Elizabeth, who was left by herself, now smiled at the rapidity and ease with which an affair was finally settled, that had given them so many previous months of suspense— Henry frowned, his concentration broken by the sound of hammering. At 10:00 PM. His new next door neighbors must be working on renovations. Again. He would have to go over to talk to them politely about the proper hours for such activities. Again.
He sighed. Perhaps he could ignore it for a bit longer. —so many previous months of suspense and vexation—
The hammering started up again. With a second sigh and a gentle snap as the pages of Pride and Prejudice shut around his bookmark, Henry lifted back the covers and wriggled his feet into his slippers. Perhaps a strongly worded complaint to the Homeowner's Association was in order, if the Dempseys could not be made to see reason.
What would Eliza do in this situation? He found himself pondering this question more and more lately, even when the answers he came up with were rarely close to the wild truth. She'd probably pound on their door, camera phone recording, and threaten to expose them for... Henry didn't know. Something devastating, at least to her online following.
Pausing in the hallway, he smiled to himself. She could probably find a way to make her hundreds of thousands of followers care about a petty neighborly dispute. Even if most of the comments were related to her... pulchritude. The hammering sounded again, interrupting an extended reverie about her beauty, this time louder and more insistent.
It was then that he realized the sound was not coming from next door, but from his glass doors.
Henry stopped in consternation at the sight that met him once he reached the living room. Eliza stood there—disheveled hair, running mascara, torn clothing, shoeless stockinged feet—with one stiletto pump raised to pound against the glass again. He hurried to slide open the door before she could add more scuff marks to the once-pristine glass. "Eliza? What on earth happened to you?"
"Oh my god, finally!" Eliza said, pushing past Henry, then sliding the door shut again with a thunk and locking it tight. She wiped at her tattered clothing with a frown and then looked him up and down, from his shearling slippers to his double-brushed cotton flannel pajamas. "What the hell were you doing in here? I swear I was pounding on the door for at least five minutes!"
Henry lifted the book in his hand. "Enjoying a book before bed. It is 10:00 PM, Eliza."
"A book? Are you crazy?"
Henry frowned, his brows creasing with annoyance. "I am hardly the only person in the world to read. They do have these things called bookstores—well, at least they used to—and libraries."
Eliza huffed, matching his annoyance. "Yes, yes, books are important, expand your mind, blah blah blah," she said, waving her hands about as she hurried to the kitchen sink. After turning on the water, she poured what seemed like half a bottle of dishwashing liquid on her arms and started rubbing it into a lather. "I'm not talking about that. Why aren't you packing?"
His eyebrow creases turned to canyons. "Packing?"
"Haven't you gotten any of my text messages? That I've been sending for the last hour?" With a grunt of frustration, she started banging at the spigot, as if that would make the hot water come out faster.
"I was going to bed. My phone was on silent. It's charging upstairs—"
Eliza shoved her phone at him, despite her wet hands, waggling the screen in his face. "Because this."
He tilted his head to keep up with the movement, and she must have taken pity because she stopped. Even then, he had to rear his head back and squint at the screen. "Old man," she scoffed, and handed it to him.
"What is this?" he said after a moment of adjusting the brightness and angle. Photo after photo of people in realistic horror makeup, all on her Instagram feed, even a few videos that cut off abruptly. "Early Halloween? A costume party?"
"Duh. No." Her voice dropped an octave. "It's the zombie apocalypse."
He looked at her in surprise and annoyed disbelief. "The Zombie. Apocalypse."
"Yes." She stole the phone back and swiped across the screen so fast he could hardly keep up. "See? At the club. At the store. At Starbucks. At the cupcake shop. At Starbucks again. Huh, a lot of these are at Starbucks..."
"Really, Eliza, just stop. I don't appreciate being made part of some inane internet prank. Again."
"It was just the one time!" She bit her lip to stop a smile and smoothed her face to seriousness. "And this is no prank. Believe me, I'd know if it was. I start most of the pranks. The popular ones, anyway." She glanced toward the window with something like real fear, not the first time since she barged in. What was she afraid of? That she'd be caught by one of these pranksters and lose a bet or something?
"Okay, a challenge. Like that Ice Bucket thing? Or maybe it's Dress Like a Zombie Day." He grabbed the remote for the TV and started flipping through the news channels. "I mean, you seriously can't expect me to believe this is real when there is nothing about this on any of the news stations."
Eliza grabbed him by the arm. "Henry." He stilled and looked down at her hand. He tried to tell himself it was only because it was freshly scrubbed clean, a stark difference from the rest of her grubby clothing. She paused a moment to notice how she was touching him as well, but then squeezed tighter. "It's real. It's no challenge, no prank, no special day, no app, no filter. You've got to believe me! Why do you think I—"
A loud bang came from behind them, and they both whirled to face the door. There, eyes glassy, mouth drooling red and black, was Charlie, Henry's assistant.
Charlie? Even he was involved in these shenanigans? But even Henry had to admit, that was some movie-quality convincing makeup.
Charlie banged again with both fists and they jumped. Henry's arms wrapped around Eliza protectively. An image of the words 'NO FEAR' written on his now-unneeded cast flitted through his mind, and he gripped her tighter.
"Oh my god, we're too late," she whispered. "We needed to get out of town, and we're too late..."
Wow, she was really committed to this practical joke. She sounded as if she were actually terrified. Maybe he was a little scared himself—or startled, that was really it. He dropped his arms with an awkward chuckle. "Come on. You gave him twenty bucks and some of last month's makeup, and you're going to have a good laugh about this at my expense tomorrow. 'You should have seen him jump, har har!'"
Eliza grabbed him by both arms and turned him to face her. "No. I have never been more serious. More serious than when Paltrow and Martin consciously uncoupled."
Henry tried not to focus on the tingling where she was gripping him and tightened his lips. He had no idea what she was talking about but there was an urgency to her words, a paleness below the running mascara that he couldn't completely ignore.
Outside, Charlie let out a wordless roar and banged on the glass again. Between Eliza's stiletto heel and Charlie's grimy fists, Henry was going to have to completely replace that door. "Eliza, tell him to knock it off."
