To start at the beginning, please refer to The Start of a Zombie Apocalypse.
Jacob tied the ends of the bedsheets together into a makeshift rucksack for carrying whatever supplies he might be able to scrounge, and he yawned, rubbing tired eyes. Molly’s words had haunted him throughout the night. I wish you could hold me now and tell me everything is going to be okay. He gathered the folded rucksack and looked through the windows. The streets were doused in morning light, hopeful perhaps, were it not for the flesh-eaters that still crowded the reddened concrete. Everything wasn’t going to be okay.
He paced back and forth, repeatedly emptying and reloading the bullet cartridge from his gun’s stock and checking his pocket for the room keycard, all to delay his departure. The risks were too grave. How would he succeed where so many had failed? Breathing hard, Jacob eyed the kitchen sink and reminded himself that death was a guarantee if he stayed. Only if he left was there a chance of survival, however small. He whispered a prayer to a God he didn’t believe in. Fuck the truth. He needed allies more than ever, and maybe somewhere, somehow, someone was listening. He disjammed the door and entered the emergency stairwell.
The stairwell flickered with fluorescent light. Jacob grasped his gun with both hands, satin rucksack dangling from the ends of his fingers, and leaned over the guardrail. Peering into the spiral abyss, he saw, many levels below, the dark outline of a figure. He squinted, wondering if he should call out – if it was a survivor like him – but the man suddenly and inexplicably looked up as though he was aware of being watched. Jacob fell into a crouch and shuffled away from the guardrail as the pitter-patter of rising footsteps resonated off the walls. He closed his eyes and cursed his stupidity. What if it was a flesh-eater? It was more likely than not. The flickering seemed to merge with the echo of footsteps. His heart thundered, but he told himself that he had to keep moving forward. He skulked down to the seventeenth floor and made his way inside, unable to shake the feeling that he was being followed.
Jacob froze in place. Many of the doors had been smashed in, hinges twisted and broken, splintered wood littering the ground. Outside one of the few remaining doors stood two flesh-eaters, growling and pounding and clawing at it. This was how it had ended for Molly, he realized. Just like this. Sweat dripped down his forehead and stung his eye. He winced the pain away and raised the gun at the flesh-eaters, ready to pull the trigger. For Molly.
Cold steel was pressed against his neck.
“Don’t fucking move,” whispered a gruff voice.
“Are you one of them?” Jacob asked. His face wetted with fearful tears.
“If I were, you’d be gargling blood right about now.” He patted Jacob down. “Hand me your gun before you do something stupid. The infected flock to sound like flies to a carcass.”
Jacob passed him the gun.
“Good,” the man said. “Do you have a safe place to hide?”
“I’m up at the eighteenth floor. It’s free of flesh-eaters at least, but there’s no food or water.”
“The infected,” he corrected. He lowered the knife and tapped Jacob’s shoulder. He was dark and handsome, with a military cut, the sides shaved down to the scalp. “Remember this face. I don’t need you fucking things up ‘cause you got me confused with one of them.” He reached behind and pulled out a toy soldier from his backpack – a bright blue children’s pack – gesturing at the two infected. “My son’s in there. Your job is to ensure that the path is clear while I distract them. Understood?”
Jacob was in no position to argue, stuck as he was between an armed man and the infected, but his mind was assaulted by all the possible scenarios ending in his death, or worse.
“And what am I supposed to do if I meet one? You have my gun.”
“They bleed the same as we do. Figure it out,” the man said, shrugging. “Just try not to get bit.”
Jacob resigned himself to waiting by the door as the man readied the toy. He was being used as bait, he realized, or perhaps as a warning signal. In that moment, he was worth about as much as a damn toy.
“Go.” The man pressed the button and lobbed the figurine to the far end of the hallway, where it emitted a series of pre-programmed lines. The infected turned their attention towards the sound. He looked at Jacob and frowned. “Now.”
Jacob nodded and tiptoed up the stairs. To his relief, the path was uncontested, and in a few short moments, the man entered the stairwell leading his son by the hand. Once inside the suite, he squatted down and shushed everyone, his ear planted on the door. His son stood quietly beside him as they waited. Jacob gritted his teeth in preparation for the worst, but soon enough the man nodded to confirm that it was safe.
“Victor Cruz – Sergeant First Class, Eagle Company,” he said, reaching his hand out. “And this here’s my son, Rodrigo.”
“Jake Shaffer.” He shook Victor’s hand, gripping hard to impress. He needed Victor to trust him enough to return the gun. “So the army sent you in?”
