Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Alone, Together

She was dressed like a private detective from a low-budget TV show—a pair of slacks, modest high heels, and the most ridiculous trench coat I’d ever seen, one of the shorter ones, that hung just above the knees. I couldn’t help but laugh, and it was obvious my reaction annoyed her, but she did her best to hide her feelings as she pressed a finger to my lips, quieting me, and gently nudged me back inside my apartment.

We’d been dating for nearly three months. The next day was our anniversary, and we were supposed to do something together. I can’t remember what now, but she had some sort of last minute work obligation crop up. She called to tell me she wanted to see me that night. I had hung up the phone maybe five minutes before she arrived. She must have called me on the way. She had nothing in her hands. No present. I was suspicious.

As she closed the door she flashed a naughty grin and opened the trench coat. It’s not an overstatement to say that that moment changed my life. Her slacks stopped shortly above where the coat ended. She’d cut the legs off of a pair of her pants and attached them to a garter belt.

She wore nothing else under the coat.

To say this looked slightly ridiculous wouldn’t be a lie, but in that moment I couldn’t care less about how silly she looked. She was gorgeous, full-figured in all the right ways, dark hair, bright eyes. I instantly fell in love with her, head over heels, hopelessly smitten, and all that. I already knew she was smart, funny, kind, and all that other good stuff, but to see this work of genius—these pant legs, concocted to better sell the old naked-under-the-trench-coat gag, knowing how much thought and preparation went into something so completely and utterly silly—I instantly knew that this was the woman for me.

I proposed to her in that very moment. She thought I was joking, of course, but when I did it again two weeks later, properly and with a ring, she accepted. We were married six months later.

We were married four wonderful years before the world around us fell apart. The world as we knew it quickly disappeared, leaving us and everyone else lost without any hope of regaining the lives we’d grown accustomed to. Diane died two weeks after we abandoned our home.

 My name is Timothy Stinnot, and if it’s Christmas I’m twenty-eight. Yes, it’s as horrible as you would imagine, growing up with a birthday on Christmas. An entire childhood of receiving exactly one more present on Christmas day than my little brother, only to watch him celebrate essentially a second Christmas a few months later. It’s not easy for a kid to overcome that kind of jealousy. Justin is probably dead by now; I have no way of knowing for sure. Some days, I’m jealous of him for that, too.

My father—who I must also assume is now dead—had this saying when we were growing up: “If not today, when?” It was usually just to get me to clean my room or some other chore I’d been avoiding. He didn’t really give me much advice that didn’t have a direct correlation to something he wanted me to do at the time. It’s really just another way to say: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” But his way was a little catchier. Of course, these days I’ve altered the saying to better reflect the times. Now it’s, “If not right now, when?”

These days, tomorrow is much less of a guarantee.

I should be sleeping. Instead, I’m sitting next to the window looking down at the grocery store across the street, listening to Alicia breathe as she sleeps on the floor next to me. I saw the store on our way in earlier tonight. Dad’s motto be damned, it was much too dark to try anything then so I didn’t even mention it to Alicia. Maybe I wanted to surprise her; maybe I just didn’t want to let her down. But I can’t stop fantasizing about what we might find in that worn-down, abandoned building.

Tomorrow.

So, I should be sleeping, but instead I sit here, in this empty apartment, surrounded by trash and belongings that weren’t quite worth taking when the owners left. I alternate between staring at the store, and watching the quiet rise and fall of Alicia’s chest as she sleeps.

 She’s not the most beautiful woman in the world, or at least she wouldn’t have been—before. Now she very well might be. Blonde and bone-skinny with a boyish figure, she’s pretty much the exact opposite of Diane and not at all the type of girl I would have dated in my previous life.

Have you ever heard of Smurfette Syndrome? Smurfette was the lone female Smurf on the children’s cartoon of the same name. The syndrome dictates that when a group of men have only one female, the men in that group will grow to find her attractive, no matter how much they may otherwise not be attracted to her if there were other females present. The male desire to procreate takes over your brain and forces you to suddenly consider the only female available to be extremely desirable.

