"I can't believe how bright the stars are now,” she says absently, sprawled out next to him on the hood of his beat-up car.
They're in the middle of a flattened wheat field in Kansas, a 360 view of the horizon around them and everything they own in the world underneath their backs. The metal pressed against his shoulder blades is bleeding warmth from his body; Nick and his girl Jessica Day, pressed together shoulder-to-shoulder, the two of them against the world, wrapped in the cooling night air and staring aimlessly into the depths of the universe.
"It freaks me out," he says instead.
That startles a deep laugh out of her. "What?"
"The stars, man, they freak me out," he repeats, and waves a hand at the mess of natural beauty suspended over their heads. "What is this? It's not natural. It's not normal."
"Stars are not normal," she repeats, a little incredulously.
"Yeah," he says. "Normal is electricity and street lamps and the way the sky was all hazy and polluted in LA. Normal is Blade Runner and Die Hard in a goddamn high rise."
"Normal is Dirty Dancing and Bridget Jones's Diary," she says, warming up to it. She shifts, rolling to curl herself into his body. He wraps an arm up over her shoulders.
"Normal is not being able to hear the sound of your own thoughts."
"Normal is..." she starts. Pauses, then tries again. "Normal is..."
They don’t say anything again for a while after that.
Jess chops off her hair with a pocket knife, holed up in the bathroom of a rundown motel near the Nebraska border. He doesn’t know anything about it until she wanders back into the room with her hair hanging in ragged chunks around her shoulders.
"It was too hard to take care of," she says, shrugging a little as if to say it's the middle of the zombie apocalypse and what can you do.
"I can fix it," he promises. He grits his teeth and hacks away defiantly at her hair until it's up around her ears and just as uneven. In the end she takes the knife away gently and tells him not to worry about it - it'll curl up in the humidity anyway, and it's not like there's anyone around who cares what her hair looks like anymore.
He's not lying when he tells her he thinks she looks amazing either way, 10 out of 10, a real doll, and eventually, somewhere around the time he pulls out the interpretive tap dance in a desperate attempt to explain his feelings on the subject, he sees a small sort of smile creep up around her lips.
The gas station looks abandoned.
They scout the area, circling the perimeter of the building and watching for signs of movement. There are little tufts growing up between the cracks in the pavement. He goes in first with the shotgun once they're reasonably sure it's a safe bet, Jess covering his back with the Glock 9mm. (It had surprised them both when, once she got used to the recoil and noise, she turned out to have a knack for shooting that he didn't - something about years of honing her hand-eye coordination from knitting, maybe. He finds the entire scenario alternately erotic and depressing, and then sometimes both of those things at once, which gives him the weirdest and saddest kind of boner.)
So: he sticks with the point-and-click weapon and leaves the detail work to Jess.
The gas station is empty and picked-over by looters. Nick searches for anything that can help keep the car running while Jess stares at the racks of old magazines. She's flipping through one idly when she freezes, eyes comically wide.
"Everything okay?" he asks, scrounging through the back of the registry drawers. He scores a couple paperclips, an old battery, and an empty soda bottle for his odds-and-ends box, so that's a big old checkmark in the win column.
She shakes her head, and the ends of her newly-short hair stick to her mouth. "Yeah. It's just... it's Cece."
"In here. Cece." She waves the magazine in his direction, flapping the glossy pages like wings.
Cece's face gazes up at them from a photo shoot for some fancy clothing brand that had died out with the rest of the world, lip caught seductively between her teeth. An actual damn picture of her. In color. Nick clears his throat.
"Tear it out and we'll put it with the rest," he says, and goes to try to jimmy the lock to the back storeroom.
Jess tucks the ad up with the carefully preserved items they keep over the passenger side visor. They'd drawn their respective families and everybody from the loft on yellowing legal paper, back when everything had first gone to shit and they hadn't known how to cope with the loss. Jess draws the people in their life bubbly and happy, with little curlicues for hair and smiles all around; Nick isn't great at sketching, but he has an eye for facial features and a grim determination to get things right. Somehow, between the two of them, they'd managed something they could both agree on. They keep everything folded it up with the few mementos they have of their old life - a dry cleaning stub (Schmidt), a you-owe-me note found tucked in the back of Nick's ratty wallet (Winston), the torn-up remnant of a flyer for a fashion show they had unearthed from under one of the seats in the car (Cece).
