Sometime in October
Jenna’s eyes opened to the sound of voices and gunshots. She wheezed, sucking in large gulps of air. The dream receded, scratching and clawing as she forced it back, deep into her subconscious.
Outside her bedroom, bullets screamed like fireworks. Damp and sweaty, Jenna struggled to sit up in bed, the room dancing dizzily around her. She fell back against the sheets and focused on the dull, streaky ceiling in an attempt to stop the vertigo. Looking at the bland room, painted off-white, made her head pound harder. She squinted at the moonlight coming through the window, rubbing at a crust that attempted to keep her eyes sewn shut.
Every part of her body ached.
She gave into the pain and rolled into a fetal position.
Someone called for help.
Even barely cognizant, she noticed when the man glided like a fallen angel to the edge of her bed. Black hair escaped the edges of a hooded sweatshirt.
She swiped at her face again as if the movement would bring a memory back. Bits and pieces of forgotten time struggled forth. A flicker of a memory here, a whispered word there. She remembered leaving the High Point Inn to go see the horses in the barn. Was it only yesterday?
“Caleb?” Jenna whispered, throat parched. She could never forget him.
He knelt at the side of the bed, his long legs tucked gracefully under him, poetic face aligned with hers fever-soaked one.
“I thought you were having another nightmare.” Caleb kissed her clammy forehead and then brushed the dark, damp bangs out of her eyes with a gentle caress of his calloused hand.
“What happened?” Jenna whispered, her voice raspy. She tried to move closer to Caleb, but groaned when her stomach swam. She tossed her head over the side of the bed as her insides heaved like waves in a storm.
“Okay?” He gently caressed her back, not expecting an answer. “You had me so scared. Everyone here worries about you so much.” Caleb sank lower on the floor, trying to comfort Jenna. He sat stoically and waited.
Outside the door another shriek followed by rifle blasts.
“What’s going on?” Jenna asked when finally able to speak. She pulled her head up, ignoring the pain, and looked around. She was in her room at the inn. The oversized, sweat-soaked, rumpled t-shirt swam on her tiny frame. It was all she was wearing.
“Do you remember anything?” Caleb’s hand covered hers.
Jenna noticed his nervous glance toward the door. He had ignored her question too. She shook her head, following his gaze.
The fever made her shiver.
She remembered little about the night she left the inn to see the horses except how impossible it was to fall asleep. And while she knew it was stupid to venture into the darkness alone, she had gone outside anyway. The horses provided some small comfort in this awful world like nothing else could, except maybe Caleb.
“Tell me what is happening. What happened to me?” Jenna needed to know made her try to pull herself up.
Instead of answering, Caleb handed her some water and Jenna sipped it, knowing not to rush him. “Do you want food?”
Her stomach heaved at the thought. She shook her head. The unexplained gun shots and screams had ceased, but the outside world, while muted behind the thick wooden door that separated her from the rest of her companions at the High Point Inn, pressed in on her.
She attempted to prompt the story from Caleb. “I remember feeling sick and sleepless and going outside to check the horses…”
Caleb looked sad, pausing before he spoke. “Billy found you there in the morning, unresponsive. We don’t know what happened, but you’ve been in an out of consciousness for three days.”
“Three days? Can’t be that long.” Jenna paused to try and find the lost time. “I remember dreaming.”
She groaned as she tried to sit up straighter, muscles sore and protesting, but she persisted. Caleb got to his feet and positioned himself on the bed next to her. His body, cold against Jenna’s feverish skin, filled her with reassurance. He dabbed a damp cloth against her forehead, but it did little to end the throbbing. He sat close, once again positioning Jenna’s warm hand in his cool one. They rested for a long moment like this while Jenna attempted to puzzle out the information once again.
“Three days gone,” Jenna said. She rested her head on Caleb’s shoulder, her long bangs falling in front of her clover-colored eyes.
A thud beyond the safety of the door caused them both to jump. “What’s going on out there?” Jenna asked again.
Caleb, normally self-confident to the point of being smug, seemed unsure of what to do next. He released her hand and pushed Jenna’s raven black hair back so he could look her in the eyes.
While Caleb’s hair matched Jenna’s, the similarities ended there. Caleb’s eyes were a vibrant dark violet, a trademark of the “Others.” At this moment, those beautiful eyes regarded her with a mix of love and concern.
“There are things I need to tell you.” Caleb wore his favorite hoodie and tattered, snug jeans. While the hoodie was large, it couldn’t hide the taunt muscles underneath. His hair, straight and shoulder length, highlighting his chiseled face, which Jenna considered artwork: Straight nose, angular cheeks, and most importantly, kissable lips. Lips, right now, set in s straight line of concern.
“Something important,” Caleb continued. “I’m not sure you’re up for it, but I don’t want you to hear it from anyone else.”
