With every creeping step Alex Cronlord took toward her front door, her heart seemed to leap into her throat. Zach was just outside. Soon she’d be off to a movie and… whatever else he had planned. All she had to do was get out the door without being heard. She took another step…. Then another…. Her hand reached for the knob….
“Going somewhere, young lady?” That’s just the sort of thing Dad would say.
Alex froze as the contralto voice rang out from behind her. So close! Arranging her face into pure innocence, she turned to face her mother, who stood a few feet away with her hands on her hips. That’s just the sort of thing she would do.
“Just out with a friend.” Alex squirmed under the glare of those green eyes. “I told you about it, remember? You said I could.”
Technically, that was true, but Alex knew that wasn’t why she and her mother were having a staring contest. Or rather, why her mother was staring at her and she was trying to avoid the sudden impulse to run up to her room and hide.
To be a normal teenager living with a normal family and going out to do normal things. But this….
“I also said that if you’re going out with a boy, I want to meet him first.” Neither the older woman’s tone nor her posture left any room for disagreement. Turning her head, she called, “James!” Definitely the sort of “disagreement” they would have.
Alex let out a deep sigh. Getting up the nerve to ask a boy out had been a big deal for her— who knew if he’d still want to go once her mother got through with him? Next time I’m climbing out a window…. “Come on, Mom. I’m sixteen. Don’t you think—” Before she could finish the sentence, her father’s voice rang out.
Her eyes brimmed over. This wasn’t real.
“Yes, honey?” he said as he descended the stairs. Coming to a stop next to his wife, he wrapped an arm around her waist. The hint of a frown touched his lips as he glanced at Alex. “Everything all right?”
“Dad,” Alex said, letting the words tumble out of her mouth without even stopping for breath. “I’m supposed to go to a movie with Zach tonight and it’s probably the only date I’ll have in my life ever and Mom’s determined to ruin it and—”
Her father laughed, holding up one hand in a “stop” gesture. “That’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think, sweetie? We just want to meet this Zach; that’s all. We’re curious. Are you afraid we won’t approve?”
Well, given that Mom barely approves of me most of the time…. Alex knew better than to say that. “No.”
“Then open the door,” her father said. “Let’s meet him.”
Holding back a sigh, Alex turned and reached for the doorknob….
This was her fantasy. Real life was… complicated.
Thursday, 3:32 p.m.
“You’re still here?
The contralto voice brought Alex out of her thoughts. She was standing in her childhood home all right, but unlike in her daydream, the front door had a deadbolt on it. The windows were boarded over, too. And the stinging sensation in her left arm reminded her of the injection she’d gotten just hours before.
All the energy seemed to leave her body in an instant. She’d have given anything to live in that dreamworld for just a few seconds more. But you can’t. And it’s your own fault. Trying as hard as she could to look like nothing was wrong, Alex turned around. Her mother stood there, just as she’d imagined—but without her father. Holding back a sigh, she said, “Huh?”
“I’m surprised you’re still here. I thought you’d be eager to get back to James.”
Was that bitterness she heard in those last words? “I was just… thinking. That’s all.”
Her mother arched an eyebrow. “Oh? About what?”
Alex knew better than to tell her mother what was really on her mind. She could hear the older woman’s stern reply in her head: “What’s happened has happened. Your life is what it is. Don’t waste time on fantasies.”
“Nothing.” Without waiting for a reply, she turned, opened the door, and stepped through it.
Just like in her daydream, Zach Mason was waiting for her on the porch. But it wasn’t for a date. For some reason, the wiry young man always insisted on coming with her when she went to get an injection. Wish I knew why he does that. As always, his jet-black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and there was a hardness about him that belied the boyish innocence in his features.
“We get attacked on the way back,” Alex said, stepping past him and onto the front lawn. As she walked, her right hand dropped to the gun at her side. Reassurance washed over her as her fingers closed around the cool metal of the butt.
“Full-blown Xorda, or the gimpy zombie kind?” Zach asked. His voice suggested that he relished either prospect.
“The zombie kind. One of them drops right off the overpass and onto the hood of the car. You crash. We get swarmed.”
“Guess we’re taking the long way back to the hideout, then,” Zach said, referring to the abandoned building where a small group of survivors had taken refuge after the city had been overrun. “I take it you had a vision?”
“Always do when I get a shot.”
Alex stepped off the curb and into the street, not bothering to look both ways. Not like there’s much chance of getting hit by a car. As if to underscore that point, a green compact car was parked behind the white Toyota Camry that she and Zach had driven here. A thin film of dust covered the windshield. Several newspapers, still wrapped in their plastic bags, lay on the lawn just beyond the car. She saw no lights on in any of the nearby houses. Mom’s probably the only one left on this street.
When it had become clear that the zombie outbreak was more than just a few people taking bath salts, many Dallas residents had scrambled to leave town before the quarantine was imposed. Alex had opted to stay behind. This was her mess, after all—it was only right that she help clean it up.
Her teeth chattered. It wasn’t cold. As she willed her skin to stop crawling, Zach caught up to her, pulling the car keys from his pocket. “I don’t trust her, Alex. Your mom, I mean.”
Hearing the doors unlock, Alex slipped into the front passenger seat. Technically, she was a licensed driver and he wasn’t, but who followed those rules anymore? Besides, with all the zombie-killing runs they’d done over the last three months, they’d all gotten plenty of practice. “I know you don’t,” Alex said as he started the car. “But I do.”
“Why? She’s Wells Society. They’re bad people.”
Alex turned a glare on him. “My mother and the Wells Society didn’t cause this mess, Zach. I did.”
“Whatever you say,” Zach said, shaking his head. Without another word, he buckled his seat belt, and they set off for the hideout.
They drove past the Browning family’s house. Alex had gone to school with their daughter, Melody, though the two had never really been friends. Through the living-room window, she could see Melody’s mother shambling about. She couldn’t help but wince. I hope she and her dad are okay, at least…. A few blocks later: Dr. Hartman’s office. Her dentist. The windows were all boarded up. Hartman herself was dead—Alex had encountered her during a zombie-killing run a few weeks prior. Pulling the trigger had never been harder. My fault. All my fault.
Seeing a teddy bear lying in the middle of the road jolted Alex out of her guilt. Looking up, she saw a large U-Haul truck parked in front of the house on the corner. Guess moving day got cancelled.
“Couldn’t this guy have parked in the driveway?” Zach said. “Now I can’t see around the corner.”
“Not like there’s gonna be traffic coming.”
“Hey now.” Zach’s scowl was replaced by his familiar smirk as he glanced over at her. “You never know.”
They turned the corner—and found a giant man standing just a few feet ahead of them… right in the middle of the street. He was shambling along, apparently oblivious to his surroundings. “Zach!” Alex said, pointing at the zombie. “Look out!”
There was a terrible screeching noise as Zach turned the steering wheel wheel wildly. Alex held her breath, gripping the door handle so tightly that her knuckles turned white. But it was no good—the zombie filled their windshield as they hit it head-on.
Pain shot through Alex’s head as it struck the dashboard. Then there was black.
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