Here’s what you missed last time, on Walking Dead Whittier:
Hoover 100 was suffocatingly quiet.
Too quiet to even think, in Eric’s opinion, and so he went to work cracking his knuckles again, counting to himself as he moved from one to the next. It was a habit he couldn’t really help himself from developing, the counting, something about the systematic repetition eased the churning of his chaotic thought process. The joints of his fingers ached with how often he had gone to tying them in anxious knots; each of the digits throbbed angrily as he laced them together up under his chin and propped his elbows on his knees, sweeping his tired gaze out over the open lecture hall to silently number off the others, who had portioned off in broken bits.
Jae and Haley huddled on the floor with their heads together at the back of the room. Kyle paced furiously back and forth through the aisles of empty chairs. Kevin sat in the corner by the door, taking a moment to meticulously examine the sleek edge of his knife before rhythmically slinging the blade into the fraying fibers of the carpet.
One, two, three, four, and five including himself.
It didn’t used to be this quiet. Eric’s eyes forced themselves shut as he leaned his head back, one hand reaching to pinch the bridge of his nose between a thumb and a forefinger while the other pulled off his tattered cowboy hat. Five left, he thought, his stomach turning over as flashes of blood and bone and entrails flickered against the backs of his closed lids like too-bright, fluorescent lights, five left out of eighteen.
Thirteen people lost in three days. He reminded himself that he hadn’t really known any of them, that the four still breathing and blinking with him now – scared and sleepless, but safe, behind the locked doors of Hoover’s biggest lecture hall – were worth the sacrifice. Taking and clearing out the first and second floors of the English building hadn’t been easy, hell, it had been nearly impossible, and he had needed all seventeen of the others behind him to do it: some of them had been effective distractions, some of them had been pulled down and shredded in the places of his friends. Some of them he had left cornered, dismantled, screaming, without a second look back. Because it had all been necessary. And he would do it again, he knew, if it meant keeping the hearts of the four people he had left alive and beating. Still, thirteen dead.
On the twenty-seventh thunk of Kevin’s knife, Eric’s head snapped up.
“Goddamnit, Kevin, would you knock it the fuck off?”
Kevin paused for a breath of time, allowing the thick settling of silence to seep back into the air. Two minutes later he twirled the short blade around in his hand and began scraping away at a reddish-brown crust that had stuck itself to the heel of his boot.
“Kevin.” The knife held a moment in its uneven grinding as Kevin’s eyes slid up slowly from his work, meeting Eric’s with a dulled shade of his usual defiance fogged over the blue irises. He blinked, looked over to Kyle, Jae, back to Eric.
“What?” his question came out gruff and agitated.
“You’re too damn loud, come on man,” Eric fitted his hat back down over his unwashed blonde hair, heaved himself up to his feet. “Don’t you have something better to do than just sit there and make all that fucking noise? How’s the basement?”
In the back of the room, Haley flinched at Eric’s last word. Jae’s hands leapt up to stroke themselves over Haley’s dark hair, easing the shorter girl’s head onto her shoulder as her own green gaze slipped back and forth between the two boys. Kyle stopped, folded his arms tightly over his chest and fixed Kevin with a look of biting expectancy.
“Same as usual.” One of Kevin’s hands pulled itself down over his face as he spoke, his words spilling out in a wave of exasperation. “One of the back doors is propped open, or somethin’, I clear five or six of ‘em out every day and there’s still too many. Comin’ in fresh, from somewhere.” He ran his fingers over the scruff prickling out under his chin. “We need more people.”
“We just need more weapons, anything to take them down with,” Eric insisted, the number thirteen stinging with a poisonous reminder in the back of his mind. Too many people were too many more dead, which only meant more Walkers to put down. “We –”
“We need supplies,” Jae’s interjection cut in. “Food, water, bandages–”
“We need to get the hell out of here!” now Kyle was stalking heatedly through the chairs again, back and forth, his words strung out with sharp anxiety. “Just get off campus or something, Kate is flying in today, I –”
The rigid tension ossifying between the four of them broke in an abrupt explosion of bottled frustration as Kevin shot suddenly to his feet. “No, you need to get the hell out of here! We get it, alright? We heard the first million goddamn times! You got someone out there, but guess fucking what? SO DO THE REST OF US!” Haley’s palms clamped down over her ears, trying to keep out the escalating noise.
“Fuck off, Kevin!”