I desire Alicia extremely.

When Diane was still alive I used to think that I could never be with someone else if something ever happened to her. I know it’s something people do all the time, but I just couldn’t imagine doing it myself. It seemed like such a betrayal. That was, of course, before Diane died. I never considered what complete and utter loneliness felt like—how tormenting it was, and just how much that torment could make you desire to connect with someone.

We started out as a group of six—five guys plus Alicia. I met up with them about six months ago, almost a month after I’d lost Diane. Alicia and I have been alone for two. Guess what happened to everyone else.

There was David Never-Got-His-Last-Name. He lasted all of ten days: rounded a corner as we were leaving town when the walkers got him. He distracted them long enough for the rest of us to get away.

I never really walked out front much after that. I do more now that it’s just Alicia and I, but even still, not very often. One of the things I love about her is how strong she is, and brave. Things I’d never even say I was, she is. Sometimes I feel like I’m the one protecting her, but really we’re protecting each other. I sometimes wonder what she’d say on the matter.

The Carson twins lasted a little longer than David. We were at a used car lot, trying to siphon enough gas out of the cars and trucks to fill the tank of a passenger van we’d commandeered. There were just four of us by that point and we really should have tried to get something with better gas mileage, but I think we wanted a vehicle we could all sleep in.

Carson One—that’s what I called him when I had to call him by a name—got his leg mangled up by a walker that had been hiding under an old Ford Taurus. I don’t know if it had done that on purpose or if it had ended up there by chance. Either way, Carson One’s leg got mangled all to hell and we knew right away that he was done for, soon to be one of them—we all know what the bite does.

Carson Two—I think it was Two . . . Come to think of it, I could have them reversed in this story. (That happened a lot.) Anyway, Carson Two saw his brother mangled up, bleeding all over the asphalt, crying and carrying on—and he just loses it. Maybe it was a twin thing, where he was feeling the pain of his brother, but he whaled on that thing like a man possessed, which isn’t something you should ever do—cutting your fists up and rubbing open wounds on one of them is about the same as getting bit. Alicia, James, and I all yelled for him to stop, trying to get him to see what was coming for him. All his screaming and carrying on had drawn a lot of attention—the kind that gets you killed.

The three of us ran away as Carson Two got torn to bits. James and Alicia hadn’t seen as much of that kind of thing as I had. They didn’t talk very much for the next few days.

James was Alicia’s fiancé. They were both very young, about the same age Diane and I were when we got married. Before the whole damn world went to shit, they were in love.

I’m getting upset just thinking about it—the three of us, alone . . . them hugging and holding each other all the time. The way they slept in a tangled mess, stealing each other’s breath throughout the night. Me off to the side, the worst third-wheel situation in the history of the world. I was still in agony over the loss of my wife and now here I was, trapped with two honest-to-god lovebirds. I wouldn’t have thought that this hell on Earth could be made any worse, but seeing those two so in love with each other somehow did.

The day he died, James and I had been looking for medicine for Alicia. She had been sick for almost a week. We’d been out all day, and it was starting to get dark when we headed home. I was lost in thought, agonizing over all the time I was likely to spend over the next few weeks watching James and Alicia together. Seeing him watching over her, tending to her every need, reminding me of how alone I was, how much I missed Diane.

In a split second it was over. When the walkers moved in and swarmed around him, I watched, unable to save him as they tore him apart. Just like that, he was gone.

I might’ve said that my prayers had been answered but then I’d have to stop and consider who it was that had answered them.

“They got him,” was all I could say to her when I returned to camp. She recovered from her illness in a few days, even without the medicine; she didn’t stop crying until much later.

Over time, the spells between tears got longer and longer, and we began to talk about the things we had each lived through. I couldn’t talk about what happened to James without crying, something about being so close to it. I saw Diane slaughtered in front of me, all the others, and now James. It was all too much. Both our hearts had been broken. We were two people, alone, sharing in each other’s agony over what we’d lost. All we had now was each other.

