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Wolves

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Clunk!

The walker fell down in a heap, landing on the grass and face-planting onto a cracked kerbstone that signaled the start of the parking lot as its jaw cracked upon impact. Bits of dark, oozing blood and gore splattered beside the monster's head, and another one of its buddies slowly turned around to see what the noise was. Surprising, really, given the state of the place. This store was looking more like another dead end than the potential safe house I was hoping it would be. Walkers were literally everywhere.

Making sure to have a firm grip on the blade handle, I let the other lurker trip over the downed one before plunging my knife into the back of his skull, too. These things really weren't difficult to get around, if you knew what you were doing, at least. Walk like them, act like them, cover yourself with their innards… relatively stable of a plan, surely. They were nothing if not predictable.

People, though? Tch, yeah, completely different ballgame right there. How I'd been dealing with people these days is about the same as what I did whenever I had to go to the dentist as a kid – avoided it like the plague. Groups were nothing but trouble. You were pretty much asking for shit to turn upside down, with no real hope of reprieve except for watching as they all got cut down, one after another.

But I was pretty much out of options this week. Rationing could only take you so far, and I had used up the last pouch of dried beets that I'd picked up from that trailer a few dozen miles down the road. It was hardly the most satisfying thing in there, but when my stomach started roaring in protest, I figured enough was enough. Time for a new plan. A better one, hopefully.

Straddled in the middle of the lot was a station for parking your shopping carts, and some of the walkers had found the clanging of their wheels interesting enough to keep them occupied. The majority of them were moving towards the hardware store though - a big paint job on the side of the building reading "Howe's Hardware" in bold, faded-out letters. I was hoping for a better scenario than an ocean of the undead when I arrived, but honestly, I think I'd prefer this than to be rolled out a welcome mat by whoever was unfortunate enough to still be inside. I had no idea who was running the place, but based on past experiences I wasn't really giving out any high expectations. Kind of the standard for people I didn't know, come to think of it.

Resolve deteriorating with nearly every step, I paused for a moment as I considered whether or not this is even worth investigating. I mean, it was just a building. It wasn't even a fun-looking building. Howe's Hardware wasn't really inspiring much confidence that it would somehow be a goldmine, and despite the fortifications that somebody had clearly made to the exterior walls, I wasn't so sure that they would hold these guys back for long.

Unfortunately, though, I was in a pretty tight spot, and hunger could make a person do almost anything. I wasn't going to survive much longer without some grub, and really, that was mostly all it was about anymore – surviving. For what? I didn't quite know. Maybe it was self-pragmatism, maybe it was some desperate and foolish hope that something better would finally come along. Maybe it was even cowardice, or selfishness.

But, for better or worse, maybe it was more about upholding a silent promise that I made to a sibling of mine, what seemed like a lifetime ago. If she was still here, with me right now… if Jaime could only…

Shut up, I scolded myself, biting my tongue and marching forward, feeling an icy chill wash over me as I ventured through the herd. She's not here anymore. Get over it. How can you possibly expect to survive if you're constantly beating yourself up all the time?

Breathing through my nose, I slowly walked past a walker with both of its limbs torn off and internally grinned. Jackpot – that ladder up to the rooftops would do the trick. It's a good thing the walkers were too stupid to capitalize on this. Climbing wasn't one of their strong suits.

Hearing nothing but the moans and bloodied gargles surrounding me, I trudged my way towards the ladder and grabbed onto the first rung. I was pointedly aware that my cover would likely be blown if the walkers saw me climb upwards, so I took one careful look over my shoulder before making my ascent.

As strange as it might've sounded, I was feeling a rush of adrenaline right there on that ladder. My heartbeat soared, my eyes were wide but determined, and my mouth ran dry as I found myself lost against a backdrop of the undead. There was a sort of thrill to doing this sort of thing day in and day out, where you know that your life was on the line and that one false step could send me plummeting to a fate worse than death. The ladder would only have to snap, to fall backwards for a split second, for me to end up getting eaten alive. I could even feel the metallic surface shake under my palms as a few of the walkers tried to snap at my legs.