Kyle and Kevin fell silent all at once, the flying sparks of their incensed argument fizzling out beneath Eric’s serrated command. They knew better than to snap back, to push their boundaries, and they also knew any further uncontrolled volume could get them all killed. Pressing noiselessness enveloped them; Kyle threw himself furiously into one of the burgundy seats, while Kevin resolved to finish picking at the gory residue on his boot. When Eric’s attention wandered back to Jae, her verdant eyes blinked an unspoken question. He dipped his head the slightest degree to the curving stairs nestled off in the room’s back wall.
Fifteen long strides later he met her there, stepped up through the open door before swinging it shut and locking it behind the both of them.
“So do we leave?” he threw out immediately, his gaze turned down to examine the habitual popping and snapping of his knuckles.
“Campus?” Jae’s voice jumped a higher pitch with muted disbelief. “Eric, we have no idea how big this thing is. We know ways all over here, on campus, and we can still barely get from one building to the other. You want to go out in the city?” she paused, released a quivering lungful of breath.
Eric flicked his gaze out one of their modest council room’s little, square windows, already knowing what she was going to say. Through the glass, he watched Kevin walk himself over to sit beside Kyle.
“They could be everywhere.”
Jae was right, he knew.
“Kyle’s going to go looking for her.” Eric managed after awhile, in hardly more than an exhausted whisper.
“Maybe not.” she said, her voice softened with doubt of her own words, though part of him wished she were right about that too. But another part of him wished he had Kyle’s same option. He counted thirty-two breaths in and out before Jae cleared her throat to speak up again. “Check for calls?”
“Yesterday.” he told her. “Nothing.”
Her rigid determination faltered then, eyes dropping to the floor and shoulders slouching forward with numbing disappointment. “Who have you tried?”
“Kurt, Marquez, Gabe, Shaun. Ryne, Polsi. Two a day, keep the phone on for a half hour before and after to wait for anything back. The rest of the time it’s off, trying to hold the battery out as long as we can.”
“Call again.” the unwavering edge that had abruptly crept into Jae’s voice surprised him at first.
Eric looked at her and knew better than to have asked.
It was so much colder than usual.
She nuzzled her nose down into the crook of her elbow and curled in on herself, willing back the familiar, warm intertwinings she remembered. The curve of her spine pushed back, expecting to find the heat of half-dozing skin to melt together with her own, the fluttered tune of a slowed heart thrumming back in time with hers – when her left hand whisked out into the empty air, the rough surface of old wood and chipped paint met the pads of her fingertips instead. Every joint ached, then, her muscles for some reason having cramped in her sleep. She felt her eyebrows pinch together as she shifted her hips to roll over, but she caught halfway, stuck as her knees knocked against another solid surface and kept her legs from stretching out.
Carsen jolted upright, not finding herself tangled in warm sheets or lulled by the baited breathing of another set of lungs.
No. No, no, no, no.
Aged boards creaked beneath her from where she sat nudged into a space between two of Wardman’s wooden stadium stairs.
The art building.
Her face fell into her hands and she gritted her teeth to refortify her steeled resilience, to bite back the whimper she could feel growing in her throat. She tried for the briefest fraction of time to convince herself it was all a dream, that it mustn’t be real.
Maybe this time she would wake up.
It all came back stronger this particular morning – the consuming panic infusing itself into her veins, the pull of sleeplessness drawing purpled streaks beneath her eyes, the empty pain slicing insistently through her abdomen – and though she had held to ignoring her body’s protests, they were running out of minutes to keep pretending they were safe here. They couldn’t live off half-filled bags of stale pretzels from the lone vending machine forever, no matter how thinly they spread their portions. And if just the three of them had managed to break their way in, it was only a matter of time before something else did too.
Gabe rolled over in his own nook two steps above her, and she started instinctively at the echoing reverberations his movements sent up through the art building’s tall ceiling. His fingers were crawling blindly up one more step, searching unconsciously for the smooth, worn handle of the axe they had managed to detach from an abandoned art project on the first night. The dark curve of its head was beginning to rust, almost, and Carsen’s lips tightened into a thin line as she tried to mentally fabricate her fingers wrapping about the wood, the muscles of her forearms stiffening with the arc of a swing.
A long, low whine leaked down from the floorboards on the second floor.
She swallowed the lump solidifying in her throat. Every noise had started to distort in her ears, each shift of displaced air sounding like stumbling steps and dying, hungered breaths. Gabe twitched in his sleep, fell still again. Her gaze washed meticulously over the other stairs, not finding the curled hair and broad shoulders of Jasen’s thin shape lying where she had remembered him the night before. Something colder than a growing need for food twisted in her stomach, but still she rose cautiously to her feet to stalk up toward the easel room.
