Jared quashes the spike of panic that lances through him and keeps shoving Gatorade into the duffel, willing the fine tremor of his hands away.
Crouched over by the broken automatic doors, Gen scans the middle distance with her binoculars and reaches for the crowbar at her side.
"No, five. Five headed our way. Shit, one of them is flat out running. The rest just the usual mess, at least." She glances over at Jared. "Almost done?"
"Give me a second, gotta find the medical supplies. Are we out of antibiotics?" Jared drops the loaded bag by Gen's side and makes for the back of the shop.
"Shitty gas mart like this, closest they have to med supplies is probably chapstick." She rips into a chocolate bar from the duffel and stuffs half of it in her mouth.
The hair at the back of Jared's neck is standing on end and he can't see anything in the dim half-light, the stench of decay emanating from the frozen food section heightening his nausea.
This is the first place they've come across all week that hasn't been reduced to a barren pillaged husk, and they're running low on bandages and disinfectant, and at this rate they'll need all the food they can carry to last them until the next town.
They've barely been here ten minutes. Goddamn zombies.
A shadow surges on the far wall as Jared rounds the corner and he sends a whole shelf of DVDs tumbling in a cacophony, his armload of scavenged goods sent flying with the rest.
The shadow is Gen's, cast long by the light through the glass doors as she straightens up from her sentry spot to join him.
"Ah fuck," says Jared, rubbing at his mouth with a heavy hand.
Gen chews and swallows impassively. "Jared."
"Sorry, I just get freaked out. Sorry." His heart rabbits in his chest and his sweaty hair keeps getting in his eyes. The truth of the matter is that he's scared shitless.
"Relax," says Gen around the second half of the Oh Henry. She slaps the binoculars into his palm and hands him her handgun, still warm from the small of her back.
"Emergency only," she says firmly, eyes locked on his. She waits for his nod, then sprints out the doors with the crowbar swinging, hair flying wild in her wake.
She buys them an hour. They end up loading the car with enough food to last them halfway to Florida, two first aid kits, and a dizzying amount of paper towel and toilet paper.
It's high noon when they pull out of the gas station and onto the highway. Severed limbs and decapitated heads crunch under the wheels, and nine charging revenants eat the dust they leave behind.
When they're clear, Jared thunks his head against the window and breathes out shakily. Gen doesn't say anything, just tucks her unruly hair behind her ear and offers him a pack of Twizzlers with a smile, sweet and awkward.
It was fall on the ruins of I-35 when they first met.
Jared had been walking for ten days, eating only as much as would keep him on his feet and sleeping the fitful sleep of the terrified.
At first, the car was a dirt-colored smudge in the distance. Jared thought about dodging into the woods and holding still and possibly not breathing until the car was long gone. He thought about it real hard as he kept walking along the gravel shoulder, his overstuffed duffel clinking loudly with every step, the smudge growing like an ink drop on the highway.
His feet hurt. His bag was heavy. He didn't remember the sound of his own voice, and he was so very, very tired. Jared took a deep breath and stuck his thumb out.
Perhaps not the wisest of decisions in the zombie post-apocalypse, but then he'd always been an optimist. Three years in and it still hadn't been beaten out of him, so he figured it wasn't going anywhere.
Maybe it was the novelty of a moving vehicle. These days cars decorated streets and parking lots like so much junk, tanks long used up or siphoned dry. Jared had slept in a few junkers his first couple of nights, when he was still within city limits.
Well, sleep was probably too strong a word for the wide-eyed quaking he'd occupied himself with on those starless nights.
The car puttered to a stop a few yards down the road. Jared shrugged his duffel more securely over his shoulders and concentrated on standing very straight and very still. He gripped the baseball bat tighter, the tip dragging a shallow arc in the dirt.
The window rolled down with shaky, laborious cranks. The driver leaned out and squinted at him.
"Uh, hey," said Jared, feeling very inadequate. His voice came out monstrously hoarse and heat rushed up his neck. He dropped his thumb belatedly.
"You for real?" asked the driver after a while. Her voice was raspy too and not particularly friendly, muffled by the cloth pulled over her nose, but Jared was okay with that. Jared learned that he could be okay with a lot of things when it came down to it.
"I have like ten pounds of canned soup with me." He felt the dirt crack on his face when he smiled. He held his breath while she squinted at him some more. "And beef jerky, I have that too."
Jared thought he had a sporting chance here. He had a good feeling about this.
The feeling evaporated when the driver leveled a gun at him through the window.
"This thing is loaded." She waved it around a bit for emphasis and he flinched with his whole body, heart pounding in his throat.
"Just letting you know." She swung the passenger door open and tucked the gun away into some mysterious and terrifying place. "Got any toothpaste?"
He approached with his palms held up, bat dangling from two fingers, and climbed into the car very gingerly. She watched him with a disgruntled frown, but Jared tried not to take it personally.
