Jack had been attempting to finish reading his book for nearly half an hour now. All he'd managed to do so far in this sitting was re-read the same paragraph more times than he could bear to think about and gradually get more irate with each attempt. His brain was refusing to let the words sink in. It certainly didn't help that all the windows in the cottage were rather small and grimy, so they didn't let nearly enough of the early morning light in. Jack had to strain his eyes to properly see the slightly faded print and it was starting to give him a headache. There was also the fact that Logan was loudly doing stock-take in the next room and not without complaint. Every few minutes he'd utter some form of insult or curse, occasionally spicing it up with a particularly loud sigh or the pointed banging of an object onto a hard surface.
Jack dragged his hand through his short black hair and let out a frustrated sigh. He slipped his fingers under the folded bandana he wore as a headband and rubbed them over his temples in soothing circles. After a few calming moments of massage and deep breathing, he tried once again to read that blasted paragraph. Unfortunately it clearly wasn’t meant to be, because just over halfway through the tricky section of text he realised that yet again he hadn't taken in a single word. Jack swore and slammed the tome shut with far more force than was necessary.
Jack tossed the book to the table his feet were currently resting on, and awkwardly reached behind him to fumble in the pocket of the jacket he had draped over the back of his chair. He struggled for a while, refusing to turn around out of pure stubbornness. Eventually he relaxed back into the chair with a triumphant smirk, a slightly crumpled packet of cigarettes in his hand. He pulled a cigarette and lighter from the pack and lit up, then threw the carton to the table where it skidded across the battered wood to join the book. Tipping the chair to balance on its hind legs, he let his head fall back and watched the stream of smoke that left his lips dance through a sunbeam, all twists, swirls and beautiful chaos.
The admonishment came from right beside him and Jack nearly jumped out of his skin, causing the chair to crash forward and settle on all four legs again. At least he could be proud of himself for having suppressed the yelp that had tried to burst from his throat. He covered it up with a brief but much less humiliating coughing fit, before scowling up at the intruder.
“Don't you have better things to do than follow me around making snide comments?” Not his best comeback, but he couldn't think of anything wittier whilst still trying to get his heartbeat under control. Blaze simply raised an eyebrow and plucked the hardly smoked cigarette from his lips, pushing his feet from the table with a pointed look as she passed him. He put them straight back up.
“Mature.” Blaze rolled her eyes, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She lifted herself up to sit comfortably on the counter, legs crossed and playful grin in place.
Blaze was probably stunningly beautiful once, Jack thought. She still was, in her own kind of way. She had large green eyes and a head of wild red curls that she tamed into a long braid most days. Jack figured that her bright hair and fiery personality were the main reasons she'd chosen the alias Blaze after everything happened. Either that or Blaze really was her birth name, but he doubted it.
A small smattering of freckles dusted her nose and cheekbones, hardly noticeable unless she'd been out in the sun. She had perfect lips and lovely bone-structure. Unfortunately, none of these things were what caught your attention when you met her for the first time. Instead, most people's eyes tended to be drawn to the dark leather eye-patch that covered her left eye. That or the ragged scar that stretched from the corner of her usually smiling mouth to disappear under the patch and resurface above it, bisecting what you could see of her eyebrow.
Blaze lifted the stolen cigarette to her lips and took a long drag. Jack shook his head at her hypocrisy and leant over to grab the discarded pack from the table. He lit a new cigarette and finally removed his feet from the table so he could turn in his chair to look at the redhead who was presently tapping ash into the ancient sink.
“You finish that book yet?” She inquired in a teasing tone, knowing fully well that Jack rarely got the chance to read, an unfortunate fact that he often lamented.
Jack glared at her. “You know there's no chance with that racket going on. If you keep rubbing it in my face like that I'll cut your hair off while you sleep.”
Blaze chuckled. “Ouch. There's no need for threats like that, my dear. Just because you're all tetchy from reading withdrawal doesn't mean you get free reign to be mean to your poor, sweet friends.” She pouted, her woe-is-me expression so over acted that Jack couldn't help but laugh.
“You're just jealous because I can actually read.” He retorted in jest, blowing smoke from the side of his mouth and raising an eyebrow.
“Oh don't go there, sweetie. I'm far more intelligent than you and we both know it. You were blatantly the jock in school. Picking on little nerdy girls like me because you wished you could get the grades we were getting.” Blaze shot back with a grin.
Jack chuckled but didn't confirm or deny it. Her words were a little too close to the truth for his liking, so he decided to change the subject.
“Sounds like Logan's in a good mood.” Jack smirked, nodding his head towards the sound of low grumbling that was drifting through the doorway.
Blaze grinned. “Yeah, stock-taking is his favourite way to spend the day. The only thing that keeps him going in this cruel, empty world.” Just as she finished her sentence, there was a crash from the other room and Logan let loose a loud string of curse words. Blaze's laugh joined Jack's, echoing through the small kitchen. “Bless him,” she chuckled, finishing her cigarette and dropping it into the sink.
Jack stood to do the same and used a dirty fork from the side next to the basin to push the mess down the drain. “You ready for today?” he asked, leaning against the counter with a small smile.
“I suppose so. It's too hot out there for my liking to be honest; the heat will slow us down. But it doesn’t matter what my preferences are, we have customers to keep happy! They would start going elsewhere if we made them wait another fortnight.”
Jack could see her point about the weather, but he also knew Blaze was right about the customers. They would have to soldier on despite the overwhelming heat that the early morning sun promised for the day. There were small sweat patches under the arms of Blaze’s dark grey t-shirt, and he feared his teal one wasn't faring much better. It was probably worse actually, his was long-sleeved.
“You've got a point. We should pack extra water, just to be safe. Couldn't hurt to leave early as well, the heat will only get worse as the day goes on. We'll get everything ready as soon as Logan's finished.”
Blaze nodded. “I think I'll give him a hand. Poor guy's getting conniptions in there” she muttered, a sympathetic smile gracing her lips.
“Good idea, I'll get breakfast sorted.”
“Cool. Right then! Wish me luck.” With those parting words, Blaze reluctantly unfolded her legs and slipped down from the counter. Jack watched her disappear through the doorway and then turned to the closest cupboard.
After a brief inspection of the contents, he pulled a couple of cans of baked beans from the back and set them on the side. He rummaged through cabinets until he had three slightly chipped china bowls in hand, which he placed next to the beans with some mismatched spoons he gathered from the cutlery drawer.
Unsheathing his knife from where it was clipped to his belt, Jack got to work cutting the tops from the cans. As he sawed, he could hear voices floating through from the room they used for storage. Logan sounded extremely grateful for Blaze's help, but her chirpy replies sounded more than a little forced.
Everyone hated stock duty. They took it in turns, only helping one another with the tedious chore when the situation really called for it. This pretty much meant when they were hellishly bored and had nothing else to do, or when they needed it done fast.
Jack emptied the beans into the bowls, doing his best to split them evenly. It took every ounce of willpower he had not to drool at the smell. He'd always loved baked beans. Like most people he preferred his beans cooked, but it would take far too long to build up the fire and wait for them to heat through. Besides, with the weather how it was a cold breakfast was probably going to go down better than a hot meal anyway. Logan was really the only one of the three of them who had both the skill and patience to provide half-decent hot meals. Jack wiped his knife clean on a threadbare tea-towel and slipped it back into its sheath before examining his work. Despite his efforts, one bowl still ended up being noticeably emptier than the other two. He groaned as he plopped a spoon into each bowl and then scooped up the ruined cans, careful not to break skin on the jagged metal. An infected cut could easily mean death; no one could afford to be careless anymore. Jack dumped the wrecked tins into the bin and noticed that it was full almost to the point of overflowing. He made a mental note to take it out to the rubbish hole a few fields over when he had the chance. No one took their waste to the dump these days. Everyone knew that the rubbish tips were scavenger territory. It was also common knowledge that scavengers could be awfully unforgiving if they caught you contaminating their territory with junk that they couldn't find a use for.
“Food up!” Jack called, setting the bowls down on the table and sitting himself in front of slightly emptier one.
“Alright! Just give us a minute, we're nearly done.” Logan's reply sounded weary. Jack tilted his chair back again and turned to fumble around in the drawer behind him. His fingers felt the familiar roughness of the whetstone, which he grabbed and dropped onto his lap before nudging the drawer closed. He slid his knife from its resting place on his hip and let his mind wander as he went through the motions of sharpening it, so used to the action now that his hands knew what to do off by heart.
“I swear if you keep going at that knife as often as you do, there's going to be nothing left of it by the end of year.” Jack looked up to see Logan approaching the table with an impish grin. He was pulling his golden brown hair into a short pony-tail, Blaze at his heels.
“Knife envy is an ugly thing, Lo” Jack replied with a smirk as he sheathed the blade and returned the stone to the drawer.
Logan chuckled at that, scratching the raised scar that adorned his palm. He moved the book that Jack had failed to read aside and threw the cigarette packet to Jack, who fumbled to catch it and gave an annoyed grunt when it landed in his beans. Blaze returned with three mugs of water just in time to witness the display and laugh at Jack’s angry expression and the blush creeping up his neck.
“I'd rather have my glorious daggers than your little butter-knife any day” Logan shot back, amusement dancing in his eyes as he watched Jack use a filthy rag to wipe bean juice from the cigarette carton. Before Jack had the chance to retort Blaze cut in, a smirk on her face. “Are you guys sure you’re still talking about knives at this point?”
Neither man replied. Jack simply grinned around a mouthful of beans and Logan gave her a cheeky wink as she sat down.
Now that everyone was seated, Logan moved to start on his breakfast. He was still a stickler for manners despite everything that had happened. No one could bring themselves to mock him for it, they’d never admit it but they actually found it quite endearing. He picked up his spoon, then stopped short with a look of utmost disgust.
“Jack! What the hell, man? I hate beans!”
“I know, mate, but we're running short on options. We'll see what food we've got left from the stock after we've let the customers have their pick.”
Blaze sipped her water and frowned at Jack, her look of disdain only slightly ruined by the bean she'd dropped onto her top without noticing. “I don't see why they should get first pick. We're the ones who go out there and risk our necks to collect it all! It's more than fair for us to keep the best of it.” Blaze griped, knowing it was pointless but still feeling the need to get her point across yet again.
“We’ve had this discussion a million times. If life were fair, none of us would be in this situation to begin with.” Jack snapped at her. Blaze pushed her opinions on them every time they were about to meet the clients and he was sick of arguing about it when they all knew it would change nothing in the long run. Logan shared a long-suffering look with Jack, before turning to Blaze with a patient smile to make the same counter-point they made every time. Logan was too polite not to humour her.
“I know it sucks, but there's competition out there these days and the only way we'll stay in business is to have the best quality stuff on offer.”
The redhead just huffed in response and stabbed at her beans with her spoon.
The rest of the meal was eaten in relative peace, with Logan chatting animatedly about the latest stock and complaining about having to do inventory. After a while the others got over their almost-argument and joined in, sour moods forgotten. Grudges had no place in this new world. When they were done Logan offered to do the washing up and Blaze agreed to help, so Jack disappeared to make sure everything was ready for the day ahead.
Almost all of the equipment they needed was in the hallway by the front door in the same place they dumped it after their last outing. Jack checked his stuff first, not at all surprised to find it all there. His sledgehammer was leant against the wall, a thin, strong rope coiled on the floor beside it. The utility belt that he'd adapted into a makeshift holster for his hammer was slung onto a coat-hook on the opposite wall.
Logan's things were all in order too, his bow and quiver hanging on the wall beside Jack's belt. The two leather pouches that he wore attached to straps on his arm were on the floor below the bow. They were filled with the usual bandages, needles, thread and painkillers in case there was an emergency and Blaze wasn't around. One of Logan’s daggers was resting against the wall in its sheath and Jack knew the other was in its usual place holstered around Logan's thigh. They each made sure they always had at least one weapon on their person. In times like these even sleeping unarmed was unheard of.
Blaze's two katana blades were missing from their leather sheaths. Jack found them easily enough in the lounge where she had been sharpening them the night before. He returned to the hallway and reunited the swords with their belts. The metal gauntlet Blaze wore to protect her left hand and forearm had been casually discarded beside her backpack. Jack had never dared ask where she'd acquired such an unusual accessory, though he was curious. Almost everyone had unanswered questions about their allies. This was due to the fact that asking about someone's past was considered incredibly rude after what happened. You never knew what kind of memories you’d be digging up with a simple question, so information had to be offered and not requested. After a while you got used to secrets.
Jack moved the gauntlet aside to check that Blaze’s backpack was fully stocked. Her backpack and its contents were arguably the most precious things they had. The bag contained bandages, painkillers, syringes, antiseptic wipes, needles, thread, water from the well in the garden (Logan boiled and bottled batches weekly), a box of latex gloves, a penknife, a few packs of plasters, some clean rags made from scraps of clothing and sheets, and right at the bottom he found a spare t-shirt beside a lone sock.
Years ago they would have seemed over-prepared and definitely over-armed for a trip into town, but things were different now. They were still far better prepared than a lot of people out there, but only because their job both required it and provided the items they needed for it. Most people were just trying to survive in this cruel new world. A minority were starting to thrive, a handful of people finding opportunities in the aftermath of disaster. Jack, Logan and Blaze were part of this minority, doing what they could to live well and help others do the same.
Hardly anyone knew exactly how long it had been since the end of the world. Not many people cared enough to keep track, especially in the early days. The passage of time hadn’t exactly been a priority. Jack estimated that it had been at least a couple of years since the outbreak. He still had no idea how it all started or what had caused it. All he knew was that one moment he had been at university, captain of the rugby team and life of the party, and the next everything had gone to crap. He had been at the gym when it happened. It wasn’t anything like the zombie outbreaks in the films he'd seen where the protagonist would see little signs leading up to the outbreak and just shrug them off or change the TV channel. Perhaps it was the fact that Jack never watched the news or read newspapers, but it seemed to him like everything went wrong all at once.
Jack had been on the rowing machine for just under ten minutes according to the app on his phone. He was trying his best to listen to music while he worked out but it wasn’t going well. There was an incredibly irritating boy across the room that seemed to think it necessary to grunt as loudly he could with each weighted squat he did. Jack needed a different distraction. He subtly scanned the room until he noticed the perfect thing to take his mind off of it. He grinned at a busty girl who was jogging on a treadmill and she blushed prettily and shot him a coy smile in return. He suddenly found the rowing machine dreadfully boring and reasoned that his legs could use a nice treadmill session anyway. He picked up his phone, headphones and juice bottle and made his way to the machine beside the young woman, whose blush came back full force when she realised he was setting up next to her.
He turned the gradient up and shot her a cocky smirk as he set the speed. She wasn't looking, so he resolved to wait until she was and then do it again. His mind wandered as his legs moved, and he didn't notice the man in the tweed suit until the girl beside him spoke. “Oh my god! What is that guy doing?” Her shrill laugh brought Jack back to reality and he turned to follow her line of sight.
An older man that Jack vaguely recognised was dragging his feet towards the loud kid doing weighted squats. After a few seconds Jack identified him as one of the lecturers he'd seen around the English Literature department. The guy looked drunk out of his mind. Jack turned to share an amused glance with his new running partner for the day, only to see her face crinkled in disgust. “That's so gross! Perverts shouldn't be allowed in places like this. Look at how he's eyeing up that poor guy doing squats! It's so totally wrong.”
