Hollowmen, p.4
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       Hollowmen, p.4

         Part #2 of The Hollows series by Amanda Hocking
 
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Nolita set the small candle on a white wicker bedside table in our room. There were two small twin beds in the room, and based on the décor, I guessed it used to belong to a little girl. The walls were papered with pink flowers marred only by a few bloody handprints.

  Dolls and toys were piled up in one corner. Most of them were torn up, with doll’s faces smashed in. The beds were unmade, but the blankets were just balled up at one end.

  Nolita pushed a small white dresser in front of the bedroom door after we went in. When she moved it, a music box tipped over and began softly playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow. ” She picked it up, watching the small pink ballerina spin.

  I picked the bed on the far side of the room and dropped my messenger bag on it. As soon as I sat on the bed, I pulled off my shoes. My feet were blistered and bloodied, but not bad enough that I couldn’t force them on tomorrow.

  The music stopped playing, so Nolita wound it up again, staring at the music box with intense fascination.

  While she did that, I dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups. As tired and sore as I was, I had to build up my endurance. I didn’t want to depend on people for my survival – I couldn’t, actually. Not if I really wanted a chance at getting to Max and making it to the end of the world.

  “Do you remember music?” Nolita asked, her voice soft and dreamy.

  “Of course I remember music,” I huffed between push-ups.

  She turned around to face me. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m too weak. I have to get my strength back up. ”

  Page 10

  She stood next to her bed, watching me. The music box had fallen silent, and she set her gun on the dresser next to it. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her taking off her uniform and stripping down to a black tank top and underwear before she slid into bed.

  “Do you think there’ll be music again?” Nolita asked.

  “What?” I paused to catch my breath and look over at her.

  “Do you think we’ll ever get to a point where we’ll make music again?” Nolita asked. “Or movies or books? Do you think we’ll ever have time for that again, or will we always be rushing to survive?”

  “I don’t know. ” I went back to my exercise, pushing myself harder and faster now because I didn’t want to think about what Nolita was saying.

  Nolita rolled onto her side, so she could watch me. “How did you get so weak, anyways?”

  Instead of answering her, I flipped over onto my back and started doing curl-ups. That actually wasn’t the best idea, since it hadn’t been that long since the last time Daniels and his crew had cut me open.

  “What’s the deal with you and Daniels?” Nolita asked. “What happened with you guys inside?”

  “He was a doctor, I was a patient,” I said. “Except he wasn’t trying to make me better. He was trying to find out why I wasn’t sick. ”

  She wrinkled her nose. “What does that mean?”

  “Why don’t you ask him? I don’t want to talk about it. ”

  “Hmm. ” Her forehead scrunched up as she thought for a moment. “Are you going to do that all night?”

  “No, just a little bit longer. ”

  “Can I turn out the light?” Nolita asked.

  “You can do whatever you want. ”

  She rolled over and blew out the light. I finished my workout in the dark, but I didn’t actually mind that much.

  6.

  The river meant we weren’t too far away. I remembered crossing it as we drove away from the compound.

  We’d left the farmhouse shortly after dawn, continuing our trek down the highway to the compound where I hoped to find my brother alive and well. The journey was as silent as it had been yesterday. Nolita and Daniels spoke a little, and of nothing of any interest to anyone else.

  At one point, Teddy must’ve grown bored, because he tried to start a conversation about movies. It went on for a short while, but after he and Boden summarized the plot to Road Warrior, the silence returned.

  “You’re sure it’s not much longer from here?” Boden asked me when we reached the river.

  We stood at the sloping embankment next to it, staring down at the water’s leisurely pace as it flowed past. Bishop and Teddy had already gone down to the water’s edge to refill bottles of water.

  There was a chance the river might be contaminated, but it was a risk we had to take. We checked around for corpses or any signs of infection before, and we hadn’t seen any. We’d dehydrate without water, and Daniels said he didn’t think that virus could survive in water for that long.

  Nolita and Daniels stayed next to us, as if waiting to see what Boden did. Since Boden was her superior, it made sense that Nolita’d wait for his orders, and Daniels seemed to be taking his cues from her now.

