We are rooted to the ground, staring incredulously for what seems like an age. The man in front of me is tall and lanky, but visibly toned, with an olive complexion. He has dark brown hair and eyes to match it. I can see a faded brand logo on his tattered t-shirt but can’t make out what it says. His cargo pants look newer than his shirt, but they’re nearly worn through in some places. He is wearing black steel-toed combat boots. I can tell because the material has worn away on the ends to reveal glimpses of silver beneath.
His gaze darts to something behind me. I hear grating breaths and dragging, lurching footsteps. Mack, Allis, and I whip around in unison and I raise my gun to a crowd of angry Virals. Fuck.
They’re surrounding us. It’s strange to see them like this -- working together instead of ripping each other limb from limb. But I don’t have time to study pack mentality.
“Kill ‘em!” I point the dogs to a pair on my left. I take aim and start firing. The new guy vaults over the barricade, a long metal baseball bat in hand. I’ll be damned if he isn’t infected after this.
In the corner of my vision, I see Mack and Allis tag-teaming a tall male Viral. Mack bobs and weaves, distracting it while Allis lunges for the throat. Good dogs. To my right I can see new guy swinging for another male Viral. This one is smaller than the other, maybe a teen -- FWACK!
My ears are ringing as my right shoulder hits the ground. I fire off a round by mistake upon impact. Three left. A lanky female Viral looms over me. She is sneering and drooling and, laughing? My hand finds the neck of a beer bottle, one of the many scattered about from the toppled shelving. I slam the end of it into the side of the Viral’s head. Her eyes go wide and she staggers. She doesn’t get to recover before Mack clamps down on the back of what scraps of shirt she has left and starts yanking her backward. I raise my gun and take aim, but before I can fire, new guy leaps in and cracks her in the same spot with his bat. Blood gushes from the side of her head and she shrieks, but it’s not enough to stop her rampage.
I let Mack and new guy worry about her and whirl around to assess how fucked we are. Not very, as it turns out. The larger male is bleeding out on the floor, Allis has just dispatched the teenager, I’ve already shot two, and it looks like the lanky female is about to meet her end. I take out the remaining two, ending the skirmish, and pray that my dogs are alright.
“Mack, Allis, come!” Mack struts to my side, a trophy scrap of a beer box dangling from his mouth. Allis is less enthusiastic. She starts limping across the aisle, dragging her back right paw. “Allis!” I rush over to her.
She leans into me hard as I reach out to hold her. I ease myself into a sitting position and wiggle her into my lap so I can bend across her body and evaluate her foot. There is a sizeable chunk of glass lodged in her pad, but it looks better than I feared. I glance around for the culprit and see a shattered pickle jar a few feet away. “That’d do it,” I mutter.
“Is she okay?” His voice startles me. I nearly forgot new guy was here.
“Uh….ye-yeah. I think so.” I stammer. Allis tries to get to her feet, growling. She hasn’t forgotten my attack command from before the fight. “Leave it,” I command. “Allis, lie down.” Immediately, her fur flattens and she flops to the ground, grateful to be through fighting for now.
New guy looks up at me. “So, what’s your --”
“We can chat later. Right now, we need to get the hell out of Dodge,” I cut him off. “If there are any more around, they’ll know where we are now.” He nods his head, understanding the urgency of the moment. I don’t know anything about this guy but for right now, we’re on the same team. “I’ve got a cart of supplies in the next aisle. Can you bring it up front? I have to carry Allis to the car.” He nods again and disappears around the corner.
Mack is sniffing anxiously at his sister’s foot. “She’s gonna be okay, buddy. I promise.” He raises his brows at me as if to say, “You sure?” Allis whimpers. I kneel beside her and wedge one arm under her shoulder, behind her front legs and wrap my other arm over her and across her belly. “Ready, pup?” As gingerly as possible, I lift her up, prop her against my right hip, and waddle through the store, trying not to trip over Mack as he paces just ahead of me. He cranes his head around every few seconds to make sure I’ve still got her.
New guy meets me at the front with my cart. He jogs to the car and opens the back door for me. “Thanks,” I grunt as I sidle Allis into place. Mack hops in and settles on the floor beside her. I slam the door and grab the cart. New guy helps me unload the supplies into the back of the vehicle. Four bags of dog food, five cans of salt, a mop, a jug of bleach, and no new meat cleaver. I’ll have to pick that up next time. I shove the cart away and approach the driver’s side.
“Shotgun!” New guy smiles and slides into the passenger seat. Well, duh, you’re the only other person alive to ride shotgun. He is looking at me expectantly, still smiling but I can see he is growing disconcerted. “Just a joke.” He mumbles as though afraid to speak to me at full volume. A joke? I don’t get -- oh! Shotgun! Because where else would he ride? No one is alive to fight him for it. I laugh but it’s too little too late. He is twiddling his thumbs nervously. I shift into drive and take a right out of the parking lot. I still need gas and I can’t safely get it here.
We arrive at the gas station across town. “Come on,” I say. New guy nods, still looking anxious, and gets out. I don’t know if I can trust this guy and I’m not about to leave him alone in my car. I go around the back and pull out a long hose, a gas can, a hand pump, and a crowbar. I scan the asphalt and spot the manhole cover. With the crowbar, I pry it up, remembering to lift with my legs, and lay it to the side. Now I can feed the hose down and siphon gas from the tanks underground. I attach the end of the hose to a port on the pump and secure my gas can by another port.
I look up at new guy. “Keep a lookout.”
After a couple of minutes, gas flows from the pump into the can. It’s tedious, but in a little while I have all I need. I hoist my hose back up and drag the manhole cover into place. New guy picks up my pump and hose while I carry the gas can over to the car. Mack is peeking over the bottom edge of the back window. Once my supplies are put away, I walk over to the door and let him out.
With Mack at my hip and my rifle not far away, I turn to new guy.
“So, friend or foe?”