“Tell me what?” She shook, not sure if it was more from fever or fear. What was happening outside? Jenna reached out to touch Caleb’s cheek, making sure he was not a dream. Eerily handsome, a fallen angel, Caleb sat by her side in clothes Jenna was sure he had not changed in days. His midnight black hair was disheveled and he looked very much in need of a shower and a shave, something not easily come by before the group moved into the High Point Inn where they had been able to put a somewhat normal existence together, if normal was a word still in existence these days.
“There’s a stalker attack going on,” Caleb said. “Nothing we can’t handle, but we think Gunnar took some of the barriers down and let the stalkers in. That’s the noise you’re hearing. Half the people at the inn are holding them off while the others are out trying to find and fix the fences.”
“Why would he do that?” Jenna didn’t like where her thoughts took her. Gunnar was an “Other” like Caleb, but his beliefs were very different than most of the group.
As one of the “Others,” the virus that had decimated the planet didn’t to change Caleb or Gunnar into walking dead, but the plague had not left them unharmed. While most of the poor souls exterminated by the virus returned as stalkers, zombie-like creatures, some people had been changed in more complex, inexplicable ways. The “Others” weren’t human anymore, but tended not to gut and disembowel the living like their stalker relatives. The “Others” survived off the blood of humans and were similar to the stalkers in that way, they did not kill when doing so.
Caleb ignored her question, answering with one of his own. “Feel any better? It’s night time so I can take you downstairs or get anything you want from outside.”
The “Others” could not venture out into the sun, skin blistering so bad it could lead to their deaths if out in the bright light long enough. Still, the “Others” were stronger and faster than humans and stalkers, able to heal quicker than the remaining humans. They “Others were useful, and Jenna and her human companions had formed a strong alliance with them even when Gunner believed “Others” were superior.
When she didn’t answer, Caleb tried again. “Do you want to tell me about the dreams?”
“No. I want to know what’s going on.”
Jenna justified pushing Caleb for answers because of their new-formed, but strong relationship. Caleb ambushed Jenna with some powerful emotions, which she tried her best to at first ignore and then to resist. After all, love does not come easy when hordes of undead invade your private space and constantly attempt to devour the significant other in your life. Despite Jenna’s initial reluctance, Caleb persevered and Jenna succumbed to his charm. Intimate memories about their relationship flooded Jenna mind, turning her cheeks crimson. She loved him. That was all that mattered in the world to her.
All I’ll say is they were bad. There getting worse.” She choked out the rest. “They’re awful. Too horrible.” She tried to shake the memories away. “I can’t get rid of them even now that I’m awake.”
“I could tell you were dreaming all the time you were in bed the last few days. You constantly called for Eric. Talk to me. It’ll make you feel better.”
In the past, Jenna’s dreams had been about her, but the recent ones were different. They were all about Eric and his death was still raw. She wanted to hold them inside but couldn’t. “The dreams are so real.”
“What happens?” Caleb caressed Jenna’s arm, which was still sticky with feverish sweat. She pressed against him.
“I see Eric in the woods. He looks like himself, but is somehow different. I can’t explain it right without sounding stupid.”
“You never sound stupid.” Caleb’s reassuring smile and kiss urged Jenna to say more.
“In the dream, Eric’s grown up, but these horrible monsters surround him. Not stalkers, but…” Jenna paused, thinking about how to describe them, “shadow creatures. They’re all around him and then they were on him, inside him. Eric is screaming in pain. Did you ever read Lord of the Flies in high school.”
Caleb sent her a confused look.
“Before all of this. Did you?”
“No.” Caleb said.
“In the book the boys turn savage and swarm Simon, one of the little kids. They pounce on him like animals, clawing and ripping and destroying. They kill him. That’s what happens to Eric. He called out for my help. I yell to him, ‘I’m coming for you. I haven’t forgotten. I didn’t leave you!’ I kept screaming at him, telling him not to move, but when I finally got close, he was crushed under the weight of the swarm around him. He finally throws all the shadow creatures off and I look into his eyes, but he doesn’t notice me. He’s dead, a stalker. His blank eyes terrify me. They’re evil. A watching crow caws from the trees mocking me.”
“It’s only a dream.”
Now started, the words gushed out. “The dream means something. Maybe Eric’s alive.”
Caleb avoided Jenna’s eyes, not wanting to have to relive the day in the movie theater when Eric died. “Let’s not.”
“Thirsty. Water please,” Jenna said.
Caleb handed her the glass of water. “What can I do?”
She gulped it greedily. Even lifting her arm hurts, and Jenna feels thin, skeletal. “I’m okay.”
“You need to rest more.” Caleb paused a moment, turning away and getting ready to stand, but then turned back to address Jenna. “You shouldn’t have to find out this way. Lilly’s gone. So is Gunnar. The same day we found you unconscious in the barn with the horses, they both disappeared. We didn’t know if Gunnar tried to attack you again.” He rushed to the end of the story. “We think Gunnar kidnapped Lilly. There’s no reason for Lilly to ever want to go anywhere with him alone. He probably destroyed the fences to prevent us from following him.”
“Lilly’s gone?” Jenna asked before collapsing into darkness.