I thrived in these sorts of "heat of the moment" things. I'd gotten pretty good at it, even going so far as to say that, when push came to shove, I'd be able to overcome the odds and find a way to live. Slowly over time, I wasn't sure exactly when, I had made this backwards, upside down world my home. I made it my bitch.

As I finally reached the rooftops, knife drawn and at the ready as I stood to my feet, I scanned the area for any signs of life. Empty bullet casings littered the granule-covered roof a few feet away, but whoever fired them had obviously ran off or died some time ago. There weren't any automatic weapons around, not that I had really suspected to find any, but there was some sort of crowbar-looking thing slammed into the door handle leading downstairs. "Shit…" I hissed, trying my hand at opening it but quickly realizing that the path was blocked off. The blood and gore freshly stained onto the sharp end was disturbing enough, but I was in a bit of a predicament. If I couldn't use the stairs, how the hell was I supposed to move around this place?

Heading out towards the ledge, I stopped short as I came upon a large, glass-windowed building with the door having been hastily patched together with wood and nails. At first glance it didn't really seem like anything special, but as I pressed my nose up against the panels, having to squint through all the dirt and grime coming down my forehead, I caught a glimpse of the most satiating thing I had seen in weeks. Half-picked blueberry plants on the table, tomatoes and eggplants in the corner… this place was a fucking greenhouse! If I could get in there, I'd be set up comfortably for quite some time. The thought of eating something other than raw meat for a change was making my mouth water. Mmm… fresh fruit and vegetables…

When I found that the thing was locked – because of course it was – I took out my knife and jammed the blade into the slit. Shimmying it around a bit, I winced when I accidentally cut my finger open a tad, but the end result was more than worth it. The smell inside was unbelievable as I nearly dove onto the plant, and I licked my lips hungrily as I got to work putting them into a potato sack that was sitting idly in the corner nearby. It wasn't feasible or practical to take everything with the excess weight and all, but I thought to myself, as I stuffed a few blueberries into my mouth and reveled in their delicious taste, that if nobody was willing to come back for these with the walkers and all, I may as well make a few trips. With how profitable this trip had been so far, I was willing to go another few nights camped out underneath a pine, gazing at the stars and bearing the cold.

The makeshift bag itched against the back of my neck as I threw my collection of treasures over my shoulder. This would do nicely. I wouldn't go another night hungry, which eased my mind a little bit as I stepped back outside and let the door hang ajar behind me. I couldn't close the thing with how much I had shredded the lock, which made me a little anxious that the rest of it would be gone by the time I got back, but, brushing those thoughts aside, I pondered on whether or not to just call it a victory for the night and head back to my makeshift campsite a few miles away. I traveled light and didn't start too many large fires to pull attention to myself, but I had managed to pilfer away a ripped sleeping bag from an abandoned house, and it sure as hell was better than sleeping with the pine needles poking my sides all night long.

Getting out was going to be a challenge, though. Those walkers still hadn't left the bottom of the ladder yet, and only seemed to get more riled up as I poked my head over to sneak a peek. But, with no other visible options about, and no clear indication as to whether this herd would get bored and scatter to the wind, I bit my lip and took a deep breath. Alright, you can do this, I mentally prepared myself, drumming my fingers along my pant leg as I cringed at the lack of walker guts left on me. Just gotta play it cool, 'kay? You know what to do. Just take it nice and slow, no sudden moves. Play the part, stick to the script.

That would be easier said than done, it looked like. On the ground, I was just a part of the herd. But climbing down like this would no doubt send them into a frenzy that I had no shot in hell of making it out of. So that was pretty much out of the question. Jumping wouldn't cut it, not with how high I was up here, not to mention the massive contusions I'd receive from the barbed wire junk fence surrounding parts of the hardware store.

Well, shit. What I wouldn't have given to just sprout a pair of wings out of my back right then and there. Would've made me look like an idiot and all, but hey, maybe it could've –

"Fuck! Hank, I'm outta bullets here! How much stuff do you need?"

"Enough to get by – just need to pick up the essentials… goddamit, where'd Bill put those pills? I swear they were here just the other day…"

"We don't have time! Everyone else is gone, dude! Shel, is Becca still with you?"

