The banshee-like screams of the newly turned dead combined with the wails of the living they ripped apart echoed throughout Camp Oliver. The once-thriving camp for the survivors of the zombie apocalypse fifteen years prior was tucked away deep in the Laguna Mountains of San Diego, California.
On this dreadful day, Camp Oliver was filled with the screams of scared women and children as they fled hopelessly for their lives, and the war cries of the brave who attempted to fend off the attack from the dead.
But these weren’t zombies that shambled around after being raised from the grave, slow-moving and easy to escape. These were rage-fueled demons who, upon turning, became blood-thirsty psychopaths that would stop at nothing to reach their meals. They had powerful grips with bites to match. Yes, they were dead. Science made sure of that. But their minds became lifeless engines fueled by the uncontrollable urge to feed on the living. Their brains rewired, sending signals to the muscles and flooding the body with chemicals that heightened only the necessary senses needed to eat and repeat. Some were lucky and died after being bitten and fed on. Others turned and became the never-dying beasts that became known as ragers.
To make matters worse, the ragers didn’t rot away as their bodies roamed the earth. Instead, the chemical compound that transformed humanity into these creatures also ensured their bodies never decomposed. That was the purpose of the drug that big pharma produced—everlasting life. Or, as they called it, “The Fountain of Youth.” One injection, and the body’s aging process would begin to slow indefinitely.
The ragers went on raging until they stopped feeding. Then, they went dormant and began to wither. The dead mummified, their bodies slowed, and although their senses were still heightened, they no longer raged. Their bites were still deadly, and if bitten, the victim began the process of reanimation from dead human to rager and eventually they became the withered.
The living might have stood a chance against the withered. But on the day of the attack at Camp Oliver, it was a feast for the newborn ragers. They were faster than their aged counterparts. They destroyed and consumed at a pace the living simply could not keep up with. As it had been proven fifteen years before, all it took was one rager to turn the rest.
It was the end all over again. Death seized the day. And there was nothing anyone living could do about it.
* * *
The memory of it all bore a hole through Matt Tanner’s head as he stood on the cement helicopter landing pad of the abandoned FEMA station’s evacuation site. He was soaked in sweat, stained with blood, and barely able to hold himself up from fatigue.
Matt had been the first of many to make Camp Oliver home. He had founded the camp with his father’s best friend Greg and another buddy named Jody.
At the time, Matt had been a young boy in his early teens. Now, as he stood on the helo pad, he was a man in his thirties. He stood at a solid six feet with wide shoulders. He had the chiseled face of a warrior. He had been through his share of trauma and tragedy, and it showed in the deep worry lines carved into his forehead and the creases in his mouth on the rare occasions he smiled. He did his best to keep the truth of how bad he was beaten to himself, but as the days passed, the pain always reminded him.
He swayed sickly as the springtime desert sun floated at the highest point of sky directly above his head. The heat seared the earth below his feet as he stood with the horrible realization life was all for nothing, and no matter how hard one tried, everyone died in the end.
This is it, he thought. This is how it all ends.
He dropped his pack and laid his achy, joint-swollen body down on the cement slab that had “FEMA” painted on it in big red letters. He closed his eyes. The heat soaked through to his core as he processed all the events that led him to where he was.
It had all started with that scavenger, that strange man who came from the unknown. Bobby had found him at the creek during his roving perimeter patrol. That scavenger should never have been allowed through the gates. Bobby should have left him there to die. Instead, he carried the scavenger’s death-ridden, bite-marked body into the camp, brought him to Doc’s office, and laid him out for examination.
Matt’s memories were clear. Doc had reached over and grabbed his stethoscope. His elbow hit a glass jar filled with alcohol and scalpels. The glass jar broke, and Bobby bent over to grab the mess. Doc had bent down at the same time. Their heads collided. Susan had walked into Doc’s office, slamming the door against the wall with a loud, booming thud that caused everyone to look all at once. And at that moment with all their attention diverted, the scavenger lifted his head off the table and bit Bobby in his neck.
