The machete slipped from my fingers, and I slumped against the chain link fence, exhausted. I swiped my forearm across my face, clearing the sting of sweat from my eyes. My vision cleared, I looked with grim satisfaction at the half dozen corpses strewn around me. There wasn’t as much blood as you might expect. They were dead long before I killed them.
“Nice job, Ellen,” my combat instructor, Theo, said as he handed me a canteen. I drank the lukewarm water gratefully before handing it back.
“Thanks,” I said, “but my arms feel like warm Jell-O.”
Theo released a short laugh and led me from the training area, and we sat on a bench outside the fence. “You’re doing great,” he said, pulling his dark hair from its ponytail and running his fingers through it, a few droplets of perspiration dotting his t-shirt. “You didn’t even need any backup today.”
Whenever we were training with live—well, relatively live—targets, a trio of sharpshooters always stood around the perimeter of the field. “I almost…” I began, but Theo interrupted me.
“Shut it, you.” He nudged me in one limp-noodle arm. “You’ve come a long way, and you know it.” His lopsided grin broke through my self-criticism, and I had to smile in return.
“Maybe,” I conceded. “Sometimes it feels like no matter how good we are, it’s not good enough, though.”
He shook his head. “You’re too hard on yourself. A year ago, you’d barely even touched a machete, and now you’re going on patrols and kicking loads of zombie ass.”
I snorted. “Yeah, once I stopped trying to use a gun.” Despite months of training, I remained a terrible shot, and eventually gave up any sort of firearm in favor of a machete. This machete, which was now never far from my side.
Theo looked away to where the sharpshooters were dragging the permanently dead from the enclosure in the direction of the burning pit outside the fortified subdivision in which we lived. When he returned his gaze to me, his eyes crinkled with amusement. “Uh huh. I never saw anybody who was more shit with a gun than you.”
“Hey,” I protested, “that wasn’t all my fault. Everybody said I wasn’t strong enough to swing a blade.”
“And you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an arrow, either.” He seemed about to tease me further, but he glanced down at my machete, and his mood sobered. “He…” His voice caught, and he cleared his throat. “Quinn would’ve been proud.”
I felt as if the breath were being squeezed from me, and I stared desperately at Theo, wanting it to be true. “If I’d been able to do this before…before he died…” Before I killed him. “Maybe—”
Theo grabbed my wrist. Hard. “Don’t go there. We can’t play that game. Not before, not now, not fucking ever, Ellen.” He released his grip and closed his eyes, taking a moment to steady himself. “Look, Quinn was my friend. We did time together, turned our lives around together, and when shit went down, we fought and survived together. He cared about you, and he’d never for one second blame you for what happened.”
I sighed. “I know he wouldn’t. But I do.”
Quinn and Theo arrived at the Compound together, not too long after I’d been rescued from a band of marauders. I’d been physically and emotionally shattered, and had little hope of feeling anything but despair ever again. Then I’d seen Quinn, Theo, and four other former inmates fighting their way through a cluster of zombies to reach the gates of the Compound.
I’d never seen anyone fight like Quinn. His shirt off, sweat and blood streaking his tattooed torso, his machete swung again and again as he fought relentlessly and recklessly across the field.
Immediately thereafter, Quinn had killed a zombie that had crept up behind me. He’d saved me then, and he’d saved me in a thousand other ways in the following months. He’d given me back the ability to trust, and eventually to hope.
And then I’d killed him. There hadn’t been a choice—he was bitten—but I still felt if I’d been able to fight alongside him, instead of being kept at a safe distance, he’d still be alive.
Fingers snapping in front of my face broke through the memory of that terrible day. “Knock it right the hell off,” Theo said, his gaze burning into me. “This is how things are now, and every last one of us has regrets. What matters is how you pick up and move on. And you’ve done it. You became fierce and determined, and I know you’ll never be a victim again. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have failures. Fact of life, my friend.” He gestured at my machete. “Pick that up. Pick it up like you did when he died, and don’t you fucking feel ashamed.”
I looked at Quinn’s machete—mine now—then back to Theo. “I know, you’re right. But I don’t want to let anybody else down.”
