I run. This street, Gunter Street, is less crowded. I see cars but there’s no time to stop. I pass by a house, searching for Rhys and Cary when I spot them crawling under the back deck of Mrs. Schmidt’s house. I crawl in after them. We get lucky. We’re not seen. We keep pressed to the ground and stare at the street ahead, the last street before mine.
There are dead everywhere, milling around.
We’ll never make it.
“Maybe they’ll clear,” Rhys says weakly. “If we wait.”
So we wait.
We are under that deck for hours, none of us talking. I have all these things I want to say about Trace bubbling up my throat but I know it’s not the time.
It’s just that he’s gone.
He was here and then he was gone.
More time slips away as we wait for the dead to find something better to do. They don’t. They’re waiting for us and they could wait forever. They have forever.
We don’t have forever. I’m numb and my body aches. I feel like my mind is dying. We’re going to die out here in the dirt, waiting. Rhys moves close to me. Somehow, he’s not cold. I huddle next to him. We can’t stay here all night. If we stay here all night, we’ll stay here the next night and the night after that.
“That’s the Seals’ yard.” I point to the house across from us. “All we have to do is go through that house and then mine is right there, across the street.”
“Easier said than done,” Cary says.
“We have to do something,” Rhys says.
Cary thinks about it and then he says, “We split up. I’ll go right, you and Rhys go straight through. If we all head in the same direction, they’ll close in and it’s game over.”
“We meet at Sloane’s house,” Rhys says.
“Right.” Cary pauses and then stares at me. “So look after yourselves.”
I know then. I am more sure of it than I am of Lily being at home, waiting for me. I know he is going to go right and if he makes it, he’ll keep going. I want to change this, but all I do is reach over and squeeze his hand.
He squeezes back.
He elbows his way out from under the deck and then he starts shouting, telling them to come get him. The dead pursue him immediately, don’t see Rhys and me wriggling out from under the deck. We don’t actually see if Cary makes it—but he made it, he had to make it, I know he did.
And that’s how we say good-bye.
Rhys and I stumble through the Seals’ backyard. We catch the notice of four infected as we clamber up the steps to the back door. It’s open and we throw ourselves through it. I slam it shut and lock it. The dead throw the full weight of themselves against it. It’s not going to hold.
Rhys leans against the wall, catching his breath. I don’t want him to catch his breath, there’s no time. I am so close to her, I can feel it. I grab his hand. It sounds so ridiculous, so delusional, but I know we’re safe in here. I know the path is clear for us from here on out. I know I will get where I need to go and I’ll see her. I drag him to the front door, stare out the window.
My house. The yard is clear. And the picture window—
“The windows are boarded,” I whisper excitedly. “The windows are boarded—” Another thought crosses my mind. “But the doors probably are too—”
The back door starts to give. They’re going to get past it. I fling the front door open and grab Rhys’s hand again, forcing him forward. We trip down the steps and race to my yard. I push on the front door but it won’t open. I step back and notice the second floor windows are clear. I bet she left them clear for me. Rhys follows me around the side of the house. The maple tree outside my window. My grip tightens on the crowbar.
“We have to climb it.”
Our desperate scramble up is nothing like in the movies. The bark is gritty and painful against our hands and the rain has made it slick. There’s no learning curve. Lily is the one who climbed trees, not me, and I think that’s the only reason I make it. Because I know she did it.
Somehow, we get to the weak branch that leads directly to my window. By that time, the infected are below us. The branch strains under our weight and starts to give as I break the glass with the crowbar. I launch myself through the window. Rhys falls in after me. I crawl across the floor and use my bed to get myself to my feet—my bed—and I’m dizzy with how untouched my room is. The end of the world didn’t happen here.
Or maybe it did. Maybe I’m dead. I turn to Rhys.
“We made it, right? We’re here—Rhys, are we here? Rhys—” I crouch next to him and put my hands against his face while he gasps for breath. “We’re here, aren’t we?”
“We’re still here,” he manages.
I stand in the middle of the room wondering why she hasn’t come to meet me. The house is boarded and safe but I broke glass. I broke glass and I hit the floor hard, but no one has come up here to investigate. The door to my room stays closed.
