He came back from his scope of the perimeter with nothing new to report. That was probably good, but when it came to situations like this, it seemed like a bastardization of the word to stay it aloud, to even think it. It could definitely be worse, there was that much. The house had not been breached, which was a little surprising—for the first night, the big window in the living room was unprotected except for a comforter with Garfield the Cat on it, but as soon as the turmoil outside had quieted, Lassiter had managed to empty two bookcases in the living room to lift and slide them in front of the glass. He had tucked blankets and sheets he found in the bedrooms and the linen closet around the curtain rods of the rest of the windows on the first level, and hopefully they would continue to be left alone.
That didn't seem like it was going to be a problem. Lassiter stood in the doorway of what looked like it had once been an upstairs office and studied Spencer; he was still sitting on the sofa he slept on (if you could call dozing and then startling awake with constant nightmares sleeping—not that Lassiter blamed him, not really, not after what he'd seen), staring at a blank expanse of wall. His shoulders were slumped and his neck bent, as if his head was too heavy to lift all of the way, and he hadn't said a single word since Lassiter had dragged him into this house, up the stairs, and into this room. That had been almost a week ago. He wasn't entirely unresponsive—he would shake his head if Lassiter asked him if he was hungry, but he would eat if Lassiter told him to. He would also get up and sit in the hall with a gun, taking watch if Lassiter had to sleep, although he wouldn't approach the windows. He seemed to like this room because it didn't have any; while Lassiter also liked that—it made it the most secure room on the whole floor—he didn't like not being able to see if anything was happening outside.
Activity had been drastically dropping since the first week of upheaval; a week of hell, of living nightmares as the dead rose up again and walked, killed, ate. It happened so fast that there wasn't time for anything but survival for the strong and panic for the weak—life for the strong and death for the weak. Carlton Lassiter was strong. He'd been preparing for the end of the world for years, for almost every contingent imaginable. Let those who had laughed at him in years past chortle now, while he was moderately safe, under shelter, with a dozen handguns, two rifles with scopes, a shotgun, half a dozen stun grenades, and all the carefully-packed ammo he could carry. While the masses were panicking and screaming and running aimlessly, he was calmly retrieving his stores and loading the secret compartments he'd had installed in his car. If he was prudent and cautious, he should be able to defend himself against a small army.
He hadn't counted on company, though.
“Spencer,” he said softly. He waited, and after a moment, Spencer turned his head very slightly toward the doorway, indicating that he was listening, but his eyes stayed fixed on the wall. Lassiter pressed his lips together briefly, but he went on. “It's been twenty-four hours and I haven't seen or heard a single thing from out there. I highly doubt that there isn't anything—or anyone—there, but it's time enough. I'm going to go out.”
Now he got a reaction—for the first time since they'd come here, Spencer looked at him, his eyes huge and frightened. Lassiter came into the room slowly, putting his Smith & Wesson 629 into his hip holster so that his hands were free and non-threatening, not that Spencer had anything to fear from him. He took the Glock 17 from the left side of his shoulder holster and held it out, not breaking the first eye-contact Spencer was giving him since Lassiter had unwound his fingers from his dead friend's shirtsleeve and hauled him back to his feet.
“Take it,” he said. “And don't blast me with it when I come back. It's a supply run, Spencer—I'm coming back. Okay?”
Nothing. Spencer just looked at him, his eyes huge and glassy and shadowed.
“Do you want to come with me?” Lassiter asked him in a low voice. “It's pretty quiet out there, but we could easily run into...” He trailed off; Spencer was shaking his head fast, moving back so that he was pressed against the cushion of the sofa. “Okay,” Lassiter told him. “I'm going then. Take this. I'll be back soon.”
He held the gun out again, and when Spencer still didn't move, Lassiter gently picked up his hand and put the Glock into it. Spencer allowed it, but he still looked so terrified that Lassiter started to feel uneasy about leaving him. What if he decided that he'd had enough and that he'd much rather join his friend and his father—and just about everyone else they knew—instead of pushing for survival? What if, while Lassiter was collecting some food stores for them, he heard a single gunshot? He would have to take the chance; he absolutely needed to get out there and see what, if anything, was going on beyond the house they were holed up in and the lawn attached to it. The street had lots of trees on it, and he couldn't see the end of the block from the windows, for one. He'd been outside, to the sidewalk, but his instincts had sent twangs up and down his spine and drove him back inside each time. It was too creepy outside; it was too deserted except for the corpses. And Spencer would need a weapon if the house was breached while Lassiter was out.
“I'll bring you something good if I can find anything,” he told Spencer. “Wait here for me.” He got up and left the room, left the house, before he could think to stop himself. His instincts also told him that the longer they stayed hidden, the harder it would be to leave.
Lassiter made it four blocks east without incident. The neighborhood was still quiet, and he saw no movement at all—no animals, no monsters. He was disquieted that there weren't any birds or squirrels, even though he'd hated the pests just weeks ago, and the silence seemed to build until he felt muffled, that even his footfalls on the concrete of a drugstore parking lot were more akin to walking on carpet in slippers. He wanted to make noise, just to make sure that noise was still a possibility, but that was dangerous—they'd learned that at once, to their sorrow. His brain tried to give him her voice again, and he shoved it away, drawing his pistol and edging along the wall to the broken glass of the drugstore's sliding door.