He wiped his face with the hem of his shirt, his face showing signs of exhaustion, and perhaps a bit of frustration directed at me. “You didn’t let him down. You stepped up and learned to fight, and seeing you with his machete in your hand makes me proud every single time.”
I nodded, considering. I’d done it. I’d done what I needed to in order to survive and move forward in this world. I had an adopted little sister, Melissa, who had been a captive with me at the hotel of horrors, and when Quinn died, I knew I’d do anything to keep her safe.
As if conjured by my thought, Melissa appeared from a side street. Her dark sable hair was knotted haphazardly on top of her head, indicating she had recently finished her shift in the communal kitchen. She speed-walked purposefully in my direction, as if she had something important on her mind.
Theo raised an eyebrow. “What’s up with her?”
“Got me.” Two years after our captivity, Melissa was in most ways a normal seventeen-year-old, though she tended not to exhibit the drama common to other girls her age. I figured after what we’d gone through, not much else was worth getting worked up over. “Let’s go find out.”
We rose, I slid my machete in the sheath on my hip, and we walked to meet Melissa at the far side of the field.
With barely a nod to Theo, she grabbed my arm. “C’mon, Ells. Gotta go.” She started to turn and pull me along with her.
I liberated my appendage. “Whoa, whoa…Where do we have to go?” I planted my feet, making it clear I wasn’t budging until I knew what had her so agitated.
Melissa blinked, then realization dawned in her eyes. “Oh! You haven’t heard. Duh.” She shook her head.
I saw Theo struggle, then give in to a frustrated groan. “Is she going to tell us, do you suppose?”
I shot Melissa a curious, yet pointed, look.
“Okay, okay…well, there was…I mean—”
I put both hands on her shoulders and waited until she met my eyes. “First, settle down. Start at the beginning.”
She took a deep breath, and I felt the chaotic energy around her drop a notch. “I was at the kitchen this morning, right? And two patrols came in, real serious and nervous.”
That, in itself, wasn’t unusual. Our regular patrols and scouts monitored a huge range of territory surrounding our home, keeping an eye out for zombie swarms and bands of marauders or others who might mean us harm. It was a stressful job.
I said as much, but Melissa didn’t share my opinion. “No, I heard Marcus talking to Joseph. They found a bunch of marauders, about seventy-five miles west of here. They just reported it to the council.”
If the news involved marauders, that explained her twitchy behavior. While she’d come a long way in healing her emotional scars, even venturing outside the walls to help tend the fields we cultivated in the surrounding countryside, the terror of marauders had never fully left her.
“Seventy-five miles isn’t exactly right next door, sweetie,” Theo soothed.
Melissa wasn’t buying it. “Nope, there’s gotta be more to it, the way they hauled tail to get back here.”
She was probably right. Marcus’ patrol hadn’t been expected back for at least three more days. I remembered what she’d said when she first grabbed my arm. “But where do we have to go?”
Melissa tilted her head, as if only now realizing she hadn’t told me. “The council called the neighborhood captains for an emergency briefing, and we’re all supposed to go to our meeting spots and wait for them to come tell us what’s going on. Let’s go!” She reached for my arm again.
“If the captains are just now meeting with the council, we have time to go home and clean up first, I’d say.” I was crusty with dried sweat, dust, and a few other substances best not considered too closely. My red tank top and fatigues could probably stand up on their own.
“Sounds like a plan,” Theo said, swinging his pack over his shoulder and starting off toward his house. “See you ladies at the pavilion in a bit.”
Melissa reluctantly agreed to go back to the house we shared with two other women. I convinced her arriving at the pavilion, the central meeting space for our neighborhood of the Compound, before the captains had even finished meeting with the council wouldn’t do any good. Plus, I smelled like week-old roadkill.
We arrived to find our house empty. I assumed Bethany was still working at the new greenhouse and Rebecca was on guard duty.
I rinsed off quickly, using the sun shower bag I’d rigged in our downstairs bathtub. We’d recently received some scavenged solar panels, and could run the pump to provide limited running water, but we tried not to use it unless we had to.