Jess touches the visor whenever she leaves the car. For luck, she says, and he believes her.
Nick yearns for his hometown in a way he never did before. He knows that Chicago will be dead like everywhere else they've been, desolate and turned-over and dangerous, but the city has been a part of him since he was old enough to sneak down to the boardwalk with Winston, the smell of the breeze coming in from over the lake, stuffing themselves full of pizza and hot dogs and watching the sun set over the city skyline.
He used to avoid flights home and bury his accent in law school, imitating Schmidt's clipped consonants, but now, with everything else taken away from him, he finds a memory of Chicago deep at the core of him, and he follows it.
Sometimes they have sex.
Nick's not bragging about it - it's not like Jess has any other options when it comes to the gettin'-good-and-twirly department, and it's not like there's anybody around to brag to anyway - but yeah. They do that.
It had started shortly after they'd lost Schmidt in the basement of a ranch home on the western slope of the Rockies. Nick had been angry, so mad at the fucked-up mess of a world that they were being left to live in, he'd picked a fight with Jess about the legality of rolling stops in the middle of the apocalypse ("Are you kidding me, Jessica? There are no damn cops around to care about traffic laws anymore. I just shot my zombie-fied best friend in the basement of some shitty suburban home and you want to get on my case about stop signs?") just to have something to settle the feeling in his stomach, that sick, heady rush he got when he thought about the fact that it was down to just him and Jess, now.
She'd been standing close to him, chin tilted up at him belligerently and breathing hard. Her eyes were so blue. He wanted to scream about how unfair that was, too.
Instead, he'd kissed her.
They'd fucked against the side of his car, out in the open, pulled over on the side of the road. His knees had buckled when he came, slumping down to lean hard against her, unable to support his own weight. Jess had started crying then, which had set him off crying, and the whole thing had ended in a snotty mess of various bodily fluids and the shockingly sobering realization that they'd just had sex without a condom and Jess's birth control had run out months ago.
They'd spent the month after that in a strange daze. They avoided touching. They had cleared buildings mechanically, working together as an increasingly well-oiled team, searching for food and supplies as they moved down the highway. They skirted towns. They only tried their luck on single homes and farmhouses, and they never let each other out their sight.
("We are not going to be the stupid people in those horror movies," Jess had said fiercely. "We use the buddy system, mister. That is iron clad. Never split up, never surrender. ...Unless the surrendering part makes sense. Which it doesn't for zombies, so, both of those things. And the buddy system. Three things, at all times. Got it? Yes? Good.")
The day Jess got her period they celebrated with a mini-feast in the kitchen of the trailer they were crashing in for the night. He had rigged up a working hot plate with a generator they found in the back shed, and they dipped into their stash of spaghettios and canned peaches for the occasion. It was like a spell had been broken, like the damn winter had snapped in Narnia and the snow was melting.
She'd been laughing and teasing him about the peaches, trying to get him to eat just one more, holding it out to him on a fork. The next thing he knew she had slid into his lap, straddling his hips. Her mouth was hot and she tasted sweet, like fruit and smooth metal.
Jess had mumbled something into his neck about how she couldn't stop thinking about him, and he'd gasped something about always wanting her, always. They had verbally and frantically agreed on promise-ring virginity rules as a short-term solution to their condom shortage, and things had degenerated from there.
It worked pretty well, as compromises went.
(It wasn't like he hadn't fantasized about Jess, before. He'd had a thing for her even back when the world had been a relatively sane place to live. It isn't a big deal. It isn't anything new.)
They spend a lot of time arguing. (A lot of time.) They bicker to distract themselves from the empty landscape rolling past the windows, and to fill the hours between stories about Syracuse and high school and what Chicago was like when you were ten years old and prematurely bitter about life. Somewhere past Omaha they start negotiating the rule changes necessary for two person True American, which devolves into a general shouting match about the societal and economic implications of the Sherman Antitrust Act vis-à-vis True American team dynamics.
"You can't trust bust a one person team, Nick!" Jess has her hands clenched around the steering wheel, face flushed up red. It's the most passionate she's been about something dumb since he can remember, and Nick wants to chase this feeling, he wants to chase it as long as he can.