Quickly darting to the side of the greenhouse to avoid detection, I held my breath as a man in a forest green jacket, glasses, long, blonde hair and a shaggy goatee stepped over to the side where I had been but moments ago. Shit… I thought for sure there wasn't anyone here. So much for that plan.

But, I thought to myself as another person, a woman with short hair and a turquoise sweater, popped her head up through the skylight leading into some sort of office, this could also be my chance. With all the noise these morons were making, the walkers might not notice me as much if I were to follow in afterwards. Let's face it – this place was about to be overrun in a hurry. I didn't know how quickly it would happen, but a hostile takeover was almost indefinite.

"She's in the holding bay with Tavia and Russ! Where's Bill?" Shel asked, occasionally darting her head back towards the office as I stole a glance to the other side of the roof. Hmm… if this skylight could be opened that way, then maybe… "We were supposed to meet up by the trucks!"

"You really care what happens to that guy now? Did you not see what he did to them? I could hear the screams from down the hall!"

With a hop, skip and a jump, I tuned out the rest of their conversation as I tiptoed over towards the other roof access. With all the commotion going on out here I doubt they'd have heard me anyways, but I wasn't willing to take any chances. I'd already done so far more tonight than I was normally comfortable with, and with enough time, my luck would inevitably run dry. And I wanted to hold out for as long as I could.

Grateful that I hadn't yet cut my nails this month, I dug my fingers underneath the lid of the skylight and yanked upwards. With a click, the hatch opened as I jumped down on a pile of boxes sitting atop a mountain of shelves and supplies. Holy shit – this place was like a goddamn candy store, and right now I was Willy fucking Wonka. I had no idea why these people wouldn't just try to ride out the storm and defend the place, as they likely weren't going to be able to find something like this anytime soon. Everything was just so… orderly, in here. Nothing seemed to be out of place, with various crates and boxes displaying different labels like FOOD and AMMUNITION in big, bold sharpie. Somebody with a steady hand had been working on some sort of project out in the middle of the floor, with what appeared to be some sort of generator with wires connecting it to the garage door nearby.

And with wires comes electricity – real, working, electricity. I couldn't remember the last time I had seen something powered up like that. Weeks? Months, maybe? What seemed like a distant privilege was now within my grasp, but like the most ironic of ironies, I wouldn't be able to stay long enough to enjoy it.

Still, there wasn't much harm in having a bit of a look around. The walkers didn't seem to be able to get inside this place yet.

Shimmying my way across the shelves and nearly tripping on one of the larger supply crates, I finally managed to drop to the floor and dust myself off. Blood and guts had started matting my hair and staining my jacket, not to mention how nasty I was starting to smell, but I wasn't put off by it as I tried my best to pry open an ammunition box. After walking through enough herds, you eventually learned to forgo such luxuries as personal hygiene when it came to these things. Besides, it wasn't as if I was looking for any hot dates these days…

Snorting lightly at that, I struggled to remember the last time I had actually done that sort of thing. The details had gotten sort of blurry – which should tell you how impressive the night was – but I could recall bits and pieces. It so wasn't my idea to go out on the stupid date, but a certain little sister of mine had insisted. You need to get some action, she had told me as I gaped at her for going that far. C'mon, Jane. You look so lonely all the time, and your super depressing mood is screwing with my head. How am I supposed to enjoy myself when you look so miserable all the time?

Gee, nice to see you care…

You'll like him, I promise! He's not like that dork you went out with in eleventh grade. Err… what was his name again? Greg? Dylan?

Derek! And he wasn't that much of a dork.

Dude, he showed up to our house in a bow tie and overalls. Like, on purpose. That's not cool, it's lame.

I'm not going on a blind date, Jaime! This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard! Call him back and tell him… gah… I dunno, make something up! You're good at that.

After another ten minutes of pestering, eventually having to resort to physically picking Jaime up by the waist and tossing her on the couch to keep her from barging into the bedroom of my apartment, I conceded. Lo and behold, the date ended up being a complete waste of time, just as I said it would, and it ended with me leaving the dinky shithole of a dance club we went to and never talking to the guy ever again. Frankly, I was pretty sure the guy would've had trouble remembering that I was even there in the first place with how many tequila shots he had downed in the span of like half an hour, but I at least had the decency to help the guy to a bar stool after standing and watching him puke his guts out over the toilet seat. The few other guys in the washroom paid it no heed, but simply nodded my way sympathetically before going about their business.