Jack frowned at the girl’s unfair assumption and didn't reply. Sure the guy seemed drunk, but that didn't mean he was some kind of pervert. He looked back over to the lecturer who actually was heading for the boy with a weird look on his face, but it was more gormless than predatory. Jack found it weird to see such a blank expression on someone who made their living from being an intellectual. The youngster with the dumbbells finally noticed that he was being approached and glanced over his shoulder, eyes widening as he yelled, “Whoa dude, put a belt on or something! No one needs to see that!”
At this point pretty much everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to watch the exchange. The boy dropped the weights when the guy didn't respond and instead kept stumbling closer. The kid started backing towards the treadmill section and from this angle Jack could see why the guy was so insistent about this man's need for a belt. His ill-fitting tweed jacket had hidden everything from the side, but now the lecturer was facing Jack's way he could clearly see that the man's trousers had fallen down to rest halfway between his knees and hips. He walked awkwardly, the waistband restricting him as he advanced. Jack raised an eyebrow when he caught sight of the vicious looking bite mark that sat clearly visible on the front of the man’s thigh. If it hadn't been utterly inappropriate he might have high-fived the sly old dog.
Out of nowhere the girl next to him screamed. Jack nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden sound and sent an angry glare her way as he rubbed his ear in irritation. It was a total overreaction as far as he was concerned. A university lecturer staggering around with his underwear showing wasn't a sight he ever wanted to see but it could have been way worse. The guy could have been going commando.
The scream seemed to catch the man's attention and he started to head their way, the boy seemingly forgotten. He was knocking into everything in his path, walking straight at them instead of going around all the equipment. He tripped on a rowing machine and fell hard to the floor, still crawling forward as though nothing had happened. This snapped one of the instructors out of the bewildered pause that had enveloped the whole room and he went to help the older man up. Jack wasn't sure when he'd turned his treadmill off, but he noticed that the girl next to him had at some point done the same and was now sobbing. “He was coming straight for me! He was going to attack me, I know he was. It's so unfair, why can't I wear go anywhere without creepy old men trying to take advantage? It’s not like it’s my fault I’m hot, I can’t help it!”
Jack decided he really didn't want to be near this girl anymore, so he collected his stuff and made to leave. Before he had the chance to get far something hot and wet splattered up his back and the room filled with horrified screams and agonised wails. Jack turned so fast he nearly fell over his own feet. The sight he was greeted with made him freeze in shock, too disgusted and confused to move. The lecturer was tearing great chunks of flesh from the instructor's arm with his teeth, the squelching barely audible over the chorus of screams. The situation started to sink in. Jack was watching a man get eaten alive. He was witnessing a person eating another human being alive.
The crowd of panicking people fled to the exit while Jack tried to make sense of what was happening. As soon as the heavy duty doors swung open, a cacophony of shouts and screeches filtered in from outside. Jack watched in horror as a woman with bright blue hair beat a snarling man to the floor with the heel of her turquoise boot. A gangly girl staggered up behind the blue haired woman and was about to take a chunk out of her shoulder when a young blonde boy appeared out of nowhere. The kid drove a pocket knife through the girl’s temple before grabbing the other woman's hand and running with her out of sight. It was chaos out there too. The thought suddenly struck Jack that this was probably zombies. A zombie apocalypse. The end of the world. He was probably going to be eaten alive too.
It was that thought that snapped him out of the catatonic state of shock he was in and he let out a shrill scream, then turned and ran to the locker room. Jack barricaded the entrance with benches as fast as he could. Once the door seemed secure enough Jack checked that he really was alone in there, then proceeded to freak out. His breaths were coming in short, sharp bursts and he felt like his lungs weren't accepting the oxygen he was so desperately trying to get to them. His vision started going strange, like when you've been out in the sun and then head into a dark room and everything goes an odd colour. His hands were sweating and shaking and no matter how hard he tried, he felt like he couldn't curl into himself far enough. Fear ate into every thought, he pictured his family and friends and prayed to a god he’d never believed in before for their safety. Jack lay on the grimy tiles of the floor in the foetal position until he had cried himself to sleep.
When Jack awoke it was dark outside and eerily quiet. His phone screen told him that it was 9:37pm. His drowsy mind told him that it had all been a nightmare. The tears came again when the cold, hard floor under his head and barricade of benches at his feet contradicted the idea. Jack stood and stretched, his muscles aching and joints cracking from sleeping so tightly curled on such a hard surface. He crept to the wall and climbed up onto one of the fixed benches to peer out of the small privacy window into the night. Jack couldn’t see outside properly with the window shut, so he opened it as quietly as he could. For the first time ever Jack found himself wishing they had normal windows in the changing rooms.
The generators didn’t seem to be working, what he could see of the campus was in total darkness. He couldn't see any zombies from where he stood, but he couldn't see any people either. Unsure about whether this was a good sign or a bad one, Jack tried to work out what the hell he should do next. Staying here would be preferable, but with no food and only half a bottle of juice it was out of the question. He could feel his stomach rumbling already.
Going to his dorm to get some practical clothes and a few supplies seemed like his best option. Jack pushed the window as far as it would go and squeezed himself through the gap. He dropped down into the bushes below, making more noise in doing so than he would have liked. He lay there for a while not moving, just wanting to make sure he hadn't been noticed. When nothing happened and no one jumped out at him, Jack turned into his front and crawled out of his hiding spot.
Getting to his block was fairly uneventful, Jack came across a few small crowds of the undead but he’d taken a different route every time and hadn't been noticed. At one point he had turned a corner to find two of them looking his way and he had thought he was done for when they started towards him. His lungs had seized up in shock and his body took on a mind of its own. He forced himself against the wall as though trying to sink into it for protection, silent tears rolling down his cheeks as the dead duo approached. They reached him, and then they continued straight past him to loiter in the green he had just come from. It took all of Jack’s willpower to refrain from laughing in relief and confusion as they walked away. It wasn't until he'd gained his wits enough to start walking again that he realised they probably couldn't see. They followed sound for sure, Jack had witnessed as much. The more he thought about his theory the more it made sense. The lecturer falling over everything in his path and the couple ignoring him completely both seemed to hint at a lack of sight from the undead. Jack didn't know why it would work like that, nor did he care enough to theorise. He was just happy to have found a potential weakness so quickly.
Despite coming to this conclusion, Jack had still been too scared to turn on his phone torch just in case. He was relieved when he realised that he could easily make it to his dorm with just the moonlight to illuminate his path. All those late night parties had been good for something after all. His key turned in the door with barely a sound and the dark lobby greeted him. Jack shut the door quietly behind him and gingerly inched forward. As he peered down the long, grey corridor to his left that led to his dorm room, Jack suddenly felt the need to be armed. The urge likely had something to do with the fact that the scene looked like a set from a horror movie. Jack turned and noticed a toolbox next to the familiar broken down vending machine opposite the door. Both the box and the vending machine were covered in spatters of blood, a deep crimson trail leading from the machine down the left hand corridor before fading into the gloom. Jack broke out in a cold sweat when he realised he had to go down that corridor. He took some deep breaths and picked up the heaviest ratchet wrench the box had to offer.
With his weapon held up beside him ready to strike, Jack tried hard not to make a sound as he followed the trail of blood. He was conscious of every breath he took, keeping them deep and steady and as quiet as possible.
Jack climbed the stairs to the seventh floor, expecting to be met with a face full of blunt, blood covered teeth and colourless eyes at every turn. The longer he went with nothing happening, the more terrified he got. He felt like the atmosphere of the building was suffocating him, pressing in on all sides with its ominous silence and creeping shadows. He almost wished something would happen just so he wouldn't have to bear the suspense.
Jack pushed through the door that led from the stairwell to the student rooms. It was even darker in there than it had been on the stairs. There were no windows in this corridor for the moonlight to shine through and Jack knew that around the corner where his room was there were no windows either.
Deciding he couldn't stand still in the darkness any longer, Jack turned on his phone torch and started moving. He slowed right down before turning the corner, phone in his left hand and wrench in his right. Jack was fighting to keep his breaths steady and quiet, somehow feeling even more scared now that he was so close to his goal. He just couldn’t believe that he would get to his room safely without incident, it seemed too unlikely. He paused for a few moments to beg any deities that might be listening for luck before he crept around the corner.
As soon as Jack stepped into the new hallway he realised his suspicions had been right. The stark white light from his phone illuminated a tall, lean figure that was stood only a few feet away. It was all Jack could do not to scream. The figure turned to face the source of the light and adrenaline pumped through Jack's body. He rushed forwards and brought the wrench down onto the figure's head. It stumbled and swore before dropping to the ground.
“Ow! What the... You prick! Why would you do that? Argh...” the figure sat dazed on the floor, one hand pressed to his head and the other held up in defence in case Jack decided to strike again. As it was, Jack was too shocked to even think about raising the wrench again. He watched with an embarrassed and apologetic expression as the guy glared at him with annoyance in his dark brown eyes.
“I'm so sorry! I thought you were a zombie,” Jack breathed when he finally found his voice. He then paused as he realised how ridiculous that would sound on any other day. “Sorry.” He finished lamely. Luckily the other guy seemed to be less angry now that he knew Jack wasn't likely to clobber him again, and he finally let his outstretched hand drop with a groan.
“You bloody well should be! That really hurt. Though it could have been worse I suppose, at first I thought you were one of them. Look, we'd better get out of here. I think they're attracted to noise. Could you turn that bloody light off please? Feels like it's melting my retinas.”
As the boy spoke, Jack noticed blood seeping from under the hand he had clamped to his head. Jack cleared his throat and switched the phone light off, slipping the device into his pocket.
“Right, well I've got to grab some stuff from my room before I go anywhere. You... uh, you might want to rest somewhere for a while, you're... you're bleeding quite a lot.” Jack replied sheepishly. He added another awkward “Sorry,” again as an afterthought.
The guy chuckled. “Resting right now probably wouldn't be the best course of action, mate. I don't think I could make it to my room at the moment anyway, I'm dizzy as hell. I'll just… wait here I guess. Now that I’m wounded I might need some help getting out of campus though. I'll be fine on my own from there but I think you owe me that much.”
Jack winced; he really didn't want to partner up with anyone. On the other hand, he had nearly killed the guy. “Sure, man. Least I can do.”
With that sorted, Jack started down the hall to his room. He changed into jeans and a long sleeved top as quickly as he could, swapping his trainers in favour of hiking boots. He grabbed the book satchel that he took to lectures and emptied it onto his bed, replacing the contents with anything he could think of that might aid him on the journey ahead.
When he was done he gave his room another quick once over just in case he spotted anything he could have missed. He grabbed a purple bandanna from his room-mate's bedside table and a packet of tissues from beside his friend's bed, but aside from that he couldn't see anything else that might be useful. Satisfied, he returned to the bleeding wreck of a boy in the hallway. Jack half expected he’d find the dude slumped against the wall completely unconscious and have to carry him out of here. Jack counted his blessings when he found the kid sat up with his hand still pressed to the side of his head, keeping watch on the end of the hallway that led to the stairwell. He turned to Jack when he heard him approach.
“Shall we?” Jack asked, offering his hand. The guy took it and Jack hauled him up. “Here, I got this for your head. It's my room-mate Larry's but I don't think he'd mind.” He frowned at the thought of his friend, wondering what had happened to him. He hoped he had managed to escape unscathed. Larry had the brains and the brawn to cope with this sort of situation just fine, but he tended to have a bit of a hero complex at times. Jack had always told him it would be his downfall. His thoughts must have shown on his face, because the boy squeezed his hand with a reassuring smile.
“Don't think about it. Family, friends... Just... Don't.”
To his embarrassment, Jack started to well up at the thought that his family might be... No. The boy was right. He couldn't think about it.
Jack cleared his throat in an attempt to dislodge the lump that was forming there and distracted himself by tending to his new companion’s injury. He pressed the tissues he'd grabbed against the wound and then secured the bandanna around his head to keep the tissues in place. As he worked, Jack planned to get home and check on his family as soon as he could leave this stranger alone without worrying he'd bleed to death.
“There you go. You got a weapon?” Jack asked, holding his wrench up as an example and quickly dropping it back to his side when he noticed the blood soaked hair stuck to it.
“Got these.” The guy indicated his legs, and for the first time jack noticed two sharpened ornamental daggers strapped into sheaths at the man's thighs.
“Whoa! Those are some wicked blades you've got there, man. Where did you-” He stopped himself at the crushed look on the stranger's face.
“Gift.” Came the short reply, and Jack nodded. It was a horrible realisation but Jack had to accept that anyone he met from now on had likely lost everyone they ever cared about.
“Let's go then. Wait, what's your name? I mean I recognise you from dorm parties but I suck with names.”
“Don't sugar coat it mate, I've just always been too nerdy to even be a blip on your radar.” The kid laughed good-naturedly. Jack grinned and decided that even though this person obviously knew who he was, he'd introduce himself just to be polite. He held his hand out with a sheepish smile and said, “well I'm Jack anyway.”
The guy shook his hand and replied with a smirk, “Logan.”
Jack chuckled at the memory. A lot had changed since the day he nearly bludgeoned Logan to death. They managed to fight their way out of campus and as they did so they discovered that they worked pretty damn well as a team, despite them both being terrified and one of them injured. After their successful escape, Jack offered to help Logan rescue his family and Logan had said he'd do the same for Jack. They had decided to go to Logan's house first because his family lived closer to the university. The horrors they found there made Jack decide against going home. Instead he figured it would be for the best if they travelled as far away from their hometown as they could. There was way too much temptation there, too many memories. Too many chances that they’d find loved ones in awful situations.
Their only goal as they travelled was to reach the countryside, where the population would be less and the undead fewer. That journey had been tough. Jack spent most of it feeling torn between needing to know and not wanting to know what had happened to his own family. He had never felt so conflicted and he had no one to turn to for advice. Logan hadn't spoken a word since they went to his house and he would barely eat or drink. His near-catatonic state only ended when they ran into some serious trouble on the road.
Jack and Logan had been travelling for weeks. Each morning they would get up, pack away their gear and makeshift camp and then head off in a random direction. Jack had a gnawing fear that they might be going in circles. Logan's unending silence was hard to handle, but Jack couldn't blame the lad. No one should have to see what he had seen.
This day was no different to the others, Jack leading the way with Logan trailing a few feet behind him. Rain was pelting them from thick, dark clouds and the grey tarmac beneath their boots was slick with water. They were trekking down a road bordered on both sides by woods when movement from the treeline caught Jack's eye. Before he had the chance to warn Logan, a great hulk of a man stepped from behind an oak with a shotgun pointed directly at Jack's chest. Jack swore and went for the knife on his belt.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you, boy. Hands in the air, nice and slowly. That goes for you too, ponytail!”
Jack did as he was told and prayed to all the gods out there that Logan would do the same. As the man spoke, more people sauntered out from the woods.
“You deaf, ponytail? I said hands in the air!” The man with the gun growled.
Jack turned to see Logan staring blankly at the shotgun in the man's hands. “Logan, put your hands up. Please, mate. Just do this one thing,” Jack begged. He wasn’t at all surprised when his pleas fell on deaf ears. He swore and turned to reason with the man wielding the shotgun instead. Jack didn't hold much hope that someone wielding a shotgun and threatening young men at random would be up for a reasonable discussion, but it was worth a try. At least shotgun guy was in his right mind.
“He's not right in the head at the moment, he's been through something awful and he doesn't... He just can't react to things properly at the moment. He won't cause you any trouble. Besides, we have no money or jewellery, nothing worth stealing.” Jack had to raise his voice to be heard over the sound of hissing rain and howling wind.
“We've all been through hard times lately, boy. This one” the man gestured to Logan with the barrel of his gun, “has no excuse to ignore a clear order. If his hands aren't in the air in the next thirty seconds, I'll fill both of you with lead and take what I need from your corpses. The only reason I haven’t yet is because I don’t think you’re worth the ammo.”