He folded himself up neatly in shotgun and took extra care not to jostle anything with the bat.
"Yeah, I have toothpaste."
"What, seriously?" She turned all the way around in her seat to stare at him, the disuse already fading from her throat. There was a stray curl of hair stuck to her mouth.
"Um. Yes? It has Spider-Man on the front but I promise it's real toothpaste." He clutched his duffel very close and tried to draw comfort from the clinking of the tin cans.
She subsided into the seat and slapped the wheel, once, bracing. "Okay then." She cranked the window back up and started the car.
Jared felt himself grin at the side of her face, the conversation surreal. Who would have thought, a real life person in a real life car.
"I'm Jared. It's real nice to meet you. Where are you headed?" He almost stuck his hand out but thought better of it at the last moment.
She was quiet for a beat, scowling out the windshield. Jared waited.
"I'm Gen, I'm headed to Pensacola, where are you going," she amended, saying it fast and under her breath, reluctant.
"Pensacola sounds good," Jared said brightly. He settled into the seat and stared out the window, chewing on the inside of his lip to keep from smiling.
After the gas station the highway is a long deserted stretch of emptiness, wheat swaying in the fields and greenery growing timidly in the cracks of the pavement. Most of the power lines are still standing in the area, though Jared spots a transmission tower with its beams rusted through and collapsing, half-eaten by vines.
Gen steers with one hand as she steadily munches her way through a bag of Cheetos, fingertips aggressively orange.
"Sweet haul," says Jared, and Gen grins over at him, her hair flying wild as always.
"Did good, kiddo," she says gruffly, and feints a punch his way. Jared squirms away in his seat and grins back.
"And tonight we'll feast like kings," he intones in his deepest voice, affecting a mediocre British accent. Gen snorts quietly, the sun catching the red in her hair and making the dirt on her face look beautiful.
Jared stuffs his mouth full of Cheetos to fight down the queasy roiling of his gut.
When a tinge of purple starts creeping up the edges of the sky, Gen switches to gas and they start looking for service roads.
They set up camp a mile out from the highway, a flimsy copse of trees between them and the road the only measure of protection the flat country can afford. Jared heats two cans of cream of mushroom over a low fire, cuts up some beef jerky, and garnishes the side with a tin of clementines and a Mars bar each.
"Like kings," says Gen drily, but she wolfs down her share like a feral thing and Jared congratulates himself on a job well done.
"You have a gun—you have guns. Why don't you ever use them?" he asks the ground later, when she's sitting beside him cross-legged on the dead grass, raking the knots out of her matted hair.
"We only have so many bullets. Waste not, whatnot. Anyway, crowbar works fine." She bumps his shoulder companionably.
Jared chews his lips. "I worry. Seriously Gen, I appreciate the therapeutic value of bashing zombie heads in, but it'd be way more efficient if you'd just shoot them. Not to mention more sanitary."
"Yes, Jared. I know." Gen goes back to combing, her eyes distant and lost in the fire.
His eyes track the movements of her long ragged-nailed fingers for a while before he says, "Want me to cut that for you?" mostly to fill the silence before her eyes get darker and farther.
Gen startles and stares at him outright, and Jared almost laughs at how affronted she looks.
"Uh, no." Her hand has stilled.
"Hey, just a thought." He raises his palms. "But doesn't it get in the way, all that messy hair whipping around? Just a snip…"
"Shut up, Padalecki. Always had it this way, not gonna change it." Gen scowls at him some more and twines her hair protectively over her shoulder. Jared laughs and tips his cheek down to rest against the top of her head.
"Yeah, me too," he says, very quietly.
Once, early on, Gen caught him digging through the glove compartment without intent.
He started guiltily when she slapped the roof of the car above his head with both hands and leveled an unreadable look at him through the cracked window.
"Find anything interesting?" she said when she slipped behind the wheel, and Jared would swear the tugged up corner of her mouth was mirth.
"Uh. A bag of pistachios, a couple maps. And this thing? Not sure what it is." He held up a small knit monkey head, a huge pom-pom adorning the top, buttons for eyes, two long red tassels dangling.
Gen went very still.
"It's just junk," she said tonelessly and slammed her door closed.
The monkey thing was cute, so Jared hung it on the rearview mirror and held his breath. Gen didn't rip it off or punch him in the throat, and he snuck a glance at her.
"Where'd you get it?" he asked, feeling like pushing his luck.
"It's. It was my brother's." She said it very slowly and carefully, eyes locked on the cracked rubble of the road.
"It's cute, I like it." He grinned at her.
She glanced at him, then looked away quickly, a confused furrow between her eyebrows. "Yeah. I guess."
Jared leaned back into his seat and watched the monkey swing gently with the rocking of the car.
