He was the first living soul Jake had seen in weeks—or was it months now—and of course Jake had to find him right after his run-in with that thing in the filthy Little League uniform.
Jake had broken into the Wal-Mart easily enough, distantly surprised that the looters and rioters and…other things had left it alone, and made a beeline for the pharmacy section. He'd poured the peroxide with one shaking hand over the other, breath too loud in his ears, his stomach roiling. The shuffle of a step had made that roiling stomach jump right into his throat and he'd quickly pulled his thick gloves back on and grabbed his shotgun, scolding himself for not keeping track of his surroundings.
He knew better than to call out. Instead, he'd ghosted down the dark aisle, eyes sweeping side to side for any sign of movement. Shotgun raised, he stepped out of the relative cover provided by shelves of rubbing alcohol and cotton balls and found himself looking into a pair of dark eyes filled with as much life and intelligence as his own.
The man stood there, one leg extended in front of the other in what was nearly a parody of tip-toeing, left arm raised above his head brandishing a wicked-looking machete, mouth a slack 'O' of surprise. He blinked stupidly at Jake, shook his head as if to clear it, and then blinked again. Jake lowered his gun. A sharp bark of laughter escaped the man. He slapped his free hand over his mouth and dropped the arm with the machete to his side.
"H-holy shit," the man said from behind his hand as another nervous giggle bubbled up from his throat. He seemed to flinch at the sound of his own voice. "Are…?" he began, swallowing as the hand over his mouth drifted down to curl around his chin. "Are you real?"
Jake nodded. It took him a moment to find his voice. When he did, it sounded rusty and gruff in his own ears. "Yeah, pretty sure I am."
They stood and stared at each other, both drinking in the details of another living human being. Jake took in the blue bandana covering limp hair that might've been a sandy brown color when it was clean, the flannel shirt and cargo pants that were two sizes too big for the lanky frame they hung from, so the guy had either lifted them in a hurry or lost a hell of a lot of weight recently—either possibility was likely—and the circles under brown eyes so dark they looked like day-old bruises. The man looked like shit. Jake decided he was beautiful.
The open expression behind those dark eyes shuttered a bit as the man's gaze drifted over Jake, no doubt noting the bandolier loaded with shells slung across his chest, the combat vest hanging off his shoulders, brimming with goodies, pistol snug in the removable holster attached to the left front panel, its twin nestled away in a thigh holster, and the rust-brown spatters stained across his clothes. Jake hadn't thought about his own appearance in a long damn time. He fought the urge to run a hand through his hair or cross his arms over his chest.
"I…," the man started, prominent Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed again, "I take it all that," he nodded toward Jake's chest, "is for them?"
Jake let his eyes drop to the machete still held loosely at the man's side and felt one of his eyebrows arch of its own accord. "That's right."
The man straightened his shoulders and made a tight little nod. A stiff breeze probably could've blown him over. "I'm Sam," he said, extending his right hand. "Sam Olsen."
Jake stared at the offered hand for a moment, unsure what to do with it. Then part of his brain—the part that had decided to go on vacation around the time he'd seen a little old lady rip a chunk out of a burly trucker's neck with her teeth—kicked in and he reached out to shake the man's hand. "Jake Thompson."
Sam nodded again, shoulders slumping as he released Jake's hand and let out a whoosh of breath. "Well, come on then." He cocked his head toward the back of the store. "I'm set up over in Sports and Fitness."
Jake followed Sam through the dark store, trying to remember just how the whole 'polite conversation with another human being' thing worked. Sam led him past an aisle of neatly boxed footballs and basketballs, past a row of baseball gloves that smelled pleasantly of leather in a way that made Jake's eyes prickle, and ducked down an aisle lined with tents in boxes and racks of sleeping bags.
Several bags were bunched together on the floor. A shapeless duffle sat beside them. Jake caught the flash of a Powerbar wrapper peeking out from its opened zipper. A heap of aluminum cans sat on one of the sleeping bags. On another bag, many more cans were strung together on what Jake guessed was fishing line.
Sam took a seat in front of the cans, setting his machete at his feet and deftly picking up the line without making any noise. "Early warning system," he said. "I was getting ready to rig it up when I heard you come in."
He laid the line back down and folded his hands in his lap. His fingers squirmed nervously against each other. "Guess I shoulda taken off out the loading dock as soon as I heard a noise," he continued, eyes darting up to Jake's face, "but I figured, if it was just one…I mean..." His gaze drifted back to his lap. "I haven't slept in so long…the next best place to hole up is miles…and, if it was just one…."
Jake swung his shotgun behind his back and hunkered down. He reached out, hesitating a moment before touching Sam's wrist. The contact stilled Sam's restless fingers. Jake quietly cleared his throat and said, "You can sleep tonight. I'll take the first watch."
There was no discussion of whether they'd move on together or not.
That first night Sam tried to make a bit of awkward small talk—when even the tried and true starters like "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" were potential conversational minefields, there wasn't a lot left to chat about, even when you weren't shell-shocked and desperately exhausted—and eventually fell asleep sitting up.
Jake sat next to him and alternated watching the end of the aisle and watching the rise and fall of the sleeping bag over Sam's chest, absently worrying at the tear in the index finger of his left glove. He roused Sam a few hours before dawn so he could have a short rest of his own. He approved of the way Sam's hand wrapped itself around the hilt of his machete even before his eyes opened when Jake tapped his shoulder, but still didn't allow himself to fall too deeply into sleep.
When Sam tried to shake him awake, one of Jake's pistols was out and shoved under Sam's chin before he could even think about it.
"Okay," Sam said, raising his hands. There was a Powerbar in each one. "You can have the peanut butter flavor." He grinned sheepishly as Jake holstered his gun, mumbled an apology, and took the offered food.
Jake stared down at the foil package in his hands, unsure what to say.
Sam tore the wrapper off his own bar, shoved half of it in his mouth, and then started talking. "Too bad this isn't one of those super centers," he said, looking around the store. "I could really go for something-" He paused to swallow. "-that doesn't come in a foil packet right about now. 'Course," he said, shrugging as he popped the second half of the Powerbar in his mouth, "if it were a super center, all the produce'd be so rotten by now we probably wouldn't have been able to stomach the smell."
Jake was pretty sure they'd both smelled worse things by this point, but didn't argue. It seemed Sam was ready to renew his attempts at conversation with a night's sleep under his belt.
"So…." He popped the tab on a warm can of soda and took a long gulp. "Where you headed?"
Jake thought about it for a moment, looking Sam dead in the eye. It wasn't too hard to make the decision to tell the man. "Montana," he said.
Sam nodded thoughtfully. "Um hmm. Low population density, clean air, good fishing. Makes sense, I guess. Sounds good!"
He handed Jake a bottle of water. Jake shook his head and gestured toward the soda. The corner of Sam's mouth titled up in a lopsided smile as he passed a can over.
"We're gonna have to watch out for those crazy survivalist-types holed up in their well-stocked, fully-defensible bunkers, of course," he said, darting a nervous glance at one of Jake's guns. "Anyway." He shook his head as if he were shaking off a thought. "We can make a little detour and hit Fort Riley in Kansas. That was one of the evac points they were still holding together last time I picked up a broadcast."
"Waste of fucking time," Jake muttered before he could stop himself. Sam looked up at him sharply, a question in his eyes that Jake would really rather not answer. Instead, he engaged some of the more rusty machinery of his mind and tried to think it out logically. "How long ago was it you picked up this broadcast?"
"Um…." He cocked his head from side to side, chewing his lower lip and doing something that looked suspiciously like counting on his fingers.
