“She was yours.”
He nodded and his mouth pulled to the side, and then he looked up quickly and sniffed. “Yeah. She was attacked after the party. She got really sick.”
“Is that why she was in the hospital gown?”
“She had an appointment for some kind of exam. It came back bad. She’d lost like twenty pounds in a couple of days, so I knew . . . I knew that she . . . they took her straight to surgery. I was going to wait for her as long as it took, you know. I would have,” he said, nodding, “but she was gone for less than an hour. They’d just opened her up and then closed. Her insides were dead. There was nothing they could do.” I watched as the memory replayed in his mind, and then his face compressed, his pain filled the room, barely leaving room to breathe. “Not long after she woke up the hospital went crazy. Those things were running around attacking people, and after the phone call with my mom, I knew what was happening. I didn’t know what else to do. I just scooped Dana up and ran. The goddamn truck ran out of gas just outside of Fairview, and so I held her. She was in and out a lot, but when she finally came to . . . she was in a lot of pain. They’d stapled her up. It was a pretty shoddy job. They figured in a few hours she wouldn’t care. I’d watched a lot of people come back as those things while I held Dana in the truck, so when she went . . . when she went, I knew I’d have to put her down. My Glock was under the seat.”
He pressed the barrel of his gun to his temple, clearly trying to push the thought from his mind.
His eyes jumped up from the floor, instantly pulling away from the horrible nightmare in his head. “I’ve been on two tours. I’ve seen limbs blown off, bones protruding . . . smashed, I’ve seen the incomplete bodies of children brought in and out of my helo. I’ve seen intestines on the outside of a man’s body more than once. I’ve seen eyeballs hanging from their sockets. I’ve seen grown men bawling and begging for their moms to save them from the death they knew was just minutes away. I’ve seen horrible. The woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with died in my arms, and then again when I put a bullet in her brain. That was f**king gruesome.”
I stared at Joey, speechless. Every word he’d just uttered and every visual that came with them sizzled as they were branded to my brain. I wanted to cry, or throw up, or run away. But instead threw my entire body at the stranger across from me and pulled him against my chest. My fingers gripped at his T-shirt, hoping the tighter I held him, the less pain he would feel. His chin dug into the tender part between my collarbone and the muscle of my shoulder, but the pain meant nothing next to his. After his initial shock, he held me, too, and then his entire body shook as he mourned the loss of so many things. When his grip became too tight, I just kept hanging on, letting him do what was needed to finally grieve.
When he let go, he simply nodded in thanks and stood, walking over to the window to resume his post.
The space between us was suddenly thick and full of energy, but not the good kind. That moment, however innocent, was far more intimate than it should have been, and neither one of us realized it until the moment had passed. Being in his presence was suddenly unbearably awkward. “I’m uh . . . going to head to bed,” I said, whispering so low I doubted Joey could hear. That statement suddenly sounded inappropriate, too, and I cringed, hoping he didn’t think it was an invitation.
I turned and pushed myself off the floor, bumping into a figure standing in the doorway. I gasped, but then relaxed, recognizing Bryce. The relief didn’t last long when I saw the expression on his face. He wasn’t even looking at me. Instead, he was busy boring a hole into the back of Joey’s head.
“C’mon. Let’s go to bed,” I said, pulling Bryce with me downstairs.
His fingers were tense, as if he were holding onto a hot coal instead of my hand. He lay in bed next to me, but because he had nowhere else to go—not because he wanted to. He didn’t have to say it, the betrayal he felt radiated from him like heat on a blacktop road. I had no idea what time it was, but starting a discussion that would likely lead to an argument in the middle-ish of the night wasn’t appealing to me, so I closed my eyes and prayed the creaking walls wouldn’t keep me awake. No matter what I said, convincing Bryce that such an intimate embrace wasn’t what it seemed would be difficult when he’d calmed down and impossible when he was that angry. He had shared with me just hours before his disdain for the man I’d just had so tightly in my arms. I wondered in that moment if Bryce would have rather been outside in the dark with the dead ones than lying next to me.
“Good mornin’,” Walter said, greeting the kids with rifle in hand.
Miranda worked to produce a smile, seeming tired and cranky. “This is my boyfriend, Bryce. That’s Cooper.”
I nodded to them.
“Now that the pleasantries are over,” Walter said, gesturing to the station, “looks like we have a situation.”
It was obvious why they’d had trouble. Two infected were inside the station, pushing excitedly against the double glass doors. One of them was a young girl, not much older than Zoe.
“Yeah,” Cooper said, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. “We’ve run into them before.”
“It should be just the two,” Bryce said. “Unless more wandered inside. I put down a male. He should still be lying by the cash register.”
Walter motioned for the boys to follow him. “Better let us take care of this, Nate. I don’t want you to think about this every time you look at Zoe.”
Regardless of the coward I might have looked like, I turned my back and tried not to listen as Walter and the boys eliminated the infected inside the gas station. Miranda kept an eye on the situation, but Ashley did as I did and looked the other way.
“Clear,” the soldier said. The jargon and tone confirmed my suspicions.
I stayed with the girls while Walter helped them look for a switch to turn on the pump. The owner’s resistance to new technology was fortunate. I wasn’t sure if we could have got it to work if it had been one of the newer ones.
“Okay!” Walter said. “Pull up the lever, and listen for it!”
“For what?” Miranda said.
I pulled up the lever, and the pump buzzed. “For that.”