Outside Houston, they screech to a stop at an intersection and avoid colliding with a handful of bike riders by a hair. Gen slaps a shocked hand to Jared's chest and he sits bolt upright from his slouch against the window. Her body heat leeches through his washed out sweatshirt.
"Gen," he hisses when she reaches for her crowbar with one hand and the assault rifle under the seat with the other. "They're just people."
"Precisely," she says grimly. Jared stares at her for a long minute, then slams out of the car and stalks up to the guy they almost bowled over with his hand stuck out in determined friendship. The guy rights his mountain bike and takes a step forward, putting himself between Jared and the other cyclists.
"Hi, I'm Jared, that's my— that's Gen. It's good to meet you guys, haven't seen anyone in a long, long time, where are y'all headed?" He says it in a rush, his voice painfully jovial, and it's only when he takes in the bug-eyed looks on the riders' faces that he consciously drops his shoulders and tries to shrink his frame.
It's easy to forget, at the end of the world with a fearless girl at your side, how tall and frightening you probably look after years on the road.
"Uh. Hi, uh, Jared? Good to meet you, man," says the guy, shaking his hand very carefully like it might be a bear trap. "I'm Aldis. We're going west. Heard there are survivor camps out in California, we're checking it out." He glances over his shoulder uncertainly and gets an eyebrow and a sarcastic thumbs-up from a tall brunette.
Jared's heart leaps in his chest. "Survivor camps, really? Where did you hear about it, since when, are—"
"We'll trade you info for antibiotics," says the woman, cutting him off. She gives him a long hard look, then glances over at Gen where she's still sitting in the idling car, arms crossed, glaring fiercely out the windshield.
Gen doesn't say anything when Jared jogs over to rummage for the medicine bag, though he can feel her hostility emanating off her like a cold draft.
"Hey, did you hear? He said there are survivor camps. That's huge! It changes everything, there might still be people—"
"Don't," snarls Gen, and Jared's mouth snaps shut. "Don't." She turns her glare to the window and refuses to say another word.
Realization dawns slow and cold in the pit of his stomach.
"You already knew."
She doesn't answer.
He searches her face but she's shut down on him, face unreadable save for the clench of her jaw and the wet gleam in her eyes.
"I'm giving them the antibiotic," he says flatly, and stalks away.
Later, after Aldis and Lauren tell him all they've heard from other survivors and on the ham radio waves and draw him a crude map in the dirt, Jared climbs back into the car and shuts the door quietly. It sends the monkey thing on the rearview swaying gently like an antsy toddler.
"Gen," he starts, and she tips her head down so her hair falls in a curtain over her eyes. "Gen, let's go. We're wasting daylight." He feels his voice softening against his will.
"Where to," she asks very carefully at the long-extinguished streetlights.
He takes a deep breath and watches the declining sun pick out the cracks in her lips, her damp lashes, the road dust permanently etched into the lines of her face.
"If you're gonna go with them, you—" she starts, but Jared cuts her off.
"To the sea," he says firmly. "We're going to the sea."
Gen tucks her hair behind her ear and gives him a long hard look. Jared juts his chin out.
After a while, the car starts up with a weak rattle.
One of their first nights on the road together, Jared woke with a start in the hollowed out space where the backseat used to be. The balled up sweater under his head had been flattened overnight, and a sharp-angled duffel jabbed uncomfortably at the back of his knees.
The dim light from the moon was shifting subtly, unnervingly all around. Jared strained his ears.
Gen's breathing was shallow but even in the front seat. Something limped across the side of the car and drew a rasping breath like a death rattle.
Jared whipped his head around to peer out the window, every hair on the back of his neck standing on end.
The car was surrounded by a swarm of zombies. Some were pawing ineffectually at the glass, others mouthing at anything within reach with rotting gums. Ten. Twelve. Fifteen— at least eighteen of the fuckers were out there.
Jared forcibly swallowed down his rising gorge and tried very hard not to shriek.
One of them shambled headlong into the side of the car and sent it rocking gently, terrifyingly. Jared heard a wet, sickening crack and found himself staring down a pair of putrefying eye sockets, bits of dead maggots swinging in the amorphous flesh.
"Hhhhrrrrh," said the zombie through the ribbons of decay where cheeks and lips should be, face an inch of glass away from Jared's. Some indistinguishable liquid dribbled out its mouth and stained the collar of its tattered Hawaiian shirt.
"Oh holy shit," said Jared airlessly.
He climbed over the front seat as quietly as he could and shook Gen urgently, a hand pressed over her mouth.
She snapped awake and had a gun jammed up under his sternum before he could second-guess himself.
"Ah fuck! No wait, it's just me," he whispered as loudly as he dared. She didn't budge an inch and a different kind of nausea washed over him.
He scrambled off and banged his elbow on the rearview in his haste to get away. The noise stirred the zombies up, and the clawing and banging and moaning spiked in intensity.