  “I’m sure,” I said. “Maybe a few more hours, but we should reach it by nightfall. ”

  Boden eyed the sun above us, trying to gauge the time. It was hard to ever know what the exact time was, but we got used to telling time by the sky. It was late afternoon, heading into the evening. We’d been walking all day with only one break in the morning.

  “Everybody should get cleaned up. ” Boden motioned to the river. “Who knows when we’ll have fresh water to wash up in again. ”

  I nodded, then skidded down the grass toward the river. Nolita and Daniels were right behind me, but Boden stayed at the top for a minute longer, surveying the scene for any signs of zombies.

  Bishop waded out in the water to her knees and splashed water up, using it to clean off her arms, her face, her neck. Teddy walked out a little farther than her and took off his shirt, so he could properly clean his torso.

  Nolita had stripped all the way down to her underwear and black tank top and swam out in the water, while Daniels remained on the shore, more content to watch her than to go in the river.

  I went underneath the bridge, away from where the rest of them were getting cleaned up, because I wanted some privacy. I only went to the other side of the bridge, where I was still close enough to see them, but not very well.

  I set my messenger bag on the rocky shore then stripped down to my panties and the small tank top that served as a bra. It had once been white, but the bottom had been stained a brownish red, and it stuck to my belly.

  The water was ice cold as I stepped out into it, tentatively at first, until I was out to my waist. I cupped my hands and scooped the water to my mouth, drinking greedily. In another life, I never would’ve considered drinking water from a river. The fear of fish poop and algae and all sorts of gross things would have scared me off. But now I couldn’t remember the last time I’d tasted anything purer.

  I drank as much as I could, my stomach feeling full for the first time in I can’t remember, and my thirst was finally quenched.

  The tank top was sufficiently stuck my skin, held to the tender flesh by dried blood. To loosen it, I dipped down lower, soaking it in water. The cold stung painfully on the wound, and I breathed in sharply through my teeth.

  I stood back up, so the river was only hitting my hips. The fabric had loosened enough where I could lift up my shirt and inspect my incision. It wasn’t the worst one I’d endured, but it definitely looked like shit.

  The black stitches were pressed tight against my puffy, red flesh. It was scabby, and when I touched it, fresh blood oozed from it. Since I had nothing better to clean it with, I splashed river water over it, wiping it off as gently as I could.

  This was really my fault, and not because I did such a rushed job of stitching myself up. I’d been pushing myself too hard, and doing a hundred crunches last night couldn’t have helped it.

  But I had to be stronger if I planned on fighting off zombies with my bare hands. Irritating a wound seemed like small potatoes compared with getting my head bitten off by a monster.

  Once I’d cleaned that up sufficiently, I washed off the rest of my body, tr
ying to remove the sweat and grime. When I went back to the shore, I glanced over to the other side of the bridge, where everyone else was still getting cleaned up. Nolita seemed to be enjoying a nice, long swim.

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  I crouched down to dig through my messenger back for clean-ish clothes when I heard something in the bushes at the base of the bridge. I stood up slowly, scanning for anything to defend myself with, but what came out of the bushes was something I wasn’t at all prepared for.

  It was a zombie, but one so newly turned it still maintained all its human features, so it was instantly recognizable. It was Blue.

  He had a few tell-tale marks that he was zombie, including a giant, festering bite wound out of his arm that he hadn’t bothered to wrap at all. His eyes were the same warm shade of gray I remembered them being, but now the whites were jaundiced and blood shot. Plus, they were completely maniacal and crazed.

  Blue was definitely a zombie, and a young one, which meant he’d be hella fast and hella strong.

  It took a second for that register, though. For a second, all I could do was gape at him and feel sick to my stomach.

  Then he growled and charged at me, and I sprang into action.

  I bolted, slipping on stones because my feet were wet, and ran toward the embankment. Blue gave chase, stumbling on the same rocks that had given me trouble, and I made sure to lead him away from the others.

  Part of that was because I didn’t want to endanger other people, but it was more than that. For reasons I didn’t completely understand, I felt responsible for him. Blue was my zombie, and I would take care of him.