Jack was getting desperate now. Logan's eyes were still unfocused and staring at the gun, the huge man was getting angrier by the second and the crowd of bandits was closing in.
“Please, we don't have any money!” Jack pleaded, hating himself for the fear in his voice.
“Money?” The man sneered, taking a step closer. “Money's worthless now. What we want is weapons, food and clothing. Supplies. Hand over your bags, weapons and boots. Ponytail's too. If you're lucky I'll let you keep the clothes on your back.”
Jack swallowed, not knowing what to do. They needed those things, they wouldn't last a week with no drink or weapons and their travelling would be much slower and more dangerous if they were barefoot. Jack knew that he had no choice though; he was in no position to negotiate. He reluctantly dropped his bag and coat from his shoulders and kicked them across the wet ground, watching helplessly as they slid to a stop at the huge man’s feet. Jack took a deep breath and slowly knelt to start untying his boots, all the while hoping for a miracle. Jack struggled to untangle his sodden laces; his fingers were numb from the cold and slippery with rainwater.
“Joe, Rob, take everything Ponytail's got. If he don't play nice, we'll have to teach him a lesson in manners. Clothes and everything, go on.”
Fingers still struggling with his laces, Jack glanced up to see a portly man and an emaciated looking teenager approach Logan. He didn't even flinch when they pulled his backpack and coat off. The chubby one reached to undo the belts that held Logan's daggers to his thighs, and at that moment something in Logan snapped. He snarled at the man and grabbed his wrist before he could even touch the buckle. He caught him with a right hook to the temple and the man fell unconscious to the floor, face-down in a puddle.
For a moment, everyone stood silently in shock. Then a bellow from the man with the shotgun spurred everyone into action. The gaunt teenager pulled a knife and went for Logan, who ducked the swipe and kicked the kid's legs out from under him. Jack sprung up to stand with Logan, back to back and ready to fight them all if they had to.
“Enough! I'm done playing nice. We'll just strip their corpses.”
The man sounded furious and deadly serious. Jack watched the bandits step back, all but one of them. The one-eyed, flame-haired young woman stayed where she was and spoke up in a shaky voice that betrayed the fear behind her words.
“Boss, just let them be. Enough people are dying these days that we don't need to up the body count. We can just knock them out and take what we need.”
“They've defied us, Blaze! Tried to make fools of us! They deserve it.” The leader roared.
Blaze recoiled at his rage, her one visible eye closing as she tried to keep her composure. “Please just think about this. If you fire that gun it'll attract every one of those monsters we managed to avoid in that village back there. We'll have a horde after us; we'd never have time to strip the bodies.”
“So we'll shoot and run, this is a matter of principle now. Get out of the way, you stupid one-eyed bitch!”
The young woman had moved to stand between the boys and her leader as they spoke. The rest of the bandits watched the exchange in silence, uneasy expressions on every face. They all seemed to be ignoring the fact that one of their members was still splayed lifeless on the tarmac. Jack suspected the man had probably drowned by now, since none of his friends had moved him from the puddle.
The girl took a step closer to the barrel of the gun, despite the obvious fear in her twitchy movements and shaking hands.
“If you haven't moved in three seconds, I'll shoot you with them. Don’t try me, Blaze. You know how this’ll go down.” The large man threatened the girl in a low voice.
She stayed where she was, shaking slightly. Jack admired the young woman’s courage. He wanted to help her but he had no idea what to do in this situation, anything he did could cause the man to fire. All he knew in that moment was that if it came down to it, he'd go down fighting.
“Three,” the leader raised the gun to his chest.
“Two,” he cocked the gun, the sound painfully loud as it echoed through the trees.
“One.” his finger moved from the trigger guard, but he didn't pull the trigger. Jack flinched, expecting the deafening shot to ring out as soon as the bloke reached 'one'. After a few seconds of nothing happening, he slowly raised his head. The bandits appeared to be in shock. The leader was stood there, gun loose in his hands, his shocked face drained of colour. Jack noticed the redhead was breathing heavily, and it took him a moment before he realised one of the katana blades she had had sheathed on her back was in her hand, blood mingling with rain as it ran down the blade.
Jack felt his eyes widen in shock as he realised the implications of this. He looked closely at the hulk of a man, not daring to believe that it had actually happened. The man's shocked expression turned angry and he tried to raise the gun, only for it to fall limply from his grasp. He tilted backwards when the weight left his hands and it was only then that Jack noticed the deep red gash in his throat. The brute fell to the floor, body convulsing and blood spreading around him to join the puddles of rain.
“TRAITOR!” The cry of rage cut through the air like a knife through butter.
Jack didn't see who said it, but he saw Blaze turn and bring out her second sword as the other bandits charged.
Even with the leader bleeding out on the floor and the fat man dead in a puddle, the trio were outnumbered. Jack wasn't sure if the girl was on their side or her own and he had no idea if Logan's return to reality had just been temporary. These doubts raced through his head as he tried to figure out whether to run or fight.
Within seconds the decision was made.
Jack caught a kick under his arm from a bandit with a beanie hat and denim jacket, only to have another grab a fistful of his sopping wet hair and pull him over backwards, forcing him to drop the foot. He looked up to see the skeletal kid that had tried to strip Logan standing over him, knife in hand. Before the kid could use the weapon, Jack swung upwards with all his might and punched him in the crotch. The kid let go of Jack’s hair at once and dropped the knife, both hands moving to his genitals. He fell to his knees retching and sobbing. Jack had half a second to feel a little bad for the lad before the heavy boot of beanie hat guy came down on his ribs and all pity was forgotten. Winded, Jack scrambled to grab the knife the scrawny kid had dropped and when the boot came back for another kick, Jack rammed it into the side of beanie guy's knee. The man let loose an inhuman screech and dropped to the drenched tarmac. Jack staggered to his feet as quickly as he could with his ribs aching and lungs screaming for air.
Beside him, Logan had disarmed one of the thugs and was beating him to the ground with his own cricket bat. A few strands of Logan's golden brown hair had come free from the confines of his ponytail and the rain had plastered them to the sides of his face. Jack was still shocked that Logan had broken out of his hollow, broken state. His friend seemed to be taking all his pent up emotions out on any bandit he could get his hands on. Jack caught himself before he got too distracted with that train of thought, he needed to keep his mind on the fight.
Movement in Jack’s peripheral vision caught his attention and he ducked on instinct. A woman in a pink hooded jumper had swung what appeared to be a cast-iron poker at his head. She snarled when Jack ducked and then swung for his stomach, grunting in annoyance when he dodged backwards this time. Jack couldn’t get close enough to this maniac to fight back, so he yelled at Logan for help. It was no use though, Logan was distracted trying to fight off two bandits with knives and one with a metal pipe. Jack turned back just in time to see the woman raise the poker above her head with a smug smile on her face. He realised too late that he'd backed himself into a large tree. Jack had nowhere to go. He leant back against the rough, wet bark and raised his arms in a futile attempt to defend himself. The blow never came. Jack gaped at the tip of the blade that had burst through the woman's neck, watching in disgust as it withdrew. The woman crumpled and let out a wet gurgling sound that reminded Jack of squelching mud. The woman’s fall revealed the one-eyed bandit behind her, blade still raised and dripping scarlet onto the mud at her feet. Jack didn't get the chance to thank her; she was already locked in combat with two other bandits. One of her assailants was wielding a crowbar and the other a shovel, both looked ready to pummel her into the ground. She parried a blow from the crowbar only to have the sword in her right hand wrenched from her grip with a well-aimed swing from the shovel. Jack cringed but she didn't even pause in her movements, she threw the blade from her left hand and caught it easily in her right, using the mental gauntlet she was wearing on her left arm to block the next swing of the shovel even as she drove her remaining sword through crowbar bandit's chest.
Jack turned to see Logan ducking under a bat swung by a man in a suit and then ram his shoulder into the guy's stomach. The man collapsed over Logan's back, crippled by the force of the blow. The suit was furiously hitting Logan on the back with his bat but even that failed to dislodge him. Logan pulled one of his daggers out and drove it into the man's thigh, then released him and thrust the blade into his suit-clad sternum. Jack noticed two other bandits heading for his friend and knew he had no more time to catch his breath. He pushed away from the tree, freeing himself from the swamp-like mud and sprinting to Logan’s aid. His friend was now fighting off a man with a baseball bat and a wretched looking woman with a golf club. Logan was obviously tiring and his movements were sluggish. The scrawny kid was still writhing in pain on the floor after Jack’s punch to the crotch and he grabbed Logan's ankle, sending Logan to the rain-soaked tarmac with a painful sounding crunch.
Jack didn't hesitate; he used his momentum to leap over Logan and tackle the woman to the ground. Her head hit the road with a sickening crack, the golf club rolled from her hand and a dark pool of blood began to form beneath her head. Jack averted his eyes and jumped to his feet.
The skinny kid was slowly getting to his feet and the guy with the baseball bat was raining blows down on Logan without mercy. Acting on instinct, Jack jumped on bat bloke’s back and hung on as the man flailed. Jack clung on tightly with one arm and reached for the knife in his belt with the other. He hissed when the man raked his nails down Jack's arm, scraping away trails of rain-sodden skin. Jack felt his eyes watering with pain, but he still managed to dodge when the man swung blindly behind himself with his bat. Grabbing his knife, Jack slammed it into the side of the man's head all the way to the hilt. He jumped off of the man as he fell, landing slightly awkwardly on his ankle and shouting in pain when it gave out beneath him.
Jack wiped the blood and rain from his face with the sleeve of his top and looked up. The woman that had saved them had somehow ended up halfway down the road, but now she was running full pelt in their direction. Jack couldn't see her expression through the rain and he didn't know why she was sprinting with such urgency, there were no bandits left standing.
As if on cue, a strangled yell came from behind him. Jack swore at his stupidity, he had forgotten the skeletal kid who had been recovering as Jack took out the bat wielding thug.
The wretched guy was sat on Logan, doing his best to drive a knife into Logan’s chest. Logan was trying to push the knife away but Jack could see what remained of Logan's strength draining with each shove. He stood to help just as Logan’s strength gave out and he could no longer push back. Jack froze and watched in horror as his friend stopped fighting and raised his hands to defend himself, the only thing he had the strength left to do. The blade impaled Logan’s palm, slicing clean through the flesh and ripping an agonised scream from his mouth. The kid snarled and roughly pulled the knife out to bring it down again. Jack snapped out of his horrified state of shock and hobbled as fast as he could to Logan’s side. He got there just in time to tackle the bandit away from his bloodied and bruised friend. They fell to the ground right beside the drowned man. Jack felt a searing pain in his abdomen; he must have pulled a muscle throwing himself at the emaciated young man. The bandit bared his foul teeth and rolled so he was on top, straddling Jack’s chest. He brought the knife down towards Jack's throat and Jack blocked with both of his forearms. The scrawny wretch put a surprising amount of strength into the push, yellowed teeth and blood-stained blade getting closer and closer to Jack’s face. For some reason Jack was weakening by the second, he couldn’t work out why and he was getting scared. Jack heard footsteps approaching at speed and the thug's weight was thrown off of him with a kick from a heavy boot. Jack released a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.
The guy’s head landed next to Jack's with a heavy thud a few seconds later, his thin body lying twisted and limp a few feet away.
Jack made to stand up, but the pain in his abdomen sent him crashing back to the ground with a grunt of pain. He clenched his teeth and tried again, only to be stopped by a cold, wet hand resting gently on his shoulder.
“You should lie still.” The woman's voice came from beside him, panic etched into every syllable.
“I'm fine,” he ground out, wanting to check on Logan as soon as possible. “Where's Logan? Is he okay?”
“Never been better, Jackie boy.” Logan's reply was strained and followed by a harsh coughing fit. Jack breathed a sigh of relief at hearing his friend's voice after so long suffering the other boy's silence.
“It's good to have you back, Lo.”
“Look guys, as touching as this is, we have to get you to shelter so I can work on this properly.” The woman sounded worried, urgency clear in her voice.
“Work on what?” Jack asked, following her line of sight. His heart dropped. Blood was covering the entire bottom half of his top, stemming from what appeared to be a long gash in the flesh of his abdomen. “Ah. Oh god. I didn’t… I thought I'd pulled a muscle.” Now that Jack had seen the wound the pain seemed to intensify tenfold, and he realised he was slurring his words.
“What? What's happened?” Logan had dragged himself to his feet and was limping towards them through the downpour. “Oh no, no, no, no… Oh that's a lot of blood. Jack mate, what have you done? Lady please, is he... Will he be okay?”
Jack didn’t stay conscious long enough to hear the reply. Logan's tearful voice and the woman's soothing tones all blended together as Jack's vision started to darken. He remembered a brief flash of Logan's bruised face close to his, raindrops dripping from Logan’s chin and the tip of his nose onto Jack's face. Logan’s breath danced across Jack's cheeks as he begged him to stay awake, to focus. Then the darkness that had been creeping at the edges of his vision took over completely.
Jack had woken up a few days later in a hut in the middle of the woods. He had saved Logan's life, and Blaze had saved his.
Blaze agreed to accompany them once Jack had recovered enough to travel; she had nowhere else to go and was growing fonder of their company with each passing day. Eventually they got tired of hiking the countryside just trying to survive, so they decided to set up a little business for themselves.
The three of them were basically just glorified scavengers. They spent their days hunting, collecting, farming, and making anything that they could trade. They took the stock down to the outskirts of the nearest city every fortnight. They would wait there for two hours around midday, trading the goods they had with the people who couldn't (or wouldn't) leave the city. The trio themselves much preferred to stay away from cities if they could help it. Cities tended to be teeming with both zombies and bandits.
The trade worked out well for all involved parties. The trio got what they needed from the city and the customers got whatever they needed from the countryside without having to stray too far from home. It was a good set up and the people they traded with were usually good people. The trade meetings also gave everyone a chance to socialise, something that was quite rare these days.
Jack reluctantly pulled himself from his nostalgic contemplation and forced his mind back to the task at hand.
Jack recapped what he’d prepared for the journey so far before picking up where he’d left off. He went to the storage room to grab some food for the journey, opting for beef jerky and tinned soup.
Jack grabbed an empty canvas backpack from a spare peg and started up the stairs to the bedrooms. He reached the landing and headed for the first door on his left. Twisting the doorknob, he was greeted by a small room that was so messy it made him cringe every time he went in. Blaze was as immaculate in her personal hygiene as one could be after an apocalypse, but despite her cleanliness she was extremely untidy. She just didn't seem to care enough to tidy up; she often said that she had bigger priorities than making sure her clothes were in the right place. This explained why most of them seemed to be in random piles on the wooden floorboards of her bedroom.
Jack approached a fairly neat looking pile that sat by the bed. He gave the pile a cautious sniff and was met with the pleasant aroma of fresh grass and lavender. Blaze had come up with the idea of putting soap and flowers into the tub that they washed their clothes in. That way the clothes would come out smelling decent even when they couldn't find washing powder.
Positive that the clothes were clean, Jack dropped a green t-shirt and a pair of odd socks into the spare backpack. He then went to the scratched and chipped chest of drawers that sat adjacent to Blaze’s bed and seized a clean pair of underwear from the top drawer. The underwear joined the top and socks in the bag and Jack left the room, closing the door behind him as he went.