"No, I didn't— It's not— Zombies, Gen. Lots of them," he hissed. Her eyes followed his frantic pointing and she propped herself up to sitting, hair a sleep-tousled mess.
"Too many to plow through. We'll have to wait it out," she said, eyes scanning the faces of the revenants one by one, very carefully.
Jared shifted nervously. "Um. Is the car gonna hold? If they bust in here we're gonna be really, really dead."
The corner of Gen's mouth quirked up. "As opposed to only a little dead. The car will hold. We built— It was built for this."
They huddled in the back and watched as the zombies slowly lost interest one by one, leaving fingernails and bits of graying flesh and seriously questionable body fluids in their wake.
Gen scowled at them through the windshield and Jared made sure to keep lots of space between them, the memory of a gun to his chest making him feel heavy.
He dozed off eventually in spite of himself, sleeping restlessly. He drifted awake once and found Gen's warm weight at his back, her ribcage expanding and contracting in a soothing rhythm. He listened to her breathe for a while before going under again.
By dawn, the worst of it was past.
In New Orleans, the car breaks down.
The city is eerie, its pavement more rubble than road, the streetcar rails protruding like scars and snaking forlornly into the distance.
The car rolls smoothly to a stop between one streetlight and the next and refuses to start again. Jared looks away from the colorful buildings with their collapsed balconies and blood-stained welcome mats and glances sidelong at Gen.
"I don’t know. We're low on gas, but electric should be working. We rigged it to switch over automatically when one runs dry, I don't know why—"
She keeps up a steady stream of muttering as she steps out and goes to tinker under the hood. Jared figures now's not the best time to ask her who this mysterious we she keeps bringing up is, and opts to watch her back with his trusty baseball bat in hand.
By nightfall, they're no closer to getting back on the road while the shadows creep steadily toward them like rising water.
Jared takes a gander at the car's bowels too, having helped fix a junker or two in his time, but the mess of cables and fans and unrecognizable engine parts that Gen and her mysterious first person plural cobbled together proves to be way beyond him.
"We'll figure it out," he tells her, and she lifts her gaze from the dead console looking so lost that Jared abruptly just knows.
Gen slowly tips her weight into him and Jared lets her, stares resolutely out the windshield while she swallows wetly against his neck. The rearview monkey grins at him cheerily.
"I'm not mad. That you traded them the antibiotics, I mean," she says. Jared hums quietly and doesn't dare move an inch. "A kid in Chicago told me, said rumor was all over campus before mandatory evacuation. Said he was gonna go and find his whole family there." She laughs bitterly. "Yeah right."
"You never know." Jared doesn't have anyone waiting for him, in California or anywhere else, but just the thought of survivor camps buoys his spirits. It occurs to him, possibly for the first time, that Gen isn't any less frightened than Jared. Just of different things.
They stay like that for a long time.
In the morning, Gen knuckles her eyes furiously and glares a lot at her shoes. Jared's heart wells with helpless affection, an aching kind of pressure.
"Guess we're done here. We'll have to walk the rest of the way," she says gruffly after brushing her teeth way longer than necessary by the side of the road. She already has the weapons bag shouldered and her crowbar in hand, sleep lines fading slowly from her face.
The sun is blinding in the morning sky, brighter than Jared has ever seen.
He swings his legs out the door and brackets her between his knees. "C'mon, Gen. Let's wait it out, huh? Gotta have a little bit of faith." A winning smile, big hopeful eyes, a tug of her little finger with his. He holds his breath.
Gen relents with a disgusted sound and Jared smiles, eyes searching hers out and holding fast.
On the third day, the car sputters back to life, the solar panels scalding to the touch.
Their first week travelling together, getting words out of Gen was like pulling teeth. Jared shared his soup and his toothpaste, and every time they made a pit stop he was half afraid that Gen wouldn't let him back in the car.
Still, Jared was glad for the company. It had been so long since he had someone to sit with in companionable silence, someone he could trust to see again in the light of the next day.
The car was a rickety old thing, the seats torn out in the back and solar panels rigged on the roof. It wasn't terribly fast and stalled when there was a run of bad weather, but it made all the difference. He felt much safer viewing the world through the windshield, metal walls on all sides. When it was sunny they sped down the cracked highways like a pebble over smooth waters, like nothing could touch them, and it was exhilarating.
He felt exponentially safer still after they ran across a handful of stray zombies on the morning of their third day together, and while his heart seized in his chest and he broke out in cold sweat, familiar terror closing his throat, Gen parked the car right in the middle of the road. She gave the pack a long hard look, eyes roving like she was searching for something.
"Uh, Gen. We have wheels, maybe it's a good idea not to park?" Jared tried to keep the panic out of his voice. Gen looked perfectly composed, though her eyes were flinty and her mouth was a thin angry line.
