Among Others: 15th Chapter

Hard at work writing new chapters to Among Others, the new zombie e-saga. I’ve realized other major changes have to take place with earlier chapters. Small changes that lead to significant plot adjustments. But everything will still make sense until I get to editing.

Warning: Explicit depictions of violence is included in this chapter.

Chapter 15 of Among Others:

Back at the grocery store for the last of her necessary supplies, she hated herself for putting on the concealer, another pair of gloves, and mask again. However, she knew she had no choice. Not yet.

Even the powerful bide their time. Right?

Collins walked through the canned foods isle pulling dozens of canned meats from the shelves indiscriminately.
The cheaper the better.
She did little to disguise what she was doing. Rather, she worked quickly, purposefully. There was no meat counter clerk to pretend not to understand, no stocker to ask probing questions.
There are always weird people buying odd things. I’m not the only one. I can do this.
When a society is encouraged to hate a group, an internal Other, they refuse to see anyone that does not fit their preconceived descriptions of threats based solely on a person’s external appearance. Collins was safe as long as she still looked Normal.
She was angry; quick movements were just a bonus reaction.
Leaving just enough room in her collapsible push cart, she shuffled to the dinnerware to pick up extra plates and utencils. The rest of the state may consider Wretches as vile terrorists, but that did not mean she, or her guests, were going to eat like barbarians. Not under her roof.
Collins made her way up to the row of registers. Only one was open. Running the register was the same young man, happier texting than working for his paycheck. He was bored, texting.
Of course.
She had no choice at this point. Collins trembled inside her gloves.
The clerk never looked up at her, though. His cell kept bleeping text notifications. He was in just as much of a rush as Collins, though for different reasons.
She watched his eyes intently as they jerked from canned good to canned good straining to read his texts as they came. Calmed somewhat, she had her card ready when the clerk reached for more items only to find none to swipe. He slouched in relief, took her card, and handed back her card and receipt. His eyes never traveled to Collins’ masked face.
Saved by the cell again.
Collins avoided the alleyway on her to the grocery store where she left the four Wretches earlier, but could not help her curiosity heading home. Peering in, all four still stood completely motionless except for the occasional dripping drool from the young man with greasy hair and the fat man. Collins tried to smile. Her dried concealer prohibited it. The young man with long greasy hair took a step toward Collins.
“No,” she signed as she raised her other hand, “Not yet.” The greasy haired young man stepped back to where he stood a moment ago. A thread of drool stretched down passed his shirt pocket.
“Tonight. When it gets dark. I’ll be back. Okay?”
The old man in the forest green overalls nodded, allowing drool to drip onto his collar. Collins’ smile pushed passed its concealer restraints.
“Five hours.”
What am I thinking? They probably can’t tell time.
“Stay.”
She hated to, but she turned and left.

Collins filled her cupboards with the canned meat purchased earlier. The plates and silverware were washed and drying. She collected all the plastic bags, knotting each one once in their center and stuffed them in an empty bag and hung it on an exposed nail near her small refrigerator.
These might come in handy later, though she did not know how.
In what passed for a bedroom any other day, she struggled to figure out where her four incoming guests were going to sleep. She started to pull the top blanket off for makeshift beds on the floor. Pulling the blanket off her bed made her wonder, when the hell was the last time I slept in my bed. Then, When the hell was the last time I slept?
She recalled trying to sleep the first week after the infection took hold. Even then, what passed as sleep was more tossing and turning than legitimate sleep of any true sense. Two months and still fatigue did not beg her to sleep.
At least I don’t have to find beds for everyone.

Nighttime did not seem to come fast enough. Collins paced back and forth listening to pundits talk about “how best to deal with this problem”, why “we have no ethical obligation to care for invalids that don’t wish to help themselves”, and how “Wretches are not technically human anymore due to their changed status and therefore are not privy to human rights statutes via state statutes or international law.
She checked the kitchen area again. Clean. Everything in order. As a last ditch effort to pass time waiting for sundown, she put away the dishes she washed earlier. The light coming through the studio’s only window presented an amber hue to the kitchen. She twisted the venetian blinds’ rod until only the blinds held the hue. With so many unwanted people in her apartment, she did not need to raise undue attention by allowing others to see into her home.