He crossed the hall and entered the room opposite Blaze's. It was slightly less clean, but much more tidy. Dust particles danced in a sunbeam of morning light that shone through the modest window, gliding easily through the air to fade into the shadows. Jack headed for the old wardrobe that stood across the room and rooted through Logan's clothes until he'd found a fresh but greying vest and the soft black jumper that they had found a few months ago and Logan had fallen in love with. It had the initials D.M sewn onto the label inside and it was an ongoing game of theirs to try to guess what the letters stood for. Jack stowed the items away in the bag before kneeling to take a pair of thick, comfortable socks from a drawer and clean, brightly patterned boxer briefs from the one below. After packing them, Jack slung the bag back over one shoulder and took his leave from the sparsely furnished room.
Jack went down the hall to his room next, and knowing where everything was and what he would need off by heart, made quick work of collecting his clothes. He took a dark red vest and black and grey chequered shirt from his battered wardrobe and tucked them into the canvas backpack with a clean pair of loose boxers and a mismatched pair of faded socks. After leaving his room Jack snatched a slightly torn towel from the bathroom for good measure and added it to the stash.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs he was met with a small smile from Logan and a raised eyebrow from Blaze.
“Took you long enough! Got everything?”
Jack rolled his eyes at Blaze’s teasing tone, returning her grin as he replied. “Think so. There's enough food and water for an overnight trip there and back, your bag had everything in it still from last time and all our weapons and usual gear is accounted for. I've packed us some clean tops, socks and undies and I even remembered to bring a towel” he responded with a smirk.
“Not bad. What about the stock we agreed on, is it all in the cart yet, Logan?”
“I packed it earlier. It's a fairly heavy load this time but not the worst we've had. You sure you can manage it, Jackie boy?” Logan jested.
“I'll be fine,” Jack assured him, “but your concern is touching nonetheless. If you're actually offering to be the pack-mule for once I’ll gladly take you up on it!”
Logan laughed. “Well I'd happily take the cart off your hands, mate. Unfortunately, you're a piss poor shot and these trips are so much easier when we have someone taking the threats out from afar, wouldn't you say?”
Jack scowled at the smug look on Logan's face and stuck two fingers up at his friend before turning to Blaze.
“So we've got food, water, medical supplies, weapons and thanks to that smarmy git over there the cart is restocked and ready to go. Anything else?”
Blaze frowned in thought. “The tent and sleeping stuff?”
Jack smacked his palm to his forehead and smiled contritely at the redhead. She shook her head and disappeared into the dining room muttering about how lost the pair would be without her. When she rejoined them she had the tent in its bag hanging from one arm and the double sleeping bag in its case on the other. For added comfort, two pillows had been rolled up and strapped to the bag containing the tent.
They were lucky to be able to travel with even these few luxuries, Jack knew. A vast majority of the survivors out there didn't have anywhere to think of as a permanent home like the trio did with their little cottage, and when most survivors journeyed they were lucky to have shelter at all, let alone a tent, sleeping bag and pillows. Being a scavenger had its advantages as well as its dangers and Jack couldn't help but think that the life-threatening situations they put themselves in were worth it for the extra luxuries and comforts they got from the job.
"Right. That really is everything now, isn't it?"
Blaze nodded in confirmation before dropping the camping equipment and walking around Jack to get to her belongings. Logan had already donned his long, waterproof coat and secured the canvas backpack and his quiver to his back. He twisted awkwardly trying to find the mechanism on the quiver that he clipped his bow to, frowning and cursing when he couldn't quite reach it. Jack shook his head, this happened every time. Instead of just asking for help, Logan would fumble and faff and grunt and swear until either Jack or Blaze got fed up and went to help anyway. Jack assumed it was a pride thing. Whatever it was, it was annoying as hell and every time it happened he and Blaze both seemed to have an internal debate about whether or not to just ignore him until he actually asked. Unfortunately it normally got far too irritating far too quickly and one of them always caved. This time it was Jack. He slapped Logan's hands out of the way irritably and clipped the bow in himself, sharing an exasperated look with Blaze before moving away to get ready himself.
Jack was about to fasten the buckle of his altered utility belt around his chest when he remembered his jacket. With a huff, he let the belt fall to the floor and made for the kitchen, pointedly ignoring Logan's amused expression as he passed. He snatched his jacket from the chair and pulled it on as he stomped back to the hallway. Logan was now helping Blaze lift her pack onto her back over her swords.
Jack squeezed by them and picked his belt back up, this time securing it in place with no issue. He jumped slightly when he felt the familiar weight of his sledgehammer slotting into place on the belt, and turned to see Blaze smiling at him.
"No problem. Your memory sucks today, dude."
"His memory sucks every day, what's new?"
They chuckled at Logan's banter as Blaze opened the front door for Jack and they strolled out into the bright sunlight. Logan picked up the tent and sleeping bag and followed them to the freshly packed cart. He secured the bags on top of the stock and went on ahead to check that the surrounding area was clear.
Blaze helped Jack into a harness that made pulling the hefty cart easier. Jack knelt on the ground in front of her while she started fastening buckles and pulling straps and he watched a woodlouse scuttle out from under a rock before disappearing beneath a blade of grass. He wondered if the little bug was aware on some level that it was living in a dystopian society with danger lurking around every corner.
"Alright we're all done back here. Does it feel okay?" Blaze checked, stepping in front of him to look at the harness from the front.
Jack stood and took a few experimental steps. Dragging the cart over grass was much more difficult than rolling it across packed dirt, cement or tarmac and Logan hadn’t been kidding when he claimed that this load was slightly heavier than usual. Despite these drawbacks, the harness and cart felt secure enough. "Yeah perfect, thanks."
She clapped him on the shoulder and jogged onwards to check in with Logan, leaving Jack to start walking at his own pace.
Every time they went off on one of their adventures Jack took a good, long look at the little home the trio had made for themselves, savouring the sight of the squat little cottage covered in ivy and surrounded by wild flowers. He'd never tell Logan or Blaze about this habit. He felt it would be a bit of a mood killer if he admitted to savouring the sight of their quaint little home before he left, just in case he never saw it again.
Their cottage was situated in the outskirts of a forest that sat beside an overgrown field. The cosy little house itself was surrounded by a wall of thick hedges that had obviously been planted there for privacy by the home's previous owner. The untamed border stood well over ten feet tall and for the most part hid their little hideaway quite adequately. At some point the garden had probably been very well manicured and even now the three of them always tried to keep the grass neat and let the charming wild flowers that sprung up here and there over the gardens grow. They had opted to let the hedge grow freely though, it made a brilliant natural barricade. As a result of this, the overgrown bushes had turned feral with freedom. Thorny vines stretched out from the dense body of the hedge, most too encumbered by their own weight to support themselves any longer. They sagged in a graceful arc to the soft bed of grass beneath them. The hedges themselves were now about five feet wide, a little thicker in some places and more narrow in others. There was an opening in the hedges at the front of the property with a rusted gate that stood a few metres tall and screeched in protest whenever it was opened or closed. It served as a useful alarm to those in the small home if someone or something unexpected tried to enter the premises. They had adorned the top of the gate with barbed wire as an extra precaution and kept it padlocked at all times.
It was through this gate that Jack now walked, giving his companions a wave to signal that they were good to close the gates.
As he approached Jack watched his friends exchange a few more words before Blaze sat down abruptly and crossed her arms over her chest with finality. Logan shook his head and kicked her playfully in the knee. The lazy gits were probably arguing about who had to go back to secure the gate. From the looks of things Blaze was winning, which wasn't at all a surprise. That girl was nothing if not stubborn. Logan spread his hands in defeat and ran towards Jack, slowing as he passed the dark haired boy. “You just can't get the staff these days,” he commented with a smirk before speeding up again. Jack chuckled and kept walking, leaving the clinking of the gate's chain and padlock behind him.
Logan caught up with them again just after Jack reached Blaze. The three of them continued together down the dirt track, their path illuminated by the dappled sunlight that filtered through the canopy of trees.
It took them almost an hour at Jack’s pace to get out of the woods and onto another dirt road. The group joked and bantered as they went and if it hadn’t been for the weapons on their backs and the cart of random goods, they could have seemed like a few friends hiking on a camping trip.
By midday the dirt roads gave way to the tarmac of a country lane and the group spotted the copse of trees that they usually stopped at for lunch.
“I'm starving. I don't think I've eaten since yesterday.”“Oh please, Logan. Jack made beans this morning. Stop being so melodramatic!” Blaze scolded as she helped Jack out of the harness. When he was finally free of the contraption, Jack stretched gratefully and then removed his hammer and its makeshift holster to prop them against the cart. He then flopped down to join the other two under the shade of a large oak, much to the joy of his aching muscles and overheating skin.
“-feels like it's been forever, that's all I'm saying. I have every right to complain, freedom of speech and all that,” Logan was still protesting, but Blaze had leant back against the closest tree trunk and appeared to have zoned out at some point.
“-got to admit I've got a point. Right, Jack?”
“I wasn't listening to a word you were saying, but I got the gist. Now, if you're done bitching about the lack of food in your life, how about we have some lunch?”
“I give up on you two. Rotten excuses for friends, that's what you are.” Logan grumbled.
“Well if we're such utterly dreadful friends you won't be disappointed if we don't share our lunch with you, will you Logan? No, selfishness is to be expected from deadbeat mates like us.” Blaze retorted through a yawn.
“Don't be a prick, Red.”
“Jack! Logan called me a prick!” Blaze pouted.
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Now children, stop arguing or I will turn this cart around and we'll go home without any adventuring!”
Blaze smirked and Logan snorted as he rifled through Blaze’s backpack to find some food.
“Now on a more serious note” Jack continued, “beef jerky is on the menu if I remember correctly. I think we should save some for later just in case though, so don’t pig out.”
Blaze murmured her agreement as Logan shared the jerky around.
“This weather is stifling. I'm taking my jacket off before we carry on.” Blaze frowned.
“That's a good idea. I'm sweating buckets with my coat on and dragging the stock is so much worse in the heat. Your coat is fur-lined, isn't it Lo? You must be feeling it too.”
“Yeah, it's not ideal but I'd rather be caught in the sun with a coat and have to carry it than be caught in the rain with no coat and get soaked. We can always shove them on the cart if we need to, it's not like they're heavy.”
Jack finished chewing his mouthful and swallowed before answering. “I wouldn't mind, a couple of jackets aren't going to make much difference.”
“Thanks Jack.” Blaze smiled, making the scar across her face crinkle. Jack returned the smile and was struck with a sudden urge to ask Blaze about the scar. It was an urge he'd had many times; there was so much about her that he didn't know and with them being so close it bothered him sometimes that her past was such a mystery. He had no idea where she came from, what sort of life she had before the outbreak, what happened to her family or how she had ended up with a group of bandits before they met. He didn't even know her real name, and that bothered him the most. Logan and Blaze were the closest thing to family he had left. Jack loved them both with every fibre of his being. He would kill for them and die for them if he had to, and he didn't even know Blaze's real name.
He knew her habits and quirks and personality traits. He knew how fiery she could be, how stubborn, caring, funny, intelligent, strong, comforting and affectionate the redhead was, yet he knew next to nothing about life she led before they met. It bothered him more than he cared to admit.
Jack knew quite a lot about Logan. The night Jack had finally woken up after being stabbed they ended up sharing a lot. Jack had been ecstatic to find that Logan hadn't regressed into his catatonic state and overwhelmed by the fact that he had survived the ordeal. The emotional overload got the better of them, it was like a dam had broken and they ended up sharing almost everything about their pasts. Blaze had been keeping watch and the two lads had talked for hours in an emotional frenzy that they had an unspoken agreement never to mention again.
“Jack? Jack! Jack, you're staring at me and it's creeping me out.” Blaze frowned.
“What's your name?”
The words fell from his lips without permission, blurting out before he could stop them. The question broke almost every law of after-outbreak etiquette, but now that he'd said it he found that he didn't regret asking. He was desperate to know.
Embarrassment caused heat to creep up his neck and colour his cheeks, but Jack still didn't apologise or take the question back. He looked straight into Blaze’s shocked green eye and held her gaze.
“Jack, are you feeling okay? You know my name; we've known each other for years.”
Blaze and Logan were both scrutinizing him with concern now.
“I'm fine. I didn't mean I don't recognise you Blaze, I meant-” he paused to take a deep breath and steel his nerves before continuing, “I meant what's your real name? Blaze is obviously an alias, an awesome one, but clearly not your actual name. I just... I sometimes feel like I know you so well and yet I don't know anything about you. Not really anyway. I know that asking about someone's past is taboo but it's not really an invasive question, I mean you know our names and I-”
There was a moment of silence after Blaze interrupted Jack's rambling.
Jack nodded, still slightly taken aback by her willingness to answer the question. Logan was trying and failing to supress a laugh, Blaze glared at him.
“Is that funny?”
“No, Red. It's a lovely name, it’s just... I never would have thought...” he trailed off, shaking his head with an amused smile on his face.
“Never would have thought what?” She scowled.
“Well it's a really pretty name, isn't it? I expected... Well you're a bit... brash for a name like that. I feel like you should be called Ripper or something.”
There was a moment of silence in which the tension was so thick you could've cut it with a knife. Jack held his breath.
“You make me sound like a dog!” Blaze laughed, all tension dissipating with the sound. Logan had done it again. He was the best amongst them at averting arguments before they began and he was the only person that could assuage Blaze's anger when her temper flared.
Jack and Logan shared a relieved look as they joined in on her laughter, if Blaze had taken any of that the wrong way or had taken offence to Jack's rather invasive question, it would have been a very long and dour journey until she'd calmed down.
Jack pulled his cigarettes from his pocket and handed one to Blaze, not bothering to offer one to Logan. Sometimes when he was drunk Logan would possibly have one, but it was more likely he'd take a drag or two from one of their cigarettes and leave it at that. Logan always said that he'd never smoked before the outbreak and he didn't see why he should start now, just when they needed to be at their fittest. Jack could see where he was coming from but he and Blaze both agreed that life was short anyway, especially now. There was no point denying yourself the few small pleasures this new world had to offer when the chances were it wouldn't be a cigarette that killed you in the end. Logan understood, he didn't moan or complain about their habit, he just didn't let himself be dragged into it with them. Jack seriously admired Logan’s will power.
After lunch the trio rested a little longer before getting ready to continue their expedition. It was Logan who helped Jack into his harness this time. Blaze strapped her swords back into place and finished her cigarette, grinding the butt into the ground under her boot before collecting their various jackets and coats. With another mumble of thanks to Jack, she draped the discarded clothing over the cart.
When they were all set and ready to go, they left their little picnic spot behind and plodded on in the baking sun.
It had been a couple of hours since lunch and even without their coats on the heat was crippling. Jack, encumbered by the weight he was carrying as well as the sweltering weather, was perspiring so much it looked like he'd been rained on. The bandana he wore around his hairline did nothing to stop the beads of moisture dripping down his face and filtering through his stubble to venture down his neck. Blaze's grey top clung to her sweaty torso like it was painted on. She had long since given up on plucking it away from her heated skin. The wayward strands of chestnut hair that had escaped Logan's ponytail were plastered to his forehead and neck and every now and then he'd swipe them away with a grimace.
They were nearing a small village now and needed to be on guard in case any undead spotted them. The last thing they needed in this heat was a fight, the stifling weather was hindering their reaction times and Jack knew their reflexes would be badly affected.
Blaze reached up and drew one of her swords, then dropped back to bring up the rear and protect the cart from behind. It was an extra twenty minutes or so to walk around the outskirts of the village instead of cutting through the middle, but they had learned the hard way that it was much safer.