It had been like a scene in those old, low-budget zombie movies Matt used to watch as a kid, back before big pharma’s drug backfired, ripped through the world, and turned everybody into flesh-eating lunatics that didn’t seem to die of natural causes—ever. Blood had squirted from Bobby’s carotid artery. He’d only screamed for a half-second. Then his scream turned into a death gurgle, the last sounds a dying man made as he choked to death on his own blood. Doc hadn’t been able to react fast enough to avoid being bitten by the scavenger next. Susan had run out and left the door open. Matt had barely escaped.
Now, his stomach turned with nausea. A rush of nervousness made little pinpricks of pain erupt on his skin. His heart pounded. Failure—he was feeling his defeat, and it hit him all at once. The anxiety was going to eat at him until his death. How many more would die because of it, he wondered. How many more would suffer because of bad decisions and ignorance?
From somewhere inside the FEMA station, Matt heard the muffled sounds of Steve Warswick and Tara Sills as they rummaged the remains of the vacant lot. The pair sounded like a pack of coyotes searching for leftovers. Surrounded by nothing more than torn canopies, rusted fifty-gallon drums, and pockmarked Conex boxes with rust holes that ate through the three-inch-thick metal exteriors, Matt listened as his friends wasted their time. If there had been any supplies at that FEMA site, they would have long been looted, the site stripped clean of anything useful. It was becoming clear they were still too reliant on old-world supplies.
Oh, how he wished he could turn back time and undo it all. He would punch that sentry in the face for being ignorant, then carry that strange man far enough away from the camp that no one would have ever known. He might have even put a bullet in him for good measure. And then nothing would have ever happened. That stranger could have turned and wandered off into the woods to chase deer for all he cared, and the rest of them could have all lived happily ever after in the apocalypse.
Greg and Jody, the camp’s delegated leadership, would probably have had an issue with him knocking out a young sentry. But in reality, knowing what he knew now, it would have been worth it. Besides, Greg was like a father to Matt and Jody was a lifelong friend. Neither of them would have done much to him in the way of punishment.
As he considered this alternate ending, he sensed a presence over his body. When Matt opened his eyes, he found both Steve and Tara standing over him. He blinked a few times. At first, they were just dark silhouettes with no distinct features, but after his vision cleared, Matt could make out who was who. Steve with his six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound body and dark hair he kept parted to one side. And a distinct nose powerful in presence but not overwhelming. But it was his best friend’s smile that stood out the most. An unmistakable row of pearly whites in a perfect line. How in any apocalyptic scenario a man could have such perfect features was a mystery.
As for Tara, Matt wasn’t surprised to see she looked agitated, all five feet of her. She was small, but feisty. Out of all the men who had been on their team of wasteland scavengers, Tara outshot them, performed better tactically, and was smarter than any of them. She was smarter than both Steve and Matt himself. But she also had an attitude. Her witty banter and blunt speech drove Matt mad at times.
She stood over Matt, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail and her blue eyes full of disapproval as she stared down at him. It was the kind of face a parent would make after they found their child in bed napping when they were supposed to be doing chores.
She kicked his boot as his legs dangled over the edge of the cement pad. “You comfortable?”
Matt smirked, then sat up and grimaced at the aches in his body. His nausea had gone away, but there was nothing he could do to help the displaced bones, strained tendons, and knotted muscles. That was just the wear and tear from years of scavenging and sleeping on thin sleeping pads with no cushion.
“This place has been picked clean, brother,” Steve said. “What’s the plan?”
Matt stared back at them. He was at a loss for words. He didn’t want to turn back so defeated with literally nothing to show for their trip except lost hope and fewer supplies than when they’d left. But what choice did he have? The FEMA camp was a failed mission. It was time to go back and figure out what was next. No home. No supplies.
“Nothing at all, huh?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, that’s what we said, nothing. You would have seen that for yourself if you had actually gotten up and looked some,” Tara retorted.
Matt let the snide comment pass. It was pointless to engage her in an argument.