After James was gone, I started to notice things about Alicia that I hadn’t noticed before: the point of her nose and how it was slightly off center; the dent in the middle of her bottom lip; the way her voice would crack ever so slightly when she got excited about something. There was no TV, and no movies, so my main—no, my only—pastime had become obsessing over Alicia.

Alone together, we talked. For hours, day in, day out, about nothing in particular. I told her all about Diane and all that she had meant to me. She talked about meeting James on their college campus. I told her about my mother’s horrible childhood, relaying the stories I’d hear as a child when complaining about absolutely anything at all. She told me about her sister’s heart condition, about the long trips to the hospital, how she occupied herself in the waiting room. No story too mundane, no detail too personal. We had nothing but time and so we talked.

As I look at her now, sleeping on the floor beside me, I realize I’ve never known anyone so intimately. Even Diane had her secrets. But when the world is falling apart around you, secrets become just another luxury that you have to give up . . . or risk dying for them.

It is a strange thing for me, to feel like I am falling in love all over again. My grief over the loss of Diane has transformed into what feels like real affection for Alicia. But is it real? Do I really love her as much as I loved Diane? Or do I just feel the need for companionship so badly that I would find a way to love anyone?

Is this, in fact, just Smurfette Syndrome?

If it is, I don’t care. My every waking thought for the last two months has been of Alicia. Is she okay? Is she happy? Is she scared? Is she tired?

As I sit here watching her chest rise and fall as she breathes, every so often letting out the faintest hint of a snore, I find my thoughts of the grocery store below shifting away from What will I find for myself? to What might I find for Alicia? What she might like to eat? What things left behind by other survivors might she find some value in?

If there is anything left in that grocery store at all, of course.

But I can’t dwell on that. I have to stay positive. I have to sleep. Tomorrow we’ll go to the store and find out what is left.

When we arrived here, it had been getting dark, and we had only had enough time to make sure this apartment was secure. In the hustle of preparing for nightfall, she didn’t even notice that the window overlooks the grocery store. She’s unaware of the possibilities tomorrow could hold—which is why she fell asleep right away, and I’m still up, obsessing over what we might find.

Maybe they’ll have saltine crackers. I know she loves them, and they’d still be relatively edible, if a little stale—those things last forever. Tomorrow we’ll know.

Tomorrow.

***

“Did you see it?”

The question wakes me. Alicia is standing near the window, looking down. I should have closed the curtains. Maybe her opening them would have woken me up and given me enough time to see the surprised pleasure in her smile. Too late now; the news has been broken. Still, the look on her face is full of hope and anticipation. I love how excited she gets about little things, even surrounded by all this death and misery.

“I was going to surprise you,” I tell her.

“Oh, that’s so sweet.”

The look on her face fades instantly as she begins to rush me out of our makeshift bed. Somehow I find even her impatience adorable.

“Now get ready, I’m dying to see what’s inside,” she says as she pulls the tattered blanket out from under me.

***

Clothing is not something that is hard to find—clothes that fit perfectly, sure, but there’s a wealth of clothes a little too loose or a little too tight. We can’t really wash them, so we change clothes every other day or so, rotating through found clothes, trying to stay as clean as we can.

Alicia brushes her hair constantly, not so much for appearance but to keep it from turning into a tangled mess. We have a small bottle of shampoo, but only use it once a week. I made that rule because she blew through the last one so quickly.

I can’t fault her for wanting to stay clean. She still uses way too much toothpaste, though. The tube is already almost empty and we’ve only had it for a month. I cover maybe a quarter the length of my toothbrush with toothpaste when I brush. She uses the full-length, as if you could go down to the corner and buy a new tube when you run out. I’ll need to make a point to look for toothpaste once we get into the grocery store. And soap. And definitely shampoo.