"There's only one way I can stop him, Henry." She glanced at the shoe she'd discarded on the countertop. "The other shoe is ruined anyway." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then dropped her hands to shake them out like a boxer. "If this is our last stand, I'm going to go down swinging." With purpose, she walked over to the counter and snatched the shoe. "All right, Charlie, Henry says to knock it off!"
Then with an almost primal yell, Eliza charged toward the door.
Charlie's yell matched hers in ferocity, and he banged again, this time so hard that the door shook in its tracks and rattled the windows beside.
Eliza yelped and slid to a stop, stiletto heel raised in her hand like a dagger. In the sudden silence, Henry heard a cracking sound.
Which turned into a series of cracking sounds as the entire door splintered into a ruined maze of fractures. With a final guttural scream and pound, Charlie shattered the door into splinters.
They both screamed, though for Henry, it was annoyance that was quickly turning to confused terror. "Wha—why?!"
Eliza just stood her ground. "Save yourself, Henry! I got this!"
Henry's mouth dropped open as Charlie started to shamble through the wreckage toward Eliza. A scream and flickering from the television drew his attention briefly—Don Lemon fighting off a pair of zombies with only a sheaf of notes.
And that was when it hit him. This was real.
Everything shifted, and Henry sprang into action. He sprinted forward to grab Eliza by the hand, and pulled her away just as Charlie cleared the wreckage of the door. "Henry?!"
"Just—come with me!" he told her, voice sounding calmer than he felt.
She obeyed, running with him to a door in the hallway. It looked like a linen closet to the casual eye, and when he shoved a pile of towels aside to pull on a secret latch, she gasped.
"Is this like a... secret sex closet?" she asked. "Like in Fifty Shades? Henry, I never knew..."
"You're making jokes? Now?"
"Sorry." She bit the side of her lip to stop a smile, clearly not sorry at all.
The door slid open to reveal stairs leading downward. Before she could protest, he pulled her through and slid the hidden door shut again. Low lights came on at their feet, illuminating the way to another door at the bottom, this one of reinforced steel. He entered the combination with practiced ease and then wrenched open the door. Then he stepped in, turned and held out his hand to her, glowing blue in the dim light. "Get in."
Eliza stood there for a moment, mouth wide open in shock. "How long have you had this?!"
The sound of banging and scratching came from behind the door at the top of the stairs, drawing both of their attention. Was that... a second voice?
"Get in now, explanations later!"
"Okay, okay!" She hopped across the threshold and he lifted her aside easily to pull the door shut. The contact sent a tiny thrill through him, as it had every time they'd touched since she'd arrived. But as much as he hoped Eliza might be feeling the same way, now wasn't the time. Now was the time to just survive.
Henry flipped a couple of switches and a few lights buzzed to life. Eliza spun in a slow circle, taking everything in. The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of canned goods, bottled water, toilet paper, first aid supplies, and books.
"Of course there are books," Eliza murmured, but it sounded more fond than dismissive. She briefly scanned the titles, but then let out a gasp and patted down her pockets. She sighed with relief and pulled out her phone.
"Don't expect that to last long, or the internet in general," Henry said, nodding his head toward her phone, "if it's really the zombie apocalypse and not just an outbreak contained to a few regions of the United States."
She looked down at her phone with dread. "God please, maybe it's just here," she said in a quiet voice that sounded like half a hope, half a prayer. "My powerpack is probably a trampled mess now. Along with my purse."
"And don't post about this place, please. We've only got enough supplies to last us…" He'd prepared a year's worth of supplies, but that was only for one person. "...six months. Maybe a year if we're frugal. You tell one person, even one, and we could be fending off a mob at our door."
She nodded and shut the phone down with a mournful look—anyone would think she was saying goodbye forever to an only child.
"I expect we'll have to brave the outside at some point, if nothing else to see what the state of the world is." He tried to sound calm as he talked, but his mind was running through a list of nightmare scenarios. "And to stave off cabin fever—"
He stopped his spiel to look up at her. "Yes."
"How did you—when did you do all this?"
"Oh." He blushed slightly. "It came with the property. House was built in the 1960s, renovated a couple times—a lot of people put in bomb shelters in those days... It seemed a shame not to use it." He pointed toward the back. "There's a composting toilet back there, behind that last wall of shelving—I had to update that from '60s standards—it's now plastic-lined and waterproof, with a hidden solar-powered generator for our basic electricity needs, and we should be okay for a few months with bottled water, but there's also a rainwater collection tank and filtration system for when we need it. I updated the air filtration system to include a backup hand operated pump, and of course, there's a hand-crank radio to keep in contact with the outside world." Talking about all the preparations he'd put into place helped to calm his racing mind. After all, he could bet no one else in the neighborhood was ready for this scenario. The Dempseys? Please.
A smile tugged at the corners of Eliza's mouth. "So let me get this straight. You went full-on Doomsday Prepper just because... it was there?" Eliza ran a finger over the double-reinforced shelving, naturally completely free of dust. "And kept it up-to-date?"
"Well, no, not just because. There are any number of reasons to maintain a working shelter—modern civilization could have crumbled at any moment! Even if there hadn't been a zombie outbreak, it could have been economic collapse, social collapse, pandemic or a natural disaster like a major earthquake...." He tapped the edge of a bookshelf. "There's a reason published apocalyptic fiction has skyrocketed in the last few decades."
Eliza looked at the bookshelf and rolled her eyes.
"And aren't you glad I did? You'd be Charlie Chow if I hadn't!"
"Calm your tits, Henry. I'm impressed, is all."
"My ti—?" He fluttered his hands toward his chest. "I'm calm." Then his head tilted to the side. "You're impressed?"
"Well, yeah." She gestured around. "This is like 'be prepared' dialed up to 11. Like Boy Scout prepared, plus Falcon or Hawk-level or something."
"It's Eagle Scout, to be accurate—" He bit off the sentence with a click of his teeth and a nod. Not important. "Thank you."
"Plus, it means I don't have to abandon my favorite stores, like, when this all blows over." She bent down to shift a box and sat down gingerly on it. "Speaking of..." She plucked at her nasty blouse. "Did you install a washing machine? Ugh, or an incinerator? These are basically ruined."
"I have a tub for hand washing, but uh..." He'd only packed clothes for himself.
She seemed to realize it at that moment, too. "Damn, I should have looted the Brandy Melville on the way over."
