Joe had decided to take matters into his own hands, just this one time. He felt like he needed to, like he was going to go crazy if he didn’t just do this.
Only a day after Joe’s father had encountered the ‘madman with a gun’, they were approached by another group. This one was certainly friendlier and they helped the Hartness family secure their new home. They were no longer subjected to spending numerous hours holed up in the hotel kitchen; the group revealed that they had checked out the perimeter, secured any loose points and fortified the building.
Heavy sheets of metal covered the entrance, chairs stacked and slotted into place covered the windows and they had even checked the basement. They had been very thorough.
The first time they ventured out into the hotel lobby since this whole thing had begun, Joe was certain they were going to get attacked by hordes of creatures coming from some weak point that the group hadn’t checked. But he was pleasantly surprised. It was better, there was more space. The people seemed harmless enough.
The leader, a thick heavyset man with a beard introduced himself as Jed Burleski. There were a couple of others, Rob and Chris, and one woman named Carol. The woman scowled at Joe, who was a little taken aback. Jed later described her as a ‘hag with a constant chip on her shoulder.’ Joe immediately warmed up to him after that.
Joe’s father happened to mention the stranger who had stolen their water and Jed immediately jumped into defence mode.
‘How the hell did we miss him?’ Rob frowned. ‘We checked the entire friggin hotel.’
‘We need to do something,’ Carol asserted. ‘I am not having a maniac living in this place. Not when we have worked so hard to protect it from those things out there.’
‘He needs to leave,’ Chris spat and Carol nodded vehemently.
Joe couldn’t help but think that they were jumping the gun a bit. The man hadn’t really done anything to any of them. Sure, he’d kind of held his dad at gunpoint, but he could’ve killed him. He let him live, didn’t that amount to something? Joe wasn’t sure if he was being incredibly naïve and stupid but he felt like the man needed to be given a chance. They were discriminating against someone they had never met. Times were tough nowadays.
Nevertheless, the group set off in search of this stranger to ‘warn’ him. Joe’s father went with them whilst he himself sat anxiously biting his fingernails, listening out for gunshots or any other indications that things had taken a drastic turn. When they finally returned, unscathed, Joe allowed himself to feel some relief.
Later, when the Hartness family were occupied with the other group, discussing weapons and tactics, Joe snuck off. The whole situation was bizarre: his timid, overly-cautious mother was now discussing which gun would be best for what. Joe couldn’t wrap his head around it but he decided that he wasn’t going to try, not just yet anyway. There was something he had to do first, more for his peace of mind.
He wandered the hotel, always terrified that something was going to get him. The floor was littered with rubbish: upturned chairs and luggage strewed about, blood stained the carpets and nearby a paper showing the date everything went to hell screamed a headline at Joe: INTERNATIONAL PANIC AS FLU SPREADS. Joe suppressed a shiver. He needed to be braver; he couldn’t be so scared all the time.
The electricity had cut out long ago but the windows high above his head provided some natural illumination from the setting sun. Spots of light glittered against the walls from where the sun reflected from the hanging chandeliers. Everything else was bathed in an amber hue. Joe felt like he was wandering through a dream.
Most of the doors were locked, some were ajar. Joe made a note of the door numbers as he passed each one. Number 212 was the one he was looking for; that was the one they had mentioned.
Joe’s heart seemed to beat louder as the numbers got closer. 206...207…208. Why was he doing this again? 209…210…211. He stopped outside the last one. There was nothing different about it, not that Joe was expecting there to be. He raised his hand before he could lose his courage and gave a light knock, hoping it sounded friendly.
There was no movement from behind the door. Joe shuffled his feet slightly, gave a nervous cough and wondered why he was doing this at all.
There was a creak from within the room. The bed shifted beneath the weight of something. Footsteps approached him. Before Joe could run, the door cracked open and he was stood face to face with the stranger everyone was so scared of.
The first thing that Joe thought was that the man looked absolutely terrible. His black hair was hanging raggedly past his shoulders, his forehead creased into a frown as he appraised Joe with bloodshot, cautious eyes. His mouth was twisted into a grimace and he clutched a knife in his hand so hard his knuckles were white. Joe took all of this in in a matter of seconds and came to a conclusion: everyone was right to be terrified of him.
The man’s stance never relaxed and Joe had to physically force himself to stay where he was and speak out loud: ‘Hello.’
His voice was barely louder than a whisper.
The man’s frown deepened. ‘What’re you doing here?’ His American accent was thick and gravelly. His eyes checked up and down the corridor, to see if Joe had been followed.
Joe’s shoulders came up past his ears in a heavy shrug. ‘I just thought I’d come and say hello. My name is Joe.’
Suspicion flared in the man’s eyes but his anger seemed to ebb slightly. His grip on the knife loosened. He didn’t speak.
Joe waited, trying to wrack his brain for something intelligent to say.
‘Uh… did you want something?’ The man eventually prompted.
‘What’s your name?’ It was the only thing Joe could think of.
The man hesitated and then seemed to realize that Joe wasn’t a threat. ‘Cancer.’
Joe felt his mouth fall open slightly in disbelief. ‘Is that your real name?’ Who called their child Cancer?
He half smirked at a memory, his eyes going someplace else for a fraction of a second. ‘A well-deserved nickname.’
Despite everything, Joe felt himself relax and he grinned back at the stranger. The man, Cancer, didn’t seem like much of a threat; maybe the others were quick to judge? A small part of Joe knew he was being stupid as the man had pulled a gun on his father, but he doused this out with the desire to be open-minded.