Page 17

We eventually made it onto Main Street. It was the same street where my friend Lia had been killed, so I tried not to look around. Her body was probably still here, rotten and half-eaten on the road.

Max ducked in through a storefront window, shouting the name Stella as he did. I’m not sure what used to be in the building, since everything was destroyed, and there was a huge hole in the ceiling.

As soon as we came in, a rope ladder dropped down through the hole. The zombies were hot on our trail, and Max started scrambling up it before it even hit the ground. I was right on his tail, and I could hear the zombies howling to each other behind me.

Before I’d made it up to the top, Max started trying to pull the ladder up with me on it, and he was fairly strong. A broken board jabbed me in the rib as I climbed up onto the second story, but at least I’d made it up without getting eaten.

Ripley had been following us here, and she made her own way up. She jumped onto the store’s counter below us. Then she just crouched low and leaped up.

Of course, she had to swat away a few zombies before she could jump, and then she barely even made it. Her claws dug in the boards, and she scrambled to get up, but she eventually made it. Based on all the scratches in the wood, I guessed she climbed up here a lot that way.

I stared down through the hole, catching my breath and watching the pack of angry zombies below us, growling and making all kinds of noise.

“They go away eventually,” Max assured me. “Usually in the morning. I don’t think they like the sun very much.”

I sat back and looked around to see where my brother had been hiding out. A few kerosene lanterns were lit, bathing the room in light. It was just one big loft up here, with a wall of windows at the front of the building.

A metal door at the side appeared to be welded shut. I would later find out that it led to a stairway on the outside of the building, and that was the only way up here, other than the hole in the floor.

There were blankets and pillows piled up on the far end. Food and medical supplies were stacked up on top of a small table. Makeshift toys were discarded all over, dolls made out of Coke bottles and pop cans. All of the walls and the floor were covered in crude illustrations, mostly appearing to be things like ponies and flowers.

I presumed the artist was the little girl sitting next to Max, the only other person in the loft. She couldn’t be more than six, with dirty tangles of brown hair hanging around her face, and she clung to the old ragged stuffed bear in her arms.

“Who’s your friend?” I asked, motioning to her.

“This is Stella.” Max scooted toward her and put his arm around her to comfort her. “She’s shy.”

“I don’t blame her.” I stood up and looked around. “You two have been living here? By yourselves?”

“Yeah,” Max nodded. “We’ve been here since the compound burned down.”

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know. A while.”

“What happened?” I walked around the room, looking more closely at the few possessions Max and Stella had managed to accumulate.

“The zombies broke in,” Max said. “They couldn’t hold them off anymore. London told us to escape if we could. Me and Stella made it out just before he lit the building on fire.”

“He burned it down?” I turned back to Max, and he nodded. “With himself in it?”

“It was the only way to stop the zombies,” Max explained.

“What happened to everyone else?” I asked. “What about all the other people there?”

Max frowned, looking sad as he thought about it. “Some of them escaped, I think. Some died in the fire. And the rest are zombies.”

I went back over and knelt down in front of him. I wanted to hug him again, touch him just to prove he was real, but Stella was pressed up against him, her eyes wide and terrified.

“Stella, don’t be scared,” Max said, his voice soft and comforting. “This is my sister, Remy. You know the lion? That’s hers.”

“Ripley?” Stella asked, and she seemed to brighten a little.

Ripley had sprawled out on the floor, licking herself, but she stopped when she heard her name.

“Yep,” Max said. “And anybody that has Ripley can’t be that bad, right?”

Stella seemed to think it over before nodding.  Max suggested she go back to bed, and she crawled in the mass of blankets behind her, burying herself in them.

Max and I stayed up a little bit talking, but not much longer. I realized that he’d been taking care of Stella, and that was sweet but also a little strange for me. He was so young, and I always thought of him as my kid brother.

But the world had aged him, making him more mature. He’d been able to create a small safe haven, even here in a zombie-infested town. He was stronger and smarter than I’d given him credit for.

When I fell asleep curled up in the blankets beside him, it was the best I’d slept in a very long time, even with the zombies growling below us. It was the first time in nearly a year that Max and I were really together.

In the morning, Stella attempted to make us breakfast, which amounted to a can of beans in cracked teacups. Max said that he often scavenged for food and for toys that Stella might like, which explained the teacups.

Many of the zombies had moved on in the night, as Max had predicted they would, but they weren’t all gone. That meant I had to find another way to escape. I had to go find Boden and the others so we could join them on their trek north. But only if they’d lived through the night.