I tighten my belt to hold up my two-sizes-too-big jeans, which I have to admit, I have been wearing for almost three weeks. They still look remarkably close to clean for as much walking as we’ve been doing. The only other pants I’ve found are a bit tight. I wore them for a day and it was miserable. I’m searching this apartment for pants before we go. T-shirts I have plenty of. I usually discard a few before ever wearing them in favor of newly discovered ones. I favor the ugliest ones I can find because they always get a smile out of Alicia. I have a hot pink “Don’t Worry Be Happy” t-shirt that I just can’t get rid of, no matter how many times I’ve worn it.

“Just let me tie my shoes and I’ll be ready,” I tell her.

She impatiently hovers over me and feigns annoyance. Alicia always sleeps in her shoes, just in case we ever have to leave in a hurry. It’s a practice she has often tried to talk me into, but I just can’t sleep with shoes on my feet. She watches me roll my eyes and then offers me a fruit bar.

“Have you eaten anything?” she asks as I tie my other shoe.

“I kind of wanted to wait until we checked the place out before I ate anything. Wouldn’t want to spoil my appetite.”

Alicia shakes her head at me. “You know that’s never a good idea.”

She’s right. I’m sure many people have rushed into such places looking for something to eat, only to get eaten themselves. We could find anything down there, including a large group of walkers. It’s never a good idea to do anything dangerous on an empty stomach.

I eat a blueberry fruit bar. It’s stale and hard to chew, but it’s the best we’ve got. After I choke it down, we make our way to the grocery store.

***

We very rarely find doors.

I don’t know why, but for whatever reason there aren’t a lot of doors left that haven’t been torn off their hinges. Nearly every door I’ve seen since all of this started has had at least one busted hinge. Especially places like gas stations and grocery stores.

A fair bit of looting took place early on, before people really started thinning out. Sometimes I feel like you’ve almost got better luck finding a large supply of food in an abandoned residence than you do in a grocery store. They’ve all been . . . ransacked? I think that’s the word I’m looking for. Most places known for having food have already been ransacked. I suppose during that period a shitload of doors got torn off their hinges.

So as a result, the insides of most places are dangerous as all hell. The walkers can just come and go as they please. Seems like a lot of them like to be inside. They seem to be drawn indoors, perhaps because that’s where they mostly stayed before. I don’t really know why, and I don’t much care; all I do know is that when looking around in a grocery store like the one Alicia and I are about to enter, you need to be careful.

The Carson twins had carried guns. I don’t know if they had them before or just found them along the way. Whatever kind of guns they were, I never noticed. Didn’t matter anyway—when the twins died, they took those guns with them.

I’ve never fired a gun. I never really felt qualified to handle one. I think if I had a gun, I’d probably just shoot myself in the foot, or worse. It’s not like a toy; the triggers actually require quite a bit of pressure, or so I’ve heard.

The mechanics of the whole thing seem beyond me. Point, stay steady, shoot . . . It seems so simple; maybe I’m overthinking it. But don’t you have to cock most guns? And aren’t they supposed to be cleaned regularly or else they jam up? I’ve watched movies where people take guns apart to clean them and there’s all kinds of little springs and shit inside. That baffles me. I’m supposed to somehow figure out how to take a gun apart and put it back together? No fucking way.

Then there’s the sound, which is the number one thing that will draw walkers to you. Firing a gun is like ringing the dinner bell. You may think to yourself: Well, how do you attack them, then? You don’t. Or I don’t, anyway. I run. Anyone who’s smart runs. You see one, you go the other way. If it hasn’t seen you, just keep walking—even at a leisurely pace—and you’ll be just fine. Shoot it and the next thing you know you’re surrounded, and then you’ll be dead.

Guns just aren’t practical.

So if you find yourself in the middle of a large group of walkers—gun or no gun—you’re dead. That’s all there is to it. Only reason you’d want a gun in that situation is so you can turn it on yourself before they tear into you.

That’s another reason I don’t carry one: I know I might be tempted to do just that, and I was always told growing up that suicide was a one-way ticket straight to hell. Not that I necessarily buy into all that, but I’m hedging my bets, or rather, I had been. I don’t know if that should be a concern of mine anymore.