"I don't suppose you have a size 2 wardrobe back there?" Eliza called after him, her voice light. "Because you were extra prepared?"
"Fresh out," he teased back, unzipping the mini-wardrobe of his clothing. "You're going to have to roll the pants and sleeves. Maybe use a—" He swallowed, remembering the sight of Eliza clad only in his jacket. "—a belt." Why didn't he think about other people when he packed this place? Sure, having someone else to think about was rather a new thing this year, but surely he hadn't really meant to wait out whichever apocalypse struck alone?
No, he really had.
But now he couldn't imagine it. And truth be told, he couldn't imagine it with anyone else but Eliza. As he pulled out a couple of button down shirts, a sweater vest or two, a few pairs of pants and some undershirts and boxer shorts (she'd just have to make do without other underthings), he began to wonder. With whom did Eliza imagine spending the apocalypse? Freddy?
Oh, wow. He hadn't thought of Freddy until just then. Where was Freddy anyway? Eliza hadn't mentioned him at all, not even to worry for his safety. Maybe he'd texted her before she arrived at Henry's to let Eliza know his whereabouts. But then... why not go on the run with Freddy?
Why had she come here?
Warmth suffused his cheeks and he stilled. He didn't dare hope, but the fact that she came for him meant she cared for him. Maybe as more than a friend, again. She hadn't known about his shelter. She'd knocked on the door, insisting he come with her to safety. Or was it simply loyalty? Perhaps Freddy was waiting for both of them somewhere...
He took a breath. The only way to find out was to ask. And asking meant pushing past the fear (NO FEAR) even if it meant he'd get an answer he didn't like.
He gathered up the clothes to bring to Eliza and walked from behind the shelving. "Eliza—I've been wondering..."
His mouth was suddenly dry and he stopped in his tracks. There she sat, on a box of canned peaches, legs crossed and foot bouncing lazily... reading a book. Her lower lip was caught between her teeth on one side as she concentrated on the pages, with a pair of reading glasses—he'd forgotten he'd stocked a couple of pairs down here—perched on the edge of her nose. He took a couple of careful steps toward her to see which book she was reading, and he stopped again. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Despite his love for the original, he quite enjoyed this one, if only for the clever way the author mixed Jane Austen with a regency-style zombie romp.
It was incredibly... he supposed Eliza would say, 'hot.'
"A—" He cleared his throat to get his voice working again. "Are you enjoying that?"
"Oh!" She set the book on her lap, startled. "Um... I'm not sure I get it, but it had 'zombies' in the title so I thought it might help with research since I need to conserve my phone battery." She scrunched up her face and asked, "Is that Darcy dude supposed to be super-buff or what? It says he 'slaughtered more than a thousand unmentionables' or whatever."
"Uh, that book is a fanciful alteration of the original, where he was described as having 'ten thousand a year,' as in pounds, which was quite a lot of money at the time. But despite this, the heroine, Elizabeth, thinks him too proud at first—"
"Spoilers!" she laughed. "OMG, you have clothes." She stood up tossed the book down, which made him frown. But when she took the clothes from him and their hands touched by accident, that made him jump instead. "And is there a shower or something back there?"
"There's a sink with a shower attachment, and a drain in the floor. Soaps and shampoos are along the counter. Plus a privacy curtain," he hastened to add. "But don't use too much water. We're going to have to mostly take infrequent bucket baths."
She patted his cheek fondly. He did his best not to sink in to those soft fingers. "You thought of everything, Falcon Scout." Then she turned away and headed for the back before he could correct her again.
But he hadn't thought of everything. He'd only installed a privacy curtain for his own benefit (who wants to bathe in a wide-open room, anyway?) He'd also completely forgotten to ask Eliza about Freddy, and he wasn't about to interrupt her shower—or the contented sighs that were now emanating from that direction. Completely unprompted, the image of naked Eliza from the hallway elevator popped into his mind, now with added water and sudsy foam. He needed to keep busy to get his mind off who he'd like to get his hands on.
So to bide his time, he gingerly lifted the discarded book from the floor, and placed it on the edge of the bookshelf, just in case she wanted to pick up where she left off. He'd try to encourage her; it was a clever piece of transformative fiction.
What else to do... Oh, of course, the sleeping arrangements. There was only one mattress, hardly wide enough for two people's comfort, but he had prepared a number of blankets and extra sheets and pillows. Even though he'd selected that specific mattress for its comfort and durability, the armchair he'd put down here to read in would do... once he got used to it.
Henry's attention was drawn by a strained call from the back. "Uh, Henry?"
The water was off now, and he found himself happily surprised that she had listened to him about keeping her shower short. Every little bit of water they could save would help in the long run. "What do you need?"
"I... don't see any towels within reaching distance."
Oh, dear. He fought to keep the image of naked Eliza from returning with a vengeance. "I'll get you what you need." No, that came out all wrong. "Coming!" Even worse!
He grabbed a towel and passed it through the curtain, gaze turned away for propriety's sake.
Henry immediately heard the scrape of the curtain rings across the rod. Rod? For the love of Austen, he had to keep it together.
"For god's sake, Henry," Eliza said, "there's nothing you haven't seen before."
He didn't turn around, studying the 2-ply Charmin in front of him. "It's only respectful."
"You're too much, Henry. Any other guy I know would be angling to sneak a peek, but not you..."
Any other guy? Like Freddy? "I'm going to leave you to the rest of your... ablutions... in peace." He had to get out of there before things got any more awkward.
"Yeah!" she called after his retreating back. "Heaven forbid you go to war with my ablutions!"
He was pretty sure she didn't know what 'ablutions' were, but the more space he put between her and his prurient thoughts, the better. It wasn't that he was afraid. No. He simply needed to ask her about Freddy. Until then, it was strictly business.
A few minutes later, she walked back into the common area. "Your turn, Henry." Her hair was wrapped in the towel, and her body in his flannel night robe, much too large for her—only her bare feet and ankles poked out from below. Then she stopped in surprise, her face lighting up with happiness.
During the short time she'd been in the back, Henry had prepared the bed. Fluffy pillows and warm blankets on top of the mattress. Eliza squealed and almost skipped over to the bed, sitting down with a bounce. "So soft!" She smoothed her hand over the comforter. "How do you get everything so soft? I mean, these clothes you gave me feel like I'm wearing a cloud. I swear it's magic."