"Stay in the car," she said, pulled her scarf up and grabbed her crowbar on the way out. Jared's skin broke out in gooseflesh when he realized all her guns were still in the backseat.
"Gen!" he shouted after her just as she took a running start and swung at the first zombie. Its head flew clean off and splattered her clothes with bits of rotting flesh. Jared watched in sick fascination as she bashed skulls in and lopped heads off with precise movements.
Gen's hair flew wildly as she exploded into practiced violence, kicking and smashing in a whirl of broken bone and old dry blood and desiccated flesh.
The last one went down with the crowbar hooked through its long-empty eye socket and out the side of its fragile skull.
Gen kicked him loose and wiped her weapon on the dirty rags covering its skeletal frame.
"Grew up just outside Tallahassee," she said gruffly by way of explanation, and Jared abruptly understood so much more.
The outbreak had started in Florida, and it didn't take long until almost the entire state was a quarantined area. Ten years of desperate containment measures until the undead won out and all semblance of central government had dissolved. That meant thirteen years of fighting zombies for a living. No wonder Gen was… Gen.
Jared sat very still in the passenger seat while she chugged a bottle of water and debated whether this made her a more or less attractive travel companion.
He settled on more.
They get careless outside Biloxi.
The embers glow hotly at their feet and Jared is watching the stars, neck craned up and mind a pleasantly empty hum. Gen has dozed off against the car on the other side of the fire pit, grip around her crowbar slackening.
His dad used to point out constellations on clear nights, reciting myth and science in the same wondering breath. Jared misses him. He misses his family, his dogs, his apartment in D.C., his PS3. He thinks about them every day, misses them like limbs and vital things, but Jared shambles on.
There's always the next day and the next meal. There's Gen smiling so hard her nose wrinkles and she ducks her head. There's hope of recovery, of rebuilding the world someday, of humanity triumphing against evil brain-eating undead monsters.
There's a zombie rounding the car and making straight for Gen.
Jared grabs his baseball bat and charges. He kicks the zombie to the ground and stomps its fingers when it tries to claw at his pants.
"Kkkrrrrrrhhk," it says, teeth ragged and yellow, skin only faintly graying.
Its skull makes a satisfying crunching sound when Jared bashes it in. He swings another five, six times, just to make sure, the zombie's limbs spasming with every blow.
On the upswing of the last blow, he finds himself looking straight into dark lifeless eyes, pupils blown wide and all vessels burst. On the downstroke, an eyeball pops out and dangles down its temple.
When he's done, the dirt runs dark around what used to be some poor guy's face and Jared's heart is thundering.
His rolled up sleeve comes away speckled with brown blood and soft fleshy matter when he wipes his face.
He drops the bat and doubles over to dry heave halfheartedly.
Someone pats his back gingerly. "Okay there, Jared?"
He nods and takes a couple of deep breaths, willing his heart to slow.
"My hero," says Gen dryly, much too calm considering.
"I need to lie down," he says after a couple of false starts.
Gen's laugh turns strangled in her throat. She drops to the ground beside the corpse and runs her hands helplessly over the air above its chest, wanting to touch, not daring.
"Oh holy shit. Holy shit," she says.
"Gen? What?" His nausea momentarily forgotten, he kneels beside her and searches her face for clues.
"No, no, no, no," she mumbles, close to tears, and Jared's heart seizes. "What did he look like? Jared, what did he look like?"
He stares at the body, not quite comprehending. The zombie looks freshly turned, its circulation only recently stopped. A week or two, he'd guess. It was a pretty nondescript guy, tall but not as tall as Jared. Dark unruly hair, an absurd blue holiday sweater, worn jeans.
It could have been anyone.
"What did he look like?" She's rounded on him now, grief in every line of her face.
"Uh. I didn't really get a good look, too busy, you know, panicking, but. He didn't look too bad, for a dead guy. Thirties, kinda tired looking, uh, chapped lips—"
Gen squeezes her eyes shut and clenches her fists. Jared feels entirely lost.
"I don't know, Gen. Stubble, brown eyes, scar on his nose—"
Her eyes fly open. She latches on to his shirt and all but shakes him. "Brown? How sure are you?"
"Pretty sure. You can check for yourself," he says, and points to the lone dangling eyeball. He's starting to piece it together, and he watches Gen anxiously as she actually holds the eyeball up to catch the light from the fading embers.
Jared's head swims a little. He averts his gaze.
"They're brown. Oh Christ," says Gen, and she sags against his side and breathes out slowly, shakily, head tipped up to the cold night air.
"That's. That's good, right?"
She nods vehemently, face scrunched up but dry.
After a long time, Jared asks, "What color were his?"
"Blue," says Gen, like it costs her.
It rained for four days straight somewhere in Texas. They stayed huddled in the car eating junk and playing cards with a dog-eared deck Gen found in some uncharted corner of the foot well. It was a good thing they had come across a well-stocked, deserted bunker the week before, or they'd be stalled and starving four days running.
