“Oakley – four o’clock!”
She spun to her right, swinging the machete and catching a creeper clear through the neck. Jesus, that was way too close. She nodded her thanks to Tap, then surged forward again, pushing between Rainbow and Ty-Ty into the throng of undead.
“Oakley! Dammit, get back here!”
She ignored Hunter’s voice, cutting and slashing her way between reeking, rotting bodies while taking their heads and limbs with her. They were all soft-skulled, which meant they’d been trapped in the mall for a while, unable to get out. And really hungry because of it.
Teeth gnashed around her, hands tried to hold her but luckily the muscles of their bodies were nothing but sacks of mush. No resistance, easy to pull away from. The smell in here was atrocious, but first they had to take down all these creepers.
Then came body disposal.
Then came clean up.
Then came security measures.
And finally, living quarters.
They would have time to get through it all before winter, but it would take a lot of hustle. She wished for even five more fit and strong bodies to help, but no such luck.
By the time the last in the herd of creepers had been felled Oakley was feeling the entire day’s walk and the uncomfortable night spent on a concrete pad at the service station. Muscles were complaining, her back was tight, and her neck was killing her. But work wasn’t done yet.
There was a huge home supply store in the mall, and that’s where their crew had broken in; jimmying open a pair of automatic doors.
With dusty wheel barrows the men carted carcasses out to a fenced-in garden centre outside one set of doors. They dumped bodies and the severed parts in a pile to be burned the next day. Hopefully the smoke wouldn’t attract too much attention.
It was an ideal store to break into, actually. Trimming shears would make a great stabbing weapon when locked closed. There were even chainsaws left on the shelves.
And patio furniture. Lots of it.
The women attacked that section, assembling loungers and chairs and tables in the open area where a few barbecues were set up. Those were shoved out of the way to make room for the big common area they were putting together.
Oakley and Sawyer took flashlights and dug deeper into the store to see what else would come in handy for the night. A few battery-operated camp lanterns were pulled off the shelves, only the ones that said “battery included.” There were even a section of solar panels at the very back of the store, which was promising if the warehouse was also stocked. But they hadn’t tested the warehouse yet. They simply locked it down, chaining the outside handles together. No chances were being taken.
The store was closed off from the rest of the mall still, a connecting entry secured by a huge folding wall. That was also left alone for the time being. When Oakley had put her ear to it she could hear the moans and breathing of creepers on the other side, guessing that a ton of them were still trapped in the corridors.
As for the creepers in the home store, she had a pretty good guess how they’d become trapped. The outbreak happened, a handful of creepers got into the store and attacked anyone else that entered after them. Then when the electric grid went down the automatic doors were shut, locking them all inside.
There had been a lot of them, too. That must be why the store was still so well-stocked. A built-in security system. That also bode well for the rest of the mall.
“Oakley, check these out,” Sawyer mumbled, holding up packets from a cardboard box on the shelf. Oakley came closer and angled her light down. She had to grin.
“Damn. That’s fantastic.” At least a year’s supply of water purification tablets. She looked around the aisle they’d wandered into and her smile grew. Camping supplies, all the way up to the ceiling. For the first time ever she found herself thanking the stars that the outbreak happened in the spring.
“And did you see all the rain barrels out in the garden centre?” Sawyer was saying. “If we can get them on the roof and secure it, we’ve got a water source. Even in winter we let them fill with snow. They’re black. On warm days we’ll have water there, too.”
Oakley shook her head. She hadn’t liked the mall idea, but the home store was proving to be a brilliant spot, at least for winter. All they had to do was keep their profile low until the snow flew. People were less likely to come marauding for supplies in winter. They hunkered down to wait for spring. It was stupid to risk getting caught in a blizzard, or even getting hurt out in the cold. No, she could see this place making an excellent home.
They carried the lanterns back to the assembly just as Hunter and his men returned from garbage removal. They smelled terrible but at least they were in a mall. Maybe new clothes could be found tomorrow.
