Derrick loudly pressed for a trip to Best Buy, while Ronnie whined about wanting her mommy, the poor kid. The clamor of voices grew as everyone expressed an opinion about what they should do, where they should go, or told about the loved ones they needed to reach. Their bickering voices rose above the continuing static of the radio.
Lila wanted to retreat someplace absolutely silent, wrap her arms around herself, and rock until this bad dream was over. She looked at Ari, who’d walked away from the group to sit on the floor and lean against a shelving unit displaying fishing rods. Resting his arms on his knees, he closed his eyes. She studied his strong jaw, his full lips pressed grimly tight, and the spatters of blood on his olive-drab T-shirt. God, what he’d had to do to that thing in the subway, and no one had even remembered to thank him for it.
She went over and sat beside him, offering a bottle of water from her tote bag. “Here.”
He opened his eyes and accepted the bottle. “Thanks.” He uncapped and drank deeply, his Adam’s apple bobbing with each swallow.
A little flutter of heat in her belly made Lila look away. It was so wrong to be attracted to a stranger while her loved ones and maybe the entire world was in jeopardy. She gazed at the industrial green carpet on the floor. “So, how are you doing?”
“Holding up.” Unable to think of anything to say, she was glad to sit in silence for a few minutes. Finally, she spoke again. “Hey, thanks for what you did, killing that thing. It must’ve been hard.”
He shrugged. “Had to be done.”
“No one else was brave enough to do it. How long have you been in the army?”
His smile was a tight grimace. “Three months. I’m home on leave from BCT. I’m supposed to leave for Arizona next week for AIT.”
Lila wrinkled her nose at all the military acronyms. “Why does all that mean?”
“Basic combat training is the same for everyone,” he explained. “After that, you go for advanced training in different places. At Fort Huachuca, I’d be learning intelligence-gathering techniques.”
Torture training? Lila wondered but didn’t ask.
Ari gave back the nearly empty bottle. “What about you? Where were you going when this happened?”
“Classes at NYU.” She thought of her professors and other students and wondered what they were all doing. Had anyone made it to class today?
“What’s your major?” He asked the obligatory question as if they were making small talk at some party.
“Undeclared. I’m in the Liberal Studies course at the College of Arts and Sciences. Pretty soon I’ll have to decide on a field of study.” Two years into the program and she still wasn’t certain what that field would be.
Then she realized it probably didn’t matter anymore. Here she spoke of the future as if everything was normal, but they now lived in a world overrun by zombies. In a few brief moments, between taking a ride to school and the train coming to an abrupt halt, the world had changed, and along with it, her perception of how the universe worked. She’d believed life was life and death was death with little overlap besides an occasional near-death experience. Now she would never be the same. None of them would be.
Lila looked at Ari and lowered her voice. “Are you scared? ’Cause you don’t act scared.”
A real smile flashed across his mouth, and he gave a sharp bark of a laugh. “Am I scared? Good question.”
He was numb, and his stomach felt sour and sick like the morning after a night of partying but without any of the fun of getting drunk. Was he scared? He was beyond it, running on pure adrenaline and instinct. Even as he’d demonstrated how to load and fire a rifle or searched for a radio or gathered supplies, his brain had replayed killing the zombie over and over. He felt the jolt of the pole in his hands as it hit the thing’s body, the yielding flesh when he tried to impale the neck, and, worst of all, the sensation of sawing through flesh and bone with the too blunt edge of the metal shelf. Beyond afraid, beyond horrified, he was fucking traumatized.
“I’ve had better days,” he said dryly.
Lila smiled, a little quirk of her lips that brought out a dimple in one cheek. “Yeah, me too. If you’d asked me earlier in the day, I would’ve said last night was about the worst experience I’d gone through in my life. This kind of puts it in perspective.”
“Why, what happened last night?”
“I broke up with my boyfriend of two years, and I thought it would go better than it did. He’s usually a calm guy, but he was upset, to say the least.” She shook her head, and her bangs fell over her eyes. She absently pushed them back, a gesture he was becoming familiar with. Ari wanted to offer her a barrette or something.
“Anyway, it was an ugly scene,” she continued. “I was feeling pretty crappy about it on the train right before all hell broke loose.”
“Hell on earth,” he murmured, leaning his head back against the cool metal display rack and watching the others’ faces as they argued. “Have to say, it’s more fun fighting zombies in a video game than in real life.”
“What you had to do must’ve been awful.” A frown puckered her brows, and the strands of hair she’d pushed back fell forward again. He longed to brush them out of her eyes, which were a deep shade of blue that almost bordered on purple.
“Yeah, well, we all might have to be ready to kill, the way things are shaping up,” he answered gruffly.
“I don’t even squash bugs when I find them indoors. I take them outside and let them go.”
“These aren’t bugs. They’re not even really alive. I think you can feel justified in putting them out of their misery. If those bodies’ real owners were still alive, they’d thank you for it.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Lila smiled briefly, and the dimple in her cheek flashed again. “Some brave new world, huh?”
She rested her chin on her drawn-up knees, silent for a moment before she added, “I’m worried about my ex. It sounded like the hospital is overrun.”
“My mom works there too, and I haven’t been able to reach her. I know how Deb feels. I want to go to her, but I guess we’re all stuck with each other for a while.” Ari thought he could probably make it on his own if they all split up, but some of the others would be helpless. It wouldn’t be right to ditch them.
“Guess so.” Lila exhaled and started to climb to her feet. “And I guess we need to be a part of this.” She nodded toward the escalating argument. “We’re going to have to make some decisions, and it’s probably better if everyone’s not yelling at each other—especially since they’re all armed.”
What he wouldn’t give to be back at training camp with someone barking out orders all he had to do was follow. He followed Lila back toward the others.