Jake realized too late it was probably ridiculously unfair to expect Sam to have kept track of the time. The days had started bleeding together for him ages ago; he wasn't even positive what month it was anymore. He was pretty sure fall was on its way if the red and yellow leaves he'd been spotting on the trees were any indication.
"June," Sam finally said, the determined set of his jaw highlighting his confidence.
Jake gave him a look he hoped conveyed just how much stock he was willing to put into information from a months-old broadcast he'd never even heard.
Sam flashed him a hurt look and ducked his head. "Well, that's where I was headed, anyway," he mumbled, rubbing at the frayed edge of his shirt. He raised his head then and added, too brightly, "But hey, Montana's good! Montana's great!"
Jake grunted an affirmative and took a bite of his Powerbar.
It took much longer than Jake liked for them to get out of the store. He itched to keep moving. Staying in one place for long only led to downtime that led to thinking that led to remembering that was absolutely no fucking good for anybody.
But Sam crept over to his duffle after he'd finished talking to Jake and carefully pulled out a dog-eared road atlas that was missing its cover and a battered paperback with the AAA logo printed on its side. He fished out a greasy looking pencil and notebook and curled up Indian-style on one of the sleeping bags, books and notes spread across his lap, and muttered to himself as he scribbled and scratched and erased.
Jake checked that the machete was within Sam's reach and thought about going to check out the hunting section—maybe he'd get lucky and find Sam a piece—but found himself leaning closer to the other man instead, letting the low cadence of Sam's voice play in his ears.
Sam looked up every few minutes. Each time he'd find Jake still there and flash him a shy smile before going back to his work.
Unprompted, he began explaining himself as he flipped through pages and took notes. "They've been getting more nomadic as time goes on, spreading out, far as I can tell, but the best bets are still the smaller towns off the highways. Gotta find them big enough that there's still good odds of spotting a place to hole up and re-supply, though."
He popped his pencil between his teeth and shuffled between the atlas and the AAA book a few times. Jake craned his neck a little trying to glimpse the pages, surprisingly curious despite himself.
"Okay," Sam said, marking notes in the margins of the atlas. "I think I've got us covered with some options up along I-74 till it switches to 280 around Davenport."
He flipped the book towards Jake so that he could read it if he leaned forward a little. Jake glanced at the map, not trying to interpret his notes, but nodding at the path he'd traced out. It was a lot more planning than Jake had ever bothered with, but he supposed the strategy must have taken Sam this far. He pointedly didn't think too hard about the trail of towns on Sam's map stretching east of their current location, each one crossed out, many with a short list of handwritten names at their sides—Ed, Aunt Jane, Julia, Grandpa Olsen—each one of those with a line carefully drawn through its middle.
"Looks fine," he said after he realized Sam was looking at him expectantly and waiting for some kind of response. That earned him another shy smile before Sam started packing away his books. Jake stood up, slung his shotgun across his shoulder, and walked the two aisles to the hunting section.
He peeked in the display case—looked like this branch didn't stock anything heavier than a couple of crossbows and pellet guns and those didn't have the sort of stopping power Sam needed—and half-heartedly browsed the knife section. He'd just started to peel back his left glove to peer underneath it when the sound of a shuffle-step from behind had him whipping around and training his gun dead center on Sam's forehead.
"Sorry," he said, thumbing the safety back on.
"S'all right," Sam said as he lowered his hands. Jake noticed they were shaking slightly. The machete hung from a sheath at Sam's side and his left hand found its hilt, squeezing briefly before settling on the strap of his duffle. "Um, I'm all packed up and I, uh, scrounged a couple supplies. My bike's just outside the loading dock, so…whenever you were ready."
The mention of a bike reminded Jake that he'd left his own motorcycle back with the Little League player, not thinking at all in his blind hurry to get away. That little Yamaha had seen him across four state lines and he suddenly felt its loss, bone-deep and a bit terrifying in its intensity. He shook it off and followed Sam back to the loading dock.
It turned out Jake's Yamaha wouldn't have done him much good anyway; Sam's bike ended up being a Schwinn. They wasted another half hour finding a suitable bicycle for Jake, Sam quietly stating his disbelief over and over that Jake had ridden around on something so noisy.
"And God, even if I wasn't worried about having every one of those…well, every one in the vicinity hearing me coming, what happens when I wipe out and there's no one around to scrape me off the pavement and take me to the hospital? It'd suck to die of sepsis now."
By nine thirty, they were on the road, Sam leading a reluctant Jake in a debate over the merits of stealth and safety versus speed when traveling between towns.
They drank bottled water and ate more Powerbars from Sam's bag and never stopped moving, the smooth black ribbon of pavement beneath them cutting through overgrown fields, a dark farmhouse here and there dotting the landscape. Sam kept up a steady string of nervous chatter—something he'd heard about genetically engineered soybeans, a rant about Ms. Berger, his fifth grade homeroom teacher, a short-lived and ill-conceived game of I Spy—his eyes constantly scanning the horizon in a familiar way Jake knew meant he was looking for telltale shapes or signs of movement.
Shortly after noon they skirted the roads around Peoria. In the distance, the sun glinted off jumbles of cars clogging the roads out of the city, the remains of one of the countless traffic jams turned slaughter months ago. Jake mostly listened to Sam, rarely contributing, but finding himself smiling a few times as the day wore on, the expression feeling foreign on his face. When Sam startled a laugh out of him with an absolutely filthy joke about a randy group of vaudeville performers, Jake squeezed the handlebars of his bike. He told himself the twinge he felt shoot up his left index finger was all in his head.
The sun was getting low in the sky when they rode into a town near the Illinois-Iowa border that wasn't much more than an intersection with a gas station on one side and a cheap, no-name fast food restaurant on the other. Broken glass from the gas station's windows glittered orange and red in the dying sunlight. Sam and Jake exchanged a look and rode on without discussion.
A mile up the road they found a surprisingly large auto parts store that appeared undisturbed. Sam led them to a small service door around the back, rustled around in his bag, and pulled out what looked like a pocketknife. He unfolded several prongs from it that Jake recognized as picks and started talking as he fussed with the door.
"Broke my leg the summer I turned thirteen and got so bored I ended up checking out every book the library had on lock picking." The tip of his tongue peeked out from the corner of his mouth as he fiddled with his tools. "Never realized it'd come in so handy," he said, flashing a grin of triumph as the door swung open.
Jake didn't say anything, but he would have just kicked the stupid thing in if he were by himself.
Sam made an 'after you' gesture and then followed Jake inside. "It takes a little more time," he said, reading Jake's mind, "but this way, we can lock it back up with us inside."
Jake shrugged and started to look around, Sam trailing after him.
They found a couple of ancient vending machines—Sam produced more clever tools to crack them open without having to break their glass fronts—and ate a dinner of chewy-stale peanut butter crackers and Pop Tarts right in front of the machines, sharing a few bags of trail mix and peanut M&Ms for dessert. The soda machine was stocked with plenty of water. Sam drained one bottle right away and then used another to wet his bandana, scrubbing it over the back of his neck and his face. Jake dumped a bottle over his head and shook his hair out like a dog.
Between a set of leopard print seat covers, a pile of the most plush floor mats the store offered, and some emergency blankets they found inside the deluxe roadside safety kits stocked in aisle nine, they were able to make themselves pretty comfortable on the floor. It wasn't as good as the nest of sleeping bags had been, but Sam had already had enough shit to carry and mobility trumped comfort.
