I took a step into the mess Andy and crew had made. At least I know how do deal with this mess. My stuff could all be cleaned up, washed off or replaced. This was a problem I could wrap my head around, a problem I could fix. What happened at the hospital had no explanation and there was no fix.
Linda touched me on the arm. “I’m sorry, Corbin.”
“Sorry for what, Andy getting elected?” I turned back to her.
Her face was grave. “No, for this.” She pointed in the apartment. “I told him you had guns.”
I don’t know why, but I chuckled. “It’s OK. Just give me a second to see what the damage is, then you can tell all.”
Her eyes watered a little, and she threw her arms around my neck. “I’m sorry.”
I was a little bit shocked at this. Not because she had never hugged me, though. We’d been friends for a while, so we hugged on a regular basis. I was shocked because I had never seen her look so shaken. Not when she told me about her ex-husband, not when she fought with her sixteen-year-old daughter. Never.
I held her and mumbled, “It’s OK.” It was all I could think to say.
She seemed to melt into my shoulder, and she wrapped her arms a little tighter.
It felt good to share a moment with her while the rest of the world was going crazy. I had always thought she was a beautiful woman, but until that moment, I had never thought of her in a romantic way.
When she pulled away much of the color had returned to her face.
All at once the thought and the moment were gone. I remembered the mess behind me.
“Could you wait back at your place while I, um…” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb.
“Yeah.” I thought I saw her blush a little.
The whole apartment was a wreck. It didn’t really look as if someone had been searching the rest of the place as much as just emptying everything onto the floor.
Clothes and sheets littered my bedroom floor. The lid to the toilet tank had been thrown in the tub. Dishes had smashed on the kitchen floor. Everything was a mess.
I didn’t have to look in the gun safe to know it had been cleaned out. I had watched most of its contents being carried out the door. With what happened at the hospital, I didn’t know how much of a help those guns would even be.
The living room was less of a mess. Perhaps they didn’t have time to ransack it before I got home. Good thing, too. On the bookshelf was a decorative wooden box.
I opened it up and smiled.
The heat in my apartment was beginning to get oppressive. It was uncomfortable even when I could run the air conditioner all day long. With the power off, it was downright unbearable. And the hottest part of the day was yet to come.
I realized I was getting thirsty. I hoped there was still something cool in the refrigerator. Luckily enough, it appeared to have not been cleaned out by the morons who messed up the rest of my place. The apple juice was still a little cold and so I finished it off. As I set down the jug I noticed the faucet in my sink.
If the water is off, too, then we’re already dead. I was afraid to turn the handle.
Oasis was aptly named, because it did have a natural spring. In fact, the town had been built with the spring as the center. Still, most of the water for the city was pumped in from the mountains almost a hundred miles away, and if the pumps were down, there wouldn’t be enough water for everyone, and we’d die of dehydration. Unless, of course, we caught the virus first.
I turned the faucet handle. Water came out. I breathed a sigh of relief. I splashed water on my face and it felt good. As I turned to leave, I saw a chain with two keys hanging on the wall. I smiled again.
There were five storage units on the roof of the Millers Crossing apartment building that could be rented by the tenants. Only tenants who rented one got a key to get on the roof. One of the keys on the chain was to the roof, and one was the storage unit that held my camping and outdoor gear.
I decided it would be safest to leave the keys and gun with Linda. She would be less likely to be watched, and the crew downstairs might decide to finish picking through my apartment. I tucked the box with the revolver under my arm and grabbed the keys.
A moment later, I opened the door to Linda’s apartment and called in.
I heard a drawer open in the kitchen. “You hungry, Corbin?”
I entered the little kitchen. It wasn’t quite lunch time, but I’ve made it a habit to never refuse food. “I’m always hungry.”
“I got to eat some of this stuff up before it goes bad.” In the time that I had known Linda, I had never really seen her sit still, but I had never seen her jittery like this. I guessed that her nervousness was the real reason she was preparing food. Her hands shook a little as she cut a sandwich in half. She handed me half. “Here, start with this.”
I placed the wooden box on the counter. As I took the sandwich from her hand, my fingertips brushed hers. Despite the heat, they felt ice cold.