Surely she knew how to do laundry? With the way she spent money and maxed out her credit cards, maybe she rarely needed to. "The directions on the fabric softener box are pretty self-explanatory," he told her, trying to avoid any condescension. And failing.
"You act like reading directions is just something everyone does," she scoffed.
"Yes, Eliza, it's a normal part of adult life—purchasing products, reading directions, using..." He stopped his spiel when he saw the grin she wasn't trying to hide. "I don't really need to take my turn, remember—I was ready for bed when you arrived." He pulled another pile of blankets from the shelf and a nice pillow. Not the nicest one—that he'd placed on the bed. With one of the feather duvets over the chair and a microfleece blanket on top, it shouldn't be too uncomfortable...
"What are you doing?"
He gave his pillow a couple of fluffs. "What do you mean?"
"Are you..." She wrinkled her nose. "...going to sleep on the chair?"
"I failed to anticipate—" He let out a breath. It was harder to admit this than he thought. "—that I might need more than one bed down here, so... yes."
"'Failed to anticipate'—listen to yourself, Henry. You totes made the perfect underground zombie-protection bunker and you're beating yourself up over forgetting a second bed?"
"And clothes for you, and a second chair so you wouldn't have to sit on boxes and—"
"Henry. Stop." She patted the bed beside her. "Come sit."
He considered the spot she was touching, her manicure sporting one broken nail, and her encouraging smile. "Okay."
After he sat down, she put her hand on his shoulder. "We would be on the run right now. Or a zombie all-you-can-eat buffet. But we're here. Safe." Then she leaned over and gave him a soft kiss on the cheek.
The kiss astounded him so much that he lost the ability to speak for long moments. It was just a friendly thank you, right? Nothing more. But maybe it wasn't. And if so, where were all his grand promises to himself to get over his fears and ask her? Starting with where Freddy was.
"There's plenty of space on this bed," she continued after he hadn't responded for a while. "I take up barely any room, and I'll stay on top of the covers so you can get underneath them." She patted his shoulder and her hand slipped away.
He quickly tried to catch it, but he was too late. So he took a deep breath, and asked, "What about—" But when he turned, he saw her curled up on less than half of the bed, knees hugging the wall.
"What, Henry?" Her voice sounded small and sleepy already.
"W—what about your comfort? Are you going to be okay without a blanket?" Coward. He plucked the microfleece one from the chair and tucked it around her.
"Thanks, Henry," she said, voice barely above a whisper. Then she was asleep, or at least seemed to be, because of the gentle whistling of her breath through her nostrils.
He eyed the bookshelf, where another copy of Pride and Prejudice was sandwiched between Sense and Sensibility and Emma. He'd wanted to be prepared. He thought he'd thought of everything.
Henry got up to turn off the light. He wouldn't be finishing his daily chapter before bed tonight. He gently lifted the covers and slid beneath them, trying not to disturb Eliza. Nonetheless, she murmured in her sleep and wriggled toward him until her hip touched his. Then she sighed and settled down again.
There was no way he would ever have been prepared for this.
Somehow, Henry managed to keep his mind off their closeness and fall asleep. The lack of natural light, or any light at all, certainly helped with that. When he was updating lighting down here, he'd worried that his circadian rhythms might be thrown off, so he'd made sure to install a set of UV bulbs for the daylight hours. But nighttime was so dark. Maybe too dark, without even the chance of the moon shining through the bedroom drapes. But sometime during these ponderings, his eyes drifted shut and he continued his shelter renovations in his dreams instead.
A scream awakened him, his eyes shooting open in the pitch blackness. His nerves were instantly at attention.
He could hear her voice murmuring gently, "No, no, I didn't mean to… Please..."
"Eliza?" Was she having a nightmare?
He felt for her body in the dark, until he made contact with her back. But the moment he did, she shouted, "Stay away from me!"
"Eliza, it's just me, Henry," he told her in a gentle voice. Sitting up, he reached for her again...
And got whacked in the nose. Hard. "Augh!" he shouted, covering his face. Was it bleeding? And all over his goose down comforter!
"Henry? What's wrong?" She touched him again, this time with gentle, searching hands, but he still flinched back.
"My nose!" His voice was muffled by his fingers, and his throat tight from tilting his head back, but he had to keep the blood from going everywhere. "It's bleeding. You accidentally elbowed me in the face..."
"OMG, I'm so sorry, I'll get you something to stop it..." She wriggled past him and started to stumble around in the dark, kicking things and yelping and making a worse ruckus than when she'd been asleep. "Where the hell is the light switch?" The lights came on with blinding brightness before he could tell her. While his eyes adjusted, she somehow found a whole roll of Charmin and shoved it at him. "Here."
"Thanks." He placed it under his nose, not really caring that the roll would probably be ruined. Had he prepared for these kinds of emergencies, either? Apparently not. "What were you dreaming about?"
Her face went white and she looked away quickly. "Uh, I don't know. You know how you can never remember after you wake up? It was hella scary, though."
"Must have been. You were screaming ." He pressed the Charmin more firmly into his nose and tried to grin around it. "Learned my lesson."
"Oh, Henry, it wasn't you!" She reached out to stroke his arm reassuringly. He forced himself to keep his eyes on her face and not let his eyes roll back in his head. "Like, I can't imagine. You would never—" She pressed her lips together, eyes wide, then rubbed her hands over her face. "I mean whatever I was dreaming about, it wasn't you, you're not scary. Like, at all. Um, sorry to wake you. Good night." She quickly turned her back to him and curled up on her side, facing the wall.
"Thank you?" When she didn't respond, he slid out of bed to clean up at the sink. Wow, his nose was already swelling. He was going to look like a lopsided Cyrano de Bergerac in the morning. But as he washed gently around the tender areas, he wondered: just what was Eliza's dream about? Who was she talking to? Freddy?
No, that didn't make any sense. Freddy might be a bit shallow, but he would never hurt her. Hopefully he was safe somewhere, and Eliza didn't need to worry. He was just... not here.
Henry wandered back to turn off the lights and slide back under the covers. Eliza was quiet, no gentle whistling, so maybe she was still awake. "Eliza?" He waited a few moments, no change. "I've been wondering. Where's Freddy? Is he all right?"