Sam doodled around with his atlas for a bit, a penlight held between his teeth shining down on the pages, while Jake sat back against the wall, patted down the different pockets of his vest, and watched Sam.
Once he'd tucked the book safely away, Sam scooted over to Jake until their shoulders touched, throwing him an embarrassed, brittle little smile in the dim light. The proximity only unsettled Jake for a few moments before he found himself relaxing into it, liking the warmth he could feel through the points of contact. He slung a companionable arm around Sam's shoulder without thinking about it.
Sam tensed violently.
Jake cursed under his breath, ready to back off and give him some space, but before he could move Sam abruptly folded into his body, burying his face against Jake's neck and clutching the fabric of his vest. He felt hot gusts of breath and the wetness of tears against the skin of his jaw. He froze, allowing Sam to cling to him, and tried to make out the words he spoke between hitching gulps of air.
"So long…alone…thought I…last one…can't…all gone…."
Jake tightened his arm around Sam's shoulder. It seemed to be the wrong thing to do. Sam just cried harder, turning his head away, clearly embarrassed and wanting to push away but just as clearly keeping the line of his body pressed against Jake.
"Oh fuck…God…I…." Sam dug the heels of his hands into his eyes but the tears didn't stop.
Unsure what to do, Jake just sat with him a while. As Sam began to quiet down, Jake started talking, soft, slow, and halting. "A buddy of mine had this cabin up in Bison Valley," he began.
Sam quieted even more, probably straining to hear Jake's voice.
"Just a little two room deal overlooking Mount Powell, nothing but trees and mountains for miles." He stared at the shelves of air fresheners—Mountain Fresh scent, no less—in front of him, the words coming more easily as he went along. "He took me up there fishing for a long weekend a couple years back."
He felt Sam lift his head from his hands and look at him, but kept starting straight ahead.
"I hated every fucking second of it," he said, shaking his head, the ghost of a grin on his face as he heard Sam's indrawn breath of surprise. "No real roads—we got bumped all to hell getting his Jeep out there. No electricity—and the Goddamed generator was temperamental. And it got cold at night, so we had to chop a shitload of firewood." His lips twitched in amusement. "I swear, I almost slugged the guy when I asked about a bath and he showed me the water pump out back."
He felt more than heard Sam snort.
"Yeah. But the fishing was good and we didn't hear so much as a dirt bike the whole weekend. Nearest neighbor was ten miles away and that was just some other nut with a shack. And the air up there," he said, feeling Sam lean into him a little more and finally venturing a glance down at the top of his head. "Well, it's just different. You can really feel yourself breathing, you know?"
Sam looked up at him, eyes huge and glittering in the darkness. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose and sniffed. "Montana?" he asked.
"Montana," Jake agreed. He gave Sam's arm a little squeeze. Sam rested his head against Jake's shoulder. They sat together like that for a long time.
Eventually, Sam got drowsy and incrementally slumped until he was stretched out on the floor next to Jake, one hand curled next to his cheek, the other just touching Jake's knee. Jake waited until his breaths were deep and steady and waited a while longer after that, just to be sure, and then inched away from the wall as slowly as he could, feeling ridiculous at the exaggerated sneakiness but knowing that Sam wouldn't have survived as long as he had without being a damn light sleeper.
He reached for Sam's duffle in what felt like super slow-mo and groped around, sure that Sam was going to wake up every time a wrapper crinkled or a book shifted. He was cursing in his head—how could Sam find anything in this fucking mess—when his hand finally closed over the penlight, tucked safely away in one of the little side pouches sewn into the bag's lining. He carefully drew it out and tiptoed to the end of the aisle they'd set up camp in.
Since they'd left the Wal-Mart that morning, Sam had stayed in constant orbit around Jake, never letting him out of his sight. They'd even taken a piss at the side of the road together.
Jake didn't necessarily mind. The weight of Sam's gaze on the back of his neck felt sort of good, actually. It almost washed away the crawling sensation, the hungry dead fish stare of those things that he'd been feeling for months.
But somewhere around Galesberg he'd started feeling a throb in his left index finger that pulsed in time with his heartbeat, hot and swollen, and he'd begun to imagine each pulse pumping something dark and unwholesome closer to his core. The need to look, to just see the damned thing, had been like an itch between his shoulder blades all afternoon.
Now that he finally had the chance, he wasn't so sure he wanted it.
Jake flexed his fingers experimentally—oh yeah, there was the pain—and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, clicked on the penlight, pulled off his glove, and opened his eyes.
"Jake?" Sam's voice came from behind him, sleepy and confused.
Jake clicked the penlight off. His heart thudded painfully in his chest, seeming to lurch up into his throat and drop down into his stomach with every beat.
"Jake?" There was a little tremor in the voice, something like worry.
He fumbled the glove back on, hands shaking so badly he almost dropped it before his fingers found their way inside.
"Jake!" It was louder this time, almost angry, undertones of panic working their way to the surface.
He took a deep breath and clenched his fists, relaxed them, and turned around, clicking the penlight back on as he went. "Right here, Sam." He tried for a smile. "You want to take your watch already?"
Sam groaned theatrically and flopped into the blankets. "Yeah, okay."
Jake walked back and settled next to him. He lay down facing away from Sam. As he forced himself into sleep, he thought he felt worried eyes on his back.
The next morning, Jake found himself patting the blankets beside him, reaching for Sam. The blankets were cold. He startled fully awake, sitting up. A sharp bolt of pain like an icicle cutting through his veins shot straight up from his left hand. He slumped back against the wall and shut his eyes, waiting it out, the ice seeming to work its way through his upper body and settle in his sinus cavity.
Once he was fairly confident he wasn't going to puke he opened his eyes to find Sam was sitting a few feet across from him, books once again spread out on his lap. He darted a nervous glance at Jake. His eyes flitted back down to his books before Jake could catch them with his own.
"Morning," Sam said quietly, eyes glued to his lap. "Thought I'd sketch out a couple more alternative routes. Didn't want to wake you. Looked like you could use the extra sleep."
It took a moment for Jake to find his voice. "S'okay. Um…thanks." He squeezed his fist, defiant of the pain, and rooted around for the leftovers from the vending machines.
"And, uh…sorry, you know…for last night," Sam mumbled, still not looking up from his books.
Jake swallowed a stale cracker. "No problem."
They hit the road once Jake finished his breakfast. Sam was quiet. He kept darting awkward glances at Jake, always quickly looking away as if he'd been caught doing something terrible when Jake's eyes met his.
It made Jake irritable, those nervous looks seeming to intensify the sickening pressure building behind his eyes, and more than once he had to bite his tongue to keep from snapping, "What the fuck do you think you're looking at?" But he knew that Sam was embarrassed. Sam had broken down and leaned on Jake and now he didn't know what to do.
Instead of yelling at Sam like he wanted to, Jake found himself quietly telling him more about the cabin in Bison Valley, letting him know exactly how to get there with as much detail as he could recall. When they stopped for a piss break and to share a bottle of water, he gave Sam a pat on the back here and a quick squeeze to the shoulder there, reassuring touches that seemed to visibly drain the tension from the guy's skinny body a small bit at a time.
Sam still didn't have much to say when they started riding again, but he flashed a few of those shy smiles Jake's way when their eyes met again.
They were somewhere outside of Iowa City when Sam abruptly braked, forcing Jake to skid to a halt to keep from colliding with him. "What the hell do you think you're-" Jake started, but then his eyes caught up where Sam was looking, face turned to the side, bike straddled between his legs.