"Uh, you can in America, Jess. And the last I checked, zombie America was still America, ya idiot."
"Oh my God!" Jess exclaims, throwing up her hands.
"You know I'm right!" he yells. "And keep your hands on the damn steering wheel!"
“SAFETY FIRST!” she screams back, and grabs the wheel again. She clears her throat. “Sorry, I don’t know why I just yelled that. You know I’m really into being safe.”
He crosses his arms over his chest and frowns. “I think we need to have a serious discussion about the implications of the transcontinental railroad here, Jessica.”
It’s the best day he’s had in a long, long time.
"Fuck," he says, and smacks the steering wheel with the palm of his hand. "Fuck fuck fuck."
He leans over and pats blindly at his feet for the hood release. "I think it's the radiator."
The radiator is spitting and frothing under the Iowa sun, hissing angrily at him. There's an abandoned sedan on the opposite side of the highway, and the dead cornfields around them are rustling in the summer wind, the stalks dry and brown. He wipes a hand over his face, mutters "fuck" one more time for good measure, and goes to grab a milk carton's worth of unfiltered water from the trunk of the car. The plastic carton has little daisies drawn on the side in black marker. (Jess gets bored. The zombie apocalypse is shit for entertainment.)
Jess is leaning back against the car. She's wearing one of his old hoodies today, a dingy blue number with a white zipper, and a necklace made from bright plastic beads that Winston had triumphantly fished out of a vending machine when they'd finally cleared the LA border. She's playing idly with the necklace, rolling the cheap plastic between her fingertips, staring vacantly into the distance. Her thumb is resting on her collarbone.
And that's when they get jumped.
It's the largest group of zombies they've seen in a while. They run screaming out of the cornfield, stumbling on barely functioning legs, arms hanging like dead weight.
"Jess," Nick yells, but she's already moving. She yanks the back door of the car open and tosses the shotgun to him. She turns back around to grab the pistol and he knocks back an early arrival from her with the butt of his gun. He shoots the zombie in the head as the guy scrambles to get back up, fighting for purchase on the ground. The zombie is wearing a Wal-Mart polo and a chewed-up plastic greeter's badge that says his name is Steve.
That's the kind of thing that would have messed pretty bad with Nick's head, before.
Jess has the pistol in her hand now and takes two fast shots over his right shoulder. "Left, left, your left," he gasps, and turns around to deal with the zombie taking a shortcut over the engine to where they're standing.
The next thing he hears is Jess screaming. He whips around to see that she's been knocked down by a woman with a neglected perm and black eyes, clawing her way up Jess's torso like it's a ladder to somewhere better than the hell on Earth they're stuck in. Fear, bitter and suffocating, rises up in the back of his throat. Jess is screaming, trying to squirm away on the asphalt of a dead highway, and he can't tell if she's been bitten or not.
He levels the zombie woman with one glancing hit and shoots her twice on the ground. He turns again to deal with the zombie sliding over the engine block, and when he pivots back one last time Jess has her pistol up again and has laid out the last zombie in front of her, a farmer sporting overalls and a creepily kind expression for an undead cannibal.
"Did she," he asks frantically, "fuck, Jess. Are you-?"
He hauls her up by her elbow and Jess starts to shake. "No," she says, and that's when her teeth start to chatter. "I don't think so. But I don't-" Anything else she was going to say gets swallowed up by shock.
Nick helps her strip off her clothing, his fingers fumbling at the zipper of the hoodie and her jeans, until they're both sure she's in the clear. Nick's legs give out from under him then and he sits down hard on the road. He feels like he's going to throw up.
They ditch Jess's bloody clothes by the side of the road and use some of the filtered water to field wash the remaining blood off both of them. Jess has a couple nasty scratches down one of her legs, so they dip into their reserves of rubbing alcohol to clean them out. Jess hisses at the bite of the alcohol, her eyes blotchy and red. Nick spends the whole time apologizing to her, running his mouth until he's not even sure what he's saying anymore, the words bubbling out of his mouth with no filter.
That night, they stake out an abandoned two story McMansion at the tail end of a cookie-cutter subdivision. The house has a chrome kitchen that smells like rotting food but a surprisingly intact master bedroom. Jess is pale and shaky, so Nick manhandles her into the bed while he secures the perimeter. She's sleeping, her breath shallow but steady, by the time he makes it back.