“We head back,” he said. “We find Greg and Jody and tell them this was a waste of time, and then we figure out what’s next.”
Tara took in a deep breath before she turned and walked away. Steve reached out and offered Matt a hand. He accepted.
The two interlocked hands, and with a grunt of enthusiastic effort, Steve yanked his friend up and off the ground. Matt was no small guy, but Steve’s tug lifted his feet off the ground a good inch before he reconnected to the hard-packed sand.
“There ya go, brother. How you feeling?” Steve asked.
“I’ve felt better,” Matt said as he cracked the bones in his back and neck. “I swear you get stronger and bigger every time we come out here.”
“Nah, you’re just getting smaller.” Steve laughed. “But seriously, brother, you don’t eat because all you do is stress. I can see it on your face.”
Matt smirked. “Nah, I’m just reflecting.”
“If that’s what you want to call it. Either way, stop eating like a bird.”
Matt ignored Steve’s concerns and watched as Tara stormed off. When she was angry, there was nothing anyone could do. She just had to be left alone to vent off her frustration. It was never personal. It was just how she did things.
“What do you say we head back?” Matt asked.
“Sounds good, brother.”
“There was an RV resort and lodge a day’s hike east of here. We passed it on the way down. Should make for a good overnight camp.”
“Let’s do it.”
Matt grabbed his pack and pulled out a water bladder. It was small but durable. He gripped the filter tip with his teeth and pulled it open to take a large gulp. The warm water went down with ease, almost choking him in the process. He wiped some spillage off his lips and offered some to Steve, who took a similar pull then passed it back to Matt for safekeeping. In his other pocket, Matt rifled around blindly for a pack of gummy energy blocks. It was the last pack leftover from a previous scavenging trip. He found them quickly and pulled out a large, rectangular package with small, red cubes in it. He pulled the bag open, took out a few cubes, then shoved them in his mouth.
“Here, you happy? I’m eating,” Matt grumbled.
Steve smiled back, his lips barely raised and eyes narrowed. Then he pushed Matt’s shoulder to move ahead. In a few steps, he jogged past Tara to take point.
“Let’s go!” Matt said as he passed her.
He didn’t need to turn around to know she flipped him the bird.
* * *
With their backs to the FEMA camp, they walked east down an old, sun-beaten road that stretched endlessly through the desert wasteland. They passed trees and shrubs, herbs, and other natural elements that if appropriately harnessed, could have been of great value. But they were the product of a generation of humans who’d grown up in a modern world and failed to find the value in natural elements. Instead, they still relied on advanced technology, pharmaceuticals, and other luxuries that should have died with society.
Matt walked with a blind eye toward the ridges lining the eastern landscape and hoped to make his checkpoint before nightfall. With the sun just a few fingers over the ridge ahead, he felt confident that would not be an issue.
Matt maintained his distance a few feet ahead of Steve and Tara. Far enough ahead to detect a threat, close enough to hear their flirty banter over his rambling thoughts. He drifted in and out of old memories, always wondering what had become of his family. His dad was dead. Or at least, that was what he’d been told by Greg. His mother and brother were the big unknowns. He should have been back with them when the world turned, but his mother’s abandonment created a void between them. And the reality was, he couldn’t have cared less about his mother had it not been for her being his younger brother Michael’s only caretaker. Even though she was only semi-reliable.
As he tried to rationalize and focus, the RV park and lodge came into vision. It was still about half a mile ahead, but if he could see it, that meant anyone in there could see them. He stopped and dropped to a knee.
From behind, Matt heard the small bits of gravel and glass mixed with blown-over sand grind under their feet as Steve and Tara came to an equally abrupt stop. Matt looked over his shoulder and waved them both up.
They approached the lodge quickly in a low-crouch movement Greg had taught them to use. Greg’s prior military experience helped train the survivors of Camp O over the years. Some of the skills seemed more practical than others; this was one of those movements. Matt wasn’t sure how effective it would be out in the open, but for whatever reason, they all decided it the best way to approach.
“What’s up?” Tara asked.