They were nearing the crest of a hill and to their right, a valley stretched out below them. A wide road led to the North. It had been a dry summer and even the passage of their bicycles over the roads kicked up small dust devils, but whatever the cause of the distant, massive cloud of dust boiling across the road, it was major.
"What the…Sam, is that?" Jake squinted. He thought he could almost make out individual shapes within the cloud. He looked over at Sam, who had magically produced a pair of binoculars—of course—from his duffle and was peering through them, the color slowly draining from his face.
"Fucking hell," Sam whispered. He dropped the binoculars to his side and wordlessly shoved them at Jake's chest. Jake noticed Sam's hand drift down to the hilt of his machete out of the corner of his eye as he raised the binoculars to his own face.
A fine tremor seemed to start in Jake's left hand as he looked at the magnified valley below them. It was—he couldn't find the word—but there were so many of them—hundreds, maybe even a thousand—pushed together, in doctor's scrubs and jeans and t-shirts and pretty, tattered sundresses, cop uniforms and fancy suits stained with blood, stumbling over each other in that creepy, stiff-legged shuffle-stagger, slow and inexorable (but Jake knew just how fast they could move when they found something they wanted), working their way south.
He handed the binoculars back to Sam but couldn't tear his eyes away from the cloud of dust miles away. Mesmerized, Sam brought the binoculars back to his own face.
"It's a herd," Sam said slowly, horrified. "God, they're…they're moving together. Jesus Jake, look at them! There must be more than a thousand. Gotta be coming out of one of the cities…Cedar Rapids maybe…but they're moving in a fucking herd!"
He shoved the binoculars back at Jake, his eyes still trained on the road below. "Shit, do…do you know what this means?"
Jake didn't take the binoculars. He clenched his fists to stop his hands' shaking. The pain was almost welcomed. "It means we better get the fuck out of here now," he said, turning away from the valley. He tugged Sam's sleeve when it looked like he meant to raise the binoculars again. "Come on," he said. "Let's go."
They rode in silence for several miles, feet working the pedals continuously to put some distance between themselves and the herd. Jake's head pounded dully; it seemed to throb in tandem with his hand. He was preparing to admit he needed a break when Sam beat him to it.
"Looked like they were following 380 south," Sam panted. "We oughta be alright now to take five. Could probably both use some carbs anyway."
Jake nodded his agreement and they walked their bikes up a grassy hill off the side of the road—they'd be able to keep an eye out in case the herd decided to turn west from there—and sat side by side against a tree. They sat in silence, passing a warm bottle of Gatorade that Sam had squirreled away back and forth while munching a couple more Powerbars.
"You know what I miss?" Sam asked abruptly, grimacing after taking a particularly big swig from the Gatorade bottle.
Jake raised his head in question, still trying to keep his mind from dwelling on images of the herd.
"Cold beer," Sam said. "God, that'd taste so great right now," he continued, longing in his voice. "Or…oh! Gin and tonic with a bunch of ice cubes just clinking around in the glass and condensation all on the side so your hand gets a little wet just picking up the glass. Or," he continued, taking another swig of Gatorade and smacking his lips, "Jesus, a root beer float! Yeah," Sam said dreamily. "I could so fucking go for one of those right now." He shook himself out of the reverie and shot Jake an expectant look, his eyes smiling. "How about you?"
"Scotch on the rocks," Jake said, taking the Gatorade when Sam offered it. "Glass of ice water on the side."
Sam grinned at him brightly, clearly pleased Jake was playing his game.
"Maybe an iced caffe latte," Jake added. Sam raised an eyebrow at him. "What? I like caffeine."
"You just don't strike me as the latte type," Sam said, still grinning.
He shrugged and took another drink.
"Know what else I miss?" Sam continued. "Thick steaks and drive thru hamburgers and apple pie al la mode."
"French fries," Jake said.
"Tacos," Sam answered.
"Baked potatoes," Jake said, getting more into the conversation despite himself, "with butter and sour cream and those crunchy bacon bits."
"Mmm. Um hmm. Trashy cable television," Sam said, switching gears.
Jake thought a minute. "College football."
"Oh, yeah." Sam paused, brow furrowing. Jake thought about asking him what was wrong, but once again, Sam beat him to the punch. "You know, it just really hit me that the Steelers are going to be the last ever Super Bowl champs. Now that's depressing." He shook his head and then brightened. "So, what else?"
"Hmm, I dunno. Trivia night and buffalo wings at the bar."
"The Internet. God, you have no idea how much I miss Yahoo maps and Wikipedia."
Jake could imagine. "My classic rock radio station."
"Yeah," Sam said, voice wistful. "Mine had a chick DJ with a sexy voice covering the afternoon slot. Really soothing." He sighed. "Know what I don't miss at all? Traffic. The city bus."
"Cell phones," Jake added.
"Seriously?" Sam asked. "I kind of like her stuff."
He shrugged. "Eh. She's overrated."
"You know who I always kinda hated?" Sam had a conspiratorial note in his voice.
Jake leaned forward a bit, taking another drink and wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "Who?"
"Bono? Really? Who doesn't like U2?" He felt a smile creeping onto his face.
"It's not the band so much, but the guy just drives me nuts. So smug and self-righteous. Oh, and you know who else bugs the hell out of me? Geraldo Rivera."
Jake nodded before adding, "Fox News."
Sam giggled. Jake found himself smiling wide in return. "Oh, come on! What's wrong with a bit of 'fair and balanced' reporting?" Sam said, rolling his eyes. "Okay, um…Dick Cheney."
"Don Rumsfeld. Can we spare ourselves from going through the whole administration?" Sam asked, laughing.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Jake said, the words slipping out.
"Yeah." Sam laughed again and then looked at Jake. "Oh," he said, eyes widening. He darted glances to Jake's vest, all the weapons he wore. "Oh."
An awkward silence settled over them. Jake waved a bee away from the lip of the Gatorade bottle. He tried to keep his jaw from tightening and failed. The headache he'd begun to forget about came back full force.
Sam cleared his throat. "Yeah, well…maybe we should get going again?"
He nodded. "Sure. Yeah."
They were about thirty miles outside of Des Moines and the sun was starting to set when they found what looked like a fledgling strip mall. Most of the storefronts were empty or in various stages of construction, but there was a big Target store that looked like it could have been open for business several months ago. They veered toward it without conversation.
Jake noticed the deranged pile of red plastic shopping carts and boxes of modular furniture precariously stacked in front of the automatic doors first, squeezing his brakes and then shooting an arm out in Sam's direction. Sam stopped a few feet away, straddling his bike seat and sending him a concerned look. Then his eyes drifted to the store's entrance.
"Is that-?" he asked quietly.
"A barricade," Jake finished for him. "Looks like it could be."
"Jesus Christ. A barricade." There was a note of amazement in his voice. "There are people in there." He tore his attention away from the front of the store to look at Jake, expression naked and hopeful. "Other people."
Jake swallowed back a sudden surge of nausea. "There might be."
Sam cocked his head at him quizzically and then turned back to the store. "Come on," he said, swinging a leg over his bike and letting go of the handlebars so that it fell to the pavement. "Let's see if I can get us in through the back."
"Sam…," he said, not at all sure what else he wanted to say. Sam looked over his shoulder back at Jake, a smile on his face that almost overshadowed the frantic gleam in his eyes. Jake didn't say anything else, just tripped the kickstand on his own bike, leaving it standing next to Sam's, and followed.
Around the back of the store near the loading docks was a door marked "Employees Only" with half a dozen shopping carts and various heavy boxes piled in front of it. They cleared it all away quickly, Jake favoring his left arm and Sam giving him thinly veiled impatient looks. Sam had his lock picks out before Jake could catch his breath.
