordeal was over, Joss looked reasonably better, and Fingers breathed a sigh of relief.
"He bit you." Voodoo seemed to come out of nowhere behind them, like a vapor cloud.
"Abso-fucking-lutely. You win the prize, mate," Joss said, still rubbing at his shoulder.
"The bite was what killed David…" Tweak said slowly. "And James."
"So? I'm fine. You know a bite's not going to do me in. You're not that lucky."
"I don't think we can take any chances…" Voodoo's tone was purposeful and agonizing.
"Are you suggesting we kill him!?" Fingers's voice rose in pitch without his consent, just as it always did when he was upset, and it was on the border of a shriek. The shock rose up in waves through his body, consuming his senses and making his breath come in short, labored gasps. He couldn't believe that they could possibly suggest killing a member of the group… even if it was Joss. The thought of it was unthinkable, and it made a bubble of panic rise in his throat.
"No, I'm not," Voodoo said gently. "I'm saying that we can't take chances… Joss, you're going to have to sleep away from the camp tonight. It took David and James what… twelve hours or so to die and turn into zombies after they were bitten, right?" he swallowed. "If you're still alright in the morning, then you can come back and I'll apologize for this, alright?" he looked very grave, and his face was an ashen white. He couldn't seem to be able to look at Joss.
"Yeah, great, sentence me to death," Joss looked quite miffed at the whole idea, and crossed his arms.
"It's one night…" Voodoo said helplessly. "…you'll be alright."
"Yeah, sure. How about you try spending one night out there." Joss pointed toward the trees, and throughout the group there was a tiny, incomprehensible shudder. "Alright in the morning my ass. If I'm not dead from the bite by then, which I know I won't be, I'll be dead from one of those things ripping my bloody head off." he grabbed a blanket and a shotgun from the ground and turned. "Well fine, if you bastards don't want to put up with me, I'll go spend a night out there."
He had disappeared from the clearing in seconds, and there was a chill left behind, a chill of knowing, deep down the pit of their souls, that it could be them next.