Without even thinking, I put the sandwich down and grabbed her hand.
“Your hand is frozen.”
“It is? I must be…”
She closed her eyes and exhaled. “Yeah.”
“Lets go talk.” I let go of her hand.
“OK.” She nodded and left the kitchen.
I scooped up the box in one hand and my half of the sandwich in the other.
I went into the living room and sat next to Linda on the couch. I set the box on the other side of me.
She seemed to have calmed down a little, probably just happy to be getting something off of her chest.
“So what’s on your mind?” I took a bit of the sandwich. Roast Beef. Yum.
“Do you even really need to ask?”
I hoped I wouldn’t spray any food, but I felt compelled to respond. “Your daughter?”
“Kim? Yes, but it’s everything. I’m worried about her. I’m worried about me. I’m worried about our coworkers. Mostly Kim I guess.”
Kim was her sixteen year old daughter. Her only daughter. Linda’s ex-husband was a lawyer that knew all the good divorce lawyers and won custody when they were divorced. He had promptly moved to Oasis, right in the middle of nowhere. Linda once told me that he moved just so she couldn’t see her daughter and “poison her mind”. Linda had then finished nursing school and gotten a job at the hospital just to be near her daughter.
I had always respected her for having the strength to do what was necessary to be in her child’s life. She was an amazing woman who had been through a lot. I knew that she just needed a little comfort, then she’d be back on her fiery-tempered, iron-willed feet. I put my arm around her.
“Well, from what I’ve heard, your ex is a dick, but at least he knows how to get what he wants. He’ll keep her safe until you can see her again.”
“It’s not just that.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath again. “She was going to stay with me for a couple of days, but last night we got in a fight and she went back to her dad’s. Corbin, what if I don’t…”
I cut her off. “You will. I promise.”
She threw her arms around me like she had in the hall.
I set down the sandwich to completely hug her back. I thought about the situation, and was a little conflicted. She was my friend, and I wanted to help her. I was also feeling a slight pang of some other attraction to her, but that made me feel guilty. Like I was somehow taking advantage. At length I made up my mind to push aside any romantic feelings and just do everything in my power to make sure she had a chance to see daughter again.
We held each other there on the couch. With each breath she calmed down considerably. Soon she had stopped shaking altogether. We probably sat there for five minutes, when she finally noticed the box.
“What’s that?” She pulled away.
“Its a gift. Tell me everything that happened here first.”
“Apparently I came downstairs about five minutes after you left. Andy was still fuming about, what did he call it, the personal foul you committed and that there’d be a penalty kick or something when you got back.”
I rolled my eyes. “He’s such a nut job.”
“I know. Anyway, within a half hour or so, everyone in the building was down in the lobby watching the news. Nobody knew what was going on inside the hospital until someone with a camera phone sent a couple of pictures to the station.”
“Of infected patients. They appeared to be super strong and crazed, near impossible to control. The few phone calls that made it out said that the infected kept trying to bite anyone who came near. It’s like the virus completely overwhelmed their nervous system. Then it went from bad to worse. The infected began to break their straps, began to escape. That’s when the Army opened fire. The crowd outside the hospital went insane.”
“I know. I was in the middle of that mess.”
“It wasn’t much better here. The owner of the fastmart on the ground floor just took off for who knows where. Some newlyweds left for a nearby relative’s place. Andy and his crew almost immediately started talking martial law. Then there was that infected guy who was blasted from a window. Then there was that whole mob of infected that attacked the crowd. Then everything went dead.”
Linda took a deep breath, then rolled her eyes as she continued, “Then we had a tenant meeting. Andy got himself elected mayor, and they decided to lock the building and not let anyone in until this thing is over. I swear, it’s like half the building thinks that idiot is the greatest thing ever. Anyway, that’s when I tried to convince them you’d be useful if you made it back. I told them I knew you had guns and they wigged out. They were not going to let you in no matter what.”
I could see in her eyes that the fire was returning. She balled up her fist just remembering how angry she had been.
“And then you came back and got in. How did you get in anyway?”
I chuckled and finished the last bite of my sandwich. “Like everyone else in this building, I do have a key to that gate. Tim didn’t have time to chain or padlock it or anything. I scared him off right after he had figured out the lock.”