As soon as they had the door open, the smell hit them—shit and piss, blood and vomit, and under it all, that sick, ripe, familiar odor of decay—and Jake knew they should turn around and walk right back to the bikes.
Sam swiped the bandana off his head and covered his nose and mouth with it. He squinted into the doorway, eyes helplessly scanning the darkness. Jake placed a gentle hand on his forearm—come on man, you don't want to see this—but Sam shook it off. He shot him an angry look before turning back to the doorway.
"H-hello?" Sam called from behind his bandana. His free hand rooted in the duffle for his penlight. "Anybody here?" he said, hesitantly crossing the threshold.
Jake made sure that his pistol was within easy reach and stepped in after him.
It wasn't hard to find them. The barricades may have kept larger dangers out, but the flies had certainly found a way inside. The buzzing was loud, strikingly loud in the silence of the store and it led them directly to what had probably been the Patio and Garden section, if the little square of plastic grass the bodies were sprawled on was any indication.
Jake was grateful Sam's penlight provided such sparse illumination. It cast a small pool of light that prevented them from taking in more than a square foot of the scene at a time. Sam swung it over the area, each haphazard movement unraveling another piece of the picture.
Thick blankets covering a small bundle. A huge pile of empty water bottles. A tiny hand, bloated and grey, fingers curled around a ratty beanbag bear. Red rugby shirt, white nametag—Suzanne printed in neat block letters under the Target logo. Thick blood clotted in clumps of ratty hair, bone caved in to a nonsensical shape. Wrappers everywhere—candy and crackers and cereal bars. A radio, antenna bent into jagged angles. The flash of a key ring dangling from a belt loop. Pill bottles lying empty on their sides, caps discarded. Gaping mouth with swollen tongue. A heavy-duty hammer dried into a puddle of blood.
Jake counted seven of them—eight if the shape under the blankets was what he thought it was—mostly employees, by the look of it, but at least one shopper and her children as well. He was trying to keep it from sinking in—a hammer, you fucking assholes, couldn't you have found something better than that—when he heard a chocked sound come from Sam and then the light was blessedly pointing at the dirty square of linoleum beneath their feet and Sam's shoulder was touching his and Sam's fingers were trembling in the fabric of Jake's sleeve. He hesitated only a moment before wrapping his arm around Sam, turning them both away from the bodies and then leading them out of the store.
Outside, the late afternoon sunlight was dazzlingly bright. Sam blinked at it stupidly, his face blank and slack. "I don't understand," he whispered, staring straight ahead as he let Jake lead them back to the bikes. "How…wh, why would they do that to each other?"
"It's gotta be the head," Jake answered equally quietly. "It's gotta be the head or they'll just keep coming back."
Sam made another choked sound.
Jake tightened his arm around him. "They hit their limit," he added, not even sure if he said it loud enough for Sam to hear. He must have picked it up though, because he flinched under Jake's arm. "They gave up."
Sam didn't have a response to that, but when Jake picked up Sam's bike and pointed the handlebars at him, he grabbed them, got on, and rode.
It was full night when they finally stopped again at a dingy gas station/convenience store standing lonely at the side of the road. Sam broke in easily, his fingers working automatically at the lock, face still disturbingly expressionless.
The milk in the coolers had gone bad and the few pitiful pieces of fruit in a basket at the front counter were shriveled and fuzzy, but the smell was a small annoyance, something that registered briefly and then slipped into the background noise in Jake's head.
He pawed at the shelves, the moon through the windows casting surprisingly strong light, and grabbed whatever seemed good to him. Caffeine and ibuprofen for his headache, a half-melted candy bar for some quick calories, a box of cherry Pop Tarts because Sam had seemed to like those.
Sam was a constant shadow at his side. His eyes tracked the motions of Jake's hands and he accepted the food he was offered. He didn't pick up anything on his own. Jake kept waiting for him to start talking—some rant about the price of gas in Iowa or a dirty joke—for him to shake it off and give him one of those little smiles, but it didn't happen.
The pickings for bedding were slim. Jake left Sam leaning against the wall by the darkened Slurpee machine, the plastic polar bear in shades perched atop it looking obscenely cheery, and rooted around behind the counter. There was a thinly padded stool for the employees to sit on, a dusty sweater stashed next to a box full of receipt paper rolls, a half empty carton of cigarettes, and not much else. He went ahead and grabbed the sweater and walked over to Sam.
"Um," he said, clearing his throat and holding out the sweater. "Guess it'll have to do for a pillow."
Sam blinked at him. He looked down at the sweater in Jake's hands. He reached out, tentatively, and buried his fingers in the thick wool. His head shook slowly from side to side, a refusal Jake didn't understand. Then his eyes shifted up to meet Jake's. He pulled the sweater out of his hands and tossed it to the floor, reaching out to hesitantly touch the side of Jake's face.
The instant he made contact Sam became a flurry of motion, fingers sliding to roughly cup the back of Jake's head and pull him down into a kiss. His mouth worked frantically against Jake's, opening and closing in gasps and sobs with no coordination at all. Sam clutched him desperately, one hand tangled in the hairs at the back of Jake's neck, the other scrabbling around his back, clenching and releasing.
Jake stood frozen, arms held limply at his sides, terrified.
"God, Jake…sorry, sorry," Sam panted between hot kisses. He kissed Jake's neck, his cheeks, his ears. "I'm sorry…I haven't, with a-" He kissed Jake's mouth again, tongue darting out along the seam of his lips. Jake tasted tears. "But, you said…you…and I-I need-" He pulled away a fraction and looked in Jake's eyes, expression eloquent in a way words could not be. Please.
Jake nodded slowly and then wrapped his arms around Sam, pushing forward and kissing back and helping him find a rhythm. He tasted Sam's skin, dusty and sweaty and hot, mouthing the pulse at his neck. Sam's body was tense. Jake tried to run soothing hands over his arms, up and down his back, but Sam bucked against him and clawed at his shirt, wiry arms urging him closer, harder.
Jake nudged a thigh between Sam's legs, grabbing hold of his ass with both hands—to hell with the twinge of pain in the left—and practically lifted him off the ground. Sam groaned into his mouth and then thrust his tongue inside hungrily. He felt Sam harden against his leg and moved it up and down, giving Sam more to grind against, pushing him into the wall. Sam's hips stuttered in a wild staccato beat.
"Oh, fuck…fuck," Sam breathed, pulling away from his mouth. His pupils were wide, practically eclipsing the dark irises. Sam let one arm grope around Jake's back, rucking up his vest and shirt, worming under the waistband of his pants. His fingers felt damp and hot wriggling against Jake's skin. He reached the other hand behind his own back and found Jake's left hand on his ass.
The touch sent a painful line of fire up Jake's arm as Sam grabbed his hand and drew it up between them. "Jake, please," he said, tugging on the glove.
Jake grabbed at the glove with his other hand, holding it in place, one thought—NO!—drowning out all the others in his mind.
Sam's eyes cleared for a moment, a shadow passing over his face, and then he relinquished his hold on Jake's glove and wrapped his hand back around Jake's neck to pull him down for another kiss. "God," he panted, tearing his mouth away. He raked his fingers down from Jake's neck across his chest, stopping to struggle with his fly.
Jake wasn't hard—he wasn't sure he could get hard anymore—but Sam was trying to touch him. Sam was panting and pleading and hurting and needing, so Jake kissed him hard on the mouth and then sank to his knees. He hugged Sam's legs with his left arm and pulled the glove off his right hand with his teeth, spitting it carelessly to the floor. He ripped Sam's fly open with a shaking hand. Eager flesh sprang out to meet him. He wrapped his hand around it—a gentle touch totally out of place amidst the barely restrained violence of Sam's movements—and looked up into Sam's face. "Oh, Sam…Sam."