“Not the way you think. I had just finished my last tour of duty when I came down to the city to visit Rodrigo. Then the infection hit.” He rose from the ground. “All the TV channels were broadcasting the same message, over and over. Warning. We are currently experiencing a category five pandemic. This is not a test. Remain calm, stay indoors, and secure your immediate surroundings. Do not approach or interact with strangers. Standby for official assistance.”
“It means that it’s been four days and you’re the first normal I’ve seen who wasn’tabout to die.” He paused, and said, “Compared to this, Iraq feels like a fucking paradise.”
Rodrigo occupied himself with the last of his action figures. He flapped his lips to mimic explosions and gunfire, swooping the toy around the kitchen counter. Jacob and Victor stood by the window and watched, their attention hovering between the boy-at-play and the streets below.
“Got any kids of your own?”
Victor raised his brow. “Consider yourself lucky. At least she’s out of your life for good.”
“Yeah. Lucky.” Jacob let out a short, sarcastic laugh.
“It could be worse. Trust me. I still have to deal with my bitch anytime I want to see Rodrigo.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of the toy being slammed down onto the counter. Victor moved towards his son and slapped him hard across the face. “Keep it down,” he hissed. Rodrigo nodded through tears. Jacob recoiled at first – the room was soundproof, there was no need – but in the end he was glad for Victor’s discipline. The last thing he wanted was for some brat to get him killed.
Victor walked back coolly and gestured for Jacob to continue. “You were saying?”
“Sorry – about your ex-wife. Your divorce.”
“It is what it is.” He sighed. “Nobody really teaches you about loyalty until it’s too late, y’know? I proposed when I first shipped out. Figured someone should love me before I die.”
Rodrigo cupped his hands over his ears and crouched to the floor, all the better to drown out his father’s words. It was familiar territory. Victor looked at his son and smirked. Good that Rodrigo be reminded of his mother’s infidelities. Good that he learn not to trust. Good.
“Two years ago I find out she’d started fucking one of my old high school buddies. Guy owns a cleaning company, makes good money, apparently. So, there I was, getting shot at in the goddamned scorching desert, and she’s back in the city fucking a glorified janitor.”
He continued, “We get a divorce. She gets custody of course, and then she moves in with the guy. Business is doing well, she says. He can provide for Rodrigo, help lighten the load a bit.” He gestured around the room. “You think I can afford this? Had to save up for four months so that I could show Rodrigo that I was capable, too. That I could provide for him as well as anybody else. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he sees him more than he sees me.” Victor swept his gaze across the street of infected and onto his son. He sneered, “I risked my life for a nation of scum.”
The room was cloaked in silence. Rodrigo hid in the kitchen, his eyes level with the countertop, unsure of whether all the hatred had been expelled.
“You hungry?” Victor asked, turning towards his son.
Jacob beamed. He hadn’t eaten in two days, so long that even the gases in his stomach had settled into a sort of fatalism, the rumblings few and far between. He stared greedily at the backpack as Victor signaled for his son to approach. The pack was unloaded – one liter of water, two granola bars, a small packet of chips – spoils of the lower floors, and Victor slid a granola bar and the chips to his son. He ordered him to eat and split the last bar in half, handing Jacob his share.
“Is that it?” Jacob asked, examining his sliver of granola. He looked over at the unopened chips packet. “He gets more than twice as much.”
Victor laid the pistol among the consumables so that it was visible. “If you want to survive, you’ll do as I say,” he said. “Out here, you’re baggage. Stay lightweight, or I might be inclined to leave your ass behind.”
Jacob’s face flushed deep red. Stripped of his weapon and his pride, he suddenly regretted the company, though he took solace in the fact that it had been thrust upon him, rather than having been his own choice. Sensing his shame, Rodrigo shuffled over and presented a handful of the chips.
“You can have some if you like,” Rodrigo said. “I don’t need all of it.”
Victor grabbed his son’s arm and pulled him violently to the ground. “What goes for him goes for you, too. Now eat.” He watched them closely as they ate, and after they finished, gave the water to his son to drink. Counting down, he pulled the bottle away when he decided it was enough and passed the water to Jacob. “Three sips,” he ordered.
Jacob nodded and leaned back as lukewarm water splashed down his throat. Twice more, and he handed it back. His mouth was no longer parched, though he was far from refreshed. “I imagine we’ll need to search for supplies soon,” he said, hoping to release some of the tension that had built up.
Victor gulped down a portion of the remaining water and smacked his lips with relief. “If only it were that easy.”