Jared liked the steady drum of rain over their heads, the ever-changing patterns of the rivulets on the glass, the cozy limbo of the car. Gen was going out of her mind by the second day.
"You take up too much goddamn space, kid," she told him the third time she elbowed him by accident reaching for the six-pack of apple juice they were sharing. Real hard-asses, they were. "And I know you've got a shitty hand cause the jack of spades is torn right," she flicked the side of the card, "there."
Jared groaned. "Gen, seriously, settle down. The rain's gonna stop in a day, two tops. It's nice, isn't it? Quiet and friendly. Don't ruin the friendly part. Wish we could put some music on."
The CD player had been torn out long ago to make way for PV panel wires, and the radio had been nothing but heartbreaking static for three years. They sat in silence with only the steady pitter-patter of rain for distraction.
Gen flopped back against the seat with a frustrated sound. "Need to wash my hair. This humidity is making my skin crawl."
"Here, have more Cheetos," said Jared, shoving the bag at her. Gen glared, then grabbed an overflowing handful to scatter crumbs on her lap. Jared clicked his tongue.
"Hey, think zombies are bothered by rain? Haven't seen any since Oklahoma City," she said.
"'Zombie Apocalypse Averted by Spraying Them with Garden Hose' trumpet the headlines as the world breathes a sigh of relief, humanity united in triumph for a single shining moment on the—'" intoned Jared, sweeping his arms around expansively.
Gen stifled a laugh and smacked his arm down, ungentle. Jared cut himself off and grinned down at her.
"Shut up, you weirdo."
Jared threw his cards down and sighed contentedly at the ceiling, eyes drifting closed. "This is nice. Really. You, me, some Cheetos, some deep talks about our feelings and philosophies, the works. This is how lifelong friendships are forged, Gen, how can you not appreciate what we're doing here."
The sound of rain was nearer. He looked up and watched in sick fascination as Gen hopped out of the car right into the downpour and started to strip.
"Dude! What are you doing." Jared was horrified.
"Taking a goddamn shower," she shouted back, voice drowning in the rain even though she was only a few feet away.
Jared was being pelted by stray drops and kind of wanted to shut the door, but he really didn't intend to leave a half-naked and possibly unhinged Gen out in the cold rain without supervision. Even the prospect of getting an eyeful wasn't as exciting as it might otherwise have been, considering the circumstances. He settled for leaving it ajar, enough to keep him mostly dry without cutting communication down to shouting and pantomime.
"Toss me the soap, would you?" Gen's clothes were a ruined mess on the muddy grass, her hair waterlogged and bedraggled and her skin gleaming wet.
Jared felt his neck heat and he turned away hastily to dig around for the one precious bar of soap they kept.
"Didn't figure you for the blushing kind," she said, and he glared back at her helplessly. She gave him a shit-eating grin.
"You're going to get pneumonia. And you'll deserve it." He tossed her the soap and she caught it with one hand, completely unfairly. She was down to her sports bra and underwear, quaking steadily in the rain.
"Least I'll die clean," she answered blithely, rubbing the soap bar vigorously over her hair.
"Or eaten by a zombie," he said, and because he was only human, his eyes slid down to her chest and he allowed himself one long blissful look before wrenching his eyes away.
Gen hadn't noticed, and clearly she didn't care, busy as she was soaping down right there in front of him.
Jared took a moment to reflect on the surreal turn of his life.
Then he climbed into the backseat to look for towels.
The shower was done and over with in four minutes, and Gen rushed back to the dry safety of the car with a chattering laugh. Jared slammed the door shut behind her, the rush of the rain abruptly muted and the thermostat climbing up several degrees in the car.
Jared handed Gen the towel and shook his head at her.
"You are ridiculous."
"Oh come off it. At least now I feel less like roadkill. Don't think you couldn't use a shower too."
She shook her head like a dog and sprayed water everywhere. Jared yelped and backed up right into the weapons bag, its sharp bits poking at him uncomfortably.
"C'mere," he said, settling more comfortably in the nest of blankets against the window and opening his arms.
Gen eyed him mistrustfully. Jared widened his eyes and ducked his head so he could look up at her from under his bangs.
She rolled her eye and tucked herself into his arms, her wet hair smelling clean under his nose. He willed his warmth to soak her more thoroughly than the rain had, and gradually her shivering stopped.
"You're a dumbass, Gen. You're supposed to be the brains of this operation."
Gen hummed sleepily.
She felt solid in his arms, and Jared rubbed her arms through the towel.
"You should find yourself some clothes."
"In a minute," said Gen, already nodding off, and Jared gathered her dripping hair into a rope and wrapped a blanket around the two of them.
He let himself drift, her skin soft against his throat.