So I carry a knife. You’d be surprised how easy it is to push a knife into one of their faces. If they get too close, or you don’t see them until they’re practically right on top of you—which has happened to me exactly once—you stab them in the face. Didn’t kill it right away the time I did it. More like made a handle on the thing’s head for me to push it away with. They’re not very strong. I knocked it over and wiggled the blade around until it messed its brain up enough that it stopped moving.

Alicia is what you would call petite, so you wouldn’t think a bat would be much use to her, but that’s her weapon of choice. Thing is, you don’t really have to bash a walker’s brains in. The idea is to knock them off balance, and Alicia’s a pro at that. She knocks them in the head with that bat, next thing you know they’re down on their side trying to figure out which way is up, and by then we’re long gone.

Alicia is walking out front. She turns to me just before stepping into the store, shushing me, as if I don’t already know to be quiet. The windows in this place have all been smashed out and there’s broken glass all over the ground, so being quiet is going to be pretty much impossible. If there’s something in there, we’re going to know it right away. And vice versa.

The grocery store is dimly lit from the daylight outside. The front area of the store is in clear view, but anything past that fades into black quickly, especially with our eyes adjusting from the brightness of the midday sun. I’ve never understood why these types of places don’t have windows anywhere but in the front.

The store is small, not a big-time grocery. It’s old, dated, like it’s from the late seventies—the kind of place that just never updated its look. I would have hated shopping here before. It would have reminded me of my childhood, depressed me. This is the kind of place Diane liked. Nostalgic, she would have called it.

“Get your flashlight out,” Alicia whispers.

Looks like I’ll be going into the back. That’s fine, I certainly don’t want Alicia taking the big risks. I can run faster than her. That’s the one thing I’m sure I’m better at.

In places like this, turning the flashlight on causes me no end of anxiety. I’m standing next to a wall of blackness, fiddling around in my backpack for the flashlight. When I finally get it out, there are those few seconds that tick by between turning it on and pointing it at what you’re going to see.

I dread those seconds.

There’s no telling what the flashlight is going to show. There could be a dozen walkers, standing there, patiently waiting to inform me that there will be no treasures to be found here and that I will soon be dead.

Empty shelves, for the most part.

That’s what I see. It’s at once a relief and a huge disappointment. This place has been picked clean.

Alicia is calling me over; she’s found some beef jerky. Usually that’s one of the first things people grab, but this box fell behind one of the check-out counters. I find a can of opened Pringles near a pile of other cans that have been stepped on. I’d eat them, stale and all, but there are bound to be bugs—or worse yet, mice—inside.

In the back of the store I struggle to spend the proper amount of time examining the shelves. The meat section is in the back. As you go down the aisles, the putrid smell intensifies. With each step I think, This is as bad as it’s going to get . . . until I take another.

Nobody ever took the meat at any of the places we’d been to. The lack of refrigeration makes storing processed meats pretty much impossible. I doubt anyone ever took so much as one package. They just sit in the dark and rot. Even the animals know better than to eat it after a while; they just tear the packages to shit, treating us to the smell.

It stinks in here almost worse than the walkers. You’d think after a while you would become accustomed to all the smells of today’s world. No running water, the stench of death hanging in the air at every turn. Really, though, they aren’t the kind of smells you get used to. You spend so much time in the open air that you have no chance to build up a tolerance. The good part about that is that half the time you smell the walkers before you ever see them.

Of course, if you’re standing near a months-old meat cooler in the back of a dark grocery store, one of them could practically be standing right beside you and you wouldn’t even know it.

And I don’t.

It lumbers forward, reaching for me with that blind grab they all do. I step back, quickly, but careful not to back myself into a corner—I’d done that far too many times to let it happen again.

The walker comes at me, turning the corner, coming at me from the end of the cereal aisle, and all I can think of is Alicia.

“You okay up there?” I yell to her.

“Oh, my God, Timothy!”

She’s rushing down one of the aisles behind the thing, coming toward us. I can’t see her, but I can hear her footsteps as she rushes to my rescue.

“I’m okay! Stay where you are! Don’t—”

Her scream keeps me from finishing my sentence. Another walker has gotten to her.

