“Emma, wake up,” a low voice calls.
Her eyes flash open instantly, her senses heightened and her brain already firing off alarm bells. What’s happening? Her hand reaches for the knife lying on the forest floor, an inch from her hand. A precaution. Dad said to always be too careful. What danger are they in?
“What is it?” she hisses, lunging into a crouch, almost knocking Owen over in the process. He grabs her forearm and pulls her to stand. Her shoulder sings in pain as she straightens, but she grits her teeth and ignores it.
“Nothing’s wrong. We need to get moving, that’s all.”
The alarms in her head subside, her breaths slow as she realizes they’re safe. There’s no danger, at least not right now. Her heart is still beating against her ribs like an angry hummingbird, but they’re already moving, so there’s no time to calm herself further.
Owen hands Emma her bag and she slings it onto her back, adjusting the straps and falling into step beside him. He hands her half of a granola bar and twists open a bottle of water. The water will last them the day if they ration properly and Owen has probably already eaten his half of the granola bar.
“Where are we going?” She asks. This has become the routine for them. He wakes her up and they get moving. She asks where they’re going and he gives her the same answer every time.
They’ve been walking for almost a month now. At first, it was moving house to house, finding shelter wherever they could find it and stocking up on food and supplies wherever they came across it. Almost three months since the world had gone to hell, and Owen is all Emma really has left. Her parents are gone, her big brother is on the other side of the country and she has no way of telling if he’s still alive or not. There are no planes in the sky, no cars on the road – besides the van, but now even that’s gone. Every phone they checked was dead and every television station was nothing but static.
The virus had left ninety-six percent of the world as stumbling, decomposing, bloodthirsty things. Emma is part of the “lucky” four percent left human. So is Owen.
Finding Owen was pure luck, a bloody needle in a haystack.
She’d come across him a few days after her parents were gone. Their blood was still caked under her fingernails. She’d heard gunshots from the neighbours’ house that morning, and had stayed hunkered down in the basement for hours. When she finally came out, she watched the guy across the street pick off infected with a shotgun for hours before she finally decided to leave.
She picked through the garage for anything she found useful, hammered some nails into her father’s wooden baseball bat, loaded up the mini van with all the food they had left in the house and hit the road.
She found Owen that night, walking down the freeway with a red backpack on his shoulders and a headlamp on his forehead. She offered him a ride and a cup of instant coffee and the rest is history. Bloody, violent history.
Owen’s got some anger to let out. He doesn’t talk about it much, but she’s got theories about him. He’s good at this. Too good. He seems to like it, which might be the strangest part about it. He seeks the infected out, knocks them down like pins in a bowling alley. He likes her baseball bat, with the nails. Emma lets him use it as long as he cleans it off afterwards.
But Emma can’t really blame him. His parents were immune too, but they were killed by a swarm of infected.
A month after she picked Owen up, the van’s engine died. They went on foot from there, always heading East. When Emma left home, she hadn’t really picked a destination, she just started driving. Owen was already heading East, so they just kept going. Two months together and the food was easy enough to come by. Most of the grocery stores were still stocked, but hard to get into. Big buildings were tricky: the more space inside, the more space there were for infected to hide. If they were lucky, they’d come across an empty house, but the residents were usually still inside, and hungry. Owen would take care of them, and they’d hunker down for the night.
Owen walks a couple of steps ahead of her now; his legs are longer than hers but he always stops when he’s five paces ahead and waits for her, tapping the nails on the bat against the toe of his shoe. She’s noticing her shoulder more, a sting of pain flickering with every step, every shift of her weight. She should have told him right when it happened! God, why didn’t she tell him? They could have tried looking for meds if she had said something. She’d kill for an Advil.
“You okay?” he asks, tapping the bat against his shoe one more time. “You’re slower than usual.” His last sentence comes with a grin; he’s kidding.
“Well, sleeping on the ground is really doing wonders for my back,” Emma says sarcastically. She rotates her shoulders carefully, testing the bad one before she moves it. “I’m just sore, is all.”
She’s lying and she’s hoping to God Owen can’t see it in her face. She is sore, that part isn’t a lie. But it’s not from sleeping on the ground.
Last night, they split up when they came across a small-town mall. Owen went into the gas station in the parking lot to loot for supplies and water and Emma headed into the mall to look for a new pair of shoes. Her Converse had holes in the bottom from all the walking and she was hoping for a pair of hiking boots.
Inside the mall, the emergency lights were on, but they flickered every couple minutes. She was inside for five minutes when they all went out together, sending her plunging into complete darkness. Instinctively, she threw herself against the wall, holding the bat in front of her. After a few more moments, the lights came back on
And Emma came face-to-face with an infected.
It was probably the ugliest thing she had ever come across in her life. Its skin hung from it’s skeleton like someone had sucked out all the muscle. Its eyes were grey and lifeless and sent a chill down her spine. It held bony hands towards her, lunging for her throat with a guttural shout. Emma screamed and swung the baseball bat, but it missed and she spun around, feeling the nails sink into the wall behind her. She yanked hard, trying to pull the bat free, and felt the thing’s teeth sink into her shoulder, through her t-shirt.