They stumble upon the mall down a service road where they were hoping to find a gas stop. It's run down and eerie, all the windows busted or boarded up, the parking lot a wide moat around it.
"Jackpot," says Jared. "I bet you they have shampoo." He picks up his pace and lopes ahead, then turns to walk backwards so he can keep an eye on Gen. "Even better, I bet you they have a Walmart."
"I bet you they have piles of half-eaten bodies," she says.
"Yeah, but the bodies will be in a Walmart."
Gen pulls her scarf over her nose and swings her crowbar at the air between them half-heartedly.
Inside, the air is thick and stale. Jared can tell by the quality of the silence and the thick layer of dust and debris that there isn't a single soul around, dead or undead. The cracked tiles echo underfoot, cobwebs sent swirling thinly to catch the light. There's broken glass everywhere and something about the hush breathes solemnity into Jared's lungs.
They walk down the hall in silence, weapons raised. Their steps ring loudly in the half-light, and the hairs on the back of his neck rises. Gen's shoulders are tense and her eyes hawk-sharp half a step in front of him.
Most of the shop fronts are closed, glass panes and metal gates pulled in front of the entrance, the dim swirl of dust illuminating their shapes. Overhead, there's a gaping hole in the ceiling like a shaft of light through storm clouds. The skylight spans the entire center of the mall, a dome of broken glass vaulting over the food court pooling light and breeze into the dank derelict cavern.
Jared stops in his steps, cranes his neck up to stare at the sky. It makes his throat ache, the cold air and the sound of birdcalls and the leaves littering the floor.
"I think this place is clean. Just us in here," says Gen. She lowers her gun and her crowbar and tips her head back too, eyes closing to the sunlight.
"It's nice, huh? It's easy to forget that nature doesn't really care that there's been a zombie apocalypse."
Jared spots a beehive up near an extinguished exit sign. A row of mannequins wearing moth-chewed rags stand in silent vigil behind the display glass of some store that was once hip and trendy.
"Yeah, it's something alright. C'mon, let's look for food," says Gen, snapping out of her contemplation of the sky. She tucks her gun into her waistband and switches her grip on the crowbar. Jared shoves his bat securely into the straps of his hiker's backpack and trots after her.
The only thing worth salvaging from the food court stands are packets of salt and plastic utensils. The kitchens emanate foul smells and after Gen emerges from the back of the Taco Bell looking decidedly green, they don’t waste their time there.
There is indeed a Walmart, looted almost bare, and Jared stuffs his bag full of boxes of cookies and gummy worms and chocolate pudding while Gen goes for the more sensible oatmeal bars and bottled water and aspirin.
Once they've loaded up on all the edibles they can reasonably carry, Jared tries half-heartedly to instigate some fun.
"I think this would suit you. Really brings out the color of your eyes," he says earnestly, waving a dusty purple cocktail dress at her. She grimaces and sneezes.
"You like it so much you should keep it," she grumbles, and shoves a few cotton shirts into her bag to use as dressings and towels, pillows and rope.
"Take it you weren't a big mall rat before, huh?" says Jared, and holds his breath.
"Before?" says Gen distractedly right before understanding dawns on her face. "Oh no. Hell no. Wore my brother's clothes, good enough for me. All anybody had was from Goodwill anyway. Not sure we even had malls."
And Jared's sorry he asked, because now her mouth is a thin hard line and she's walking away with brisk steps, her hair flying in her wake, clearly thinking thunderous thoughts.
Jared feels lost before the tenseness of her shoulders, the way she's held tight like a rope about to snap.
"C'mon Gen, we're a week away from Pensacola if that. Let's go, huh?" He feels foolish as he says it, hears the naked hope and bated-breath dread in his voice and feels his face heat.
"No, let's stay here a bit," she says, and lies down right there on the dirty ground with its cold cracked tiles and years of dust and beads of broken glass. Her eyes slip shut and her face smoothes out. Jared's blood runs cold and he resists the urge to crawl over and shake her shoulders with both hands.
"Okay," he says instead, and sits down gingerly on the dirty floor next to her knees. "We'll have to leave soon though, there isn't much left here anyway." He thinks of her grinning in the rain, her eyes dark and gleaming like her soaked hair, skimming cold clammy fingers along his jaw. He feels heartsick.
"I found marshmallows. We can have soup and s'mores tonight. S'mores are the fucking best," he rambles on when she doesn't say anything. "Best meal of your life, you ain't seen nothing yet, hold on to your hat."
She smacks his shin with the back of her hand. "Jared, shut up." But she's smiling the tiniest smile, peeking out at him from sleepy eyes, and he grins back encouragingly.
"And next week we'll be at the sea, and we'll go for a swim and I'll freeze my balls off. But it'll be worth it, right? I'll get to see you in your underwear, right?" He wriggles his eyebrows and slings an arm over her legs. She kicks out at him lightly.