I continue to struggle with the walker, keeping its gnashing teeth at bay, then manage to jam the knife into its neck. I’d been aiming for its face, but there was no time to try for a kill shot now. Pushing it aside I make a break toward the sound of Alicia’s voice. I’m still not quite sure exactly where she is. I blaze across the aisles looking for her, but she’s farther away than I had thought.

I round the corner and see only a mass of dark movement. Is Alicia beneath? On top? Is she even here at all?

I only hear the grunts of a struggle. I can’t immediately tell that they’re hers, but then . . . yes, it’s her. As I near the struggling mass, I tuck my head down, knowing what I’m going to do. With my arms stretched out at either side, I tackle the beast. I knock it free from Alicia and the thing and I roll off of her in an instant. I swear I hear the sound of bone breaking from the impact, as if I’m demolishing the thing. I fear that’s only my imagination. As I roll on top of it Alicia’s safety is still my only concern, and I never once consider that I’m wrestling a walker, with no clue as to where its mouth is or how in danger of being bit I might be.

I can feel its fingers clawing at my thigh, and my only instinct is to get away, but by then it’s got me—its fingers locked in a death grip around my thigh and my arm. I’m hitting it, kicking at it with my free arm and leg with all my might and I don’t even know what I’m hitting. Suddenly I realize I have my eyes tightly shut, and so I open them—just in time to see Alicia, bathed in light, bringing the baseball bat down on the walker’s head.

She bashes its skull in with a single blow. My arm and thigh now released—Alicia has saved me. She stands over me with the bat, watching the walker—dead for real now—collapse into a heap.

Alicia collapses shortly after.

“Alicia!”

She offers no response. I can barely stand.

“Were you bitten?” I crawl over to her. She’s concealed in darkness; I can’t see any blood. I don’t know if she’s hurt or if her malnourished body couldn’t take the strain of all this exertion. Whatever the case, I have to get her out where I can see her, to the road where it’s safe and well-lit. I begin dragging her frantically toward the light; no time to lift her up—there could be more of them.

I get halfway to the exit before I remember the broken glass in the front of the store. So I drop to my knees and gather her onto my lap, nearly toppling a nearby shelf as I use it to support me as I force myself to stand. I think I hear rustling as I lumber out of the store; a figment of my imagination and not more of them, I hope.

Out in the street I gently lower her down to the pavement. I examine her face. No blood. Her shirt. No blood. Her pants, the same—but there are rips and tears in her clothing, and it’s possible she received a scratch or a minor bite not yielding much blood. The shoes pop off with little effort, having not been untied and retied in more than a day’s time. Getting her pants over her hips is another matter. She’s always insisted on wearing snug-fitting jeans, or at least as snug-fitting as she could find. She claims she doesn’t want to risk having her clothing get caught on something during an escape, but I think that fashion is the last part of civilization she’s willing to let go of. As I start to pull her shirt off she wakes up, helping me the rest of the way.

There’s not a scrape on her; must have been exhaustion from the struggle. She smiles up at me, and the emotion of the moment shifts. We’re starting to feel safe now.

“How do I look?” she asks.

It sounds cheesy, but I say the first thing that comes to mind: “Perfect.”

Nearly naked, completely vulnerable, in the middle of the road, directly in front of the grocery store, out in the midday sun, she sits up and pushes me onto my backside.

 Checking me for wounds is just a formality. I’ve heard of at least two different cases where the adrenaline rush and the shock of the attack kept a person from realizing they had been bitten for several hours. Never witnessed this first hand, but I never like to risk anything. Laughing to herself as she struggles to pull off my shoes, she begins to undress me. The urgency in the moment is gone; she takes her time. By the time Alicia begins unbuttoning my pants, I have my own shirt off. I smile at her.

“Nothing to see here,” I tell her.

 And so we survived. Again. Our third such close-call together.

We seem to be good luck to each other.

I look into her eyes and she smiles back at me in relief. There’s no feeling more exhilarating than the feeling of being in no danger, immediately after escaping mortal danger.