I closed my eyes for a moment or two to calm my breathing down a tad. Thinking about shit like this always hurt, more so now that she was gone. Losing her was what drove me over the edge, I think. If she could've just… If I could've just been a little bit stronger…

A set of three radios sat in their charging stations as I moved further inside. For a reason that I wasn't quite sure of, I inspected the plastic devices before putting two of them into the rucksack and switching them off to sustain the battery. It was a stupid thought, as I had started making a habit of keeping as far away from groups as possible, but for some reason it was a comfort to bring them along.

It was probably nothing… yeah, probably.

This was eerie as hell, though. Much of the store was an empty shell as I wandered into the next few halls alone to my thoughts, and with the herd of walkers outside enclosing the parking lot, I was starting to feel a little claustrophobic. Nothing serious, but hearing their groans echoing off the high ceiling above my head did nothing to bring comfort to this chilly night. All it would take is for one to break in, and then the flood would quickly follow.

I was sure there were still a few rooms that I hadn't checked yet, and I wasn't too keen on heading out to the little courtyard-looking area they had outside as I passed by one of the pull-down gates. What had most likely been for gardening supplies before the outbreak had been converted into some kind of sleeping area, coming with its own fire pit, lawn chairs, picnic table as well as some real crappy-looking beds made of plywood. Nothing about it seemed friendly, and if the barbed wire at the top of the fence was any indication, I'd say this place was used as more of a holding cell than a guest penthouse suite. These guys must've had some pretty shady characters lurking about… I couldn't help but wonder what you'd have to do in order to get thrown into there. Nothing good I'd imagine.

With the next couple of rooms not really holding anything promising that I could actually access, I figured that I might as well double back towards the set of stairs that I had seen earlier. Those people I saw earlier had already left, and after seeing the same girl – Shel, I think her name was? – bolting down the steps two at a time, I figured that they lead up to that office I spotted before. I'd say that coming here was decently worth it with the haul I managed to snag. Tch, a bag full of food, bullets and a couple radios was probably the best I could hope for these days, but to get them all at once was pretty satisfying. And if the need arose, Howe's would be getting another surprise visit from me in the coming weeks.

But I couldn't keep living like a nomad forever. Wandering from place to place was, whether I liked to admit it or not, taking its toll on me. I'd become restless lately, a trait that I soon discovered was making me slightly more paranoid than usual. I'd flinch at even the tiniest of noises, turning around with my knife unsheathed only to find a bird nesting high up on a tree branch. Camping was proving to be more dangerous around here, too. In Ohio it wasn't as much of a problem, since the few scavengers I encountered mostly wanted nothing to do with me. But over here, although I hadn't come face to face with any yet, these guys seemed to be a bit out of their nutter. A trio of them were tearing apart some tents like a pack of wild animals, and I shuddered as I thought of the other group I saw, with the terrified screams of their victims, a family of four, chilling my body as I fled into the night. I didn't even want to know what they must've done to those people.

There had to be a place out there somewhere that wasn't completely indefensible. Howe's was way too big for a one person job, but something like a mobile home or a nice, little cottage? Heck yeah, I could get behind that. Nothing but me chilling and kicking out the rest of my days laid back on a wrap-around porch, sprawled out on the shoreline of a beach in which I could see a mile in every direction. The sun would glaze over my face as I would bask in the warm glow, and no amount of walkers would be there to ruin my years-long holiday.

…sigh. Not that that'd ever happen. A girl could dream though, couldn't she? Not to mention that I was literally nowhere near a solid coastline, and that nearly every place I stumbled upon was either in too much disrepair, occupied by someone else, or had no reliable access to the things I needed to keep my brain functioning and my heart beating. Besides, letting my head get stuck in the clouds like that wasn't really my thing.