She was almost whispering, which seemed as pointless as the crouched run.
“The RV park and lodge are just ahead.” Matt pointed toward the only. “Can you get a better view from behind cover and see if anything’s moving around in there?”
“Sure. Looks pretty empty from here, but I can get a better view with optics up ahead.”
She and Matt looked ound for decent cover. For the most part, there were low shrubs and some small trees not big enough to conceal a child.
“I’ll use that junker up there for cover.” She unslung her .308 long rifle and ran for it.
* * *
Tara had spotted a rusted-out Volkswagen van. It was completely hollowed out and riddled with bullet holes. It had been in place for so long, trees had grown through the floorboard and out the windows. It was nothing more than a large planter, which was good for Tara. She flipped the lens cover off her rifle’s mounted scope, used the window frame to steady the rifle and looked around.
From where she was, everything looked abandoned. The RV park was in bad shape. Most of the mobile homes had fallen over. The few that still stood upright had their doors wide open and swung lifelessly in the wind. She watched as one door kept getting slammed shut by a massive gust of wind, only to creep back open a several feet and get slammed back into place. A small bike had been secured to a post but stripped of its tires. Sporadic cars sat in old parking spots.
Something in one of the vehicles caught her eye. At first, she thought it might have been a withered, but after keeping her gaze on it for a few seconds, she determined it to be just another dead body.
She turned her attention to the lodge. It had been fortified heavily at one point with two-by-fours and large sections of plywood and sheet metal. Barbed wire wrapped around the perimeter. Only one doorway was open, and there was no door. The hole in the wall was also much larger than any doorway. She looked around but saw nothing else, so she waved Matt and Steve up.
“How’s it look?” Matt asked.
“Clear. Only saw one dead guy. And he was dead-dead, not withered-dead,” she clarified.
“Okay, then, let’s move up,” Matt said.
* * *
One by one, they cleared the standing mobile homes only to find sand-covered furniture, abandoned toys, and other useless personal items that had been stacked in boxes and waited to be carried away by their previous owners: photo albums, jewelry, and old electronics. Nothing of use.
The abandoned personal effects made Matt wonder where everyone had gone in such a hurry. Had this been an attempt at getting away in the early days, or had they been forced to flee sometime after the plague?
They found canned goods expired by many years, nothing edible. They found clothes withered down to rags from moths and exposure to the elements. The RVs were as useless as the FEMA camp. Matt hoped the lodge would be of greater value.
With the sun half tucked behind the ridgeline now, Matt walked toward the lodge. He focused on the open door. The wall surrounding it was pock-marked from large-caliber bullets. The window was still boarded up, but the wood was heavily splintered. A long carpet of sand marked a pathway from the parking lot to the entryway.
Matt passed a small car with a dead man in the driver seat, nothing more than a mummy wrapped in rags. He didn’t see any tracks, either, which meant no one had been through here recently.
Matt’s foot cleared the threshold of the door. He pivoted hard to the left with his rifle at a high ready, gaze just over the sights. His heavy breathing caused the front sights to bob and sway with each deep inhale and exhale. The stress of entering the unknown weighed on his nerves. What were they going to find inside? He adjusted his grip to control the rifle, then focused on his breathing to steady his mind and body.
With the buttstock tucked snug into the well of his shoulder and his cheek pressed firmly against the stock, Matt scanned the darkness for shadows, movement—something other than the void the low light of dusk provided. The clanking of empty bullet casings as they bounced off one another with each of Matt’s steps was as loud as if the bullets were being shot. The silence, the darkness, the unnerving feeling of the unknown—it was all overwhelming.
Breathe, he reminded himself. Don’t let your nerves get the best of you.
Tara was a half-step behind Matt, and Steve a half-step behind her. Tara went right as Steve pushed through to the far end of the room. A basic entry into a small, studio-style motel room.
And then, Steve tripped.
Matt watched as Steve’s muscular frame hit the ground with a loud thud and released a muffled oomph as his rifle pressed deep into his ribs. Rib bones cracked angrily, but didn’t break. Tara spun, expecting to see Steve engaged in a fight. Instead, found her friend facedown, lying on top of a bony, broken corpse, tangled up like two toddlers in a pillow fight.