Her right hand sewed itself firmly to the axe as she passed it, lifting it along to hang tensely at her side. A dampening layer of sweat seeped from her palm against the warm handle. The bare skin of her feet kissed each unsteady stair inaudibly.
She moved slowly, agonizingly so, until the throb of her weary limbs trembled down through her bones, inching one half of her face around the corner of the opening to the second floor. All of the easels were crowded together in too thick of a forest for her to see through properly, and her teeth bit down hard on her lower lip as she dipped her head to search for any movement through the sea of unfinished paintings.
Carsen saw his shadow before she saw the rest of him.
It shocked through her at first, an instantaneous flood of alarm that tensed her fingers’ grip decimally and set her very blood on fire to surge up in a blazing roar against the backs of her eardrums. She might have screamed had she not spent the past thirty-six hours training herself not to. And she might have reeled at him with the axe had he moved with even the slightest shallow rise or fall of his chest.
She was used to everything surging too fast to comprehend or calculate.
But Jasen sat so very, very still.
Silhouetted by the rise of the morning’s sun stretching through, he seemed much smaller than she knew him to be in the sill of the second floor’s giant window, with the tall panels framing him in gold on either side. The wisps of his tousled hair were lit with a honey-sweet glaze, and the infinitesimal dust motes caught orbiting around him – only just discernible in the light fracturing through the scratched glass – wove their tendrils in an imaginary halo about his temples. A sharp intake of breath frosted over the insides of her lungs; the musty air whispering through the rafters felt suddenly alive, as though she was stepping through a million little strings all holding their respective flecks of dust suspended up between them, waiting to be plucked and strummed. She wanted to spread her hands out and draw the music out of every invisible chord, to bring each minuscule speck churning about the others in one choreographed, orchestrative burst.
“The sinks ran dry this morning.”
His cracked voice broke her daze and she realized then how close she had come to stand beside him, part of her wondering and hoping that she hadn’t been staring up at the set line of his jaw for as long as she thought she had. His torso was slumped forward, a tangle of narrow arms laid over his crossed legs, and though his gaze did not turn to look for her, the nearly imperceptible tilt of one ear in her direction was acknowledgement enough.
“Do you know where she is?” she said, instead of thinking.
Jasen’s eyes flickered shut. One hand pressed hard over his mouth, he shook his head. Anything else Carsen had planned to say snagged like a hook in her throat, and she slid the old axe up onto the window’s ledge to allow her own fingers to knot themselves uneasily in her waves of dirty blonde hair. A dense break of silence stretched through the both of them, harmonized by the faint rhythm of Gabe’s faraway breathing. Muffled, Jasen murmured to her through the skin of his palm.
“Did you think he would be here?”
The words didn’t sound right, at first, it took her too long to figure out exactly what he meant. Something drew taut in her chest around where she assumed her heart was supposed to be, though it felt much more like a gaping cavity now, a hole blasted through her center. She had taken the time to carve it out and leave that part of her behind – with Talya in the hallway and with all the pairs of graying hands she only half-recognized – because it had been too heavy for her tired arms to carry. But the stabbing, hollow absence left behind was still enough to rot the marrow of her bones from the inside out.
He tugged delicately at her wrist to lace his fingers with hers.
She pushed her tongue up against the back of her teeth, repeatedly scraping them over the tastebuds until it hurt; her gums burned, the chewed-raw inside of her right cheek scalding, but the prickling points of tenderness almost felt nice. They were reassuring, some sort of sick comfort, getting her thinking that the twisted aching tied up in her gut might be seeping its way out all her collected cuts and scrapes. Just as her hand tightened in a forlorn squeeze back for Jasen, a familiar, buzzing vibration hummed from downstairs.
There was abrupt banging as Gabe bolted violently awake, frantic rustling as he fumbled through one of their backpacks, all of his clatter filling her with a gradually intensifying sense of dread. Too loud, too loud.
“Cars … Is that your –” Carsen figured it out before Jasen could finish.
Her body put itself into motion on it’s own accord, thrusting her back for the stairs as she pushed feverishly at the assembled easels; she felt a flare of stinging pain in her right hip as one side of her banged against the second floor’s open doorframe.
Gabe’s eyes caught with hers in the same instant he brought the phone to his ear.
The council room door broke open with such force it was as though he might have kicked it off its hinges instead of simply unlocking it. Three pairs of eyes snapped to look at him, and as they all simultaneously made the connection between the cell phone in his hand and the words spilling from his mouth, the lecture hall erupted. Jae was rushing out after him, nearly tripping down the stairs as she reached for a hold on his arm; Kyle and Kevin lurched up out of their seats, both of their voices rising with an abrupt velocity that made Haley shout at them to stop.