He got back to the house forty minutes later, running with a red plastic shopping basket in one hand and his gun in the other. He kept it out even as he closed and latched the back door, and then he set the basket on the table in the kitchen so that he could do a sweep of the first floor to make sure no one—nothing—had gotten in while he was gone. Every room was empty. He shook his head, trying to dispel the creepy feeling crawling up his spine from the way the world outside had been, and he got the basket of supplies to take upstairs.
“Spencer,” he called quietly, stopping halfway up the stairs. “It's me. I'm back, and I'm fine. Do not fire.”
Silence. The entire world, outside and in, seemed to be dead.
Lassiter stopped again halfway down the hall. “I'm coming in, Spencer,” he said. “Do not fire.”
And do not be dead.
Lassiter edged around the corner and stopped in the doorway. Spencer's huge eyes greeted him, along with the eye of the pistol pointed in his direction, and he was relieved. “Lower that and put the safety on,” he directed, but not sharply. “Everything's fine.” He paused, and then he held up the basket a little. “I brought you some things.”
Something flickered on Spencer's face at that, and Lassiter was glad to see him understand and obey. He aimed the Glock at the floor and set the safety, and then he laid it down on the sofa next to him. Lassiter nodded and came into the room, putting his S&W 629 back on his left side before picking up the Glock and putting it back on his hip, and then he sat on the other edge of the sofa and put the basket between his feet. He'd been surprised to find so much of the store still there—but then, it had happened fast. That was surely a portion of Spencer's shock, along with the enormity of what he'd seen: one day life was normal, and within a couple of weeks, most of the world was dead, communications were down, and those that were only partly dead were munching on those they caught.
Lassiter dug to the bottom of the basket, pulling out a few things he'd located and chosen to bring back first: a bottle of Johnson's Baby Shampoo, a random comic book with characters he didn't recognize, a KitKat candy bar, a whoopee cushion. He hadn't been sure what sorts of things Spencer would like, although he could remember how often he'd sneered at both him and Guster for being children, and so he'd grabbed anything he could that he thought would remind the other man of being a child, of being happy. He had, of course, also gotten food and medicine, supplements and lighters and batteries and a couple of candles, but these things had seemed almost as important for some reason. He knew that they weren't, not really. But then, what was important now?
When Shawn's eyes fell on the small pile of things in Lassiter's hands, he looked up again and his eyes were not so dull, not so blank. He reached for the comic book, on which Lassiter had balanced everything else, and when he took the pile of things from an old life, Lassiter thought that the corners of his mouth turned up a little.
Lassiter went back to the drugstore the day after he'd first gone; he found a new backpack in the small sporting goods section and grabbed it at once to fill with whatever else he could find that they could use. He perused the aisles a bit longer to see what was available, collecting more medicines, first aid material, vitamins and protein bars, batteries, and reusable shopping bags for more supplies or better packing. He also found two water bottles that had filters in them, and, on the shelf below them, replacement filters.
As he went by the checkout counter, he saw a display case of beef jerky. He swung his pack off his back and set it in front of the register, pulling back the zipper and reaching for the jerky to stuff as much of it as he could inside... and then he saw the mess of blood on the floor. He froze with his hand extended, his eyes tracking the body drag marks to the end of the short aisle. It wasn't entirely dark in the building, but the only light came through the smashed glass of the front display windows, and he was glad he couldn't see the shape against what used to be a display of dog toys. Whatever—or whomever—it used to be, it wasn't whole anymore.
The blood wasn't completely fresh, but it wasn't old and dried. Lassiter listened as hard as he could, and he thought he could now discern shuffling sounds in between his racing heartbeat. They weren't the sounds of rats—even though there were a few bodies strewn around the store, Lassiter had yet to see signs of vermin, which was in itself odd—but of shoes. He had the pack on his back and the gun in his hand within three seconds, and he was walking as fast as he could for the doorway in five. It took him twice as long to get back to the house he and Spencer were staying in because it was difficult to simply walk on the sidewalks. He kept close to the houses on the street (but not too close), and he looked everywhere, his head whipping from side to side and over his shoulder. He still saw nothing outside, but the picture of what he'd seen in the drugstore wouldn't leave his mind.
They weren't safe here.
That was a joke, surely. 'Safe' was now a pipe dream on par with 'happy'.
On the second-floor room with Spencer, Lassiter laid out every supply they had. They'd come here with Lassiter's bags of guns and ammo and emergency rations, and now they had those plus the supplies and the backpack from the drug store, a small quantity of canned and dry goods from the pantry of the house, and three rolls of toilet paper. While he was inventorying and transferring the contents of the red shopping basket to the bags he'd picked up, Spencer left the room for the first time since they'd arrived and perused the bathroom and one of the bedrooms. He came back twenty minutes later, just as Lassiter had re-packed the backpack and bags, and held out a bottle of hydrocodone and a baggie with half a dozen marijuana joints.