"It's the middle of March, you lunatic. No one's going for a swim."
He lets his own weight tip him down to rest his chin on her hip. He buries his nose in her belly and presses his lips closed so he won't get a mouthful of cotton. "Don't tell me what to do," he murmurs, and she squirms under him. He looks up and she feints a punch to his face, fist missing broadly and coming to rest open-palmed at the back of his head.
"I'm going to get up in a minute. I'll get up, just not right away," she says, and Jared latches on to that like a promise.
"Okay. Just remember that I can swing you over my shoulders and carry you out of here if you don't."
Gen gives him a genuinely horrified look and Jared cracks up.
"You even think about trying and my crowbar will have a word with your face, asshole," she says, body going lax as she turns her cheek into the ground.
"You're a very violent person, you know that?" says Jared, and she doesn't answer.
They stay there until the light starts to fade and the emptiness of the ruins starts to lose its beauty and gain in spookiness. At least, Jared thinks the dark alcoves and jutting rafters and broken glass are spooky. Gen stalks straight lines in the declining light as fearless as a tiger, and Jared matches his steps to hers half a pace behind to watch her back.
They leave the mall behind without a backwards glance, and Jared is profoundly grateful. It feels like he got away with something, like Jared can trust Gen to always stand back up again. They have s'mores that night, and Gen's weight at his side is as much comfort as the crackle of the fire.
The sea is dark and deafening. The smell of salt and seawater is pungent, and the wind buffets their clothes and hair ceaselessly.
"I guess we're here," says Jared uselessly, and Gen hums in reply.
They cut through an erstwhile Hilton to reach the beach, thick and still warm from sun. The hotel is dark and dead behind them, its thousand windows black as beetle eyes in the moonlight. It's hard to get traction in the thick sand, and Jared shucks his boots and three pairs of socks near the broken rotting lounge chairs and curls his toes in the sand. Gen is standing at the edge of the water, the foam of the dying waves licking at the tip of her boots.
Jared feels inexplicable, his heart heavy and sated. Tomorrow is a complete unknown, but for now he's content to stand on the beach and let the salty air melt on his tongue and watch Gen's hair whipping in the wind.
He watches her unabashedly, the dark of night and the roar of the sea convincing him of stealth. Gen's chin is tipped up in challenge, teeth bared, glaring at the sea like she wants to pick a fight with it. Jared can't help a smile. Gen has never looked stronger or fiercer. It fills him with calm and peace to know that she's the one watching his back.
"Screw this. Screw everything," he hears her say under the howl of the wind, and she fishes out the rearview monkey from her pocket and glares at it. Jared can't be sure from here, but moonlight gleams in her eyes.
Gen makes an abortive move to press it to her cheek and redirects after a long pause, chucking it into the crashing waves instead.
The monkey catches the wind and blows back to smack Gen on the nose. Jared surprises a high-pitched snicker from his throat, and is immediately thankful that the wind snatches the sound away before it can reach her ears.
Gen makes a startled "oomph" sound and catches the monkey against her chest without thinking. Jared feels a huge grin splitting his face and strides over to her, the world vast and colorless around them.
"Gen, what are you doing?" he asks when he's within earshot. She looks up and scowls at him, her hair flying wildly and lashing at her face relentlessly. He tucks a stray strand behind her ear and moves to stand between her and the sea.
"Getting rid of old junk," she says, voice flat and bare as the darkened beach. Jared reaches for the monkey and she lets him, letting it go as he draws it away. The fabric is worn with years, the knit frayed in parts and the color fading. Jared has a good guess about what Gen's doing, and he's blindsided by a tremendous well of affection rising in him.
He gathers her hair up in a ponytail and secures it with the tasseled strings. The monkey's face grins up irreverently from her dark mane. Gen scowls up at him for a moment, then reaches for his face with both hands.
He goes willingly, bending down to press their foreheads together. Up close he can see the cute wrinkles on her nose and feel her breath warm on his mouth.
"I've kept this shit for a long time. I'm tired of hanging on to it," she says, but she doesn't sound convinced. Jared knows his cue.
"Keep it a little longer. I'll hang on to it for you when you get tired." Gen makes a face like she's embarrassed for him, and Jared grins, eyes never leaving hers.
Her hand finds his and she splays his fingers open to hook his little finger with hers. "Sentimental little fucker," she murmurs, eyes fluttering closed, and he feels himself fall further.
"The worst," he agrees, and she presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth and spins away, her ponytail swaying and well-behaved.
"Come back," he calls forlornly as she runs to the sea, crossing his arms in front of him. Her teeth gleam in the dark.
"Come here," she says instead. When he's at the edge of the water, she slips her arm around him and they watch the swelling tides together.
"Where to tomorrow?" he asks at length.
"I think. I think we should go west. You?"
Jared smiles, warmed by her steadfast presence at his side. "West sounds good."