Logan, whose job it was to pick off threats from afar, was walking ahead and already had his bow out and an arrow set in place just in case. He hadn't pulled the string taught though, so Jack knew there were no visible threats just yet.
Logan reached the junction that turned off into the village and put his back against the bushes, peeking round to see if it was all clear before they continued past the opening. He pulled back abruptly and Jack wondered why, even if there were zombies there they wouldn't have been able to see him. Just as that thought entered his mind, a zombie wandered out from around the corner, brushing past the bush right where Logan's head had been a moment before.
The walking corpse of the elderly woman shuffled towards Logan, who silently stepped aside and out of range of her reaching arms. To the shock of the group, her blank eyes followed the movement and she turned to Logan's new location. Logan, startled and confused, unsheathed one of the daggers at his thigh and brought it up above his head. The blade flashed in the sunlight as he drove it down towards the undead woman's skull. She flinched and moved her arms awkwardly as though she were about to cover her head, but the dagger hit home before the pale limbs could complete their ascent.
She crumpled to the ground and Logan staggered back, tears in his eyes. He slowly bent down to retrieve the dagger. The woman’s skirt had hitched up around her knees as she fell, revealing a half-eaten thigh with black veins radiating from the wound where she had become infected.
Logan wordlessly walked back to the group, his face blank as he started a whispered conversation.
“She flinched. She could see me when I moved and she flinched before I... what if she wasn't...”
Jack shook his head. “She was infected. I don't know why she could see you or why she flinched, but no normal person could strut around with a leg wound like that. Besides, the wound had those black veins coming from it. I’ve only ever seen that on the infected.”
“She looked freshly turned. That leg was still bleeding. Maybe when they've only just been turned they retain some of their human senses and reflexes for a while?” Blaze suggested, placing a reassuring hand on Logan's chest.
“Blaze is probably right, Lo. I can’t think of a better theory.”
“Yeah. It just felt so wrong to kill something that flinched as it died. It felt like I killed an innocent, defenceless old lady.”
“You didn't. It was her or you. She wasn't human anymore.” Blaze whispered.
Jack nodded in agreement and turned to Logan. “You okay to go on, Lo? We can turn back now and find somewhere to make an early camp if you need some time.”
“No, I'm fine. I'm okay. It was just a shock. Let’s just go.”
Logan turned on his heel and walked away before either of them could reply.
Jack watched him go then turned to Blaze, who looked at him with an uncertain frown. Jack was sure his uneasy expression mirrored hers. After so many years living in this new world it was jarring to say the least when they found out something new about an enemy they'd been fighting for so long.
Jack caught movement out of the corner of his eye and looked over to where Logan was gesturing manically from the corner of the junction. He was giving the signal that there was a large group of zombies heading their way. Jack nodded and pulled his hammer over his shoulder, getting a firm grip on the handle.
“We need to get you out of the harness!” Blaze's voice could barely be heard despite the fact her lips were brushing his ear as she spoke. Jack shook his head and muttered, “I don't think there's enough time” under his breath, not taking his eyes off of the junction. He hastily pulled his bandana down to cover his mouth; they weren’t sure if the infection could only be spread through bites or if it could be passed in fluids too. Blaze and Jack tended to get splattered with blood as they fought up close and personal with the zombies, they didn’t want to risk getting infected blood in their mouths. Blaze swore and pulled a rag from her pocket, securing it over the lower half of her face.
Jack heard Blaze's other sword hiss against its sheath as it was pulled free. He watched as Logan backtracked towards them, the string of his bow taught and arrowhead glistening, aiming directly at the corner he had just occupied.
When the first one rounded the bush, Logan's arrow embedded itself in the thing's head before Jack could even take a breath. The next three went the same way before the crowd started to file round in larger groups and even Logan couldn't fire fast enough. Blaze was there in an instant, cutting down any that Logan didn't manage to shoot. Blood sprayed as her swords flashed, and the horde just kept coming.
Blaze was forced to retreat as more and more came around the corner, not wanting to end up surrounded. If you let them surround you, you were as good as dead. She reluctantly gave ground until she stood only a few metres in front of Jack, who was tethered to one spot by the cart and getting increasingly agitated that he couldn't help his friends. Blaze was taking out two or three with each cleverly angled slash of her katana, but a few stragglers still managed to reach Jack. He raised his hammer and smashed the skull of a girl who had been about grab Blaze.
Logan had retreated even further behind them and every now and then his arrows would audibly whiz by, passing incredibly close to the duo fighting the horde off by hand. Jack and Blaze both knew that he was a truly incredible shot and they carried on without the slightest thought of concern that they might end up with an arrow in the back.
Jack grabbed his knife and stabbed at the face of a zombie that got too close for him to kill with his hammer.
From the left Logan darted past, quiver empty. He entered the fray with both daggers drawn. Jack watched as Blaze blocked a bite with her gauntlet then bludgeoned the offending zombie with the hilt of a sword.
The crowd was thinning now, only a handful of the creatures were left. Jack let the head of his hammer fall to the ground and he leant heavily on it while he watched the others finish the stragglers off.
“We need to get out of here and find somewhere to rest.” he panted.
Blaze wiped her blades clean on a fallen zombie's trousers, smearing blood over the denim as she spoke. “Agreed. That wasn't the quietest of fights. There'll be more coming.”
Blaze helped Jack set his hammer back in place whilst Logan retrieved his arrows from various corpses. As soon as the last arrow was back in its quiver they moved onwards, Logan leading the group with his bow in hand.
They met a few wandering undead around the outskirts of the village, but they were disposed of easily enough. Soon they were well away from the village and the adrenaline had worn off, leaving them sweaty, blood spattered and weary. They rested beneath a beautiful weeping willow, beside the small stream that ran along the western border of the village. They refilled water bottles before washing their faces and arms in the cool water. It felt good to get the worst of the blood and grime off before continuing their journey. The water cooled their heated skin and made the trio feel a little more human again. When they set off again they did so feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
Had they not had the cart with them, they could have made it to the city in a day, the walk unhindered taking about seven or eight hours. With the cart however, it was different story. It normally took a day and a half, give or take a few hours, and they would have to find a suitable place to camp when Jack couldn't carry on and needed to rest for the night. This happened earlier than usual today, the heavy load and exhaustion from the fight creeping up on him a couple of hours before sundown.
“Guys I can't. I have to stop. Sorry.” Jack groaned, coming to a halt in the middle of the road.
“Oh thank goodness, I'm roasting alive over here.” Blaze breathed.
“Yeah the thought of a good meal and some sleep sounds heavenly right now. I don't know how you managed to pull that thing all day in this heat, Jack. Why don't we carry on until the roundabout up ahead and set up camp in the trees by the turn-off to the city? It'll be a better hiding spot than these overgrown bushes, and we'll be less likely to rip the tent on brambles. Plus there's that river under the bridge to the north of there, we could have a proper wash.”
The other two muttered agreements and strode on with renewed vigour, the promise of a wash, food and rest spurring them ever faster to their destination.
They reached the roundabout and walked across it to the almost vertical drop that housed the trees on the other side. It was a great place to stop, the steep drop from the road to the ground below created a nice little corner at the bottom of the small cliff. This meant that if they set up camp there they would be protected from two sides and the lookout would have a much easier time spotting incoming danger. If a zombie did happen to come from the roadside to attack them it would be injured in the fall, thus giving them more of a chance to escape or kill it.
Jack secured the rope he kept attached to his belt around the cart, ready for it to be lowered down the mini cliff face. He then climbed down the twenty foot drop to guide the others while they lifted the cart over the metal railing and began lowering it.
When the cart was safe on solid ground and Blaze and Logan had clambered down after it, Jack and Blaze started setting up the tent. Logan went to scout the space around their chosen camp site in order to make sure there were no threats in the immediate area.
The tent was fully set up when Logan returned, sleeping bag and pillows laid out inside and a small camp fire flickering away in the late afternoon light. Blaze had a particular affinity for all things fire related, and could set up a fire with next to no tools to help her. She had assured them in the past that her alias had been chosen with her mild pyromania in mind.
“Everywhere seems to be clear from here to the river. I reckon we should get cleaned up first and then come back here and I'll cook dinner. Agreed?” Logan suggested, grabbing a bottle of shower gel from the stock in the cart.
“Sounds good to me!”
“Sounds perfect. Last one there has a zombie fetish!”
They all leapt to their feet and raced westward through the trees. Jack overtook Logan then glanced behind him just in time to see Blaze catch up with Logan and kick him in the side of the knee without breaking stride, causing him to stumble to the dirt as she gained on Jack. Her breathless laughter came from right behind him just as the river came into view, and he put on a burst of speed to lose her at the last stretch. His efforts were in vain however, and with a swish of wild red plait and another gloating giggle she was in front of him, reaching the riverbank with a triumphant cry.
Jack slowed down and walked the last few metres, his breath coming in sharp bursts as he bent over and braced his hands on his knees.
“I don't know why I keep letting you talk me into races.” He breathed, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead.
“You may have the stamina in our little group darling, but I've got the speed.” Blaze smirked back.
Logan arrived a few moments later, a scowl on his face.
“That was cheating, Red.”
“I play dirty, you know this. Besides, no one said there were any rules!” Blaze replied with a chuckle as she slid her boots and socks off and set them aside with the weapons and belts she had already divested herself of. Logan scoffed and set the shower gel down by the river bank before striding over to Blaze, resting his hands on her shoulders.
“Fine. You won fair and square. Even if you are a dirty little cheat. Turn around and I'll get your plait.”
Blaze grinned up at him before standing to turn around. She unzipped her trousers, letting them fall to the floor before kicking them away as Logan untwisted the band from the bottom of her plait. The group didn't think twice about being scantily clad around each other anymore, sometimes it was a necessity. Seeing each other in just their underwear was quite a normal, regular occurrence for the trio of friends.
Logan gently ran his fingers through Blaze's hair, working them carefully through the loops of the plait until her wild mane hung loose, a red cloak running down her back to stop just above her knees. He carried on running his hands through the soft curls to untangle them and Blaze had shut her eyes in bliss at the comforting feeling. She let out a little sigh of contentment and Logan turned to Jack with a mischievous smirk. Jack realised what Logan was doing and straightened up to get a better look, grinning.
“Thanks, Logan. That's really- AAAGH!” Without warning Logan rested his hands between her shoulders and gave her a firm shove, breaking into hysterics as her slim frame hit the river with a resounding splash. Jack let his laughter go too, the two men guffawing at the indignant look on Blaze's face when she resurfaced.
“You complete and utter-”
“Language, Red! That's what you get for kicking me in the leg while we're racing.”
Blaze spluttered, lost for words. She pulled her soaked top over her head and threw it at Logan, flipped him the finger then with one last glare turned and swam away from the bank, leaving the boys to get undressed through bouts of giggles.
As soon as they were undressed, Logan took a run up and tucked his knees to his chest as he jumped, the resulting splash nearly meeting Jack in height despite the river's high bank.
Logan's head broke the surface and he pulled the band from his ponytail, smoothing his golden brown hair back and out of his face.
“Come on, Jackie boy!”
Jack took a few steps back so he could take a run up too, but unlike Logan he opted for a graceful swan-dive. Jack was a much better person after everything he’d been through, but his need to show off still popped up every now and then. He just couldn’t help himself.
The chill of the water hit him like a brick, momentarily winding him. From intense heat to icy depths, Jack’s body was having trouble adjusting to such a huge change happening so fast. He felt like he should have been used to the unpleasant feeling of being submerged in cold water by now. It wasn't often they got to have hot baths any more, and hot showers were a thing of legend these days.
Jack let his momentum take him down to the river bed before he turned so his feet were below him and pushed upwards, propelling his body back to the surface.
Logan and Blaze were having some kind of swimming race from the looks of things, but Jack didn't feel inclined to join them. He planned on washing as quickly as possible then heading back to camp to keep guard on their tent and stock.
Jack swam to the edge of the river to grab the shower gel, then untied his bandanna and tucked it into the side of his boxers. He leant back in the water and scrubbed his hands through his hair with a liberal amount of soap. Then he squeezed some gel onto his bandanna and used it as a makeshift flannel, scouring his skin until he felt fresh enough to get out. After swimming to the bank and hauling himself up onto the grass, Jack unravelled his bandanna and cleaned it in the water as best he could. When he was finished he set off at a brisk walk to his pile of clothes, the wind cooling the water droplets on his skin and causing goose bumps to prickle out over the freshly scrubbed flesh.
Jack peeled off his wet boxers then yanked his trousers onto his still damp legs. He decided to use his top as a towel for his feet before foregoing his dirty socks and slipping them straight back into his boots. Athlete’s foot was never a good thing to get, especially when one did a lot of walking. Jack didn't bother lacing the boots; he just grabbed the rest of his belongings and tucked them under his arm.
“You done already?”
Jack turned to see Blaze treading water not far from the bank. When her hair got wet it turned deep red and right now it was slicked back on her head, clinging to the back of her neck and shoulders until reaching the water, where it fanned out behind her like a pool of blood. Combined with her pale skin and dark eye-patch, the look was reminiscent of a femme-fatale from an old film.
“Yeah, I was going to go back and keep an eye on everything just in case. We lit a fire so if there are bandits about they'll see the smoke. I'll catch up with you guys when you're done, no rush!”
“Okay, see you in a bit.” Blaze chirped with a small wave.
Jack smiled and gave her a mix between a wave and a salute before starting the walk back to camp.
When Jack reached the camp the fire had calmed down somewhat but was still flickering merrily away. He walked to the bag of clothes and took the towel from it, stripping down to dry himself properly. He pulled on the clean boxers he had packed and donned his trousers and belt again, leaving his boots and socks off for now. He put on the clean vest as well, but saved the clean shirt and socks for tomorrow.
Jack sat down and threw a couple of extra sticks onto the fire. He then took one of the thinner pieces from the pile of firewood and drove the end of it into the ground, hanging his bandanna from it to dry it off. He did the same with his underwear, not wanting to put it into the bag wet.
Jack heard a twig snap behind him and he jumped to his feet, whirling around with his knife in hand.
“Whoa! Calm yourself mate, just me.”
Jack smiled apologetically and slipped his knife back into its place at his hip. “Sorry Logan. You were pretty quick?”
“Yeah, I got hungry. I figured if I didn't get back and put dinner on no one else would bother.” Logan answered with a wink. Jack grinned and threw him the towel. Logan caught it one handed and dropped his pile of belongings by the tent before pulling his sopping wet boxers off with a scowl and starting to dry himself. Jack walked over to the bags and chucked Logan's clean clothes over to land at the other man's feet. Jack figured he might as well find dinner while he was there, so he started rummaging through Blaze's backpack to find the tinned soup.
“Thanks mate.” Logan called, retrieving his clothes from the ground.
“No problem. Right, got the soup! Are you sure you don't mind cooking?”
“Of course I don’t. You just chill for tonight, mate. You must be knackered.”
“Alright, cheers. Did Blaze seem like she was nearly done when you left? It's getting dark, she'll catch pneumonia if she stays in there much longer.”
“I imagine she'll be joining us pretty soon, she said she was starving when I left.”
As they talked, Jack sparked up a cigarette and Logan got to work heating the soup. Soon enough the smell of hot tomatoes and burning tobacco filled the little clearing, along with the sounds of banter and laughter.
A little while later, when the last lingering glow of the sunlight had disappeared and the firelight was the only illumination they had in the camp, Blaze came wondering back through the trees, carrying her belongings and shivering.
Logan flung the towel at her and she accepted it gratefully, dropping her stuff where she stood. She wrapped the towel around herself and grabbed her clean clothes from the bag before retiring behind a bush to get dressed.