Lassiter frowned and took them. “Where'd you find these?” he asked. Spencer shrugged and pointed down the hall. “Well, I guess the hydrocodone may be useful. I have an unusually high threshold for pain, did I ever tell you?” He sighed, thinking that Spencer might eventually need them if he became injured, and tossed the bottle in with the miniature pharmacy he'd collected and the first aid supplies in the red shopping bag (red for emergency). He made a face at the drugs. “These can just go into the toilet bowl as far as I'm concerned.” Then he had a thought: barter. If they happened across other survivors, a trade for drugs might garner them food or ammunition or any number of other things. He shrugged and tucked the joints into an inside pocket of the backpack. “I suppose any supplies can be useful,” he muttered. He looked up to tell Spencer that they were leaving, but he was no longer in the room. Lassiter was about to call for him, but he came back almost immediately with a Ninja Turtles pillow; Lassiter frowned at it, thinking that their focus ought to be on survival and not comfort, but now wasn't the time to nitpick about it. He held up the backpack. “Carry this, the red bag, and the green bag with the food, will you? We're leaving.”
Spencer suddenly looked terrified and he took several steps back, stopping only when he hit the wall, now clutching the pillow to his stomach. Lassiter didn't have time for this and he was annoyed, but he could see that Spencer was really scared. He had been himself when he was in the drugstore earlier, and he realized now that his hurried arrival back at the house, along with his abrupt supply inventory and decision to leave, had tripped Spencer's instincts as well. He had spent a week and a half only in this room (except for short trips to the bathroom), and it made sense that he was afraid of what waited for them outside.
“Spencer,” he said, quietly but firmly. “We need to go. Get those supplies—and stay with me—and you'll be fine. Come on.” He barely stopped himself from snapping his fingers. “Now. Just stick close to me, and it'll be okay.”
Spencer just looked at him for a long moment, and just when Lassiter's patience was about to snap, he seemed to set his jaw and nodded. He took one step forward, and then five more to the supplies; he hoisted the pack onto his back, tucked the pillow under one arm, lifted the shopping bags, and then he looked up, breathing quickly.
“Good,” Lassiter said, and he slung the two gun bags over his own back, carrying the duffel bag of ammo with one hand; he wanted the other free to grab for his gun if necessary. He led the way downstairs, waiting for Spencer at the bottom, as he was walking very timidly. Lassiter tilted his head toward the living room and Spencer nodded, and although his head whipped around like he was trying to look in all directions at once, he was now right on Lassiter's heels.
Lassiter looked out of a corner of the window by nudging aside the comforter to check the street: clear. He went to the front door and looked back at Spencer. “Ready? The car is right out front, and the keys are still in it. It looks clear out there, but if it isn't: run for the car, dump everything in the back seat, get in, and we'll blow. If you don't have time to load in the supplies, drop them and get into the car yourself.” He opened the front door and looked around again. Still seeing nothing, he glanced back at Spencer. “With me.” Spencer nodded, his eyes huge, and Lassiter opened the screen door.
They ran across the lawn to the car and threw open the back doors; Lassiter swung his gear onto the seats and then stood up with one pistol in each hand, his back to the car and his gaze spanning the street while Spencer dropped the bags onto the floor and the backpack on top of them. Lassiter stayed where he was until he heard Spencer throw himself into the front passenger seat and the door slam, and then he stuck both guns into his holsters and got into the car himself. He started the ignition and pulled away from the curb, his adrenaline fizzling away now that they were on their way.
Lassiter hadn't gone the way of the drugstore intentionally; it was just the way the car was pointed, and he knew they could get out of this neighborhood going south. Half a block from Sanderson's Drug, he brought the car to a stop, and they stared. He didn't think it had been more than two hours at the most since he'd been inside the store, and now his mouth hung open and he couldn't make his lungs inflate with a new breath. There were six or seven zombies in the parking lot, one stumbling around the broken glass of the entrance, and two in the middle of the east-west street.
Spencer began to shake; he hunched his shoulders and wrapped his arms around the cartoon pillow in his lap, but his eyes still stared, and he didn't seem to be breathing, either. Lassiter let his foot off the brake and applied it to the gas hard, sending them sailing south at forty-five miles an hour. He pressed his lips together and scanned the road and both sides of the street as they continued, thinking that it would be just their luck to find a crowd—a horde—that had been coming their way and that they were now headed toward. The rest of the neighborhood seemed to be deserted and he relaxed slightly, breathing more easily, although his hands still gripped the steering wheel tightly.
Ten minutes later, Lassiter realized that Spencer was still shaking; when he glanced at him, he saw that he was staring back at him instead of looking around. Surely he had realized the implication of the scene at the drug store as well. “Hey,” Lassiter said. “It's fine, all right? Nothing happened—I got back in time.” Spencer started to shake his head and Lassiter turned his attention back to the road quickly, not wanting to have noticed that the other man looked as if he was about to cry. “It's going to be okay,” he said after another minute of silence, but his voice was as flat as his conviction.
Spencer buried his face in his pillow and stayed that way.