  As I raced up the embankment, using my hands to pull myself up quicker, he was right on my heels. He actually successfully managed to grab one of my feet once, but I got him off by kicking him in the face. He let out a low death groan after that, and I prayed he wasn’t calling more zombies.

  I made it all the way to the top and looked around for anything to use to defend myself. Part of a rusted muffler sat on the shoulder of the highway, a leftover from a time when people were still driving around. It had a nice jagged edge from where it had snapped off the car.

  I ran toward it, and just before I reached it, Blue knocked me to the ground. He hit my back, and I tumbled face down in the dirt. I rolled onto my back, and when he tried to dive on me, I lifted my legs and kicked him squarely in the chest, knocking him back.

  With only seconds to reach it before Blue was on me again, I crawled on my belly over to the muffler. My fingers had just wrapped around it when I felt Blue’s hands on me, like claws digging into my thighs and butt.

  I flipped back over, and Blue grabbed onto my thighs, pulling me closer to him. As soon as I was underneath him, I jammed the sharp end of the muffler right into his jugular. I rolled to the side, narrowly missing a spurt of his blood.

  He was fairly new, so the blood hadn’t gotten as thick or green as it eventually would, but it still didn’t look like a human’s. He clawed at his throat, trying to pull it out, and let out a garbled howl.

  I got to my feet and kicked him in the side, so he fell to the ground on his back, still trying to get it out of his throat. I didn’t know how long it would take him to bleed out, and honestly, I didn’t want him to suffer. Somewhere, buried way underneath the zombie mania, was my friend Blue, and he didn’t deserve to suffer any longer than he absolutely had to.

  I grabbed the muffler and yanked it across his throat. I wasn’t strong enough to sever his spine, and based on how rusty the metal was, I doubted the muffler was either. But I’d torn through both his jugular and his windpipe.

  His mouth opened and closed a few times, reminding me of a fish out of water trying to breathe. But then he was still, his hands at his throat, and his eyes wide open, looking at the blue sky above us.

  “What the hell happened?” Boden asked, jogging across the highway to me.

  He was shirtless, barefoot, and his blond hair was dripping water onto his shoulders. But he had a gun in his hand as he approached. Behind, I could see Bishop and Daniels standing at the top of the embankment, looking to see what was going on.

  “Just a zombie,” I said as nonchalantly as I could. “But it was nothing I couldn’t handle. ”

  “I can see that,” Boden said. He stood next to me, staring down at the corpse at of one my closest friends, and he looked somewhat impressed that I’d taken out Blue myself. “Good job. ”

  “Thanks,” I said numbly and crossed my arms over my chest.

  “You okay?” He looked over at me, and I realized dourly how little I was wearing.

  He’d started out checking me out for wounds, but when he saw me, his expression changed. His forehead furrowed, and his eyes widened, and I knew exactly what he saw.

  I was covered in marks. My inner arms were black and blue and loaded with track marks. My white shirt was soaked and nearly transparent, so all the scars across my belly were visible. I even had scars on my legs and shoulders from all sorts of other bizarre experiments.  

  “What the hell happened to you?” Boden asked.

  “They were trying to find a cure for the zombie virus,” I explained quickly. “They did whatever they thought they needed to do to find it. I was their test subject. ”

  He didn’t say anything for a moment, just nodded, and then looked around. “Did you hear any other zombies?”

  “No. ” I shook my head. “I didn’t see any either. He may have been alone. ”

  “Is everything okay?” Bishop asked, and she started walking across the highway toward us.

  “Uh, yeah, everything’s fine!” I moved in front of Blue, blocking him from her view. “It was just one zombie, and I took care of him – er, it. ”

  Bishop stopped, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say she looked suspicious of my hasty response. But maybe I was just paranoid.

  “I think she’s right,” Boden said, turning toward Bishop. “It was just zombie, but we should get our stuff together and move on. We don’t want to run into any more zombies, and we should reach the compound before it gets dark. ”

  Bishop nodded, almost reluctantly, then turned and went back toward the other side of the bridge. Daniels asked her something, but I couldn’t hear what it was.