He waited again, longer this time. Eliza shifted... and then her arm flopped across his chest and she let out a loud snort.
Henry chuckled and closed his eyes. He'd ask her in the morning.
He let the arm stay where it was.
The next morning, after she'd gotten some rehydrated eggs and coffee into her system, he watched her turn on her phone for a few minutes to check her messages and then turn it off again. "Anything from Freddy?"
"Freddy?" she said, looking away. "No."
"But is he okay? You haven't mentioned him since we got down here."
"Um," she said, stirring more sugar into her half-drunk cup. "I'm not really sure. He hasn't texted me or anything."
"Really? Not even a 'S'up?'"
She shook her head, pressing her lips together with worry.
"Wow. I hope he's okay."
"Me too," she said quietly.
As the days passed, she checked her phone less and less often, until: "Well, that's it. The internet broke, for realsies, and my phone's dead. #TEOTWAWKI, bitches." She tossed the phone into the corner.
He jumped a little at the clattering sound. "Tee ah what now?"
"It's a hashtag people were using the last few times I checked Insta. The End of the World As We Know It."
"Oh, like the song?"
Henry just shook his head. He wished he'd packed a guitar. He wasn't half bad on one, and down here there was nothing but time to practice. "Maybe I'll teach it to you."
The days settled into a routine after that. They started out the day over breakfast and scanning the radio frequencies for any broadcasts, which petered out after a few weeks. If anyone was still broadcasting, they were out of range. It was just as well, the news had been getting pretty grim before the final show. They'd even found a workable way to divide the chores, Henry doing the cooking and the laundry, Eliza doing the cleaning and the inventory. Even their afternoon coffee break was becoming old hat.
"Just one more?"
"No, if you have one more, then that's one less you'll have later."
"I'll just start drinking it black, then."
"Ugh, Henry, you are such a killjoy. Especially when you're right." She huffed and stirred her single scoop of creamer into her coffee. It wasn't a venti skinny no-whip hazelnut latte, but that's what they had.
Henry set down his book and began collecting a discarded pair of pants here, a crumpled T-shirt there, checking under the pillows and under the tucked in ends of the sheets for stray socks. Even though she was becoming more adept at the general household cleaning, Eliza appeared not to believe in laundry hampers. "Is there any other laundry anywhere?"
Eliza shook her head, watching the creamer swirl in her cup as she stirred it.
"Not even tucked between the green beans and the long-grain rice?"
Her chin shot up and she wrinkled her nose. "That was once."
"And then also behind the Transcendentalist Lit?"
She blew a raspberry at him. "If I'd known you were going to be such a stick-up-the-butt for a roommate, I never would have come to rescue you."
"Warned you, saved you from your pasty assistant," she checked off on her fingers. "Well, even more pasty as a zombie…"
"Had this bunker ready to go," he shot back, then stopped, looking around. "I think that pretty much covers a whole hand's worth."
"Show off," she said with a huff.
He grinned in victory. But she was right. Without her warning, he easily could have been attacked in his sleep and this shelter would have gone unused by anyone at all. "You know what? We can probably spare an extra spoonful of creamer every once in a while."
Her smile was worth skipping it himself the next few days.
"You ready?" she mouthed, hand on the knob at the top of the stairs.
Henry lifted the broom handle in his hands and nodded.
She nodded back and slowly inched open the door, brandishing a carving knife in her other hand. The hallway was littered with refuse, dead leaves and mud. There definitely had been visitors, maybe even scavengers. Which could be just as worrisome as zombies, if there were still any in the house.
But there was only the sound of the wind through the shattered door and their footsteps. Neither dared to speak. Eliza scouted the kitchen, Henry close behind. It was empty. The pantry doors were wide open, clear of non-perishables. A faint miasma of rot emanated from the garbage can and sink. He didn't have any desire to open the refrigerator, without power for over a month now.
"Do you see anyone?" Henry whispered. It seemed like they were alone, but he didn't want to take any chances.
Eliza held up her free hand, head tilted in a listening position. "I think we're clear. Now if the street outside is empty, then yeet!"
Henry frowned. "What?"
"Just..." He couldn't see her face, but he could guess she was rolling her eyes. "Follow me."
He did, creeping along behind her as lightly as possible over the broken glass and out into the front walkway.
"I hope you're right about your neighbor. You're sure she was about my size? And hot? That's important."
"I didn't snoop in her closet, if that's what you mean. She was about your height, size and coloring. And she was..." How could he describe Kate Dempsey? "...quite attractive and physically fit. I would often see them on my early morning jog." Which is why he never understood the late-night renovations.
"And you're sure her clothes were cute?"
"No, I'm not sure. I think they were… modern enough. Though I don't know why it's so imp—"
At that moment, a moan sounded from the right, and Eliza whirled toward it, hand snapping forward to throw the knife—
—which embedded with a thunk in Henry's fence.
If the zombie hadn't seen them before, it did now. Letting out a roar that matched their own screams in volume, he shambled toward them. Fast.
Henry, adrenaline streaming through his veins, picked up a heavy planter from the ground and threw it at the zombie with all his might. The planter bounced off the zombie's shoulder, spinning it around and knocking it off balance. They ran for the shelter doors.
Once inside the shelter again, door secured and bolted, Henry's legs gave way. Strangely, he more heard rather than felt the sharp crack as his head hit the concrete floor. But everything went dark before he could analyze it...
When he came to—it might have been seconds, it might have been minutes later—he felt a coolness at his temple, caressing slowly and gently. He had no time to enjoy that before the blinding pain rushed in, and he groaned.
"Henry, be careful. Don't move," Eliza said soothingly. "Don't try to talk." Henry had no idea her voice could sound so soothing. The blurry darkness slowly coalesced into her concerned face hovering above him.
"What...? How did you—?"
"Henry. I said don't talk." He heard a ripping sound, and then Eliza was taping a soft gauze bandage over the wound. "You're gonna be okay, but you need to lie down for a while with an ice pack. Can you stand?"
Since she'd ordered him not to talk, he tried to obey by nodding, but the shooting pain caused him to wince halfway through. Carefully, she led him to the edge of the bed and guided him to lie down.