A raw sob tore out of Sam's throat as he sank his fingers into Jake's hair and Jake took him into his mouth.
He was hot and heavy on Jake's tongue. His skin tasted salty-ripe and smelled like it hadn't had anything beyond a bottled water spit bath in weeks. Jake didn't care. He breathed deep and let it overpower all the other smells lingering in the back of his nose. Sam was pulling his hair and half-choking him with desperate thrusts, but he could look up and see the line of Sam's neck, extended long and graceful as Sam threw his head back against the wall. Jake worked him with hand and lips and tongue and listened to him sob and grunt and moan, a stream of words punctuating his movements—"Oh" and "God" and "Fuck" and "Jake."
Jake suddenly realized that, outside of his awareness, his right hand had squirmed its way down into the front of his own pants and he was not only hard, he was close. He moaned deep in his throat, taking Sam in as far as he could, tightening his grip around Sam's legs and listening to his broken voice. And then Sam was pulsing and shivering in his mouth and Jake was shuddering and coming and it hurt and it went on and on until Sam's hands were smoothing his hair and his thumbs were brushing gently across the wetness on Jake's cheeks and Sam was sliding down the wall and still saying his name and they were both leaning against each other and the wall, panting raggedly. Jake sat and didn't think about anything other than breathing.
After a while, Sam tucked himself away and zipped up, but he stayed with his head leaning against Jake's. "Katie, my, my fiancée," he began softly, swallowing after he said the name, "was working the night shift at the ER when," another swallow, "when it started happening. We were renting a top floor apartment from this nice older couple, the Dobbs. Katie…she…." Sam paused again.
Jake looked at Sam's hand lying limp and empty on the floor and picked it up in his own—the right. He stroked his thumb gently across Sam's knuckles and then twined their fingers together. It was hard to tell if Sam even noticed, but he didn't pull away.
"She called me early that morning before the lines went down and we lost power," Sam continued. "She-she told me to get Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs down into the cellar—back after 9-11 Mr. Dobbs got it in his head he needed to convert it into an emergency shelter—you know, sturdy doors, candles, radio, flashlight, couple crates of bottled water and about ten years' worth of Mrs. Dobbs' trashy paperbacks."
Jake caught the slightest curve of a smile on Sam's lips from the corner of his eye.
"Anyway, Katie said there were still way too many people they needed to help, and that she…she had to…stay-" Jake squeezed Sam's hand. Sam squeezed back tightly. He took a deep breath. "That she had to stay, but that she wasn't giving up. She told me to wait for her, that she'd find a way and that she was coming home."
Jake thought maybe Sam was going to start crying again, but the man surprised him, staying silent, just squeezing his hand periodically. "What happened to the Dobbs?" he asked.
"They stayed with me in the cellar for about a week, glued to the radio. Then we started hearing broadcasts about the military establishing shelters outside all the major cities." Sam shrugged. "They kissed me goodbye and decided to take their chances getting there. They had grandkids living not far away," Sam added, as if that were an excuse for an old couple to practically commit suicide.
Of course, Jake had to remind himself, not everybody knew what a crock of shit those 'military shelters' were back in the early days. "How-?" he started, the word getting stuck in his throat. "How long did you wait for her?"
Sam sighed. "Till I ran out of supplies," he said. "And then a day and a half after that." A shiver worked its way through his body. "Those…people today. I just don't understand," he said, shaking his head. "I mean, they were together, you know? They still had each other."
Jake waited, wondering if Sam was going to start asking questions now. "I guess sometimes," he said, his voice careful, "that's not enough."
Sam didn't reply, but he squeezed his hand again and laid his head on Jake's shoulder. He was quiet for a long time and Jake wondered if he'd fallen asleep.
"Jake?" he asked quietly, startling him just a little.
"Were you…you know…alone all this time too?" He thought he heard pain in Sam's voice.
"No," he answered. "Not as long as…not like you."
"…Oh. Okay. That's," Sam said, his tone flat, "that's good."
Jake thought there were going to be more questions, but Sam just snuggled into his side and fell asleep.
Jake woke up abruptly the next morning, heart pounding sickly, gorge rising. He managed to roll over onto his side and crawl a few feet away before losing his battle with nausea, the meager contents of his stomach rushing up in an unwholesome, corrosive glut.
When it was over, he wiped his sleeve across his mouth and hunched in on himself, fighting chills, a cold sweat prickling across his skin. He lay there, thinking about how miserable he was and not much else, until awareness of the past days' events slowly seeped back into his consciousness.
Where the hell was Sam?
He struggled to push himself up into a sitting position, succeeding mostly on pure stubbornness, and frantically looked around the little store. He spotted Sam's duffle not far from where he'd woken up. The sight of it eased the racing of his heart—Sam wouldn't leave that wouldn't leave me doesn't know wouldn't—but not entirely.
"Sam?" he croaked, wincing at the sound of his own voice. He worked to clear his throat, finally scooting over to one of the defunct coolers and downing half a can of soda to cut through the crud. There was a brief struggle to keep it down, which he won, before he tried calling out again. "Sam!" he said, much more loudly. "Where the fuck are you?"
"-ake?" he heard faintly, and Jake worried he was losing it because he could have sworn the sound came from overhead.
"Goddammit Sam! Where are you!"
He heard something like crunching on the roof and then Sam's voice came, more clearly, from above and to the left this time. "There's roof access from the storeroom," he said. "Figured I'd get the lay of the land before I woke you, but…I think you'd better get up here now."
"Yeah," Jake called. "On my way."
He placed a hand—his right—against the wall and pushed at it for balance as he stiffly gained his feet. He finished off the soda—it seemed to be helping with the weakness and the shakes—and found the bottle of painkillers he'd opened the night before. He took four—someone had crammed broken glass behind his eyes—and washed them down with a quarter bottle of Gatorade.
He looked at the puddle of vomit on the floor, stepped on the discarded sweater he'd found under the counter last night, and swiped it over the mess before kicking it into the corner. Satisfied he'd done what he could, he made his way to the narrow doorway at the back of the store.
There was a rickety stepladder amidst boxes of soda fountain syrup and crates of chips and candy that led up to an open trapdoor in the center of the stockroom's ceiling. Looking up into the bright patch of sunlight made his eyes water. "Sam," he called, "you up there?"
"Shh," Sam hissed, poking his head and shoulders through the hole in the ceiling. His face looked pale and drawn. "Come on up," he whispered. "Quietly."
Jake watched Sam disappear through the hole and then took a deep breath. He tried to lift his left arm. It went about as far as his waist, hurting like hell, then fell limply back to his side, useless. He cast a quick glance up at the ceiling, half-expecting to see Sam giving him impatient looks, and then gingerly peeled up his left shirtsleeve.
He grimaced at what he saw—a thick trail of purple-black blood vessels, grotesquely distended, spread like twisted highways over skin gone ashy grey. He counted it a small victory when he pulled back the collar of his shirt and saw the damage hadn't yet spread as far as his shoulder.
Reckless over-reliance on his right arm and repeated mental chanting of a simple mantra—keep it together, Jake, keep it together—got him up the ladder and onto the roof.
Sam was standing close to the edge at the front of the store, arms hugged over his chest. Jake walked to him as quietly as he could, boots crunching over the gravel on the roof. Sam stared straight ahead. Jake followed his gaze down to the ground a few yards in front of the store where a pair of those things leaned against each other.