He's exhausted, clear down to every last molecule and atom of his body, but there's a thin, sharp current of adrenaline and fear coursing through the fibers of his muscles and the filigreed network of his nerves, keeping him awake and wired. He lies in the dark watching Jess breathe until the panic threatens to overtake him.
Eyes still closed, she snakes a hand up the back of his neck.
"Nick," she murmurs. "You okay?"
A little bit of the pressure on his chest eases, but now he mostly just feels like he wants to cry. "You could have died today," he says softly, working around a lump of something terrifying and claustrophobic in his throat. "You could have been bitten. I would have had to shoot you, Jess. If that zombie had bitten you, I would have had to shoot you."
Jess's hand stills on the back of his neck.
"I don't… I can't…" he tries, and breathes in sharply through his nose. "I don't think I can do this by myself, Jess. I can't do this alone. Cece and Winston and Schmidt… I don't think I can… you are…"
Jess kisses him, teeth sliding and cutting against his lip. Her mouth tastes warm and a little sour. Nick threads both his hands up through her wild shoulder-length hair, cradling the whole of her skull in his palms, digging his elbows into the mattress by her shoulders. It's been a while since they've fooled around in an actual bed. It feels overwhelmingly domestic.
"You are," she gasps, and it takes him a minute to realize there isn't more to that sentence. "You think you can't, Nick. I couldn't either."
She tugs at his hip to roll him on top of her. Her hands push between them to start unbuttoning his tattered plaid shirt.
He sucks a slow hickey into the side of her throat as she squirms underneath him. Jess is touchy about her neck, caught halfway between ticklish and sensitive. The first time he'd given her a hickey, pinning her arms as she'd giggled frantically in the backseat of the car, she'd spent the day afterwards walking around with a frilly scarf wrapped around her neck. In the middle of the zombie apocalypse. He'd teased her mercilessly about having a boyfriend who was into freaky neck stuff and kind of a dick about it.
(He'd teased her because there's nobody else around to do it, anymore.)
She shoves the flannel off the muscles of his shoulders, and he lifts himself up as she one-arms her shirt over her head. Jess slips a hand down his unzipped pants and wraps her fingers around his cock. Nick drops his head into her neck, eyes closed, all the muscles of his body taut, tasting salt on his lips.
"Condom?" he asks into her skin. Their supply is dangerously low and it's a rule that they have to both agree.
"It's okay." Her voice is a whisper. It takes Nick a minute, stupid with lust and sadness and sheer exhaustion, to realize that doesn't really answer the question. "It's okay, Nick."
She wiggles out of her shorts and panties underneath him. His pants are still on, hanging loose off the bones of his hip. She reaches for him again and tries to pull him into her, and he sucks in a sharp breath at how wet she is.
"Stop," he says, but his hips move of their own accord, thrusting into her hand. "What are… Jess."
"You can," she says, rubbing herself up against him. He's just sliding against her, against the squeeze of her inner thighs, and it's kind of obscene how good just that feels. "I would let you."
"What are you-"
"You'd make an honest woman out of me. I know you would, Nick."
Nick grabs her knee and slams up into her, gasping at the sensation. His entire experience in having sex without a condom boils down to Caroline and that one time with Jess by the side of the road, which had been so surreal and angry and incapacitating he sometimes feels like it happened to another person. Jess arches her body up into his, her leg coming up to wrap around the back of his hip.
His thoughts white out, refusing to think about any of the implications of what is happening here, because all he can feel is his naked chest rubbing slickly against her breasts and how hot and tight she is underneath him, her hands tangled up in his hair. He roots down deep inside of her, eyes closed, and when she kisses him he feels like he's drowning.
"Jess," he says in a low voice, like a prayer. "Jess."
"I'm here," she whispers.
There's an overlook on a small bluff just past the Illinois border. It's beautiful and wild, small blue flowers dotting an overgrown meadow, and Nick hates all of it.
"I can't believe I wrote a book about fucking zombies," he says.
"Zombie zoo, zombie zoo," she intones, looking out at the horizon.
He laughs, and he's surprised that there isn't even a little bit of hysteria in it. "Who let the zombies out the damn zombie zoo?"
"Ahead of your time, man," she says, and reaches over to take his hand.