Maybe they’re in the rec room and they can’t hear me.
Maybe they heard me and think I’m death and they’re hiding from it.
“How is Cary going to know to climb the tree?” Rhys’s voice is raspy. He looks at me. “He won’t know.”
My throat gets tight. I don’t say it, but he sees it in my eyes.
Cary is not coming back.
Rhys buries his face in his hands.
I can’t ignore the feeling building inside me that something is wrong.
“I’m going to check the house,” I say.
Maybe my father lied. Maybe Lily was never here and this was just his way to get me back home. I tighten my grip on the crowbar, which makes my other hand feel too empty, so I search for something I can put in it. I pick up a piece of my window. Glass. It’s jagged, but feels right with my fingers curled around it.
Rhys gets to his feet but I say, “I want you to stay here.”
“Just stay here.”
He won’t win this and he knows it. He sits on the edge of my bed—my bed—and tells me to shout if something happens. I nod. I move across the carpet, leaving muddy footprints in my wake. I open my bedroom door quietly and close it just as quietly behind me.
The hall is empty. Movement catches the corner of my eye. I whirl around and confront—my reflection. The mirror at the top of the stairs. I drop the glass and touch my face. I am caked in mud and my hair is straggly and knotted from the rain. My lips are bruised. There are cuts and scratches on me that I must have gotten since leaving the school but I don’t remember how. She won’t recognize me when she sees me. I look like someone who has survived.
I bypass the stairs, my heart thudding in my chest, and go straight to her room. I’ll know what I’m dealing with if I do that, if he was lying to me. I close my eyes before I open the door. I pray. I wasn’t raised to believe in God, but I am not above begging favors. I open my eyes.
The sight brings tears. They streak through the dirt on my face.
She’s been here.
I know she has. Her bed is rumpled, it’s been slept in. I almost cross the threshold but I remember how dirty I am. I don’t want to get mud on her floor, her things. I run downstairs and nearly fall down the last three steps.
I pass the living room. The picture window is covered, boarded. The glass cleared away. The front door has been nailed shut. Our street must have cleared out quickly for him to find the time to do this. I stop when I reach the kitchen. The breakfast table. You better eat that. The room is empty. The house feels like a ghost.
What if they went to Rayford.
I hurry across the room and push the door to the garage open.
The car is there.
I close the door and step back into the kitchen. Keys on the hook beside the fridge.
They’re not in Rayford.
“Lily?” I call, softer this time.
I walk back down the hall with the memory of my father’s arms on me, pulling me to the rec room. I let them take me there again and press my hand against the closed door. I know she’s inside. I open the door and peer into the dark. A weak yellow glow radiates from the edge of the room. A flashlight, I think. I walk down the stairs, stand still at the bottom of them.
My eyes travel over the mess. The overturned chair. The desk at the back of the room. My father’s desk. The TV in the corner—the screen cracked. Something happened here but it doesn’t matter because in the middle of it all, in the heart of this room, is a blond girl with her back to me. She stiffens.
“Lily,” I say.
Gray skin. Angry veins. A dead girl’s face. The side of it is peeled away and rotting. The corners of her mouth are red, her lips black and crusty, her eyes sunken and white. She opens her mouth and runs at me, her arms out, she pushes me, throws herself at me and I use the crowbar to keep her back. She digs her nails into my shoulders, while I keep the metal pressed against her throat.
She doesn’t feel it, doesn’t choke against it.
I force her off me. She gropes to her feet and lunges at me again and I meet her this time, this time I’m on top of her, using the crowbar to keep her pinned against the floor by the neck. I hear something inside of her crunch against the pressure.
“Lily,” I say. “Lily—it’s me. Lily—”
She thrashes under me and then suddenly she stills, seems to focus. She sees me. Her eyes get wide and there’s something in them—I think there’s something in them but I don’t know what and I try so hard to understand it; I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. Tears spill over my cheek and drip onto hers. The look in her eyes fades. She digs her hands into the sleeves of my shirt and grinds her teeth together. Her gaze flickers around the room as she tries to figure out a way she can be free from me, always. Even though she knows I’ll die without her.
But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.