“Eric, give me the phone –” Jae.
“What in the hell –” Kyle.
“Kevin, we need a perimeter now, the side doors need to be clear –” Eric rambled over the top of their demands and protests, flipping back between yelling hurried orders and murmuring vehemently into the phone. “Listen to me, listen to me, you need to move now, yes now – KEVIN, a perimeter! – no, no, we’ll have it open but not for long, come around the back side of the library, stay low and quiet, we don’t know how the front of Hoover – KEVIN!”
“Are you fucking serious? I haven’t been outta the building since the basement filled, it could be hell out there, how am I supposed to –” Kevin tried.
“I don’t care how, Kyle can help you, shit, I’ll go, just –” Eric sucked in a breath and paused, his brow furrowing as he turned his eyes away and tilted his face closer into the phone to more intently listen to the voice on the other side.
“What if we can’t? Who –”
“Just do it, figure something out –”
“It’s Carsen, goddamnit, we have to.”
Kevin’s fingers spun his knife up from his belt while he swung up their baseball bat from where it sat propped between two seats with his other hand, tossing it to Kyle with a short nod. They turned on their heels and ran for Hoover 100’s double doors, Jae hollering after them.
“Go for the basement! The two of you can handle them one by one with how narrow the halls are, maybe the noise can get the herds outside distracted enough for someone to clear the ones left on this side!” Jae moved more quickly than Eric had thought her to be able to, snatching for the knife cinched to his waist and thrusting it into his open hand, peeling the phone away from his jaw to shove him after the other two boys.
Carsen’s all-too familiar voice rang frantically between them through the buzz of the cell’s speaker. “Eric! Eric? Stay on the phone, please, Eric!”
“Go, go,” Jae’s hand pushed at the center of his chest insistently, desperately. “I’ll stay with her, go, you can put down the ones outside faster than any of the rest of us can – Cars? Cars! Okay, okay, I need you to listen, listen very carefully and do exactly as I say.”
Only the slimmest breath of hesitation held him rooted in place long enough to leave Jae with a final, fervently spat demand.
“You don’t lose her! Understand me? Keep her on that phone until she’s here!”
Then he was bolting up and out into the main hallway, ripping through the stacks of tables and chairs they had piled in a misshapen blockade against the side doors. Chilled, early morning air bit ravenously at his exposed skin, skating goosebumps down the length of his spine. His vision dipped out of focus temporarily against the gleam of sunrise before sharpening with a newfound, alert clarity.
One, two, swaying just outside the doors, too close, three, torn in half and dragging its dangling pieces in from the business parking lot, four, slumped and unmoving over the back of a wooden bench. Dead nostrils flared, sucking in the scent of his live, beating heart and forcing momentum out into unwilling veins. Yellowing, calcified eyes sluggishly rolled to find him, but Eric lunged forward to meet the two coming at him halfway.
The stretch of concrete stairs and upper quad grass between Wardman and Hoover was not particularly lengthy. He was already losing too much time.
The grip of his knife was cold against his calloused palm, a habitual reassurance that had grown to feel like more of a natural extension of his arm. With one sharp kick to a pair of unsteady knees, Eric dropped the first Walker, turned and lashed out with his left elbow to catch the second in the throat and pin it against the outside wall of the building. Blood slicked down through the gaps of his fingers as his knife found a home behind its right eye socket; the blade came away with a nauseating slick when Eric heaved away the now entirely dead weight. He drove it cracking through number two’s temple to silence its gasping hisses.
Footsteps. More than one pair. Racing from around the side of the library.
Wild snarls of blonde hair whipped over her flushed face. The cracked, bare soles of her feet slapped on the cement. Chapped lips parted with a breathless gasp of his name.
She was there, right there, running.
There was Jasen, too, sprinting just ahead, lean arms pumping furiously as his face spun to check back for her. And then Gabe, loping four steps behind them both, with a scarlet-stained axe gripped in white-knuckled fists.
But they weren’t alone.
Walkers – five, six, ten, eleven, he couldn’t count fast enough as the pack came swarming down the short flight of stairs after them, tumbling awkwardly in their starved coordination. On the third to last step, one of them pitched forward into open space, barreling through Carsen’s ankles and sending her sprawling. Her hands flew out to brace against her impact. Her phone skittered away across the pavement.
Eric could hear Jae’s panicked scream break from inside.
“ERIC! SHE’S GONE! I DON’T HEAR HER, ERIC –”
GET UP! GET UP!