A soundless scream made her mouth drop open and she pulled her knee back quickly, kicking backwards and hitting the infected in the gut. It stumbled back and she yanked even harder, dislodging the bat and swinging it around. This time, the bat connects with the thing’s jaw, making it fall slack on its hinges, rotted teeth tumbling to the floor with little pings that make Emma’s gut lurch. She swung again and heard its neck snap, the sickening crunch of bones breaking echoing through her ears. It collapsed to the floor and Emma felt tears trickle down her cheeks, dripping down her chin and neck, seeping into the collar of her t-shirt.
She was done for.
When they’d first met, Owen had told Emma everything he knew about the infected. He was from the city and there had been reports about how to handle the infected. Mostly lists of supplies you should try and collect, the best weapons to use for defence, and one major rule: don’t get bitten. The bite would turn you into one of the infected, immune or not.
She was done for. She’s become one of them and Owen would kill her.
The infected lay still on the floor, not moving even when Emma kicked it hard in the ribs. She could feel blood soaking through the fabric of her shirt and dripping down her arm, almost reaching her wrist.
Would Owen think twice about killing her, really? Would he try and save her? What if she turned into one of them overnight and killed him in his sleep? Would he leave her to fend for herself and go East by himself?
She didn’t have answers to those questions. She didn’t know.
She only had a few minutes before Owen left the gas station and headed into the mall, so she left the dead infected and found the closest sporting goods store. She did a quick sweep of the place, looking for any more surprises with her bat raised high, ready to swing. She found a pair of hiking boots in the shoe section after a little bit of searching through boxes for her size and found a first aid kit in the back room. Emma cleaned her wound with an alcohol wipe and taped pieces of gauze over the bite. She washed the blood from her arm and grabbed a fleece sweater on her way out. She felt cold all over.
Owen was walking through the doors she’d come in through when she left the store. He stopped at the body on the floor and yelled her name, running towards her. “Emma!”
She was expecting him to slow as he approached her, but he just kept running. He scooped her into his arms, hugging her tightly, one hand fisted in her hair. Then he pulled back, his hands holding her face and his eyes darting all over her.
“Are you okay?”
He hugged her again. “Oh god, please tell me you’re okay.”
“I…” She trailed off. Shit. She couldn’t tell him. Clearly, this would hurt him. “I’m okay.”
Now, he searches her face, one brow raising. “Are you sure?” He offers her the water bottle. “Here. You drink the rest. Maybe you’re dehydrated.”
Emma just nods and takes the bottle from him, taking a long swig of water and savouring the way it feels in the back of her mouth. She has the fleece sweater zipped to her chin and she still feels cold. She’s starting to lose feeling in the tips of her fingers and her feet feel like they’re ghosting along ground.
They find an empty cabin to spend the night in. Owen starts a fire in the fireplace and heats up a can of soup for them to share. Emma sits close to the fire, warming her numb toes. She can almost feel the virus running through her veins now, her shoulder pulsing wildly with every beat of her heart. It’s not just her shoulder that hurts now; her whole arm aches as though she had badly burnt it. Her legs are sore, but she’s not sure if that’s from all the walking or the virus.
Owen comes over and sits beside her, on her uninjured side. Her hand is squeezing her knee and he reaches for it, holding her fingers between his own and rubbing his thumb over the back of her hand.
“You really scared me last night,” he mumbles, his voice quiet. “I thought the thing bit you. I was so scared.” He reaches out and rubs his thumb across her cheek. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
She has to tell him.
Emma inhales deeply, taking in the scent of the wood burning in the fireplace, of the remnants of the vegetable soup they shared, of the shower gel Owen used the last time they bathed. She wants to remember it.
“I got bit, Owen.”
There. She’s dropped the bomb. He looks at her in disbelief, so she unzips the jacket, shivering when the air hits her cold skin. She reaches for the gun at her hip in the same motion, moving the jacket off her shoulder so he can see the bite.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks. Already, she can tell he’s upset. Not that she can blame him.
“I didn’t know how. I…I was scared you’d leave me behind. But I need you to kill me, Owen. Please. Go on without me, head East, get to whatever it is that’s out there.”
“The ocean,” he says, not looking at her, his eyes unfocused and unblinking.
“The ocean. I wanted to see the ocean.”
“Then go. For me. Go see the ocean. And keep yourself safe. Please.”
Before he can say another word, she pushes the gun into his hand. “Will you do it? I don’t want to be a monster, Owen. I don’t want to be one of them. Please.”
His lip is quivering as he cocks the barrel of the gun and lifts it. The end presses against Emma’s temple and she shuts her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” he says and the gun goes off.
Photo Credit: David Cowan
Kayla Randall is a 20-year-old aspiring novelist with a passion for coffee, books, and driving around her hometown. Eldest of five siblings, she often misses home in Mississauga, but is still having the time of her life living in Ottawa and trying to make her mark in the literary world.