I try to stand up, wanting to get dressed and go back inside and find my knife, but Alicia pulls me to her and kisses me, and whatever danger I just put myself in for her, this is worth it. If I had a large gash on my ankle in the shape of a bloody bite mark that meant I only had a matter of hours to keep living, this would still be worth it. She’s kissing me, I’m kissing her, and despite my instincts screaming for me to stop, we continue on, kissing faster and more passionately.

I can’t help but question her actions.

“Right here?” I ask.

She tells me to shut up.

Funny, that’s what I wanted to say to myself.

There are any number of things that could come up this road in one way or another. Once we were watching a gas station surrounded by walkers trying to figure out the safest way to get inside when a band of marauders arrived in a large truck. I remember a mean-looking woman with a sword who nearly single-handedly staved off the walkers while other members of her group broke in to clean out the place. I hate to think about what could have happened had they found us inside. They certainly didn’t look like the kind of people we’d want to get to know. That’s how things are now, running into another group of survivors is just as dangerous as finding a group of walkers. You never know how people are going to act. At least the walkers are predictable.

I don’t want to think about what would happen if anyone were to come walking up the street right now, so I don’t. Alicia and I lose ourselves in each other. I don’t know what brought this on—maybe it was her waking up to me stripping her down, seeing me labor and stress over her well-being, or the general excitement of the whole ordeal, but whatever it is, I don’t care.

It is only the second time we’ve made love.

Diane, please forgive me.

You may find yourself thinking about how uncomfortable it would be to have sex in the middle of an open road, next to a ransacked grocery store littered with shards of broken glass. Don’t dwell on it. This rural road already has large patches of weeds growing up through the cracked asphalt, soft little patches of lawn in the middle of harsh pavement. Between that and our discarded clothing, we do just fine.

When it’s over my mind is racing. The one thing we’ve never talked about is how she really feels about me. We spend every waking moment together, but we do that because we have to. If there was anyone else to talk to, maybe she would favor them instead. Maybe I would, too, but I doubt it.

No, this is real. The look in her eyes when she looks at me: that’s love. I may not know much, but I know what that looks like. She may not feel it for me as strongly as I do for her . . . but it’s there.

I can tell.

Alicia loves me.

***

She loves me! I think to myself, at first excited, and then burdened with the guilt of officially having a new relationship after losing Diane less than a year ago. My mind races as I return to the grocery store to retrieve my knife. That’s not something I can just leave behind.

I’d reconciled myself to never loving again after I lost Diane. I’ve learned to live with it. I remember her, and it makes me sad. That was my burden, the pain I carry inside me. Alicia, I thought, liked me and was with me because I was all that was available. She found comfort in my arms. I was fine with leaving it at that.

This is something else entirely. This makes the relationship real. She’s getting over James, I’m getting over Diane, and we have mutual feelings for each other. This isn’t something I can take lightly. This is something I have to treat with respect. That’s what Alicia deserves.

She deserves to know the truth.

***

There were a few houses in the area and a lot of daylight left. We decided to explore them, and see if we could find more supplies. Over the course of the day we found clothes, another bottle of shampoo, some soap, toothpaste, and a whole mess of food: canned soup, crackers, and various things that were either completely unspoiled or edible, but only if you were really hungry.

There were a few walkers milling about, in or around the houses but we saw them early and easily avoided them. This was a small miracle, as distracted as I was. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had to tell Alicia, what I was going to say to her tonight. By the time we returned to the apartment across the street from the grocery store, darkness had already come.

The thing that kept running through my head all day—the thing I had to tell Alicia—was how James really died.

***

The day James died, it had just been the three of us—James, Alicia, and I—for weeks. I missed Diane so much. My grief over losing her was still fresh in my mind. I like to think I wasn’t myself. I just wanted things to go back to the way they were before, and knowing that that would never be possible made me angrier than I’d ever been in my life.

They say people are capable of doing things when they’re grieving that they would never consider otherwise.