“The food is nearly ready! Hurry up, Red.”
“Coming, mother!” she mocked in response.
Blaze reappeared a few moments later with her hair wrapped in the towel. She strolled to the place she'd dropped her stuff and put her trousers on before dropping down next to Jack by the fire, both eagerly awaiting their dinner. She snatched the end of a cigarette from Jack's mouth and finished the last few drags, chucking the butt onto the fire when she was done and earning a flick to the neck from Jack.
Logan gingerly brushed the back of his hand against one of the tins to see if it had cooled down enough to pick up yet. It must have been, because he passed it to Blaze before picking the other one up and setting it in front of himself.
“Where did you put the spoons, Jack?” Logan asked.
Jack swore and dropped his face into his hand. Blaze groaned and shook her head. “Right. Well, looks like we're drinking it from the tin, lads! Try not to gash your faces up on the edge, guys.”
They passed the two tins between the three of them and the soup was polished off far too quickly.
When they were done eating, Blaze towel dried her hair then hung the towel on a nearby branch to dry overnight. She then grabbed Jack's cigarette packet and helped herself, lighting it on the fire before propping her feet up in his lap and leaning back against Logan's shoulder.
“Ew! Get your damp hair off my skin, it feels gross.” Logan complained, dragging a strand of her hair from his neck with his forefinger and thumb and dropping it over Blaze's shoulder. She huffed and pulled the rest of her hair over to join it, but otherwise ignored his comment.
“So how many of the requests did we manage to get this time?” She asked instead, not directing the question at anyone in particular as she gazed at the stars through a gap in the trees.
Jack tapped his stubble covered chin thoughtfully. “Well that guy who always wears the body-warmer asked for a hammer and some nails. We managed to get both, Logan found a hammer in that house we stumbled across a few days ago and obviously you grabbed a few boxes of nails from that DIY shop we raided. We're giving him just one box from the collection we have. Uh... That lady with the missing ear asked for some powdered milk, the best we could find for that was the baby formula Logan picked up from that abandoned shopping trolley... and uh...” Jack trailed off, racking his brains for the other few requests they'd had.
“Oh! That tall, skinny guy with the nice hair wanted some disposable barbecues! We found those in the shop on that camp site, remember? I only packed two or three though, figured we should keep some back for later stock.” Logan chipped in.
“Ah, yes! Also there was that older lady that wanted some sewing supplies; I bagged up some of the stuff we had from old stock.” Blaze added.
Jack nodded. “Yeah, that's right. That lady with the dreadlocks needed some children’s clothes, Logan and I found a few bits and pieces around but we had to sew a few items for her as well. Also, that incredibly optimistic bald man needed some barbed wire. Did we get that in the end?”
“Nope. We did have some razor wire in stock though, so I packed a coil of that instead. There were a few items we couldn't find actually. That old guy wanted one of those head massager things that look like spiders. We came across one when we raided that cul-de-sac a month or two back, but I didn't take it. I didn’t think anyone would ever ask for one to be honest, it’s so random. Not to mention the fact that most of the ends had snapped off so it was just wire, it nearly took my scalp off when I tried to use it.” Logan grumbled, his fingers moving over his hair soothingly as he relived the memory.
“Ha! Oh bloody hell, I remember that. It was hilarious! You yelled so loudly that Jack and I ran to your rescue, we thought you were being attacked!” Blaze giggled as she recounted the story, smoke drifting from between her lips in little puffs as she laughed.
Jack smiled at the memory. It had been a good raid, they had managed to get loads of stock and have a real laugh doing it.
“Well anyway, I think the only things we couldn't get were the head massager thing, the swimming goggles that lad wanted and the fire extinguisher for baseball cap guy. Not bad, considering!” Jack surmised with an arrogant smirk.
“With that and the usual booze, blankets, cigarettes, cooking utensils, food and everything else, the customers should be more than happy. We're not miracle workers after all.” Blaze added.
They chatted for a little while longer before the exhaustion of the day started catching up with Jack. Blaze offered to do the first watch so Jack excused himself pretty early, earning many jokes about his lack of stamina from the other two.
When he was in the tent Jack stripped down to his boxers and vest, left his clothes in a corner and snuggled down into the chilly depths of the sleeping bag. He slipped his knife beneath his pillow as usual and kept one hand wrapped around the hilt as he started to drift off. It didn't take long for the bag to warm up; it was one of those ones that absorbed body heat so Jack was toasty in no time. With a final yawn, Jack found his eyelids getting heavy and before he knew it, he was out like a light.
It felt like it had only been a few seconds since he shut his eyes when Jack woke up to a cold hand on his shoulder, the feeling contrasting drastically with that of the warm thigh that was pressed against his in the heat of the sleeping bag. He instantly awoke and had his knife at the throat of the intruder and his free hand clamped around their wrist before his eyes had even opened properly.
In the scarce light he could make out Blaze's silhouette above him, so he loosened his grip on her wrist and pulled his sheath out from under his pillow, returning his knife to it in the process. She was there to wake him up so he could relieve her on watch. Jack tended to take the middle shift because he was generally too tired after pulling the cart to stay up late. Equally, he didn't want to be up too early either because he needed to be well rested in the morning for another day of pulling.
Jack slid out from his warm sleeping spot, trying his hardest not to awaken Logan as he did so. He squeezed Blaze’s shoulder as he passed to show his appreciation for her taking the first watch. He then crawled over to the corner to pull his trousers on while she removed hers behind him.
The cold night air enveloped him as soon as he stepped out of the tent and he shivered involuntarily. He zipped the tent up nice and tight to keep the heat in before moving away to find his socks, boots and jacket. The fire had died down now and the glowing embers were all he had for warmth. They had a policy never to keep the fire bright at night and to always keep your back to it when you were on watch. A lookout that was night-blind was no use to anyone. Jack settled down with his back to the fire and let his eyes adjust to the darkness of the night, keeping a watchful eye out for any movement among the trees.
He lit a cigarette and frowned when he saw that the pack was almost empty, making a mental note to take another from the stock in the morning. That done, he stretched his legs out in front of him, propped himself up on one arm and settled in for what was bound to be a few long, boring hours of watching trees.
Jack was not wrong. By the time the sky was pitch black and Jack guessed it would only be a couple of hours before dawn, nothing at all interesting had happened. The only event of note was that he had run out of cigarettes and gone to grab more from the cart. He was trying very hard not to fall asleep where he sat. Deciding it was about the right time for Logan to take over, Jack stood and stretched his aching limbs. He let out a huge, satisfying yawn before doing a strange jig on the spot in an attempt to warm himself up. Jack was rather grateful that no one was around to witness it. He didn’t imagine he’d live it down if the others saw him shimmying and hopping about the place.
Jack pressed the back of his hand to his mouth as another yawn stretched his jaw. It was definitely time for bed. He shuffled to the entrance of the tent and toed off his boots before unzipping the flap and crawling inside. He took off his jacket and jeans and folded them beside Blaze's before gently moving over to Logan to awaken him.
Logan's reaction to being awoken in the middle of the night was much the same as Jack's had been. Jack felt the sharp prick of a blade under his chin and an iron grip on his wrist before Logan caught on and relaxed. Neither spoke a word as Logan ruffled Jack's hair and they swapped positions. Logan dressed himself and donned Jack's coat as Jack slid into the warm spot Logan had left, not missing the harsh chill of the world outside the tent at all.
Jack heard the flap being zipped up and Blaze shifted slightly, mumbling incoherently before turning her back to Jack and snuggling into him. That was the thing about sleeping beside Blaze; she was a cuddler. On cold nights like this it was lovely, but on hot, sticky, humid nights, it was somewhat unwelcome.
Logan started singing quietly to himself outside. He rarely sang in front of people unless they were singing too or he was drunk, but he had a wonderful voice. It was husky and untrained, but the imperfections just made the songs he sang sound better in Jack’s opinion. They produced a melody that was more personal and intense than any song sang perfectly that Jack had ever heard.
Jack turned to face Blaze's back and snaked an arm over her waist as he started dozing off. She made a contented little humming sound before her breathing evened out properly again. Jack drifted off a few minutes later to the sound of Logan singing softly and Blaze breathing deeply.
The smell of hot, rich tomato soup greeted Jack as he slowly awoke the following morning. His stomach rumbled loudly as he rolled onto his back and stretched his arms above his head. Blaze made a small noise of complaint at the movement and shuffled deeper into the sleeping bag. It was common knowledge that Blaze was by no means a morning person.
Everything inside the tent was tinged slightly green in the soft light that shone through the canvas, making the whole place seem slightly surreal.
Jack grudgingly shuffled out of the warm, cosy sleeping bag and moved to the corner, where he donned the clothes he had left there the night before.
Jack shielded his eyes as he stepped out into the bright sunlight and straightened up, stretching properly now that he had the room to do so. Logan came wandering into view through the bushes from the direction of the river, his arms burdened with their now full water bottles.
“Good morning! How’d you sleep?” Logan chirped cheerfully.
“Yeah, really well thank you.” Jack replied through a yawn. “Breakfast smells amazing. It's a bit early to be cooking already, isn't it?”
“Well I was really hungry so I thought why not! I know sleeping beauty in there won't be up for an hour or two, but we can always reheat hers. I put the rest of the pack of jerky we opened yesterday in there as well, figured we could do with the extra energy. There's still a pack left though and if we get desperate we can take some food from stock.”
“Sounds good to me.” Jack spoke through another loud rumble from his abdomen, earning a chuckle from his friend.
“To you and your stomach from the sound of things. Sit yourself down and I'll scoop you some into a can. I had to nick a pot from stock because it was hell trying to cook it through the tins last night.”
Out of habit Jack plopped himself down by the fire despite the warmth of the morning sun and yawned again, wondering if he should have just rolled over and gone back to sleep. These musings didn’t last long. The moment Logan put the steaming soup in front of him all thoughts of going back to bed left Jack’s mind. It smelled heavenly. He dug in, savouring the combination of flavours as he devoured the jerky soup. The texture left something to be desired, but the mouth-watering taste and warmth in his belly more than made up for it.
When Jack was finally finished (after having begged a second helping from Logan) he lay on his back, looking up at the sky through the canopy of leaves. Logan flopped down next to him and they lay in tranquil silence for a while before Logan spoke in a low voice.
“You were brave, asking Blaze such a direct question yesterday.”
“I don't know what came over me to be honest. I just had this sudden urge to find out more about her.”
“I get that. Next time try and curb it though, yeah? I was worried that I wouldn't be able to calm her down when I saw her face. You're lucky she was too shocked to think about it properly.”
“I know. I just hate not being able to ask people about their past! It's a ridiculous rule. She's one of my best friends. One of the only two people on this planet I care about, and I didn't even know her real name! It's stupid.”
“It is-” Logan agreed, “but that's just how things are now. It's not ideal, no. But you should just count yourself lucky that you even knew the world before. The kids that are out there either wouldn't have been born or won't remember it. We should count our blessings.”
They lay in silence after that, Jack absorbing what Logan had said and realising how true it was. He wasn't sure if it would be better or worse not to know how things were before. To just know the world now so you don't know what you're missing. Or would it be better to have known how good life could be before everything went to hell? Eventually, Jack decided the latter was preferable. Granted, it was a little bittersweet at times, but he would rather know how good life could be if people put their minds to it. Remembering how things used to be gave Jack hope that things would return to some semblance of normalcy in the future.
The two young men lay side by side as they contemplated life, fate and how quickly everything could change. Logan was resting flat on his back with his legs crossed at the ankles and his hands linked over his ribs. Jack was lying with one hand behind his head and the other holding a cigarette to his mouth, his legs bent and knees pointing to the sky. It was like this that Blaze found them a while later, though Jack's other hand had joined the first beneath his head.
“Guys you're thinking too hard, it's giving me a headache. It's too early to be looking so intense.”
“Morning, Red! Breakfast?” Logan pushed himself from the ground and started setting up her breakfast without waiting for a reply. Jack rolled onto his front to face Blaze and propped his chin up in one hand.
“Sleep well?” He asked.
“Like a log. I don’t know how I dragged myself out here, that sleeping bag was so warm and comfy.”
“Try doing it just before dawn when you know you won't get the chance to go back to bed!” Logan retorted, handing her a tin of soup.
“True, that would suck. Ooh, this smells good! Is it the same brand we had last night? It looks different.” Blaze asked excitedly. She was gazing lovingly at the soup like it was the last tin on earth.
“Lo added beef jerky to it, it's amazing.” Jack enthused.
“Are we going to have enough food for the return trip?” Blaze asked with a frown, her brain overriding her belly for once.
“Don't worry yourself, Red. We'll refill once the customers have taken their share. I'm sure they won’t take all of it. Have a little faith, woman!” Logan reassured her, his tone jovial.
“Well excuse me! I just didn't want another repeat of those times that I left it up to you guys and we sold all the food and had to live off of wild mushrooms for the entire return trip.” Blaze mocked around a mouthful of soup.
Jack rolled his eyes. “Of course it's entirely our fault. It's not like all three of us forgot to keep some back or anything.” He countered.
“Oh shut up and let me eat in peace, will you?” Blaze smirked, knowing Jack had a good point.
Jack scoffed and stood to help Logan pack up the camp. Blaze joined them once she'd finished eating and less than half an hour later they were ready to get going.
They climbed back up the steep, rocky incline and onto the road again. It took all three of them to haul the cart back up.
Logan scouted out the road ahead while Blaze fixed the harness onto Jack. When Logan returned he gave the all clear, there had been a few infected wandering around but he easily dealt with it.
The party started once again down the road towards the city, chatting and debating as they went. The road they were on now had once been a dual carriageway, busy and noisy and full of people rushing to get from A to B. Now only rusting husks remained of the cars that had once sped through the countryside, abandoned in the struggle to escape the undead. The trio weaved between the bodies of metal and plastic. Once upon a time the sight would have been eerie and unsettling, but after everything they had seen and done since the outbreak, no one batted an eye.
It was another sunny day, though the blazing sunlight was countered pleasantly by an icy breeze that played through their hair and sent dust and litter swirling around the road.
The group made it to the city without much action, only a few stray undead had crossed their path. The creatures turned up more frequently the closer the trio got to the city. By the time they reached the abandoned car park that they used for their deals, they were all on edge. Jack hated the city. You constantly had to be on guard; even here on the outskirts it was far too populated by the flesh eating fiends for his liking.
A couple of customers were already there when they arrived and Jack didn't have a chance to remove the harness before business started. The group greeted the regulars with friendly banter and the newcomers with polite smiles and introductions. The bald guy who was always happy and smiling was there with a gangly young lad who wore glasses that had been taped at the side. He thanked them profusely for the razor wire and took a few modest items of food and a towel from the general stock as well. He traded them for a chisel, a tube of super-glue and some water-resistant wood varnish before saying goodbye and jogging away with his sack of goods, the young lad trailing behind him.
The graceful woman with the dreadlocks had been immensely grateful when she found out they'd made some of the children’s clothes themselves. The trio told her repeatedly that it had been no trouble at all; they’d simply altered some adult clothing. The woman still insisted on blessing each of them, holding her hands either side of their faces while she whispered under her breath. When that was done she took some food and cooking utensils as well. As payment she gave them a length of thick chain, some powdered soup and some bicycle chains. She hugged them goodbye and stuffed the clothes into a duffel bag as she left.
The disposable barbecues went down a treat with the tall, slim lad, who gave them some hair wax and a couple of bottles of rum in return for the barbeques and some cigarettes.