  “Are you okay getting your stuff?” Boden asked, looking back at me. “Or do you want me to go with you?”

  “I’ll be fine,” I insisted. He nodded, then followed Bishop to get his stuff.

  I went back down the embankment the way I’d come. I knew I should be grateful. I’d gone up against a strong zombie, and I’d taken him out, despite my fears of being too weak to fight. All I had to show for it was some zombie blood on my hands.

  Page 12

  But when I crouched down next to the river to wash the blood off my skin, I realized my hands were trembling. I wanted to cry and throw up, so I splashed cold water on my face and hoped it would pass.

  It wasn’t just about seeing Blue as a zombie, although that was bad enough. He’d been a good guy and a good friend, and it was a horrible way to go out. As a mindless monster. He’d deserved far better than that.

  But it was also what him being a zombie meant. I’d put him in charge of Max to take him to the compound.

  I guessed that they’d probably made it to the compound, given how close we were to it and Blue’s age as a zombie. I couldn’t say for sure how long he’d been turned, but it couldn’t have been more than a month, maybe two at the absolute most.

  If he’d made it to the compound – and I was inclined to think he had – then he’d turned while he was living there. And that didn’t bode well for the compound or my little brother.

  I knew I should tell the others about Blue and about what that probably meant, but I couldn’t. I had to make it there, to see if Max was alive or dead for myself, and if the zombies were bad around the compound, I wouldn’t be able to get there alone. I needed the guns a
nd protection that the group could provide.

  That’s why I didn’t want Bishop to see Blue. She’d met him at the quarantine, so she might’ve recognized him. If she had, she could’ve drawn the same conclusion that I had – that going into the compound might be a suicide mission.

  7.

  “Are you coming?” Boden shouted down over the bridge, and I hurriedly pulled on my jeans.

  “Yeah! I’ll be right up. ”

  Everyone was at the top waiting for me when I finally made it up there. When Teddy asked me if I was okay, I couldn’t meet his eyes when I mumbled that I was fine.

  I was deliberately leading them into harm’s way, and I knew it. It was one thing to suggest going to the compound when I thought it really might benefit them. It was an entirely different thing to lead them there when I suspected that things had probably gone to hell.

  If Blue had turned in the last month or so, it fit with the timeline Tatum had told me earlier. The zombies had begun to really organize and target large populations about a month ago about that time. Or at least that’s when they really started hitting the quarantine.

  But Max was all I had in the world. I had no other family or friends or home or possessions. Lazlo and Harlow might be dead for all I know and, in fact, probably were. The only thing I had – the only reason to even live – was my brother Max. Protecting him and taking care of him was the only thing that kept me going, kept me fighting.

  And I would do anything to protect him. Even put other people in danger. If it meant I could save Max, then I would do it.

  I had to have hope that he was still alive. Like me, he was immune to the zombie virus, so his odds were better than most. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have been ripped apart by a zombie, especially since he was only an eight-year-old boy. But … he still might be alive.

  Besides, Boden and Nolita were soldiers. Not only could they handle themselves, but it was their job to protect people. Bishop had a gun, and she was bad ass. Daniels had almost killed both me and Max, so in a way, he kinda owed me.

  The only one I really had to feel guilty about was Teddy, but I tried not to think about that. The world was overrun with zombies. There were no guarantees of safety for anyone.

  “Are you sure you’re okay?” Teddy asked me after we’d walked for a while. He normally kept his conversations with Bishop, but I was walking faster now, almost next to Boden.

  “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said tightly, still refusing to look at him. He’d picked up his pace, moving away from Bishop and walking next to me.

  “You just seem a little shaken up after the thing with the zombie,” Teddy went on. “Have you killed a zombie before?”

  “Yeah, I’ve killed plenty of zombies. You don’t survive this long without getting a lot of green blood on your hands. ”

  “Yeah, that’s true. ” Teddy looked down at the ground and scratched the stubble on his chin. “It’s been awhile, though, since I’ve had to fight them. I’m sure that’s true for you, too. Is that why you’re upset?”

 
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