One more walk through for no other reason than to attempt to quell her fears, fears she could not explain, she found nothing out of place. A few knick knacks she hid in safe places. She trusted the four Wretches in the alleyway not to steal anything she owned though she did not know exactly why. Instead she worried they may stumble or become curious and break her more fragile possessions.

Yet another walk around the studio. Nothing breakable out, everything seemed in order. All that was left was to wait until nightfall. It was like waiting for a warming pot of water to boil in the light from the sunrise.
With the sun setting, Collins touched up her concealer for what she hoped was the last time. Hands washed, gloves and anti-bacterial mask on, double-checked concealer, she left and locked the door behind her.
She followed her routine of walking quickly to appear walking at a Normal’s pace.
For night, it feels awfully bright out here.
When one strolls the streets at night with no destination in mind, one only notices the quiet and decreased visibility. Collins found out that when one is trying to utilize the cover of darkness to not be seen, one is painfully aware of how little cover that darkness truly provides. She also realized how loud her shoes were crunching pebbles in the concrete. Looking around, though, she saw no Normals wandering the streets. Distant moving shadows suggested stumbling Wretches seeking shelter or sustenance, but they were too far to determine or hear. Street lamps blinded if looked at directly. The only working in Collins’ favor on this quiet night was the moon hidden behind a curtain of heavy clouds.
Turning the corner to the alleyway where she left the four Wretches earlier, she met complete blackness. As her eyes adjusted to pitch darkness, she feared the four Wretches would no longer be standing at attention. At least one of these four understood enough of her Sign to follow requests. No others showed signs of such understanding. Then again, she had not tried. The second-guess ate away at her innards.
She needed these four Wretches to be there. Not only for her plan that she had not fully developed yet but for her own personal mental well being. When told you are not human, coupled with lack of human interaction, your mind plays tricks. You start to believe what others are saying. The others become the only voice in your head. Her ears and eyes reached out for anything but nothing presented itself, in abundance.
Just as she began to give up hope, she swore she heard what must have been a tin can clang and roll a short distance. Then maybe something with the most minute amount of grey in a sea of black shifted. She wondered if her begging senses were providing her information just to quiet her demands. The now quiet can was followed by shuffling and crunching of footwear on concrete. Her heart stopped.
The shadows just out of view could be the four Wretches she asked to wait for her. They could just as easily be something more sinister. A sliver of Collins’ conscience pleaded with her to run. That sliver of consciousness would not survive another alleyway attack.
No, she demanded of herself, This is important. To me and to them. I owe it to them to make this potential sacrifice. They waited a long time for me, trusting me to return. Now is not the time to run.
This self confirmation worked in her favor. Just then the old man wearing overalls came into the light provided by the street lamp behind Collins. He was followed by the young man with long greasy hair, the middle aged woman with knotted red hair, and the portly man wearing a badly stained white t-shirt. Collins held back tears of relief. They stayed as she asked but she still had to get them safely across three quiet city blocks without arousing suspicion or prying eyes.
“Can you see me?” she Signed.
All four looked at her like dogs being scolded in muted tones.  
“Um, Oh, You, see, me? Yes?”
The old man in overalls, the woman with knotted red hair and the young man with greasy hair nodded, though Collins was not sure if they nodded because she nodded or if they truly understood her question.
“You, need, run, fast. Follow, me. Okay?”
This time only the old man in overalls nodded. Collins pointed to him to get the other three to look in his direction.
“Again. You, show, them. Okay?”
He clapped his hands together and made like he was pushing something off the hand that was underneath the other. His clapped alarmed Collins, as soft as it was because of the old man’s tempered speed, its volume magnified in the relative quiet of the night. This time even the fat man nodded. They all looked back at Collins as if to say, “We’re ready. Lead the way.”
“Okay. On three, I run.” Collins used the same Sign the old man used that the other three appeared to understand. To be certain, she repeated the first directive before continuing.
“On three, I run. Then. Then, all of you, run, toward me. Okay?”
They each nodded. There was no way of telling how well they understood until flight ensued.
“Wait, one second.”
Collins stepped out into the street where the street lamps beamed down their burning interrogation room light. She looked up street then down in the direction of her complex. Only a few slow moving shadows in in the darkness or her brain playing tricks. She could not ask for a better chance than right now. Then a car turned a corner flashing on her before heading toward her.
Act normal, she told her self, not knowing what that actually meant. Before she made any decision of what constituted normal actions at the entrance of an alleyway in the dead of night, the car, which turned out to be an occupied taxi, drove past.
“Okay. Ready?” She nodded to ask if they understood. They nodded.
One final glance up then down the still empty street, she held out her left hand counting out, “One. Two. Three.” After she Signed “three” she waved them all to follow her.
She took off at what felt like a fast paced jog, the same pace that convinced pedestrians and grocer patrons for months. Her eyes focused on the apartment complex she could just make out three blocks away. She heard shuffling that was not hers, so she knew they were following. Whether they looked convincing or not she did not want to know. They were not wearing masks, concealer, and were much lower functioning than she. If they were going to get caught, they were going to get caught, whether Collins turned to look or not.
Just keep running.
Frequently she provided small hints of waves to follow her. She wanted to remind them of their task but simultaneously not appear to be giving directives to this obvious group of Wretches. Her heart beat faster. She felt it slapping her cold chest. Three short city blocks never felt so far away. She heard a loud thud.
Turning, she saw three of the Wretches shuffling toward her awkwardly. The old man shuffled with one hand that appeared to hold his right thigh in place. The woman with knotted red hair moved rather gracefully given her condition. With his torso flailing around like a flag in a storm, the fat man brought up the rear of the group. The young man with the greasy hair had fallen and trailing further behind.
No. No. No. But she could not leave him. Collins pointed in the direction of her apartment complex waving the three still shuffling to continue on. She and the long greasy haired man would catch up. She hoped.
Helping him up, she had to swallow the vomit tickling her esophagus. He lacked the speed to catch himself if he fell. His hands were unharmed, his face took the brunt of the fall. His two front teeth were missing, his nose crooked. Tears trickled down his cheeks. All she wanted to do was hold him, take him to a hospital, fix his broken nose, maybe even reset his broken teeth.
Being the Wretch he was, such frivolities only meant further torture. If he was lucky, they would kill him quickly. No, she decided, he had to settle for dealing with the pain.
She pulled him close to her pulling him along. He hissed in time with convulsions of his midsection. The pain was too much for him, he was crying uncontrollably. Collins pulled him along.
I know. I know. But we can’t stop here. Just a little further.
Thinking it to the young man with long greasy hair or giving herself pep talks, she could not determine. Much to the young man’s disapproval, he and Collins caught up to the group before overtaking them. They did not know where they were running to. She still had to lead.
Her leg muscles burned begging for oxygen and nutrients deprived them for months. Over excursion was taking its toll. She had no choice, however. Either she had to carry the young man with the broken nose to her apartment or leave him behind. The latter, though tempting, seemed so wrong. The legs of the young man in her arms buckled every few steps.
Don’t. Don’t go down. Please don’t fall. We’re almost there.