The others who'd had their requests filled were equally as grateful and the new customers seemed to be pleased with the stock as well. Most of the clients who didn't get their requests took it in their stride. All except for the old man in fact, who threw such a scene at not getting his head massager that you'd think they had denied him the elixir of life. Blaze told him quite frankly that they weren't miracle workers and if he didn't like what they had to offer, he could shove it. He had stormed away lividly, muttering to himself.
Over all it was a pretty successful trip, Jack liked having different people to talk to every now and then. It was turning out to be quite a good day. Then the rival scavenger traders turned up.
Five of them strutted into the car park, three with small wheelbarrows containing merchandise of questionable quality. Logan noticed them first and swore, running a hand through his hair anxiously. Blaze frowned and paused mid conversation; she had been explaining to a newcomer how the trade worked. When she saw the rivals heading towards them her frown morphed into a grimace and she stalked over to confront them, nodding at Jack's warning to keep it quiet.
“Good afternoon gentlemen. I'm sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering what business you have here? You see, my friends and I come here to trade with the locals and it looks rather like you're here to do the same thing.” She asked politely, a nervous smile on her face.
One of the people without wheelbarrows sauntered over to her with a heavy looking metal baseball bat dragging along the ground behind him, giving him the look of a modern day Neanderthal. The man spat on the ground beside her before replying. “Look, love. It's cute that you and your little friends think you have some kind of claim over this place, but you don't. This is our trading spot now. You and your pals can fu-”
“This is our territory. We've been trading here for years. There are plenty of other car parks around the outskirts, feel free to move to one of those.” Blaze interrupted.
The group behind Bill erupted in sniggers, obviously finding it hilarious that a short, skinny youngster was trying to stand up against their leader, who was much older and had muscles like an ox.
“Thing is, people in the city know that decent trades happen here every fortnight. Word of mouth means somethin’ these days. We don't fancy starting from the top when there are already people coming here every two weeks just waiting to trade. So move along, pet. Find somewhere else to do business or die for a stupid car park, it’s up to you.”
His gang sniggered as Bill pushed her aside and strode to where Jack and Logan were standing. The remaining customers had slipped away when the first signs of conflict arose, not wanting to be caught up in a turf war.
Jack was enraged at the way Bill had spoken to Blaze and when he'd pushed her Jack had been almost glad he was encumbered with the cart. The last thing they needed was to start a fight and attract all the zombies in the vicinity. As it was he had been forced to hold Logan back.
“Alright lads, playtime's over. Head home and find somewhere else to trade. This spot's ours now so shoo.” Bill accompanied the last word with a condescending flick of his hands.
Before Jack had the chance to retort, a warning shout came from one of Bill's cronies and a small hand on the man's shoulder spun him around with enough force to make him stumble slightly. He came face to face with a furious Blaze, who was stood with her hands on her hips and mouth set in a grim line.
“How dare you talk to them like that? I've tried being nice, I've tried being reasonable, but obviously your tiny little brain can't grasp the concept of decency or reason. Take your weird little freak show and get lost, if we see you around here again we won't be quite so pleasant.” Blaze snapped through gritted teeth.
Jack felt his heart sink. When Blaze lost her temper she lost all sense of reason with it, she would lash out irrationally and not realise her mistake until she’d calmed down.
Behind her the gang drew their weapons, leering menacingly but not yet getting involved. Bill stayed silent but stepped right into Blaze's personal space and leant over her smaller frame. The scene froze for a few moments, neither backing down as they each glared at the other, Blaze with determination in her eyes and Bill with disgust.
Bill straightened up and at first Jack thought he was going to back down, until he snapped his head forward and spat right into Blaze's face. Spittle splattered her eye-patch and ran onto her cheek. She cringed and used the bottom of her t-shirt to wipe it away, curling her left hand into a gauntlet covered fist and pulling back to strike at the laughing man.
Jack let go of Logan and made to intervene, but was stopped when the cart held him back. Logan got there just in time and stepped between the two with his arms outstretched, not wanting to let it become a brawl that might attract unwanted attention.
Bill took the move as threatening however, and picked Logan up by the front of his jumper to pin him against a nearby car bonnet. Logan had obviously had enough of playing nice at this point and slammed his forehead into Bill's nose. Bill roared as blood spurted from the broken appendage. He lifted Logan up and then slammed him down onto the bonnet hard enough to leave a dent. The wailing of the car alarm cut through the air like a knife and there was a moment's pause as everyone realised what that meant. Bill sneered and slammed his bat into Logan's leg. Hard. A horrible crack echoed through the car park as Logan screamed uncontrollably.
“NO!” Jack cried, struggling desperately to reach his friend.
Blaze got there a second too late with one katana drawn and she stabbed at the man, who parried her jab easily with the bat before kicking her in the stomach and sending her skidding across the gravel. Bill released Logan, who crumpled to the ground still screaming his throat raw.
Jack struggled against the harness, caught between trying to get to his friends with the cart still attached and trying to undo it on his own, a feat he knew to be impossible. Bill turned to him and yelled over the sounds of Logan's agonised cries and the car's wailing alarm. “I hope you and your little friends get eaten alive, boy.”
With that, he turned and fled.
Jack was still straining to free himself when he heard the most terrifying sound he'd ever had the misfortune of hearing. It was a low sound, not as shrill as the car alarm but far greater in volume. It was the sound of countless undead throats moaning for a meal they could sense was just around the corner.
Before Jack had the chance to lose himself to the panic threatening to overwhelm him, he felt the harness give and stumbled to his knees, looking round to see Blaze sheathing her katana. She had cut him loose.
“We have to go. We have to get him out of here.” She breathed, eye wide and filled with tears. Blaze’s wavering voice echoed the fear Jack felt. They rushed to Logan's side.
“We've gotta go, mate. Can you walk?” Jack asked, already knowing the answer but desperate to be proven wrong.
“Broken. Leave me.” Was all Logan could manage in response.
“That’s not bloody happening, Lo. If you’re going down, we’re sure as hell going with you.” Jack tried to sound stern, but it was difficult through the ever growing lump in his throat.
Blaze tore the sleeve from her top and balled it up, pressing it to Logan's lips. He bit down on it and looked up at her with questioning eyes.
“We have to move you and it's probably going to be the worst pain you've ever felt.” She explained apologetically. Logan’s eyes filled with tears once again but he nodded despite the terror. Jack admired him so much in that moment; he honestly didn’t think he would be as brave in Logan’s situation.
The moaning of the impending horde was getting closer. The trio were losing their chances of survival with every second they lingered. Jack held Logan's face in both his hands and gave him an apologetic look before pressing his lips to Logan's forehead in silent prayer. Not wanting to waste any more time, he turned his back to his friend and looped an arm around Logan's good leg and another around his torso. He staggered to his feet, Logan draped across his shoulders and screaming into the fabric in his mouth.
Blaze set off towards an alley, now the only exit that didn't have bloodthirsty monsters blocking it. Jack followed as fast as he could, rounding the corner just in time to see her kick down a side door to the office building they had once traded so happily in the shade of. She held it open for him and Jack staggered through, accidentally knocking Logan's leg as he passed the threshold. He felt Logan go limp in his arms and he knew the poor bloke had passed out. Jack felt awful for causing him so much pain, but figured it was probably for the best that Logan was unconscious for now. He started up the nearest flight of stairs as Blaze barricaded the door below with benches, lockers, computer desks, anything she could find.
Jack continued to the top floor before dropping to his knees in front of a plush leather sofa in the waiting area and lowering his friend down onto it.
Once he had ensured that Logan was still breathing, he went to check the rest of the floor, not wanting any nasty surprises while Blaze worked on Logan's leg.
Every room was abandoned and in various states of disarray, it seemed like when news of the infection spread here everyone had vacated pretty quickly.
Jack returned to Logan's side and set about making the injured man more comfortable. He pulled Logan's limp arms through the loops of the canvas backpack and dropped it to the floor, then unclasped the strap that held Logan's quiver and bow in place and pulled them out from under him. The quiver had cracked upon impact with the car, but thankfully the bow was still intact. Jack set them aside and removed Logan's boots. As an afterthought he did the same with the other man's blood soaked trousers, adding them to the rest of Logan's belongings on the floor. The idea of attempting any of this when Logan was awake made Jack’s stomach turn.
The sight that greeted him when Logan's left shin was revealed was enough to make Jack retch. He turned away and rested on all fours, breathing evenly through his nose in an effort to keep his breakfast down.
Logan's entire leg below the knee was swollen to a disproportionate size and the parts that weren't soaked in blood had taken on a strange pallid yellow hue, with an angry reddish purple bruise already blossoming from the point of impact. It was that point at which his leg suddenly changed direction, the top third of his shin in line with his knee, and the lower part jutting out at an angle. Jack thought he could see something solid and sharp looking sticking out of the skin at the epicentre of the blood flow. He couldn’t bring himself to check properly.
Jack raised himself from his hands and knees and pulled Logan's long coat from him as well, using it as a blanket to cover the man's torso and upper legs so he wouldn't get too cold. He'd already lost a lot of blood.
A clatter from behind him made Jack turn his head so fast the world spun for a moment. Blaze had finally caught up. She ran to her friends, throwing herself to her knees at Logan's side.
“I've barricaded every single door from here to the door we came through. Hopefully they'll all hold. I'd appreciate it if you would do the same for the one I just came through. Please, I need to work on him while he's still out cold.” As she spoke she was checking Logan's pulse and breathing. “Shit, I think he's gone into shock. Jack, please hurry. I'll need your help with this.” She pleaded through tears as she rummaged through her backpack.
Jack nodded and hurried to do as she asked, moving photocopiers and desks in front of the door as fast as his adrenaline fuelled muscles would let him.
By the time he returned, Blaze had propped Logan's leg up on the arm of the sofa, cleaned away the blood surrounding the wound and was sterilising it with an antiseptic wipe.
“Jack I need you to find something we can use as a splint so when we reset the bone it'll heal straight. Something strong but flat. It's got to be perfectly straight as well, something with no give in it.”
“Right, yeah.” Jack agreed breathlessly before stumbling to his feet and rushing around the room, frantically searching for something suitable. After a minute or so he noticed that there were wooden blinds up on the wide windows and hurried over to one, using his knife to cut a segment free from its string bindings. All the others clattered after it but he paid them no heed, he was already back at Blaze's side with the wooden slat in hand. She was injecting something into the crook of Logan's arm with shaking hands.
“Perfect. It's slightly shorter than his leg so he should still be able to bend it at the hip.” She praised, pulling on latex gloves before handing the box to Jack. He looked at it blankly for a moment before looking to the redhead questioningly.
“I told you I'd need help. I'm going to do my best to move the bone back into place and I'll need you to hold it there while I strap the splint on so it doesn't move out of place again. If we don't do this properly-” She paused and took a deep breath as she decided how to continue, “the consequences won't be pretty.”
Jack turned slightly green at the thought of having to go anywhere near the mangled limb, but pulled a pair of gloves on anyway and moved to kneel by Logan's feet beside Blaze.
“Alright. Okay. Right, here we go.” Blaze muttered under her breath, her voice shrill with anxiety.
Jack shut his eyes the moment her hands closed around Logan's swollen limb, but it did nothing to hamper the terrible sounds. Jack tried breathing through his nose again but the stench of blood was thick in the air and with every breath he could taste its metallic tang on the back of his throat. He found himself once again grateful that Logan wasn't awake for this.
Just as Jack thought he was going to have to excuse himself and vomit into a nearby plant pot, the noises stopped and Blaze's voice replaced them.
“I think that's aligned. It's the best we're going to get under the circumstances anyway. Now I need you to hold it there for me, okay? Don't let it move whatever you do. I'll tell you when you can move your hands.”
Jack opened his eyes to see a much less gory sight than he had been expecting. Crimson blood was still oozing from the tear in the flesh, but Logan’s leg was in a much more natural position.
Jack took a deep breath and placed his hands exactly where Blaze's had been as she moved them. He kept a firm grip and made sure not to move. Blaze wiped the fresh blood away with a damp cloth, cleaned the hole again with an antiseptic wipe and then covered it with a sterile dressing. Jack watched in awe as Blaze worked, despite being distraught and terrified she clearly knew what she was doing. Blaze tied the wooden slat in place along the outside of Logan's leg, then ripped a clean bandage from its packaging and started wrapping it around the limb, starting at his hip.
Almost as though she could read his mind, she suddenly murmured “I was training to be a nurse. You know, before.”
“Oh.” Jack whispered. This revelation explained a lot.
“Yeah. I was about to qualify, too. I was on my last placement the day it hit.”
Jack stayed silent. This was the most Blaze had ever revealed about her past.
“I was on the ward when chaos erupted in the corridor. No one had the chance to investigate; about ten of the things stumbled in at once and started biting patients and nurses alike. I ran. I know I had a duty of care to the people there, I know I should have stayed and fought them off. My cowardice that day still keeps me up at night sometimes. I was so scared and confused. I just ran for the fire exit and didn’t look back.”
There was a short silence only broken by the sound of the bandage unravelling. Jack realised she wasn't going to say anything more.
“You did what anyone would have done. I left a room full of gym goers to die while I hid in the locker room and barricaded the door.” He admitted softly.
Blaze shook her head with a sad smile but didn't say anything else until she ordered him to move his hands.
When Logan's leg was finally secured to the splint and the waste materials had been thrown into an office bin, the blood soaked duo sat on a desk and lit a cigarette each. All they could do now was wait.
It was night time when Logan came round, blinking groggily at his friends who were sat in desk chairs at his side.
“Alright, sleeping beauty? How are you feeling?” Jack asked gently. Logan tried to talk but only a harsh whisper came out. Blaze produced a bottle of water from her bag and held it to his lips as he sipped.
“Don't move yet,” she ordered firmly as he drank deeply from the plastic bottle in her hand, “any movement will probably cause you a whole lot of pain. I gave you some of the emergency morphine to stop your body shutting down from the pain while you were out. You went into shock. If you feel nauseous or a little bit out of it, that's perfectly normal, just a side effect of the drug.” Blaze capped the bottle when Logan was done drinking but didn't put it away, opting to keep it beside her chair instead.
Logan cleared his throat before trying to talk again. His voice was raspy and weak from screaming. “I feel like I've had my leg smashed to smithereens by a psychopath.” He grimaced in response to Jack's earlier question.
“Don't build your part up, Lo. He didn't smash your leg to smithereens; he just snapped it in two. Man up.” Jack joked with a grin.
Logan let out a weak laugh and stuck his middle finger up at Jack, who chuckled in return. Blaze opened the last packet of beef jerky and rested it on Logan's chest.
“You need to eat. You won't recover as well if you don't.” She informed him, taking a piece for herself and passing one to Jack before turning the packet back to Logan. He started eating like a starving man, cringing every now and then when the pain from his leg got too much to bear. Jack and Blaze had already agreed that until he was healed, Logan would get the majority of the food rations. They knew he'd try to refuse when he realised, but while he was still on the painkillers they hoped he would be too out of it to notice.
“My leg, will it be okay?” Logan asked after swallowing his mouthful.
“To be honest, I don't know yet. We've made a splint for it so the bone should heal up mostly straight. Don't put any weight on it for a while though, or else there'll be trouble.” Blaze promised with a smile.
“Yes, boss. How long will we have to stay here?” Logan inquired as he bit off another chunk of meat from the strip in his hand.
Jack and Blaze shared a look. They both knew they'd be here for quite some time, at least until Logan had healed enough for them to move him to the cart and drag him home without causing him more pain or permanent damage. It could be months.
“It depends. First we need the zombie horde crowding around outside to leave, then we need to get you well enough to travel. But don't worry about that right now. We'll be back at home before you know it.”