"You shouldn't let me, go—"
"To sleep, I know." She tutted. "What a terrible patient you are. Just you wait, Henry Higgs. If you don't listen to me, you're..." She trailed off at something in his face, he didn't know what. "Don't fall asleep on me!" Oh, that. He dutifully widened his eyes. "Maybe a story will help." Then she grabbed the book on his side of the bed, carefully opened it to the bookmark, and started reading. "And so it had been for the last year, more or less. She flirted, but in a careful way; she made friends with those perhaps she shouldn't have, but again in a way that seemed to her and others, if not entirely appropriate, not inappropriate either..."
A few days later, when he was feeling more clear-headed, he asked. "How did you know what to do? When I hit my head?" Her care had been a far sight more competent than shoving a roll of Charmin under his bloody nose that first night.
She scoffed. "Reading directions is 'a normal part of adult life,' dummy."
Henry lifted the leaves on one of the tomato plants in the hydroponic garden. Was it wilting due to nutrient deficiency? The last batch had been nothing to write home about (not that there was any way to write anywhere at the moment), but having fresh food really made a difference in the daily meals. If this batch failed though—
Henry jumped. Where had that come from? The door? Had someone discovered their secret?
Agh! Maybe someone had. In their haste to escape the zombie, they hadn't obscured the entrance. The door was solid steel, but with enough time and persistence, and the right tools...
The next one made a very different sound. Clang!
"Damn it!" Eliza shouted. "You threw off my concentration!"
"Your... what?" Henry set down his spade and hurried for the area where he'd heard her voice. He saw a flash of red hair around the corner of one of the shelving units. "What are you talking about? I think there might be intruders—"
Eliza picked up something from the floor and spun to face him. It was a meat cleaver. She raised it to strike. "What? Intruders?!"
Henry skittered back, out of her way. Eyeing the cleaver, he said, "Bring that, we might need it..." But then his eyes landed on the far wall, where there was a series of pieces of wood attached at intervals along the wall. In each but the last was a shiny metal knife stuck somewhere around their length. Eliza must have jury-rigged some sort of target practice. But where did she get the wood? As he stepped closer, he saw they were pieces of a shattered dining room chair.
He turned back to Eliza with a frown.
She shrugged. "I missed that zombie in the yard by, like, a mile. I have to practice somehow. Knives are weighted a lot differently than sh—" She swallowed. "Than shoes. Um, that's all I practiced with before."
He conceded with a grimace. "I think we both need practice." He trailed his fingers along the once-expensive lacquered cherry wood. "But where did you get the chair?"
"Well, you were out of it for a while, and I had to make sure that zombie was gone, and I guess no one scavenged it for firewood yet..."
He rushed to her, grabbing her by the upper arm. "What? You could have been hurt! Or killed!"
She looked down at where he held her, and for once, he stood firm. "Better me than..." she murmured. "Never mind." But she didn't pull away.
"No. Better you than what? Than me? You can't be serious."
"Of course I'm SRS! I'm actually spell-it-with-all-the-letters-so-you-understand serious, Henry. You're the one who prepped this place, who's keeping me alive. How much longer until we run out of food?"
"At least a year, especially with the garden providing extra—"
She cut him off. "A year? More like six months. I've been taking inventory, remember. If I weren't here..."
She started to take a step back, but he pulled her in, closer this time. "No. You can't think like that, Eliza. We can ration, we can find ways to extend our resources." Her chin began to shake back and forth in denial. Her reached up to capture her jaw, and her eyes widened in surprise. "Yes. We can."
She held his gaze for a long moment, His mouth went dry as he suddenly realized just how close they were, faces only inches apart. But again he held firm, not dropping his hand.
"I just..." she said quietly, barely above a whisper. "I need to pull my weight around here."
She thought she wasn't? Without her, he would have gone crazy by now. He didn't know how he thought he could do this alone.
"You already do. Just your presence makes such a difference, Eliza. Sharing the load, keeping me company in the dark..."
Her eyes brightened for a moment, then she looked away. "Anyone could have done that." But she didn't move. He swore he could feel her breath in the small space between them.
"No." His voice was gravelly with emotion. "Not just anyone." He squeezed her arm gently and let his fingers trail to her chin. "Just you."
She cut her eyes back to him, blinking rapidly. Were those... tears?
"You were the one who came to get me, Eliza." He leaned closer, their lips almost touching now. "Remember that." His eyes closed in preparation for the kiss, the one he knew was a moment away from happening. Finally.
But suddenly she was out of his arms, untangling herself and taking a step back. "Remember it?" she said, her voice breaking with an emotion he couldn't quite pinpoint. "I can't let myself forget."
And then she was gone, on the other side of the shelving. There was a whoof of sound as she threw herself onto the soft bed coverings and started to sob.
Henry stood there for a long minute. What had he said? What went wrong? Damn. Damn damn damn.
He'd tried to comfort her but she wouldn't talk about what was making her so upset. Only that, "it's not you, Henry, I promise." But he didn't feel right sleeping beside her that night. In fact, for the next few nights, Henry slept on the armchair, the way he'd originally intended to. It was hard to get comfortable, harder still to sleep now that her night terrors had turned into night sobs. And each morning she pretended there was nothing wrong.
"Can you pass me that Pride and Prejudice book behind you?" she asked cheerfully over morning tea. They'd recently switched when the coffee started running low.
"And Zombies? I thought you'd already finished that one."
"No, no, I want to read the original one. I've had enough of zombies for now, thanks."
"Then it's yours. Happily."
He took his bookmark out before handing it to her, and she noticed. "Oh, not if you're reading it!"
"Eliza, I assure you, I have read it so many times that I no longer need a bookmark."
She chuckled but still waited until he pressed it back into her palm with a firm nod. "Okay, if you insist." She opened to the first page, gently avoiding cracking the spine.
He grinned in approval—he'd taught her well. "Funny thing, I was reading another well-loved copy of it before bed when you came to warn me."
She paused in mid-page turn. "You—you were?"
"Yes. That's why I placed that bookmark there. So I can pick back up where I left off when we finally get to leave. I know it's silly, but..."
"No, it's not silly, Henry." She laid her hand on his forearm, and it was the first time they'd touched since that night. The night they'd almost kissed. He tried to stifle a sudden indrawn breath, but the air whistled between his teeth anyway. She ignored it, or didn't hear it, and went on. "You hope that one day we'll get to leave. That's a good thing."