A bird-like chirp of a giggle crept out of Tara’s mouth before she stopped herself. “Sorry,” she cried. “But that is funny.”
Steve pushed himself off the floor, blushing. The barrel of his rifle clung to the skeleton. As he lifted himself, the corpse followed.
“Goddammit,” Steve huffed as he attempted to unwrap the tattered clothing that had managed to embed itself into his kit.
Tara laughed as the cadaver clung to Steve’s chest like an infant in a Baby Bjorn. She covered her mouth in a futile attempt to stop the giggling, but she laughed so hard, it almost brought her to tears.
“Have I ever told you how much of a klutz you are?” Matt snickered.
“Don’t go there,” Steve responded.
Matt let his rifle hang and walked over to give Steve a hand. He gave Steve a half-smile as he untangled the web of bone and cloth from Steve’s gear. Eventually, the body fell to the floor and broke apart. It separated the dead man’s body—a forearm here, a femur there. The man’s head popped off and shot across the room before it rolled into the bathroom door.
Something shuffled on the other side of the door.
Matt trained his rifle on the door and peered through his sights. He watched the front sight bob in sync with his heaving breaths. He wondered if Steve’s collision with the corpse had startled a withered hiding on the other side, dormant from years of isolation and starvation. He questioned his own complacency for stopping to joke with his friends before clearing the rest of the room. His heart thundered through his chest into his neck. He could hear each beat as it pulsed violently. And again, he found himself wondering how many more would die because of his bad decisions.
Steve moved in directly behind Matt, and Tara worked her way to where Matt had been standing in the corner to create an L-shaped position.
Steve kicked the door open with one hit.
“Small room, small room,” Matt called out as he entered. His words detailing to his team the need for only one person to enter.
His night vision had set in and he could see almost as clearly as day. The toilet was straight ahead. The top lid was broken in two and rested on the floor. The shower curtain was an opaque white and covered in a mildew film from bottom to top. With the barrel of his rifle, Matt pulled back the curtain.
What he saw made his gut wrench with anger at first, then sadness.
Two bodies lay entangled in a matrix of bone and clothes—a woman and child, from what Matt gathered. The child wore shorts and a T-shirt that had become part of his corpse. The tiny arms wrapped around the spine and ribs of the woman. She wore jeans and a bra. If she’d been wearing a shirt, it was gone. The child’s head, still with hair that wisped off it like frayed yarn, rested on the woman’s shoulder. Even so many years after they’d died there in that blood- and shit-stained tub, Matt could picture the fear on their faces. He imagined them holding tightly to each other as what he assumed was the father of the child and the husband of the woman fought to the death a few feet away. How horrible it must have felt as that bathroom door had crept open and a stranger who wanted only to kill them walked through instead of their loved one.
It depressed the hell out of him.
To die in a motel bathtub covered in your own feces… No child—no human—should have to suffer like that. But these two had.
The images fogged Matt’s mind, and he became overwhelmed with too many emotions to handle. He thought of his own brother dying in such of a horrific way. The idea that Michael could have died in their old home, latched around the breast of their half-assed mother… The thought ripped through his heart and tears welled in his eyes. He turned and walked out. He rushed past Steve and Tara to get outside the room before they noticed his state of distress.
I need to breathe. Deep breaths, in and out. Control your shit.
Matt focused for a moment, lost himself on the in and out of each breath. He closed his eyes and tried to quiet his mind.
Steve came up from behind and touched Matt on the shoulder. His heart skipped a beat and before he could say a word, Matt spun and drew his secondary weapon, a subcompact .40 caliber Glock like his dad had once used for work.
Steve’s eyes widened.
Just in time, Matt realized it was only his friend. “Sorry, brother,” he said.
“Yeah, we’re good, bro,” Steve responded, his voice tight from nerves. “Is everything good with you?”