They talked idly for a little longer, making fun of Logan's morphine-inspired responses and trying to take each other's minds off of this drastic turn of events.
It wasn't long until Logan fell asleep again and Jack and Blaze followed soon after, exhausted from the long day and the stressful ordeal they'd been through.
The next day they finished the last of the jerky for breakfast. Blaze had given Logan some oral painkillers that dried his mouth out so he was going through water like it was oxygen. By midday they were ravenous and down to their last two bottles of water. Jack and Blaze were at the tail end of a whispered argument in one of the separate office rooms, not wanting Logan to hear just how desperate their situation was.
“I've got to go out there. We need food, water and more supplies or we're going to die up here. All the food in the break room fridge has long since created its own ecosystem; I could barely open the thing it was so crusted with mould.” Jack insisted.
“I know that. But you'll never make it more than two steps with that horde down there.” Blaze pointed out, pacing up and down the room in exasperation.
“Well we can't just wait up here to die,” Jack hissed, clenching his fists in frustration.
The two were silent for a moment, racking their brains for an idea that might help them out of this situation. Jack’s eyes widened as an idea struck him. “I've got it! I'll go up to the roof and see if I can find a way into the city from there!”
“That's actually a really good idea,” Blaze enthused, relief evident on her face. “Take the bag we used for clothes. Are you sure you don't want me to go?” Blaze queried.
“I'll go. It makes much more sense; Logan needs someone with a medical background at his side right now. I won't be long.” Jack smiled before pulling Blaze in for a tight hug.
Jack donned the bag, his jacket and weapons and then said goodbye to Blaze and Logan, taking off towards the stairs that led to the roof at a jog. He opened the fire exit door at the top of stairs and emerged into the weak sunlight. The day was humid but the sky was cloudy and white, pale rays of light shining through where they could.
Jack got the fright of his life when he felt clammy hands grab him from behind. He sprung forward before they could get a proper grip and turned to see an older female zombie in an expensive looking skirt and blazer, rotting hands reaching for him with acrylic tipped fingers. He took another few steps backwards, away from the searching talons before taking her out with a swing of his hammer. She fell to the floor twitching and Jack breathed a sigh of relief as his heartbeat slowed back to normal.
The building stood fairly close to its neighbour and slightly higher, Jack made the jump easily. He continued jumping and climbing across the rooftops until he had left the horde of moaning, shuffling zombies behind him.
When he was slightly further into the city, Jack saw a small shop across the road that he was sure would house the supplies he needed. Jack lowered himself from the rooftop and dropped onto the balcony of the top floor of the building. He did the same for each of the floors until his boots hit solid ground and he straightened up, feeling a little cocky. That had been easier than he expected.
There were one or two zombies around on the road, but he was silent as he crept to his destination. Jack had already decided that stealth would be the best way to complete this little mission.
Upon finally reaching the door, he noticed that the bell had been ripped off, thus enabling him to enter the shop without attracting the attention of the zombies nearby. He didn't think about what that might mean as he stepped across the threshold. He realised his mistake when he was stopped in his tracks by a sharp blade pressing into the soft skin below his ear.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” A woman's voice asked in a whisper. Jack held his hands up to show that he meant no harm and the pressure of the blade lessened a little.
“My name is Jack. My friend Logan is hurt, he's broken his leg. We're stuck in a building a few blocks from here with no food and hardly any water left. I just need some supplies. I thought this shop was abandoned, I'm sorry.” Jack answered, keeping his voice low.
The woman hesitated for a few agonising seconds before lowering the knife. Jack turned around to face her and offer her a grateful smile. She looked like she was in her thirties, with long brown hair swept back into a French plait and kind green eyes that reminded him of Blaze. She returned his polite smile before speaking.
“It’s not your fault. I've been meaning to do something to secure that door but anything I could do would make too much noise. I've just been keeping quiet and staying on my guard. Anyway, take what you need for your friend and get back to him as quickly as you can. You don't want to be stuck out on the streets after sundown.”
“Thank you so much. You've probably saved a man's life today.” Jack responded earnestly.
“I would hope that if I were in your situation, someone would do the same for me. I believe in karma. Come on, I'll help you find what you need. Take a bottle of booze for yourself if you like, I don't drink but it sounds like you might need one when you get back.” The woman offered kindly.
With both of them gathering supplies together the bag was full in no time. Jack thanked her profusely once again and said goodbye, telling her about the trips his group made to the outskirts every fortnight and promising that if she were ever in need of anything to find them there and all she had to do was ask.
The woman waved to him once he'd crossed the road, then dissolved back into the shadows of the shop. Jack thanked every god he knew of that someone so kind had been there at his time of need and not some awful bandit gang. Taking this as a good omen, he started the long climb back up the balconies.
Jumping from roof to roof was harder on the way back, partly because of the now full bag and partly because this line of buildings was on a slight hill. Each building ahead of him was a little higher than the last. By the time Jack got to the penultimate building before reaching his destination, he'd had a few near misses that he didn't care to think about as he readied himself for the final leap.
Jack took a deep breath and stepped back to the far ledge to give himself room for a run up. He took a moment to quell his nerves and then sprinted at full pelt to the edge of the roof, launching himself with all his might at the office block. Jack realised halfway across that he wasn't going to make it on his feet, so the threw his upper body forward instead. The edge of the roof hit him in the chest like a freight train and it was all he could do to hold on with both arms after the breath was forced from his lungs. Jack's feet scrabbled for purchase against the brick wall and he screwed his eyes shut, grunting loudly with the effort it took to drag himself up and onto the building. A cacophony of hollow moans and chilling groans was building beneath him and he was terrified that he wouldn't have the strength left in him to hold on, that he would slip and fall into the blood stained, rotting jaws of the monsters below. He finally got one leg onto the roof and pulled his tired, aching, bruised and starving body fully onto the roof.
Jack rolled away from the edge of the building, wanting as much space between him and the drop as possible. He didn't have to look to know that an alley full of rotting undead had just narrowly missed out on a feast. He settled on his back, the backpack awkwardly squashed under him as he lay there with his arms outstretched, panting while he waited for the horrible feeling of being winded to dissipate. That whole mission would have been much easier on a full stomach; the lack of food was slowly draining the energy from his body. His stomach chose that moment to growl loudly, as though it had read his mind.
Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through Jack's arm from his left index finger. He yelled and snatched the hand to his chest automatically, his heart dropping when he saw the cause of the pain.
The smartly dressed zombie he thought he'd killed when he first left the rooftop was dragging itself closer, inch by inch. Jack felt his eyes fill with tears as he shot to his feet and stamped as hard as he could on its head. He didn't stop, couldn't stop until under his foot was just a clump of bone fragments and grey matter.
Jack had been bitten. Jack had lost to this one stupid, insignificant zombie. All because he had been too hungry and exhausted to think properly and make sure it was truly dead.
Jack bellowed at the injustice of it all, fat tears rolling down his cheeks when he realised he could never see their little cottage ever again. It wasn't fair. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. He was supposed to die a hero or an old man. Not like this. He would never hear another word of Logan's silly jokes or Blaze's sharp wit.
At the thought of his friends Jack realised he had to get the supplies to them before he turned. The wound on his finger was already darkening around the edges, but the veins hadn't started to spread yet which meant there was still time. He bolted for the door and hurtled down the stairs, barely taking in the looks of shock on his friend's faces before he threw the backpack at Blaze and turned to leave. She caught it easily then shoved it into a chair and ran to Jack, grabbing his arm to stop his escape.
“What the bloody hell is going on?” Logan gasped from the sofa.
“Jack what the hell happened? Where are you going?” She demanded with a frown.
“I've been bitten. I have to go or I'll turn in here. I love you both so much. Goodb-”
“NO! Don't you dare say that word. Let me see.” Blaze grabbed Jack's hand when he tried to hide it from her and choked back a sob when she saw the torn, blackening skin around the wound. It was just starting to sprout inky veins.
Without warning, she snatched Jack's knife from his belt and sliced the finger clean off from where it joined his hand. Jack fell to his knees and howled in agony, staring at the remains of his infected finger lying on the floor in a pool of blood in front of him.
The world went dark for a moment and when it came back into focus he was laying on his side with Blaze crouched beside him, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks.
“What did you just do to him?” Logan's disbelieving voice came from somewhere behind Jack.
“She cut my finger off. You cut my finger off...” Jack stated, shocked, dazed and unable to focus on anything other than the pain in his hand.
“Did that stop it? Are you okay?” Logan sounded so frustrated and panicked that Jack almost expected him to try to crawl over from where he lay.
“I'm okay Lo. I'm... My finger... Blaze cut my finger off.” The statement had sounded much more reassuring in Jack's head.
“Of course I cut your damned finger off! Why didn't you do that as soon as it happened? Maybe I should take the whole arm just to be sure...” Blaze rambled through sobs, reaching a hand towards him.
Jack gasped and scuttled away from her as fast as he could. “You are not cutting my bloody arm off. I need to go somewhere else; I could turn at any moment!”
“You look fine! Please don’t go. We can’t do this without you.” Blaze pleaded, helping Jack to his feet after watching him struggle for a moment. Jack stared at her incredulously and then started to walk towards the door. He got three steps and then stumbled to his knees.
“You haven't eaten properly in days, Jack. You just lost a finger. You need rest and food.” Logan said firmly.
“I need to get away from you guys in case I turn. I would rather die alone than put you two in danger.” Jack countered, shrugging Blaze's hand off when she placed it on his shoulder.
“Be realistic, Jack. You'll not make it to the door in the state you're in. Even if you could, I'd stop you. Just sit on one of the chairs while I get you patched up, okay?” As she spoke Blaze helped him to his feet again and led him to one of the chairs by the sofa, his bulky frame leaning heavily on her slender one.
After Blaze had lowered him into the chair and rushed away to find her medical supplies, Logan reached out and grabbed Jack's good hand, squeezing it as though the pressure was the only thing keeping him alive.
“You'll be okay, Jackie boy. Blaze will have you fixed in no time. If she can fix a snapped leg I'm sure she's more than capable of handling a missing finger. You'll be fine.” Logan's voice broke on the last sentence and he sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than Jack. Jack squeezed his friend's hand reassuringly.
“I just want to get out of here just in case. I'll come back in a couple of days if nothing comes of it.” He promised.
“Please don't leave us. There have been people bitten that didn't turn in the past. Some people are immune. Some amputate the limb in time. Don't go.” Logan pleaded, his dark eyes desperate.
“He's not going anywhere. The state he's in, if he tried to leave I'd be able to take him down easily. Don't worry Logan, just rest.” Blaze knelt in front of Jack and set her bag down beside his chair. She wiped the crook of his arm clean with one of her wipes and then sunk a needle similar to the one she'd used on Logan into the vein there, assuring him that it would help with the pain and make sure he slept a deep, undisturbed sleep so that he could rest properly without being awoken by pain every time he moved.
Jack couldn't look as she went through the process of cleaning and sterilising the stump that was once his finger. He yelled through gritted teeth when the cold water splashed over the wound, and again when he felt the cool burn of the antiseptic wipe. Jack only just resisted the urge to pull his hand out of her grasp, focusing on his breathing instead.
“Look, fine. You're right. I can't leave right now. Not if you won't help me. But I want you to swear on our friendship that if I do turn you'll kill me before I do any damage. Swear it right now.” Jack ground out, his jaw clenched as the pain in his stump brought tears to his eyes.
“Fine. I swear it on our friendship. Happy?” Blaze snapped as she taped a dressing over the missing digit.
“Thank you, Blaze.” Jack said sincerely, holding her chin in his good hand to force her to make eye contact and earning him a tearful smile.
Blaze wrapped a bandage around his hand and over the gap where his finger used to be, then patted him on the leg after she had tied it off.
“There you go! Good as new. There wasn't a single hint of black anywhere on the entire hand and it was bleeding as freely as a normal wound would, no signs of coagulation. What would you do without me?” She concluded with a cheeky grin.
Logan laughed in relief and Jack mirrored Blaze's grin with one of his own, the sense of dread that had settled into every fibre of his being finally lifting. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, he found himself hungrier and more exhausted than ever. He rolled the chair over to a desk in the far corner and then swung his legs up onto it with a satisfied groan.
“So Blaze, about that food...” Jack hinted, fluttering his eyelashes at her. She laughed and shook her head.
“I wouldn't say no to a bite to a good meal. I'll see what I can whip up.” Blaze acquiesced, turning to the chair that held the food bag with a swish of her plait.
Jack and Logan shared a triumphant grin. Jack turned back to face the wall and let his head fall heavily against the cushioned headrest on the chair. Before he knew it, the drugs Blaze had given him had kicked in and knocked him out cold.
When Jack woke up, he felt like he had the world's worst hangover. His vision was blurry, his mouth was dry and his limbs were still struggling to wake up despite the fact that his brain had already done so.
“I need a drink.” He stated, hating the feeling of being so parched.
“Jack, you're awake! We nearly ate without you.” Blaze threatened jovially.
He let his feet drop to the floor and with great effort stood up on heavy legs. He ached all over, his head felt like it was stuffed with lead and he really was hungry as hell. He took a few steps forward and suddenly the smell of warm food drifted to his nostrils, making his mouth water and finally ridding him of that horrible dry tongue feeling.
“That smells so good! I'm starving.” He complained, heading towards the food like a man who hadn't eaten in days. Which, Jack supposed, he nearly was.
He walked to the wonderful smelling meal as fast as his feet would carry him and he wondered aloud if his small portion would be enough.
“Jack!” Blaze admonished.
Deciding he could always snack a little before the next meal, he opened his mouth to take the first bite, wondering if it would really taste as good as it smelled.
Logan was talking Blaze through putting the finishing touches on the cheddar chunks with sweet and sour sauce, when a groan from the corner caught their attention.
“Looks like someone has finally come back to the land of the living! Anyone would think he's been through hell and back.” Logan joked quietly. Blaze laughed and stood, walking over to the desk that she was preparing the food on.
“Jack, you're awake! We nearly ate without you!” Blaze teased, splitting the cheese between three plates. There was a thump from the corner as Jack stood up, followed by a few heavy footfalls. He let out a rather alarming groaning sound and Logan chuckled, shaking his head. Blaze may be a pain to wake up in the mornings, but Jack was awful when he woke up from a nap. The drug induced hangover probably wasn't helping either. Jack's shuffling footsteps came closer and Logan was about to greet him when Blaze's horrified voice cut him off before he could even open his mouth.
“Jack!” She shrieked. Logan looked up and the sight that greeted him chilled him to the core and broke his heart. Jack stood over him, reaching for him with his bandaged hand. Black veins peeked out from under the white material and Jack's eyes were pale and glazed.
He was gone.
Logan couldn't bring himself to put up a fight as Jack's inhumanly stretched mouth descended on his arm. He couldn’t even breathe. Logan felt as though his whole world was crashing down around him.
Suddenly, Jack paused with his mouth an inch from Logan's flesh. Logan felt the flood gates in his mind open and he started sobbing uncontrollably. He watched in desperate denial as his best friend fell to the floor with one last groan, Blaze's katana protruding from his chiselled cheekbone.
Blaze fell to her knees beside Jack with both hands pressed over her mouth to hold in her cries. Her pale cheeks were soaked with tears that ran over her shaking fingers and glistened in the red light of the sunset.
Logan grabbed her roughly and hauled her to his chest, ignoring the pain in his leg. They gripped each other almost painfully hard, as though they were trying not to drown.
The two grieving friends didn’t say a word to one another. They both knew there was nothing they could say to make this better.
Life would never be the same again.