Her apartment complex was straight ahead of them. Only the quiet street separated them. She waved the group forward and grabbed hold of the young man with the broken nose. Crossing the street, car headlights popped into Collins’ peripheral vision. She turned. The car was still some distance but closing in on them. She picked up her pace as best as her screaming leg muscles allowed.
The car came up on them just as she climbed the first stair to her complex. Looking back, the car continued on its route, its tires squealed as it passed. For a moment, Collins assumed it was stopping to help this Normal being mauled by four Wretches. Then the car accelerated out of sight. The old man in overalls, woman with knotted red hair and the fat man in the white t-shirt stumbled onto the curb staring at Collins holding the man with the broken face. She nodded for them to follow her into her apartment complex.
Collins had not accounted for how loud the four Wretches’ shuffled through the complex hallway. The sounds of dragging shoes on linoleum echoed off every door traveling up the corridor and back.
Please. Nobody come out. Stay inside.
She fumbled with her keys in one hand while holding the man with the broken face up with her left half. Finding the right one, she unlocked the door, stood back so the other three could enter. As she shoved the man with the broken face into her studio, another deadbolt clicked somewhere else among the row of doors but she did not wait to see who it was or apologize for any inconvenience at such a late hour. Instead she responded in kind by twisting her apartment deadbolt into place.
Safe.

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