"Thanks," he said absently, still focusing on the hand. Then, "Wait. You don't?"
She opened her mouth to answer, but instead shook her head, biting her lip.
She started to pull her hand back, but he captured it and held it fast. "Because why?"
She swallowed. "Because... I don't deserve to."
Henry was so shocked that he let her hand go and sat back so heavily against his chair that it creaked. "What?" With a little protective anger, he added, "Why the hell not?"
"Because I'm a terrible person, that's why!" she shouted back, standing up and nearly knocking her chair over. "Because what the world needs are the helpful people, the smart people, not the selfish people, the stupid people!"
"You're not selfish! Maybe you were a little when we first met. Hell, so was I! But you're not the same Eliza anymore!" For some reason he was still shouting, but somehow he had to make her see the truth. "And stupid? You've never been stupid. Not for a moment!"
"Then why is Freddy dead!?"
Her words rang in the sudden silence, the only sound her red-faced heavy breathing.
"Freddy's... dead?" he said when he could speak again.
She clenched her fists. "Dead. Or a zombie. Either way, what does it matter? It's because of me." Then silently, like the mute button had been pressed on a video, she sank to the floor.
Stupidly, he watched it happen, thinking, so that's where Freddy is... But he shook himself out of it and was at her side in the next instant. "What do you mean, because of you?"
"I didn't want to tell you," she said through her tears, "I tried not to, but it just kept coming back to me, like an animated GIF. Even when I tried to sleep it was there."
The nightmares. The crying in bed. The flinching at sudden movements and sounds. It was starting to make sense to him now. "Maybe if you tell me about it, it will stop. Talking can take away some of the pain and guilt. Like going to—"
"Get a manicure? I get that. My nail tech is, ugh, was, like my therapist."
He'd meant confession, but. "Something like that."
She sniffled and nodded, drying her tears with the edges of her too-long sleeves. "We were on our way to the club, you know? A normal Friday night. We'd just had dinner, the weather was perfect for walking so Freddy didn't want to get an Uber. I had lots of practice walking in my stilettos so I didn't argue..."
Maybe she was getting off track, maybe not, but he didn't want to stop her now that she was talking.
"We'd been arguing a lot, about..." She took a shuddering breath. "...things. So I went along with it. Maybe I would just dance less and sit at the bar more. Anyway, this group of guys was heading toward us on the same side of the street, shuffling along like they were drunk. Freddy called out to them, 'Hey! Little early, isn't it?' and I said, 'Yeah, it's only eight!' or something, but they didn't laugh or shout back. They were acting really... weird."
"Zombies?" he guessed.
"Yeah, but we didn't know it yet. 'Let's just walk on that side, babe,' I suggested, but Freddy was all like, 'No, drunks can share the sidewalk, too.' I tried to tell him, 'It's just easier, why make a total scene,' but he snarked something like, 'Make a scene? Is that something Henry would say?' Then I said—"
He didn't mean to interrupt her, but he couldn't help it. "What I would say?"
"Yeah, um." She sniffled again. "That's kinda what we'd been arguing about a lot. Again. Like, I thought he'd accepted our friendship finally and stopped being so jealous after the Mud Run, but I guess not. So, anyway, I just pulled him off into the street toward the other side and he shrugged it off or something, but then the guys in the group started crossing, too. But neither of us really noticed because we were arguing again. About you."
Henry didn't know what to say. Was he happy that he had been coming between them so that he had a chance again? Or ashamed about it?
Eliza continued, "It wasn't until they were super close that we saw it. The glassy eyes, the foaming mouths, the ripped clothes and the blood. One of them reached for me, and I don't know, I just swung my purse at him and somehow it connected with his head and they all toppled like bowling pins, or whatever. Then we ran."
She coughed, then, and Henry realized that she might need something to drink. He snagged her cup of tea from the table and handed it to her. "Go on," he said after she'd taken a sip.
"So now Freddy is furiously trying to call an Uber—I couldn't, you know, bad rating—and I'm all up in my Instagram to post this story about these weird zombie cosplayers, when I see it's all over my feed. It's really happening. Freddy's all like, 'No one's accepting the ride, babe, I'm gonna have to call one of the boys.' Then I shove the phone in his face. 'We don't have time to call Felix or Garfield! Look at this! We've gotta bounce on over to Henry's house and then hit the road!'"
"Oh." Obviously he'd known she came for him, but knowing he was the first stop on the train out of Southern California? Hit him like a punch to the gut.
"And of course, after he checks it out on his own Insta, he's all, 'Henry? Why Henry? Why is it always Henry? It's every dude and hottie for themselves!'"
"Rude." Though it had taken him several hours in the bunker to wonder about Freddy's well-being, so.
"I know, right? So I just went off on him, and I don't think I've been so mad, or yelled so loud... and it was like zombie bait for blocks around. I don't think either of us noticed until they were right up on us. One of them grabbed me by the hair and pulled me toward him."
Henry dug his nails into his pant leg. He knew how this was going to end—she was going to be all right, Freddy wasn't—but a shot of worry raced through him anyway.
"So I elbowed him in the face—thank god for that self-defense class I took—and kicked another one in the balls. But he didn't bend over in pain, he just sort of moan-screamed at me. Freddy was fighting off two of them, his jacket wrapped around his arms to protect his skin, I guess, and I saw this third one coming. I knew it was in Freddy's blindspot, so I took off one of my stilettos and threw it as hard as I could—"
Her voice broke then. She'd mostly had the tears under control for her story, but with those words they came rushing back. He put his arm around her, pulling her in close to his chest. He slowly rocked back and forth, stroking her hair, and waited until she'd calmed again.
Several minutes later, she used another part of her sleeve to wipe her face. Henry dared to ask quietly, "Then what happened?"
"You probably guessed. I didn't hit the zombie. I... I hit Freddy."
Henry winced in sympathy. "Oh no..."
"He..." She swallowed, hard. "He turned toward me with a yell, and such a—such a look of like, betrayal. Like I did it on purpose? But I just had bad aim, I swear!"
Henry kissed the top of her head. "I know, I know." Honestly, would he have done any better?