I emerged to find Melissa pacing in the front hall, fists clenched at her side. I approached and gently slid an arm around her shoulders. “Try to take it easy,” I said. “No point getting upset till we know what’s going on.”
“I know,” she said in a thin voice, “but I have a bad feeling.”
I was starting to feel the same way, but hid it for her benefit. “Don’t worry, Melissa. It won’t happen again. I won’t let it happen again.”
We hustled the two blocks to the broad, grassy lot with an old-fashioned pavilion in the middle, and I was startled to see over a hundred people—the majority of the population of our neighborhood—already gathered.
“See? I told you,” Melissa said with an accusatory glare. “We’re late.”
I sighed, and we found a spot off to one side where we could see the pavilion and were close enough to hear the news, whenever it came.
As it turned out, we were not late. People continued to arrive in twos and threes, and I spotted Rebecca and waved her over to join us. Her olive skin was flushed from a shift on the wall, and her long, wild hair had begun to escape the single braid trailing down her back.
“Do you know what’s going on?” I asked.
“Not exactly, but it doesn’t look good.” She looked around the crowd as if searching for an approaching threat. I had no doubt if she saw one, it would be promptly dispatched. Rebecca was one of the most ferocious fighters I knew.
It was over an hour before Rich, our neighborhood captain, finally stepped into the pavilion. The crowd fell silent, the only sound the hum of generators at nearby houses.
“Thank you all for coming,” he began, his voice strong and carrying well across the crowd. “I’ll keep it short and to the point for now, then once we know more, we’ll have additional meetings to set up any necessary logistics.”
That sounded ominous, and I felt Melissa stiffen beside me.
There were some murmurs and rustlings among those gathered, and Rich raised his voice and continued. “Four days ago, one of our patrols encountered a band of men just east of Elizabethtown. They followed, undetected, to discover their base and intentions.” His speech had taken on the formal cadence and language of a press conference. “They were led to a large, fortified encampment located in a storage facility. They were able to contact another patrol unit, who joined them to observe the camp.”
“Oh, shit,” Rebecca muttered. “We wouldn’t be having this meeting if they were raising ponies and baking cupcakes.”
I concurred, and Rich’s next words confirmed our fears.
“They estimated the numbers at well over six hundred, all adults, mostly men. Our team was able to get close enough to gather quite a bit of information. They also successfully captured two individuals, who were extensively questioned.”
I knew what “questioned” meant these days, and a chill slithered the length of my spine.
“The camp is without doubt a marauder stronghold. They’re gathering recruits from smaller bands in the territory, and are heavily armed.” He looked from face to face among the crowd, imparting the seriousness of his words. “They have targeted us. They have the numbers and the armament to be a very serious threat to this community. They are well-supplied and adding to their numbers and stockpile as we speak.”
“Well, let’s go get the bastards!” a voice shouted. Others professed similar sentiments.
“Now, folks, you know better than to rush into something like this,” Rich said, drawing hard on his authority. “We’ve got more people, true, but not all of them are fighters.” He was right. While our population was creeping close to a thousand, requiring annexing additional chunks of the former subdivision every few months, some of our people were mothers, children, the elderly, or others not suited to combat. And if we sent the majority of our trained fighters to Elizabethtown, the Compound would be unprotected, and an easy target for attacks from other forces. We couldn’t take the battle to the marauders.
Rich again quieted the crowd. “Our information indicates they won’t be prepared to move on us for at least three months, so we have time to make smart decisions. The council is working on a variety of plans right now. As soon as things are decided, you’ll all be notified, and we’ll figure out what needs to be done. For now, we’re going to focus on bringing as many of the crops and livestock we have outside the walls inside, and send out scouts to monitor things and set some traps to make things as difficult as possible for any forces attempting to advance on our location.”
Melissa slipped her hand into mine, something she hadn’t done since shortly after Quinn’s death a year and a half ago. I gave her a reassuring squeeze, and wished someone could reassure me.
Rebecca stood, feet widely spaced as if preparing to charge into battle, blade swinging. “A lot of double-talk, but you know what the options are, don’tcha, Ellen?”
I certainly did.
“Fight or flight.”