The one on the left wore a tattered robe over blood- and mud-stained sweats. It was missing a good chunk of the right side of its face—including the eye—and Jake could see a line of surprisingly white teeth through the hole in its cheek. The other one wore a satiny nightgown. There were sticks and leaves matted into its long, bloody hair. Jake thought it looked like some psychotic killer elf reject from The Lord of the Rings.
The pair weren't doing much, just shuffling aimlessly in front of the storefront, occasionally canting to the side in a way that made Jake wonder how they weren't collapsing under each other's weight. As he watched, they turned towards each other, their foreheads pressed together.
"Maybe," Sam began softly, drawing Jake's eyes back to him. His gaze drifted down to Jake's torn glove before moving up to his face. "Maybe it's not so bad," he said, "being like them."
Jake clenched his fists—both of them, hard—and turned back to the creatures in front of the store. He remembered the savage flash of joy on the boy's—the thing's—face, beaming under its dirty baseball cap, the moment before he had put his boot through its skull.
He drew the pistol from his vest, took quick and careful aim, ignoring the sharp, indrawn breath Sam took next to him, and put a bullet through the temple of the one in the nightgown. It crumpled to the ground.
The remaining creature turned slowly toward them, its lone eye rolling up in its head, looking past them, through them. It reminded Jake of a starving dog he'd seen on the street when he was a kid.
He dropped the butt of his gun into Sam's hands. "Safety, trigger, clip" he said tersely, showing Sam the relevant parts. He dug an extra clip out of his vest and shoved it at him. "Don't come down until you've gotten rid of the other one," he said, striding back to the trapdoor. He looked back at Sam, standing frozen, staring at the gun in his hands. "It'll be good practice," he muttered over his shoulder before descending the ladder on unsteady legs.
It took a few minutes, but Jake heard shots: three in quick succession, then two more moments later. He nodded his approval—not bad, for a beginner—and started gathering their few possessions in preparation for the road.
It seemed Sam gamely did his best to ignore the fact that Jake's bike was veering wildly all morning, that he was steering it one-handed. After climbing down from the roof of the gas station, and returning Jake's gun with a grim, tight-lipped expression, he'd been a bit quiet, but after they'd struggled down the road for an hour or two he began to interject his usual snippets of chatter into the morning's silence.
If he noticed that their pace was at least half that of the previous day's, he gave no indication. He made no comment when they stopped for a break and Jake refused with an irritated wave of his hand the jerky sticks he offered.
Jake gritted his teeth, swallowed the pain, and focused on keeping the road in front of him and Sam at his side. Everything else, he decided, could take care of itself. But when finally, under the heat of the midday sun, somewhere on the barren stretch of road between Des Moines and Omaha, Jake's feet slipped from the bike's pedals, his grip on the handlebars loosened, the whole world shifted ninety degrees, and he found himself flat on the pavement beneath his bike, he realized the time for soldiering on was over.
Sam was hovering above him almost the instant he realized he'd fallen. He was fast and efficient, pulling the weight of Jake's bicycle off of him, guiding him with careful hands to the soft grass at the side of the road, wetting his bandana and smoothing it over Jake's face.
As he kneeled next to Jake, he started to talk, soothing bits of nonsense Jake couldn't bring himself to latch on to. "I think it looked worse than it is," he said, his head weaving back and forth as he checked Jake for injuries. "We're bound to have a few wipe-outs. We just need to rest a while…we'll get some more carbohydrates in you and you'll feel better," Sam continued, his words starting to come more quickly as he produced a bottle of iodine from his duffle. "You're probably dehydrated. We've been pushing too hard." He got some of the iodine onto the corner of his bandana. "You'll be fine."
"This is going to sting a little," he went on, raising the bandana back to Jake's face. "Don't want to risk infection, though, right?"
"Sam," Jake said again, more loudly this time.
"We just have to slow down for a bit. It'll be fine. I mean, what's the rush? Montana's still gonna be there, right?"
"Ouch, sorry, I know this stuff stings. Still, better than going septic, you know? We'll just take a break until you're ready to go. You're going to be fine."
"No, Sam. I'm not," Jake said quietly. Sam opened his mouth, looking ready to argue, but then he looked into Jake's eyes and his mouth snapped shut. His face scrunched up, twitched, and for a moment Jake was sure Sam was going to hit him. But instead he turned away, showing Jake only a sliver of his profile.
"How bad?" he muttered.
Jake sighed. "Bad enough," he said, wincing as he pulled off his glove. His index finger was black and shriveled, the other fingers swollen and purple-green. The skin on his palm and the back of his hand was mottled, blotches of pale grey and angry red cut through by the same roadmap of purple-black blood vessels he'd seen further up his arm.
Sam made a terrible choked sound and turned his face away again.
"Wasn't a hundred percent sure the bastard had completely broken the skin when I met up with you. I'm…." Jake sighed again. "I'm sorry, Sam."
Sam said nothing. Jake turned and saw that his fists were clenched on his thighs so tightly they were shaking. Jake bit back a number of things he wanted to say that wouldn't do either of them any good and swallowed hard. "You should take my guns, my vest. I can tell you how to use everything. If you get out of here soon you should be able to make Nebraska by nightfall."
Sam kept his back to Jake. "And what? Leave you here? Go on, alone?"
He whipped around, eyes narrowing. "You want me to take all your shit, leave you lying here on the side of the road-"
"No! No, Goddammit, let me finish! You expect me to leave you here in the middle of nowhere, unarmed, and peddle my ass all the way to your buddy's cabin in Montana all by my fucking self?"
"It's the best thing to do," Jake gritted out.
"No," Sam said, shaking his head. "No way, nuh uh, fuck that. How long ago were you bitten?"
"How long? Sam, who cares? It doesn't matter."
Sam clenched his jaw, crossed his arms, and shot Jake an expectant look.
"Fine, fine," he said. "Three days ago, right before I met you."
"Okay. We can work with that," Sam said, a manic gleam sparking in his eyes. "Here's what we're going to do." He reached into his duffle and pulled out a blister pack of pills. "We're going to pump you full of antibiotics, right now—don't tell me they don't work, nobody knows they don't work. You're going to get your ass back on that bike, we're going to find a motorcycle dealership, and I'm gonna drive us to Fort Riley. We can be there by tomorrow morning."
Sam tossed the pills at Jake and stood. He began pacing the side of the road. "They'll have doctors there. You've lasted days already—your immune system's probably naturally resistant." His words came faster and faster. "You could be fighting it off right now. We just need to get you someplace safe where there's support. I mean, in all this time, they must've figured out how to stop it. We'll go to Fort Riley. They'll know what to do." He continued to pace, nodding to himself. "Yeah. It can work."
Jake caught Sam's hand as he passed. "Sam, listen to me," he said, meeting his eyes, willing him to understand. "There's no one at Fort Riley."
Sam jerked his hand out of Jake's grip. "And how do you know that?"
"Because," he said, taking Sam's hand again. "I was listening when the last official military orders went out."
Sam shook his head ever so slightly.
Jake tightened his grip on his hand. "We were down to some no-name brigadier general calling the shots. I'm pretty sure he was getting ready to blow his own head off. Said there wasn't enough to hold together anymore…not enough civilians left for us to protect, not enough infrastructure left for us to find the ones that were. They," Jake said, blinking away the wetness gathering at the corners of his eyes. "They didn't mobilize us fast enough. Troops were spread too thin to begin with. Most of the guys they were able to call up never even made it out. He told us to stock up and move out, take out as many of them as we could on our way."