"And then he tripped backward and they... they got him. I tried to pull him away from them by the legs, but one of them had his teeth in Freddy's neck, and—and all I could think about was..."
"Stop," he said, hugging her to him. "You don't have to say anymore. You had to save yourself, it was too late for Freddy. Anyone would have done the same." He would have. Maybe. If it were Eliza, he might have fought to the death.
"No," she said, and pulled out of his arms to look at him. "You need to know this. As I watched them drag Freddy away, all I could think about was... you. Were you okay, did they get you...?" Her chin dropped and she looked at the floor. "Freddy was right."
"That we care about each other? Like you would say: Duh."
"No. I mean, yeah, we do. But I cared about you more than him."
Henry's face felt hot. His heart started to pound. It was absolutely inappropriate for the situation, but he couldn't stop the way he felt.
"I let him die, because of it." Eliza rubbed a hand over her face. "I, like, totally suck."
He pulled her back into his arms. "No, no, no. You didn't know this would happen, and you were trying to defend him, not push him into their clutches."
"I should have broken up with him, like I was going to. Then he wouldn't have been on that date with me, on that street, on that night..."
His ears stopped working after 'like I was going to.' All he could hear was the roaring of blood in his ears.
But he must have said something, because she sat up and looked at him, puzzled. "Yeah. Why?"
He blinked a few times. "Why what—what now?"
"Yeah, I was going to break up with him. I said that, right? I'm sure I said that. But you've never been interested in me as more than a friend, and it was so nice to have someone to go clubbing with—"
Before he could think, before he could second guess, before the slightest bit of fear could creep in, he cupped her face with both hands and kissed her.
When he pulled back again to look at her, she was blinking at him rapidly, like the blood had started rushing in her ears, too. "Henry?"
"I've been wanting to do that for a while now. But I wasn't sure that you—"
Eliza grabbed him by the face this time, and not gently. Whereas the first kiss had felt like a gentle question, this kiss was an enthusiastic answer. He threaded his fingers into her hair, grown long again, and she slid her hands around to his neck and shoulders, pulling him even closer, if that were possible.
"Eliza," he managed between kisses, "do you," he nodded his chin toward the chair, "want to get off the floor?"
She pulled him up so quickly, her lips never leaving his face, that he didn't really realize where they were heading until the back of his knees hit the edge of the bed. "Yes." She climbed onto his lap, straddling him and his… um, urgent need. Then her nimble fingers began to scrabble over his buttons to undo them.
Even though the rest of his body was raring to go, his mind brought him up short. "Wait."
She kept undoing buttons. "No wait, Henry. We've waited too long."
He completely agreed with her there, but she was forgetting something. "No really, hang on a second."
"Even a second is too long." Her hands finished their job and slipped below his undershirt.
It was really hard to concentrate as she rucked the fabric upward and grazed his nipples with her palms. "C—condom!" he managed to grate out. "I didn't consider condoms... to be necessary supplies for the apocalypse." And with her purse long gone, he was sure she didn't have any either.
That finally got her to stop kissing him, though her bare palms continued to caress his skin. Her lips twisted in thought, and he forgot to breathe. In one fluid motion, she took her hands out of his shirt and whipped her own over her head. "That's not a problem," she told him.
He took a moment to look at her beautiful form—she was wearing her only bra, and even though the scrap of black lace didn't cover much, she somehow looked even more tantalizing than when she'd shed it all at the elevator. But he didn't dare touch her, as much as he wanted to see if she felt as amazingly soft as she looked. "Why not?"
"Because..." He watched her slowly trail her hands from her thighs, up her flat stomach, over the lace cups where her nipples were pressed visibly against the fabric, to the straps where her thumbs hooked and slid them down her upper arms to hang loosely. Then she slipped her fingers inside one of the cups.
And drew out a small foil packet.
"I always try to keep one on me. I've done it for so long that, like, it doesn't feel right when it's not there. And.." She reached around slowly to gently unhook the clasps in the back. "...I was hoping I'd still get to use it." The bra fell to the floor.
This time there was no shocked silence, no waiting for someone to make first move. His shirt was gone, though he didn't know which of them removed it, and he didn't care.
"Check," Eliza said. "Sharpened and ready. Spear?"
Henry hefted the whittled tip of the broom handle. "Check. Hand tools?"
"Flathead, Phillips head, hammer and pliers—check." She lifted a small hand-sewn bag around her neck, and the tools clanked together inside. "Stuff to barter?"
"Got the pemmican, toilet tissue and a deck of playing cards. I think we're ready to go."
"Wait, don't forget the books!" She patted the sack slung over her shoulder. "That's gotta be prime bartering material."
"Of course." He'd read through a greater percentage of the collection than he'd expected these few months. It would be nice to freshen it up. But… "You're not trading away—"
"Pride and Prejudice? I would never. I finished it, like, ages ago, but your bookmark from before all this is still right where you left it."
She knew him so well, especially now that they'd spent so much time together. He gave her a fond kiss on the cheek and then they stepped into the stairwell and closed the steel door behind them. Henry pulled on the latch to make sure it was tight. Then he gave Eliza a grand bow. "Lead on, my lady."
Eliza gave him a mock-curtsy in return, flashing him a smile. "Thank you, kind sir."
In the living room, there didn't seem to be anymore damage than the last time they'd set foot upstairs. Which meant scavengers had probably picked the place clean. They stepped carefully through the shattered door, peering into the front yard. Nothing but tall, waving grass and scattered leaves. The neighborhood seemed completely silent. "We'll have to keep to the shadows and the trees as much as possible," Henry said.
"And keep an ear and an eye out for any living thing."
"Or undead thing, gotcha."
"And fleeing is safer than confrontation—"
"Enough, Henry. We went over the plan a million times. And the backup plan. And the contingency plan if that failed, too."
Henry nodded. "Right. But I just—"
Eliza pulled him into a long kiss, the kind that curled his toes and made his senses go haywire. But not enough to make him forget why they were out of the shelter in the first place. He'd prepped the bunker with only himself in mind; it was long past time to make it suitable for two. And check to see if the local CVS wasn't clean out of contraception.
When the kiss was over, she murmured against his cheek, "You think we're ready to face the end of the world?"
"I think we'll be just fine."