As I started to get the sense that the walkers might've suspected somebody was in here, hearing their flailing limbs beating mindlessly on one of the doors, I counted my blessings and started heading towards the office stairs. This was usually how it went. I never stayed in a potential scavenging site for too long, and didn't take enough to slow me down too much for travelling. Itching at the dried blood caking my cheek, I tried picturing my escape plan in my head. There must've been some sort of emergency exit around here, but the one shitty part about this place having power was the potential noise. Opening up one of those doors might've sent out a warning call to every single thing out there, living or dead. It might as well have said, "Hey everybody! Guess who your next five-course meal is! This gal, right here!" Nobody could tell me that I lacked imagination.

Fwip! Plunk! Fwwwwiiiippp!

Knife drawn and at the ready almost instantly, I turned into the direction of the noises and narrowed my gaze into a deep frown. I had a feeling that this wasn't going to be a walk in the park, although for a while there my hopes were high. The sound was coming from one of the doors I hadn't yet explored yet, thinking that a room labelled "GARBAGE DISPOSAL" wasn't really high on the list of goody-finding. I'm not quite sure what compelled me to follow it as I slowly placed my hand against the door frame. It might've just been an incessant need to make sure that nobody would get the jump on me if push came to shove, but if nothing else, the garbage room might've provided a better alternative than trying to jump off the roof into… whatever it was that wanted to break my fall tonight. The ladder still wasn't seeming like a good idea. They had to have a trash chute here, right?

Nothing heard me enter as I slowly popped my head in from the side, but what I found within nearly made me slam the door and sprint out immediately. What looked to be a little girl was bent over a corpse, digging into its innards and lifting various organs into her hands. I didn't need to be a genius to see where this was going, but seeing the little girl, covered from head to toe in splotches of red covering her purple, long-sleeved shirt made me sick to my stomach. God damn it… I thought I'd be used to this shit by now. Dead people moving around was just a formality these days. But seeing this kid, with a blue and white ball cap sitting atop her head and completely oblivious as I forced myself to look away for a moment, I couldn't stop throwing up in my mouth. Fuck… this was hitting a little too close to home…

I… I couldn't save her… Jaim- god, even saying the name right then was next to impossible…

No matter what I did, it wasn't enough. I couldn't bring her back... back from the brink. Back from that shitty, dark hole she had dug herself into.

I didn't know this girl… but maybe… just maybe... if I could help her along, end this nightmare for her… fuck, I didn't even know…

Fleeing was my very first instinct, but I hissed through my teeth and forced myself to sneak up behind her. This wouldn't take long. One solid gouge to the head would do it, and my deed of the day would be done. I'd fulfill my quota of "nice" for the week. Well, if you counted stabbing a walker as a real generous thing to do…

But as I inched closer and closer towards the walker, I grew more confused. The thing had the guts in its hands as it dug through its latest victim, but the creature wasn't eating anything yet. I didn't see any of the telltale signs that usually followed these things like glue – the gargling, for one, was nowhere to be heard, and the thing's skin was oddly normal-looking.

Figuring that I was just losing my edge, I took a few more steps forward until I was standing a couple feet behind her. Lifting the knife to shoulder level, I threw my arm back, looked at my target, and –

Her head turned around then, and my eyes widened into saucers. I froze, stiffened as my hand lingered in the air. Although almost her entire face was covered in blood, I could tell that she was alive by the way she looked at me, too. By her shocked expression I guessed that I had caught her off guard, and as I slowly lowered my arm to my side (though still not putting the blade away), the girl stumbled back and tripped over the walker she was tending to.

More like the one she butchered, I noticed, as I glanced at the way she had carved through the dead guy right through its sternum; a small hatchet still buried in the end with a piece of the handle bloodied from her endeavor.

Jesus. I wasn't expecting to see this, and from a kid no less? She couldn't have been even fifteen years old, and yet she was doing the same technique I had used on a regular basis.

Not bad. Needed a little work, and her form needed to be a little cleaner, but give it enough time and…

Whoa. Uh, how about no? Not happening.

I didn't really know what to say as I finally gave in and put the knife back into its sheath, so instead of making an intro, I frowned, sighed, and plunged my hands into the carved walker. Feeling the gooey substance in between my fingers was never something I really enjoyed doing, but time was precious and I needed to move on. No doubt I was making a terrible first impression right here.