She hugged me again. “Well I’m glad you made it back. Thanks for listening. I’m sorry again about your guns.”
I smiled. “It’s not all your fault. They wouldn’t have been able to get in the safe so easy if I hadn’t cleverly hidden the key right on top of it.”
She pulled away from me. Apparently she had noticed the box again. “So what’s in the box?”
“Oh, right.” I pulled the key chain from my breast pocket and picked up the box. “They’re gifts.” I handed them to Linda.
She opened the box. In it lay my revolver, and a little container that had about 30 rounds. “Where’d you get this?”
“In that box, sitting on my shelf in the front room.”
“Sheesh. How many guns do you have?”
“Well, none now.”
“Corbin, I can’t take this…”
“Linda, yes you can. Andy and the idiots will just take it away if they find it and on me. Who knows what’s going to go down? I’d rather you be prepared than give them another gun to waste.”
She thought about it for a moment, then nodded her head. “And the keys?”
“That’s more like, for us to share. It’s my key to the roof and my storage shed. It’s got all of my camping and outdoors stuff. Just in case. I don’t want them to take that either.”
Linda set the box and keys on the end table. She turned back and looked me in the eye. She put her hand on my knee. She was quivering again, but it was different this time. Her mouth moved a little bit before she could speak.
“Corbin?” She leaned a little closer. Much closer than I would normally let someone get.
“Linda?” I wondered if this was going where I secretly hoped it would. I leaned a little more toward her. Our lips were now inches apart.
“Thanks.” She closed her eyes and put her lips to mine.
I was practically paralyzed. I couldn’t believe what was happening. My head swam with emotion. It didn’t matter that she was older. It didn’t matter that we worked at the same hospital. It didn’t matter what was happening in the city.
She pressed me back into a laying position on the couch. She pulled at my shirt, and kissed me more passionately.
I had no idea where this was going to take us, or what it would mean. I didn’t have time to find out, either.
We were interrupted by shouting from the hall.
“Corbin! Linda! Get out here! The mayor wants to see you.”
Linda pulled away, and smiled thinly. She looked a little surprised herself at what she had started, but pleased. Her eyes sparkled as she climbed off a reached out a hand.
“Guess we’d better go so the mayor doesn’t get impatient.”
I stood up.
Stomping noises came from the hall. “Where are you?”
“In here!” Linda called out.
We went into the hall. There was a man I recognized as a tenant of the second floor waiting for us. He was in a pressed blue shirt and slacks, looking a little too dressed up for the occasion.
The man stood up straight and delivered his message. “The mayor wants you two to do something.”
I fought back the urge to tell him that we were indeed just about to do something when he rudely interrupted. Instead I stood up straight and asked. “What is it the mayor would like us two to do?”
I heard Linda snicker a little, but my mocking didn’t seem to affect him at all. “He wants to tell you himself.” The man did a quick about face. “Follow me.”
Linda and I shrugged at each other and followed him down the stairs.
As we walked, I mused on the bizarre behavior that I had seen that day. The crowds, the guy leading us, Andy, Linda, everybody. For whatever reason, Andy’s behavior made me wonder most.
In the emergency room, I had seen normally intelligent people do all sorts of crazy things. Once I helped a guy who had dumped a box of jello mix into a gaping wound, hoping it would help thicken the blood and thus stop the bleeding. Another time a lady came in with her pet python attached to the top of her head. She had been asleep, but woke up with a terrible headache. When she figured out that the snake was trying to swallow her, she smeared peanut butter all around the snake’s mouth, hoping it wouldn’t like the taste and would just spit out her head. There is just no logical justification for what some people do under emergency situations. On some level I guess I understood how Andy could have thought tearing my place up and locking me out and electing himself mayor would be a good idea. It didn’t make me like him any more, though.
We entered the lobby. A group of fourteen or fifteen were seated on the couches and floor with Andy standing in front of the dead television. He had probably been pontificating to the others on something he knew nothing about.
“Good, you’re here.” Andy called out. “No more bench-sitting for you two. I’ve got an assignment for you.”
next – Chapter 7: Assignment