Sam shook his head again, vigorously this time, but he sank down to the ground beside him. His shoulders slumped. "The people you were with?"
Jake shrugged, sniffed. "What was left of my squad had pretty much already gone kamikaze by that point. I tried to talk a couple of the guys into coming cross country with me, but…they were more interested in getting whatever payback they could."
Sam looked up at him. Jake could see the denial warring with the realization, could see the moment acceptance won out.
"So that's it," Sam muttered, eyes dark. "There's nowhere…there's no one left." A shiver ran through his body. "Fuck," he whispered softly.
Jake barked out a startled laugh. "Yeah, that pretty much sums it up."
They sat in silence for a while, a cool breeze stirring the grass around them. Sam rubbed his thumb absently across Jake's palm. "But still," he finally said, squeezing Jake's hand. "I don't have to leave you. You could…you could turn it around. You might get better."
Jake looked at him sadly—we both know that isn't going to happen.
Sam dropped his head. "Yeah, yeah…okay. But I could still stay with you, you know, until…."
"No," Jake said, voice firm. "You can't."
Sam met his eyes again, searching his face. "Then…are you going to…?" He stopped and took a shuddering breath. His eyes darted down to one of Jake's pistols and then back to his face. "Do you want me to-?"
Jake shut his eyes tightly. He willed himself to be strong. This was something he could still do for Sam. "No. No…I'll…when it's time, I'll do it." He heard Sam's relieved exhalation. "But for now…well, the breeze feels nice."
"Yeah," Sam said, squeezing Jake's hand again. "It does."
In the end, it still took all of Jake's willpower to get Sam to leave. He drew out the simple lesson Jake gave him on firearms, purposefully dense until Jake called him on it. Then he insisted on moving Jake away from the road—he argued there would be less chance of him getting attacked, for what it was worth—so he helped Jake stagger to a hilltop a quarter mile off the road and propped him up under a lone elm tree with yellowing leaves.
Then he tried to split their provisions, not wanting to leave Jake hungry or thirsty. Jake had finally forced down one of their last Powerbars, throwing it back up immediately, to prove to Sam the food was useless to him. He couldn't argue Sam out of leaving some water, however. Likewise, he insisted on leaving Jake one of the pistols and an extra clip.
Jake fought hard on that one, knowing Sam would probably need the ammo before his trip was over, but when he had finally yelled, "I only need one Goddamn bullet, Sam!" Sam's face had crumpled in on itself and he hadn't had the strength to push the issue any further.
After Sam had fussed as much as he could, he simply told Jake he wanted to sit together for a while longer. He knew he shouldn't allow Sam to linger—it was making it more difficult for both of them—but he couldn't resist when Sam leaned in close to him and rested his head against Jake's shoulder, so they held each other for a while.
When Jake finally noticed that the sun would be setting in only a few more hours and he told Sam it was time to leave, Sam started to panic-"Oh God Jake, I can't do this, I can't"—and Jake dug deep and turned on the guilt, said horrible, hurtful things to get Sam mad and moving. He was pretty sure Sam knew what he was doing.
Sam leaned in close to Jake so that their foreheads touched, took his good hand, squeezed it, and whispered "Thank you" before turning crisply and striding down the hill. Jake watched him leave and bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood to keep from calling him back.
And then Jake was alone and for a while it was okay. He listened to the wind and the insects. He looked up at the sky and watched a flock of birds flying south. He drank some of the water Sam left him and managed to keep it down. He was facing west—that was the direction Sam had gone—and he watched the sinking sun with unblinking eyes, wondering why he'd never done it before.
And then it was dark and instincts developed over months of survival began to kick in. They didn't sleep; they didn't get tired and sometimes they moved very quietly. It was bad to be out in the open at night. Jake found himself reaching for the gun at his side, swinging his head around at every little noise in the darkness. Then he thought about what he was doing and a bitter little laugh escaped him. The sound of it spooked him and he found himself cringing, wondering if the noise would bring them. That thought startled another laugh out of him—what did it matter now—and he found himself contemplating the gun in another way.
But he wasn't quite ready to wrap his mind fully around that concept yet.
Actually, his left side was feeling better now, hurting less. In the moonlight, he could see when he pulled aside the collar of his shirt that the damage had worked its way up to his shoulder. Had, in fact, moved as far as he could see. He ran his fingertips lightly over the junction of neck and shoulder. The skin felt puffy. But the grating, throbbing pain was more distant, less important than it had seemed when he'd woken that morning. A voice inside his head whispered what that probably meant. A louder voice answered—you could turn it around…you might get better.
Jake listened to that voice for a while, stared out at the green and brown and yellow of the landscape, all washed out to shades of grey in the night. He sat very still, focusing inward. He'd fight through the night and in the morning he'd pull himself together, find a motorcycle dealership—he wasn't afraid of making some noise, fuck it, let those things come, he was practically immune now—and catch up with Sam.
He began to feel very hot. Jake downed what remained of the water Sam had left, too quickly, and it rushed right back up, slightly warmer but still oddly refreshing. He was still so damn thirsty. Fucking Sam, Jake should have made him leave more to drink.
He threw a little tantrum, flinging the empty water bottle away, bloodying the knuckles of his good hand pounding them into the bark of the elm. He looked down at the gun, smug and shining next to his outstretched legs, and shoved it away, sending it skidding a few feet through the dirt. Then he felt sick and dizzy and even hotter than before.
He threw up again—this time it was nothing but acid and bile—wrenching and endless. When it was finally over, he slumped back against the tree, damp hair plastered to his face and neck, and fell into an uneasy doze.
When he woke up, he wasn't hot anymore. He felt cold, deep in his chest, all the way through to his limbs, but he wasn't shivering. The ache in his hand and arm, even the horrible grating broken glass in his head were gone—or they could have still been there and were simply overshadowed by the screaming pain in his belly.
He imagined he could feel the walls of his stomach touching each other, clenching together violently in protest at its emptiness. He'd never felt so hungry in his life. It was hard to move his eyes. They seemed to have gone dry and creaky, and Jesus, he didn't remember it taking so much energy to do something as simple as open his eyes and take a look around.
The sky glowed with pre-dawn. Jake imagined somewhere behind him the clouds were already lighting in pink pastels. It occurred to him that he'd made it through the night right before he realized he was well and truly dying now. He was breathing—he could feel it—so shallow the sound of it was lost even in the silence of the hilltop, but that wouldn't last much longer.
With an effort he felt seriously cutting into what was left of his life, he patted around the dirt next to his thigh. His eyes rolled slowly in his head, down and to the right. He saw the gun sitting out of his reach. Too late, he thought, Oh God, too late. And then, maybe it's not so bad…being like them.
The thoughts echoed through his head. He breathed as deeply as he could and focused on the glint of metal in the dirt, determined to force his body to inch closer to it. He felt the already thin thread that was keeping him alive fraying, pulled taut and unraveling faster under the pressure, but now his hand was inches away from the gun.
And then he heard the noise.
He should have focused, he was wasting precious energy, but he turned his head and looked.
The sun had come up behind him, bringing color back to the landscape. And there was Sam, cresting the hill, shoulders slumped but head held high, hopeless, resigned eyes shining with tears. His empty hands hung at his side, no guns, no bag—his bag, oh shit, he left his fucking bag, he needs that—and he looked Jake straight in the eyes, a longing there eclipsing everything else.
Maybe it's not so bad. Being like them.
Something inside of Jake snapped. And somehow, it found the strength to stand up and run.