Gaping at me, the girl quickly snatched her hatchet away and kept it close to her chest. I wasn't sure if she thought I was gonna steal it from her or something, but whatever. That didn't matter. I wasn't staying, and I didn't have time to answer a billion questions from some snot-nosed punk anyways.

My cold indifference had blanketed over my initial shock, and the last thing I wanted was for this to start turning into a thing. Drama was the very last thing on my mind.

However, as I got to work, spreading the walker guts as if it were sun-tan lotion, I made the mistake of glancing at the girl again. She hadn't yet run away like I had expected her to, but she wasn't saying anything, either. The kid tilted her head to the side like a lost, little puppy, but I couldn't really tell what she wanted. I couldn't read her body language, and her eyes were giving me nothing, and as I quickly darted my head back to the task at hand, I cleared my throat and stood back up. The awkwardness was pouring down in waves as she too rose up to join me.

"…you're not seriously…?" I stuttered, cringing as my voice cracked after having nobody to talk to for like six to seven months straight. This was ridiculous. "Ugh," I huffed with a frown, not wanting the extra baggage tagging along, "go on back to your crew already. Those people who were here before – you were with them, right? I'm sure they're still out looking for you… somewhere."

Seemingly choking up at that idea, she turned away from me and shook her head; clutching her hatchet even tighter as I rolled my eyes. I didn't have time for her childish behaviour, so I muttered a profanity under my breath and turned to go back to where I was heading before. This garbage room was a dead end anyways. Nothing here except for an old dumpster filled to the brim with cardboard and broken pieces of plastic.

I got about halfway up the stairs when I felt a smaller hand grab onto my wrist.

"The hell are you doing?" I hissed, snatching my arm away and turning around to face her again. A cat still had her tongue apparently, as she wouldn't speak or make any real indication as to whether she could fully understand what I was telling her, but she seemed pretty adamant on me not going that way. "Just leave me alone, would ya? What's your deal?" I demanded, taking a couple more steps forward as, yet again, she bumped into me.

Annoying little shit would be putting it mildly. This girl was pissing me off. Never before had I been so certain of my decision to forgo the whole "group survival thing" and trek out on my own than I was in this moment, but as much as I wanted to just shove her out of the way and finally – fucking finally – leave this place behind, I stopped myself when she beckoned for me to follow her along. It was a sad, wimpy motion, one that made me think there might've been more going on here than what she was letting on, but I was still wary. I did not trust this girl, not through any real fault of her own, but mostly by force of habit.

Deciding to play along just to see if it would get her off my back, I stepped into her shadow and trailed behind. She led us over to a garage door, impaled by a massive dent in the middle that I could only guess was from a car of some sort, and sniffled sadly before pressing the button to open the door. It got jammed halfway up from the dent, but it was more than enough room for us to crawl underneath.

So… that herd of walkers? It seemed that they had all invited their friends to the party. A bunch of them had finally found a way to bust through a part of the fence, mostly just by having a large group of them leaning on top of it until it finally gave out under the combined weight. This easily had to be the biggest clusterfuck I had ever seen, but if the girl was feeling afraid, she didn't really show it. A perpetual depression had latched onto her face, it looked like, and although it was difficult to tell with all the crap she had on her, I could tell that she had been crying at some point. Hopefully her tears wouldn't wash her camouflage away.

I don't know exactly what it was that caused me to relent, but after biting my lip for a couple of seconds and mulling it over, I internally groaned and nudged her in the shoulder. "Stay close," I tell her, watching her shiver a little as a handful of walkers brush past us. "Don't make any noise to draw their attention. If you fall behind, I can't come back for you."

That warning seemed to frighten her a little bit as she widened her eyes, but after a moment's realization, she gulped and nodded her head. A pair of steely, golden eyes stared back at me with the will to get through this; to survive. She may have had the body of a little girl, but something about the way she was going at this, I was starting to think…

Hmph. Well, we'd have to make it out of here first to be sure about that. Pulling this kind of shit was a huge risk. I had no idea of who she was or how she would react to something like this, but if she so much as made even a little bit of a fuss while we were out here, there'd be hell to pay.

"And for crying out loud, walk," I added sarcastically, starting my trek through the parking lot as the girl followed behind. "Act like you belong, and you will belong."

Something told me that I wouldn't have to remind her of that.