He stood there frozen, unsure what to say or what to do. He did not want to make the situation any worse than it already was but he knew he had to do something.
Cancer sat there, his eyes were shut and his head lolled against the post he was propped up on. He was drifting in and out of consciousness and wasn’t even remotely lucid. He had been mumbling about morphine withdrawals and it didn’t help that the massive bite on his arm made it look like he was turning. Joe knew he hadn’t gained the trust or respect of this group yet, and for good reason; he’d lied to them straightaway so it’s not like he expected them all to welcome him with open arms.
The majority of the group had gone back to sleep now that the excitement had died down. The only light in the camp now came from the small fire in the middle and Joe’s own eyelids felt heavy. All he wanted to do was sleep for a few decades, but he knew he couldn’t sleep until he had figured out what to do about the situation at hand.
‘Sophia!’ He suddenly gasped. Several heads turned towards him.
‘What?’ Robby was the first to speak. ‘Who’s Sophia?’
‘She’s another one of our group,’ Joe looked at her sheepishly.
‘Great, another one! How many are there kid?’ Marc questioned. ‘So much for being alone!’
‘I knew that if I said I was alone there was less of a chance of being turned away. Sophia’s a girl in our group with a good knowledge of medical stuff. She’s the one who treated Cancer.’
‘Well where is she?’
‘She’ll be back at the house. Let me go and get her; she can explain all of this through much better than me or him,’ Joe nodded in Cancer’s direction. They surveyed him with wary eyes, Robby included.
‘How can we guarantee that you'll return?’ Earl said. ‘Or worse, return with other people? And not the good kind?’
‘Do I honestly look like I’m in some sort of gang?’ Joe actually had to bite back laughter. The thought of him hanging around with a bunch of thugs and murderers was ludicrous. Sure, Cancer wasn’t exactly an angel but Joe knew there was good in him too. He wouldn’t prey upon the weak.
‘I’ll go with him,’ Robby spoke up. ‘Give me some ammo and I’ll be fine.’ She held up her hand to cut off both her sister’s and Marc’s protests. ‘I’m going. Whether you like it or not.’
Marc pursed his lips, looking like he wanted to argue further until he sighed in defeat. ‘Fine. But Earl’s going with you. Let’s face it love, you don’t know how to fire a gun do you?’
Robby flushed. ‘I’m sure it isn’t hard.’
‘Oh it is to learn,’ Earl disagreed. ‘Basic practice is easy enough to pick up but when you’ve got something coming towards you, ready to end your life, when you’re under that amount of pressure you’ll find it’s harder than you think.’
There was silence for a few moments until Marc spoke. ‘Okay, Earl, Robby and Joe, you’ll go at dawn. It’s too dark to do anything now; you’ll just get lost. Or eaten.’
It occurred to Joe he had no-where to sleep for the night. Everyone else had tents; some were even sleeping in a couple of the cars that lined the camp. Marc read his mind.
‘You can rest in the car over there. I’ll lock you in it so you can’t do anything in the night.’
Joe wandered over to the only car that were actually empty. He wondered why the people chose the tents over the car; surely the car provided better shelter? It wasn’t until the door opened that Joe realized why. The smell hit him in one powerful wave and he bent over, trying to force the bile back down his throat. He hadn’t eaten in ages so there was nothing in his stomach to come up anyway.
Marc grinned, revelling in Joe’s discomfort. ‘We use this car to transport the dead bodies for burning.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out two small rubber earplugs. ‘Shove these in your nose. They may do something about the odour.’
Joe did as he was told but realized he’d have to sleep with his mouth open which meant he’d be practically swallowing the scent.
Sleep didn’t look like it was on the cards for him tonight.
Once he was locked in, he climbed into the front seat and adjusted it so it was lying horizontal. Even though he was sure he couldn’t sleep if his life depended on it, the unconsciousness swept him under as soon as his eyes closed.
* * *
The next morning, Joe’s entire body ached from sleeping in such an awkward position. Disorientation consumed him briefly as he tried to figure out what was blocking his nasal passage. Fumbling at his nose, he remembered the events of last night and the odour in the car. God the plugs were uncomfortable. He sat up and glanced outside. He must have only gotten a few hours’ sleep, but at least it was better than none. The sun was just beginning to rise, casting a light pink hue across the sky. What was it they said? Pink the morning, Shepherd’s warning?
Joe slapped the glass. ‘Hey! Can I get out of here now?’
Marc was nowhere in sight; presumably still asleep. One of the guys on patrol looked over at him with distrust. Joe motioned to the guy to let him out and the guy shook his head, a slow grin spreading across his face. Obviously he wanted Joe to suffer.
It took another half an hour for Marc to emerge with the car keys. His hair was dishevelled and the shadows underneath his eyes were prominent. He took his own sweet time in reaching Joe, and when the door opened Joe practically fell out. He removed the ear plugs from his nose and breathed in massive gulps of relatively fresh air.
‘You took your time,’ Joe grumbled. Marc smiled in satisfaction. He went back into his tent emerging a few seconds later with Joe’s beloved crowbar.
‘You’re gonna need this. I’ll go wake Robby and Earl.’
Ten minutes later and they were all ready to go.
Marc looked at Joe straight in the eye. ‘Remember what I said before? Any funny business and you’re dead. Earl may be a softy but he won’t hesitate to kill you if you’re any threat.’
Joe swallowed. ‘Got it.’
They began their journey back through the woods, listening out for any zombies nearby. The only sound that they could hear was their laboured breathing as the incline began to get steeper and the moist grew thicker. Branches snapped beneath their feet and crickets chirped around them. Joe supposed that would be an advantage to them, the crickets. Once the crickets grew silent, he’d know there was danger nearby. It would give them some sort of heads up.
‘I used to think crickets were the most peaceful sound on Earth,’ Robby sighed beside him. ‘Now they’re just creepy.’
Obviously she hadn’t been thinking the same thing as Joe.
Joe didn’t know how much time had passed; he wasn’t even sure if he was heading in the right way. He could have sworn he’d seen that broken log before.
‘Why didn't we just take the car?’ Robby sighed.
‘Because I had to spend the night in it and the odour is disgusting,’ Joe replied. ‘Plus I’m not sure what the route is by road; I’ve only done it by foot.’
‘Are you even sure where you’re going?’ Earl questioned.
Joe nodded more certain this time. Sure enough, a few metres ahead of them was the small opening that led onto the road where the house was.
‘Shh!’ Earl’s sudden command had them all freezing mid-step. They simultaneously ducked to the floor and waited with bated breaths.
Sure enough, the sound of groans and moans filled the air. Joe knew it was inevitable; it was a miracle they’d gone this long without encountering any zombies. They were coming from up ahead, where the house was. Dread filled Joe’s stomach and his heart tripled its speed. He poked his head up from the bushes and felt the ice crawl along his spine.
The house was surrounded by dozens of zombies.