Seeing Diane die right in front of me scarred me. Watching those things tear into her, unable to do anything about it. Seeing the terror in her eyes as she screamed for help, only to see her life fade away moments later. There are things that we’re now forced to deal with on a daily basis that I don’t think we should have ever had to deal with.

I loved Diane. Alicia loved James. I didn’t want to see her go through that much pain. I didn’t want to kill James.

But I thought about it.

He and I were alone that day, all day. I knew that if he were to die, maybe I wouldn’t get Diane back, but at the very least, I wouldn’t have to see the two of them together anymore. I wouldn’t have to see, in them, exactly what I wanted for myself.

I had opportunities. My knife in hand, his back to me. I wouldn’t have even had to see his face. In the end, I couldn’t do it. It was too much, I could never go that far. I couldn’t kill him myself.

Luckily, it was a dangerous world we were living in.

The day was nearly over. We were talking, deciding whether or not to search one last house for medicine before starting our journey back.

I saw them coming.

He didn’t.

There was a moment, just after he saw them—too late!—that he looked at me, screaming for help. In that moment I could have stepped in and helped him fight them off. Instead, I stepped back. Everything I’d been thinking about that day affected that split-second decision.

Immediately, I realized what I’d done, and I suddenly wanted to help him but by then it was too late, there were too many of them.

James was dead.

It was only a second—a brief moment where the pain of seeing them together had reached a crescendo within me and made me do that awful thing.

People were dying every second of every day. Most everyone I’d ever known was probably dead. What’s one more? I thought. What’s one more if it means I’ll be happier?

What’s one more if she never has to know what I’ve done?

But now Alicia loves me, and I can’t keep this from her any longer.

Maybe we were meant to be together. Maybe Diane and James were meant to die. Maybe that was necessary to bring Alicia and me together to ensure our survival.

***

Standing in the apartment, moonlight filling the room from the open window, I embrace Alicia and tell her I love her. She responds in kind, like I knew she would. I take one final look at her, and take a mental snapshot of the Alicia who is unaware of the evil I have done.

Then I tell her everything.

I tell her because I love her. I tell her because I respect her. I tell her because I hope she’ll forgive me.

When I’m done, the look on her face surprises me. She looks at me not with anger, but with sorrow. She looks at me as if I told her I’d killed myself, and maybe that’s what I just did. The man she’d fallen in love with was a lie. She starts crying, and before long is sobbing heavily.

I didn’t expect the screaming.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

She begins pounding on my chest with her fists, hitting me repeatedly, but it’s all I can say: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

I weather the storm; it’s what I deserve. Before long her anger fades and she collapses. I embrace her and we cry together for a while.

All we have to lean on is each other. Neither of us can get through this alone.

She has forgiven me, I think, as we lie together in the darkness. I’m all she has. She can’t stay mad at me forever. The fact that I told her has to count for something, doesn’t it? She has to know this is something I regret, that it will haunt me for as long as I live.

I think it will be a long time before things will be back to normal between us. But we’ll get there, and when we do our bond will be that much stronger now that there are no secrets between us.

We’re going to have to make the best of this world around us if we’re going to survive. Everything is going to be okay. That’s what I think as I drift off to sleep, Alicia sobbing in my arms.

***

The sun of a new morning shines through the open window, waking me. The bedding beside me is colder than it should be. I reach for Alicia but she’s not there. My eyes open, I look around.

Gone.

She’s gone. And she’s taken all our food, all our supplies, and all of our weapons.

Whether she’s meant to or not, she has killed me.

I won’t last more than five days alone.

Truth be told—without her, I don’t want to.

© 2009 by Robert Kirkman.
Originally published in The Living Dead 2,
edited by John Joseph Adams.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Robert Kirkman

Robert KirkmanRobert Kirkman is a New York Times bestselling author known for being the cultural zeitgeist of the comic book industry. He maintains one prerogative in every undertaking: quality. It is Kirkman’s belief that good people who produce good writing and good ideas make comics people love. Kirkman was recently made partner at Image Comics, and continues to revive the industry with refreshing new characters.