“I’m fine. Just needed a minute. Thought I was going to throw up for a second. Might have been those apples we found on the way down,” he lied.
Steve’s face screwed up. “Right, the apples.”
Matt knew he didn’t buy it, but it didn’t matter. What good would it do tell anyone? Everyone had lost someone. Telling Steve would accomplish nothing but making him worry. And worrying about Matt was not something Steve needed to do.
Tara walked out of the room, her shadow like a ghost.
Matt’s head wasn’t right. He needed rest. It had only been a few days since the incident at Camp O, and he was already worn down. In an attempt to both distract his mind and get the team focused on a camping location, he reached into his cargo pocket and pulled out a map. He knelt and laid the map out on the sandy ground.
He looked it over, pressing down on the torn pieces to get a full image of where they were and where they needed to go. In his head, he worked through it. His finger moved about the map and traced lines from one point to another.
“We need a secure place to sleep. On any other day, one of these rooms would be fine, but I’m not feeling it, so we’re going somewhere else.”
Matt could feel the lie about his emotions coming to the surface again as he spoke. He was right, those rooms inside the lodge were secure. He was letting his attachment to the past influence his decisions.
Tara looked at Steve, a confused expression on her face. She opened her mouth to protest, but Steve hushed her with a finger to his lips and a curt shake of his head.
Matt continued, “There are some wind caves about a mile’s walk south of here. It’ll take us off course slightly, but we can make that thirty minutes up in the morning. The caves will more than likely be a secure place to sleep, and to be honest, I’ve always wanted to sleep in a cave. Seems as good a time as any.” He smiled.
“Okay,” Tara said hesitantly.
She looked at Steve as if to say something, but only got a shrug of his shoulders and pursed lips in return.
“Let’s go,” Matt said as he folded up the map.
He smiled as he walked off, acting as if nothing was wrong. It felt fake. He was sure it looked fake, but much like his lie about feeling sick to his stomach, it didn’t matter. They left the motel and headed off to find the caves.
* * *
The night’s sky was entirely upon them with almost no moon to light their path. They stumbled over jagged rocks and boulders in the dark as they blindly searched out the small outcropping of caves that should have been carved into the canyon walls. But all they saw were signs of rock slides, not a cave in sight.
Eventually, they found a small wooden sign that barely stood upright. Had Steve not needed to use the bathroom, they would have missed the sign altogether. All it said was “Wind Caves, 1 Mile.”
“A mile to the caves, huh,” Tara snipped.
Matt ignored the remark and followed what looked like the only route to the caves. To his pleasure, the path was smooth, easy to follow, and kept Tara quiet.
“Not to jinx us or anything, but don’t you guys find it strange we haven’t seen any withered at all this trip?” Steve asked.
Matt stopped abruptly and turned toward him. He didn’t say a word. He shook his head and pressed his lips together.
Too late. You just did, he thought.
Then he turned around and walked the last quarter-mile to the caves.
The wind caves turned out to be a series of shallow holes carved into the side of rocks by the wind. They offered temporary protection from the elements and partial concealment from anybody or anything that might pass through the area. Matt had pictured deep, dark holes that would lead his team into a larger cavern much farther away from path and the wash, but got quite the opposite. These caves would have to do.
They each found their own to settle in for the night. Steve and Tara found two caves that sat a few feet off the ground and directly across from the other in a cul-de-sac of several wider caves.
Matt wandered off by himself into the darkness.
* * *
They stowed their gear, but kept their rifles slung tight to their chests. Steve couldn’t help but notice how Tara’s sling caressed the space between her breasts and left him with an unfamiliar feeling of giddiness that fluttered through his body and warmed him to the core.
He had never spent so much time around another woman, especially with all the time he spent out in the field. Now, with Tara on their team, he found himself wondering more about her and not as much about the mission alone. Her figure was lean. She kept her long, auburn hair tied back in a ponytail. Her face was stained with dirt, but her skin seemed to glow despite it. And she almost always smiled, even when she was unhappy with one of Matt’s decisions. Her presence made him float.