The patio loungers weren’t anything special compared to the beds the women had at Greenwater, but after a night sleeping on the floor they were pretty much heaven. Oakley made sure her machete was easily reachable under hers, and Tap volunteered for the first sentinel shift.
She settled on her side, nearly nodding off when a warm hand circled her upper arm. She jumped, coming fully awake and swinging up with her other arm. Hunter grabbed her fist with a chuckle, holding her hand and running his thumb over the back of her hand. “Easy,” he whispered. “You trying to break my nose?”
“Maybe,” she hissed back. “What are you thinking? You scared me.”
He brought his face closer, and when she caught the glint in his eye she swallowed. He was still cranked up from the fight. He wasn’t tired in the least. As she recognized his condition her heart fluttered a bit. “Come for a walk with me,” he breathed close to her ear, and that got another quiver.
She let him pull her to her feet, and as they passed Tap he was chuckling. “Have fun,” he muttered after them.
Oakley’s face was red, but Hunter’s hand in hers, pulling her along prevented her from worrying on that too much. Tap knew what they were doing; so what? They weren’t the first people in the world to get this urge.
Next to the lumber section was a mounted measuring board, the only place in the whole store with a flat, sturdy wall. A flashlight came on and was dropped to the ground, shining towards the wall. She knew he didn’t like to do this in the dark, he liked being able to see her.
Hunter spun Oakley towards him, mouth closing on hers roughly, hands at her lower back, walking her back until she hit the wall. Her arms came around his neck immediately, head tilting to let his tongue into her mouth. Big, square hands pawed at her butt aggressively, and her heart rate increased.
It was wonderfully having someone around when you were cranked up on adrenalin.
Her hands were on his fly as his lips trailed kisses down her neck. The pleasantness of that had her head lolling back to the wall, eyes falling closed. “You taste salty,” Hunter muttered.
Oakley smiled, eyes still closed. “You smell horrible.”
He chuckled at that too, and her eyes came open. When they did she gasped, hands flying to Hunter’s chest and shoving him away.
The shock of staring upward, seeing a face peering down on them from a top shelf that housed short lengths of trimwork made her heart halt. She kept staring upward, and when she heard Hunter mutter “What the hell?” she knew he saw it, too.
It was a child, maybe ten. But she was terrible at guessing the age of children. She hadn’t seen anyone younger than about fifteen since Jess was that age. Children just hadn’t survived to this point.
The olive-complexioned face with wide, dark eyes kept looking down at them, his face a blank, assessing countenance half in shadow. “What do we do?” she whispered, heart online and racing again from the shock.
“Hey,” Hunter called upward, soft and careful. “You okay? You hurt or anything, buddy?”
Oakley frowned. She’d never heard this tone from him before, and as she started to think it was kind of cute there was a weird hissing sound and when she looked up again the face was gone.
Hunter grabbed her arm. “Let’s get back to the others,” he said, serious now.
“What was that?” she whispered, reaching down for the flashlight. He didn’t let go of her arm as he did so.
“I think that kid’s feral,” he answered, pulling her along and checking over his shoulder. “If he’s alone I don’t care. But if there’s a lot of them that could be trouble.”
“But he’s just a boy,” she was arguing, and Hunter stopped to face her.
“Babe,” he said, gentle, so she knew he was pretty freaked out. “He’s a boy that made it this far on his own. He hissed at us, he didn’t talk.” He looked upward again. She absently admired the corded muscle of his neck when he did it, realizing now she was the one with the unscratched itch. He brought his eyes back down to her. “My guess is he lived in the rafters, or the duct work. That’s smart. Creepers don’t climb. Not yet, anyway.”
Oakley allowed a smile and looked upward, too. Just like her, when she slept in trees on her own. Out of creepers’ reach.
“Don’t tell anyone yet. I ain’t sleeping now,” Hunter continued, pulling her along again. “That kid freaked me out.”
“Oakley – four o’clock!”