The fevered words scalded the insides of his mouth though his brain refused to let them fly, his teeth biting down hard enough on his tongue they might have drawn blood.
Everything moved so suddenly, but still not fast enough.
Jasen skidded to a stop, leapt back to yank Carsen hastily from her knees. Gabe swung the axe out in a wide arc, splitting open the fallen Walker’s skull too easily.
And suddenly the three of them were crashing through into Hoover and Eric was pushing the doors closed, reconstructing the furniture barricade as hurriedly as he could manage. Jasen’s shuddering, tanned hands went to instinctual work alongside his, helping him drag a weighted, mahogany desk into place. Two consecutive thumps dropped against the carpet as Gabe’s axe slipped from his fingers and he collapsed, back arching with his lung’s desperate pulls for oxygen. Carsen and Jae lost balance with the force of their instantaneous collision, falling sideways into a wall while Jae’s hysterical, dry sobbing blended into the palpitations of Carsen’s wheezing inhales.
Eric’s hand fixed itself at Jasen’s collarbone, clutching at his shoulder in reassurance, almost trying to make sure he was really there. “You guys made it,” his voice came out graveled, rough. “You’re okay.. we’re okay.”
Carsen’s tumultuous blue eyes locked with his from over Jae’s shoulder.
“Do you have anyone else? Have you seen–”
It was too easy to guess. He shook his head.
The repeated cracks of Kyle’s bat splintering bone played up in an uneven, out-of-tune melody from the depths of the basement.
two days later
“This sounds like a real dumb ass idea.”
Even with the threat of certain death looming over all of them, Kevin Scott still managed to stay his positively brusque, stubborn self. It was almost funny, in a way, but Jasen chewed nervously on his upper lip when the reminder of what had been planned flipped his stomach over, and brought a rather abrupt halt to the laugh tickling in his throat.
“We’ve already discussed it, Kev,” Carsen argued back, flashing her pointed gaze up at him. “And whether or not you like it, we don’t exactly have another option.” She pulled an empty backpack down over her shoulders and yanked the straps tighter, taking up the baseball bat in her right hand. “Alright .. Eric, Jase, Gabe, me .. Ready?”
“Never said I didn’t like it,” grumbled Kevin. “Doesn’t mean it’s not a dumb ass idea.”
Strangely, the pair of front doors to The Spot were unlocked. When his hands closed around the metal handles and pulled, the ecstatic burst of surprise that sparked up as they opened was promptly snuffed out, because it all seemed so damn convenient.
They’d come out the back of Hoover and slinked across the moonlit lower quad without any trouble, aside from a single, dead thing Eric put down with a swift flick of his knife; it had been risky, moving at night, but the amount of cover the darkness provided outweighed the additional fervor it instilled in the Walkers.
“Okay, you all know what you’re looking for?” Carsen’s irises gleamed like whirlpools of liquid quicksilver under the wintry smile of the moon. It was just the four of them, but her voice still kept taut and hushed. “We take food that’s easy to carry, food that will last, anything that we could use for a weapon. And water –” her words cut off as she slinked through the gap between the doors Jasen held open, picking up with a stern hiss as the three of them followed close behind her. “Stay low, and stay silent,” Her knuckles constricted in her grip on the bat.
“Don’t worry, guys, I got it,” Eric whispered as he slid cautiously through the doors after her. “Think I’ve got some extra flex points.” He winked and Gabe’s mouth twisted in a smirk. Though she had already snuck halfway through the lounge, Carsen turned and rolled her eyes hard enough she could have checked the insides of her brain.
She was dropping in a crouch, slipping forward to be suddenly silhouetted by a single shaft of translucent moonlight spilling through an open window. Then her head tilted, fractionally, as though she might of heard something.
It came from nowhere, a shadow melting out of the wall, pummeling into the side of her and pulling her into the dark. The weight it threw drove the air from her ribcage with a clear, audible gasp. Her legs kicked out into the milky glow, writhing.
Eric was up before the rest of them, disregarding the need for noiselessness as he hollered for her, vanishing momentarily to heave the shape of a Walker from where Carsen fought with it, whipping out ferociously with one arm.
His curving blade glinted with starshine.
He missed, almost, but something about it wasn’t right, as though the thing was shifting away from the turn of the wicked point, trying to dodge the hit. Flesh split open with a loud, sickening tear that made Jasen’s insides knot together as he watched it fall back into the faint light.
Not a Walker.
But Ryne, with a deep, ragged gash pulling over his collarbone: muscles cleaved, tissue torn, veins unthreading as crimson pooled about him and Eric’s knife fell clattering from his fingers.
to be continued …