Tara continued to collect firewood as Steve gawked at her and got a small fire lit in the bottleneck between the caves. He distracted himself and brought over two titanium mugs, set them in the fire, and poured water into them to boil. Once they came to a boil, Tara stuffed some pine needles and dried berries into each cup. The steam rose and filled the air with its herbal fragrance.
In the distance, the sky flashed brightly with streaks of lightning, followed by the roaring boom of thunder. The pair sat down against the sandstone wall under Tara’s cave and listened as the tea steeped.
“A heat storm. Doesn’t feel like it’ll rain,” Steve said softly.
“Could be, the sky is covered in clouds. Can’t see any stars.” Tara paused. “One of the reasons I used to love coming out on these missions was because I could see the stars better. At camp, we always had lights burning. Here, it’s just me and the wild.”
Steve smiled. “Yeah, it’s nice. If you watch long enough, you can see shooting stars. One night before you started coming out with us, I counted fifteen shooting stars.”
The quiet of night hummed in their ears. Then, lightning crashed. The sky turned purple in an instant before it faded back to pure darkness.
“God, it’s really dark tonight,” Tara said.
Steve reached out and grabbed the cups off the fire. He pulled back and grabbed his hand. “Dammit, that’s hot,” he snapped.
Tara laughed. “Silly, they were sitting on a fire. What did you think would happen?”
Steve removed his rifle, then took his shirt off and wrapped it around his hand to grab the hot handles of boiled tea. He flexed his muscles as he worked and hoped she was looking at him the same way he’d caught himself looking at her.
He reached back and handed her a cup. “Careful, it’s hot,” he said with a smirk.
She accepted it graciously with more caution than his first attempt. Then, he grabbed his cup and set it down before putting his shirt and rifle back on.
They sat in the still of the night and sipped their pine-berry tea. They listened to the crash of lightning and the boom of thunder roll ever closer.
“Matt seems more stressed out than usual,” Steve said. “He’s always a bit anxious, but always on point. Never seen him walk out a room before either.”
“I think this whole trip has us all worked up. This wasn’t exactly a success,” Tara said. “This wasn’t one of our supply runs. This was truly a survival mission. I mean, we lost almost everyone in that attack. Then, we had to leave the few people who did survive alone until we get back. I watched so many of our friends die. It was so…” Her words trailed off into silent sobs.
Steve nestled himself against Tara’s body. She rested her head on his shoulders.
“Yeah, this is different,” he said.
Tara’s eyes welled with tears. She sniffled and tried to hide her face, looking down and indiscreetly wiping the wet from her now red and swollen eyes. But she was too late. Steve had already seen her.
“It’s okay to let go, you know. You don’t need to hide the sadness,” he said. “Matt won’t let go, and you see what it does to him.”
Tara sniffled and smiled, the rims of her eyes puffy and soaked. She took a sip of tea and sighed with a bit of relief.
“Maybe it’ll rain,” she said to change the subject. She closed her eyes and relaxed against him. “I love the sound of rain. It helps me sleep.”
As she rested on his shoulder, Steve couldn’t help but feel the warmth of her breath as she gently exhaled. Tiny strands of auburn hair tickled his face. Like two honeymooning lovers, they sat, quietly taking her in. He rested his cheek on her head and breathed her in. She smelled of earth, sage, and pine. It made his heart race like never before.
He momentarily considered kissing the crown of her head. He might have, had a noise in the darkness not distracted him. It sounded like the fire had popped, but he didn’t see any floating embers.
His body went still. As he focused on the area, he heard the noise again.
The fire popped and sent a tiny ember in the air. Then, something cracked in the darkness, off the path they had come in from. His hand slowly slipped toward the pistol grip of his rifle, and his thumb flicked off the safety.
Tara lifted her head off his shoulder. “What was that?” she whispered.
Now, they both sat frozen in place, waiting.
The sky flashed bright with light for only a half second and illuminated a horde of withered as they poured in. Thunder mixed with the rumbling of a thousand dead feet as the landscape faded to black.
If only it had been rain.